It doesn’t take much to show others who you really are. Sometimes, a pigeon flying into a window is more than enough.
It was a lukewarm Friday afternoon, and Oxford Street in London was as packed as ever. A few hours earlier, heavy rain was dropping from the skies, giving the streets of London some well deserved breathing space. I was on duty for my usual Friday shift at the Disney Store, when the whole shopfloor saw a greyish mass flying around the shop.
It wasn’t the first time a pigeon entered the magical Disney premises, but this was set to be different from the onset. The little fellow was terrified, his feathers all ruffled and dampish, and he was visibly shaking.
Most people stopped to take pictures and videos of the poor creature, perched above some fixtures and shelves and hiding from sight. Now, I’ve got nothing against taking pictures — the situation was bizarre, and certainly a story worth telling friends and family. Hell, I would’ve done that. The problem is what happened later on.
A good friend of mine (who’ll just go unnamed here) did all he could to send the poor creature outside. We even tried opening one of the fire doors, but the bird kept flying around. He stopped for a while, sitting above a few Cheshire Cats in a corner, and then… He went straight for the exit.
Now, those of you who know Oxford Street’s Disney Store will remember the front window, with several panes of thick, crystalline glass. That window is so clean you could easily mistake it for an open passage to the outside. Especially if you have brains the size of a peanut.
So he flew straight to the window. And I saw him fly, I saw him gain speed and swoop and rise and then I hoped he would steer, or at least aim for the actual exit. Instead, I heard a muffled thump, saw him fall on the floor with no grace, and there he remained. Shaking, petrified, unable to move.
My heart broke into a million pieces as soon as the little bird hit the floor. And that was when people showed their true nature.
Some laughed so hard it was impossible to ignore them. Some were totally indifferent to what had just happened — they had to get on with their day, they couldn’t surely stay there and waste precious time caring for a bird, could they? But a few others were actually concerned about the little fellow, and these included my colleagues. I couldn’t leave my spot at the time, but they did all they could to mark off the area and keep people away from that tiny corner. They picked up the pigeon and put him in a box, and even gave him some water to start healing.
They named him Smudge. And they made sure little Smudge was alright for hours, occasionally checking back on him, at least until we closed the store.
Why did we even care about a pigeon?
When I look back at those fast ten minutes, I can’t help but think how easy it’s been for me to empathise with the little bird. If you’re a writer, it’ll be easy to imagine Smudge as a character: he stepped out of his comfort zone, he reacted in fear, he tried to get out, and faced the conflict the best way he could. Then, he smashed right into a window and had to stand up again, stronger than ever. What an amazing first act, right?
It’s easy to empathise with characters in distress, humans or else. Because we all know what conflict looks like, and we all know how difficult life can be. That’s why we are drawn to dramatic stories; we are craving that happy ending, we want it to happen. We want someone else to succeed in life, because it gives us hope for our own struggles.
I often think (or, rather, hope) that writers have some kind of special empathy machine embedded into their soul. It’s always uplifting to realise how much you naturally care for other living beings. The flip side of the coin is that most people, at that time, weren’t feeling that kind of unease. Some even took videos and pictures of Smudge on the floor, and that got on my nerves so much. But my colleagues, who had the most power to help him out, did the right thing. They helped someone in need — and if they can do it with a pigeon, I’m sure they can do it with anybody. And I couldn’t be more proud of them.
Smudge was slowly recovering, last night, nested in his little box with a bit of water. I want to believe he is okay.
Even though life doesn’t always give us happy endings.