It was August and the end of our stay in France. We spent a month in this village every summer and tomorrow we had to start back to London.
When I drove the car into the yard, I saw something move in the corner. I went to look and saw it was a pigeon. It waddled away from me but made no attempt to fly. It looked rather miserable.
I asked the son of the family about the pigeon. He seemed a little embarrassed.
"Is there something wrong with it?" I prompted.
"Er yes, they shot it. They thought it was a pest."
"They saw the ID band on its leg. They think it’s a military pigeon and so they afraid of getting into trouble."
I asked what they intended to do about it and he timidly suggested that we might take it to the Gendarmerie on their behalf. We could say we had found it beside the road, not letting on who might have shot it.
They rustled up a cardboard box and we put the pigeon in it. Then we drove into town and took the pigeon to the Gendarmerie. They were not interested. They responded to our suggestion that it might be military with a sarcastic smile. They would take it if we insisted, they said, but in that case there was a good chance that this evening… The officer drew his finger across his throat.
So there we were, with a wounded pigeon in a box and needing to start back to London on the morrow. What to do? Someone suggested the two young vets. They had just started up in practice, they said, and were very enthusiastic. They had all the latest equipment.
We asked for directions and set off to find the two young vets. We found them and it was true: they were very enthusiastic. They took the pigeon, gently examined it, X-rayed its wing, removed a shotgun pellet and sprayed liquid bandage on the wound.
They knew what the ID band meant: the pigeon belonged to a pigeon fancier somewhere and had got hurt on the way home. It had nothing to do with the military.
"He’ll be fine in a few days," they said. "Just look after him until then."
We explained that we had to leave for London on the morrow. They looked at one another.
"Ah well, in that case, we suggest you take him to the butcher."
Seeing – and hearing – our expressions of horror, they quickly explained that, no, no, this was a butcher who was also a pigeon fancier and had a loft full of them. They were sure he would take in the wounded pigeon and look after him until he was well and then return him to his owner.
The vets refused any payment for their services and off we went to look for the butcher who lived and had his shop in one of the nearby villages.
He greeted us amiably, thinking we were customers. When we produced the box with the pigeon in it, he became, if anything, even more amiable. Of course he would take the pigeon and he would look after it as though it were one of his own. He even tried to give us money as a reward for bringing him the bird. We refused, of course.
"You can see he is very young," he explained. "I expect he was released on a test flight by the owner and came to grief."
Gratefully leaving the pigeon in the butcher’s bloodstained but no doubt capable hands, we departed and next day started back to London.
The following year, back in our holiday village once more, we drove up the hill to see the butcher. He was as amiable as ever. The pigeon was fine, he told us. From its tag he had traced the owner, in Germany. The owner didn’t want the pigeon back so the butcher kept him.
We didn’t bother telling the villagers that the pigeon was not a "military pigeon". We simply said that we had taken care of the matter and that all was well. They were relieved and grateful though I doubt whether this incident made them any less trigger-happy.