The Parrots of Peckham Rye by Ceri Lowe-Petraske

‘It’s dislocated,’ says the doctor and gives one of those polite closed coughs.
Mama watches, her mouth open as it is usually given to being, gawping at the whiteness of the counter and the whiteness of the thin medical bed cover and, most of all, the whiteness of the doctor. She yanks up my shorts so my buttocks don’t show.
‘What that mean? He gonna live, dawctor?’ The drum-boom drawl of her voice echoes round the whole hospital.  
‘Oh, I expect so,’ says the doctor quietly. ‘He’ll be okay. It just means his arm is a little out of place.’ Mama looks at me with big wide-open eyes then turns on me.  
‘You lissen a-that, boy? You a-hearin the dawctor man? He say you gonna be fine but by Jesus you ain’t. Not when I get you home.’ She gobbles up the doctor’s big shocked eyes and laughs out aloud, teeth everywhere. It’s at times like this I wonder if I was once stolen up by some demons and left with this mad mother who don’t even seem to have my blood in her veins and her heart.
‘This boy, he plays it rough with his friends, always gettin’ into scrapes. He too damn popular,’ she says loudly then laughs to herself. ‘Just like his mama.’
The doctor looks at me and then at my mother and I think for a minute that he might understand some of the sweet pain it was to live with a woman like that, but if he does, he doesn’t show it. He smiles, thin and weak and nods. Then he’s yankin’ my shoulder right back into place with a dull clank, like the sound of one of Papa’s pop guns – the kind he uses to shoot squirrels in the park. It hurts real bad. Badder than anything I ever felt in my life. There’s like white spots in front of my eyes. Big ones like clouds but not one tear of rain comes out.
‘That’s got it.’ The doctor looks very pleased with himself. ‘Rest today, back to school tomorrow,’ he says and gives my mother some pills. The sickness is rising red in my belly but I nod and smile as Mama pushes me out into the sunlight. She slaps one hand on my behind and dips the other into the sweet jar full of fruit jellies on the reception desk as we walk out.

‘I told you, stay yourself away from those no-good kids,’ Mama says as we walk down the street. ‘They done beatin’ on you good and proper boy. You got no skill for defending yourself and no useful brains neither – just a head full of rubbish. You got bad spirit boy, that’s what my mama told me when you was born. She said nothin’ good would-a come of you – and by Jesus, my mama is never wrong.’
Grandma-ma is still back in the homeland, probably still cursing everyone and everything. She doles out advice over the telephone like my pa doles out shushes – regular and without no rhyme nor reason. But she’s not the boss of our family over here, Papa is. If anyone were ever to ask my opinion I’d say she was a true example of the sourness of life. But nobody ever does think to ask me.

There’s the outline of the trees in the distance as we walk down the Queen’s Road. The shops have got all kinds of vegetables and fruits the like of which I never cared to see or eat – bananas of buttercup yellow and big mouthed melons laughing with their pulpy pink innards and black gritty pip-teeth. Mama always stops to pass the time of day with one or other of the ladies in the shop and today she tells her all about how the doctor fixed me up good and proper.
‘He said I have the smile you can’t buy in no hospital,’ says Mama. ‘Not with all your fixing and operations. He said I am a natural beauty. I think he had a flirtation upon me.’ Then she throws her head back and laughs like a hyena, hooting and howling. The woman from the shop clicks her teeth and waves her finger in the air.
‘He get himself all excited over you, didn’t he just?’ she says. Mama hoots out a big laugh, spat across the pavement. And then there’s a fountain of lady hysteria exploding all over the Queen’s Road.

I don’t know half of what Mama is talking about. Her voice and speaking is all cooked up like a cauldron. Sometimes she spouts so much junk that I think it’s spiders got inside her brain doing the talking for her. She’s for sure got spiders on her eyelashes – big hair long-legged ones that her friend Kaylene makes. And bright yellow hair streaks these days that Papa says makes her look like a white rash. She’s copied Kaylene on everything since we got here in Peckham.

Papa used to be tall man, Mama says but now he’s gotten all bent over with the weight of the world. He works for Big Al Pizzas on Evalina Road and before that he drove the buses – ‘til they took his licence away for drinking on the job. Back in the old country he used to be a doctor. He romanced Mama good and proper when while he fixed her appendix. Mama sure likes doctors, it’s true, but I ain’t never going to tell Papa that she smiled her goo-eyes on the one at the hospital – he’d shush me right bad style.

I leave her there in the shop and start walking towards the Rye.  Up in the trees there’s a chirping sound, it’s just like angels, my mama would say. My sister says you gotta run quick else them angels will shit-out other people’s troubles and prayers on your head. But those noises in the trees ain’t no angels. They’re parrots. Real, regular green parrots right here in south London. You would not ever believe it.
But it’s true. One time, tin-pots of years ago, there was a shipment of birds that came from Africa or America or some such place, all set for London Zoo and pet shops and the like. The men in Africa or America or wherever, had been taking the best care of them, feeding them with corn syrup and berries until they were big and strong. They fed them until they were in mind of some better work, to be strutting their feathers in another place, in a land far away where it was told they would have a better life.

On the day they left the sunny place, the men kissed them on their heads and wished them good morrow and sailed them right across the long wavy oceans. They had the longest journey and sicked themselves up all over their green feathers before they got even close to the curly Thames River and their new homes. Packed up tight in cages and boxes in the hold of the ship, them parrots could feel the whirring of the engines and the beat-beat of the waves until the drop of the anchor hit the bed and they doors opened out into London town. There ain’t no sense of relief like that first shoosh of fresh air after a cooped up time in a boat, I bet them parrots itched themselves to get out of their sticky, sicky cages.
But the way it’s told, when the English men jerked out the parrot cages from the hold, they mishandled those bird boxes good and proper. They sure weren’t too familiar with the cargo and the crates became unhinged and broken. And then, while the London men were sat there, laughing over their mishap, the birds took their chance and flapped their leaf-green wings and took off across the city in a verdant shower.
Some of them made it all the way to Wimbledon, but what’s true is that they turned back on account of the bad weather in SW17. It’s a well-known fact that it’s more tropical down here in the south east and, much as they missed their homeland, those parrots settled right in on the Peckham Rye. Most people would have thought they’d have been wiped out on account of not being familiar with the life of a London bird but they took to the Rye like you would not believe. They didn’t even need the council to find them a two bedroomed tree - they just popped into a spare one when no one was looking. Though there’s a look in the older ones eyes, just sometimes, that says they’d rather be in warmer climes.

I like to watch the sad and jealous crows in their dull black overcoats snooting over at the parrots. They sometimes shout at them in crow words but it don’t make no blind piece of difference. The parrots just preen up their feathers and look all proud out across the Rye. They know they’re the nicest looking things in the whole of Peckham – no, in the whole of London town, and they put out big beaky smiles without a care for what anyone thinks.
It’s a pretty sight. A proper pretty sight.
           
When I get in, Papa already has his belt out, ready for my shushing due to the shoulder. He gets all hot in the cheeks when he comes over to me and I know it’s just the job to bend over and wait.  I undo my own trousers and hump out my bony behind, the colour of burnt peanut shells, Mama says. His belt flies high up in the air and each time it lands down on me, Papa has a new thing to say.
‘This is for putting a worry into your mother’s head.’ The first sharp shush ends in a thwack as it tocks the skin of my buttocks.
‘This is for playing it rough with them trouble-laden white boys when I told you to keep your mind out of their business. If you can’t win a fight then don’t come a-home cryin’ about it and worryin’ your mama, she got enough to do with fretting about your sister.’ Thwack.
‘This one’s for being a sissy-boy.’ The next slap of leather on skin is ice-hot-cold and I jump nearly out of my own bones and off the balcony. Papa will add another one to the tally for that; he says it don’t count if you move so I gotta keep still, still, still like as if I’m dead.
‘This is for not bein’ able to undertake your chores due to the account of your arm being all strapped up.’ Thwack.

From the balcony I can see the grass of Peckham Rye. I wait for the moving to start then I know they’re there – they have a tricky knack of knowing when they’re good and needed, the parrots. Sometimes I can even get them to come to me when I’m on the Rye – what’s true is that one of these days I’ll have them landing on my hand, you wait and watch-see.
I keep my eyes on the bobbing red beak of one of them pecking in the grass. It’s almost dissolved into the greenness, all absorbed into the park except for the brick-bright beak like a jab of evening sunlight. Thwack. The bird peck-pecks at the worms and then swoops up into the trees as Papa deals the last of the thwacks. The best thing to do is to creep into bed right there and then. Papa is always of a bad mind after a shushing – he says that the whispers of the spirits take him and the only thing to do is to shut them up with a cold can of something strong.
I like being here in London town. It’s better than the place before though I don’t remember much else. Here there are all kinds of things to move the spirit upwards and urge a person on to do well, if you can fit in. Like school, for one example. Maybe I ain’t gonna to be top of the class on account of my misunderstandings of the way things work but I am surely hard trying to make myself a success of it all. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t – but mostly I do A-Okay.
Mama says I should stop being such a smart-ass but what she ain’t got a mind to understand is that I’m not smart. I’m a tryer. I sure wish I was smart, smarter than the whole lot of them. But I’m learning and that includes when to keep my whole trap shut when there’s something I should not be saying. Like about the parrots. That was the whole reason I got my arm all pushed out of its own joint.
It was the parrots.

It was in the early morning break and I was passing the time with Tom Walker and Javed Hussain when we got to talking about birds and the like. Javed’s a big fan of the feathered kind; he even has his own pair of glass-eyes to watch them from his balcony. Tom was chugging on about some sparrows and a raven he’d seen on the Camberwell Green and Javed had a proper grin on his face like how we all know a sparrow ain’t even a special bird.
And then I was telling them about the parrots. Parrots are a special bird and well worth a conversation so I told them about how they live on the Rye in the full beam eye of the crows and the like. How they strut along the grass in the glow of the sun and don’t give a claw for any of the other birds. How they aren’t even minded to fight with the local crows ‘cos there’s just about enough space for everybody.
Tom said. ‘There ain’t no parrots in England.’
‘There are,’ I told him and then I let him know the true story about the boat and about how you can find it on Google, if you have a mind to look.
Javed said. ‘If that’s true then why ain’t I seen ‘em?’
‘Cos you live in Dulwich,’ I said. Javed moved to Dulwich when he was five, but his parents pretended to still live in Peckham, at his uncle’s flat. Something to do with taxes or benefits Papa says.
‘It’s on the internet, it’s true.’ I said. Everyone knows that the internet is the truth of the world because it’s out there for all to see – even people in the homeland and in space. It’s more reliable and proper – even than the BBC.

We snuck ourselves around the back of the playground to where the trees are, next to the park and where you can see over into the Rye. The parrots are mostly on the other side; they don’t like the noise-making of the school but sometimes they can choose to be seen - if they want to. When I first started at the school I would hide in the tree and they would come flapping onto the branches to say ‘hello, how are you?’
Javed wouldn’t climb up with me on account of him being a scared-pants but Tom took his fingers to the bark and we got about half way up before there was the dang-dang of the bell and we had to climb down. I wasn’t in a mind to leave before I had shown the parrots to them but they were well blended in the green and they never showed their red beak-faces. And then you would not ever believe it, there was one. I called down to Tom but he was already down the bottom of the tree.
‘Come on,’ said Javed, ‘we’re going to be late.’ I shimmied my whole body along the branch and got out my camera phone so’s I could take a picture-perfect and show the whole internet the truth about the parrots. But before I could even get one half along there was a cracking, slapping sound, a sound even worse than Papa’s belt and I came a-trippin’ out of that tree, shoulder first. Then there was an ice hot pain, and then darkness until a whole crowd of faces were blocking out the sun and I was laying on the grass howling like a born baby.

Teach dropped me off at the hospital in her shiny black motor. There so much bumping I thought I was on the open sea in a deep boat that smelled of oil and I wanted to be sick – but I wasn’t. Mama was getting Kaylene to do her nails when the school called her so she was mighty upset. But she came along later, when the glue dried. 

In my bedroom it is starting to get dark. I can hear Mama and Papa in the kitchen arguing about my sister’s hair extensions. Outside my window there’s a rustling sound and the tip-tap of feathers against the pane like the parrots are telling me a message in bird code. Go away, I tell them we can talk tomorrow when my shoulder and the shush marks stop hurting.
Snickered up in my bed, I run my fingers over my bony backside and I can feel the bumpy outlines of my scars, little ridges tingling in the dark. They’re in straight lines, regular like rules, regular like school. We got a whole big mathematics test tomorrow so I got to learn them rules good so’s I can be top of my tree. And if I concentrate with my whole bony brain and don’t think too much about a dislocation of the shoulder or the old days of the ugly boat journey or even those words of sour Grandma-ma in the homeland, I know I’ll fit in good and proper.
In actual fact, I know I’ll be A-Okay.