“Mummmmm! Tell him! I’m trying to record this and he’s spoiling it. Again!”
My sister Jean was annoyed. She was always annoyed, as far as I was concerned. She was my big sister. It was probably her role in life to be not only annoyed, but annoying. I mean, I was her little brother. It was my job to mock her, laugh at her, wind her up and tease her mercilessly about having a big chin (I called her Brucie, after Bruce Forsyth). I liked to irritate her because she invariably wanted to either rain on my parade or do something that ran counter to whatever I wanted to do. It’s no wonder she saw me as a spoiled brat, although I don’t believe I was any more spoiled than she was. She was simply my sister and, therefore, the enemy.
The problem was our age difference. I was the youngest of five, Jean being the next one up and fifteen years older than me. The gap was never going to be narrowed, something I’ve lived with to this day because we still don’t see eye to eye; she still patronises me, and I still see her as irredeemably condescending and hopelessly incapable of respecting my opinions on any subject. Even though I believe this to be true, she won’t, of course, being my sister – and will undoubtedly be upset if she reads this but it’s the truth and isn’t stated in order to hurt but to tell the story. Although it is now a fair number of decades since I threw Lego bricks at my sister, I can’t honestly say the urge to find some and do the same again hasn’t crossed my mind as an adult on a few occasions, even though the one time it really happened, a painting that hung above my parents’ fireplace – that of the infamous, supposedly cursed Crying Boy – ended up with a hole gouged into the little blond guy’s cheek.
“Well,” said my father at the time. “At least it’s given him something to cry about.”
On the latest occasion of one of my sister’s “It’s so unfair!” outbursts, she, my parents and I were in the living room of our three-bedroom council house in Chorley, Lancashire. It was gone 7pm on a Thursday, which meant the TV was on and we were all having to endure my sister’s weekly ritual of recording Top of the Pops on BBC1. This was long before the days of MP3s or even CDs and stereo music centres. I was born in 1967 but this was the mid- to late-1970s, so my sister was armed with a mono tape recorder and sitting in front of the TV cross-legged, her face almost touching the screen. My mother’s constant refrain was to urge my sister to pull back. “It’s bad for your eyes,” she’d say, without any need for empirical evidence to back up the claim because she was, of course, our mother and mothers just know these things by instinct.
“I’m going to be recording in a minute,” my sister would say. “Shush, Mum.”
“Don’t you tell your mother to shush,” my father would growl, puffing away on a Woodbine cigarette. “I’ll bloody shush you if you talk to your mother like that again.”
He’d never refer to my mother using anything other than ‘mother’ or her actual first name, which was taboo for us kids to use, and probably rightly so. I’ve never understood kids who call their parents by their names; it seems to deny the parent-child relationship somehow. If we dared to ever say such a thing as ‘she said’ or ‘she knows’, we’d get asked “who’s she? The cat’s mother?” and this always puzzled me. I mean, what had a cat’s mother got to do with anything?
Anyway, we were all required for half an hour every week to shut up. And I do mean, absolute silence was to be maintained. My sister would hit record whenever one of the DJs on the telly announced the next song, if it was going to be a song she liked. Back then, the now-infamous Jimmy Saville was merely seen as eccentric and, to me, rather frightening (perhaps I had nascent psychic powers – though, looking back, I wonder why nobody cottoned on at the time to the fact that this medallion-wearing, white-haired weirdo was up to something terrible). He, or one of his Radio 1 colleagues – maybe Dave Lee Travis or Kid Jensen – would announce the band coming up and my sister would squeak, waving her hands up and down frantically, like a bird trying to take off.
This was the visual cue for my mother, father and I to stop talking. We could only resume our conversations when my sister’s finger came down on the pause key. It was like waiting for the Roman Emperor’s thumb to turn up or down. The tension in the air was palpably intense, proving, I am sure, that my sister was herself rather spoiled. I certainly was and have no doubt she was too. Our parents were, after all, very accommodating in being prepared to tolerate this weekly trauma resulting from their teenage daughter’s desire to archive sound for later playback.
Dutifully, we all fell silent. I only did so because my mother had warned me to play fair. Some weeks though, because of a grievance against my sister on that day, I would cough. Accidentally, of course. It was a real cough. I couldn’t help it. Much of the time though, my sister’s recordings were thwarted not by her younger brother but by our family’s pet budgerigar, Peter.
Peter the budgerigar was predominantly blue, with a white head and lots of black spots, a hint of yellow in his tail feathers. He was a delightful bird, a happy little soul full of enthusiasm for life. Very tame, he was often out of his cage and strutting across the back of the sofa or being fussed on somebody’s arm. He could speak too, just a few phrases, although I’ve forgotten what he used to say. When he eventually passed away, he’d reached an extraordinary age, well into double figures, but that sad day was several years away yet. Peter was a young man and, in common with many youths, he loved to dance. And sing. Peter had his favourite songs and styles of music. He was drawn to disco and one song in particular proved to inspire him into a frenzy of sophisticated movements on his perch, involving his whole body, head and legs, like a feathered John Travolta: Yes Sir I Can Boogie, by Baccara.
The song was announced. My sister hit record.
Peter danced and began to sing. He wasn’t mimicking the lyrics, of course; his was a joyful stream of chirrups and cheeps, squawks and ticks. It was obvious to anyone, though, that these were vocalisations of delight. Nevertheless, my sister was whipped up into a fury at light-speed. She went from the closest thing to placidity a teenager can manage to angry, budgie-consuming troll in about 0.03 seconds.
“I’m telling you, Mum!” she roared. “I’m going to break that bloody budgie’s neck.”
“Break that budgie’s neck and I’ll break yours,” my mother growled. “He’s happy, leave him alone.”
My sister’s finger slammed down on the pause button. “I’m going to have to rewind and wipe over now,” she whined. “I’ve got to find the right place. I’ve been trying to record that song for weeks and he never lets me.”
(In those days, songs stuck around in the charts longer than a week or two. Sometimes this was a good thing, if you liked the track. At other times, this resulted in torment that you thought would never end as TV and radio kept playing the same multi-million-selling hit over and over and over again. This continued until the mid-1980s, when Bryan Adams made everyone realise, enough was enough and never again would we let any one band or artist dominate our ears again for a ridiculous length of time.)
“He’s just a happy bird,” my dad said.
Over in his cage, Peter chuckled malevolently, his black eyes gleaming.
My sister’s own eyes narrowed as she stared up at him. “That bird hates me,” she said.
I laughed at this point and she rounded on me.
“You don’t need to laugh,” she said. “If you think you’re watching Six Million Dollar Man next week, you can forget it.”
I wailed. “Mum!” I pleaded.
My mum looked up from her knitting. “You take it in turns,” she reminded my sister. “You, Top of the Pops one week; Andrew, that American show the next. And so on.”
“It’s not fair!” Jean bleated.
“How is it not fair?” Mum asked. “You one week; Andrew the next. What’s not fair about that?”
“Yes,” my sister said. “He’s not trying to record anything, though, is he?”
“No,” my dad agreed. “When he’s watching that shite, at least we can all bloody well talk.”
My sister could multi-task long before the term was coined and, in the middle of berating us all and insisting life was just one long punishment, she heard the song come to an end and the TV audience break out into applause. Her head snapped back to stare at the set; her head was cocked like a dog’s, listening.
“Ooh!” she exclaimed. “Shut up! I’m recording this one now!”
The budgerigar chirruped hopefully.
“You’d better not like this one, Peter,” my sister rumbled as her finger hit record and we all took it as our familiar cue to resume public library conditions in the room.
I caught my mother glancing over at my father.
They were both grinning.
Peter was my introduction to the world of birds, unless you count the sparrows and other wild birds that would visit our back garden to eat the bread my mother threw out for them every now and then. As anyone who considered themselves kind to animals did. Or so my mum told me, at least.
“There are some mean buggers,” she said. “I don’t see her next door throwing anything out to the birds. Ever.”
Her next door was the enemy. A woman deemed so sinfully filthy, never washing her nets; so supremely nosey; so insignificant, that my mother talked about her rather a lot. To be fair to my mum if not the neighbour, the woman in the house glued onto the side of our own was indeed a curtain-twitcher par excellence. You could tip-toe outside and you’d absolutely know the front living room curtains next door would be moving, a bad, overly-tightly-curled perm occasionally visible, like the top of a shy sheep.
“I heard your bird,” she said one time, to my mum, having caught her on the way back from the shops.
My mum had our front door key in the lock, and was just about to turn it. Agitated, she looked at our neighbour. “What?”
“That budgie,” said the woman. “I could hear it through the wall.”
My mother put the shopping down to deal with this. “You could not,” she said firmly. “Your downstairs is next to our kitchen and sitting room. Not the living room. Our Peter never leaves the living room.”
“Well I heard it,” said the woman, undeterred. “I know what I heard.”
“You probably heard a sparrow,” my mum snapped. “Up your own chimney.”
I couldn’t tell if that last sentence was a suggestion of where the bird might be located, or some kind of veiled insult.
I remember a great deal of textured information about Peter. I mean, the size of his cage; the smell of him – not unpleasant but a smell all the same; the coarseness of the sandpaper lining the bottom of his cage; the smooth wooden perches and his toys, things like mirrors and balls – and, once, a fake plastic budgerigar that had a ring underneath it to hook it over one of the perches. As an adult, this kind of makes me think of those unsavoury inflatable sex dolls. For Peter, this plastic thing was supposed to be company. It didn’t even look like a budgie, which might explain why he took exception to it and kept high-kicking it, sending it spinning around and around.
“Either that bird doesn’t like that toy,” my father said. “Or someone’s been teaching him Kung Fu.”
“Oh give over,” my mum chided. “If it keeps him happy, where’s the harm?”
“I hope he wouldn’t do that to a lady budgie,” I said, adding hopefully, “Can we get him a lady budgie?”
“No,” my mum snapped, her tone resolute. “We’re not having any babies here. No more babies. I’ve told your father the same thing.”
In his armchair, my father grunted and lifted his newspaper up to hide his face. All I could see above the Daily Mirror’s front and back pages was a curling plume of grey smoke.