Tania had a slight moustache. She sighed a lot and constantly complained that she hadn’t slept and was tired. This was a little out of place in our group. We styled ourselves as an unpublished version of the Algonquin Round Table. We met at a coffee shop on campus every day. We were young and we were convinced that we’d soon be famous. Perhaps most of all, we slept too little and we never complained that we were tired. It wasn’t clear to me why Tania was there.
“She’s doing a Master’s in business management,” my friend whispered with some distaste. “I think she knew someone who’s left. Now she’s a leftover organ of sorts, you know, like a coccyx.”
“I don’t care how she got here,” I said. “I was smuggled in from physics.”
“Yeah,” my friend shrugged, “but you say things.”
“I guess. But why is she always exhausted?”
“If you ignore the moustache,” my friend explained, “then, on the outside, she’s twenty-two.” He checked to make sure that she couldn’t hear us and added, “But deep down she’s ninety.”
I always marvelled at this paradox when I saw her. Being old before your time was surely worse than the problem I had. I was young after my time. I was immature, and it certainly looked like I would stay that way. Just as I tried to compare these two states, I would catch myself entertaining a perverse fantasy in which I grabbed Tania and kissed her to find out what the moustache felt like.
One day, Tania made an announcement. “My grandmother is dead,” she said.
We couldn’t tell whether she had mentioned a fact of history or a detail of an unfolding event.
“When did she die?” someone asked uncertainly.
“Oh,” Tania said and checked her watch, “three hours ago.”
“But you didn’t say—”
“Oh,” Tania smiled, “it’s alright. She was ninety.”
My friend and I exchanged a glance.
“I’ll appreciate some help with her things later this week,” Tania added. “Especially the parrot.”
This last bit energised us considerably. “A parrot?”
“She had a grumpy sulphur-crested cockatoo,” Tania said.
“A grumpy cockatoo?”
Tania flattened the tablecloth around her cup and mumbled, “He swears.”
We leant forward. “Like what?”
“Oh,” Tania whispered and blushed, “like shit—” Then, after a pause, she continued, “—and fuck. And so on.”
We had all heard of swearing parrots, but we’d never met one in person. Three days later we went with Tania to her grandmother’s house. The house was a Victorian-style mansion near campus, on a large plot.
“Was your grandmother rich?” someone asked as Tania pointed out a framed photograph of her in the vast foyer. The photo showed a rather masculine woman, likely in her sixties at the time the picture was taken, glaring at the camera. She sat in a chair and behind her stood a smallish man, with his hand on her shoulder in the style of photos taken in the late nineteenth century. It was clear who wore the pants in the house and it was also clear where Tania’s moustache had come from.
“Oh,” Tania said with a little smile, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
The house had the faint powdery smell of an old person. Pink hydrangeas grew at every window. There were rows and rows of Royal Doulton figurines in Victorian display cabinets of such ornate carving as to suggest that they had grown like vines from the floor. Everything was hideous. It seemed entirely reasonable for the people of Victorian England to have gone off to administer colonies. They probably couldn’t bear it at home.
“This is fabulous!” a girl who wrote maudlin poetry exclaimed. “It’s the Bather!”
She indicated a fairly un-Victorian figurine of a bashful girl disrobing, and whispered, “It’s very rare.”
“Is that from Victorian times?” I asked, surprised at the nudity.
“No,” she said, “it’s more like the 1920s, I think.”
I couldn’t have cared less if it had once belonged to Cleopatra. It looked like trash to me.
“Well,” I asked, “is it—is it expensive?”
I had swallowed the words at least just in time not to say them, but it was clear that I’d thought them.
“Oh,” Tania said and did a bonsai smile, “I don’t know. My grandfather collected them. It was his passion. My grandmother always hated those things.”
“Oo!” the poet exclaimed and clasped her cheeks at the sight of a crimson sofa that looked like a giant, mutant butterfly.
“Where’s the parrot?” someone else got to the point.
“Oh,” Tania said, “Pete’s upstairs. He’s upset.”
“Pete the Parrot?”
Tania nodded. “My grandmother got him when my grandfather died. My grandfather was Pete, and so Pete was Pete.”
“Why’s he upset?” we wondered.
“He’s plucked out his feathers,” Tania shrugged.
There was a pause as we absorbed this new possibility.
“Is he upset because he plucked them,” I asked, “or did he pluck them because he was already upset?”
“Don’t get technical,” someone chided me. “You’re so insensitive.”
“Poor thing,” someone else cut in. “He misses his mistress.”
“Oh,” Tania said, “it’s not because of that. Two days ago I put his cage on the lawn while I cleaned the attic. When I returned, he’d killed five pigeons.”
We looked at one another.
“How’d he do that?”
“Oh,” Tania said, “he put his food just inside the bars of his cage, like bait, and when the pigeons poked their heads through to get it, he decapitated them.”
For a few moments, no one said anything.
“I think he’s angry because I stopped him,” Tania added reassuringly. “That’s when he plucked his feathers. He’s very grumpy. He’s always been that way.”
“Maybe he killed the pigeons because he’s sad,” someone tried. “You know, about your grandmother.”
“Oh, no,” Tania said. “He was nasty to her too.”
Tania shrugged. “They hated one another.” She brushed a fleck of dust from a secretaire. “My grandmother hated my grandfather,” she said. “And when he died, about ten years ago, she got Pete so she could hate him too.”
“Did she say so?”
“Oh,” Tania said, “no, but my grandparents always argued. Always. They sat on the patio out front and swore at one another as though there was some sort of contest to see who could make up the worst insults.”
“That doesn’t sound like—” I began.
“My dad said so too,” Tania cut me short. “He always insisted that it’s just the way they were. I was twelve when my grandfather died, but I can still remember those arguments.”
Tania’s parents had died in a car crash a few years earlier. As far as we knew, her late grandmother was the only family she’d had left.
“But surely your father would have known,” my friend said.
Tania waved this away.
“And she kept those ceramic things she didn’t like,” he added.
“It was the same with the parrot,” Tania continued. “Constant bickering.”
It’s a strange thing that you can get to know people as readily through someone who never understood them as you can through someone who truly did. It was obvious that Tania had missed out on the better parts of her grandmother and had instead ended up with only her moustache. The glaring woman in the foyer was very likely annoyed with the photographer.
“Business management,” my friend whispered.
“Go get Pete,” Tania said.
The sight of Pete was one you couldn’t prepare for. When Tania said that he’d plucked out his feathers, she neglected to mention that he had plucked out everything he could reach. Only the downy feathers on his face and the fan of his crest remained. He was an outsized head floating atop a scrawny, mechanical body. This strange combination perched on a rod in a large cage and scowled at us.
“Beautiful plumage,” someone joked.
“Fuck off!” Pete squawked.
We burst out laughing. It was just too much.
“The Victorian Blue,” someone else added.
“Wanker!” Pete screeched in an old woman’s voice.
“Oh Jesus,” my friend said, “do you think the grandmother—?”
“Jesus,” Pete nodded vigorously and spread the feathers of his crest like the fingers of a hand. “Cunt.”
If you’d shaved a male lion a Mohican, he would not have been a more surprising sight. Yet Pete was headstrong and proud, despite his condition. He had learnt what he could say from a misunderstood and lonely woman, and now he was misunderstood and lonely in turn. It wasn’t the pigeons. We were torn between provoking him some more and feeling sorry for him, and while we hesitated, Pete shifted on his perch and eyed us.
“He must be cold,” the poet crooned. “Are you cold, sweety?”
“Shit!” Pete bobbed up and down.
“I think he wants to be insulted,” I said. “Maybe that’s how it worked.”
My friend put his face near Pete’s cage and said in his most menacing voice, “You ugly motherfucker.”
Pete flicked his crest and did a little dance. “Slut!” he crowed.
A few minutes later, after everyone had gone to help Tania, I stood by Pete’s cage and wondered what it was that would now become of him. Tania would inherit this house, I thought, and him with it, but I wasn’t sure that she understood either of the two in the way her grandmother would’ve wanted. I picked up the cage and headed for the stairs under Pete’s watchful gaze.
“Uh,” he grunted.
I stopped on the second step. “What?”
I put another foot forward and as the stairs creaked, he spoke up again. “Uh.”
When I took another step, he did so again.
“Shut up,” he groaned.
With a chill I realised that I was hearing Tania’s dead grandmother, grunting and sighing as she carried Pete down these same stairs every day. The three of us proceeded, grunting and sighing, and as we did I thought about this old woman in whose place I now stood. I would never know her, but I suddenly wished that I had. She had lived here in her eighties, alone, for ten years, telling a bird about a man. Only now and then was she interrupted by a visit from her frumpy granddaughter. But what was she like before that? An hour earlier I would have given it no further thought, judging by the house and the ugly things within it. But now I wasn’t so sure. Now I could picture her and the original Pete on the patio outside, sparring as they sipped their gin and tonics under the canopy of bougainvillea and jasmine I saw as we came in. There was something strangely familiar about them. My parents had devoted a large fraction of their energy to an argument that broke out in their last year of high school and to which they returned in a game of verbal violence that had more rules than it appeared to break. To me, this had always been the grammar of love.
I stopped on the last, wider step. From here I could see a part of the patio through mullioned French doors. In recent years, I was sure, the old lady had taken Pete outside whenever the weather permitted, and there the two of them had spent hours expanding his vocabulary. But years before that, in the spring and early summer, those doors would have stood ajar. From here, I supposed, I would have smelled the heady perfume of jasmine carried in on the still air of the late afternoon. And from this very step, if I strained just a little, I would have heard the two old lovers on the patio as they remembered their life together and traded insults. It was obvious to me that Tania had no inkling of the terms of their endearment.
“Pete’s lonely,” I told her in the kitchen. “He’s like a mirror in an empty room.”
“Oh,” she sighed, “he’s just grumpy.”
Pete fanned his crest and said nothing.