Who’s a pity boy then…?

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A Budgerigar in a Cage 
Puts all Heaven in a Rage 

William Blake was actually talking about a ‘Robin Redbreast’ (you knew that of course) but the principle’s the same. The budgie (in America the parakeet) is a wild bird from Australia. However cheery they look behind bars they are by nature a very social and gregarious bird so they could just be making the best of a bad job. All you can eat and a mirror with a bell on it for company compensates a bit I suppose.

Who’s a Pretty Boy then?

Budgies have never loomed large in my life. When I was a kid we had a cat and I doubt that the budgie would have enjoyed the attentions of a predatory battle scarred tomcat. (My dad could never get round to taking Patch to the vet to be emasculated).

My wife’s family did have a budgie – saddled with the silly name of Frisky – who irritated her dad by being too noisy. He was cruelly banished to the school aviary (Frisky not her dad) because he whistled too loudly during Beethoven’s 9th. Maybe he was singing along. But he must have been a very loud budgie to be heard over that piece of music.

And of course budgies learn to talk – well, to imitate at least – which is why their main party piece is trilling ‘Who’s a pretty boy then?’ which is the standard conversational opening that human beings adopt when addressing them in their cage. Thus I come to the memory that has spurred this post.

The conversation – for some reason – had turned to household pets and Frisky’s sad tale was told. I recalled a creepy story which I’d come across long ago which centred around a budgie or budgies who kept repeating the words ‘Pity me…’. The only other thing I could remember was that it was written by someone called Jan Mark. Even Google failed me at first in my search for more information, though I did find out more about Jan Mark. I’d never been sure whether the writer was a man or a woman.

Her real name was Janet Brisland. She wrote contemporary and science fiction novels for children but is more generally known for her imaginative short stories. She was only 62 when she died in 2006. Eventually I tracked down the story I was thinking of. It was called (what else) ‘Who’s a Pretty Boy then?’ and is in a collection of nine unsettling short stories called Black and White published in 1991.

And yes it is about budgies. Rachel’s dad is interested in breeding them. He builds an aviary at the end of the garden where there’s a patch of ground where strangely despite getting plenty of sunshine, nothing grows, not even dandelions. Rachel’s dad brings home the budgies – six of them – and as he installs them in their new home insists that they are not to be given names, and is even more insistent that nobody teaches them to talk. ‘They’re wild birds…’

But of course they do start to talk, and disturbingly there’s no sign of anyone teaching them to do so. They also start to go into a decline, drooping listless on their perches, chirpy no more. And what they say is chilling:

‘Oh, I’m so cold,’ said one.
‘I shall always be very cold,’ said another ‘cold as clay.’
‘I shall always be here,’ said a third.
‘I shall never go away,’ said the white bird.
‘Pity me.’
‘Pity me.’

To get the full effect you need to read the story so I’m not saying any more about it. Many copies of the book (which hasn’t yet been published in electronic format) are available on ebay for two or three pounds. Four of the stories (including ‘Who’s a pretty boy’ were recorded by the BBC with Malcolm Raeburn as reader, probably in the 1990s. I suspect this is where I came across it. But the series has been repeated on Radio 4 Extra a few times in the last couple of years so the stories might turn up again.

We witnessed the sad end of one budgie’s life a few years ago as we walked across Battersea Bridge. There it was, a small blue bird, obviously an escapee, perched on the balustrade cheerfully considering his future in the wild. Startled by something he took flight – the wrong way – and flew straight in front of a passing truck and vanished for ever. Not even a blue feather left to mark his passing.

Sometimes freedom ain’t all its cracked up to be. Maybe in the quiet small hours when all the traffic has disappeared you might be able to hear a sad little voice: ‘Pity me, pity me…’

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