Billy came with the villa, like the beds, chairs and dining table. The landlady – a soft-spoken Indonesian we called Ibu – said he was part of the rental agreement and mentioned by-the-by that his particular breed of parrot could be taught to speak if properly socialised. But my parents had other things on their mind as they negotiated the lease: Was a pool-cleaning service included in the price? Was the generator in good working order given Jakarta’s notoriously erratic electricity supply? And were the live-in cook and houseboy good value for money? My mother wanted to know if she could sack them if they turned out to be lazy or obstinate; she’d had a terrible time with the help in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. Even the chauffeurs had been borderline rude – ‘The cheek! The cheek!’ – although she’d had no say over them. Chauffeurs were my father’s department. He had to draw the line somewhere.
Ibu made various non-committal gestures in response, and as my parents signed on the dotted line she told them how very pleased she was that we were an English family. She said all her other tenants were American and that the English had a reputation for being fair and polite. Yes, she was very pleased indeed she said, flashing an inscrutable smile.
Why Billy was part of the rental agreement was not immediately obvious. He’d been parked on the veranda, chained to a perch, and barely registered our arrival. He rarely squawked and he certainly didn’t speak. Mostly, he contemplated the cement walls of the courtyard that encircled the swimming pool or jabbed angrily with his orange beak at the dried mango stones that littered the tray under his perch. The rest of the time he groomed himself, growing increasingly obsessive about plucking his emerald green feathers.
As the weeks wore on, crusty patches began to dot his wings and Billy developed a habit of unexpectedly lunging and hissing at us. He spared only the houseboy and cook, Ahmed and Maina, but they had little time to devote to him. My mother worked them hard. Floors were to be swept and mopped several times a day and there were endless laundry and shopping errands. They were sent on housekeeping courses run by the expat wives’ club where they learned, among other things, how to fold the perfect napkin, serve prawn avocado, and correctly polish silver. Course completed, my mother would test their newly acquired skill. She was very exacting that way, commandeering everyone with military precision, including my father. I too was expected to make my bed, keep my wardrobe tidy, sit upright in my chair at dinner, not talk with my mouth full and so on and so forth. ‘Manners! Manners!’ she’d say, or, ‘It’s not becoming of a lady.’ I was twelve, going on thirteen.
It didn’t take long for my parents to discover cocktail hour at the sports club. This meant that I was often left to spend evenings alone at home. In the beginning, I would join Ahmed and Maina outside our gate, where the help from villas up and down the street congregated after dark. But exhausted after a day’s hard work, they had better things to do than navigate a language barrier with a bored, skinny white girl who coughed and spluttered at the pungent smoke of their clove-laced cigarettes. So I would stretch out on the veranda’s deck chair instead, near Billy’s perch, watching the swimming pool’s water cast ripples of light on the walls as I scribbled in my diary. Before long, I was reading my entries aloud to Billy.
As my parents’ outings grew longer, my readings became more heartfelt and detailed, and Billy ignored me less, tilting his head to one side as he listened to my voice. I told him about my daily ordeal at school, my third new international school in as many years; how the girls and boys in my year ignored me as they sat on the bleachers, huddled together like an impenetrable fortress. They had American accents and feathered hair and carried a walkman or a comb in the back pocket of their jeans. I wore plain pinafore dresses, which my mother had sent over by her preferred seamstress in Hong Kong. I admitted to Billy that I sometimes hated my mother, the way she forcibly pulled my shoulders back when I was walking, complaining loudly that my posture was atrocious. I told him I wished my father would take his nose out of his geology books and speak to me now and again. I even told him that I hid in the toilets during the school lunch break, locking myself in one of the cubicles to chew joylessly on a homemade sandwich because eating alone was equivalent to carrying a sign with an arrow pointing at my head saying, ‘Billy no mates’.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I know that’s your name but you know what I mean. It’s all just shit. Shit. Shit. Fucking shit.’ The words felt deliciously transgressive in my mouth; my mother recoiled whenever anyone swore.
Billy would slide across his perch to be closer to me, a little further with each confession, until I started to feel we were something of a team, he and I. He picked at his feathers; I pulled strands of hair out of my head, a nervous tic that had intensified during this latest move. He sat alone above his poo-splattered tray; I sat alone in the toilet at lunch. His wings were scaly; the tropical heat made eczema flare up on my knuckles. One evening I tried moving my hand close to his perch. He didn’t flap his wings or puff out his feathers but craned his neck towards me instead. I moved my hand closer, knuckles up. Very gently, he lowered his beak towards it and nibbled at the cracked skin there. It tickled, like the gentle scratching of a fine-toothed comb.
Soon I was unchaining Billy from his perch and letting him walk from the veranda into the living room. He would weave between the batik cushions on the floor, his body moving side-to-side, more penguin than parrot, his claws clattering on the marble floor. Every few steps he would stop, his head bobbing up and down as he peered up at me in what looked to me like an expression of gratitude.
Still, he refused to say a word.
One evening mid-week, he wandered by himself into the living room. Unusually, my parents were both at home. We each sat curled in our separate, round whicker chairs under a whirring ceiling fan, watching a video. Billy’s claws tick-tacked across the marble floor.
‘Look who’s here,’ my father said, without taking his eyes off the TV screen.
My mother stirred her drink, ice cubes tinkling against the glass of her tumbler. ‘Did you leave it unchained? It’s supposed to stay chained.’ My mother had never liked birds. Pigeons disgusted her. Ravens terrified her. As far as she was concerned, birds were rats with wings.
Billy flapped his wings, flashing the blood-red underneath, but neither my mother nor my father moved so I went to pick him up myself. He hopped away, dodging my outstretched hands, and waddled back out onto the veranda, occasionally turning his head to check that I was following him. He stopped at his bowl, which had fallen to the ground, spilling all the water inside. Lifting it with his beak, he let it drop again, shrugging as he fluffed out the feathers on his breast.
And then he said it: ‘Fucking shit’.
‘Say again?’ I whispered, unnecessarily because the TV volume was up loud and my mother was unlikely to have heard. ‘Fucking shit,’ he repeated, clearly this time, bending his head low and eyeballing me. In that moment we connected more deeply than ever before, like two electric wires sparking.
The next morning when I came down for breakfast, Billy wasn’t on his perch. My mother was dressed and sitting at the breakfast table on the veranda by the pool, eating her usual morning bowl of chopped papaya which she claimed was excellent for the digestive system.
‘Where’s Billy?’ I said.
‘The parrot, where is he?’ It annoyed me the way my mother always forgot his name. She could never remember the names of my teachers at school either.
‘Oh, I had the help put it in a cage. It’s in the garage.’
‘Don’t look at me like that. We can’t risk it flying off somewhere. It’s not even ours.’
‘But he can’t fly,’ I said, sulking. ‘His wings are clipped. And please don’t call him ‘it’. ‘
‘Well,’ she said, taking a sip of her black coffee. ‘It – he – poos everywhere. Have you seen the state of the cushions? Anyway, it’s a lovely cage. Very ornate.’
The cage was a rusting, wrought-iron monstrosity, too heavy for me to move unassisted. It was hooked to the ceiling of the garage and had been there from well before we moved in. The garage itself was a gloomy place with damp, stone walls; the only natural light came from narrow arrow slits. It held a moist, musty scent that hit like a fist in the face on entering. It was no place for a parrot, no place for any living creature. I argued to move Billy back to the veranda – in the cage if necessary, with solemn promises never to unchain him again – but my mother was having none of it. ‘What’s the point?’ she said. ‘It – he, whatever – smells and then there’s all that funny stuff on its wings.’ She shivered in disgust.
From then on, I started and ended each school day with a trip to the garage. At first, Billy would flap his wings and claw at the railings of the cage as soon as he saw me. When I put my hand in he would clamp his beak around my finger, refusing to let go so that I had to tug it loose. ‘Shit,’ I would say, my finger throbbing. ‘Fucking shit,’ he would answer, his head going up and down as if in agreement. I would leave to wait for the school bus with a heavy feeling that I’d carry round for the rest of the day.
Then Billy stopped reacting to my presence altogether, hiding in a nook at the top of the cage, his head bowed to his chest and his eyes closed. The crusty patches on his wings grew bigger. Discarded feathers littered the floor of the cage. My knuckles became more inflamed than ever and the bald patch on my hairline, just above my left temple, expanded to the size of a large coin.
The real reason behind my mother’s resistance to Billy moving back onto the veranda became clearer in the weeks that followed. My parents were to host their first party in the villa and everyone they’d ever met in the city would be invited. The invitations went out, embossed cream cardboard in gold-trimmed envelopes: ‘Mr and Mrs X request the pleasure of the company of….’ The alcohol cabinet was stocked up with bottles of colourful liquids. Ahmed was sent on a cocktail-making course, only to be severely reprimanded by my mother for adding a red glacé cherry to every mix. ‘Such ignorance! Such ignorance!’ she complained. Canapés were ordered, then sent back to the caterers with a hand-written complaint. ‘Honestly,’ my mother said as she put pen to paper, ‘These people seem to think we westerners are splurging fools.’ Maina was ordered to make endless trays of skewered satay instead, while my mother dotted the marble expanse of the living room with vases of fresh flowers, the thick smell of lilies mixing with the sharp scent of fried garlic, ginger and shrimp paste.
On the evening of the party, my mother descended the staircase from her bedroom in a cloud of purple voile. My father was late as usual, arriving home from work with only minutes to go before guests were due to arrive. My mother scolded him as she marched him upstairs and hurried him into his old tuxedo. Then she fretted over him, straightening his bow tie and smoothing down his lapels, like an artist putting the finishing touches on a canvas. I had put up my hair in a ponytail, as instructed, but when my mother saw me, she tutted. ‘What on earth is this?’ she said, poking at my bald patch. ‘For goodness sake, wear it loose.’ I ripped the elastic out of my hair and fled to Billy in the garage.
He was in his usual spot high up in the cage, his beak tucked close to his wing. I could just make him out in the dim light of the single electric bulb. He didn’t move as I approached him. Muffled street sounds came from beyond the closed garage door; engines revved and car doors slammed as guests started to arrive, their footsteps crunching up to the house. The music was turned up; Roberta Flack sang about someone killing her softly with a song.
Billy’s bag of seeds stood in the corner of the garage and I scooped out a small handful, opened the cage door and placed my cupped hand inside.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘We’re still friends, aren’t we?’
He opened one eye but remained rooted to his spot. I moved a plastic chair across the floor to sit near his cage, pulling my feet onto the seat and resting my forehead against my knees. Then I rubbed the patch near my temple, fighting the urge to tug at the few, surviving strands there.
It was hot and muggy in the garage, my skin stuck to the chair’s plastic, and the tinkle of distant music and chatter made me woozy. At regular intervals I heard my mother’s voice, high-pitched above the others, calling for Maina or Ahmed to fetch this or that. But at some point I dozed off because I woke to the sudden, clattering sound of the garage door being pulled up.
‘Ah, there he is!’ a woman’s voice exclaimed. It took me a moment to recognise Ibu, our landlady; she’d piled her black hair on her head in a pinned-back bouffant and she was wearing not western clothing but traditional Indonesian kebaya, the sarong of her skirt swishing as she approached Billy’s cage. ‘Little lady,’ she said, nodding to acknowledge me, and then, ‘Billy!’. Billy flapped his wings but stayed on his perch.
‘This is not good,’ she announced, craning her neck to examine him. Her hands were folded in front of her, her long, slender fingers interlaced. ‘Tell me,’ she said, turning her face to me, ‘Did you put him here?’
I shook my head. ‘My mother.’
She turned to inspect Billy again. ‘He is sick.’
I sat up in my chair. ‘I think he needs to see a vet. Urgently.’
The landlady pursed her lips. ‘Tell me, has he spoken?’
I nodded and thought, please don’t ask me what he said. Please.
‘And what did he say?’
I rubbed my bald patch. My mother had drummed into me that it was the epitome of vulgarity to swear in front of an adult.
‘It…it’s a bit rude.’
She raised her eyebrows, two arches reaching for her hairline. ‘Interesting. Tell me.’
‘He says…’ I paused.
‘He says…shit. Fucking shit, actually.’ The words tumbled out of my mouth, as if seeking liberation.
‘Shit,’ Billy said quietly from somewhere in the shadows at the top of the cage.
The landlady’s eyes swerved over my bald patch and the scales on my knuckles before settling on the finger Billy had so often mangled. I felt my skin tingle under her gaze. ‘There is bad energy here,’ she said. ‘Very negative. This is a well-known phenomenon in Feng Shui. He chose these words because he senses the aura.’ She moved her arm around, indicating the air around us. ‘You see, these parrots, they are special, they are like sponges. This is why I always place one in all the houses of my new tenants. They tell me if the tenant will be good or bad. If they will bring me trouble.’
Oh I was bad. I was wretched. Burdening Billy with my problems at school. Complaining to him about my nit-picking mother. Moaning about my distracted father. It was all my fault. Billy had absorbed my misery and made it his too. I looked up at him in his cage, dangling there from the ceiling, and thought I saw my future: lonely and trapped, just like Billy.
‘It’s my aura, isn’t it?’ I said, dejected. Ibu touched one long, manicured finger to her hair, an elegant gesture like those I’d seen Javanese dancers make. ‘Let me ask you. Who is the most powerful person in your house?’
It was an easy question. ‘My mother.’
‘Then, that is the aura that is poisoning him.’
I almost fell out of the chair as I got up. I could have hugged Ibu in that moment but she seemed too regal, too otherworldly for the hugs of mere mortals. ‘You mean it’s not my fault?’ I said. ‘It’s not me?’
Ibu flashed another one of her inscrutable smiles and turned to go. ‘Ayo, his work is done here. I will take him home with me now. I was leaving anyway, this party…’ she chuckled, gesturing in the direction of the music and chatter. ‘This pantomime.’
My mother was informed and of course raised no objection. Ahmed was summoned from his cocktail-making duties. With the help of the landlady’s chauffeur, he lowered the cage from the garage ceiling and carried it to Ibu’s car – a jeep – where it was placed on the floor behind the driver. I stopped Ibu as she was about to slide into the back seat. ‘Will you let me know what happens to him? If he gets better?’ I bit back tears – of relief, of grief, I’m still not sure. ‘We were friends, I think.’
‘Of course, little lady,’ she said. ‘I will take care of him.’ Then she pointed at the cracked skin on my hands. ‘But you must get better too. This aura, it’s no good.’ She winked at me as she slammed the door shut.
In the end, I never did find out what happened to Billy but I’m convinced he turned out all right because everything changed for me too in the weeks and months that followed. Ahmed and Maina announced they were moving back to their village in central Java, prompting my mother to make numerous angry phone calls to our landlady, demanding a discount on the rent. Ibu responded by increasing it. Not long after, my father was offered another posting, this time to Manila, and my mother urged him to accept it immediately. She’d heard good things about the Philippines; it was said the people there were very docile.
The thought of starting at yet another school in the middle of the academic year filled me with sheer horror. Then, one weekend, my parents dragged me along to a garden party at the British embassy, and there I stumbled across a flyer advertising a boarding school back in England. At first, my mother argued it was out of the question but a few days later she decided it was marvellous idea — ‘Marvellous! Marvellous!’. My father, as usual, went along with whatever she thought best. It turned out to be one of the cheapest boarding schools in the country and I ended up completing my secondary education there.
On my first trip back to see my parents, they didn’t recognise me as I walked out into the airport’s arrivals hall. It filled me with a peculiar combination of joy and grief but by then I’d thrown away all the hand-sewn dresses my mother had made me wear and I walked with a permanent slouch. I had human friends and dyed hair and a pierced nose. I was used to terrible food and cold winters and yet the world seemed more open and full of possibility than it had ever been. The hair on my bald patch had grown back and my hands had healed over. And if it happened for me, I believe it must have happened to Billy too. After all, he and I, we were connected.
Manuela Saragosa is Anglo-Dutch-Italian, born in Sweden, and grew up in Indonesia, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. She now lives in London where she works as a journalist and presenter for the BBC World Service. Her work has appeared in ‘Six Scary Stories’, an anthology edited by the best-selling author Stephen King after her story was shortlisted in a competition run by The Guardian/Hodder & Stoughton. She’s also been published on The Fiction Pool website and by Ireland’s Labello Press in its ‘Beyond the Axis’ anthology, and her writing has appeared in the Financial Times, the Economist and Asiaweek.
Twitter handle: @ManuelaBBC
Links to published fiction work:
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