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Here's the story of Pirate the cockatoo, the hissing white ghost who became boss of my heart | Alexis Wright

This is a story of Pirate, Australia’s proper number one rex regum et volucres, king of birds. As a fledging, so I was told, he was rescued in a relocation of sulphur-crested cockatoos from the vicinity of Tullamarine airport, so that he would not end up being a bird-strike victim caught up in a jet turbine of one of those long-haul international Boeing jetliners taking off at about 190mph to Hong Kong, London, Paris or wherever else these people carriers fly to on the planet.

This wild young cockatoo was taken to central Australia, where the skies would eventually be large enough for his freewheeling temperament to roam. Within days of arriving in Alice Springs he came to live with my family as a basically wild, and seemingly untameable, rebellious adolescent. He hated everyone and hissed like a mad white ghost whenever anyone went near his cage. Every day I talked to him, paid him many compliments for his extraordinary beauty, and gave him the name of Pirate. Somehow I managed to clean his cage with all the newspapers he ripped up without having my hand bitten off while he was going completely bananas, and then I brought him fresh gumtree foliage to beautify his home, which he destroyed along with the newspaper, and gave him saucers of cut-up fruit, vegetables, seed and water. In other words, he was the boss and I was his slave.

The little king spent his days watching me with his beady black eyes while listening to either classical or country and western music, and while I wrote my novel Plains of Promise. He took a keen interest in everything I did and ate, who I spoke to on the phone, the endless trail of visitors and, probably, he picked up all the local intrigues of the crazy ins and outs of Northern Territory politics, the confidential strategic thinking in Aboriginal campaigns, and whatever conversations were going on.

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One day, about six weeks after he arrived in our lounge room in a big cage and simply within no particular moment, instead of trying to bite me as usual, he let me pat him. We became the best of friends and he never bit me again. He did not care much for the rest of the family though, and his behaviour towards them was unpredictably lovable or full of jealousy, with wings expanded, screeching and hissing – especially if they got too close. We could not bear to see him in a cage so he became free range, and he sat beside me on the back of his own chair as I wrote. He then begun to sit on my shoulder, where he liked to groom strands of my hair, while watching the words of stories appearing one by one on the computer screen, and the world going by outside the window. It was from my shoulder that he begun to fully rule his new world.

It got to the stage where he had to have everything I ate or drank. If I was having tea, he had to have his own small cup. If I was having cereal for breakfast, he had to have the same in his bowl. If I was having a baked-bean or cheese-and-salad sandwich on a plate or cracker biscuits, then he would have to have the same too. And all the while he was learning to speak very good English. If I pointed out that what he was listening to passing in the sky was an aeroplane, he would repeat the word straight back to me.

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Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright, winner of the Miles Franklin award and the Stella prize. Photograph: Meredith O’Shea/The Guardian

He grew bored living in the house, and would let himself out of his cage to destroy stuff. He chewed practically all the window sills. He chewed the buttons off a number of TV remote controls – making it impossible for my husband to watch AFL, tennis or cricket. He would have chewed off the back of all our chairs if we had let him. He became an artist. He chewed along the covers and edges of pages of many books he selected from the bookshelves or found around the house. Some of these books of Pirate’s artwork became treasured possessions of friends.

We put a small padlock on what was now his inside winter cage, where he really only slept in at night. This was to stop him roaming around the house when we were sleeping. But this bird was Houdini reincarnated. He was an escape artist. He had watched how we turned the key in the lock, and now he did this himself every morning so he could jump on the bed, lie on his back, and have his feathers scratched for hours if he could have gotten away with it.

Although he basically had his own aviary in the backyard under the citrus trees he roamed freely in the garden, while doing a few odd jobs like pulling up all of my husband’s vegetable seedlings. He was always in my thoughts as my constant companion while writing my longer novel Carpentaria, so I ended up incorporating him into it. Why not? This is where he now looms larger than life, if that were at all possible, as the cockatoo named Pirate who belonged to the main character, Norm Phantom.

Pirate soon took to the skies in Alice Springs, with complete freedom to fly around, and where perhaps he joined his cockatoo mates roosting in the palm trees in the mall until the honeyeaters chased him home. He would fly back at the end of the day to his aviary full of gum foliage, fresh water, fruit and seed. This was where he chatted to himself – sometimes in remembered bits of rhythms from his memory of either classical or C&W music, and while telling the stories of his life in a jumble of sentences, random words and his own cockatoo language, interlaced over and over with his own name, Pirate.

When we parted I felt as though I had lost my right arm. He still flies free, and loves a girl who cares for him. This is the way I always remember the boss in my heart. My family call all the sulphur-crested cockatoos we see in Melbourne Pirate. They’re all his relatives I am sure …


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