It had started as a throwaway line.
“Let us go travelling when we graduate.”
Tom could not even remember now which one of the group had suggested it. It had been one of the rare Sunday evenings when all five of the students who shared the large rambling terraced house were thrown across at the same time. As they sat up late talking, all sorts of wild ideas were thrown across the table. From trekking in Peru to backpacking in Thailand; summer camps in America to surfing on Bondi Beach.
It was Ellen, the more practical of the housemates, who had suggested an alternative to their daydreams.
“We should give something back,” she challenged. “We could approach one of the charities which work abroad. They’d bite our hands off! Five eager volunteers with medical and building qualifications.”
All agreed it was the right thing to do rather than waste the year.
Tom volunteered to look into the options. Ellen was right; the skills the five of them could offer would be invaluable to many charities. One project in particular caught his eye which required trained medical staff. Physical help was also required to construct a new medical centre.
As with many ideas embraced in the early hours, in the cold light of day enthusiasm waned. Finally only two of the housemates remained committed to the plan: Tom and Ellen.
The five students were a disparate group. There were two trainee doctors, Ellen for her midwifery degree, and Tom, studying quantity surveying. The house they shared was in a run-down area of the city. The furniture was long past its best, the boiler needed gentle handling to keep it operable and the rooms were draughty where the old sash windows no longer fitted. But the five of them had made it their home.
The four guys had met whilst playing hockey for the university team. Ellen had joined them for her final year, responding to an advert for a person to houseshare on the student forum’s website.
“Remember the golden rule,” one of Tom’s friends had warned him. “No relationships with housemates. It only leads to complications.”
“Don’t worry,” Tom had replied. “I intend to keep my head down and concentrate on my finals. I do not want any distractions.”
But that was before he had met Ellen – with her golden hair and gentle ways and her determination always to do the right thing, she was difficult to ignore. For seven months he had kept to his resolution – until he heard her sobbing one night as he passed by her room. He hesitated on the landing for several minutes before knocking to ask if he could help.
She explained that she had been re-reading one of her childhood favourites. “I always cry when Beth gets sick,” she said, waving her copy of Little Women. Jo loves her so much . . .”
As her lip quivered Tom proffered another tissue. From that moment their easy friendship as housemates transformed into something much deeper.
That had been two months ago. Now Tom sat alone, supposedly studying but with the textbook open before him unread. Memories of the argument filled his mind. Ever since the phone call from his uncle, everything had changed . . .
There was a loud bang as something hit the windowpane. He stepped outside to the small backyard. A pigeon sat, dazed, on the path.
Beady orange eyes looked warily at him. Tom moved towards the bird but it fluttered clumsily away, its left wing dropping at an awkward angle.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said quietly, trying to remember what his Uncle Jack had taught him in the pigeon loft where, as a child, he had spent many a rainy afternoon.
His uncle’s hands as he tended the birds, though rough from years of laying bricks, were gentle. The pigeons relaxed as he murmured gently, his voice taking on the gentle resonance of the pigeons.
Setting back on his haunches, Tom clasped his hands together and blew. The noise emitted was a deep sigh. The bird stilled, turning its head to one side. Again Tom made the soft noise, shuffling a little nearer. When he was close enough he reached out and pulled the bird gently to his chest. He continued to murmur words of reassurance while he examined the damaged wing.
“You need to stay a while,” he said.
“They can find their way home over hundreds of miles,” Uncle Jack said. “If they were my birds, I’d never let them fly away!” Tom protested. “You have to let them fly,” his uncle said, ruffling the boy’s hair. “They’ll come back – they’re very determined. And brave. Some pigeons won medals during the war, taking messages behind enemy lines.”
“Do they always return?”
“Mine always have. Very rarely a bird will choose to live somewhere else. Look at this little one here.” He placed a beautiful white dove with grey flecks along her wings carefully into Tom’s hands. Tom could feel the tiny heart beating.
“This little hen turned up three years ago. Beautiful, isn’t she? Poor thing was way off course. She belonged to a fancier in Falkirk.”
“You kept her?”
“I offered to send her home but her owner said as she wanted to stay, I should keep her. I call her Little Morag, but don’t let your aunt know.”
The old man winked and Tom grinned at the thought of his Aunt Morag’s indignation if she learned her husband had named a bird after her.
Taking the dove from the child, Jack placed her back on the ledge. Another bird with fluffy feathers on its feet and a large fanned tail flew across. Bobbing its head up and down and turning in circles around her. It seemed as though he was inspecting Little Morag to make sure she had not been harmed.
“I call this fussy fellow Little Jack. Pigeons stay together for life. She left her home loft to be here with him. And this Little Jack would no more leave his Morag just like I can never part from your aunt.”
With no children of their own. His uncle and aunt had adopted Tom after his parents died in a car accident. It couldn’t have been easy for them at their age, adjusting to life with a sorrowing six-year-old boy, but they had surrounded him with love, and in time, with their help, he overcame his grief.
Jack had telephoned yesterday to tell him Morag had fallen. Nothing broken, but this was the second fall she’d had in the last month. It served as a reminder that they were growing increasingly frail.
Tom felt torn between his obligation to them and his desire to be with Ellen. If only he could persuade her to change her mind and find a job at home.
He turned his thoughts back to the fragile creature he held in his hands. He carried it into the kitchen just as the front door opened and Ellen returned home.
At the sight of Tom nursing the wounded pigeon, she rushed forward to help.
“Poor thing!” she said as Tom explained what had happened. “What can I do to help?”
“In my bedroom there’s a plastic crate. Will you empty it out and tear up the newspaper to make a bed? And we need something to hold water. Not a saucer, it’s too shallow. Some rice and barley from the cupboard will do until we can buy some wild bird seed.”
Over the next two weeks Tom and Ellen nursed the wounded bird together.
They avoided speaking about the future, but focused their attention firmly on the tiny living being which needed their care.
Finally, the day came to set the pigeon free. Tom removed the lid from the crate. The bird lifted its head and sunlight reflected from the iridescent green and purple feathers at its neck.
After a few practice swipes of its wings, the pigeon rose up above them, it ascended higher and then flew steadily south.
Ellen gazed skyward even though the pigeon had long since flown from view. Tom stood behind her.
“I wonder if it will find its
“Sometimes it’s hard to let go.” Tom placed his arms on her shoulders.
She nodded and he knew she was close to tears.
“Ellen, when you qualify . . .” she turned to face him.
“I don’t want to leave you – I love you. But they’re relying on me, Tom. I have to take up my placement at the mission hospital.”
“I know. I’ve been thinking about this, and I remembered something my Uncle once told me about making choices. I was being selfish. I was wrong to try to persuade you not to go.”
“But what about you? What will you do?”
“As soon as the exams are over I’ll go home. My Uncle and Aunt were there when I needed them and I won’t let them down now. I’ll take over the family building firm so Jack can retire and look after Morag. When the year is over, will you return, Ellen? Will you promise to come home to me?”
As she threw her arms around his neck, he knew with certainty that she would.
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