Elsa Harding, the pole-planter’s wife, found him in a pet shop
in Beaufort West. A little lime-green budgerigar, salt and peppered
at the throat. A quiet little fellow, neat in movement, cruelly
locked up in a blue and white cage with a pair of hoodlums: a
macaw who screamed like a cop siren and a ragged blue parrot,
both with the hot-eyed stares of men who fight in bars.
The salesman saw her smooth, scrubbed face and straight grey hair
and took her for a hick from the sticks. Auntie must buy the parrot,
he kept saying – he sings the old National Anthem.
Typical Beaufort bighead, the salesman, Elsa decided – but not
far wrong about her. For thirty years she’d taught separate Sunday-school
classes for brown kids while Bill worked in the Post Office. Then
came the new South Africa. Lutherburg turned into Buckingham and
no one wanted some white auntie teaching Sunday school to brown
kids over in Golden Meadow. Then Bill took ‘the package’, the
bundle of cash the Post Office paid white guys to leave early,
bought a little BMW and they both retired.
Even as she got into the car outside the ironmongers, when Bill
did a three-point turn and hooted loudly, and balanced the cage
on her lap, she knew what was coming.
The red desert dust enfolded the BMW, as they rollercoastered
through the dips in the baked dirt road back to Buckingham.
‘I speak under correction,’ Bill’s sharp voice climbed higher
in his nose the way it always did when he spoke under correction,
‘but bloody hell! If you want a pet, why not a big biter? A mastiff.
Pit bull. Alsatian. Anything that’ll chew the arse off a burglar.
But not a little bitty bird with a big nose.’
Elsa said, in the firm, flat voice that had stopped the pet-shop
man in his tracks: ‘No, thank you very much.’ Then she lifted
the green baize cover and peeked at the little chap sharpening
his beak on a piece of cuttlefish and blew him a kiss.
She named him Roy, after her father’s old lawyer, Roy Liebenberg,
who had helped Pa that time in the war when he went to jail.
Pa’s mother and sisters had died in the concentration camps where
the English locked up Boer women and children. When the Germans
went to war against the English, Pa had blown up every bridge
around Lutherburg. Her Roy had the same kindly way of cocking
his round head and twinkling at her, as if he knew a lot more
than he let on.
Bill Harding liked to say that pole-planting was hard graft but
regular as religion. And thanks to him everyone just about – except
mad ones like old Aunt Betsy – all over the vast district, got
their first crank-handle phone.
Strangers took a while to fix their ring-code in their ears. Many
a young bride, fresh from the city, jumped for the phone each
time it rang, wept because the calls were always for someone else,
stopped lifting the receiver for weeks, until one day a runner
arrived from the Post Office saying that the exchange had been
ringing her code daily – why didn’t she answer her phone? But
once she knew her ring, she was in the loop.
It might have turned people incurably quizzy. Like folks were,
over in Scorpion Point and Compromise. Except that Lutherburgers
hated gossip worse than strong drink and listened in to the conversations
of others only when they absolutely had to. Besides, just knowing
what people were saying to each other didn’t mean shooting your
mouth off. On the contrary. It meant keeping more to yourself.
Let some hopalong from nowhere-much come to town popping with
questions: did Dominee Greet really tear off his toga in the middle
of Sunday service? Is your new mayor truly a bloody Indian from
Bombay? What’s this about Pascal Le Gros opening a casino in the
Hunter’s Arms? – and he hit the traditional stone wall: ‘None
of my business. Search me. Buggered if I know. Better ask my husband…’
Elsa’s habit was to put Roy’s cage on the windowsill during the
day so he could watch the street. At night he slept on the piano
under a green baize cover to keep him snug. All day long they’d
nuzzle and kiss. Each time the phone rang – and it rang many times
a day with passing traffic she never even noticed any more, just
calls to other farms, other families – Roy stopped swinging on
his trapeze or pecking his bell or sharpening his beak, and cocked
an ear. And when she called out the destination of the call –
the police station, the Pastory, the Hunter’s Arms – so did Roy.
Soon he was saying: ‘Who’s a pretty boy then?’ and trilling a
dozen different ring-codes perfectly, followed by their owners’
names. Easy as pie. He was a great talker, she could see that.
‘You’re a clever Royboy!’ she told him. And he nodded and blew
her a kiss.
She tried to make Bill like him. She taught Roy respectful phrases
like ‘Evening, sir!’ but it did no good. Bill retreated more and
more into his workroom with his boat, stuck a sign on his door,
a bird in a circle with a rude red line through it, and never
showed his face till it was time to leave for his sundowner at
the Hunter’s Arms.
He’d been working at his boat ever since he’d left the Post Office.
He took the plans from Yachting Today, drew them on the
wall, scaled down the twenty-four to sixteen feet; still worked
in the old measurements, using simple materials: hardboard, nails
and alkaline glue. One fine day, Bill swore, she’d be ready: he’d
launch her on the dam, hoist the sail on her twenty-four-foot
mast and cast off, eight passengers aboard.
He knew there was no water in the dam. A decade of drought had
left the great mud-wall dam outside town a flat and grassy pan
over which the springbok scampered. But the rains would come again,
the lake would be six fathoms deep, like it was in the old days
when you could sail for a mile or more. ‘One day,’ he vowed, ‘just
you bloody well watch!’
Come sundowner time, Roy perched on her shoulder they watched
Bill backing the BMW down the drive. After thirty years on his
feet he wasn’t walking anywhere ever again. He’d made himself
that promise when the Post Office paid him off for being too male,
too pale, too middle class for the new Buckingham; and gave his
job to a bunch of brown guys, the new affirmatives.
So he travelled in style now. Cruising two blocks at ten miles
an hour, window down, arm over the door jamb, along Voortrekker
– he still called it Voortrekker, none of this bloody Democracy
nonsense for him – and into Leibrandt Street which was now Freedom
Street, and pulled up in front of the Hunter’s Arms; thank God
that at least had kept its name.
Bill drank two whiskies, never more, for precisely one hour, perched
on a bar stool directly beneath the mini-garden of Japanese parasols
in pink paper, just left of the mounted kudu head with the crumpled
horn. Nursing his double Johnny Walker and soda, chewing the fat
with Pascal Le Gros. Come seven sharp, he drained his glass, said:
‘Well, duty calls…’ and then he was out to the BMW and home
to the wife and supper.
Roy always greeted him respectfully on his return with their phrase
for that day: ‘Welcome home, Mr Harding,’ or even something nautical
like ‘All shipshape and Bristol fashion, Captain!’
But Bill would not make the slightest effort and tended to get
really shirty and he’d bark back: ‘Who asked you, beakface?’
It made Roy unhappy to be spoken to in that tone. Elsa poured
her heart into his care; he rode on her shoulder and sat on her
finger; she rubbed her cheek against his and kissed him. He was
her friend, pupil, child, her Royboy. So quick and lively and
loving! With Bill, she always knew what he was going to say next.
She never knew what Roy would say next.
He loved having her read to him and it was one morning, as they
sat together paging through My Big Book of Tribes, which
had belonged to her old dad, and she was showing him the little
apricot Bushmen toting bows and arrows, who once lived around
Buckingham until they got shot by the farmers, that Roy did something
very clever: he began picking out the tribes by dress and ornaments,
and saying in his/her little boy-girl voice: Two Bushmen, three
Xhosas and a Shangaan.’
It was her neighbour, Baby Vermaak, who made the next discovery.
Not only did he count, he could subtract. After just one lesson
he knew that four Hottentots take away two Bushmen left just two
Hotties! He was like a maths prof, said Baby. He should go on
Soon all sorts of people were dropping by with pictures torn from
Farming Today or the Zwingli Advertiser and the
National Geographic, just to test him out: Maoris rubbing
noses, Bangladeshi farmers in a paddy field, kibbutznik in an
orange grove, Innuit harpooning fish, sumo wrestlers thudding
together like bread dough. Roy lapped it up. You only needed to
hold the picture up to his cage bars, tell him who he was looking
at, give him another glimpse and he knew it.
He hopped up, fixed it with his bright, round eye and sang out:
‘Four spear carriers’ or ‘Two Jewboys’ or ‘Six pansies’, exactly
as you’d told him, in your own voice.
Soon he was doing everyone from Dominee Greet to Pascal Le Gros
You couldn’t fool him by trying a bit of disguise. Cut out a yarmulka
and stick it on a picture of a Griekwa herdsman and Roy sang out:
‘He knows, does Roy,’ said Elsa proudly. ‘Put a hat on a Hottentot
and he’s still a Hottie.’
But his best trick was scaring the street. When the municipal
workers clocked off at five and wandered past the house, on their
way back to Golden Meadow – because, after the Change, everyone
still lived exactly where they had done before the Change, except
for Mimi de Bruyn, and she was odd – Roy would pick out the different
groups passing his window, calling out the score: Two Bantu, six
Coloureds and a Hottentot,’ and he followed each identification
with a couple of bursts from his repertoire, a sleighride of ringing
It worked every time. The pastor or the butcher loved to hide
behind the curtain and watch these guys damn near leap out of
their skins when someone yelled at them in Sergeant Nephews voice,
or with the hollow boom of Pascal Le Gros. And there was no one
to see – just this little bird in his cage on the windowsill.
Roy did ethnic groups; he did new categories, too. When the brown
foreman who had replaced Bill Harding at the PO and five pole-planters
marched past the window, he called out: ‘Six affirmatives!’
A university down the coast heard about Roy and sent a bunch of
professors to observe him doing his stuff. There’d been work on
dolphins, they said, and parrots and chimps. But never, never,
budgerigars. There was, of course, the Clever Hans Syndrome to
watch out for. It had to do with a counting horse. The profs wanted
to be sure Roy was no Clever Hans so they watched him in action
on the windowsill and were incredibly excited by his talents.
And privileged. And proud. Elsa was as good as Doctor Dolittle
in talking to an animal. She appeared to be communicating with
a non-mammalian creature without cueing or prompting.
They begged to be allowed to study Roy in controlled surroundings.
Elsa said maybe later but not right now, she loved him too much
to let him go anywhere, thanks all the same.
The night before the scientists left they sang karaoke in the
Hunter’s Arms and danced on the bar counter and called Roy a scientific
first for the nation. No one could match him in Britain or the
States. Even after years of isolation, South African science was
top-notch. Then one prof grabbed the fringed canopy hanging above
the bar and wore it like a wig and did an impersonation of Tom
Jones. Next morning Pascal said no question but Roy could be a
big tourist pull. Bigger than the dinosaur prints in front of
Levine’s General Dealers.
Through it all Roy stayed his normal modest self, never preening.
Quiet, collected and accurate. He gave everyone something to feel
proud about. And that meant a lot because folks thought they really
blew it in the elections. In other towns they were green with
envy! Over in Eros they put it about that Roy had been trained
by Satanists. And wise-guys in Scorpion Point went and bought
the singing parrot from Beaufort and bragged that he sang the
old National Anthem. So what? He didn’t do tribes, did he? Could
that parrot tell the bloody difference between a Zulu and a zebra?
No way, José!
So it was that when Elsa opened her door to an early morning knock
and found Mayor Williamson and five new councillors on the step,
she wheeled them straight into the front room, simply taking it
for granted, she told Baby Vermaak later, that they must want
a chat with Roy. Though she had thought it was a bit odd that
they wouldn’t actually look at him and asked her to cover him
or take him outside; what they had to say was for her ears only.
She said they could speak freely, she had no secrets from Roy
who was checking out the visitors and now gave an initial reading:
Running his hands through his thick dark Indian hair and showing
off in his new brown suit and his red silk tie – bought, everyone
knew, since he got to be mayor, for they ran him out of Zwingli
with just the shirt on his back just before the election –
Williamson made a speech.
Elsa didn’t hear all of it or remember half of it, she later told
Baby Vermaak, but Williamson kept looking at her like she had
come up from the sewers. His speech was divided into bits about
the new Buckingham and the old Lutherburg. Elsa did not remember
which was which, but one of them was home to rainbow people, and
reconciliation and justice. The other was locked in the past,
riddled with racialists, old-style thinking – and Roy. The mayor
told her he had consulted the Structures. She wasn’t sure what
the Structures were but they were important, she knew, because
the mayor reported that the Structures were angry with Roy. She
had been warned.
Elsa turned to the five councillors then and gave them her look.
Just to remind them she knew who they were even if they’d forgotten
who they were: heavens! there was old Saul who used to do Dr du
Plessis’s garden before he took early retirement and moved away;
and Amos, who cleaned her car; the others had been through her
Sunday-school class. And she absolutely exploded. Great big men
ganging up against a tiny bird. What about their precious Constitution?
Didn’t it say there we had to look after human rights, privacy,
free speech for everyone? The mentally ill, the homeless, women
and children? Didn’t that include Roy?
Roy had been studying the mayor’s delegation and now revised his
tally: ‘Five affirmatives and one coolie’.
The mayor said he was one hundred and one per cent for free speech.
But words like ‘coolie’, ‘Jewboy’, ‘woodenhead’, ‘Hottentot’ and
‘Bushman’ had no place in the new Buckingham. As for privacy –
well, the bird had been seen by witnesses, it stood in the window
and insulted passers-by. The bird broadcast to the street. And
the people in the street were determined to put a stop to him
– if she didn’t do so.
Elsa shivered. lt. felt suddenly as if the house was full of cats.
When she carried Roy to the window next morning, the first thing
she saw was Williamson, wearing his chain of office, standing
among the blue overalls of the men off the sewage truck; it was
a demonstration. There were maids from the Hunter’s Arms in lacy
white aprons and tight cerise skirts and frilly mob-caps looking
like hot cherry tarts. Schoolkids in uniform and staff from the
Volksbank; and Mr Moosah’s bunch of professional troublemakers
saw Roy and began shouting: ‘Death to Imperialism!’ and ‘Hands
off Cuba!’ and drew their fingers across their throats, and miaowed
like cats but Roy wasn’t fazed for a second and shouted right
back: ‘Twenty-six bloody Hottentots!’
And she had to close the window and draw the curtains because
of the racket they kicked up then.
Elsa decided to withdraw Roy from public gaze for a spell and
she thought she knew just how it might be arranged. She wrote
to the university profs who’d been so impressed, and offered to
lend him to science – for a short while.
Bill did not take kindly to being picketed. Then the mayor got
hold of him in the pub and told him he was part of the rainbow
nation and would he please have a word with his wife? Bill said
he was buggered if he’d let some Bombay barrack-room lawyer lord
it over him.
‘Anyway, I’m an Englishman,’ said Bill. ‘People expect me to stand
for fair play and all that. I don’t like it any more than you
do. Why must I sit there being lectured by that fat fraud Le Gros
about adapting or dying, and being a rainbow person and seizing
the future. I don’t give a ratshit about being a rainbow person.
And I don’t like the future. I want a quiet life, right. So kindly
do something about Bigmouth!’
She spoke so softly she could hardly hear her question: do what?
‘Put him to sleep.’
Elsa got this chill, like an icy spider between the shoulders,
like the day the cobra got into little Twinkie du Toit’s crib.
‘No thank you very much,’ she said quietly, ‘I’ve already made
A week later she had a letter from the professor who had done
his Delilah number on the bar counter of the Hunter’s Arms. She
had to read it twice before she got the hang of it: it was full
of stuff about ‘transformation’ and ‘transparency’ and the ‘pursuit
of excellence with equity’ and she got pretty excited especially
as it sounded so good, even if it really didn’t mean anything
to her, and she was formally thanked for her offer; it all seemed
fine – until she got to the BUT:
but believing, as we do, that all stakeholders deserve equal
access to a level playing field, without reference to race, creed,
age, gender, economic circumstance or physical disability, we
regret we cannot expose students to the ethnic and linguistic
attitudes of the bird in question
The bird in question? They didn’t even give him his name! Elsa
was suddenly very frightened and though she nearly died even to
think about it and kept it from Roy of course, she decided there
was only one thing to do. She covered his cage and walked to the
graveyard and there among the cypresses which masked the corner
where suicides were buried she opened the cage door and held him
up to the sun.
‘Off you go, darling,’ she said, trying to keep her voice steady.
Roy sat on his trapeze and stared back at her, quite nonplussed.
With a sob, Elsa pushed her hand into the cage and withdrew him,
feeling his heart pumping in her fist, avoiding his reproachful
eyes, and held him up to the heavens: ‘Fly, sweetheart,’ she begged,
‘before the wicked men hurt you!’
And shutting her eyes again she flung him like a stone into the
sky. She heard his wings, and with a sob she bade him farewell.
She kept her eyes screwed shut until she felt a sudden flutter
of wings and Roy landed on her shoulder, after a half-hearted
circle overhead, and began kissing her ear.
‘Oh Royboy – what am I to do with you?’ cried Elsa.
That’s where Mimi de Bruyn saw her, in the graveyard, and felt
instinctively her pain. Mimi was still recovering from the shock
of being appointed head of Health and Gender in the new Buckingham
Municipal Council. Everyone told her it was a big thing and she
must be very pleased but try as she might, she did not enjoy the
importance granted her, or approve of it. But she was saddled
with it. The new mayor had called her when he and Mr Moosah were
parcelling out appointments between the ruling party and Mr Moosah’s
Communist Party of New Buckingham.
‘Mimi,’ said the mayor, ‘we want you to head up Gender.’
And she asked, stupidly, ‘What’s that?’
‘It means being for women,’ said the mayor, ‘and allowing us –
us men, that is – to start seeking forgiveness for the way we’ve
treated women in the past. Women have been at the forefront of
the struggle for freedom; it’s time to fight for equal rank.’
‘Our policies are to support women, kids and the handicapped,’
said Mr Moosah. ‘But first comes Gender. And I for one wish to
ask you for your forgiveness, Comrade Mimi, for my male proclivities
over years. None of us are free of prejudice, I fear. Least of
all, my own Asian community.
‘If you know Gender so well, why don’t one of you do it?’ Mimi
Mr Moosah looked shocked. ‘I couldn’t. It needs a woman’s touch
to do Gender. Properly.’
‘I’d like myself,’ said Williamson carefully, ‘to do more Gender.
But I’ve got enough on my hands. So, please – you do Gender, Mimi.’
She had done no Gender since her appointment, and the sort of
meeting she had just left, which had discussed how to make the
sewage service truck a Gender-free working environment, had ended
in acrimony when Mr Moosah as leader of SODU, Buckingham’s Syndicate
of Democratic unions, said that putting women on the truck would
cost his men their jobs and when Mimi asked: didn’t he care about
Gender then? Mr Moosah got cross and said Gender was all very
well, but you had to have Gender with equity and he voted they
set up a committee to investigate and everyone agreed.
Why, Mimi wondered aloud, was Elsa Harding in the graveyard urging
Roy to fly away?
Elsa wept and said Roy simply couldn’t cope with the changes in
‘Neither can I,’ Mimi smiled gently.
‘It’s his conversation,’ sobbed Elsa. ‘He says all the wrong words.
They’ll kill him if he goes on.’
‘Who will?’ Mimi asked.
‘The new men – the mayor and others – they came and they said
‘Six woodenheads and a charrah,’ said Roy.
Elsa began sobbing again: ‘You see! He does it all the time.’
Dimly, happily, Mimi saw here, perhaps, a chance to do something.
She put an arm around Elsa’s shoulders: ‘They’ve got no right
to make you suffer for things the bird says. What about people
with dogs? Don’t they train them to bark at brown people and never
at whites? Must they untrain them now? And if they don’t will
the mayor shoot the dogs next? If anyone threatens you again,
come and tell me. Will you promise me that?’
And Elsa promised. Then she went home. She was passing the Hunter’s
Arms when she remembered that Pascal Le Gros was forever telling
Bill to seize the future and become a rainbow person. Before she
knew it, Elsa walked straight through the front doors of the Hunter’s
Arms, not caring whether anyone branded her a loose woman for
entering Satan’s lair. She would happily have made a pact with
the devil – if it meant saving her darling.
Pascal was leaning over the bar; in his white cricket jersey and
flannels, he floated over the oaken counter like a woollen moon
knitted with large needles. After banishing Roy to the dining
room and shutting the door so he wouldn’t hear what she was about
to say, she begged Pascal, as a man of the modern world with relatives
in Miami, to tell her what to do and Pascal said: ‘No probs. Seriously.
I’ll make a list.’
The next morning Elsa sat with Roy at the window, a packet of
roasted pomegranate seeds in her right hand, Pascal’s list in her
left. Together they watched brown council workers passing by and
when Roy called out: ‘Six Coloureds,’ Elsa corrected him, according
to the list: ‘No dear – six mixed-race persons.
But Roy, who had been so quick with ring-codes, tribes, hats and
noses, was slow to catch on. Show him a duo of Bengali farmers
and, after a long stare, with what sounded like the tiniest sigh
of irritation, he managed: Two Asians.’ That won him a handful
of seeds. But a minute later, faced with commuters in a Calcutta
railway station, Roy counted: "Ten coolies,’ and lost his
seed ration for an hour.
And he was bloody-minded. Show him a shot of a Gay Pride parade.
Ask till you were blue in the face: ‘How many lesbian and gay
persons?’ And back came the answer: Twenty bloody pooftahs!’
He was better at changing Bushmen and Hottentots into Khoi-San,
even if he kept forgetting whether hunters came before gatherers.
Anyway, at least they were extinct, thank heaven, and not themselves
touchy. But when it really mattered, he blurted out the first
thing that came into his head: ‘Natives, rickshaw boys, boneheads’
– every one marked DNM (Do Not Mention) on Pascal’s list.
And she would have to start all over again. First the picture,
then the answer, then the question. Slow and relaxed:
‘One what, Roy?’
He gave her a look that said he didn’t believe he was doing anything
so idiotic. But he played along, answering her question in her
own voice: ‘One – black – African – person. Good boy, Roy!‘
All this – and sarcasm! If Roy felt silly, what the heck did he
think she felt? Elsa steeled herself: very well. If he wanted
to behave like a baby she would jolly well treat him like one.
Thus began the use of the green rubber band, stretched between
thumb and forefinger. He got three chances. Show him a dignified
Masai tribesperson standing like a stork on one leg, get back
‘One kaffir’ and she gave a warning twang on the rubber band.
Get back ‘Big nig-nog’ and a double twang sounded. Three strikes
and he was O-U-T. His beak snapped shut with the green rubber
band for the rest of the morning. Hurt her more than it did him.
But he simply had to learn.
Bill began having nightmares. Led by Mayor Williamson, a crowd
of mixed-race persons broke into his garage and smashed up his
yacht. He lay in bed beside Elsa, weeping; everything had been
ready! The rains were coming, the dam would fill, the mast had
been fitted, the breeze was sharp… then five years of work was
smashed with pickaxes.
He woke, groaning: ‘We’re sunk. The little bastard!’
Bill went hunting, something he hadn’t done since he left the
PO. Slinging his American carbine over his shoulder, at the crack
of dawn he headed off to the lucerne fields. Came back with a
brace of Egyptian geese, badly mangled because he was using heavy
145 grain ammo, probably on purpose, she guessed. He laid out
the blood-streaked glossy-green corpses on the dining room table
where Roy couldn’t miss them. He said some birds never bloody
well learned their lesson. He had brought down the first bird
and pegged it out on the ground as a decoy. It fooled those overhead
who came in for a look, then he knocked the next sucker out of
the sky. Worked every time.
Bill bent with his lips close to Roy’s ear and hissed: There’s
nothing dumber than a duck – except a dead duck. Right, birdbrain?’
Elsa knew she would have to work faster if she was to save Roy.
She halved his seed and water ration, dropped his cover over the
cage and left him in solitary for anything from a couple of hours
to a couple of days. Depending. Something like ‘Redneck’ got him
the cooler for ten minutes. Slander an Englishman with ‘Saltycock’
and he drew an hour in solitary. ‘Jewboy’ earned two. ‘Nig-nog’
and he was on short rations all day.
Roy hated solitary, clinging to the bars as she shoved him through
the cage door. Crying and keening and pecking at his feathers.
But, then, as she told him, dropping his cover over the cage,
he should have thought of that before calling Tutankhamun ‘One
Gyppo’. They’d done Egyptians all day – hadn’t they? So there
was no excuse.
Longest sentence – for calling an amiable bishop ‘that black bastard!’
– was three days hard. But she softened after a day, feeling maybe
she’d gone a bit far, horrified by the dead silence under the
cover. In a panic she whipped it off only to find the cunning
little so-and-so sound asleep.
It was the last straw. Who’d saved him from the Beaufort pet shop
and the mayor and the angry Structures and Bill’s murderous plans?
She wasn’t giving up now. No thank you very much! From now on,
Elsa swore, no more sleeping on the job. He had to try harder.
She began leaving the cover off his cage and the overhead light
on. Sometimes all night. Or she put on his cover, seeing how he
was aching for rest, only to whip it off moments later when she
knew he’d nodded off, and yell: ‘Wakey, wakey! Roy – what’ve I
got here?’ And slap a Zulu craftsperson or San hunter-gatherer
against the bars.
If he said: ‘One garden boy’ or ‘Bloody Hottentot’ or anything
Not to Be Mentioned, back went the cover and ten minutes later,
just as he was sneaking off to sleep, she did it all again.
It worked. He was trying harder. Thinking long and carefully before
answering questions, saying less and less. He’d open his beak,
then close it again, staring at her forehead until she told him:
‘You won’t find the answer there, nossir!’ And popped him into
solitary for a couple of hours.
He came out quieter than ever and the salt and pepper plumage
of his neck looked rather ashy. Shaky on his pins, too. But that
might have been a play for sympathy. She tried him on Tamil farmers,
Israeli settlers, Ibo dancers. Nothing. Ruffling his neck feathers
in little shivers, eyes glazed, he just went on hopping from one
claw to the other, like a cyclist, dreamily pedalling a rung of
his ladder and saying nothing else all day.
She tested him with the official photo of Mayor Williamson, wearing
official robes and chain of office. Though Bill said this was
playing with fire. Anyone with half an eye would know what he
was looking at – just a coolie in a necklace. But Roy, who once
could have told you, on the turn, that a Hottie in a hat stayed
a Hottie, barely glanced at the mayor and went back to staring
at the bars of his cage with weary eyes. He uttered not a peep.
Not even when he came face to face with himself in his little
oval mirror with the seashell surround. He just gave himself a
puzzled stare. As if he didn’t know who he was. Of course it was
sad. At his peak, Roy could add, subtract and answer the phone,
knew every ringcode in fifty miles, each voice in the district,
all the tribes in the country. Now he clung to his perch and seldom
opened his beak. But if Elsa was honest, it was also an incredible
relief. Better safe than sorry. Better no answers than wrong answers.
The rains came. The dam filled. Bill whistled in his workroom
as he mixed his alkaline glue. His boat was weeks away from the
launch. And he was really friendly now. Back from the pub of an
evening, he’d poke a finger through the cage door until Roy hopped
aboard and hung on, swaying, and Bill would wink and blow kisses,
asking in that high voice he usually kept for speaking under correction:
‘Who’s a pretty boy, then?’
But Roy wasn’t saying.
There were moments when Elsa thought she caught a gleam in his
round, dark, empty eye. Something hot. Like embers under the ash
of last night’s fire. So she kept her rubber band handy. Just
in case. You never knew. What would happen if one day, without
warning, some person of mixed race, or an Asian, Chinese, gay
activist, kibbutznik or African gentleman dropped in, and Roy
suddenly remembered he had something to say?
Copyright © Christopher Hope 1997
This story may not be archived or distributed further without
the author’s express permission. Please read the license.
1994 appears in Christopher Hope’s latest book, Me, The Moon and Elvis Presley
This electronic version of 1994 is published by The Richmond Review
by arrangement with the author and his agents, Rogers, Coleridge & White/Literary Agency.
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