A kind of a tuneful retching

In any other situation, if the only place to sit was on the concrete ledge of a pillar across the road, you probably wouldn't bother. If you were, say, at a quite good cafe in a small town in Lincoln and the only available seating option was a concrete, next to a pillar that smelled not un-strongly of piss, you'd say 'maybe let's go to another cafe', but at this place it confirms the fact that you are drinking GOOD COFFEE. The BEST COFFEE, etc.

It is good coffee. It's Monmouth coffee, which tastes nice. They have a tiny coffee shop in Borough market in London. Not enough seats, hence the pillars across the road which everyone ends up sitting on. I'm not a coffee snob but I like coffee and I'd just dropped off some work at a gallery around the corner. I was feeling quite pleased with myself as it was my first commercial show. Knowing what I know now, about the reaction to the work I made and the ongoing complexities of the legal struggle that followed, I probably wouldn't have been in the mood to celebrate.

But ignorance was bliss, and so I spent £2.50 on a filter coffee and sat on one side of a concrete pillar, inhaling both the rich smell of coffee in my cup and the tangy scent of the congealed wee wee of probably hundreds of men on the pillar. A middle aged German couple sat down very close to me, on the left side of the pillar. We were 90 degrees to each other, but the man's right buttock was fully pressed up against my buttock. I couldn't tell if it would be rude to pull my buttock away from his. I know people from mainland Europe have very different ideas about the etiquette of personal space.

On the right side of the pillar were another middle aged couple. The man was closest to me, but our buttocks weren't touching. He was wearing the sort of jacket that a woodwork technician wears and he had grey hair.  That was all I could see of him from where I sat. They were an English couple, not saying much to each other. Rather, they were watching two starlings that were very close to us and the man was feeding the starlings little bits of his croissant.

They were ugly, these starlings. Degraded by the city they lived in. London does this to birds. Pigeons are the obvious example, staggering around with half a foot and one eye, living off discarded chicken bones and struggling to tell the difference between food and cigarette butts. I hadn't really been up this close to a London starling before, but these ones had a similar vibe to the pigeons you see. Disgusting really. Matted feathers, covered with grime. It was almost like they'd been dipped in oil or petrol. One of them had a manky foot, sort of bouncing when it walked like when you've stepped on an upturned plug.

Weirdly, the one with the foot problem seemed to be the dominant one. It was smaller, and obviously weaker, but it was getting all the croissant crumbs. The bigger, relatively healthy looking one, hung back, half-heartedly going for the dusty flakes of pastry, but never wanting to get too close to its lame, bossy cousin.

The guy had managed to get the manky-footed starling to eat out of his hand. The birds were kind of cute and kind of disgusting. Not just the way they looked, but the way they were so dependant on the man and his whims. They were scared of him but they needed him. They jumped back if he moved his hand too quickly, but then if he lost interest and stopped throwing crumbs they got closer and paraded around in front of him, trying to get his attention.

Anyway, the little mangy starling was nipping crumbs out of the guy's palm, and then somehow he managed to get the starling to actually sit on his palm and take crumbs from his other fingers. His wife was cooing and saying things. He was feeding it like a mummy bird feeds a baby bird.

The other starling at this point was just bobbing around on the ground, occasionally letting out a sound somewhere between a bird tweeting and a bird being sick. A kind of a tuneful retching.

And then the guy started to crush the bird in his hand. I couldn't work it out at first, I thought he was just stroking it, or whatever, just wanted to get closer to it or reposition it, but no, he was closing its hand. Like, keeping its head through the gaps his two middle fingers, and then crushing its body between his fingers and his palm. I still didn't quite understand, but then his wife started whispering to him, like couples whisper when they're annoyed in public, really loud and clear but still a whisper. She kept going 'John. John. You're hurting it. You're hurting it now'.

But he didn't stop. He just, slowly but surely, kept tightening his grip around the birds body. The other bird on the ground was going mental now, because it could see or understand somehow what was happening to its mate. It was doing this violent cawing/retching sound and hopping around on the ground in front of me. The wife, I could hear she was hitting him on the arm, still doing the angry whisper, going, 'John. John. What are you doing? Leave it alone.'

The weirdest thing was that the bird, while being strangled and crushed in one of his hands, was still taking crumbs from the other. It couldn't breathe at all by this point, but it was still taking the crumbs that it was offered as though it were thankful for whatever he had to give.

Eventually there was a series of small crunches as the starling's little neck and backbone and ribs gave way. And you didn't hear it, but you could see that its eyes weren't in their sockets any more. Then he dropped it on the ground and got up and his wife got up and he turned to her, still hidden from me by the pillar and it was his turn to do the angry public whisper now and he said, 'You always make such a bloody fuss' and then they both walked off.

Then the bigger, less manky starling was left with the corpse and for a moment I thought, oh no, that's sad, it's in mourning or something. But then it tried to peck at the eyes hanging out of the sockets and I thought fuck this and went and drank my coffee somewhere else.