'The Challenge Of Hunger' by Paul Ayres


He had sunken cheeks and rambling eyebrows that shaded the dark slits of his eyes. The leather of his face was scored and creased and he sat, hunched, over broken-toed shoes, on the other side of the fountain where the statue of the fallen angel stands, where the pigeons bathe when the midday heat is at its greatest.
He drew the cuffs up his arms. A hand slid into the side pocket of his jacket and re-appeared with a scrag of crusty loaf. Then, in the manner of a veteran magician, he held the bread between his fingers and waved it in front of him, slowly, from left to right, as if allowing his audience to validate the integrity of his prop.
At first, there was no audience apart from me. But as he began to break the food, they came, flapping down from the granite dais of the fountain, strutting and cooing on the gravel between us. He sat, expressionless, as the auditorium began to fill.
The man pulled again at his frayed cuffs, perhaps to reassure us that nothing was hidden in his sleeves, while pink feet paced the sand with nervous little steps as hungry pigeons do, staring about  through their piggy, orange eyes.
He broke more of the bread and threw pieces out to the front row. The birds pecked and fought, and then, after a final scrap, the stalls emptied again as they flickered away, back to the statue and the fountain.
The magician repeated his turn, bringing the pigeons, his participating audience, closer. The last piece of crust dropped between the toes of his broken shoes. I watched as one pigeon - the bravest, or maybe the most desperate - took a few quick steps forward, onto the stage, as if the magician had asked for a volunteer.
His fist was around the pigeon’s neck. The sound of its distress was brief - briefer, indeed, than the long, splintering, snap and the man’s tightening breath, and the chaos of wings that flocked away and up in panic as he tucked the dead bird inside his jacket.
I hadn’t noticed the walking stick by his side, but now he rose, pushing onto it for support. The dark eyes turned towards me. A look of lonely hunger fell across his face. Then he shuffled away.
And as his sad form melted into the shadow of the trees, I found myself clapping, quietly, while the pigeons flapped in the water of the fountain below the statue of the fallen angel.

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  2. A gripping tale - and a totally unexpected ending

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