“Good afternoon. Shortbread factory. Steve speaking.”
A man’s voice. “Hello… er… is that the shortbread factory?”
“Indeed it is. How can I help you, pal?”
“Hello, I know that this is strange but I was phoning because I would like to contact somebody… a person… who used to work for you. Or maybe they still do?”
An earnest young Italian suitor. For all of his delicate pleading, his voice still had that fanciful Italian prance in it. Everything that he said would be like a line delivered by a happy character in a pantomime, a musical proclamation and a guarantee that everything would be splendid. To Steve’s ear, this sounded affected, but he knew that the man could never work the cadence out of his voice, so that he could speak with an ordinary flatness.
“Do you have the name?” Steve pursued noncommittally. Unless the unknown person instantly jumped out at him, he did not think that it would be worth his while to help.
The man said something that sounded like “pigeon.”
“I’m sorry? Can you repeat that, pal?”
The man repeated the name and it was definitely “pigeon.”
Steve had to fish a bit lower down the octave for his no-nonsense voice. It was the deepest one in his register and brick hard. “I’m sorry but we can’t help you here, pal…”
“I’m Linda, from human resources.” A bright voice had opened up in the ether unexpectedly. “Can I take your own name please?”
“Hi Linda, I’m Carlo.”
“I’m dealing with this, Linda,” Steve maintained. “And you shouldn’t be listening in on my phone calls without my permission.” To Carlo, their voices sounded comical together at the other end of the phone line, as though they were two tiny people living inside an envelope.
“I can’t help listening in, Steve. I’m sitting right next to you.”
Steve spun around in his seat and he was astonished to connect the voice in his ear with the face that was watching him from the adjoining desk. Linda gave a triumphant smile and bobbed her eyebrows roguishly. A thickset, middle-aged lady, she looked to Steve like a spirited mother who had found her little boy in a game of hide-and-seek. He shook his head. “Okay, I shall leave you to deal with this, Linda. I’m hanging up now.”
When he put down the phone, he realised to his annoyance that he could still hear the brunt of the conversation.
Their office was a small cube in the corner of the biscuit factory. It was boxed off by walls that always felt to Steve like temporary partitions. He and Linda could have been installed in a makeshift office on a construction site.
“Pigeon?” Linda prompted.
“She was Malaysian.”
Linda was bemused. “I suppose that none of you could say her real name properly. Pigeon was the nearest phonetic equivalent?”
Carlo reflected. “No, I think that she ran over a pigeon on her bicycle. But I didn’t know her real name. Everyone called her Pigeon.”
“And when did she work here, Carlo?”
“She was there in 2007. I worked there as well.”
Noisily turning over a piece of paper on his desk, Steve snorted with derision.
Linda sighed. She had a very boring job and until now the search for Pigeon had promised to yield an entertaining diversion. “Mr… Carlo, we would have had thousands or maybe tens of thousands of workers employed here since that time… Oh hang on, Biggy’s here. He might know. I’ll ask Biggy.”
I had come into the office because the clock-in machine had been set wrongly. 15:00 had been printed over the 9:00 on my card and, with the dense black ink, they looked like the mangled limbs of a squashed insect. “Can you write the correct times on this please? I don’t have a pen.”
Linda took the card from me. “Biggy, do you by chance know a girl named Pigeon?”
I was very surprised. “You mean from Malaysia?”
“Yes. Do you know where she is now?”
“Malaysia, I’m afraid.”
“Oh dear, do you have any contact information?”
“She was that girl who ran over a pigeon on her bicycle? She fainted, I think. Or did she vomit? Oh yes, I was there – she vomited all over my shoes and I had to go home to get new ones. No, she must have returned to Malaysia at least a decade ago.”
Down the phone, Carlo was also speaking. “Biggy!” he enthused. “I think I remember him! Polish?”
“No contact information at all, Biggy? It’s for a man named Carlo.”
“Carlo?” It was then that a lot of things seemed to shoot confusingly into my forehead at once, like flotsam speeding in upon a fast, breaking wave. “You know, there’s a story here.”
Linda smiled and grimaced. “Oh no, not a story? Give me it long-story-short.”
“This Carlo and Pigeon had a one-night-stand, at the end of a night when we had all gone out to Cabaret Voltaire. It was embarrassing – a disaster, apparently – or so people had said at the time. Carlo left the factory shortly afterwards. I think that he was fired for poor timekeeping.”
Linda nodded at this. It tallied with the impression that she had got from the voice at the other end of the phone.
“Next Pigeon fell pregnant. She came from a very traditional family in Malaysia and she would have been in a tight spot, in returning home with a child and no husband. Yet she could not abort the baby. Another man who worked here – he’s long gone now – a gay man named Jacob – he was so distressed by the crisis that he offered to marry Pigeon. Purely for appearance’s sake – to kit her out with some handy, corroborating wedding photographs. I doubt that he was going to go back to Malaysia with her. Pigeon was very grateful, but she did not want to inconvenience him in the end. She returned alone, to face her relatives, and that was the last that we ever heard of her. I think Jacob was worried that she would be stoned by her community or something.”
“My goodness!” Linda marvelled. “You’d never think to look at you all that there are so many scandals brewing amongst you!”
By now, I could beam a kind of adequate hologram of Pigeon into my mind. There had been a gaggle of Malaysian girls, each of them silken and perfumed and ardently perfect, as though they had been all turned out from a princess factory. Pigeon had had a full face with jutting lips that sometimes smiled and that were more often pursed in dainty disapproval. I dare say that Malaysia must have been once a British colony, for all of the Malaysians had spoken in calm, clipped accents, as if they were unconsciously mimicking British civil servants from the 1950s.
Her story had been as sorrowful as a weeping willow. All of the Malaysians had come to the UK determined to enjoy its freedoms and sexual carelessness. After years of Malaysia they probably felt that they were due a bit of slack. Yet the worrisome weight of their country had sought out and found Pigeon amongst the tenements of Edinburgh and it had come down on her like a huge dirty thumb.
A figure of dignified classical tragedy, a distant figure being carried through an airport terminal on a moving walkway, her head raised, her face clenched, as she was stiffly borne towards her terrible destiny. When I envisage this, Jacob is always watching from afar, squirming in puppyish agitation and feeling her pain more keenly than her reasonable, princess’s mind could ever do itself. His proposal would have been beautifully gallant, like an earl sweeping his cloak over a muddy puddle to spare the shine on a princess’s shoes. Carlo is far less vivid in my mind. He is large, sullen, and malodourous, with greasy clothes and always scowling with boredom. Back then, we had assumed that Pigeon had not told him about his child, which would have been in keeping with her self-deprecating, princess’s manners. In truth, it is more likely that she had felt obliged to spare him from doing a wicked thing, a thing that was otherwise practically inevitable.
Carlo was one of those Italian men who women always have to care for as though they are babies. This was his deal with the world’s women. It was an indisputable fact of nature in his view that a woman should cook for him and clean up after him. And if one of them had given him such a nasty surprise as an unwanted child, he would have priggishly told himself that she was not, by definition, a real woman. The symbolism that enhanced her contemptible and sordid body into a woman would have malfunctioned. She would have been a dud.
I was now sure that he must have known at the time. One of his donkeyish friends would have told him. And now, purely out of random curiosity, this terse, unapologetic phone call, demanding information. What is their name? Do they look like me? What can they bring me or do to entertain me?
“Tell him she’s dead,” I suggested. “Tell him his baby died.”
“Thank you Biggy, but this is not included amongst your competencies. It is for me to deal with.”
Her voice was so firm that I had to leave the office.
Carlo was still waiting down the other end of the phone.
“I’m sorry, but understandably, after all this time, we possess no helpful information.”
His voice suddenly picked up and it became quarrelsome or urgent. “Her name was Pigeon. She used to faint on the production line… it was the noise, or the heat.”
Linda guffawed. “That hardly narrows it down. A girl faints every day, one at least.”
There was a hiss of exasperation and then silence. Linda genuinely bore him no ill will. Even so, she thought that it should be made rather more difficult for him. That he should rightly have to go to Malaysia and odyssey through nameless jungle villages, having all sorts of adventures in order to prove himself. He couldn’t just phone up and ask about his baby, as though it was a primary school teacher who he had fond memories of.
“Well thanks,” Carlo said huffily. To her amazement, he had hung up.
She turned to Steve, eager to confer with him, but he must have slipped out at some point. The office was empty.
We could have been wrong about Carlo. He could have had some shares in a company that had finally struck oil. He could have come into an aunt’s inheritance. Perhaps he had at last acquired the wealth or income to do something about his unaddressed child. What do I have to go on in condemning him but some feebly remembered factory-floor gossip and a brief phone call? So a fair wind to his sail is what I say.