ROSIE the bag lady might have had nothing but she still managed to scrape a few coins together to buy a loaf of bread each day for herself and her beloved pigeons.
She lived on the streets of Hobart, refusing the offers of short-stay, sheltered accommodation, not that it was always offered.
Rosie preferred it on the streets, where she would say she was among friends. These were her pigeons who always paid her close attention, fighting sometimes to catch her eye.
Unkemp and disarranged, Rosie’s mind might also have appeared to be in disarray but she was smart. She knew the pigeons’ apparent affection for her was only ``cupboard love’’ as she would describe it, but they were companions nonetheless, sharing her space out there in the environment of the streets; rain, shine and sometimes snow.
You did not have to tell Rosie the pigeons were a metaphor for her own life, her place in the world.
Rosie had once been a journalist, and had succumbed to the occupational hazard of that profession: alcohol. Although out of newspapers for more than 20 years - but still a part of them, using the classifieds, the world pages, the racing results as her blanket each night - she knew all about cliches and trite praises. Rosie acknowledged she had dropped between the cracks, had fallen off the perch, had reached the end of the line, was all at sea
The city had somehow cast her aside, to live among its debris and detritus, and the same could be said for the pigeons.
Being adrift in the city was not new to Rosie, only the circumstances had changed. The urban landscape had been an inhospitable and uncomfortable environment for her when she first ventured into it. She was originally a country girl and even then, with all her focus and faculties intact, unlike in more recent years, she had developed an affinity with the pigeons in her more lonesome moments. They, too, had been plucked from their home environment, in their case an ancestral one, to be left bereft and abandoned in a foreign and alien landscape.
Rosie, looking to the pigeons for comfort most days, soon discovered that the empathy did not end with parallel lives of both creature and human in the city. Like her own, Rosie felt that pigeon lives had somehow been predetermined. They didn’t have a say about their fate. These creatures of rock and mountain, free-flying on shimmering wings, had been moulded in an image that their captors had demanded of them, trained to follow human commands, fly in air space that was set out for them. Their shape and form had been changed, too. Through selective breeding over hundreds of years, the natural grey and blue plumage, fudged with charcoal black in the wings, had become a profusion of difference colours.
Humans had determined the pigeons become different. In Rosie’s case she was born out of the mould her parents, God-fearing and industrious farming folk, had fashioned for her, as her grandparents had fashioned for them. Rosy was termed a rebel and certain eccentricities that she no longer cared to recall or cared to remember had seen her confined to a mental institution, when her parents thought she was out of control. Their control sought to confine her to the farm, out of school hours at least, when Rosie wanted to be out with boys.
* * * * *
The great fraternity of journalism, of colleagues looking out for each other, extends beyond the newsroom and the press box. It extends to the street when a colleague is in trouble. Everybody at the Chronicle knew Rosie. She had been a reporter on the newspaper and then the woman’s page editor.
A tale from the time when Rosie was woman’s page editor still did the rounds at the Chronicle, and raised a chuckle on quiet nights. Rosie, running short of copy for her pages, had burst into the sub-editors’ department, asking, ``Any one of you gentlemen got something of about 10 inches that would be of interest to a woman?’‘
Rosie was never forgotten and over the years the Chronicle journalists had tried to help her. There were offers of accommodation at first, and money, but Rosie always kept her distance, Offers of food met a better response, with Rosie quick to point out that it would help the pigeons, although she was seen some days to enjoy the meat pies and beef sandwiches - in a quiet alley - when he was clearly hungry, the pigeons enjoying the crusts and crumbs.
How Rosie got this way was also a frequent topic of conversation among the journalists. No one seemed to be able to give an account of her slide, to plot her fall; one minute she was Rosie the woman’s page editor, the next a woman arguing with taxi drivers about the route they were taking her home, the next a journalist unable to cope.
She seemed to go downhill when keyboards replaced typewriters and computers started to call the shots, instead of printers in the composing room.
For a time the newspaper management tolerated Rosie’s erratic, eccentric and at times bizarre behaviour but there came a time when she was encouraged to leave, albeit with counselling to try to give her a new direction, and given a generous redundancy package to see her on her way. Counselling came to nothing and the pay-off, presumably, had been spent on drink.
Bentley’s belief in the fraternity of those who ply the newspaper trade at first drew him to Rosie. Bentley was warned that others before him had tried to help Rosie, but they had given up in the end. Some days she appeared to not even recognise her former colleagues, and so appealing to their past connections with her fell on stony ground. Bentley persisted, even after being rebuffed at first. Bentley had not known Rosie in her Chronicle days, having joined the paper after her demise. But he had another connection with her, however tenuous. Bentley, a keen birdwatcher, wrote the bird-watching column for the Chronicle and hoped he could use this and his knowledge of birds to win her trust, to win her friendship. He was intrigued by the metaphor he saw between Rosie’s and pigeon lives. There was also another motive to establishing connection with Rosie, perhaps a darker one that stirred Bentley’s determination to get to know and understand her, to make sense of her fall.
``Watch out for the peregrine,’’ Bentley heard Rosie muttering to her pigeons one day, and he knew what she meant. He, too, had seen a peregrine leave its eyrie on the top of an insurance company’s headquarters in the city centre, rise and take to the skies, pigeons in its sights.
``I saw the peregrine myself, ‘’ Bentley said to Rosie. ``A fine male. What a bird.’‘
Rosie looked skywards, and looked at Bentley, and smiled. He knew.
The city’s pigeons watch out for their main natural foe, the peregrine falcon, that stalks them and takes the unprepared and unwary. The journalist is stalked by a wild spirit of a different kind. Wild Turkey, Famous Grouse, Swan lager and Penguin shiraz. The menace of alcohol lies in wait for the unwary and unaware. The symbiotic relationship in newspaper offices between addictive drugs like nicotine and alcohol might have been broken since Bentley entered the newspaper business 40-odd years previously, but alcohol, especially, and its effects, were still there to be seen. Bentley had seen so many journalists fall by the wayside and it troubled him. Journalism had been, and still was, a social industry where it was important to get out and meet people. The best journalists were those who hung around in bars and obtained their stories there. It was easy, though, to blame the social lifestyle of the journalist for the high incidence of alcoholism. Perhaps the blame lie with the people attracted to journalism in the first place. Journalists in Bentley’s experience always seemed to be larger than life, out of step with the norms of society, social misfits who could never find employment doing something else. Bentley happily considered himself in this category.
Who were these people whose occupation involved so much time spent in the bar, meeting contacts, discussing headlines and introductions to stories, discussing the trade? In other occupations surely this would be done in the office, but other occupations would not be as much fun.
All professions need what sociologists term an ``occupational therapy’’ to sustain them; dramas, gossip, fraternity and camaraderie. They are the things that make certain occupations unique and bond and bind the people within them. The legal profession might need the ``good lunch’’ with steak and kidney pie and port between supreme court sittings, businessmen a longer one to cement contracts. The journalist needs the office pub at the end of the day, to talk shop, to talk headlines, to talk words. But there were victims of this lifestyle, and clearly Rosie was one.
* * * * *
Bentley carefully cultivated his friendship with Rosie, not that it could be called a friendship at first. She remained wary but he reiterated he wrote the bird column, and so was interested in birds, including pigeons. A few white lies were tossed in, about Bentley keeping pigeons as a child, something he had never done. Slowly he won her trust and one day, when he approached, Rosie’s eyes lit up in recognition, and enthusiasm and he knew he was finally making progress. Among Rosie’s blankets of newsprint she had seen one of Bentley’s articles. Her eyes were drawn to it by its colourful picture. The article was about the superb fairy-wren, her favourite bird from the country district where she had grown up.
Bentley over time was able to cultivate conversations with Rosie about birds other than her beloved pigeons, birds like the fairy-wren from beyond the urban boundary. He also took the conversation beyond birds themselves.
Rosie still drank, but Bentley would never give her any alcohol and confined ``gifts’’ to food, always asking her first what would be the pigeons’ preference. Where Rosie obtained her drink was a mystery but no one wanted to delve into where she got the supply. Bentley’s efforts were concentrated on winning Rosie’s trust. Possibly weening her off alcohol would come later.
Bentley became obsessed with reconstructing Rosie’s life, of pieceing together the information she had given him, as in a jigsaw. But it was Rosie herself who constructed the trite and cliched picture of herself, the free-flying young person - trying to spread her wings - being confined to the cage of a mental institution. Terrible things happened to her to make her ``right’‘. These included electric shock treatment to expunge and conquer bad thoughts.
The grim days of incarceration for the mentally ill, and not so ill, were over now but the mentally ill were confronted by another obstacle. The majority were free of institutions, able to live and be treated in the community, but often there was a lack of back up, the mentally ill were left to drift and, dare Rosie say it, fall through the cracks without there being anyone to help them.
* * * * *
A pigeon in a loft receives all the care and attention, and good food, it needs, as long as it plays by the rules. As long as it returns after its release and mates with the mate provided by its master and does not look to other horizons.
Rosie didn’t play by the rules in her initial loft at home, but she learned to answer the commands of those in the loft provided by the authorities after she was committed, to please them. It enabled her to be released and to eventually train to be a journalist, get a job on the Chronicle, and move into a house with a group of other reporters. It went well for years. Rosie had a boyfriend, an engagement and marriage and children were on the horizon, but the fondness for alcohol, and the fun and free-spirit and lack of inhibition it brought, weighed her down.
Before long she needed to drink daily, a self-medication to smooth the anxieties and depression that had always been with her.
Soon she was out of a job, out of her home and in temporary sheltered accommodation for those who could not cope. And from there, she ended on the streets. From her high-flying journalist days, it became a fall to the pavement. It was all a fall to earth so rapid that she could not chronicle how it happened, or even when. All she knew is that it became impossible to communicate with, or live with, other people. She tried living alone but was drawn to the streets - drinking more seriously at first, and wanting to spend drunken nights with her pigeons.
She would choose certain derelict buildings in which to sleep where the rafters were home to pigeons, and she could lie there at night listening to their gentle cooing. She found it soothing, it ironed out a confused, warped and tangled mind.
* * * * *
Bentley always considered the city as no fit place for pigeons, as indeed it was no fit place for humans. What had we done to that human space that was increasingly taking people further away from the natural world. Even in the relatively small city of Hobart, buildings rose out of the pavement and resembled harsh cliff-faces, making it difficult to see a tree-lined horizon. It was even difficult to find a tree on some streets. Cars confined people to narrow strips of pavement and the only evidence of nature was rats seen scurrying at night and the pigeons and sparrows by day, although in summer, with luck, welcome swallows and tree martins appeared swooping for insects between the buildings.
There was a dramatic exception, one that Rosie knew from her days in the country. One that Rosie watched out for, but seldom saw. Occasionally a hunting peregrine falcon swept overhead. Once she had seen a pigeon fall from the heavens and a peregrine land close to it on Argyle Street, on one of the main intersections in the city centre. The peregrine, collecting its prize after knocking it out of the sky, carried the pigeon away.
Rosie was not angry, just pained that one of her beloved pigeons had died. She saw pigeon mortality everyday, or virtually every day, with pigeons killed by cars. From growing up in the countryside, seeing raptors at work, and seeing domestic animals sent for slaughter, she accepted life was a fickle and a transient affair.
* * * * *
The Hobart community, that beyond the fraternity of journalists, did not forgot Rosie entirely. Living in a condemned building close to the city centre for about a year, she became known as the pigeon lady and well-wishers left her food, and food for her pigeons.
It was after about six months of talking to Rosie, meeting her some afternoons in her derelict building and talking birds, that Bentley happened on an idea to draw Rosie into the wider community, perhaps gave her a foothold on the ladder that would help her climb out of her malaise and morass.
Bentley one week had learned of a university student doing research into urban pigeons. The researcher, Amy Bright, had placed an item in a birdwatchers’ newsletter asking for people to alert her to pigeon roosting and nesting sites. Bentley contacted her initially with a view to writing a bird column about her activities, as a hook on which to hang a story about urban birds, but on meeting Amy he was impressed by her passion for not just the research she was to undertake, but wildlife in general, particularly birds. She liked to talk birds, as Rosie did, and Bentley thought it would be good to get them together.
There was no one who knew more about the favourite nesting and roosting locations of Hobart’s pigeons than Rosie, and her information would be invaluable. Amy initially was nervous about meeting Rosie. Amy had in fact seen her on the streets, feeding the pigeons, and it was not in her plans to recruit the city’s underclass, as she put it, for help with her research. Amy was frank with Bentley. When she had drawn up her proposal for the pigeon project she had only seen a neatly-typed thesis, in a red cover like a published book, as its end result and not experiences, as she put it, of ``a day in the life of a bag person’‘.
``I’m not a writer, I’m a scientist,’’ Amy had told Bentley when he first mentioned Rosie’s name to her. ``I don’t have to live my research. Scientists are different. We keep a detachment, especially from humans while doing bird or animal or insect research.’‘
But this was the city, inhabited by urban people and urban birds, a habitat that melded them together. It was the place where everything flawed and lacking in the human condition, its estrangement from the natural world which traditionally had sustained it, was exposed. It was the place where mankind and its moulding of nature could be seen at its worst.
That’s how Bentley put it, pulling no punches. And that’s how Amy eventually saw it, acknowledging that her research was perhaps more about people than birds. It was about keeping pigeons from fouling public buildings, and it was about how to move them on.
Amy’s project, in fact, involved devising ways of keeping pigeons off city buildings where their droppings were not only unhygienic but damaged the fabric of brick and stonework.
Rosie learned much about pigeons from the researcher, but she had always considered there was something magical about the humble pigeon, despite how they were portrayed in man’s world, the false environment of the city.
All pigeons are descended from the rock pigeon of Europe, something Rosie already knew, but she didn’t know of their remarkable power of navigation, in which they used the earth’s magnetic field, and ultra-violent rays from the sun to find direction.
The pigeon’s powers of finding its way back to its loft, in virtually any weather, had given it the role of messenger over centuries, in old wars and modern ones. A pigeon had even been given a medal for bravery in the Second World War.
Rosie loved these stories. She sat up well after dark in her dank loft, sipping tea that Amy had brewed on a camping stove. The researcher and Rosie talked pigeons endlessly by day and into the night, when they weren’t searching for new pigeon locations and putting in place experimetnal measures to move the pigeons on. Rosie was an eager helper. She didn’t mind Amy’s pigeon harassment and disturbance as long as it was not in her loft. She accepted pigeons could be a nuisance, especially in occupied buildings. Even if moved on, pigeons like the bag people of the streets, would always find a home in abandoned buildings.
Amy and Rosie soon formed a bond, an affinity, almost as strong as Rosie and her pigeons. And Amy noticed something about Rosie she had not seen when they first met through Don Bentley. Rosie’s words, and thoughts, were getting clearer, and more often than not Amy noticed the whiff of cheap, cask white wine was not on Rosie’s lips. Rosie was drinking less, turning to the tea Rosie bought her instead of alcohol.
What had started out as research to save buildings took on a broader dimension. Talking to Rosie, Amy was now questioning mankind itself and its manipulation of a once beautiful and graceful bird so it ended its days in cities far from its ancestral home. And Amy couldn’t help but draw a parallel with Rosie, as Bentley had done.
Rosie, although a person of the streets, felt safe and secure, especially in her loft. She had no money, was without possessions and knew she would never be a target for muggers, or thugs and bullies.
She had learned, though, that being out on the streets at nights could cause her problems. Drunks would come by some evenings and harass her, insulting her, pulling her blankets and newsprint bedsheets across the pavement, kicking her once. That is why she retreated to derelict buildings at night, and she had been lucky enough to find one that had been empty for years, tucked away up an alley. It was waiting a development project that seemed never to come.
With Amy, carrying binoculars, a camera, laptop computer and mobile phone, if might be a different story. Amy was also young and beautiful and Bentley grew increasingly concerned when she told him she spent the occasional night talking pigeons with Rosie. Bentley finally had alerted the police, through the Chronicle’s police reporter, to keep an eye on Rosie’s loft at night He had told this to Amy and she felt reassured, agreeing that some nights the sound of creaking and movement in the old building, even if it did come from rats, had made her nervous. But she always had her mobile phone at the ready in case of trouble. The city by night could be a cruel and dangerous place, worse than by day, and Amy was street-wise enough to know it.
* * * * * *
Growing up, Rosie had always been attracted to birds on the farm owned by her parents, and this sowed the seeds for her fascination with pigeons. Amy, too, had come from a farming background and this had also helped cement their friendship. And Amy, too, had been nervous about the city when she had first arrived in its concrete jungle to go to university. She overcame this unease through her passion for wildlife, doing projects on urban wildlife as part of her studies.
Like Rosie, Amy now accepted the city on its terms and she accepted Rosie the pigeon lady for what she was - an embodiment of the paradox that is the pigeon. Loved by some, despised by others. Among pigeons, it was the feral ones that were despised; not the racers that were sleek and beautiful in all their guises, and not the other extreme of man’s manipulation of nature, the white dove. These, too, came from the rock pigeon of Europe.
``There’s a rat with wings at one end of the spectrum, and a dove of peace and love at the other,’’ Rosie whispered one day in one of her more comprehensible moments, when she and Amy shared tea in the old building, the pigeons cooing in the roof.
``Here’s you, this beautiful thing, blonde and sparkling blue eyes, like a little, fragile beautiful dove, the dove of love. And here’s me, this smelly, decrepit, scaly, matted old thing. The nearest thing to a rat a human could be.’’
Amy turned away. She didn’t want to show Rosie her tears. And she jotted in her notebook, the book she used to record her research into pigeons: ``What has mankind done to the rock pigeon, what has mankind done to Rosie, and what has mankind done to himself?’’