For Love of Polly By Malcolm Welshman
‘I’m sorry Polly. But it’s got to be done,’ I murmured as the African Grey squawked loudly from the muffled confines of the towel in which she was wrapped. With trembling hands, I extricated one of her legs, parted the feathers and injected the anaesthetic. The parrot slipped into unconsciousness, her frantic shrieks dying away. There was a growth, an ugly misshapen raspberry of tissue, pressing on her windpipe. If I didn’t operate, she would slowly asphyxiate and I would lose 23 years of loyal companionship. Choice? There was none.
Polly and I were both fledglings when we first met. She a mere bundle of grey down which growled and flapped within the confines of a rusty cage. I a nine-year-old lad who had been living in Nigeria for just over a year, yearning to have a parrot like other army families had.
‘Young master dum like this bird?’ said the trader as he dangled the cage in front of me and gave a wide smile, exposing a stump of red, betal nut-stained teeth.
‘Oh please, Daddy, please,’ I implored.
‘Dis one fine bird,’ coaxed the wily old man, darting in front of us. After much bartering, Father agreed a price. The cage exchanged hands and the parrot became ours.
For many months, Polly remained a frightened, nervous youngster. Soon, though, her pale grey eyes matured to a golden yellow. Her broken quills moulted one by one, replaced by lighter grey flight feathers; and her tail erupted into a sea of vermillion.
I spent weeks trying to coax her out of her cage.
‘Come on Polly,’ I’d whisper, placing a piece of banana just outside her open cage door. But she was never tempted; she merely opened her beak and hissed.
I didn’t need convincing of the power of that beak, having seen her splinter a block of teak as if it were a matchbox. So, no way was I ever going to go near her. Until the day I smashed the front of my aquarium. I was carrying it through the lounge when I knocked it against a door handle. The glass shattered. Out poured the fish, the weed, the snails. So too did my tears. They poured down my face. I dropped the aquarium on the settee and howling with all the force a nine-year-old could muster, ran across to Polly’s cage. For a moment she looked startled, backing away. Then she waddled forward, pressing her head down against the bars as if asking for a scratch. Still blubbering, I didn’t stop to think and poked my finger through the bars. Polly’s head whipped up. Her beak caught the tip of my finger. But no bite. Just the gentle feel of her tongue over my skin as she kissed me. Then she too burst out crying.
From that moment on we were firm friends; and no further encouragement was needed for her to scramble out of her cage. Whenever I entered the room she would fly to me with a friendly squawk. Sometimes I would arrive home from school to find a dusty parrot strutting down the drive to greet me with a cheery, ‘Wotcher, mate.’
She loved to sidle up my arm, her wings lowered, crooning. Once on my shoulder, the little cries of love would continue as she bobbed her head up and down, and began to stuff regurgitated semi-digested peanuts into my ear. It's a sign of love in parrots apparently.
Like all African Grey, Polly was a wonderful mimic. Once she watched as the Colonel's wife swirled across the living room of our army bungalow and came to a halt in front of her cage.
Polly, tilted her head to one side, looked up at her and, in my mother's voice, said, 'Hello.'
A smile lit up the Colonel's wife's face as she answered in a clipped, cultured voice. 'Well, hello. What a charming bird we have here.'
The smile evaporated in an instance when Polly replied, 'You've got droopy drawers.' And embellished it with a dirty cackle.
In those early West African days, Polly and I became inseparable. I hadn’t appreciated how close a bond one could develop with a pet. My relationship with her was to stand me in good stead in later years when dealing with owners and their pets as it gave me a better understanding of the deep bonds of companionship that can develop. Polly’s trust and loyalty made me even more determined to be a vet when I grew up. Little did I realise then how I’d eventually be responsible for trying to save her life.
When I reached the age of 11, Polly and I parted company as I had to return to England for further schooling. But the holidays always meant a welcome return to Nigeria and a reunion with my beloved parrot. I’d eagerly bound up the steps of the bungalow to be greeted with a ‘Wotcher, mate,’ as if I’d been gone only a day instead of three months. Partings though were a wrench. Her soft ‘Bye-byes’ would echo in my ears long after I had boarded the plane back to London.
When my father’s tour of duty was over, my parents flew back while Polly boarded a ship for a six-week cruise to the UK as part of her quarantine. She was silent on the drive home from the docks. ‘Perhaps she’s ill,’ I said, anxiously peering into her cage. But I needn’t have worried.
‘When we reached home, Father swung the cage onto the pavement as Mother leaned from an upstairs window. Polly looked up, fixed her with a beady eye, and in her voice, yelled, ‘Hello, Muriel.’
She was housed in the kitchen, where she soon picked up and imitated the sounds of daily life. Only deafeningly magnified. Putting cutlery into a drawer was like scaffolding collapsing. Filling the kettle, Niagara Falls.
We acquired a Maltese terrier. A source of delight for Polly. She’d imitate the back-door bell. Yambo would race through barking. ‘Go in your box, Yambo,’ she’d command. The little fellow meekly obliged. ‘Sit, Yambo,’ she’d order. The dog sat. Then she’d burst out laughing.
She’d been taught the African word for food – chop. A portion of buttered toast was always on offer at breakfast time. Polly soon learnt the sequence for making the toast and would be waddling up and down her perch saying, ‘Chop ... chop,’ sweetly in my tone of voice as soon as I took the bread out of the bin. One morning, I decided to tease her and not give her a titbit. Naughty. Naughty. Toast made and buttered, I sat down with my back to her cage and started to eat. Crunch. Crunch. Up to that point, Polly had been saying, ‘Chop,’ over and over again. Now, realising it was to no avail, her tone of voice changed. ‘A gruff, demanding, ‘Chop ... chop,’ in Father’s military voice. Still no joy. I kept on crunching, ignoring her. She paused. Silent for a moment. And then, still in Father’s voice, came a loud emphatic, ‘What’s the ruddy matter with you?’ I collapsed with laughter, choking on my toast. ‘Serves you right,’ she shrieked as I went puce. What intelligence.
For 23 years, Polly had been an affectionate, witty companion. Now here I was, a newly qualified vet, about to operate on her, wondering whether she would ever survive to talk again.
With the lump removed and her neck stitched up, I laid Polly gently on a pad of cotton wool. As the anaesthetic wore off, she tried to clamber back on to her perch. At her fifth attempt, she made it and sat, huddled, her beak clamped to a bar to stop herself from toppling off.
There followed a desperate time. Daily, I caught her up to give her an antibiotic injection. There was no struggle. No squawk. She ate nothing for three days. On the third evening, I tried with a tiny portion of banana mashed on my finger. Polly tottered across her perch, looked at me with eyes devoid of sparkle, but raised her head, opened her beak with difficulty and tweaked my finger. A little of the banana slid onto her tongue.
‘Go on, swallow it, girl,’ I whispered. There was a gulp as her beak closed and the banana disappeared. I felt a flicker of hope. Maybe, just maybe, she’d pull through.
The next morning, I went down to the kitchen and opened the door, my heart skipping a beat for fear of seeing Polly huddled dead in the bottom of her cage. But no. She was still on her perch. As I approached, she slowly waddled across, pressed her head down against the bars of the cage and in a croaky voice, my voice, said, ‘Wotcher, mate!’
Choked, I echoed her greeting, tears of relief rolling down my cheeks.
I sensed then she was going to recover. And recover she did.
I have to confess that as a young vet still wet around the gills, saving Polly’s life gave me a great sense of achievement. Though full of self-doubt, I had successfully completed a tricky operation with all the emotional difficulties of doing so on my own pet. Yes. I had done it. Polly had pulled through. It was the first step in building up my confidence to tackle similar difficult operations in the future; and many did appear through the surgery door over the ensuing years. I may have had lingering doubts as to my capabilities but I only had to hear that chirpy, ‘Wotcher mate!’ in my head to have those doubts fly from my mind. All thanks to you, Polly. My ever-loving friend.