I am a practising criminal barrister who writes. I have had one short story published in the Bristol Anthology and I continue to write short stories along side working very slowly on my first novel.
The thing I suppose that most people asked to describe Peter Markham would say about him is that he has little expectation or aspiration for his own life. Certainly the accusation of those who knew him, or knew of him as a young man, is that he has settled for a lesser life, one that they variously describe as ordinary and mundane; more than that, the worst of all possible lives, one that is regulated by routine.
Of course, over time it is possible for anyone to learn to live with and to accept almost anything. Those fleeing Paris in fear of the occupying forces became almost feral in flight with even the most distinguished fighting each other for food and fuel. But they then, all too quickly adapted to their new, frugal existence, accepting it as if that were the way it had always been. As young children we all regaled the friends of our parents with the certainty of what we would become once we grew up. Yet the reality for us all is that what and who we become, is not a constant but an ebb and flow. Only the lucky few are provided with a complete road map. The rest of us have to make do with a rough guide to the paths we hope to travel. For a tiny minority that early dream falls short of reality and they go on to exceed their wildest expectations. For the rest, we are forced to change and adapt, until hopefully, eventually we reach a settled position.
But Peter Markham was different. He had been considered by his tutors at Kings to be a very remarkable young man. He was one, who even as an under-graduate had a sense of his own place in the world, of how he fitted into the grand picture of his life. He understood with an ease of mind that belied his years, complex concepts and ideas that those more senior than him had spent years grappling with. He was as comfortable talking to one of the homeless who sometimes wandered into the cloistered confines of the college, as he was answering a seemingly impenetrable question in a tutorial. He wrote with a grace that belied the conciseness of his words. And he could switch from one topic to the next without seeming to stop for a moment to gather his thoughts. Because of all of that, all who met him, agreed that a bright future was assured him, so much so that for years after he left, it felt as if the college was left holding its collective breath. Everyone waiting for news of exactly what he had become and perhaps of more import, what they themselves had played a part in creating.
But the years passed and nothing came, no news of Peter Markham made its way back to the college. Of course he had refused the offer to stay and teach, an opportunity which would have assured his academic success. But then he wasn’t unique in that choice. Many others before him had left for pastures new, only to return years later bringing their now formidable name with them
But because nothing at all was heard about him, after a while people began to doubt their own instincts. It was almost as if the fact that they had been wrong in their assessment of him somehow affected their own standing. So after a while people stopped talking about him altogether. They then stopped asking others if they had heard anything of him. Later still, if someone, perhaps a student who had heard the stories about him, enquired about him, their question would be met with an embarrassed grimace sufficient to ensure that the enquiry would not be repeated. Peter Markham became invisible.
And had it ever been in his nature to think about himself in that way that would have been just as Peter intended.
Of course when he first settled in London he too assumed that it would be a temporary move. His plan, had he thought of it in such concrete terms, had simply been to get a job which he hoped would allow him to save some money while at the same time seeing a little of life before he applying his mind to exactly what it was that he felt he ought to be doing.
He was offered the rent on a flat owned by a family friend who also managed to secure him an interview for him with what the friend described as an uninspiring department of the Civil Service. Faced with a panel of self-believing but ultimately underachieving bureaucrats, each for their own reasons, falling over themselves to interview the chap from Cambridge, he found that with very little application on his part, he was offered the job.
And that was how it happened. His life of study and conscious enquiry very quickly fell into one of routine and unquestioning habit. Each morning he caught the Victoria Line travelling the six stops to Victoria Station. Crossing the road to Stag Place he stopped at the Turkish café for a coffee. At lunchtime, he returned to the same café where he bought another coffee accompanied this time with a sandwich, which he ate while working at his desk. Each evening he made the return journey. The only difference between the morning and evening journey was that before he getting onto the tube in the evening, he stopped at the stand to buy the evening paper. Then, paper in hand, he left the station and in the reverse of his morning routine he walked through Highbury Fields back to his flat.
It wasn’t that he was idle or that he refused to engage with the world or even that he had lost any of his curiosity of life. He learnt for instance, from one of the ubiquitous blue plaques that litter that particular part of London, that Walter Sickert had lived at 1 Highbury Place between 1927 and 1931. Having duly noted that fact, his journey to work that first morning after having read the plaque, was spent working through those dates, tying them to other facts and dates that he knew, in order to complete a jigsaw from the otherwise seemingly ill-fitting parts. He knew for instance, that Sickert, along with a number of others, had been a suspect in the Whitechapel murders. Looking at the map on the wall of the tube above him, he noted that Whitechapel was six stops in the opposite direction that he travelled each day; Highbury and Islington; Cannonbury, Dalston Junction, Haggerston, Hoxton, Shoreditch High Street and Whitechapel. He then discovered that the Station at Whitechapel opened in April 1876, ten years before the first murder. However, the first underground service did not arrive until March 1913; twenty-five years after the last of the deaths believed to have been committed by a single hand and fourteen years before Walter Sickert opened his school for fellow artists. By the time he put the final piece to the puzzle, the train was pulling into Victoria.
And his work, or his method of completing his work was done in much the same way. Sometimes he found that he had reached the end without knowing the path he had travelled. At other times, just as he had with the information about Walter Sickert, he found he had a very clear route from problem to solution.
In his early days in London he had met up with some of his friends from Kings. Anyone with a place to stay in the bustling metropolis was bound to find themselves a magnate for visitors in the post study years. The fact that he also had a job and therefore the means to explore the capital made him even more of a draw. But just as his currency within the college began to pall, so too the visits and visitors became less frequent becoming so that he hardly met anyone from that time. Of course he had what he would term acquaintances amongst those he worked with, but they were colleagues rather than people he chose to engage with socially. As a consequence his existence became quite solitary; his time divided between his home, the Fields and the office together intertwined with the commute to and from.
And that was how his life remained until the morning he saw the pigeon. He noticed it because from the angle he approached, it appeared to be sitting on a bench looking at the war memorial. It was perfectly still and didn’t stir even as he passed close by giving the rather eerie appearance of being lost in thought.
That evening as he returned home, the pigeon was there again and again the following morning. The next evening, seeing that it was still in the same place he felt the urge to sit on the bench to read the evening paper rather than taking it home to the flat. Unable to concentrate on the words in front of him, every now and then he looked up at the pigeon but each time he did, the bird was just as it had always been, looking straight ahead towards the top of the memorial and the upraised arms holding the crown of leaves aloft.
The following evening, he once again sat down with his paper but this time, before opening it he took a crust that he had saved from his sandwich and tore it into pieces, which he scattered on the bench beside him. He then turned his attention to the paper while the pigeon remained unmoving beside him. Knowing that the bread would be a temptation for the pigeon, Peter kept looking up from the passage he was reading to see if the bird was keeping a watchful eye on the feast spread before it. But just as before, the pigeon remained perfectly still, looking only ahead at the reminder of death.
And so a new pattern and routine began. Each day, on his way back from the station, Peter Markham would sit in the park reading with the pigeon beside him until either cold or darkness drove him home.
At some point over the following months he found himself ordering an extra sandwich, which he asked to be wrapped separately from his own. That sandwich he kept, until the end of the evening when rising from the bench, he unwrapped it, leaving it on the bench before making his slow way home.
It wasn’t long after that that he found his mind began to wander and for the first time in his life he found it hard to maintain his concentration on anything. He started to wonder what the pigeon did in the day when he wasn’t there. He knew that every morning the bird was in place on the bench and again each night, as he made his way home, there it was seemingly, in exactly the same spot. But he reasoned that it couldn’t stay there, immobile day in day out at times when he wasn’t there to observe it. Surely it flew off somewhere to sleep, to keep out of the wind on cold days and to keep away from the children who ran recklessly about the garden on sunny days. But how did the pigeon know what time he would be returning or indeed, what time he left for work each morning. Because although he had a routine, he had markers to follow, something the pigeon very obviously did not. Yet since he had first noticed it, there had not been one single day when the pigeon failed to be in position, seemingly waiting for Peter to join it in its solitary musing.
Perhaps, looking back on it, that time of inertia was the catalyst for what was to follow, for the structure and order that Peter’s life had become to fall apart.
The change was, as is often the case with real change, subtle in its execution. One evening, before boarding the tube, Peter forgot to buy a paper so that when he joined the pigeon on the bench he found himself staring fixedly at the bird, waiting, almost goading it to return his gaze. Whether in defiance or from a sense of something altogether more primordial, the pigeon steadfastly refused to meet the gaze of its benefactor but remained fixedly staring ahead. Then one morning for no discernable reason, Peter left home later than usual. Walking through the gardens he could see, even from afar, that the pigeon wasn’t where, despite his better instincts he had expected it to be. Yet still he made his way towards the bench, just as a child, told that something isn’t there, blindly refuses to accept that fact until the very last minute, hoping that the pigeon would emerge and that everything would be as normal.
When it wasn’t there Peter felt cheated and suddenly he couldn’t face the prospect of catching the tube or even of walking into the office late. He phoned in saying he had a cold. After that deceit, he spent the remainder of the day walking but rather than walking with a purpose or even a destination in mind, he walked simply for the sake of walking.
The same happened the next day and the day after that. In fact he spent over a week in that way, waking late into the evening, walking all day before returning too exhausted to eat and falling into a deep sleep. That lack of purpose and idle self indulgence had never before been part of his make up. Even as a teenager he hadn’t felt a need to express his growing independence with rebellion of that kind. At Cambridge, though he enjoyed his time as a student as much as any one else he hadn’t done so at the expense of his determination to succeed. So this ambling without reason was something completely alien to him. But after a day or so of walking in that way Peter began to notice that as he walked he was looking at everything around him. He looked at the faces of the people he passed, at the cracks in the pavement, the facades of buildings, the expanse of tree branches above him; he even looked up at the sky. It was as if he had become conscious of being a tiny, inconsequential part of the world around him and as that thought, unsounded but alive within him began to take root, he even became aware of the fact and the movement of his breathing. Ideas and concepts that had always come so easily seemed suddenly to elude him as he walked as if for the first time around the city he had come to know as his own.
Because of his walking and the fact that he didn’t have any limits or boundaries on his time such as having to catch a tube or completing a piece of work, Peter found that his sense of time itself became skewed. In that way it was only when he noticed the lights in the windows of the houses and the headlamps on the cars that he passed, that he realised it must be late. One night, after a week spent in that way and stirred only by the lights around him, Peter looked at his watch to find it was nearly nine o’clock and that he had spent a whole day in a state of wonder. He also realised that for a whole week he had not thought once of the pigeon. Even as the memory of the bird tugged at his consciousness, he knew that it would be futile to hope that he could see it but he walked to the bench nonetheless. As he had known would be the case, the pigeon wasn’t there and he walked home utterly exhausted and feeling completely drained of all emotion.
But the following morning he awoke feeling much as one does after a particularly nasty illness that has dragged on and on, only to find that one morning, out of the blue it has gone. He felt a lightness of mood that he hadn’t experienced for a very long time. He showered, dressed and walked to the station and although he looked towards the bench out of habit, he knew that it would be empty.
That night coming home, he looked again and once again the pigeon, as he knew it wouldn’t be, wasn’t there. But unlike that first time he no longer felt the sense of loss at the pigeon’s absence overwhelm him. In that moment he knew that he would never see the pigeon again. That the time they shared had been and gone. In it’s wake Peter felt an odd sense of freedom and a knowledge that the limited existence he had been living up until then, was not only a waste but a lie to himself. He had no idea of what lay ahead for him and although he knew that his, as any life would by necessity consist of some form of boundary or constraint, he also knew that he would never again exist in a vacuum of unfulfilled and unfulfilling routine.
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