Alone in the world
After extensive detective work I had finally tracked him down:
Guy van Ostade, the celebrity of bygone days, renowned into the farthest corners in the world of pigeon racing.
I found him in the very last place you would expect a person like him; in an old coal-shed.
The sight was overwhelming, the very thought of standing eye to eye with a legend almost took my breath away.
"Are you van Ostade? THE van Ostade?"
He groaned. "Yes, I am. And you must undoubtedly be another journalist? Please, no interview, and no photographs."
His face was heavily lined, he hadn"t shaved in days and he looked pale.
The emptiness in those eyes and that haggard face reminded me of a beach from which the tide had gone out forever.
Was THIS him?
I thought of that race from Bourges when he shattered the opposition, and of his out-and-out victory from Orleans.
And now he was here, not much more than a shadow of his former self.
"You don"t look very happy, Mister van Ostade. Have you always been like this?"
A faint smile appeared on his craggy face.
"Not always " he replied while he brushed away a tear, "I used to be the happiest person in the world. That was when I was still able to go for a walk with my family, to go on nice outings and enjoy our children. I didn"t have sleepless nights then, but I had a lot of friends and flowers in the garden."
"What happened? Not an accident surely? Or an illness?"
"No, I started to keep pigeons."
"Yes, the whole world knows that. How did you actually start?"
"Small, very small", he sighed.
The brilliant originality of this answer almost took my breath away. Most fanciers start very small, but the ones that don"t become champions remain small.
"And then?" I patted his shoulder encouragingly.
"Well" he said. "I had been keeping pigeons for some five years and then my life changed. I started to race very well. Keeping pigeons was still a hobby, but I sold them like there was no tomorrow."
"Isn"t that hypocritical?"
"No, my name is not Hippoliet. It"s just Guy. Guy van Ostade!"
I looked at him for some time. Was I sitting there opposite a genius, a senile person, or someone who just made fun of me?
Van Ostade went on: "It was the urge, I wanted to become a champion. I would do anything for it." He fell silent and took a swig of gin. Dear me, was he an alcoholic as well?
"But having such success in pigeon racing is fantastic, surely?"
He cleared his throat.
"In the beginning, I was happy and proud. I still remember the first article that was written about me, and from then on everything moved quickly. I travelled through the whole country and they always wanted more. I was racing even better, ever more fame, more articles about me in the paper."
"And you achieved much success , didn"t you?"
"Yes, and that was the problem. Foreigners started to visit. There was almost nobody in my village who hadn"t at one time given directions to my house, and the journalists did everything for me.
I also became arrogant, because I had learned that you don"t achieve anything by being modest. I started to dress differently.
My glasses on a chain, gold armband, nice aftershave, gel in my hair, I started to give kisses, handed out autographs and even began to walk differently."
He took another sip of gin and after a short silence he spoke again.
"And then there were those nights. Lying in my bed I was coupling pigeons, moving eggs, creating a better feed mixture.
For tending the garden or daytrips with the family there was no time anymore. That was just not possible.
"Were you not afraid to be excluded from the races? In those days, they used to do that when someone rose up too much above the rest."
"I wish they had done that! That would maybe have been the end of my misery. Because my arrogance knew no bounds. My life was being lived in the spot light. Until I realized it."
"How people really are. The same people that worshipped me in the beginning, later trampled all over me. When I had just started I entered only a few pigeons in a race, and I pooled them heavily.
They said I was a money grabber. I should enter more pigeons in a race. So I started racing with more pigeons, and what did the same people say? That I was so successful because I entered so many pigeons. I should try entering only a few pigeons.
They said that I gave the pigeons something, that I cheated with the clock, that my loft position was good.
No one seemed to realize that maybe I just had good pigeons. Not one person realized what I sacrificed for the sport."
Then he fell silent.
I looked at him and he looked at me.
He took another mouthful and cried.
"But sir, you know that tall trees catch a lot of wind."
That was a remark I shouldn"t have made. As if bitten by an adder, he straightened up. "Catching wind? I could live with that. But not with cyclones of shit. And tall trees? Wherever possible, people try to cut them down!'
"But what about your wife and children? Weren"t they a support for you, when you felt abandoned by the whole world?"
"My children? First they started to hate the pigeons, then the fanciers, and finally me, their own father.
And my wife? You just don"t understand. My first wife never came back after she went for a packet of cigarettes from the corner shop, my second wife I put on the train, back to her parents."
"So now you sit here?"
"Yes, now I sit here. To rehabilitate. From the addiction, the fame and everything to do with that!"
I stood up and depressed I shook his hand.
I looked at him one last time. He already seemed to have forgotten me and was taking another sip of gin.
THE MORAL TO THE STORY
You can practise the pigeon sport in different ways, and some fanciers take the wrong way.
The fascination leads to addiction, for which everything has to make way.
I have seen families go under, families that were not families anymore.
If some fanciers would show a bit more consideration for their families, their families would show more consideration for their hobby.
There was a time that my pigeons weren"t successful. I didn"t like that at all, it made me very grumpy and even less sociable.
I will never forget the look in my son"s eyes when he looked up at me.
Pigeon sport isn"t that important after all.
Do YOU remember who was 3rd Champion speed three years ago?
See what I mean?