“Mum! Tell him! I’m trying to record this and Peter’s spoiling it. Again!”
My sister 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 not only be annoyed, but annoying. I mean, I was her little brother. It was my role early in life to mock my sister, laugh at her and never with her, wind her up and tease her mercilessly about having a big chin (I called her Bruce, after TV entertainer Bruce Forsyth). She always wanted to either rain on my parade or do something that ran counter to whatever I wanted to do.
My sister thought me a spoiled brat. I wasn’t any more spoiled than she was. She was my sister, though, which meant she was the villain and I was put on this earth to thwart her evil plans. The source of the enmity between us was, perhaps, our age difference. I was the youngest of five. She was the next one up the line, fifteen years older than me. The gulf between us was never going to be bridged; I would always be the baby brother, even well into middle-age.
A number of decades have passed since I last threw Lego bricks at my sister. I can’t say the urge to source some Lego and throw small plastic missiles at her never crossed my mind as an adult, because it did, on many occasions. The last time was memorable: it resulted in a painting that hung above my parents’ fireplace – that of the infamous, supposedly cursed Crying Boy – ending up with a hole gouged into it, on the boy’s rosy left cheek. The brick had only just missed taking his eye out.
“Well,” said my father at the time. “At least it’s given the boy something to cry about.”
My sister would complain “It’s so unfair!” on a regular basis when I was little. On this particular occasion, me, my parents and my sister were in the living room of our three-bedroom council house in Lancashire. It was gone 7pm on a Thursday, which meant the TV was on and we were all having to endure my sister’s fortnightly ritual of recording Top of the Pops on BBC1. This was long before the days of digital downloads, at least a decade before CDs were introduced. Even the huge, black, fake-mahogany slabs called stereo music centres (combined radios, turntables and cassette decks) weren’t available; or, if they were, my family couldn’t yet afford one. I’d been born in 1967 but this was the 1970s, so my sister was armed with a mono tape recorder while she sat in front of the TV with her legs crossed, her face almost touching the screen. My mother tried many times to get her to move a bit further away.
“It’s bad for your eyes,” she said, without any empirical evidence to back up the claim.
“I’m recording in a minute,” my sister told her. “Shush, Mum.”
“Don’t you tell your mother to shush,” my father growled, puffing away on a Woodbine cigarette. “I’ll bloody shush you if you talk to your mother like that again.”
We were all required for half an hour every week to shut up. Absolute silence had to be maintained. My sister would hit the clunky cassette record button whenever one of the DJs on the telly announced the next song, if it was one she liked. I can vividly recall the DJs. The now-infamous but then-national-treasure Jimmy Saville appeared strange to me, and rather frightening. I didn’t like him at all. He was a medallion-wearing, white-haired weirdo. Saville or one of his Radio 1 colleagues, maybe Dave Lee Travis or Kid Jensen, would announce the next band coming up; then my sister would squeak and wave her hands 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 conversation when my sister’s finger pressed down on the pause key.
It was like waiting for the Roman Emperor’s thumb to be turned up or down. The tension was horrible. The fact that our parents allowed my sister to rule the roost in this way every Thursday surely proves she was indulged at least as much as I was.
I only obeyed the order from my sister because my mum told me to play fair. We alternated, Top of the Pops one week, my choice of The Six Million Dollar Man the next. If it turned out my show was a two-parter, my sister would have to give up a week and then have two weeks in a row to make up for it. Reasonable enough, you’d think, but our parents dreaded two-part stories over on ITV because there would always be an argument and it could rumble on and off for days. Some weeks, when I had a grievance against my sister, I took revenge for whatever she’d done to me by accidentally coughing on purpose, as soon as she hit the record button.
“Mum!” she wailed.
“I can’t help having a cough,” I lied. “Mum, tell her to shut up.”
Most of the time, though, my sister’s recordings were thwarted not by her little brother but by our family’s pet budgie, Peter. Peter was predominantly blue, with a white head, lots of black spots, and a hint of yellow in his tail feathers. He was a happy little bird, full of enthusiasm for life. He was very tame and often allowed out of his cage. He would strut across the back of the sofa or enjoy being fussed on somebody’s arm. He could speak too, just a few phrases, although I’ve forgotten what he used to say.
When Peter eventually passed away, it was at an extraordinary age, well into double figures. That sad day was several years away when my sister was recording her tapes, though. Peter was still a young bird, and he loved to dance and sing. He had his favourite songs and styles of music. He was drawn to disco and one song in particular motivated him into a complex frenzy of movements on his perch, like a feathered John Travolta. The song was Yes Sir I Can Boogie, by Baccara. The presenter announced it and my sister, with a yelp of “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” hit record.
Peter immediately began to sing, a joyful stream of chirrups and cheeps, squawks and ticks while he danced left to right, right to left, on his perch.
My sister was unhappy.
“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,” Mum 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 it 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, it resulted in torment you thought would never end as TV and radio kept playing the same multi-million-selling hit over and over and over again. This risk of prolonged exposure to bad music continued throughout the 1980s. You even got sick of the stuff you liked. I cheered more than once when a song I used to like slipped down to the number two position.
“Peter’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 and she rounded on me.
“You don’t need to laugh,” she said. “If you think you’re watching that rubbish bionic man from America 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, his show the next. And so on.”
“It’s not fair!” my sister 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.”
“Not loudly,” I said.
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 cocked like a dog’s, listening.
“Ooh!” she exclaimed. “Shut up! I’m recording this one now!”
Peter the budgie chirruped hopefully.
“You’d better not like this one, Peter,” my sister rumbled as her finger hit record and we all took our familiar cue to shut up, breathe quietly and not move.
I looked at my mother. She was glancing over at my father. They were both grinning.
Peter was my introduction to the world of birds, bar the sparrows and other wild ones that would visit our back garden to eat the bread my mother threw out for them every now and then. She judged the neighbours who never fed the birds as being somewhat lacking in moral character.
“There are some mean buggers,” she told me. “I don’t see her next door throwing anything out to the birds, not ever. It’s not like she can’t afford to feed her kids, that boy of hers is plump enough.”
I remember a lot about Peter: the size of his cage; his smell, not unpleasant; the coarse sandpaper that lined the bottom of his cage; the smooth wooden perches; and his toys. Peter had things like mirrors and balls to play with, and, once, a fake plastic budgie. The plastic budgie was supposed to keep the bird company. It didn’t look like a real budgie, though, which is probably why Peter took exception to being lumbered with it. He would high-kick it, and send it spinning round and round.
“Either that bird doesn’t like his 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. And then Dad’s voice, clear and tinged with sarcasm:
“Yes,” he said. “She has. On many occasions.”
“You’ve got five children,” my mum snapped. “How many more do you want?”
“I didn’t want five but we got five,” my dad said.
“And whose fault was that?” Mum asked.
“Little ears,” my dad said, peeping out from behind his paper and glancing at me. “Little ears.”