House of Parrots
By hilary west
"I'm sick of you feeding those parrots at Mr. Brown's, Tom."
"But, Mum, I enjoy it."
"I don't like him."
"He's lonely, Mum."
"Well, he shouldn't have gone divorcing his wife, should he, all those years ago? She was a nice woman. There's something wrong with the man. And anyway, Tom, from what I've heard he's not that lonely."
"I only go to see the parrots. I love the colours."
"He is quite friendly, Mum."
"Yes, until he gets tired of you and loses his temper."
"It doesn't happen often."
"Too often for me, Tom."
"Anyway I'm going - you can't stop me."
"Please yourself, but don't come complaining to me when he starts hurling abuse at you."
"No, it doesn't matter. I'm used to him."
Beauhampton was a pleasant village. Amy and Tom Evans had lived there all their lives. Amy's husband had died ten years ago. He'd been an artificer in Westbury. Most people in the village conducted their working lives in Westbury, the nearest large town to Beauhampton. The village was a bit of a dormitory: very spruce, very small, and in some ways, very select. At the centre of the village was the old Norman church, built around 1150, with the vicar, twenty-five year old Trevor Hampton-Kline, being a fitting symbol of middle class respectability. Having said that, very few of the villagers actually attended his Sunday Services. Someone who did, and on a very regular basis, was Major Stafford Potter-Barnes and his wife Fenella. They owned the big house on the outskirts of the village, Abbeyfield Manor. It was surrounded by quite a lot of land, but it was not necessarily they who owned it. A lot of it had been sold off in the nineteenth century and both Stafford and Fenella had spent the last five years of their lives at least trying to buy it back. Some of the owners of it, however, just would not sell.
One owner of a large part of the land directly adjacent to Abbeyfield Manor was Gerald Brown, the man with the parrots. As the Victorian wall clock struck four in Gerald's rather conservative, west-facing living room, he opened one of the cages he kept his parrots in. A brightly coloured bird alighted onto his wrinkled hand. That Tom Evans, he thought to himself, a nice enough boy, but really a bit simple. To be thirty-five and still following his mother around the village like the little lamb that Mary had, was all a bit too absurd. For all of that, Gerald could not deny Tom entry to his abode for he felt somehow that the parrots responded to Tom in a way even he could not evince. Gerald stroked the red and blue parrot he called Sparky, one of Tom's favourites, and billed and cooed like one demented. As he did so the door chimes sounded in the hallway.
Gerald looked out from behind a heavily draped window, the plush, red velvet soft on his skin as it momentarily brushed his face. Through the lace of the net curtain he could see Tom standing at the top of the three steps at the front door clutching the by now customary, brown paper bag full of fruit.
"So it's you again, Tom," the old seventy-one year old intoned to the man on the doorstep.
"Yes, Mr. Brown, I've come to see the parrots again."
"I know why you come, Tom. Come on in then."
Tom followed the ageing pensioner through to the living room. Six cages dotted around his parrot room were home to twelve birds but in the room he lived in, in a single cage, there would be a squawk or sometimes an intelligible word from Sparky, the only parrot kept separate from the rest. Not only had Gerald taught him conventional phrases like 'pretty boy' but you might also hear 'little tramp', 'howdy missy' or even 'rotten bastard'. As Tom opened his brown paper bag to push fruit through the cage bars, Sparky, his favourite, gave out a clipped 'bastard'. Tom said, "he really likes me Mr. Brown. I don't know why he says that."
"No, Tom. He says it to everybody. Don't worry."
Gerald's house was one of the larger ones in the village. He'd been quite well-heeled in his time. Now he was retired from his job as an accountant but he was still not short of a bob or two. The stone-built detached home was double-fronted, late Victorian and had spacious rooms with five bedrooms on the first floor. It was far too big for Gerald, who lived there on his own, and he rattled around in it like a pea in a drum. The house was full of old mahogany furniture, dated, but substantial, if heavy. His old sofas and armchairs were well-upholstered but many of them faded and worn. Perhaps this was just as well considering what the parrots could do. The house needed a woman's touch to bring in new fabrics and new colours to an old-fashioned style that harked back forty years. Whatever money Gerald had, one felt he wasn't one to spend it; certainly not on little fripperies. Some would have considered him a miser, but he seemed happy enough. He lived for his parrots: they were his pride and joy. And for all Tom could sometimes annoy him, he enjoyed the attention both he and the birds got whenever Tom called.
"Don't the birds ever want to fly outside?" Tom asked, quite innocently.
"I don't think they're bothered, Tom, they've been cooped up so long. Sometimes they fly around this room; that's enough, but their wings are weak, they can't fly far."
"It seems a pity, that's all. They were meant to fly."
"Are you saying it's cruel?"
"Not really, I don't know."
"Well it isn't. I'm not a cruel man, Tom. I don't want my birds to suffer."
"No, Mr. Brown, I suppose not."
"Give the others the rest of your fruit and go, Tom. My back is playing up again. You know I have pains."
"Yes, Mr. Brown. My mum says it's arthritis, she's got it in her fingers."
"It's probably just old age creeping up on me, Tom. I don't think it's anything else. We all get aches and pains when we are older."
"Is that lovely, young nurse coming to make it better?"
"What business is that of yours?"
"Oh I am sorry, Mr. Brown. It's just everybody in the village says how understanding Wendy Hewlitt is."
"She isn't that young, Tom. She's over forty."
"Is she? She's very attractive. My mum says she walks like Marilyn Monroe used to."
"Oh does she? Wendy is a professional, Tom. She gives me professional help."
"Yes, I know. Mum says she's got power in her hands."
"It's only training, Tom. She's a qualified physiotherapist."
'Bastard, bastard' was uttered by Sparky, mitrailleuse fashion.
"Those damn birds, Tom, they are more cheeky than you." "I think so, Mr. Brown. I don't insult anyone."
"No, Tom, you are a good man."
"I'm thirty-five. It was my birthday last week, Mr. Brown."
"I've just harvested some potatoes from the garden, would you like them for your dinner, Tom?"
"Yes please. Mum loves fresh vegetables. The gardener at Abbeyfield Manor sometimes sells her stuff. Do you know him, Derek Moore?"
"Yes, I know him. He's a good-for-nothing. He's probably stolen them, Tom."
"Mum says he's okay, but a bit cocky. She says women like him and if she was forty years younger........."
"Yes, Tom, never mind. You just avoid him or he'll get you into trouble."
"He let's me sweep up the grass on the lawns at Abbeyfield."
"Oh, he would, it's less work for him. If I catch him slacking I'll have a word with Mrs. Potter-Barnes."
"Don't do that, Mr. Brown. We don't want trouble for nobody. Mum says live and let live. It's because the Germans wouldn't do that that they got into a second world war and look what a mess that was, Mr. Brown."
"You are right, Tom, best let sleeping dogs lie."
Tom left Gerald's house quite quickly. The house was on the village's main street. At the top of the village was Beauhampton's crowning achievement - the ruins of the eleventh century castle built by Edward the Confessor. It was from here he gave orders to his local flunkees. Derek Moore had been riding on his lawnmower, cutting the extensive patches of green. Now, at four-thirty, he bunked off and made his way to the 'Waters of March' pub to slake what was an incredible thirst after all afternoon in the early summer heat. Tom, a slow walker at the best of times, could see Derek in the distance walking towards the heart of the village. Tom thought, I'll wait for Derek, say hello to him. Derek, seeing Tom dallying on the road thought what a loser, but at least he isn't tied to Amy Evans's apron strings for once: that makes a change.
As Derek neared, Tom said " Hello Derek, I've been with Mr. Brown, I've been feeding his parrots."
"Yes, Tom. Has that special one been swearing again? They're a damn nuisance. Everybody knows he's twisted, teaching that Sparky to insult people. It called me a petty crook when I did his garden once. I went in to get paid and it just kept repeating it. That house is a bit of a museum too. All that old furniture - it wants throwing out. He's as tight as a duck's arse. It took me all my time to get the money he owed me."
"I like Mr. Brown, Derek. There's no harm in him, not really. He's ill with his back. Mum says he's got arthritis."
"Yeh, and that bloody tart Wendy Hewlitt isn't relieving it for him and the rest."
"What do you mean, Derek?"
"Well, there's something in his past. I don't know what it is, Tom, but why did his wife leave him? If you ask me there are unanswered questions concerning Gerald Brown. He probably says I'm a thief, does he?"
"He did suggest that, Derek."
"I knew it. He tells people a load of rubbish, Tom. I don't like him and I don't think anybody else does. You should keep away from him."
"Mum doesn't like him. She knows he sometimes shouts at me."
"Well why do you go?" "It's for the parrots. Sparky and I are friends. I love them."
"It's up to you, Tom, but the man isn't popular."
"Where are you going, Derek?"
"I'm off to the 'Waters of March'."
"See you later then, bye."
Tom trundled past the pub and went down a little alley to the row of houses in front of the river. Tom and Amy lived in the second one along, two doors away from Nerys Hewlitt, Wendy's mother. Nerys lived on her own now. Wendy would visit her once or twice a week, usually when she was seeing Gerald, but then beetle off back to Westbury where she lived alone in the town centre in her own little flat. Amy and Nerys could get along okay but disagreed on one thing - Gerald Brown. Where Amy was circumspect, Nerys was gushing; to her he could do no wrong - such a lovely gentleman and so kind to Wendy. The weather was warm. June was like that in this part of the country and, near the river, the place could be described as idyllic. The greenery on the river banks, the meadowsweet and ragged robin, and the heavy canopy of trees made it such a special place. Often it was so quiet here and living in this terrace was comfort to both Amy and Nerys.
The old cottages had been built in the eighteenth century but were modernised tastefully and were a desirable place to live now. They were out of the reach of first time buyers however. Derek had wanted one which had come up for sale but there was no way a gardener's wages would afford one. River Cottages was unbelievably fashionable now and both Amy and Nerys enjoyed the kudos. They laughed to themselves though, knowing they had picked them up for next to nothing fifty years ago.
* * *
Derek entered the 'Waters of March' and moved over to the bar. There weren't a lot of people in yet. It was a bit early. The manageress of the pub was holding full sway behind the bar. Ella Dickson was a plumpish woman of fifty. Good-looking, if in a rather obvious way, she had blonde hair which she kept dyed now to try to preserve at least some aura of a youth that was long gone. She had a happy-go-lucky personality that tagged 'darling' onto most of her phrases. But she was a good-hearted person, liking clothes that were a bit fancy maybe and possibly too colourful and bright. She could certainly not be called dowdy. Today she was wearing lovely earrings of white and yellow daisies with some yellow beads around her neck, just touching an ample cleavage, tantalizingly revealed, beneath a red chiffon blouse. She could be as colourful as a Van Gogh painting, our Ella. Truth was, she would hear a lot of local gossip in the bar and, in her time, had probably been a subject of some of it. But to be fair to the woman she had a good word for everybody - that was her nature.
One person, however, she never seemed to comment on much was Gerald Brown. Apparently years ago she had had an affair with him. Now it was a taboo subject. She was talking to some people at the moment Derek didn't know. They would probably be visitors to the village. The pub did quite a lot of business in the summer because of the proximity of the castle. In the summer holidays for the schools families came in their cars, went on the river, and then enjoyed a pint in the very same pub. They would usually sit in the beer garden at the back. Ella was raking it in but as she was only the manager for Tavistock's brewery she wasn't one to benefit personally. Old Mr. Tavistock had proposed to her once, but Ella's love of money wasn't so great that she would ally herself to an eighty-nine year old with Parkinson's disease who was now confined to a wheelchair.