A Parrot in the Orkneys

It was a dark morning and she was lonely. She had turned 71 the week before, which had made her feel lonelier still. It reminded her of the time that had passed. Her husband had died 4 years previous, and a few months ago the last of her children had gone to the mainland, along with her two grandchildren. They were almost teenagers now, and although good company, hadn’t been spending much time at her cottage. This old, worn out, cottage. The cottage which now, suddenly, seemed colder and greyer on this Monday morning. This Monday morning where she had nowhere to be, and nothing to do. It was 6am, it was going to be a long day. She stepped outside to pretend for a moment she had somewhere to be, or something to do. And that’s when she saw it. A red parrot, standing on the pole of her clothes line. Garishly red against the cold, grey mist. He move about awkwardly, as though he couldn’t be bothered to fly away or, perhaps, was trying to get a better look at her. For a moment she thought this was it, this was dementia, this was the beginning of the end of her road. She gasped audibly, then froze. Then she came to. From what she knew about dementia the first sign was certainly not the sight of a red parrot in the garden. Unless it was some kind of special, creative dementia, where beautiful hallucinations were apparent, and occurred early on? No, she decided, it was definitely real.

She looked around herself and decided to take a few steps forward. She looked across the surrounding fields and then back to the parrot. In an instant she decided to take him in, she held out her arm, and the parrot stared at it curiously before deciding to jump on, climb onto her shoulder and allow himself to be carried inside the house. As she walked him in it all came back in an instant. She had studied in London as a young woman. She had found work experience in London Zoo. There had been a man there. A man who loved parrots. And he had taken her to see them on her lunch breaks. She couldn’t remember a lot of what she had learnt. But she did remember how beautiful the birds had looked, and how exciting it had been to hold them on her shoulder. To have him so near. She didn’t like the memories that followed. Her sick mother. Her return to the Orkney Islands. And his words. The words of the man she had never even so much as kissed. Saying he would wait for her. As pain rose in her chest she shook off the memories. She entered the house, and slammed the thoughts outside, with the incoming rainstorm.

She placed the parrot on the back of a kitchen chair. She sat across from him and they staring at each other thoughtfully. She let out a sigh of contentment. How majestic and beautiful he looked in her dark kitchen. How bright and adventurous he seemed against the Orkney landscape outside of her window. They stared at each other for some time, before the phone rang. Causing them both to jump. At any other time the phone ringing would have been a welcome sound. But now? Now she was having a moment, her moment, their moment. And someone was interfering? The parrot began to squawk unhappily, so she rose to her feet and picked up the phone. It was her friend, she ran the post office, she was excited. The words made no sense, but there was something about a parrot. Then she realised, to her disappointment. Of course, it must be someone’s pet. It had flown off. She would have to hand him back.

As she confronted the fact that she would have to hand back her new friend, the words on the end of the phone line began to slow and make more sense. News had come in that a transport on its way to London Zoo had had a road accident. Everyone was safe, but a crate containing one red parrot, had broken and its occupant had escaped. He was nowhere to be found. But it was believed he could have travelled as far as the Orkneys. The night before, some tourists had been in the pub and had inquired after a red parrot they had seen whilst walking. Word had travelled fast in a few hours and the early-risers were now all up and out, searching for this red parrot.

She stole a glance at her friend. He cocked his head curiously. She made her excuses and quickly got off the phone. She frowned at him. Well, she certainly couldn’t keep him. But she didn’t want to part with him just yet. Within a heartbeat, she decided upon a plan. She would check on the details of the parrot and its destination, then she would take him to London. She wasn’t interested in rational thinking and calling over the people from the main land. He was her friend and they were going on an adventure.

A few phone calls later she ascertained that the parrot had been in transit from a Norwegian zoo and had, with his fellow zoo inmates, been staying in Edinburgh zoo, before their long journey to London. He had an identification ring around his foot and appeared to be unscathed by the last 24 hours. She asked what he needed to be fed, and how to transport him. The person on the end of the phone gave her all the information, before suddenly realising what was going on. And, thinking they were dealing with an old, possibly crazy, lady, tried to dissuade her from her apparent plan. But there was no dissuading. She had her mind made up.

She had fashioned a crate, she was packed, she was ready. There was a taxi on the way and soon she would be on her way to the main land. What she hadn’t banked on was the curious taxi driver. She knew him, of course she knew him, everyone knew everyone around here. He was so excited to see the parrot, she began to grow nervous. Next thing they would be in town and the zoo people might be there, and her adventure would be over. But no, the taxi driver just presumed she was taking him back to the main land. When they got to the town the taxi driver slowed the car and told everyone with great pride, that he had the parrot in his car. And they all presumed, like the taxi driver before them, that she knew what she was doing. Of course they did, they all knew she had studied zoology in London, once upon some time. They all knew she was a responsible sort of woman. Even on the ferry they didn’t think, or even realise, for a second, that what she was doing was actually kind of silly.

It was 9am, she could see people going to work. It had only been 3 hours and she was standing on a train station, with her bag, and her parrot. People were surprisingly at ease with the situation. People travel with their animals all the time she supposed. She had called ahead, the train company could put her in a carriage usually meant for people with bikes. It was all quite normal. People were also quite helpful about moving the crate, she hadn’t had to pick it up once. Which was just as well, as she had chosen something far to large and heavy. But the parrot’s comfort had been her prime concern. He occasionally made small squawking noises. She would open the small side door and give him water and pieces of fruit. It was all quite, normal.

They settled in their train carriage and found themselves very much alone. She knew she shouldn’t, but she took him out of his crate. They sat and watched the view together. It was altogether quite polite and normal. He didn’t attempt to fly away or even poo on her. No, he was very pleasant. And this is how they spent their journey to London. They ate fruit, they watched the scenery, and every now and then he was put back into his crate. But new passengers were so curious the train staff didn’t seem to mind him coming out again. Soon it was late afternoon and London looked warm and bright in the spring sun. The train pulled up and she took one last look at her new friend. Her eyes watered but she knew she couldn’t keep him. But it would all be okay. She would spend a few days holiday in London, and when she returned she would get her own parrot. She thought she might call him George.

People are surprisingly polite and helpful to an old Scottish lady with a parrot. And it wasn’t long before she was in a taxi, bound for the ZSL’s London Zoo. She suddenly became very excited. It wasn’t that she wanted to be noticed and complimented on her task or journey. No, it was that she had done something new, something different. Something she would not have expected of herself, but something which, in the week since her 71st birthday, she knew had to be done. The taxi rolled up to the zoo entrance. They were closing up for the day. But it only took a few words with someone at the ticket office before the required experts were running out to see her. She was still waiting for someone to tell her off. Or for someone to ask, a parrot? Why have you brought your parrot here? In which case, she could always take him home again, she thought happily.

A crowd had began to gather around her and her travelling companion. They began to ask all sorts of questions. And as it became clear how far she had come, they listened in awe. How nice it was, she thought, to be taken seriously. Not one of them questioned the actions of a pensioner who had chosen to hand-deliver an escaped red parrot to the London Zoo. They jostled around her. A trolley had appeared and the crate was loaded. They offered her a cup of tea, and she asked whether she could go to see the parrots before she left. They invited her for a tour the next day, but asked that she would come in right now and meet some of their superiors. One man, who seemed to have been put in charge of the parrot, led her to a building. Here her crowd of admirers filled into a medical room, and the parrot was taken out. The bosses, as the staff had called them, had also begun to pile in. A woman who looked like she might be a vet studied the parrot and smiled appreciatively. She congratulated the lady on her care of him. The place was full of noise and smiles. Then an older man walked in and the staff hushed. He paused in the doorway and looked at the parrot for a moment, “Hello!”, he said. Then, looking past the parrot, towards the old lady, “I’ve been waiting for you!”.

Keywords: Parrot, train, Orkney Islands.

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