I’m writing a series of stories about my childhood, mainly featuring the adventures and exploits of my mum (who is actually visiting me in Sydney for a month right now). This is mainly for my daughter to read, but I thought I’d record them here to share.
It helps to understand the home that I grew up in.
As far back as I can remember, we had pets. I didn’t quite appreciate how unusual our pets were until I was old enough to have school friends over for playdates, and they’d be like, “Sonia, there’s a peacock in your driveway.”
Peacock! How ridiculous!
“Oh, LOL. You mean a Bird of Paradise.”
I don’t remember what happened to it. I do know it didn’t have a name, which usually meant it didn’t stay with us for very long.
Just like the mouse deer that Mother forced Father to return. “What are we going to do with a deer?!”
I dunno. What were we going to do with the five ducks, two lorises, squirrels, a broken rooster (crowed at three hour intervals, all day, every day), two hamsters, two cats, many birds, and a terrapin? Mind you, we lived in a house in the suburbs, not on a farm or any kind of acreage. The other great thing was that all my best buddies lived within walking or bike riding distance from me. We were always at each others’ houses.
I’d be on the phone with a kid from school, explaining that coming over to their house to play that weekend sounded awesome, but wasn’t going to work for me because “my mum needs me to help with Jackie.”
“Jackie is your sister?”
Sister! How ridiculous!
I mean, I had a little sister, but she was three, and no way was I going to look after her without the promise of some coinage to go to Funzone with friends. I’d stick $2 in 20 cent pieces into the Dumbo ride and my little sister would go around and around, up and down, while I waited at the sidelines and caught up on all the primary school gossip with my friends.
“No, Jackie is the monkey,” I would clarify.
By then, most of my school friends knew enough about my home life to not even think to question this.
We also had a few parrots over the years. One was called Raffles, who utterly despised all human females. I’d try to approach her cage and she’d literally fling half-eaten fruit at me and squawk out a warning. But Father could scoop her up and she’d puff up and shiver with happiness (the hussy).
Twice, she escaped, and Mother ended up calling a Civil Defence crew to come with a huge crane so they could rescue Raffles from a nearby tree. Good thing they were all dudes, and that there were no other actual national disasters happening to occupy their time.
Another parrot could perfectly mimic the sound of our housekeeper’s voice, as she called out the arrival of the school bus each morning.
“SONIA! THE BUS IS HERE!”
At which point I’d assume that I’d slept through my alarm, and would scramble out of bed to get into my school uniform, grab my bag…only to realise it’s frigging Saturday morning and THERE IS NO SCHOOL.
The parrot would look at me with a perfectly gormless expression.
They were all beautiful, loved and memorable, but there was one parrot that will go down in infamy. His name was Joey and he was my father’s young, rare, prize-winning, triple-threat, Hugh Jackman of a parrot. I mean this bird could talk, sing, jazz hands, the works. He was uncanny, such was his personality and presence.
We all fawned over him. Father heaped much praise and attention upon young Joey. Father’s friends made offers for Joey, but were scoffed at and turned down.
Some weeks after Joey became a part of the family, Father informed us that he was off to the US for six weeks to undertake a helicopter engineering course. Mother worked full-time as a school teacher, but was made to promise that she would take care of Joey like he was her own.
Precise instructions were relayed, involving cage hygiene and positioning (Joey lived on our second floor balcony), type and duration of interaction each day, special bird feed, treats, etc. Mother was also told to speak to Joey regularly, so he wouldn’t get rusty.
To this day, Mother will swear that she took all of this very seriously and may even have written some of it down, but I remember the eye rolls and expression of extreme put-outness. She was a busy woman. The bird was not her responsibility, but yes, she would do as Father asked.
I can’t recall the exact day it happened, but I remember Mother calling me to the balcony with some urgency. She pointed to the cage and asked me if I thought something was wrong with Joey.
I looked at the bird, who was at the bottom of the cage, stiff as a board, with his legs up in the air.
“He’s dead,” I observed.
Oh, the commotion. The panic.
There was the obligatory backtracking of everything she had done with the bird since Father left. Mother could not work out what had gone wrong. She insisted she could not possibly be held accountable for Joey’s premature demise.
This did nothing to resolve the fact that she had killed Father’s pride and joy.
Most people would throw in the towel at this point, make that painful international call, and just ‘fess up.
No. Not Mother. She didn’t initially tell me what she was thinking, but Mother has possibly one of the world’s worst poker faces. If she had a beard, she would have stroked it. Her expression basically telegraphed Cunning Plan.
If you ask Mother to hide something in a room and not tell you where the thing is, all you have to do is bring her to the room and say, “Don’t look at the thing”, and she’ll immediately look at the thing. I was a toddler I when first defeated her in ‘I Spy’.
Thus did the cunning plan unfold. Everyone told her it wasn’t going to work, but she would not be swayed.
First, she visited EVERY pet store and breeder in the city, to find out if (A) they already had a pre-existing relationship with Father, and if not, (B) Did they have a bird similar to Joey and if so, could she buy the bird?
This was when she ran into the major problem with her plan.
It’s one thing to try and replace a ubiquitous Toyota and hope nobody notices you’ve swapped out one Corolla for another. It’s quite another thing to try and find a reasonable facsimile of a Lamborghini.
Everyone in the bird business knew of Joey and of Father’s enduring love of Joey. Possibly out of professional pride, or simply their sheer horror at her plan, NO ONE was willing to help Mother replace the bird.
As each day passed, we inched closer and closer to Father’s eventual return. I’m damned sure he asked about Joey over the phone, and I have no idea what Mother would have said to him.
She thumbed more desperately through the Yellow Pages, until one day, she hit paydirt.
It can’t have been a very reputable breeder, or one who knew Father well (I assumed he knew them all). She drove some distance to a location she would not reveal, and returned with a bird that honestly and stunningly looked so much like Joey that I thought she might just pull it off…
Like so many other engineer-types, he was not one for flowery demonstrations of affection. He gave us all perfunctory hellos, before bounding up the stairs to be reunited with the apple of his eye, with the son he never knew he wanted.
I sprinted after him with glee, ignoring the eye-daggers Mother was throwing at me.
Father had some fruit in his hand when he opened the cage door and went to touch ‘Joey’.
Who squawked aggressively and backed away.
Father offered him the fruit. The bird was not interested.
Father said, “Hello, Joey boy! Hello!”
No response. In fact, the bird looked terrified of him.
Father whistled, trying to goad his hand-raised, prize winning, trained-to-speak, pet bird, into speaking or singing.
The bird was unresponsive. It stared at us with vacant, black eyes. If Joey had been two shots of arabica espresso, this bird was weak, milky tea. It wasn’t Fake Joey’s fault. He was a fine bird. He just wasn’t Joey.
The jig was up, surely? But no. Mother had reserves I had not anticipated.
Father was looking at her now. “What happened to the small patch of red on Joey’s neck?”
Patch of red!? I didn’t remember ever seeing a patch of red, and from the expression on Mother’s face, neither had she.
Her commitment was impressive. “He was just a baby when you left. Maybe his feathers changed colour?”
Good one! Entirely possible!
“And he’s also forgotten how to talk? Or sing?” Father asked.
I can’t remember what she said to that, but I do know that had she not confessed to him at that point, it was the shopkeeper who ultimately betrayed her. As it turns out, Father did know the guy, and maybe through guilt or possibly fear, the man spilled all of Mother’s guilty beans.
It always seemed a bit morbid to me that we never changed Fake Joey’s name. He became the new Joey and stayed with us for quite a while, though he never did learn to talk, or sing.