Charlie stroked his hand up the side of his cool beer, causing small droplets of condensation to scurry away and hide under the pint glass. The pause was getting longer; he knew it was his turn to say something but the words just didn’t want to find their way out. His friend, Sam, sat patiently, trying not to stare in Charlie’s direction. Finally the young man broke the silence, his voice creaking under tension.
“It’s like in the war.”
“Is it?” Sighed Sam, spotting one of Charlie’s usual evading strategies when he was upset. Tangents were his forte.
“Yes, you know in the war, I think it was the first but I’m not a hundred percent sure. It could have been the second. In fact it must have been the second.”
“I’m still failing to see the connection Charlie” Said Sam, his patience desperately clinging on to the conversation in the hope that it had a point. He took a long sip of his beer to give Charlie time to think through his next little speech.
“They had these pigeons in a cage with a tiny picture of a boat” started Charlie, his voice starting to sound more confident. Sam said nothing, what was there to say? “Every time they pecked the boat, a load of seed would fall into their cage. Poor things; all cooped up with nothing to do. Soon they became completely brainwashed into pecking at the picture to get food. Pavlov’s dog kind of thing.”
“A behavioural response.”
“Yeah, one of them” said Charlie quickly, for the first time sounding like his normal jovial self. Sam wondered if maybe this was the only way Charlie could be pulled out of his depressed mood. Maybe he just had to suppress his pain and talk nonsense until he forgot why the pain was there and it would float harmlessly away.
“So every time these poor pigeons saw a picture of a boat, they would peck at it thinking they’d get fed. They were then put into missiles, or what ever they had for missiles in those days, with a little window in them. A guidance system was connected to the window, so where ever the pigeon pecked, that’s the direction the missile would go. They then would fire the missile or drop it, or what ever, near a German boat and the pigeon, seeing what looked like a picture of the boat on the window, pecked at it and directed the missile to the target.”
“Fascinating” Said Sam, draining his glass and eyeing up Charlie’s almost untouched pint. “And that’s like Michelle cheating on you is it? A pigeon blowing up a German boat. For God’s sake Charlie…”
“No. You don’t get it.” Said Charlie, his eyes bristling with the same clarity as St Paul’s. “Michelle is the German boat. I’m the pigeon. I’ve been programmed to peck at Michelle. Well not peck; you get what I mean. I’ve been programmed to want her. Despite the fact that I know it will kill me, I keep pecking in the hope of getting a tiny reward. In the hope of getting fed.” Charlie smiled and took a swig of his drink in celebration, as if he had just been told he was getting a promotion.
“Ok.” Said Sam slowly. “Is this such a good thing? I know it’s good to have self knowledge, but why is this so exciting?”
“Well, you see, I don’t know if they ever used pigeon seeking missiles really, they just trained some pigeons as an idea, but what they did do…” Charlie paused, his eyes glistening and his hands squeezing together in excitement. “Is they used pigeons in search and rescue operations. They trained them to peck at red blobs, like a life jacket might look in water. They used the pigeons to help them find ship wrecked victims. You see, it’s the same. If I can be trained to peck at a German boat that would lead to my destruction, I can also be trained to peck for someone who needs me, someone who wants me. I can be a pigeon seeking a life jacket rather than a German boat. I just need to train myself, and then I can be free.”