I honestly can’t remember if I’ve posted this one before, so – because I rather like it – I’ll take the chance! Here’s hoping…
Let me tell you about Horlicks.
It all begins with a knock on my door early Saturday morning. I’m in the middle of breakfast. Ali, my landlord, is standing on the doormat; apology written all over his face.
“Sorry to disturb you, Ben.”
“It’s alright.” Me, dressing gown, wiping Rice Krispies off my face. Him, lounge suit, buttonhole – has he just got married? I like Ali – he’s one of the new-style landlords – fresh faced, optimistic – went into property when the City went pear-shaped.
“You know about poor old Mr. Pennell?” Ali uses his sensitive voice. I do, of course.
“Yeah, Mrs. Jacob told me. She found him, apparently.” Abe Pennell, Flat Five. If he caught you in the hallway you’d end up talking for hours, because once he started he’d never stop. A lonely old man, I always supposed, and now he’d slipped away; in the night, alone. It was sad.
“Well, I’ve cleared most of his stuff;” Ali says; “Except this.”
I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it: on the floor beside him, this massive cage thing –inside, with a quizzical look on its face, the most beautiful blue Macaw I’ve ever seen.
“He loved this bird and I just don’t have the heart to sell it. I remember you asking about pets.”
A pet, yes: I’d been thinking of a cat, maybe, or a small pooch without any pretensions, not a parrot. Yet somehow (I admit I’ve no idea how Ali persuades me) I end up with a cage in my hands.
“His name is Horlicks, Ben.”
Then Ali’s thanked me and gone, and the cage is standing on the table, and I’m looking at Horlicks and Horlicks is looking at me. With great delicacy, Horlicks opens the cage and steps out onto the table. With rather less delicacy, he plumps a grey foot on the edge of my breakfast bowl, sending Krispies and milk all over the cloth. One by one he begins to eat the Krispies. I suppress my annoyance (how can you have a go at a bereaved bird?). He seems quite passive as I coax him, nudge him, persuade him back inside his home, shut his door and secure it. He opens it again and comes back out.
A cursory examination reveals that the latch is very loose. I have some wire in the kitchen. I put him back inside, wire up the door. He seems to want to help me, poking at my fingers with his beak as I work, stepping back on his perch as if in admiration at the finished job. Satisfied, I leave him while I go to the kitchen to make coffee. The kettle has just boiled. I am pouring water into my mug. There is a flapping of wings and Horlicks joins me on the worktop. He has a length of wire in his beak.
So we reach a tacit understanding: Horlicks is not a caged bird. From now on I will put the cage in a corner and leave the door open for him to return there whenever he wishes (he almost never does) while he has free run of my meticulously tidy flat. I’m like that, you see? I live alone, everything in order, everything in its place. Lump sugar not loose, tablecloth on the table, covers on the chairs and wipe-your-feet-please-thank-you – get the picture? Now I’ve heard that parrots are really messy, and that worries me, but there’s such a thing as duty of care, and I take that seriously too, so I have to trust Horlicks’ good manners and go out.
Fortunately this is a Saturday, because there is food to get – what do parrots eat, anyway? The local pet shop will help.
Mrs. Hall at ‘Fluffy’s’ is effusively helpful: “Parrots are extremely fussy, Mr. Cecil.”
She advises me no end, managing in the process to provide me with three books on care of Parrots and Parakeets, about half a hundredweight of balanced diet food for Horlicks, an extremely pretty perch, and a three-figure bill. I make a note to get a larger car.
No-one could describe my feelings as I turn the handle on my front door. All the way home I ‘m having cold sweats, picturing my flat as a battleground, seeing images of Horlicks amid shredded tablecoths, piles of stuffing ripped from chairs – what sort of things do parrots do when they get bored, anyway? All my files opened and torn apart, broken china….
None of it! I swing the door wide (but not too wide – I have another vision which involves Horlicks flapping past me to freedom) and there it is; my well-ordered flat: still well ordered. My new pet appears not to have moved, surveying me sagely from the top of my bookcase as I struggle to assemble the accoutrements of his new life.
“How old are you, Horlicks?” I ask him conversationally as I carefully select a site for his brand new perch. He tips his head to one side and rattles his tongue in a sort of keening sound. “Do you like this, then?”
Now I am proud of that perch. It is on a stand with a nice wide base where you can lay sand for collection of – well, need I be specific? A hoop of little bells form an arch over the top. There’s a food dish attached, too, which I fill with the newly-acquired goodies supplied by Mrs. Hall.
“You hungry, Horlicks? You a hungry Horlicks?” Oh-oh! I’m starting to talk like my old ma did with her cats. Here, tiddy-widdy! Did he want his din-dins then?
Horlicks seems to understand. He flutters down from the bookcase, settles on the perch, then after turning his head several ways, begins to poke at the food. Satisfied, I go into the kitchen to make my lunch. My coffee mug is on the worktop where I left it earlier, the sugar-bowl still beside it. The sugar bowl is empty. The coffee mug is full of sugar lumps.
Of course, it is my fault: normally I would not think of leaving the half-full mug of unfinished coffee there, any more than I would forget to put the Rice Krispies packet back in the cupboard, but Horlicks’ arrival distracted me. And the Rice Krispies packet is empty, too…..
When I return to my living room, Horlicks is back on top of the bookcase. The food in his food bowl is untouched. I calculate he has probably eaten enough unsuitable food to kill him. Did I read somewhere birds can’t burp?
Over the next few days we learn to live with one another, Horlicks and I. I learn, for example, that he has no appreciation of expensive special food: I learn that he likes my food, mostly before I get the opportunity to eat it. I learn that slices of Pizza, pieces of bread, biscuits, all manner of cooking ingredients will mysteriously disappear the moment I turn my back: that only hot food – kebabs with hot sauce, chilli, etc., are left untouched. Whether Horlicks learns anything new at all is open to doubt. There is little question as to who is educating who in our new partnership.
I begin to eat a lot more curry than is good for me.
At first I think Horlicks must be dangerously constipated, because the sand beneath his perch and in his cage stays spotlessly clean. This in itself is no surprise, since he rarely touches either of them, but I worry. Then I discover the top of the kitchen cupboard (by accident – I open it and a piece of stale pizza falls on my head). There are more things up there, Horatio, than are dreamed of…..
Lindsay comes round this evening. Lindsay and I, we’re sort of an item, if you know what I mean? She says we are, anyway.
She calls me first: “Shall I bring a Chinese?”
“Better make it a Biryani.”
She sees Horlicks, screams and steps back five paces. Horlicks cringes on top of the bookcase, head lowered, wings hunched.
“Oh, you’ve got a parrot!”
I’m thinking ‘What a pity Peter Scott couldn’t have seen this’.
“Oh, isn’t it just excellent?”
Horlicks perks up. Obviously, this parrot is prone to flattery. I go to the kitchen to dish out the food, and when I come back, there’s Lindsay sitting on my settee, and there’s Horlicks on her lap, on his back with his eyes shut, having his tummy tickled.
For the rest of the evening I am playing gooseberry while Horlicks courts Lindsay with the professionalism of a gigolo. He sits beside her as she eats, snuggles up to her whenever her attention might stray in my direction, brings her little gifts, like sugar lumps, the odd grape or two from the fruit bowl, or a Rice Krispie. When we finally get to say goodnight he perches on her shoulder and would have stayed there had we not insisted. He parts with Lindsay reluctantly, touching her cheek with that great grey beak in what looks suspiciously like a kiss.
Horlicks loves the bathroom. When I shower in the morning he is entranced. He sits on the shower rail with that lopsided look of his and watches me with an attention that borders on the perverted. I come to the conclusion that all the steam is like the jungle to him, and it makes him feel at home.
“I wonder if you remember where you came from, Horlicks?” I ask him, towelling off; and he adopts a questioning stare. But he never answers, not once.
“Macaws aren’t good talkers, dear.” Mrs. Hall tells me. “It’s the greys that are the real conversationalists.” I think this is on my third visit to ‘Fluffy’s’ – I don’t remember for certain.
“How can I control him? He won’t stay in his cage and I daren’t open the windows.”
“Ah now! Let me show you this ingenious little harness….”
Horlicks looks quite proud of his smart new waistcoat, and he doesn’t seem to mind as I hitch the leash to his perch. He even consents to sit there while I fix it. Then he flies off and settles on the floor at the limit of the tether. Never mind, at least now I can let in some air. I open the casement window and Horlicks watches me, very carefully.
So it’s Monday, and I have to go to work. I am (had you not guessed?) a working man; I have a parrot to support. Imagine the doubt, the fear: do I leave him tethered? Of course not. I make sure he has plenty of food and water, then we have a little talk. (I’m starting to do a lot of that) It’s a lecture about respect for property and it isn’t the first time Horlicks has heard it, but he listens attentively nonetheless with that sideways look he gives whenever he’s concentrating…..
All day I worry! I make mistakes, can’t think straight because of the nightmares that are going on in my head. I finally get away at six and drive home so fast it’s a wonder I don’t get nicked.
My shaking fingers turn the key. My sweaty palm grips the handle. My shoulder tentatively pushes around the jamb….Horlicks screeches.
That’s a sound he hasn’t made before, but maybe he feels he has to break the tension. Anyway, there he is on top of the bookcase, and a brief look around my room assures me that all is well with my world. You see? (I tell myself) Horlicks is really not a bad bird.
Now, normally I would be off down the pub of a Monday – it’s quiet, and I get a game of darts with Tull, my old mate from the army. Tull and I, we go back a long way, so far that I’m sure we must have had discussions about parrots. Tull being Tull, he would have lots of advice. Tull would have owned a parrot at some time or another, a parrot just like Horlicks, only better. So I don’t go. Horlicks and me, we have a night in with a lamb dansak.
There’s not much on TV, just some local news item about a poor old confused fella who was out shopping with his wife and just drove off and left her for some reason. They found him parked on a pedestrian crossing in the High Street. He said God told him to stop there.
I decide its time Horlicks learned to talk. What’s the use of a parrot if it can’t keep up a conversation? So we sit down together at the table and we run through a few simple phrases
“Who’s a pretty boy then?” Who did think that one up?
“Who’s that?” I rap my knuckles on the table for that one; like a door-knock, you know?
“What’s the time?” I show Horlicks my watch – a mistake, because from then on he is obsessed with removing it.
“Greedy Horlicks!” Prompted by a beak in my lamb dansak.
We persevere for more than an hour. Well, I persevere. Horlicks watches. He says nothing.
In the end I accept defeat. I have a silent parrot. Later Lindsay comes round and endorses this. “Macaws are not good talkers.”
Then she spots the harness.
“Oh, you’ve got a lead! Let’s take him for a walk; come on!”
Lindsay, NO! The consumption of my household provisions I can take, the intrusion on my very private world I accept, even the worry and the financing of Mrs. Hall’s early retirement are things I will put myself through, but walking down the street with a parrot on a lead? That is one straw more than this camel can handle.
“You’re a bit of a stuffy old grampus, aren’t you?” Lindsay accuses, and settles on the sofa to watch TV. Of course Horlicks immediately joins her. The two of them spend the rest of the evening canoodling. Game, set and match.
Through the week, things begin to settle into a routine. Nobody could call it normal, this new life I’ve got, but we get used to each other, the bird and I. Lindsay comes by nearly every night: not to see me so much as to get touched up by Horlicks, who seems to have this Harpo Marx quality. Lindsay speaks, he mimes. True, his mimes are rather limited, but they seem to work.
An item on the news about an escaped parrot: there’s a picture of it stuck up a tree. “Oh look Horly, there’s a parrot just like you!” And Horlicks does this sort of curtsey thing on her shoulder, then nibbles her ear.
Daytimes I’m at work, naturally. In the evenings I play the spare part. Friday I come home looking forward to the weekend and find Lindsay waiting on my doormat with a pizza for the bird! This, I tell her, is going too far!
We have a bit of a row. It runs along the lines of ‘you’re not seriously jealous of a parrot?’ and it would have played itself out but for one little thing: a little thing Lindsay finds on the kitchen table.
“What’s this?” She demands, walking up to me with ‘it’ between her thumb and forefinger.
‘It’ is what I will describe as a ‘feminine product’ – all nice and clean and new, I hasten to add – not previously owned, if you see what I mean. For once, I don’t know what to say.
“Yours?” I mutter, lamely. Wrong answer!
“I don’t use this brand, and if I did, I wouldn’t leave one on your kitchen table! Are you seeing someone else?”
“Do me a favour! I’ve been at work all day! Anyway, how could I be seeing anyone else? You’re always here!”
“Well, I’m sure I don’t need to be!”
“Suit yourself! No…” Lindsay’s about to storm out. Now I don’t know why, but I sort of don’t want that. So I stop her. “Look, you stay here, I’ll go out. I don’t know how it got there, but I have my suspicions.”
Lindsay cottons on (forgive pun): “You mean…?” I nod. “But how?”
“Dunno. See if you can find out. Cross-examine him.” Then my parting shot: “That bird’s got to go!”
I go to the pub.
“What have you been up to?” Tull asks. “Thought we’d lost you. Darts?”
Around about half past eight he drops it into the small talk, between throws.
“You’ll never believe what happened to Charlie Garrett – y’know, old gaffer with the limp; sits in the corner there Mondays?”
And then he tells me. Tull tells me.
“Charlie takes his wife shopping. Because of his gammy leg they do the usual thing: Charlie parks outside the supermarket while his wife goes around with the trolley. When she’s done she opens up the back and puts the bags inside, then goes off to return the trolley.
“There’s a shuffling from the back seat, then this voice, which Charlie swears is his wife’s, tells him to drive on. So he does. Now he’s a bit deaf and a bit vague is Charlie, so it doesn’t occur to him that the draught he feels is coming from the tailgate, which is still up, and he’s used to being hooted at, so he doesn’t pay any attention as other drivers try to tell him. Half way across town, (by now all his shopping’s dropped out the back); this same voice says “Stop!” It’s really loud and panicky, like something’s seriously wrong. Charlie stops. He realises he’s in the middle of a crossing, so he decides to drive on. “Stop!” the voice says again.
“What’s the matter?” Says Charlie, who can’t turn around easily and he’s never heard of mirrors.
“Just stop!” Says the voice.
“Well now he does turn around, though it takes him a bit of time. Guess what – there’s no-one there! Now he’s in shock, because he thinks his wife fell out of the back, which is why when the copper comes over to see what’s going on Charlie says he thinks God was telling him to stop!”
Why do I have a funny idea I know what’s coming next?
“Right. Now Charlie has one hell of a time trying to convince the coppers he isn’t a loony tune. He does, though, and yesterday morning, him and his wife, they go out shopping again. They’ve got to – Charlie lost all the last lot!
Here’s the best bit: it only happens again, doesn’t it? There’s Charlie sitting in the car, his wife gives him a bit of a tongue-lashing about waiting for her this time, and there’s this same voice! “Drive on!” It says, bold as you like.
Well, Charlie’s not that much of a fool. He turns around, and there on the back of the seat is that parrot – you know, the one that escaped? It was on the news?
“Drive on!” Says the parrot again.
“Not likely!” Says Charlie, and he takes a swipe at it with his stick.
“Bleedin’ Moses!” says the parrot; and it flies off.”
“This Parrot..” I choose my words. “Have they caught it yet?”
“Nah. Owner hasn’t come forward neither. Apparently it’s been hanging around that supermarket for days, nicking things out of bags and trolleys. Charlie’s wife has got a theory though.”
“Yeah. Old chap she used to go and visit sometimes died recently. He had a parrot. She reckons maybe they turned it loose.”
Lindsay’s waiting for me when I get back to the flat. Horlicks is not in evidence.
She shows me the latch on the casement window with the beak-marks on it. “I checked around to see if he could get out. He could.”
I find him cowering behind the kitchen waste. I’m not proud of myself, shouting at a bird: it isn’t one of my finer moments. But you must understand, he knows he’s done wrong: not only that, he’s been deceitful.
“You can talk, can’t you? You can imitate people! Worse yet, you steal tampons!”
It’s all of two hours before I forgive him, and I only do it then because for most of those two hours Lindsay’s been forgiving me; and it’s late at night, and after all, he has sort of brought us closer together: tonight, you see, for the first time, Lindsay won’t be going home.
“He’s so cute!” Lindsay enthuses, as we snuggle on the sofa together, watching him in his new position, relegated to the fireside rug.
“He’s a complete hooligan!” I tell her, though my words are directed mostly at him.
He rolls over, lifting one claw nearly to his beak.
“I’m a proper Horlicks!” He says. “Bleedin’ Moses!”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content