December 2011 – January 2012


The Orange-bellied parrot

By Nicholas Shakespeare
The Orange-bellied parrot

Alison had never liked her grandmother, who lived alone in a big overheated apartment in Zurich, and so when Helen went into hospital after a mild stroke and, rather than consent to enter a nursing home, decided on a “self-determined death” with the tidy assistance of Swiss law, drawing stumps, as it were, on 91 years, Alison was pleased for Helen and relieved for herself.

The meaning of an act differs if it is performed by an old lady or a young boy, by an Australian or a Swiss, by a twice-widowed battleaxe or a divorced granddaughter. Upon learning of her grandmother’s decision, Alison recognised how consistent it was with her conservative and stubborn nature. It was the act of a person who refused to listen to anyone. “I had a very difficult relationship with her,” Alison remembered her mother once explaining, “because I would not let her dominate my life.” A characteristic which may have been hereditary.

Alison was visiting London with her 14-year-old son when Karl telephoned to convey the news. Alison’s immediate response: she would make a detour to Zurich before flying back to Hobart. She and Josh were the last surviving members of the Australian side of Helen’s family, and out of some superstition or instinct Alison felt impelled to take her son to say goodbye. Josh as a result had one of his tantrums. There seemed to Josh very few things more boring than going to see an ancient relative you have never met and were certain not to meet again. Alison had had to bribe him with the promise of an excursion to Basel to look at a stuffed auk.

On their first afternoon in Switzerland, they visited Karl at his studio on Zurich’s outskirts. Karl, in black jeans and a black roll-neck jersey, stepped out of his elaborate front door and gave her a crushing hug.

Josh stared at something on the fence before shaking hands.

Alison’s half-uncle was good-looking and aware of it. But not a man for horseplay. Fifteen years older than Alison, he seemed suspended half a generation away; neither sibling nor parent. Over a late lunch of cold meats and asparagus, he talked about his mother.

She would have quietly died without treatment, he said in his accentless English. After a few days in hospital, she became clear in her head. It was obvious that she could not return to her apartment. But nor did she did find it pleasant to be hospitalised. When thinking about where she would have to go (“I proposed a nursing home in Lavigny”), she decided to contact EXIT, an organisation which assisted those who, as Karl expressed it, “wished to call it a day”. A man came to the hospital and explained what had to be done. Helen had to join EXIT as a member, with a membership fee (“which I paid”). Then she had to fill out many forms (“which I never saw, basically declaring that what she was doing was her own decision; nobody was pressing her”). The man came back and picked up the forms; a date was set. The procedure could not have been more sensitive or diplomatic. His mother had one last document to sign – Karl would be taking it to her after Alison’s visit. On Friday, an ambulance was booked to drive Helen to an apartment in Zurich where EXIT acted.

“I absolutely agree to the way she has chosen,” Karl said, plucking at the skin below his shiny round chin. “Nobody has tried to stop her.”

It is well known that some people cheer up when their parents die, but the mourning-free manner in which Karl looked forward to his mother’s end made Alison, now confronted with the clinical details, strangely uneasy – even though Helen had kept the family busy with her death, about which she had talked since she was 60, when her Swiss second husband, Karl’s father, passed away.

Josh, fidgety, asked if he might go into the garden.

Left alone with Alison, Karl wished to demonstrate how he had kept Helen’s affairs in order. He ran around the room, talking to her and producing papers. “Look, even her Australian passport is up to date!” In the same spirit, he had organised wreaths – white flowers, except for Alison’s (she had requested orange and green). The will – who was going to get what. And her burial place.

Karl cleared a space on the table and spread out a map. “The reason we stayed with this cemetery is that it’s maintained like a park. No vandals and not near a river. We own this whole plot here.” There were four places left, should Alison be interested.

One matter alone had troubled Karl: the gravestone. He produced a photograph of a rocket shape carved from black granite. Karl had wanted to design a monument. “I tried hard, but the old girl wouldn’t choose a bigger stone.”

“What does she want on it?”

“‘Loved and blessed’.”

Till we meet again, At home with Jesus and She served the Swiss–Australian community with dignity – his mother had rejected each of his suggestions.

“She really wants to die?”

Karl stepped back, arms folded. “Oh, God yes.”

What smiled across at Alison from the other side of the dining-room table was still the discreet and polite efficiency of Europe; and the space it smiled across was broader than the Indian Ocean.

After some small talk about Tasmania, two perfunctory questions concerning Alison’s work as a history teacher and the best way to get to Basel, plus another bear-hug, they were on their way. Only when they reached the street did Josh remember. He was abject. “I think I put them on the window-sill,” he muttered. Furious, Alison marched back up the path. Is anything more fucking embarrassing, she thought, when you have gone through the ceremony of saying your thank-yous and farewells, than to discover you have left something behind?

Ding dong. Staring at the metal door. The network of bronze hexagons. And the glass circle in the centre which presently blurred with a face.

Karl’s expression when he saw her again was confused, tense.

“Josh forgot his binoculars.”

The following morning, they visited Helen in her hospital room. She had a bright melon scarf around her neck and sat in a wheelchair, with her back to a window overlooking the lake.

“You’re thinner,” she said after Alison tried to kiss her. When Alison began to introduce Josh, her lips contracted and she gave Alison a questioning look. “You’ve seen Karl?”

Alison nodded.

“I’ve changed my mind.”

Josh glanced at her, Alison too.

“About the words,” in the squashed-out drawl of someone trying to hide an accent. “If I’m going to have a rock on my head, I don’t want ‘Much loved’!”

“I thought it was ‘Loved and blessed’.”

Helen seized on this as proof that her architect son planned unilaterally to replace her tombstone with something larger, with more words. His first suggestion had been: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” She would not sign his document until she had seen a photograph showing the inscription.

“I just want my original family name, Helen Olderton, born in Hobart, died in Zurich and the dates.”

In every other respect – it was clear to Alison, thinking about it later – Helen’s mind was made up. Death to a woman who has resided 51 years in Zurich was too familiar an experience to excite either terror or regret. She had hung on the branch long enough, outlived two husbands and a daughter. It was no big deal what she was about to do.

Already, in London, Alison had decided that she would temper the occasion by taping some of Helen’s memories. She wheeled over a trolley, explaining that she would like to ask a few questions – about her grandmother’s childhood in Hobart, her first marriage. Nothing difficult. It was something she encouraged her pupils to do. “It’ll give Josh something to remember you by.”

“Josh?” And looked at the boy as though Alison had launched him on the slide down the razor blade of life by naming him that. But Josh was not paying attention.

“What is he looking at?”


He turned from the window and trained his ‘bins’ on his mother – fumbling with her tape-recorder lead. Next, on Helen.

The old lady, caught in his unreflecting focus, straightened in the wheelchair. Her eyes flickered. She pressed her right hand into her cheek, then took it away, and the flesh, grey and puffy, stayed depressed for a few seconds and refilled like an old tennis ball.

He lowered the binoculars. “You know you’ve got a Collared Dove nest outside, in your Virginia creeper?”

“I’m going to see if I can borrow a plug,” announced Alison.

Ten minutes later, Alison returned. The wheelchair faced the window. Helen leaned forward, an unnatural look in her eye, as if she was interested and didn’t want to show it. “Why was it on the lake, do you think?”

“Blown off course, probably,” Josh said. “It went horribly overland the wrong way and got royally lost.”

And Alison, setting up the tape recorder (a receptionist in oncology had found her an adaptor), knew that he was talking about the bird they were going to see at the Naturhistorisches Museum. A Long-billed Murrelet. The first ever found in Europe – turning up drowned in a fishing net on Lake Zurich in December 1997 when it should have been in Japan.

“Hey, what’s that?” asked Helen.

Josh tracked a large speck with his bins. “Another little brown job.”

“Another little brown job ...” Her laugh was less hard. She knew no more about birds than the man in the moon.

“Most birds are brown and boring,” said Josh.

“Funny,” Helen reflected, “I was never interested in birds.”

“Nor was I,” chirped Alison, inserting the cassette. She always thought that birds were stupid. There was nothing there. They were only dinosaurs. Feathery dinosaurs.

“They really are dinosaurs,” murmured her birder son. Who suddenly lowered his shoulders, as though preparing to take flight. Excited, he handed his bins to Helen. “There – on the quarry face,” and bent over, adjusting the lens for her.

“What am I looking for? Oh, now I see,” came the grudging voice that was losing its solemnity. “Red and grey, isn’t it?”

“I’m pretty certain it’s a Wallcreeper,” Josh was telling them both. He’d seen one in his book. A delightful little bird, a resident of the Alps that in winter came to lower altitudes.

“Does it sing?” asked Helen.

“Only when defending its territory.”

The Wallcreeper flew off. With reluctance, Helen returned the binoculars. A freckle on his eyelid drew attention to his eyes. His face was smooth. “What do you think drives you?”

Alison felt a pang for her son. He could never put it into words without sounding peculiar or awkward. At the same time, it was important that he try and describe it. He held his bins against his chest, abstractedly twisting the focus wheel. “Well ... it takes you to some amazing places.”

His mother turned back the cloth on the trolley and laid the tape recorder on the glass underneath. “Tell Helen about that parrot you want to go and see in the Tarkine.”

When, five days later, Alison tried to explain her grandmother’s spontaneous explosion of lucidity to Karl, she recalled how Helen had begun to speak of Australia with a special quality in her voice.

“What did you say to her?” On the other side of the world, Karl was swearing. “She’s cancelled everything. She’s talking about some blasted parrot with an orange stomach. She says there are only 35 left and they all live in Tasmania and she has to go and see one.”

Not until she replayed the tape did Alison catch the vital note unheard at the time. Helen was discussing with Josh the definition of a credible sighting.

“If just you or me saw it, no,” Josh said.

A pause. “What if we both saw it?”

“Yeah, that would count.”

A little word can be a clap of thunder. After a perpetual winter of being herself, Helen had informed Karl that she wished to look down on Hobart again, the city where she had been born by caesarean section 91 years before, the streets that were dyed in the green and orange colours of her youth. On top of it all, she wanted to go with her great-grandson to the Tarkine.

Nicholas Shakespeare
Nicholas Shakespeare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His books include In Tasmania, Inheritance and The Dancer Upstairs, which was made into a film by John Malkovich.

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