It is a curious fact that whenever I think of the characters who stalked the dreams and nightmares of my childhood – Stalin, Lev Yashin, Paavo Nurmi – the one who looms largest and most vividly is the one who never actually existed outside my infant imagination. The Breadcrumbs Man was tall and gangly and pale, and breadcrumbs were scattered in his hair and in his beard, and upon his coat, and the pockets of his coat, they too were crammed with breadcrumbs, and he left a trail of breadcrumbs in his wake as he patrolled the streets and alleyways and bridges of the ancient city where, in my dreams and nightmares, I grew to manhood.
He followed me wherever I roamed, through the ancient streets and alleyways and across the ancient, crumbling bridges over the river. Sometimes the river sparkled in sunlight, but when I climbed down the steps to the mudbanks I saw it was filthy and rife with toxic sludge and tiny, wriggling worms. The Breadcrumbs Man followed me down the steps to the mudbanks too, and scattered his breadcrumbs upon the waters, where they floated, neglected by the worms and any other living things that might present themselves, in my sleeping brain, from time to time. There were never, I remember, any birds.
Always he remained behind me, the Breadcrumbs Man, and if I turned to speak with him he stood stock still and averted his gaze, shunning me, so the words caught in my throat. But what would I have said?
With Stalin and Lev Yashin and Paavo Nurmi I would have long and animated discussions, about communism and football and long distance running. But I mixed them up, so I would talk to Stalin about football, to Lev Yashin about long distance running, and to Paavo Nurmi, the only non-communist of the trio, about communism. Sometimes, when I woke, I would recall these conversations in great detail, and write accounts of them in my jotter, complete with stage directions. I remember thinking that one day in years to come I could mould these dialogues into a dramatic presentation and take the theatres of the land by storm. And years later, when I had grown to manhood, I came upon the jotter one day in a chest stuffed with memorabilia, and I read a few pages and I shook my head and guffawed, for it was all nonsense, and witless nonsense at that.
Yet the Breadcrumbs Man, who never spoke, and to whom I could never utter a word, the Breadcrumbs Man haunts me to this day. He no longer appears in my dreams and nightmares, and has not done so since one summer afternoon in my early teens. I was at a picnic, in a bright and buttercup-splattered field, and, replete with sandwiches and sausages and pastries and pickles, I fell into a doze.
I found myself striding purposefully across the most crumbling and ancient of the crumbling and ancient bridges across the river. I sensed that the Breadcrumbs Man was following me, and turned my head momentarily to confirm that it was so. I quickened my pace. He did likewise. Then we were at the docks. I had never visited them before. There were huge tankers and container ships, some with the hammer and sickle emblem daubed on their sides, and there were smaller boats, fishing smacks and tugs and rowing boats. And, for the first time, there were birds! Gulls screeched, guillemots tumbled and swooped, auks and skuas soared. I looked behind me. There was the Breadcrumbs Man, somehow paler than ever, almost a ghost, and, again for the first time, he looked directly at me. His eyes were milky, and blind, and terrible. Suddenly he emptied his pockets of breadcrumbs and shook the breadcrumbs from his hair and his beard. The gulls and guillemots and auks and skuas descended in a frenzy of scavenge and peck, a blur of birds in which the Breadcrumbs Man was engulfed. When the birds flew away, he had vanished. I never saw him again.
In the bright field, I woke. I cracked open a can of Squelcho! and slurped it down. My mother was packing things away in the picnic basket.
“I am going to be an ornithologist!” I declared.
I am not an ornithologist.