Death of a pigeon-fancier

This is an account of the death of our neighbour who lived in the flat above us, the man I called Silas in my blog posts.

At the time, I told the story of Silas as it unfolded and it was then very much a lived present. Now that time has passed, I can look back on it as a historical event, complete and finished with. It therefore seemed a good idea to collect these posts on Silas into a page of their own which I have called Death of a pigeon-fancier and to accompany it with the short story that he inspired, Pigeons.

Water from above
November 28th 2007

I recently mentioned that we had had water leaking from the bathroom ceiling and had to call out the plumbers to see to it. Yesterday evening, Tigger spotted more water dripping down. Yes, AGAIN.

Despite my previous unsatisfactory encounter with the out-of-hours emergency service, the only reasonable thing to do was to call them. I did so and spoke to a pleasant, efficient-sounding lady. She took my details, asked some pertinent questions and promised to send out the plumbers. So we sat and waited.

The wait was not all that long, as it happens. Plumber and Mate turned up and inspected the evidence. “Not near the light fitting, I hope,” said Plumber ominously. It wasn’t, fortunately. Plumber and Mate then retired to fetch the steps and Plumber then inserted his head and shoulders into the space above the bathroom ceiling via the hatch. Mate said nothing but whenever I looked his way I found his eyes upon me. He smiled in the silent but manly reassuring way of Men Who Know What They Are Doing.

I had of course told Plumber that there had been a previous incidence of leakage that had been diagnosed as coming from the old decommissioned tank that could not be removed. He now descended from the steps and explained that the tank was not the source of the leak this time: “The tank and pipes are fine.” The water, he asserted, was coming from the flat above whose bathroom was presumably above mine.

This was Bad News, for you must know that the flat above is occupied by our “strange” neighbour. I will call him Silas, though that is not his real name, of course. Silas not only lives alone but apparently on a different planet from the rest of us. He is not a nuisance, if you ignore the stench that informs you he has recently passed through the hallway, the mysterious banging occasionally heard in his flat or the hours he spends ranting at the top of his voice.

When we meet him in the hallway or in the street, he either ignores us or greets us politely. One day he angrily accused us of some fantastical interference in his flat but when we responded robustly, he recanted his accusations and when I next saw him, greeted me with courteous words and a sugary smile. Silas’ main occupation is distributing bread to the pigeons, so much bread that he needs a shopping trolley to carry it. He used to feed the pigeons from his flat and desisted only after being threatened with eviction.

“I’ll go up and see,” said Plumber optimistically.

“Er, good luck,” I replied.

I heard him knocking on Silas’ door and then returning down the stairs. “No response,” he said.

Plumber now suggested leaving a note for Silas but I said this was a waste of time, saying that I knew the Council always had difficulty making appointments to see him.

“In that case,” stated Plumber, “I can only report it to the Council. But I will, I promise.” With a final reassuring smile from Mate, they departed.

Morning came and the drip was still dripping. Tigger arranged one of those blue and white cleaning cloths to catch the water and direct it into a waiting jug. The water is of a pale browny-yellow shade, as befits its passage through several layers of building.

I decided to phone the management and leave a voicemail as this has been effective in the past. I described the drip and Plumber’s and Mate’s visit and also said I was worried that Silas had not collected his mail recently as he is usually punctilious about this and never goes away. To my surprise, I received a call back at 8:10 am. They explained that they didn’t have the authority to force an entry but would contact the Tenants’ Office. In the meantime someone would be sent round. It is now nearly midday and I have seen no one. If I was hoping for uniformed police officers carrying battering rams, I have been disappointed.

Meanwhile, the water continues to drip. Let’s hope the drip remains a drip and doesn’t turn into a flood.

Drip of consciousness
November 29th 2007

Yesterday afternoon, I received a visit from a member of the management team. I will call her Alice, though that, of course, is not her real name. I like Alice: she is very lively and chatty and whenever she visits we have a good chinwag about many topics. She examined our drip and explained that if we were being flooded that would be different but for a drip you cannot force entry into people’s homes. I said I understood that but was concerned that the leak might get worse. Prophetic words.

Alice went upstairs and knocked on Silas’ door. No response. I had told her that I was concerned because he had not collected his mail for several days, which was unusual for him. Nor had I seen or heard him lately. Alice returned saying she had had a good sniff but all she could detected was dirt, not the smell of corpses, so my concern that Silas may be lying dead and forgotten have receded somewhat. Alice withdrew to base for consultations, leaving me with the drip of consciousness.

Later Alice phoned to say that they were going to send Silas a letter, giving him a 24-hour notice of their intention to access his property for essential repair work. In view of the fact that he has not been collecting his mail, I assume this is a mere legal formality. A meeting has been arranged for Friday morning at 9:30 am when an attempt will be made to enter Silas’ flat.

Last night we noticed that an ominous brown stain had appeared on the our hall ceiling above the door to the front room. This morning there was a small puddle in the doorway: the invading water has opened a second front. Having mopped up and put a receptacle in place to catch the drips, I phoned Alice. “There’s absolutely nothing I can do,” she said. “Not until Friday.” I replied that I knew this but thought she should be kept informed of developments.

The hall ceiling will have to be repainted. It is such a shame that problems cannot be prevented instead of being expensively repaired after the event. Or at least, they could be repaired immediately before too much damage has been done. That seems out of the question because for every problem there is a due process that has to grind slowly through all its stages. In this case, it is the law that is preventing a simple and speedy resolution.

A citizen’s council flat is his castle, according to the law, a sentiment that I agree with entirely. It is only right that Silas’ rights be protected. On the other hand, these noble ideas enter into conflict with one another when one citizen’s rights and privileges have a negative impact on the rights and privileges of another citizen. This is a well known paradox, of course, and we are not the first to experience it.

In the meantime, the drip continues. I look forward to tomorrow morning when, all being well, the matter will finally be dealt with. Will there be trouble? Will Silas defend his home against the onslaught of strangers or will he meekly allow them to enter? (This seems unlikely as he has never before allowed even council officials into the flat.) Is he even there and if not, where is he? We await Friday 9:30 am with a sense of impending drama.

Déjeuner à Pinner
November 29th 2007

Tigger was working in Harrow-on-the Hill today, knocking off at 1:30 pm. As there were no builders, plumbers, inspectors or managers queuing to get into the flat (an unusual occurrence these days), I betook myself to said destination to meet her from work. I timed the journey well, emerging from the tube station at 1:09, leaving enough time to have a quick look around the shops and admire the Golden Lady on the facade opposite the bus station. I like the Golden Lady: on a sunny day she sparkles most becomingly though today, grey and dull as it was, she looked a little sad.

The plan was to go to Pinner for lunch. We visit Pinner from time to time as it is a rather charming place. Now suffering under the weight of suburbitis, it must once have been a quaint and agreeable little town comfortably far away from London and even today it bears traces of this halcyon past. It’s best to visit it on a warm sunny day in spring, say, rather than a dull December afternoon but even so it is a nice place to go for lunch. If you have time, walk up the road and take a look at the stained glass windows in the church.

As I say, it was lunch rather than devotional glass that was on our minds so we began by looking at the menu of the first restaurant we came to but then Tigger spotted Café Rouge and that was it: decision made.

We like Café Rouge. Its menu is pretty simple and there’s not a lot of choice if you are a vegetarian so we don’t go there often but it is enjoyable when we do. I like the faux français decor (spot the spelling mistakes on the windows) and the quirky paintings on the wall. Half-closing my eyes and ignoring the East European accents of the waiters, I can almost imagine I am in a café in France. I am afraid I once made a terrible faux pas: I addressed the waiter in French. I don’t know which of us was the more embarrassed.

The food is quite good, I think. I won’t bore you with our menu except to say that Tigger ate her French onion soup as if it were purest nectar of the gods and afterwards we had dessert. Tigger chose vanilla cheesecake and I had the chocolate tart with raspberry coulis. Naughty, naughty.

We bussed it back to Harrow on the Hill and then waited for the 223. The bus station was crowded because by now it was chucking-out time for the schools and building up to rush-hour. We waited for the 223 and then we waited some more. Buses pass through that station at an amazing rate. It’s quite breath-taking. Unfortunately, none of them was the 223. We began to suspect that this was a mythical or virtual bus rather than an actual bus with real rubber tyres and a diesel engine. So we diverted to the tube. Tigger woke me up at Baker Street for -yes (blush) – I nodded off. It must have been the raspberry coulis. At Baker Street we boarded a number 30 bus and fought for seats on the upper deck. Being quick and unscrupulous helps.

When we arrived home, we found that one of the drips had shifted slightly and was therefore missing the receptacle. Both were running at reduced frequency (like the 223 bus) and, in fact, the new drip had ceased altogether. This is rather worrying as it makes you wonder where the water is going now.

There was a heap of mail on the doormat (or, rather, where the doormat would be if there were a doormat), so I scooped it all up and and sorted it into piles for the respective addressees. One item in particular took my attention as it was addressed to Silas and was machine-franked. I guessed this was the famous letter warning him of the impending visit of the avenging hosts aka the council’s representatives tomorrow. So he is as yet unaware of the wrath to come.

Tomorrow should be fun.

The story ends (or does it?)
November 30th 2007

9:15 am

The day dawned, as December days do, dull and overcast with wet pavements, the sort of day on which I hated going to school when I was a child. Come to think of it, I hated going to school on sunny days as well. Anyway, I have neither seen Silas nor heard any sounds from his flat. His post remains uncollected and in particular, the letter which I think is the one from the council advising that they will seek access to his premises today.

Seated at the computer, I have hitched back the curtain to give me a clear view of the front gate and path so that I will see anyone who approaches. So far there have been a lady in a woolly hat, who let herself in with a key before I had a chance to identify her, and some pigeons. The pigeons didn’t let themselves in with a key, of course, but contented themselves prospecting for food in the front garden. They are possibly friends of Silas, prevented by the scaffolding and netting from going to his window as they are accustomed to do.

Today, as you may recall, dear Reader, is Omelette Day, when I normally join Tigger for lunch at the cafe round the corner from her workplace. As I would have to leave by 11:15 am it is likely that today’s events will conspire to frustrate the intention.

9:30 am

Alice arrived with two men whom I had seen before. They took a look at the tanks and pipes (I had to supply a torch and steps) and concluded that there were several leaks, not just one, and that water was definitely coming from above. There was some discussion about the legal situation and Alice said that the Tenancy Officer had sorted this out, so they settled down to wait for her to arrive, knocking on Silas’ door having produced no result.

There then ensued considerable discussion, to which I was not party, though it seemed to be about whether or not they could gain entry to Silas’ flat by forcible means. Phone calls, more discussion. Suspense.

9:50 am

The nub seems to be that the man responsible for the safety of his personnel doesn’t want them to go in because, for all they know, the tenant could be waiting behind the door with an axe. Always possible, I suppose.

10:10 am

A decision has been received to “go in and do it”. Footsteps on the stairs. Hammering. “Hello? Hello? Anyone in?”

10:16 am

Alice comes to ask whether I have a hand-held mirror. Silas’ door is blocked and they need a mirror to look around it.

10:20 am

They’re in and water starts cascading down the stairs and dripping into my hall. I move what receptacles I have to catch the water. Silas has buckets of water in his flat, I am told.

10:24 am

They tell me they have found Silas. He is dead.

10:34 am

The leak is apparently from tanks above Silas’ flat. The water has been coming through his ceiling, then through his floor into the cavity above our bathroom and from there into our flat. Silas’ water tank is being drained but the immediate effect is to cause more water to come into our flat, so I am playing chess with receptacles trying to catch it. I point out that there is water running over the light switch for the bathroom fan. “That’s OK,” they say, cheerfully. “Just switch it off. It’ll dry naturally.”

I ask if I am needed or whether I can keep my lunch date. They reckon they won’t need to come into the flat today. “You’ll probably get more water,” they say, almost as if this is a fun thing to be having. “But it’ll stop eventually.” Oh, good.

10:40 am

Paramedics arrive to attend to Silas.

10:50 am

I see police officers have joined the party and are taking statements.

11:30 am

Nobody seems to need to gain access to the flat (“We’ll wait for it to dry out, then touch up the bits that need it”), I leave for the tube station to keep my lunch date with Tigger. I reach the cafe after an uneventful trip and fill the time waiting for Tigger telling the owners about the morning’s events.

11:55 am

My phone rings. It’s Alice. “Are you at home?”

“Er, no. I’m at Borough.”

“Oh. Well, the police have locked themselves out. I told them to leave the door on the latch but now they can’t get in. I was wondering if you could let them in.”

“Er, no. I’m at Borough.”

“OK, no problem. They can go up the scaffolding. Thanks. Bye.”

1:30 pm

I am home and all seems quiet. The dripping has just about stopped though there is an impressive amount of water in the receptacles I managed to gather to catch it. Tigger wondered whether there would be a public inquest on Silas’ death and whether, if so, I would want to go. I thought I might. I would like to know exactly how he died. I had seen him only a few days before and he seemed all right. I suspect he died of hypothermia in his unheated flat but it could have been a heart attack or any one of many other causes.

Silas was odd. He was clearly delusional and probably paranoid as well but he was harmless. For me, he was part of the continually rewoven tapistry of my environment, a colourful feature. He inspired my little story about the pigeon man. I am sorry he is dead though glad that he died in the home he defended so fiercely from intruders and not in a hospital or nursing home. We can afford to remember him kindly and with respect.

Who cares?
December 3rd 2007

This morning, unannounced as usual, a plumber arrived to install a new wash basin in the bathroom. As it was the very same plumber who broke the old one, I greeted his arrival with an emotion that fell short of enthusiasm. After labouring away for some time he announced that the condition of the wall was too bad to allow him to affix the basin and that the wall would have to be plastered first. My reaction one was one of resignation as I have got used to the idea that what was supposed to have been a renovation completed to a 5-week schedule is now going to turn into an indefinitely long process of patching, repairing and making good. Will it ever end?

Shortly after the plumber arrived, I had another visit, this one previously arranged. As council officers will need to access Silas’ flat many times in the months to come, I was asked if I would lend them a key to the front door so that they could have a copy made. I readily agreed and the visit was to pick up the key. When the officer returned the key, I asked her some questions about Silas and the conversation ran on to other matters so I invited her in and we spent an enjoyable half-hour chatting about many things until she was called away.

Unsurprisingly, I have thought a lot about Silas since the discovery of his death on Friday. The council officer was able to enlighten me on certain details but much remains unknown. For example, I was right to guess that the buckets of water found in his flat were there because he was attempting to manage leaks from pipes above his flat. He was so opposed to anyone entering his flat that he did not report the problem.

The last time third parties managed to gain access was when a gas safety check was arranged. This is a legal requirement and the council was thus entitled to enter upon the premises in order to carry it out. No actual check was performed as no gas appliances were in use. Nest boxes for pigeons were seen in the back room, which was probably why Silas tried to keep people out as he had already been warned about feeding pigeons in the property. However, there were no pigeons in the flat on Friday.

According to the officer, Silas may have died as a result of malnutrition because he was “stick thin” and “in a state”. She was trying to get something done about his condition at the time when nature took a hand and applied its own solution.

Such cases do present a dilemma. If a person who is compos mentis decides to neglect himself, do the authorities have any right to interfere? On the face of it, no, because that would run contrary to our well established right to freedom and autonomy. But what if the person is not compos mentis and the suspicion is that the neglect is a consequence of incompetence rather than an act of will? In what conditions and at what point do the authorities have a right, or even a duty, to intervene?

Silas caused no harm to others and I cannot say he caused us any distress despite living directly above us. The only person who came to any harm was Silas himself. The heart says that “we” (meaning the society to which we all belong) ought to do something. But what? The head says that interference in the lives of others is dangerous and places us on the slippery slope that leads to the sort of fascist state that controls every aspect of citizens’ lives and leaves them without any freedom. We do not have to look far for examples.

The council officer readily confessed her uncertainty and far from blaming her for this I felt that such confusion was both necessary and good. It means that we have to agonize over every case and try to tailor a solution that is the best available for the person concerned. If we see it merely as a question of applying fixed rules to fixed situations then we end up treating people as objects and denying them their humanity. Cynicism is the ever present danger.

What is so tragic is though this country apparently has sufficient wealth to host the Olympic Games and to engage in military adventures overseas, it starves local authorities of the money they need to look after citizens – the sick, the elderly, the abandoned – who need such help. Charity, so the saying runs, begins at home. I wish our successive governments would remember this more often.

Invited to a funeral
March 10th 2008

You may possibly recall the Saga of Silas, our pigeon-loving neighbour who died last November. If you don’t, or if you wish to refresh your memory, here are links to the articles I wrote at the time: Water from above, Drip of consciousness, The story ends (or does it?) and Who cares?

Returning home from work last Friday, we found a handwritten note awaiting us. It was from the Council’s Tenancy Officer and informed us that Silas’ funeral was to be held on the following Tuesday (tomorrow) at 10 am. Despite the fact that we are supposed to be at work then, we decided we would like to go to the funeral if we possibly could. We may not have known Silas well, and we might sometimes have grumbled at his peculiar ways, but he was a neighbour and part of the scenery for some years so it seemed only right.

I had contracted to work for 4 weeks and felt that if I took time off and didn’t repay it, I would be breaking my word. Having thought about it, I decided to offer to work the following Monday to make up lost time and to give them a little extra as they are hard pressed to get the work finished by the deadline. I am not pleased about postponing my freedom by one day but it seems only fair. They were quite happy with this arrangement.

Apart from paying our respects to someone who had a certain importance in our lives (and in the lives of the local pigeons), we are drawn by curiosity. Who else might be at the funeral? Are there surviving relatives, for example? These questions arise because we heard from unofficial sources that Silas was not all that he appeared.

To look at him, you would have thought he was a tramp. He never changed his clothes, as far as I could see, and you could always tell when he had passed though the hallway by certain olfactory traces that he left behind. Sometimes at night you would hear him pacing up and down in his flat shouting. It might seem that Silas was your common or garden “nutter”, living precariously on the margins of society.

According to certain sources, however, his family was well-to-do and had a house in one of the more affluent streets nearby. If this is true, why was Silas living alone and neglected in appalling, if self-inflicted, conditions in a council flat? Who was he and what was his background?

At the moment, we have no answers to these conundrums. Will we find clues or even answers at the funeral tomorrow?

Taking leave of Silas
March 11th 2008

We reached the cemetery in plenty of time. We didn’t know what to expect and walked along the main alley until we found the office. They confirmed that the funeral was at 10 am and invited us to wait “as they sometimes come early”. At last a hearse drew up and a gentleman in undertaker’s costume came in and went through to the office. I heard him say “Oh, they’re for us, are they?”

The assistant came out and said “I’m sorry, but there’s no room in the car. Would you mind walking to the grave?” She took out a map and marked it with a yellow highlighter to show us the way. As we went out, I saw that behind the hearse there was a limousine with blacked-out windows. If there was no room for us, that implied that there were other mourners in the car. We started to walk.

As we neared the spot where we thought to find the grave, we met the Gentleman in Wellingtons. He was dressed in a black coat and had a book under his arm. He confirmed that this was Silas’ grave and invited us to approach. We stood and made small talk while we waited for the hearse to appear. It drew up near the open grave and the limousine stopped a few yards away. Two members of the undertaker’s team got out and joined their colleagues. I thought the occupants might also get out but none did.

“We have to wait until the grave-diggers arrive,” explained the Gentleman in Wellingtons. I assumed that the occupants of the limousine knew this and were biding their time. The grave-diggers duly appeared and the undertakers took the coffin from the hearse and placed it on the ground. They threaded the straps and lowered the coffin into the grave. The leader came and shook our hands and then they all left. The limousine also drove away with the hearse. There were no occupants. So why had we been told there was no room for us in an empty car?

We were alone with the Gentleman in Wellingtons. Apparently, we were the only mourners. The Gentleman in Wellingtons invited us to come close to the grave. “Wherever you’re comfortable.” He then opened his book and began to recite the funeral service. I smiled to myself that a Christian funeral service was being read to two atheists. I didn’t say anything, of course, for the words were for Silas, not for us. For all I know, he would have wished them to be said over his grave. We stood in silence while the traditional sentences were pronounced in a low voice, without hurry but also without undue delay.

The ceremony lasted about 10 minutes. We then walked back along the alley with the Gentleman in Wellingtons to where his car was parked. “My grandson has been very patient,” he remarked and we spotted a young boy waiting in the car.

The Gentleman in Wellingtons explained that the Council had searched for family of Silas but had drawn a blank. They had to pay for the funeral themselves. Saying goodbye to the Gentleman in Wellingtons, we left the cemetery and caught a bus to East Finchley tube station where we took a train south.

There was something surreal about all this. We had expected to be mere bystanders at the funeral but had become central figures, the Mourners, the only ones that Silas had had. I am glad we went. It doesn’t matter to Silas, of course, but it matters at some level, if only in our minds. For whatever reason, we felt that Silas deserved to be taken leave of in a proper manner and that if we were the only ones able to do it then we were happy to do so.

A note on Silas
April 4th 2008

I was given a further detail of the death of Silas today and thought I would pass it on to my readers who may have followed the “Silas Saga“.

Because a few jobs remain to be done on our flat, the area supervisor called on me today. One of these jobs is to repaint the ceiling in our little hall which was discoloured by water leaking from Silas’ flat. This naturally led on to talk of the man himself and his death.

“I saw him,” said the supervisor. “He was lying on the floor with his head on a cushion, as if he’d been watching TV and had fallen asleep.”

I was rather touched by that. “Fallen asleep” is a common Christian euphemism for dying but in this case it seems the phrase is appropriate. I am glad to know Silas didn’t suffer, perhaps needing help and unable to obtain it.

Did death come while he was asleep or was it death that closed his eyes? I do not know but it sounds as if his death was peaceful.

Work on Silas’ flat continues apace. Very noisy it is too, what with all the sawing and hammering. In fact, they went at it so hard that some plaster fell from our ceiling the other day. Another curious legacy of the man who loved pigeons and defended his home so stoutly against intruders.

The last goodbye
May 19th 2008

A while back, I recounted to you the saga of Silas, our neighbour, who died in the flat above us, and told you how we went to his funeral.

Once the flat had been cleared, refurbishment work started on it. It must have been in quite a state because they worked for a long time on it. They made a lot of noise, hammering and drilling. In fact, they hammered so hard that one day some plaster detached itself from the ceiling of our front room and I had to get them to come and repair the damage.

During that time, even after we had been to the funeral, I went on thinking of the flat above us as “Silas’s flat”. I sometimes wondered what he would think if he could come back and find workmen in there transforming it. Would he like the result or be angry that they had disturbed the home he defended so fiercely all these years? There is no way of knowing.

The other day, I went out to do some shopping and found a little crowd in front of the house. Some of the people were workmen, busy with various tasks, but some were “civilians”. I noticed, among others, an elderly white lady and a young black man with a baby strapped to his chest. Being the discreet type, I took this in and went on my way. It was only later that I wondered whether these people had been invited to take a look at the flat with a view to moving in.

The flat was obviously going to be occupied at some point and that’s fine with us but as it is right above our heads, it is a matter of no small importance who lives there. Then I forgot all about it as there were other things to think about.

On Friday, as I was going out to meet Tigger for the traditional omelette lunch, I noticed some pieces of wood and a large bag in the hall. Also, there was a man on the stairs.

“I’m in the flat upstairs,” said he.

“Oh, right,” I answered. “You’re working in the flat.” Well, he was dressed in dark blue just like the builders.

“No, I’m moving in. I’m going to live there.”

By now he had come down into the hall and we were face to face. So I shook hands with him and said I hoped he would be happy living here.

Naturally, I didn’t mention anything about the history of the flat. When you move into a new place, you don’t need to know that the previous occupant was found dead on the floor. It could be upsetting to some people.

We will now have to get out of the habit of calling it “Silas’s flat” and call it “Colin’s flat” instead. I was sincere in saying I hope he will be happy living there. After all, happy tenants make a happy house.

I thought we had said our last goodbyes to Silas at the graveside but in a strange way, meeting the new occupant seems like the final goodbye. Silas has finally gone except in our memories of him.

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