When I was about 10 years old my parents bought a budgie.
With, of course, the obligatory cage on a tall aluminium stand behind the sofa in our living room, in which the unfortunate bird was to spend the rest of its days, with the same mixed expression of coiled fury and indifference on its face that was mastered by Anthony Hopkins at the start of Silence of the Lambs.
You can sex a budgie by having a look at the bridge of the beak (called the cere – and there’s even a Windows Phone app – come on Apple). The blue cere’s are almost always male and the yellow/brown are female – although these colours can change dependent on the hormonal state of the bird (Bet you didn’t know that did you? What a great evolutionary idea that would have been in humans – noses that change colour with our hormones – “I’m off to the pub – it’s red nose day in our house”).
My mother named our new arrival Jennifer and frequently reminded me that this was my intended name should I have been of the fairer sex.
As an pubescent teenager I was consequently haunted by the disappointment she must have felt as the doctor lifted my squirming body aloft and announced “it’s a boy Mrs Barrow!”
After Jennifer arrived I just felt like second best.
Having said that, Jennifer and I bonded in our adversities, she destined for a life of chastity and solitary confinement and me much the same as a slightly brainy youth with acne, low self-esteem, outright terror around the opposite sex and crap ability at any physical games involving fast-moving spherical objects.
Neither of us seem to have gained much enlightenment from this monastic experience.
She would entertain herself by occasionally shifting feet, standing on one leg, moving from the low to high perch or really pulling the stops out by clinging to the bars in a weird perpendicular gravity-defying pose. We rarely noticed.
A mirror was always provided with the standard cage, presumably in a somewhat simplistic effort to provide a sense of community. This seemed as effective in building Jennifer’s social skills as were my own many hours in front of the bathroom cabinet, inspecting my pustulating features with growing dismay.
Jennifer’s life was, however, made more interesting by the co-habitation of a series of cats that came and went over the years, all eventually succumbing to disease, road accident, indifference or vets with high school fees to maintain – but predictably replaced within days.
One by one, they would entertain us for weeks as kittens, whilst maturing into predators who scented the prospect of a change from tinned food, pacing endlessly around the base of the cage stand, waiting for that moment when somebody’s concentration might lapse.
No such luck for the moggies as, no matter what state my Mum and Dad got themselves into on a boozy Sunday afternoon, they did manage to avoid letting Jennifer out for a quick circumnavigation of the lounge, prior to a Pyscho killing by Ru, Tigger or Beauty.
The frustration of the cats was occasionally alleviated when they would bring home a live kill from the garden. This could be a mouse, a rat, a sparrow or a pigeon.
The deposit of the catch would always be in the lounge, usually during working/school hours and guaranteed to produce the most carnage by the time we all got home.
The walls, windows and furniture would be splattered with blood, strewn with feathers or fur and garnished with entrails in time for our evening meal. The cat would be relaxing on a cushion with that “it was me and I wasn’t even hungry – so what?” look.
Jennifer would just be sat on her usual perch – but with a huge stain of shit down the side of the cage, indicting the ferocity with which the fight or flight instinct had engaged during the torture played out before her.
One can only begin to imagine what life was like for Jennifer and how much mental abuse she suffered during the slow years of her existence – living amongst feline serial killers and unable to close her eyes or block the sound of the rituals going on around her.
It may be that I was her only experience of companionship as I lived out my own angst and offered a cuttlefish at the weekends to spice up her life.
We were telly addicts. Seven nights a week of game shows, variety, drama, news and sport. Jennifer took it all in and could have had an encyclopaedic knowledge in her later years, had her brain not had less memory capacity than a disposable camera.
Jennifer must have been bewildered by our antics during each evening, as there was no TV pause in those days, so the adverts were a race against time, with three people co-ordinating their movements in a small terraced house, between one upstairs toilet and the kitchen kettle before the show/episode recommenced.
A major frustration was that my Mum was incapable of paying a visit to the loo without enjoying a Menthol cigarette as she sat reading the latest Harold Robbins paperback.
As gentlemen do, Dad and I would allow her in first, wait for her to finish her chapter, smoke and visit but then struggle afterwards as we entered a small room filled with minty tobacco smoke, bleach and whatever function had been performed.
Holding my breath for the duration of a pee and hand wash was an early test of my deep sea diving skills – pity I never put them into action.
The 60’s rolled into the 70’s, my hair grew longer (and in more places), cats came and went and Jennifer just stood there, uncomplaining, with no visitors, nothing to do, no means of recording her thoughts and no prospect of high office on her release.
Eventually, sometime around 1973 (and some 10 years after she arrived), we were all watching one evening when there was a dull and rather crunchy thud from the back of the room.
Thinking something had hit the garden window, I jumped out of my chair to look into the winter darkness and then realised that the source of the sound was closer.
There was Jennifer, in the bottom of the cage, legs in the air and stiff as a Pythonesque Norwegian Blue.
I like to think that her unruffled death signalled my transition from teenage into adulthood.
Much had changed in those 10 years.
The acne had cleared.
I had become passably good at table tennis.
Females were still a mystery but one of them had taken a shine to me and sex was no longer a DIY hobby.
I actually had some friends and a social life, including ballroom dancing (Bronze medallist), Northern Soul, cinema and watching live First Division football.
A decent desk job and some reasonable professional exam results were building my confidence.
Yet sometimes, when my mother looked at me, I sensed her longing for golden curls, a dolls house and pretty dresses.
I was only able to partially oblige.
Jennifer and I had a mutual understanding around some key lessons:
- being inside the cage is sometimes safer than being outside
- that which begins cute and cuddly sometimes ends in terror
- keeping your opinions to yourself avoids confrontation
- in a cage, the view from the high perch is pretty much the same as the view from the low perch
- you can learn a lot from the television that will be of little use
- you can survive for long periods of time without sex
- when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go – no point in making a fuss
When my own dull thud occurs I’ll count my blessings that my antipodean half-sister taught me so much.