Everyone on Prospect Walk knew Pat Steggles had a problem with drink; it wasn’t just me. For as long as I’d known her she’d always had a glass in her hand, and I often saw her carrying an empty Martini bottle down Wellington Lane to the off-license for a refill. Nobody could fail to notice how much louder she got as the day went on. It wasn’t unusual for her to invite my mother round for a sherry, pour herself a generous measure, and then forget to offer Mum anything at all. More than once, if her husband came home unexpectedly and asked her to explain the depleted bottle, she wouldn’t hesitate to blame my mother for having got carried away and drunk more than her fair share. And how could I forget that New Year’s Eve when I opened the front door to have her barge past me without a word, and run through our house balancing a lump of coal on a teaspoon in one hand, and a wineglass in the other, that feverish glint of concentrated delight in her eye?
Not all of her peculiar impulses could be put down to alcohol of course. In the summer, on hot days, she liked nothing better than to smother the folds of her pink-white body in sunflower oil and lie on her back lawn on taped together strips of silver foil, roasting herself with only the sparse young apple trees growing up along the fence for shade. Lying on her stomach, she would usually undo the straps of her bikini top too. This state of near nakedness she was always sure to draw my father’s attention to with a gappy-toothed smile if he happened to be out working in the garden.
Her attitude towards her son was strange as well. An only child, Warren was an epileptic who was always having fits in all kinds of inconvenient places, despite the myriad of different coloured pills he had to take every day: under cars; in the middle of football matches; once even on our dining room floor. Dad carried him home that day, pausing at the garden gate for me to open it for him, fully aware, I suspect, of the heroic pose he was striking. Mostly, though, when it was over and he’d staggered to his feet like a newborn foal taking its first shaky steps, I would follow Warren home at a cautious distance to make sure he didn’t wander into the road or end up down a manhole. He was my neighbour after all, even if he appeared not to recognise me on those occasions. Still, he never seemed to have any trouble finding his way back. He was lucky that way, the way sleepwalkers can get up in the middle of the night, go downstairs, make a pot of tea and toast with marmalade, and never once end up scolding themselves or sticking a knife in the toaster.
But Pat Steggles would insist his days were numbered. “Oh, he won’t last long,“ she would say, almost proudly, to my mother over the back garden fence. “The doctor said he could go any time.”
Often Warren would be standing right next to her when she said this, a tall spindly boy with long drooping Olive Oyl arms and legs, face doused in freckles, staring impassively at nothing in particular, the way you do when you’re a kid and your mother stops to talk to someone in the street and all you can do is stand there waiting for the earth to start spinning again. I couldn’t help wondering what was going through his head.
Still, he was badly spoilt. Whatever his parents bought him to make amends for his wretched fate it was never enough; he always wanted more.
“I’m ‘avin’ it!” we would hear him shouting through the walls.
“You’re not ‘avin’ it!” his mum would shout back.
“I’m ‘avin’ it!”
“Warren! Warren! You’re not ‘avin’ it!”
Then a tense fragile silence before it would start up again. “I’m bloody ‘avin’ it!”
Or sometimes, more ominously as he grew older: “One day all this will be mine!”
I felt sorry for Pat Steggles when I heard Warren answering her back like that. He didn’t seem to care what he said to his mum, and she seemed oddly powerless to stop him. Her husband Mostyn was at work a lot, but he wasn’t any nicer to her, and would often accuse her of being stupid. She had a little cleaning job in the evenings up at my old primary school at the top of the hill, and in the summer she worked on the land with all the other mums on the street, but much of the time she was on her own in the house.
Then she bought the parakeet. She kept it in a cage in the dining room. I never saw it because by that time I had stopped going round to Warren’s house. The previous summer, humiliatingly, he had beaten me up in the school fields in front of everyone; or rather I had run away from his flailing fists. At the time this seemed to me a far preferable course of action than hitting him back, and although for months afterwards I had been plagued by fantasies of knocking on his door and asking for a rematch, I never did. As if to mock my cowardice, my cat Mitsy then became ill and picked their garden in which to spend her last days, making a sickbed for herself on an old dining chair in the shade of the hydrangea. Unable to accept this betrayal, I took to stealing into the Steggles’s back garden at night when they were watching television, carrying Mitsy back to our house, and setting her down in her rightful bed in the conservatory. It made no difference. The moment my back was turned she would escape through the cat flap and make her treacherous way back next door. For over a week she sat there, showing no interest whatsoever in the dishes of warm milk and Whiskas Deluxe my Mum took her, let alone the colourful bird chirping away in the living room, and, as if sensing the cat’s approaching death, the bird showed no alarm at her proximity.
After Mitsy’s was put down, I continued to hear the bird singing. Nobody else on Prospect Walk had a bird for a pet, and Mrs Steggles was very pleased with it. She would talk to it all the time: when she was in her kitchen, when she was upstairs making the beds, when she was in the bath, or sunbathing on the lawn. “Who’s a pretty boy then,“ she would say to it over and again, or sometimes, ”Mummy’s coming, Dolly,“ or “Mummy’s here.”
Dolly chatted back to her too, perched in its cage dutifully repeating whatever she said, and Mrs Steggles never tired of its croaky, hesitated responses. She was convinced he understood every word.
I was there the afternoon she peeked over the garden wall, squeezing herself between the branches of the apple trees, to ask Mum if she could look after her bird while they were away on holiday. They were going to Spain for a fortnight the following week, and she needed someone she could trust.
“I don’t like to ask anyone else, Dora. He don’t like strangers.”
Mum didn’t waste any time making her mind up. “No ta, Pat.”
Pat Steggles ducked out of sight without another word, her shock of short fiery red hair disappearing into the foliage.
I was disappointed. Why couldn’t we look after Pat Steggles’ bird? I complained. Surely it would be no trouble to pop next door once a day to fill its beaker up and give it a few seeds? I would happily do it myself, and expect nothing in return. The more I followed her around the house arguing my case, the more fixated I became. What I also liked, of course, was the idea of being able to sneak around my neighbour’s house alone. It had been years since I had sat in their curious back to front living room watching It’s a Knockout, and I wanted to see how things had changed; if the flying china ducks were still stuck to the big landscape painting that dominated one wall like the one Stan and Hilda had in Coronation Street; if their green peacock sofa still faced the wrong way like a boat that has slipped its moorings. More to the point, if Warren’s bedroom contained anything of mine he might have stolen over the years.
But Mum was adamant; as she was a few days later when Mrs Steggles asked her again. It was a long time since all that had separated our two gardens had been a line of concrete posts and a few tokenistic strands of wire.
It occurred to me that she might also be resentful that Mitsy had chosen their garden to see out her last days. Or more likely she was just jealous of how they spent their summers. The Steggles’s had been to Spain for three years running now, while we still had to make do with holidays in Borth every year, our only entertainment throwing pebbles at the marbled jellyfish big as dustbin lids washed up on the concrete-coloured shore, or playing Scrabble while the rain endlessly tapped out time on Aunty Annie’s caravan roof. Nobody else on Prospect Walk had holidays abroad. Mostyn Steggles was a foreman at the plastics factory and could afford to splash out. They always came back showing off the kind of bright loose-fitting clothes, and copper-shaded tans you saw people like Elvis and Dean Martin wearing in their films. They never wasted any time playing all the wailing folk music they brought back either, the French doors wide open for everyone to hear. Majorca was the most beautiful place you could imagine, Pat Steggles would say: beautiful unspoilt beaches, warm seas, tucked away hotels, sultry Spanish waiters with silky brown skin and come-to-bed eyes.
Later that week I heard she had asked a few other people on the street to look after Dolly, but been met with similar results; they were either too busy or had simply developed sudden allergies to parakeet feathers.
It was my big sister Eva who told me the real reason for people’s reluctance to help our neighbour. The truth wasn’t drink or jealousy, but the fact that she had a fancy man. Once a week while Warren was at school and Mostyn at the factory, her husband’s younger half-brother would park his dented blue Bentley outside their gate, wander up the garden path in his chequered blue suit, and enter the house without knocking. Soon afterwards, the curtains of the spare bedroom window would snap shut. Half an hour later they swished open again and he left, straightening his tie as unashamedly as he had loosened it when he’d arrived. And all in broad daylight!
The only person on Prospect Walk who didn’t know about this, according to Eva, was poor old Mostyn himself.
“Who’s gonna look after you, Dolly?“ I heard Mrs Steggles asking her bird disconsolately that evening. “Who’s gonna look after you when I’m gone, eh? If I leave you behind you’ll starve, won’t you. I’ll come back and you’ll be nothing but a pile of feathers with your feet up in the air.”
“Up in the air,” the bird sang back in merry imitation.
For the rest of that week the voices coming through our walls grew increasingly distressed. They would just have to go without her, Pat Steggles complained to her husband. She couldn’t leave her Dolly to fend for himself. Mostyn, however, refused to let her stay behind. He wanted her with him, where he could keep an eye on her. And whatever Mostyn said went, Mum always said.
The morning of their departure she still hadn’t found anyone to take care of the bird. I stood on our swing watching Mr Steggles carrying the suitcases down to the car, while my mother sat on the step out of sight behind the hydrangea, peeling potatoes discreetly into a bowl.
“I’m not going! I’m not leaving Dolly.” Mrs Steggles cried from her back door.
“You’re comin’ and that’s final!”
“Well, why can’t I take him with us then? He’ll like it there.”
“Don’t be so stupid, woman!”
“I’m not going,” said Dolly.
“If you think I’m leaving you here on your own you got another thing comin’.”
I jumped down from the swing and went and stood by the gate. Across the road, Mrs Cottle and Mrs Coffin had appeared in their gardens, having suddenly found pressing things to do near their back gates. Mrs Tumulty down the maisonettes was leisurely hanging washing on the Hills Hoist. Yet she was no angel. Only the week before, after another of their notorious arguments, I had seen one of Mr Tumulty’s false legs come flying out of their bedroom window and land on that line, lying there like a great pink boomerang among all the socks and trousers and frilly underwear.
Mr Steggles began strapping the cases to the roof-rack. “And you can forget Duty Free this year an’ all!”
Famously, the previous year, Pat Steggles had ended up spending all her holiday money on Duty Free booze before they even left the airport. Mostyn had leant her money for the week, but only on condition that she paid back every last penny when they got home – which she had in instalments, her husband keeping a careful record.
She went inside and came back out through the French doors, clutching a replenished wineglass at a precarious angle, and tried Mum one last time.
“He en’t no bother, Dora,” she said in a voice I’d never heard her use before, helpless as a child. “He don’t talk much unless you talk to him. Honestly, he won’t be no bother. He’s good as gold.”
“Oh, Pat,” my mother said, in sisterly sympathy for her tormented neighbour.
She was wavering as I had always known she would. Before she could say another word, though, Mrs Steggles had stumbled indoors again.
At that moment I saw a tiny flare of green, red and yellow shoot out of their dining room window and across the garden. Over the apple trees it went, dipping and rising like an un-propped washing line, up over Mr O’Sullivan’s garden wall, up away over the redbrick houses. It was my first and only sight of the bird.
“Oh, he’s gone!” we heard her cry from the dining room.
The cage door had been left open and her companion had made a bid for freedom. Pat Steggles was devastated. She made no attempt to hide her despair. Warren came out and sat on the doorstep to escape his mother’s tears. He sat there calmly eating a bowl of cereal, while she went on pining for the lost bird.
“I’m not goin’ without Dolly … I’m not leaving him behind ….”
But what choice did she have? Out she came finally, walking down the path as slow and solemn as if she were going to her own funeral. Mostyn locked the front door behind them and away the car crept down Snore Drive, leaving Dolly’s empty cage behind it.
Yet by the time she got back from her holiday Pat Steggles appeared to have forgotten all about Dolly. She was full of talk of the Majorcan sunshine once more, and the warm Fairy-Liquid-green Mediterranean, and the Spanish waiters who had toyed with her affections so with their hooded dark eyes. All afternoon and on into the evening she sat in her garden on her sun-bed in her skimpy pink bikini and sombrero, sipping her wine and playing ‘The Birdie Song’ over and over again with the French doors flung wide open and the volume turned up high for everyone on Prospect Walk to enjoy.
Image credit: KR Burgio
For more on parakeets, read Gary Budden’s brilliant essay on invasive species, rewilding, and political subcultures, Parakeets and Purity.