I’m delighted to welcome Malcolm to My Reading Corner as part of the Pets Aplenty blog tour with SilverWood Books.
They say you should write about what you know. And that certainly applies to me. Having been a vet for forty years, I had accumulated a mass of animal anecdotes which served me well when it came to writing my three novels.
However in all those encounters with animals the most affecting and poignant was the relationship I had with an African Grey parrot called Polly. Yes, I know, not the most original of names, but nevertheless a most unique bird. So I’d like to tell you a bit about our life together.
I first met Polly in 1958 when she was a sleek bundle of grey in the confines of a rusty cage in Ibadan, Nigeria. After much bartering with the trader, the cage exchanged hands and the African Grey parrot became ours.
Polly and I soon became firm friends and that friendship endured over 20 years. After my Dad’s tour of duty in the army, Polly came back to the UK with us. She was forever seeking me out. Once I found her waddled up the road as I was coming home from school.
‘Wotcha mate,’ she said as I leant down to allow her to scramble onto my arm. Polly was swiftly carried back into the bungalow and returned to her cage in the kitchen.
It was here she picked up and imitated the sounds of daily life. Only deafeningly magnified. Cutlery into a drawer was like scaffolding collapsing. Filling the kettle, Niagara Falls. We acquired a dog, a Maltese. He was a constant source of delight for Polly. She’d imitate the back door bell. Yambo would come trotting through barking. ‘Go in your box, Yambo,’ she’d command. The little fellow meekly obliged. ‘Sit Yambo,’ she’d order. The dog sat. Then she’d burst out laughing.
Polly learnt the African word for food – chop. A portion of buttered toast was always on offer at breakfast time. She’d waddle up and down her perch saying ‘Chop … chop,’ sweetly in my tone of voice. If ignored, her tone of voice changed. ‘A gruff , demanding ‘Chop … chop,’ in my father’s military voice. And once when the buttered toast was still not forthcoming, she uttered a loud emphatic ‘What’s the ruddy matter with you?’
For twenty years, Polly had been a wonderful, witty companion.
Then, as an inexperienced, newly qualified vet, I found I was going to have to operate on her, wondering whether she would ever survive to talk again. An ugly cancerous mass had grown on her neck. The local vet had said it as inoperable. But I couldn’t lose twenty years of wonderful companionship without trying to remove the growth myself.
With the lump removed and her neck stitched up, I laid Polly gently on a pad of cotton wool. As the anaesthetic wore off, she tried to clamber back on to her perch. At her fifth attempt she made it and sat, huddled, her beak clamped to a bar to stop herself from toppling off.
There followed a desperate time. Daily I caught her up to give her an antibiotic injection. There was no struggle. No squawk. She ate nothing for three days. On the third evening I tried with a tiny portion of banana smeared on my finger. Polly tottered across her perch, looked at me with eyes devoid of sparkle, but raised her head, opened her beak with difficulty and tweaked my finger. A little of the mashed banana slid on to her tongue.
‘Go on, swallow it girl,’ I cajoled. There was a gulp as her beak closed and the banana disappeared. I felt a flicker of hope. Maybe she’d pull through. The next morning as I approached her cage, Polly slowly waddled across her perch, pressed her head down against the bars of the cage and in a croaky voice, my voice, said ‘Wotcha mate!’
I knew then she was on the road to recovery.
Many other tricky operations have appeared through the surgery door over the ensuing years. But I only have to hear that chirpy ‘Wotcha mate! in my head to have doubts about my ability to cope fly from my mind.
All thanks to Polly. My ever loving friend.
So you see how special she was.
And she’s certainly been instrumental in my writing. If you’ve a good idea or story, then you should reuse it whenever possible. I wrote about Polly from my point of view for the magazine, My Weekly – I was their vet columnist for 15 years. I then wrote the tale from my father’s point of view for Parrots Magazine and from my mother’s for a WI magazine. Ten years on I rehashed it for the Lady magazine when I was writing occasional features for them. Then three years back, The Daily Mail took the story. A year later there was a study on how African Grey parrots are the most intelligent birds in the world. The Daily Mail asked me to write a piece around that topic. And… surprise… surprise… Polly was prominent in that feature. Is she mentioned in any of my three books? Uhm… ‘fraid so. So you see, a good story can run and run. Hope you can run your eye over Pets Aplenty, my latest novel. No Polly this time but there are a few parrot tales in it. There’s one particular bizarre encounter with a Quaker parakeet belonging to a fireman called Julian, who when dressed up preferred to be called Julianne. Intrigued? You’ll have to read the book to discover what happens.