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 backdoor 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.
Malcolm’s memoir, An Armful of Animals, is available on Amazon at £7.99 and Kindle at £1.99
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