If Alistair McClenachan’s mother had seen him in the queue of the Parisian bakery that morning, maybe then she’d have understood what a struggle life in France had become for him. On the surface – the part his mother was aware of – things had been going well for Alistair since his arrival in Paris three months ago. He’d got a job teaching English, he’d found somewhere to live, and he’d made a couple of friends. But in reality every day was a trauma, littered with misunderstanding and misfortune. He could not grasp the French language, and had no one to guide him through the linguistic minefield. Now he wanted nothing more than to get back to Fife. All of this he had hoped to explain to his mother on the phone the night before, but when she wouldn’t let up about what an opportunity he’d been given to start a new life in Paris, and how envious she was, he found he couldn’t go through with it. He told himself that maybe she was right, that it really was a great new beginning.
But that morning, as he queued to order his sandwich, quaking with fear, all thoughts of opportunities, and anything else, were far from his mind. The old sense of dread was back, and his small, freckled, 22-year-old face perspired as he mentally rehearsed his order, over and over. As the line edged slowly towards the till, he could feel himself drowning in his own inadequacy amid the well-heeled Parisians. Even the cakes were making him feel inferior. They taunted him from behind the glass counter, these pastry posers, oozing Chantilly cream and self-confidence. From time to time bakers emerged from a side door with wicker baskets of baguettes, and he longed for just one batch to be defective, just a little charred. But each load was as perfect as the last, crisp, golden and sumptuous.
Three women were serving, and it was the youngest who was waiting for him as he arrived at the till, mouthing his lines. ‘Bonjour, Monsieur,’ she said brightly. She was probably no more than 20, but looked older. Her long, slender arms were bare, exposing a tiny tattoo near the shoulder, and strands of her shiny black hair fell from beneath her hat. Alistair noticed that the green she had dusted on her long eyelids matched that of the beads around her neck. She had the longest eyelashes he had ever seen.
He pursed his lips to form a ‘bonjour,’ but the sound got no further than the back of his stick-dry throat. He stared at her, closed his mouth, and nodded.
She waited. ‘Qu’est-ce que vous voulez, monsieur?’ she asked, tilting her head and smiling, slowly blinking the green lids at him.
She wasn’t asking anything complicated, she just wanted to know what he wanted. He knew that. He also knew his response, but his throat wouldn’t sanction it. With a helpless shrug he turned and hurried to the automatic doors, only to find they would not open. He stepped back, waving his arms, trying to activate a sensor.
‘Monsieur,’ the same soft voice said behind him. He turned to the young woman who, smiling non-judgmentally, pointed to another set of doors. He ran out of them, and kept running, until he reached a street corner. Once around it, he leaned the back of his head against the wall, feeling the warmth of the early morning sun on the cold sweat of his brow. Then he walked to the train station, sandwichless.
By the time he was on the train he had managed to compose himself a little. It was summer and, with many commuters on holiday, the carriage was relatively quiet, so he was able to find a seat and even stretch his limbs. Alongside the remaining commuters were a few tourists, and they brought with them everything you didn’t see on public transport at other times of the year: colourful clothing, excited conversation, smiling faces. Glad to be among so many outsiders, Alistair unzipped his backpack and took out his French Grammar for Beginners.
After an uneventful start, the train came to rest at a busy station and didn’t move for several minutes, its doors remaining ajar. Alistair was beginning to feel uneasy, when the driver said something through the speakers, which he assumed was the announcement of a delay. Some people disembarked. ‘Must be trying their luck with the buses,’ he tried to reassure himself. ‘I hope it’s not going to be a long delay.’ At last the doors slammed shut and the train pulled off. Alistair returned to his reading, congratulating himself on having stayed where he was.
It took seven stops and 23 minutes for him to notice that he was travelling in the wrong direction. As he looked up from his chapter on the passé composé at the unfamiliar landscape outside his window, the horrifying realisation dawned that what the driver had announced had not been a delay but a change of route, and the train had now switched to another branch of the line. The next hour was a blizzard of fear, panic and frustration. There was the scamper to find the correct platform for a train back to where he started, the endless waiting as his return train idled at each station, and then the sprint from the train when he finally reached his destination. He was due to teach a group of junior insurance salesmen at their firm at 9, but it was 10.15 when he arrived at the reception drenched in sweat. ‘Alistair McClenachan,’ he panted at the bewildered receptionists. After some confusion, they verified who he was and confirmed, in perfect English, that the appointment had had to be cancelled due to the lateness of the hour. ‘Thanks,’ he said, still panting, and departed.
He trudged back to the station under a cloud of self-recrimination. If he hadn’t been so lazy and had learned French before he came to France, it would all have been different. Instead, he had faced no end of problems. The landlord of his 12-metre-square apartment who missed no opportunity to exploit him. The unfathomable bureaucracy. The shopkeepers who showed no pity as he tried to explain what he wanted. Today, he told himself, was the lowest point, he couldn’t fall any further. And then there was the pigeon man.
The pigeon man emerged dramatically at the edge of Alistair’s field of vision while he was sitting in a small park of the 9th arrondissement that afternoon. Dressed in jogging trousers and a heavy, tattered overcoat, the old man strode the lawn, pursuing pigeons. Each time a flock gathered, he would charge at them, screaming insults, hurling his faded I Love Paris sunhat at them and finally, as they scattered, making throat-slitting gestures in their direction. Then he would pick up his hat, replace it on his bald, sweat-beaded head, and return to his bench, where a glum companion sat nodding his approval. When the birds returned moments later, he would spring from his seat, and the performance would re-commence. On their benches, under the shade of the trees, people watched, some laughing, others with frowns of pity. A grinning teenager filmed the scene on his phone, while his girlfriend looked on delighted. It was more than Alistair could bear. He recognised the expressions directed at the pigeon man: they were exactly those he had been met with in the course of his own Parisian humiliations. He felt a swell of kinship with him, and decided to act.
He waited for the old man’s next raid, then got up from his bench and approached him. ‘Bonjour, monsieur,’ he said confidently to the man as he bent to pick up his hat. He wanted to steer him away from the birds, and the judgmental stares, but he realised he didn’t have the words. So he reverted to the last refuge of the helpless foreigner: sign language. He pointed the man’s attention towards the people on the benches, then to the birds, and finally he flapped his arms and shook his head, waving his index finger in the man’s face. The man stared back blankly for a moment, and the onlookers fell into silent expectation. Then, his face twisting in fury, he took off his hat and began striking Alistair with it. Time and time again, with sweeps of surprising force, he beat Alistair on his arms and his head, screaming the same insults he’d previously aimed at the birds. As he ran towards the park’s exit, his arms protectively covering his head, Alistair was just able to notice the laughter of the onlookers, the screaming of the pigeon man, and the teenager filming him as he passed.
As he had done so many nights before, Alistair sat alone that night in his apartment, and brooded. In the immediate aftermath of the park incident, he had been consumed by thoughts of taking revenge on the pigeon man. He had wanted to return next day, grab the old fool by his filthy ankles, and toss him like a caber into his Godforsaken pigeons. Let them film that on their phones! But as the hours passed, so too did his anger, and he began to think not of revenge, but of opportunities. Maybe he could reason with the old man. Maybe he could explain what he had failed to explain earlier that day, that he had been trying to offer help. He could rehearse a few phrases in advance. The misunderstanding resolved, he could then go to his office and explain to his boss what had happened with the insurance firm, and all would be well again. Maybe they could even share a laugh over the pigeon man. Maybe this was the turning point he’d been waiting for!
Next day Alistair returned early to the park, full of hope. There were some people sleeping on benches, but no pigeon man. No matter, he told himself, he would wait. He continued to wait all morning, and still he didn’t come. Lunch time arrived, and with it people and their sandwiches, and so too reinforcements of pigeons. But still no pigeon man. Lunch time passed into mid and then late afternoon, and dejectedly Alistair watched the shadows of the trees lengthen. He was hungry. The pigeon man was not coming back. It was too late to go and see his boss. All was lost. He got up from his bench and, hands deep in his pockets and shoulders slumped, he walked among the untroubled pigeons. There were just a few people in the park now, the homeless, a smattering of tired tourists, and some workers on a brief escape from their offices. Alistair considered that some of them might be watching him, but he didn’t really care. He began to kick out at the pigeons, cursing them, cursing Paris, cursing himself, cursing everything, using all the profanities he’d picked up from the pigeon man.
Andrew Hamilton grew up in the rural south west of Scotland, and has lived in various cities in the UK, mostly working as a journalist, reporting on everything from neighbours’ disputes over noisy pet parrots to changes of governments. He has now left journalism, and since moving to Paris a year ago he has been working as a teacher of English to adults, but the urge to write dies hard and he continues to work on fiction, non-fiction and poetry in his spare time.