I threw it on the ground and burst into tears. The plate of breadcrumbs, bird-seed and bacon rind shattered on the terrace.
At the foot of my bird table lay the mangled remains of my favourite dove, the one so pale a grey that it was almost white. Now red had been added to the mix, its sleek lines ruffled and raw in places.
The slaughter was recent, and the perpetrator, the fat black and white tomcat from next door was adding insult to injury as it hawked up the residue of its mutilated breakfast onto the lawn.
I hobbled to the back door as quickly as my arthritic knees allowed, snatching up the mop on my way.
“Away,” I shrieked, waving in agitation.
The cat glanced up briefly. Not even deigning to run, it slunk away, its furry belly hanging low to the ground, and silently insinuated itself up the fence. Briefly mooning a white-fringed backside at me, it then dropped down onto its home terrain.
I sadly buried the dove’s corpse. I’m an animal lover, even of the spiteful magpies whose presence at the table I endure, so I was frustrated that if I’d been able to catch the tomcat I would probably only have nudged him with the mop-head. I imagined the cat knew this, just as I imagined that the birds now congregating on the rooftops were looking down accusingly on me as I swept away the feathers. It would be weeks, I reflected before trust was restored.
Autumn turned to winter, robins joined the other birds at the table, and having tasted victory, the tomcat visited more frequently. I stepped up my vigilance.
I was wrapping Christmas presents one December afternoon, the brightly coloured paper and stickers presenting a cheerful contrast to the leaden skies outside. The birds were congregating on the fence waiting for my trip to the bird tray. From the corner of my eye I glimpsed a furtive movement in the bushes. Grasping my mop, I scurried out across the terrace, only to slip on the icy paving stones, banging my head on the bird table as I hit the ground.
As I lost consciousness, I heard the panicked fluttering of wings and caught a glimpse of the cat, poised on the top of the fence, gazing back over its shoulder at me.
I’m awake. It’s getting darker now, mid afternoon. As I struggle into consciousness I realise I am staring into the unblinking gaze of an enormous magpie, standing on my chest. I try to move, but my limbs seem frozen into position, and an agonising pain shoots through my hip. As I cry out weakly, the magpie hops closer to my face, ducking his sleek black head to peck cruelly at my lips, before turning his attention to the tip of my nose.
A movement catches my attention, and I swivel my gaze to see that a dove has landed beside me, tilting its head to regard me impassively. Fleetingly I imagine that he might try to scare the magpie away, until he too begins to peck at the back of my hands.
Within minutes the terrace is dotted with scores of birds, hopping over to take their turn in the pecking order. I feel warm blood beginning to trickle down my cheeks, mingling with tears of pain and horror.
These birds, which I’ve lovingly fed, nurtured and protected seem now hell bent on destroying me. Outrage courses through my chilled veins.
What kind of a way is this to reward my kindness? I give a low growl of desperation and the birds fly up into the air, only to re-settle seconds later in different places on my body.
“I shall die here,” I think, “pecked to a bloody corpse before anyone finds me.” More tears flow.
Suddenly the birds panic and rise, as one, into the air. Instead of settling on the rooftops, they continue their flight until I can no longer hear the dull beating of their wings. Instead, I can hear another sound, a soft purring noise. Swivelling my eyes, I see the black and white tom-cat approaching across the lawn, his eyes fixed on mine.
Despite my pain and fear, I feel my lips twitch. How ironic, I think that my old adversary should become my rescuer. I feel a fleeting rush of relief that I’ve never caused him any harm on our ritual engagements.
The cat stands by me, sniffing the blood now drying on my cold cheeks. He rubs his cheek and ear gently against my neck, and I feel the warmth of his soft fur, and a glow of pleasure at this unexpected gesture of affection.
How badly I have misjudged him. And how misplaced has been my allegiance to those cruel birds who have repaid my kindness in this dreadful way.
The black and white tom cat climbs onto my chest, gazing down into my face. Purring loudly, he begins to knead my neck, making throaty little mewing noises of pleasure.
And then he lowers his warm and furry belly across my cold and unresisting face.
‘I threw it on the ground and burst into tears…’ and also incorporate some reference to the picture below.