Issue 166, Summer 2003
A boy with a parrot on his shoulder was walking along the railway tracks. His gait was dreamy and he swung a daisy as he went. With each step the boy dragged his toes in the rail bed, as if measuring out his journey with careful ruled marks of his shoetops in the gravel. It was midsummer, and there was something about the black hair and pale face of the boy against the green unfurling flag of the downs beyond, the rolling white eye of the daisy, the knobby knees in their short pants, the self-important air of the handsome gray parrot with its savage red tail feather, that charmed the old man as he watched them go by. Charmed him, or aroused his sense–a faculty at one time renowned throughout Europe–of promising anomaly.
The old man lowered the latest number of The British Bee Journal to the rug of Shetland wool that was spread across his own knobby but far from charming knees, and brought the long bones of his face closer to the windowpane. The tracks–a spur of the Brighton-Eastbourne line, electrified in the late twenties with the consolidation of the Southern Railway routes–ran along an embankment a hundred yards to the north of the cottage, between the concrete posts of a wire fence. It was ancient glass the old man peered through, rich with ripples and bubbles that twisted and toyed with the world outside.
Yet even through this distorting pane it seemed to the old man that he had never before glimpsed two beings more intimate in their parsimonious sharing of a sunny summer afternoon than these.
He was struck, as well, by their apparent silence. It seemed probable to him that in any given grouping of an African gray parrot–a notoriously prolix species–and a boy of nine or ten, at any given moment, one or the other of them ought to be talking. Here was another anomaly. As for what it promised, this the old man–though he had at one time made his fortune and his reputation through a long and brilliant series of extrapolations from unlikely groupings of facts–could not, could never, have begun to foretell.
As he came nearly in line with the old man's window, some one hundred yards away, the boy stopped. He turned, his narrow back to the old man as if he could feel the latter's gaze upon him. The parrot glanced first to the east, then to the west, with a strangely furtive air. The boy was up to something. A hunching of the shoulders, an anticipatory flexing of the knees. It was some mysterious business-distant in time but deeply familiar–yes–
The toothless clockwork engaged; the unstrung Steinway sounded: the conductor rail.
Even on a sultry afternoon like this one, when cold arid damp did not trouble the hinges of his skeleton, it could be a lengthy undertaking, done properly, to rise from his chair, negotiate the shifting piles of ancient-bachelor clutter–newspapers cheap and of quality, trousers, bottles of salve and liver pills, learned annals and quarterlies, plates of crumbs–that made treacherous the crossing of his parlor, and open his front door to the world. Indeed the daunting prospect of the journey from armchair to doorstep was among the reasons for his lack of commerce with the world, on the rare occasions when the world, gingerly taking hold of the brass door-knocker wrought in the hostile form of a giant apis dorsata, came calling. Nine visitors out of ten he would sit, listening to the bemused mutterings and fumblings at the door, reminding himself that there were few now living for whom he would willingly risk catching the toe of his slipper in the hearth rug and spilling the scant remainder of his life across the cold stone floor. But as the boy with the parrot on his shoulder prepared to link his own modest puddle of electrons to the million-volt torrent of them being pumped along the conductor or third rail from the Southern Railway power plant on the Ouse outside of Lewes, the old man hoisted himself from his chair with such unaccustomed alacrity that the bones of his left hip produced a disturbing scrape. Lap rug and journal slid to the floor.
He wavered a moment, groping already for the door latch, though he still had to cross the entire room to reach it.
His failing arterial system labored to supply his suddenly skybound brain with useful blood. His ears rang and his knees ached and his feet were plagued with stinging. He lurched, with a haste that struck him as positively giddy, toward the door, and jerked it open, somehow injuring, as he did so, the nail of his right forefinger.
“You, boy!" he called, and even to his own ears his voice sounded querulous, wheezy, even a touch demented. "Stop that at once!”
The boy turned. With one hand he clutched at the fly of his trousers. With the other he cast aside the daisy. The parrot sidestepped across the boy's shoulders to the back of his head, as if taking shelter there.
“Why, do you imagine, is there a fence?" the old man said, aware that the barrier fences had not been maintained since the war began and were in poor condition for ten miles in either direction. “For pity's sake, you'd be fried like a smelt!” As he hobbled across his dooryard toward the boy on the tracks, he took no note of the savage pounding of his heart. Or rather he noted it with anxiety and then covered the anxiety with a hard remark. “One can only imagine the stench.”
Flower discarded, valuables restored with a zip to their tiny reticule, the boy stood motionless. He held out to the old man a face as wan and empty as the bottom of a beggar's tin cup. The old man could hear the flatted chiming of milk cans at Satterlee’s farm a quarter mile off, the agitated rustle of the housemartins under his own eaves, and, as always, the ceaseless machination of the hives. The boy shifted from one foot to the other, as if searching for an appropriate response.
He opened his mouth, and closed it again. It was the parrot who finally spoke.
“Zwei eins sieben fünf vier sieben drei," the parrot said, in a soft, oddly breathy voice, with the slightest hint of a lisp. The boy stood, as if listening to the parrot's statement, though his expression did not deepen or complicate. "Vier acht vier neun eins eins sieben.”
The old man blinked. The German numbers were so unexpected, literally so outlandish, that for a moment they registered only as a series of uncanny noises, savage avian utterances devoid of any sense.
“Bist du deutscher?" the old man finally managed, a little uncertain, for a moment, of whether he was addressing the boy or the parrot. It had been thirty years since he had last spoken German, and he felt the words tumble from a high back shelf of his mind.
Cautiously, with a first flicker of emotion in his gaze, the boy nodded.
The old man stuck his injured finger into his mouth and sucked it without quite realizing that he did so, without remarking the salt flavor of his own blood. To encounter a solitary German, on the South Downs, in July 1944, and a German boy at that–here was a puzzle to kindle old appetites and energies. He felt pleased with himself for having roused his bent frame from the insidious grip of his armchair.
“How did you get here?" the old man said. "Where are you going? Where in heaven's name did you get that parrot?”
Then he offered translations into German, of varying quality, for each of his questions.
The boy stood, faintly smiling as he scratched at the back of the parrot's head with two grimy fingers. The density of his silence suggested something more than unwillingness to speak; the old man wondered if the boy might be rather less German than mentally defective, incapable of sound or sense.
An idea came to the old man. He held up a hand to the boy, signaling that he ought to wait just where he was. Then he withdrew once more to the gloom of his cottage. In a corner cabinet, behind a battered coal scuttle in which he had once kept his pipes, he found a dust-furred tin of violet pastilles, stamped with the portrait of a British general whose great victory had long since lost any relevance to the present situation of the Empire. The old man's retinae swam with blots and paisley tadpoles of remembered summer light, and the luminous inverted ghost of a boy with a parrot on his shoulder.
He had a sudden understanding of himself, from the boy's point of view, as a kind of irascible ogre, appearing from the darkness of his thatched cottage like something out of the Brothers Grimm, with a rusted tin of suspect candy in his clawlike, bony hand. He was surprised, and relieved as well, to find the boy still standing there when he reemerged.
“Here," he said, holding out the tin. "It has been many years, but in my time sweets were widely acknowledged to be a kind of juvenile Esperanto." He grinned, doubtless a crooked and ogreish grin. "Come. Have a pastille? There.
The boy nodded, and crossed the sandy dooryard to take the candy from the tin. He helped himself to three or four of the little pilules, then gave a solemn nod of thanks. A mute, then; something wrong with his vocal apparatus.
“Bitte," said the old man. For the first time in a very many years, he felt the old vexation, the mingled impatience and pleasure at the world's beautiful refusal to yield up its mysteries without a fight. "Now," he went on, licking his dry lips with patent ogreishess. "Tell me how you came to be so very far from home. ”
The pastilles rattled like beads against the boy's little teeth.
The parrot worked its graphite blue beak fondly through his hair. The boy sighed, an apologetic shrug taking momentary hold of his shoulders. Then he turned and went back the way he had come.
“Neun neun drei acht zwei sechs sieben," said the parrot, as they walked off into the wavering green vastness of the afternoon.
There were so many queer aspects of Sunday dinner at the Panicker table that Mr. Shane, the new arrival, aroused the suspicions of his fellow lodger Mr. Parkins merely by seeming to take no notice of any of them. He strode into the dining room, a grand, rubicund fellow who set the floorboards to creaking mightily when he trod them and who looked as if he keenly felt the lack of a pony between his legs. He wore his penny-red hair cropped close to the scalp and there was something indefinitely colonial, a nasal echo of cantonment or goldfields, in his speech. He nodded in turn to Parkins, to the refugee child, and to Reggie Panicker, and then fluqg himself into his chair like a boy settling onto the back of a school chum for a ride across the lawn. Immediately he struck up a conversation with the elder Panicker on the subject of American roses, a subject which, he freely admitted, he knew nothing about.
A profound reservoir of poise, or a pathological deficit of curiosity, Parkins supposed, might explain the near-total lack of interest that Mr. Shane, who gave himself out to be a traveler in milking equipment for the firm of Chedbourne & Jones, Yorkshire, appeared to take in the nature of his interlocutor, Mr. Panicker, who was not only a Malayalee from Kerala, black as a bootheel, but also a high-church Anglican vicar. Politesse or stupidity, perhaps, might also prevent him from remarking on the sullen way in which Reggie Panicker, the vicar's grown son, was gouging a deep hole in the tatted tablecloth with the point of his fish knife, as well as of the presence at the table of a mute nine-year-old boy whose face was like a blank back page from the book of human sorrows.
But it was the way in which Mr. Shane paid so little attention to the boy's parrot that made it impossible for Mr. Parkins to accept the new lodger at face value. No one could be immune to the interest that inhered in the parrot, even if, as now, the bird was merely reciting bits and scraps of poems of Goethe and Schiller known to every German schoolchild over the age of seven. Mr. Parkins, who had, for reasons of his own, long kept the African gray under careful observation, immediately saw in the new lodger a potential rival in his ongoing quest to solve the deepest and most vexing mystery of the remarkable African bird. Clearly, Someone Important had heard about the numbers, and had sent Mr. Shane to hear them for himself.
“Well, here we are." Into the dining room swung Mrs. Panicker, carrying a Spode tureen. She was a large, plain, flaxen-haired Oxfordshirewoman whose unimaginably wild inspiration of thirty years past, to marry her father's coal-eyed, serious young assistant minister from India, had borne fruit far mealier than the ripe rosy papaws which she had, breathing in the scent of Mr. K.T. Panicker's hair oil on a warm summer evening in 1913, permitted herself to anticipate.
But she kept an excellent table, one that merited the custom of a far greater number of lodgers than the Panicker household currently enjoyed. The living was a minor one, the black vicar locally unpopular, the parishioners stingy as flints, and the Panicker family, in spite of Mrs. Panicker's thrift and stern providence, uncomfortably poor. It was only Mrs. Panicker's lavishly tended kitchen garden and culinary knack that could make possible a fine cold cucumber and chervil soup such as the one that she now proposed, lifting the lid of the tureen, to Mr. Shane, for whose sudden presence in the house, with two months paid in advance, she was clearly grateful.
“Now, I'm warning you well beforehand, this time, Master Steinman," she said as she ladled pale green cream, flecked with emerald, into the boy's bowl, "it's a cold soup and meant to be." She looked at Mr. Shane, frowning, though her eyes held a faint glint of amusement. "Sprayed the whole table with cream soup, last week, did the boy, Mr. Shane,” she went on. "Ruined Reggie's best cravat.”
“If only that were the most this boy had ruined," Reggie said, from behind his spoonful of cucumber soup. "If only we could leave it at a cravat.”
Reggie Panicker was the despair of his parents and, like many sons who betray even the most modest aspirations of their parents, a scourge of the neighborhood as well. He was a gambler, a liar, a malcontent, and a sneak. Parking–showing, it now seemed to him, a certain thickness of wit–had lost a pair of gold cufflinks, a box of pen nibs, twelve shillings, and his good luck charm, a blond five-franc chip from the Casino Royale in Monaco, before catching on to Reggie's thieving ways.
“And how old would young Mr. Steinman be, then?" Mr. Shane said, training the flashing heliograph of his smile on the faraway eyes of the little Jew. "Nine is it? Are you nine, boy?”
As usual, though, the lookouts in the head of Linus Steinman had been left unmanned. The smile went unacknowledged.
The boy seemed, in fact, not to have heard the question, though Parkins had long since established that there was nothing wrong with his ears. The sudden clatter of a plate could make him jump. The tolling of the bell in the church tower could fill his great dark eyes with unaccountable tears.
“You won't get answers out of that one," Reggie said, tipping the last of his soup into his mouth. "Dumb as a mallet, is that one.”
The boy looked down at his soup. He frowned. He was regarded by most of the residents of the vicarage, and in the neighborhood, as non-Anglophonic and quite possibly stupid. But Parkins had his doubts on both scores.
“Master Steinman came to us from Germany," Mr. Panicker said. He was a learned man whose Oxford accent was tinged with a disappointed subcontinental lilt. "He formed part of a small group of children, most of them Jewish, whose emigration to Britain was negotiated by Mr. Wilkes, the vicar of the English Church in Berlin.”
Shane nodded, mouth open, eyes blinking slowly, like a golfing man pretending to enjoy for courtesy's sake an impromptu lecture on cell mitosis or irrational numbers. He might never have heard of Germany or Jews or, for that matter, of vicars or children. The air of deep boredom that settled over his features looked entirely natural to them. And yet Mr. Parkins mistrusted it. The parrot, whose name was Bruno, was now reciting from Der Erlkonig, softly, even one might have said politely, in its high, halting voice. The bird's delivery, though toneless and a bit rushed, had a childish poignancy not inappropriate to the subject of the poem. And yet still the new lodger had taken no notice of the parrot.
Mr. Shane looked at the boy, who looked down at his soup, dipping the merest tip of his spoon into the thick pale bowlful.
As far as Parkins had ever observed–and he was a careful and pointed observer–the boy ate with relish only sweets and puddings.
“Nazis, was it?" said Shane. He gave his head a moderate shake. "Rotten business. Tough luck for the Jews, when you come right down to it." The question of whether or not the boy was going to spit out the bit of soup he had dabbed onto his tongue appeared to interest him far more than had the internment of the Jews. The boy frowned, and knit his thick eyebrows together. But the soup remained safely in his mouth, and at last Mr. Shane turned his attention to polishing off his own portion. Parkins wondered if the dull and unpleasant subject were now to be dropped.
“No place for a child, to be sure," said Shane. "A camp of that sort. Nor, I imagine–" He laid down his spoon and raised his eyes, with a swiftness that startled Mr. Parkins, to the corner of the room where, atop a heavy iron pole, on a scarred wooden crosspiece, with pages of yesterday's Express spread underneath, Bruno the parrot gazed critically back at him. "–for a parrot.”
Ah, thought Mr. Parkins.
“I suppose you think a wretched stone hovel in the dullest corner of Sussex is a fine place for an African bird, then,”
Reggie Panicker said.
Mr. Shane blinked.
“Please excuse my son's rudeness," Mr. Panicker said, with a sigh, laying down his own spoon though his bowl was only half empty. If there had been a time when he reprimanded the steady churlishness of his only child, it predated Mr. Parkins's tenure in the house. "We have all grown very fond of young Linus and his pet, as it happens. And really, Bruno is a most remarkable animal. He recites poetry, as you hear now. He sings songs. He is a most gifted mimic and has already startled my wife a number of times by counterfeiting my own, perhaps overly vehement, manner of sneezing.”
“Really?" Mr. Shane said. "Well, Mr. Panicker, I hope you won't mind my saying that between your roses and this young chap with his parrot, I seem to have landed myself in a very interesting household.”
He was watching the bird, head cocked to one side in a way that echoed, no doubt unconsciously, the angle from which Bruno habitually preferred to view the world.
“Sings does he?”
“That's right. Principally in German, though from time to time one hears snatches of Gilbert & Sullivan. Chiefly bits of Iolanthe, as far as I can tell. Quite startling the first few times.”
“But is it all rote–parroting, as it were?" Mr. Shane smiled thinly, as if to imply, insincerely Mr. Parkins thought, that he knew his little joke was not amusing. "Or is he capable of actual thought, would you say? I once saw a pig, as a boy, a performing pig, that could find the square root of three-digit numbers.”
His gaze, as he said this, flashed briefly and for the first time toward Parkins. This, though it seemed to confirm Mr.
Parkins's hunch about the new lodger, also troubled him. As far as anyone in the neighborhood knew, there was no reason to connect him with the subject of digits and numbers. The suspicion that Mr. Shane had been sent by Certain People to observe Bruno firsthand, Mr. Parkins now considered to have been confirmed.
“Numbers," Mr. Panicker said. "Oddly enough, Bruno seems quite fond of them, doesn't he, Mr. Parkins? Always rattling off great chains and lists of them. All in German, naturally. Though I can't say that he appears to do anything with them that I'm aware of.”
“No? He keeps me from sleeping," Reggie said. "That's use enough for me. That's startling enough for me, all right.”
At this point Mrs. Panicker swept back into the dining room carrying the fish course on a pale green platter. For reasons that had never been articulated to Mr. Parkins but which he felt must have a good deal to do with her otherwise unexpressed feelings about her husband and son, she never joined them for dinner. She cleared away the bowls as Mr.
Parkins muttered his approval of the soup. There was something desperate and brave about the landlady's good cookery.
It was like the quavering voice of a bagpipe, issuing forth from a citadel that was invested on all sides by dervishes and infidels on the morning of the day on which it would finally be sacked.
“Excellent soup!" barked Mr. Shane. "Compliments to the chef!”
Mrs. Panicker flushed deeply, and a smile unlike any that Parkins had ever seen there, tiny and pouting, made a brief appearance on her lips.
Mr. Panicker noticed it too, and frowned.
“Indeed," he said.
“Phew!" said the younger Panicker, fanning away the steam that rose from the platter on which lay a plaice that retained its head and tail. "That fish is off, Mother. It smells like the underside of Brighton Pier.”
Without missing a beat–with a last trace of the girlish smile still lingering–Mrs. Panicker reached across and slapped Reggie's face. Her son leapt from his seat, a hand to his blazing cheek, and for a moment he only glared at her.
Then his hand shot out toward her throat as if he meant to choke her. Before his fingers could find purchase, however, the new lodger was on his feet and had interposed himself between mother and son. Mr. Shane's hands flew out in front of him and before Parkins quite understood what was happening Reggie Panicker was lying flat on his back on the oval rug. Bright blood sprang from his nose.
He sat up. Blood dripped onto his collar and he dabbed at it with a finger, then pressed the finger against his left nostril. Mr. Shane offered him a hand, and Reggie batted it aside. He got to his feet and snuffled deeply. He stared at Shane, then nodded toward Mrs. Panicker.
“Mother," he said. Then he turned and went out.
“Mother," said the parrot, in his soft voice. Linus Steinman was looking at Bruno with the deep affection that was the only recognizable emotion Parkins had ever seen the boy express. And then, in a clear, fluting, tender voice Parkins had never heard, the bird began to sing.
Wien, Wien, Wien
It was a lovely contralto and, as it issued jerkily from the bill of the gray animal in the corner, disturbingly human.
They listened for a moment, and then Linus Steinman rose from his chair and went to the perch. The bird fell silent, and stepped onto the outstretched forearm that was proffered.
The boy turned back to them, and his eyes were filled with tears and with a simple question as well.
“Yes, dear," said Mrs. Panicker with a sigh. "You may as well be excused.”