A racing pigeon flew over Oslo.
His owner called him the Colonel because of the three star-shaped marks on his chest. He was a small, squat bird, almost twelve years old. Age and experience had made him confident, but also extremely cautious. He flew low to avoid birds of prey. Watchful, he darted through the air, swooping in from the fjord between the city hall towers, before veering slightly to the east.
A high-rise block was covered in scaffolding and tarpaulins. The Colonel prepared to land.
He had flown a great distance.
Homesickness gnawed within his broad gray chest, with its insignia so distinct and beautiful that at the time he had been bought as a fledgling, he had cost his owner more than his pedigree alone would merit. His parents were ordinary working stock. Tender care and great expectations had nevertheless made a racer of the Colonel, and this was one of Northern Europe’s most prizewinning racing pigeons, now perched on top of the tower block that had been destroyed one July day less than three years earlier.
The Colonel wanted to go home. He was eager to reach Ingelill, his mate of more than ten years. He longed to hear his owner’s whistle at feeding time and the soothing cooing of the other pigeons. The old, sharp-eyed gray bird felt drawn to the pigeon loft in the orchard and the nesting box where Ingelill was waiting. He knew exactly where he was headed. It was not far now—only a few minutes if he took to his wings and soared.
High above, between the Colonel and the cold April sun, a bird of prey was hovering. It was still so young that now and then it migrated from the forests north of the city to feast on lethargic collared doves in city-center parks. It caught sight of the Colonel at the very moment the
gray veteran softly shook its wings and plucked its plumage in preparation for takeoff.
The hawk pounced.
An emaciated man was standing below, outside the cordon around the half-dead building, using his hand to shade his eyes. A hawk, he noticed. A sparrow hawk, he felt certain, even though this was a rare sight here in the city center. The man lingered. The sparrow hawk, with its shorter, powerful wings, did not normally hunt like this. It depended on hilly terrain to conceal itself: the sparrow hawk was a stealthy killer rather than a fighter pilot.
Now the bird swooped quickly and suddenly, homing in on something the man could not see. As he stood there, still with his hand held level above his eyes, he was aware of his own rank body odor stinging his nostrils. He had not washed in more than a week. It still embarrassed him to be so unclean, even after all these years scuttling between drunkenness and night shelters and the Church City Mission.
It must be a pigeon the hawk had caught, he decided as a little cloud of gray feathers descended from the edge of the roof high above him. Skoa liked pigeons. They were sociable birds, especially in summer when he chose to sleep outdoors in the main.
He dropped his arm and began to walk.
A good way to die, he thought, as he shuffled off in the direction of Karl Johans gate with his hands deep inside his pockets. One minute you’re enjoying the view, the next you’re somebody’s lunch.
When all was said and done, Lars Johan Austad wished he had suffered the same fate. Shivering in the April chill as he reached the shadow cast by the Ministry of Finance building, he realized it was time to find something to eat. It was midday and he could hear the clock strike at city hall.
A brass bell tinkled.
“Come on, Colonel! Peeep!”
His whistling made the other pigeons coo restlessly. It was now approaching evening, and feeding time had finished some time ago.
“I think you’ll have to give that up for today.”
A slender woman arrived along the flagstones, picking her way
between the patchy remnants of snow that still lay in dirty brown heaps across the lawn that led down to the pigeon loft.
“Colonel!” the man repeated, whistling once more, before ringing the little bell.
The woman slid her arm carefully around his shoulders.
“Come on now, Gunnar. The Colonel will find his way without you having to attract him, as you well know.”
“He should have been here by now,” the man complained, rocking stiffly from one foot to the other. “The Colonel should have been here hours ago.”
“He’s just been delayed,” the middle-aged woman comforted him. “You’ll see, he’ll be back here in his box when you wake tomorrow. With Ingelill. The Colonel would never let his little Ingelill down, you know that. Come on now. I’ve made some tea. And scones. The nice ones that you like best.”
“Don’t want to, Mom. Don’t want to.”
Smiling, she pretended not to hear him. Grasping his hand discreetly, she drew him up toward the house. He accompanied her with some reluctance.
“It’s your birthday tomorrow,” the woman said. “Thirty-five years old. Where has the time gone, Gunnar?”
“The Colonel,” the man whimpered. “Something must have happened to him.”
“Not at all. Come on now. I’ve baked a cake. Tomorrow you can help me to decorate the cake. With cream and strawberries and candles.”
“Where has the time gone?” she repeated, mostly to herself, as she opened the back door and pushed her son into the warmth.