‘If you don’t mind me say,’ said my receptionist, staring at me, ‘but I think you need bucking up.’
Ah here we go I thought. In need of a holiday. Should get away. Things are getting on top of me. Blah. Blah. Blah.
‘This might help.’ Beryl had a leaflet in her vermilion-clawed hand which she now waved at me. ‘It’s a bird-taming workshop. It’s an American expert. He’s some sort of bird whisperer.’
It ignited a spark of interest. American eh? Here could be an excuse to fly off to Florida for a week to attend a Parrot convention. Yes. That could be just what I needed.
‘Where’s it being held?’ I asked, thinking Florida in February could be quite pleasant.
‘Clapham,’ replied Beryl. Ah. Not quite the sunny resort I had in mind. ‘This chap’s quite famous apparently,’ she went on. ‘Cornelius Bergman. Heard of him?’ Beryl gave me another of her penetrating stares.
I shook my head. Beryl proceeded to enlighten me, reading from the leaflet. ‘It says “People call him a miracle worker and compare his demonstrations to magic. People come from all over America to bring their Parrots to him. It’s like a modern-day pilgrimage hoping this new holy man of bird taming can lay his hands on their pets and make them loveable again.” Might be worth you going along.’
I was sceptical. But two weeks later, I found myself perched on an uncomfortable seat at the back of a function room in a hotel just off Clapham Common with a flock of fellow onlookers, chirruping and shuffling as if settling to roost for the night. Amongst them I noticed one of my clients, Mr Drummond, with his African Grey Parrot, Aggie. Alongside were two other Parrots awaiting their baptisms of fire.
A spotlight suddenly played on the stage and onto it bounded the man who was to make it all happen. Cornelius Bergman. We were presented with a mild-mannered man in spectacles, wearing jeans and black tee-shirt.
Aggie was the first Parrot to be man-handled. Cornelius put on a pair of gloves and then to a few gasps, opened the bird’s cage, grasped the Parrot by a leg and hauled her out amid a torrent of abuse.
Once perched on his hand Aggie tried to jump off several times. Each time Cornelius held onto a leg and let his hand fall with the leg and then swung the bird back onto his hand. This happened over and over again, Aggie swinging in a circle each time. She eventually ran out of umph and panting, remained perched on his hand. But not for long. She suddenly decided to make a break for it by scuttling up Cornelius’s arm.
‘Oh no you don’t my pretty,’ he drawled as he nonchalantly blocked her route with a flicker of his other gloved hand. She lunged out to bite him. He lunged back with a poke at her feet until she stopped. Wow. What feisty stuff. All so different to my softly- softly approach. Eventually Aggie gave in and sat obediently on Cornelius’s hand.
Begrudgingly I was impressed. David Drummond, meanwhile, seemed transfixed. Rooted to his seat as his beloved Aggie was subdued into submission.
But that wasn’t the end of it. A real showmanship piece followed. Cornelius removed a glove and tried to stroke Aggie on her back. She of course was having none of it. She whipped from side to side eyeing the approaching hand.
Then to my astonishment Cornelius offered his bare forefinger. I thought of Mr Drummond’s bandaged ones. But somehow Cornelius managed to fold his thumb over Aggie’s beak and push the lower mandible away to lessen to impact of the bite.
‘See,’ he said walking down to the front row. ‘She thinks she’s got stuck.’ His forefinger and her beak seemed glued together. After several minutes he released her beak. He then offered his finger again.
Fool I thought. She’ll lash out. But she didn’t. On the contrary she just pushed it away, seemingly uninterested. The finale had Aggie perched on a stand while Cornelius placed his hands, palms out against an imaginary ball around the bird. ‘Her bubble of fear’ he called it. Intoning to himself and intensely watching the Parrot he gradually shrank his hands in. Within a couple of minutes, Cornelius was able to scratch the base of Aggie’s tail.
He then moved his palm close up to her face. She didn’t flinch. Completely mesmerized. He touched her beak. No hiss. No bite. With his palm resting on her beak, he moved his other hand round and started to scratch the top of her head.
A spontaneous ripple of applause broke out from the audience, especially from David Drumond, his bandaged hands furiously flapping together. I too found myself clapping. Spell-bound. My spirits lifted. And it was a spell that wasn’t broken even when the next day, Beryl subjected me to one of her ‘I told you so’ looks.
Malcolm’s memoir, An Armful of Animals, is available on Amazon at £7.99 and Kindle at £1.99
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