‘You the parrot lady?’
She smiled: ‘Yes, I suppose I am. Is that what people call me?’
‘No – just me. How many parrots have you got?’
‘At the moment, just a pair. But I hope…’
‘Can I see your parrots? Please? ‘
‘Well, yes, of course. Does your mummy know you’re out?’
The child grinned and began to suck her thumb.
She was quite a little urchin, really: grubby, in a faded, thin dress that didn’t really fit, and with bony little bare legs, and several scars on them, didn’t seem very well looked after.
‘Now, dear,’ the child’s eyes opened wide at this, ‘I’m quite a busy parrot-lady, so it’ll have to be just a peep.’
The child nodded.
She held out her hand. Again, the child’s eyes became saucers, as she put her tiny, damp hand confidingly in hers. So they went up the little path together.
‘Is this house all yours?’
‘Yes; it’s all mine – although Hera thinks it’s hers.’ She sighed.
She unlocked the front door, and the little girl looked swiftly around, letting go hands.
The clock in the hallway geared itself up to bonging, so the child started, and then, finding the source of the mechanical noises, stood transfixed, as it laboriously made its way to proclaiming nine o’clock.
‘Is that magic?’
‘Well, yes, it is in a way, I suppose. Now, come and meet Hera and her mate, and then I’ll have to say goodbye to you, and get on.’
The child nodded seriously, carefully wiping her thumb on her dress, before putting it back in her mouth.
Hera had looked benignly, she thought, on the waif, so that was all right.
‘What’s this one’s name?’ the child, grubby hanky in hand, thumb ready, pointed at Hera’s spouse.
‘We haven’t quite decided yet, whether he’s Hector or Alexander.’
The little girl frowned and then said firmly: ‘-zander’, ‘cos I know where -zandra Road is, and the houses there are even bigger than this!’
The child hardly needed ushering out, having obviously sensed that, having achieved what she wanted to, she should now go.
On the door-step, another query occurred to her.
‘You just look after parrots?’
Laughing, she answered, ‘No, I’m a Doctor, and Hera – and, Alexander – are not so much patients as members of the family.’ Those saucer-eyes again.
‘Thank you for showing me your parrots. Can I come again tomorrow?
Throughout the day, she was haunted by this little apparition, as she weighed pregnant women, took blood-pressures, palpated abdomens, tested urine, measured funduses, and emanated faith, hope, and charity: who was she? Where had she come from? Why had she not at the least found out the child’s name?
Her last patient was a genuine local, whose pregnancy seemed to be going very well, which, after several miscarriages, made them both all the more wary.
‘Now here’s an odd thing: just as I was coming back in this morning, this poor little child appeared – just like a Dickensian ragamuffin! – serious, couldn’t’ve been more than four – wanted to know if I was ‘the parrot-lady’, and could she see them!’ Came in, was no trouble at all, saw the parrots, and hardly needed bustling out… I’ve been thinking, fretting, about her all day.’
‘ ‘bout so high? Fair hair? Thin as a lath? Or’s Auntie Kit used t’say, ‘like a matchstick with the wood screaped off! I’ll bet that was the little Tregaskis maid, from Newmill way. They said ‘er mother’d bin taken into hospital. They’re not pikeys, Doctor, so they won’t be round ‘avin’ the lead off y’r roof, and tarmacking y’r drive for thousands.’
‘Well, I rely on Hera, for sensing ill-intent, but, admittedly, she’s possibly in a similar situation to yourself…’
She hooted, then shook her head, ‘When I start going ‘Quawk, quawk…’ Doctor, what’ll you reckon then?’
Going out to collect her bottle of milk, she decided to look around, spotted slight movement opposite, raised an eyebrow in that direction, and went in, leaving the door almost wide open. Silently, the child had observed and understood the hints, and silently came in, having closed her front-door equally silently.
‘My, you’re up very early!’
This was ignored, so she went on: ‘I’m going to have some breakfast: you can join me, if you like…’ As the reply was by way of a saucer-eyed nod, she took the milk in with her to the kitchen, and began to get out some cutlery, handing spoons and knives to the little girl, and getting her to lay them on the table.
‘I usually just have some fruit, or cereal, and a slice or two of toast, with coffee, but sometimes, if I fancy it, I might have a boiled egg, or some scrambled egg. Would you like a boiled egg – perhaps with Soldiers…?’
There were enthusiastic, if uncomprehending, nods when ‘soldiers’ were mentioned, so she got an egg out of the fridge, poured milk into a jug, got the bread out of the crock, cut four slices off (those saucer-eyes again!), put the butter-dish on the table, selected her smallest saucepan, put the egg in it, covering it with just enough water from the tap, used her cereal spoon to take the egg out again, put the pan on to heat, and put one slice of the bread in her toaster, all the while aware that every ordinary movement was being watched and absorbed by those great eyes!
As the water was beginning to think about bubbling, she said:
‘We Doctors spend a lot of time washing our hands – even when they don’t look very grubby. Let’s quickly wash ours, shall we?’
The little girl had to be shown how to turn the soap over and over to make suds, and then how to rub them all over the palms, backs, fingers, and between the fingers, use ‘a little brush’ to go under the nails, and, finally, to rinse and let the water run away.
‘Now,’ she hadn’t meant it to sound quite so portentous, ‘we’ll find out if our hands are really clean…
But the whiteness of the towel was enough for some praise, so praise there was.
The saucepan was rattling its lid, so she hurried her guest through, got her to sit down, carefully lowered the egg into the bubbles, and checked her watch.
Minutes later, having showed the child how to bash open an egg, peel away the shell and integument, how to use buttered soldiers to draw out the golden yolk, then the spoon to scour out all the white, whilst abstractedly eating her own toast and marmalade, she began to feel akin to all those mothers in the animal kingdom, driven to ensure the continuance of the species through the welfare of their young.
After breakfast, the waif said, ‘My belly full.’, so she’d shown her to the Bathroom, where the intricacies of the Lavatory (and paper) had to be explained to her.
Somehow, she knew it was coming, yet still, with unmitigated force, it came:
‘Can I stay here?’
‘Alexander? Oh good. Dr. R. here… I wouldn’t normally get in touch for such a thing, and, of course, will quite understand if it has to be subject to the normal rules, but need and want your advice. This little child, a waif or stray? has somehow settled on me, and not only my instincts, but those of a certain Parrot, suggest I should go ahead. You’ll probably want to warn me…’
‘Don’t be silly! If your heart’s in the right place… Anyway, if there’s ever any inkllng of trouble from the unsocial disservices people, get in touch instantly, please; many of us in the Law have had acute worries about the secret ‘courts’ they call ‘family courts’, for years. If you get any argy-bargy, you can rely on my support: sometimes, just the word ‘Barrister’ can frighten them off. I know several of my colleagues are longing to have the opportunity to get a pop at ‘em. Besides, we Quanglicans should be shoulder-to-shoulder!
‘Quanglicans? Oh, Father was, of course, an old-fashioned Anglican: 8 o’clock and Evensong… would be asked to read The Lesson for St. Luke’s Day… but then the C. of E. seemed to get ashamed of its inheritance, ceding the space to The State. Meanwhile, Mother, for whom The Church had once been Blake’s ‘Satanic Mills’, came to love the quietism of Evensong. – and even Prayer Book Communion, though she never received, of course.
Go ahead: I know your instincts as well as Professional insight will see things through.’
So, the waif came to stay. She noted that all enquiries about her parents were parried rather than answered, so, one day, decided to ring the ‘social service’ people.
‘You’ve had this little girl living with you now, since….? Someone will be around in the next three hours. You said your name was Doctor Richardson, is that right…?
‘I don’t even know her name, even if she has a name: she just appeared one morning, wanting to see my parrots…’
The word parrots, seemed to interest the woman.
‘Yes, parrots: she said, rather than asked, ‘Are you the parrot-lady?’ Would you too like to see my parrots?’
She could see the woman from Social Services bemusedly writing it down.
After a while, she became so incensed by this woman’s obliquity, that she said,
‘If you can forebear with your pencil-pushing for a few moments, why not come and meet the object of all this?’
‘Dr. Richardson! Lovely to see you again. Sam. suggested, since she knew you and I were acquainted, it would be good if I came instead of her.’
Joining up the dots, in her head, she thought – ‘the woman’s probably dotty, reckons a little girl suddenly appeared wanting to see her parrots: see what you make of it…’
She remembered as soon as she saw the face: one of those ‘no-analgesics’ women, who’d had an effortless labour, and produced a by now, she thought, probably spoilt little girl.
‘Parrots, Sam said; and a little girl who just appeared…’
‘Let’s see the parrots first.’ she’d spotted the wide-eyed, ‘humouring the idiot look’, and opened the door to the parrot-room, where Hera instantly emitted an ear-piercing shriek, startling Clare into dropping both her bag and her pad and pen; as she picked them up, Hera added another shriek, and some very aggressive-sounding growling noises. This brought Alexander out, on the defensive, and he added his own range of cat-calls, whistles, and bubbly-jock noises to enrich the cacophony, so a tactical withdrawal was made.
In the kitchen, Clare was recovering, pen and pad at the ready. Adding, unguardedly: ‘So the parrots are real!’
‘Yes, the parrots are real: you know, I could see in that look you gave earlier, that Sam had concluded that I was losing my wits. The parrots are real – very real, I think you’d agree. Shall I make some coffee, and we can sit down.’
Clare seemed pleased to sit down, and, after dropping her pen several times, thrust it into her hair, where it stayed put.
‘Now, if my memory’s right, you had a daughter, who must be in the ‘terrible twos’ about now, and whom you were determined to breast-feed for at least six months…?’
There was an appreciable, embarrassed silence.
‘Fraid I gave up long before six months, what with one thing and another, Doctor…’
‘There’s no shame in that, Clare: she had all the antibodies your colostrum provided, and much more. How’s your husband?’
There was more embarrassment.
‘We’ve split up, Doctor…’ Then, trying not to score a nil, she injudiciously added: ‘I was going to say ‘You know what men are’, but then…’
The quiet that followed was rather like the near-silence from a kettle about to boil – perhaps even of a Volcano whose threatening grumbles and tremors have been too long ignored.
With supreme self-command, and a very level voice, she said, ‘Clare, I have known what it is to be loved; I have also known what it’s like to be discarded. I have also known what it’s like to be truly loved, but be too wary to trust, and then to endure the pain of his death, just as my heart was beginning to think it might dare to trust again.’
The long silence that ensued, was finally punctured by a visibly-moved Clare, tugging the pen from among her locks, quickly scrawling notes, and then saying, ‘And this ‘little girl’…?
‘As they say in all the best Pantomimes, “Behind you!”’
Apprehensively looking round, Clare’s eyes met the fierce gaze of the waif, whose look of hatred could be measured in Oersteds, milli-sieverts, Kilotons even, but who edged round to put a confiding hand on Dr. Richardson’s dress, and then, with very little encouragement, climbed upon her lap, thumb in mouth once more.
When she’d gone, having promised a copy of her write- up, the waif said: ‘Don’t like her!’
‘Not sure I do either, little one. But, sometimes, it pays to hide what one really thinks.’
The child considered this, and then seemed to toss it aside.
After parrot-time, and after their supper (she found it was quite fun to regress to ‘nursery food’, not least because the infant’s little face shone with her enjoyment of each mouthful of it), she suggested a bath. The face intimated that this would be a novel experience, as, indeed, her own nostrils did.
She was fascinated by the swishing together of the water from the two taps, heeding the warnings about the hot tap, retracting her hand from its hot top instantly; bewitched by the fragrant pink bubbly-stuff that was squirted in and began to make foam – could hardly wait to take off her few, thin, worn clothes, and stepped into the sudsy warmth with almost delirious pleasure.
Afterward, sitting up in a fresh bed, she had a story read to her, then a warm ‘Sleep tight, and hope the bugs don’t bite!’, lights out…
At half past two, Dr. Richardson’s slumbers were interrupted by a little teary voice, ‘I cold. Lots of wet.’
What seemed like hours later, the waif having been sponged down, her bed stripped and sheets in the laundry-basket, she accepted the little shivering thing into her own bed, enwrapping it in her warmth. There was no further ‘wet’, she was relieved to find on waking, sliding quietly out and going down for tea: but, the infant must have missed the motherly warmth, and was soon in her kitchen, unembarrassedly naked.
‘Oh, sweetie! Let’s put you in something. I was going to say yesterday, about getting you some more clothes.’
After an almighty search, the best she could come up with was an old t-shirt– miles too big! – but at least preserving the modesty this little thing had not seemed to learn. Pointing proudly at it, she asked: ‘This mine?’, and smiled at her nod, as radiantly as if given something by Givenchy or Dior.
While the bedding was being washed – the little girl being entranced by the machine – she tried to explain to her about bodies and clothing, and also, about knowing when one needed to empty one’s bladder…
Again, they breakfasted, with the child – eyes shining with anticipation! – consuming her ‘egnsojers’, and again going to the lavatory, proudly not using her old ‘belly full’ formula, equally proudly showing her fragrant, washed hands afterwards.
‘We’d like to come round and see you both…’ She’d sensed an ominous quality to this message: safety in numbers? Phoned back, to tell them that as a very busy Doctor, she could not meet their demands, but would be happy to see them after her patients – say, half-past six. The word ‘demands’ seemed, as intended, to unsettle them; so also her designating an ‘out of office’ time.
Much as she’d envisaged, Sam turned out to be a virtual cheroot-smoking member of the short-back-and-sides brigade – even down to her ‘stout Brogues’. Clare, looking anxious, came behind, pen and pad in hand.
‘Now, Samantha: let’s get one or two things clear. I don’t know your qualifications, mine are as on the brass plate at my door. This happens to be not only my surgery, but my home, and you are my guests – self-invited, incidentally. Should I decide to give you no more of my time, you’ll have no option, I’m afraid, but to accept that. So, Clare, for a start, you can put away your ubiquitous pen and pad, since I do not consent to your recording your version of our meeting.’ Turning now to the already spluttering Sam, she went on, ‘I shall, of course, expect to be given a draft of any purported ‘record’ of our meeting, and require the right to make final decisions as to the veracity of what has been discussed. Let’s see what the Parrots make of you.’
She led the pair through, Sam. still furiously spluttering, as much at the use of her full, feminine name, as at this unexpectedly masterful treatment.
Not so unexpected, was the parrots’ reaction: Hera screaming and screeching, Alexander adding, not only his own counterpoint noises, but bobbing movements, threatened flight at them, and a decisive huge defecation. Understandably, the butch Sam. was the first to beat a retreat. All three came away with this psittacine ‘rough-music’ throbbing in their ears, Clare, robotically about to seek normality with her comfort-blanket pen and pad, denied even this.
In the kitchen, Sam. made the mistake of taking out from a slender tin a small cigar…
‘No, Madam! No!! No one has ever been permitted to smoke in my house, and no one will. I’ve turned away Builders for presuming to smoke – outside here! I pity you, if you lack the manners, and the will-power to resist. Now, would you like to sit down? Or are you already quite satisfied …’
There was non-plussed silence for several moments.
She broke the silence.
‘You concluded I’d gone cuckoo’ (glared at ‘Samantha’); ‘both of you have seen and heard the undoubted reality of the Parrots; Clare has seen the elusive child. You might have gathered that I have scant appreciation of the kind of work you do, of which, the first rule seems to be ‘abandon all common sense and distrust your instincts, as well as logic. You will hardly be consoled to learn that my experience of Probation Officers and of Parole Boards means my opinion of them is, if anything, even lower. As to…’
But, at this moment, there were sounds from the Parrot Room, muted squawks and carefully-tempered squeaks from two birds, and a distinctly human, but undecipherable flow of vocalisations, followed by kissing sounds.
When she came into the kitchen, the waif’s hair almost stood on end at the sight of the Social Workers; whose hair, in Sam’s case at least, certainly bristled.
‘Hello, dear. We’re from the Council and we can find a nice home for you…’
Without a syllable of response, only an anguished look darted at Dr. R., the infant disappeared, with a bang of the front door. The two social workers got themselves jammed in the doorway, undermining their hot-pursuit, followed with more calm by Dr. R.: Clare had been sent up the road to look left and right, while Sam had gone down, looking left, right, and centre.
They returned as they had gone (though a bit more breathlessly), Dr. R’s admonitory glares as Sam patted the pocket her small cigars were in, forestalling any further action in that respect.
The Town-clock struck the half-hour.
‘She… vanished!’ Clare’s breathless bewilderment was evident. Sam was shaking her head in disbelief.
‘I think’, Dr. R., put in, ‘The child has learned not to trust some individuals, but, for some reason, has been prepared to trust me. However, I fear that, between you, you might have fatally compromised that tenuous trust…’
As there seemed nothing more to be done, the two took their leave. A little while after, the clock struck seven. She looked up, but there was no movement in the tree, so shut her front door, and began sadly to try and pick up the threads: this involved the quiet shedding of some tears.
As it was getting towards night, and she was aware that her snatched lunch had been a very long time ago, she thought to make some toast, thinking of Toad, and the Gaoler’s daughter bringing him hot buttered toast. Alas, there was no one to bring her toast, but, at least… She cut some bread, then realised too late, that abstractedly, she’d cut six slices, making a mental note to wrap two and use them tomorrow.
The aroma of toast filled the air in the kitchen, and she dithered over what, apart from plenty of butter, to spread on it, then nearly dropped the butter-knife in startlement, as a little voice at her elbow, said, ‘I hungry.’
Eyes brimming, she could hardly focus on the little imp, but swept her up, lamenting over and over again, ‘I thought you’d gone…’
‘The nasty one wants to take me away. You won’t let her, will you!’
It was now bed-time, and a story had been recited from her own patchy memory… No bath this time, just a wash, and cleaning of teeth, then brushing of hair. It appeared that, merely slamming the front door had been enough to put them off the scent, and she’d meanwhile silently hid: where, she would not say.
‘Tomorrow, lovey, I’ll get you some more clothes. Later, perhaps, we might be able to go into a shop together for you to choose, but I think the nasty people just now…’ No more needed to be said – except, she felt obliged to say,
‘When I was a little girl, my Mother used to say a prayer with me, which went like this…
‘Thank you for the World so sweet, Thank you for the food we eat;
Thank you for the birds that sing, Thank you God for everything.’
The little eyes, though glinting with sleepiness, were wide:
‘God must be very … big…’
As a theological discussion was quite beyond her, and not likely to help sleep, she ignored it.
‘My Mummy used sometimes to sing this to me:
‘Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh;
Shadows of the evening steal across the sky.’
The foundling’s face demanded an encore, so she sang it again, surprised at how well she sang, not having used a singing voice for ages, and adding, as memory brought it back, the next verse:
‘Now the darkness gathers, Stars begin to peep,
Birds and beasts and flowers Soon will be asleep.’
As the little one was now curled up, thumb in mouth, eyelids drooping, she planted a gentle kiss on her warm cheek, just catching the murmured words, ‘…love the Stars… they look after me…’
Reflecting on whether this meant the little one had been sleeping in the open for some time, she put it all from her mind, apologetically cancelling by e-mail an early appointment for the morning.
They breakfasted – ‘eggnsojers’ for one, plus toast – toast for her.
‘I want to go in and get some clothes for you- should only take a few minutes. Would you like to do the dishes, and see to Hera and ‘zander’ while I’m gone? I don’t think the nasty people will be back but would you like me to lock the door?’
This was fairly firmly vetoed, so in she went, just as the clock was striking nine, returning about half an hour later, heart unnecessarily in her mouth as she opened the door. The dishes had all been washed and stacked, and the cutlery roughly placed on the draining-board. She was in the parrot-room, crooning to the birds, who seemed to know what she was saying or singing to them, but was eager to see her new things, overcome to see so many things spread out on her bed: eight pairs of pants, four vests, three dresses, several pairs of ankle-socks and a pair of bright red, shiny shoes. She’d estimated the sizes right, and the reward lay in seeing the little thing eagerly pulling on her knickers, then checking in the mirror to verify her heart-felt comment, ‘You look really good, really good. Are they comfortable?’ and then: ‘Now, before we try on a new dress, let’s wash your hair, so’s not to dirty a brand new dress.’
So some of her own favourite shampoo was applied and gently massaged in, then it was all rinsed off, watery-eyed blinks showing some must have gone into her eyes. ‘Does it sting a bit? Sorry, Dear; when we do the second wash, just keep them closed nice and tight…’
When the shower-hose had washed out every trace of shampoo (and a little game of peek-a-boo played, with the towel over her face) she rubbed it dry, finally using her hands, gently to massage the scalp and fluff out the hair.
‘Just look at the lovely shine on your hair!’
So she propelled the little thing in to look at herself in the long looking-glass in her own bedroom, to silent wonder. Then there was gentle brushing of the tresses, and finally, after various head-cocked appraisals of different arrangements, grips and ‘slides’ abandoned, an Alice-style ribbon was threaded through to make a little fringe, the rest artlessly arranged around shoulders and neck. Then (at last!) she had the dress put over her head and shoulders, gently straightened, and she was able to admire herself: this seemed to merit some time, so she came back with her own Lewis Carroll, to show the infant.
‘That me? That me!’ was the ecstatic response.
‘Well, it’s Alice – and, if you’re good (which I know you will be!) I’ll read some of her story to you tonight. You know about reading? Evidently she didn’t, so, with an inner sigh, she added ‘teaching her letters’ to the ever-lengthening list of necessary things. However, the child was obviously sharp as a razor, observant, and quick to learn… and such a dear!
How she concentrated on her afternoon patient, she never knew. This was one of the indulged ones, whose fantasy of living in Cornwall had been limitlessly underwritten by Daddy (perhaps, in part, to atone for his own imminent abandonment of wife and child?), and whose immediately-settled accounts for what often seemed to her exorbitant, although not excessive – by Home Counties’ standards – fees, helped underwrite treatment for, perhaps more deserving – certainly, more appreciative – real locals.
‘What do you think of hypno-birthing…?’
‘You don’t approve?’
‘Not a question of approval: Hypnotherapy is not a specialism I’ve been trained in and so have only third-hand knowledge of. I know there was Doctor in the St. Austell area, who used to hypnotise his maternity patients: I also know that many of them said, afterwards, that the pain was still huge, but they felt they couldn’t ‘let him down’ so masked it.’
‘Oh gosh! What should I do?’
‘Do investigate. But I would estimate that you have nothing really to worry about: dates, weights, wees, everything so far suggests a perfectly normal delivery – confirmed, I think, by the ultra-sound you commissioned: not a breech-presentation, so no need for ‘turning’ and so little likelihood of the Cord getting in the way. I’d say, relax, and enjoy the excitement! But for King Louis the whichever, women wouldn’t be going into labour in the supine position: for millennia, women gave birth standing or squatting, aided by gravity – and all survived!’
Very much later, supper of hastily-fetched fish and chips -eaten with fingers, out of the greasy but warm paper – the smelly paper scrumpled up and binned – they’d headed upstairs, the little one longing not to relinquish her new ‘close’, but acquiescing when ‘keeping them for day’ was put to her – with the promise of new night-things anyway.
‘So this is Alice, and this is her kitten Dinah: this is what Alice’s letter ‘A’ look like. Can you make a letter ‘A’? ‘A’ makes the sound ‘ay’, and also ‘a’ – as in ‘cat’
And this is Dinah – the cat’s – letter ‘D’: down, then down round from the top (like Dinah’s tummy) and ‘D’ is for dinner, and damsons, and daybreak (or dawn) – and Dear!… Another hug.
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without conversations or illustrations …
… when, suddenly, a white rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.”
The dear child wanted more and more, finally assenting to sleep on the promise of more Alice tomorrow, a cheek-kiss, and more singing of ‘the star-bit’, only this time she too, joined in :
…Stars begin to peep,
Birds and beasts and flowers Soon will be asleep.
‘How exhausting it all is,’ she thought. ‘Yet, how rewarding!’ she instantly replied.
A final check of e-mails roused her from any reverie:
‘We propose to send our team of Child Protection Officers to your home tomorrow. Please let us know if (and if, why) you are unable to agree with this.’
© Jethro 2023