of cockatoos and cousins unknown

In the late afternoon, the call stretched across the yard and into the distance, a larger than life sound, ‘Yvonne…… Isabel‘. The girls’ names were elongated with pleading vowels, gentle yet insistent. The incessant winds carried the calls further. It was a mother calling her children at dusk or tea time or at 6 o’clock, whichever came first. ‘Yvonne…… Isabel’, the voice seemed to come from the sea bleached weatherboard house, urging the girls to come home, to return from their vast playground of sky, sea and distance that made up the fishing village of Port Albert. The weathered house was unadorned, unpainted, a homemade shack. Attempts at domestic beautification included a patch of spongy buffalo grass which was impossible to mow, and an overgrown cigar fuchsia, which attracted honey eaters when in flower. The rainwater tank near the backdoor was home to a large venomous brown snake, especially during summer, when it curled under the tank stand for shade and came out for a drink when the tap was left dripping. The outhouse toilet was down a grassy track beyond the tank with the snake. ‘Yvonne…. Isabel‘, the second call, five minutes later, became more urgent. ‘Tea’s ready‘ was perhaps all that was implied, but then the front yard was the sea, and as the tide turned in Corner Inlet, the muddy mangroves became quickly submerged. Beyond the mangroves, deep sea channels filled with swirling eddies as the tide rapidly moved across the sand, dangerous to anyone except the most experienced of boat navigators who saw the channels as sea routes back home to the Port. And further out on the horizon, the bushy headland of Snake Island became a Sphinx on dusk: that dark, terrible shadow scared most young children. The Sphinx Head knew all the secrets of the sea, of all those cousins who ‘met their watery grave’. ‘Yvonne….. Isabel, the cry carried across that austere but magical landscape.

My Grandparents, Grace and Charles Robinson, at Port Albert with Cocky.

I never heard that woman’s call, and yet it is vividly recalled. By the time my memories began, her call had been perpetuated by Cocky, the pet cockatoo who lived with my grandparents. Cocky continued to call their names in the late afternoon. Like a recording from the past, Cocky’s call, although a little scratchy sounding, especially as they claimed he was at least 100 years old, preserved their childhood long after they had left and grown up. Cocky’s evening call for Yvonne and Isabel captured the lengthened vowels of the Australian bush coo- ee, except with tenderness entwined with rising anxiety. I never knew the woman, or Yvonne and Isabel, who were/are my cousins. They had departed long before my visits to the Port. No one spoke much about them: a ‘broken’ marriage was a taboo subject back then. They left and that was that. My uncle Fred, the father of those girls, was a fisherman at Port Albert in those days, and spent some time as the lighthouse keeper on Maatsuyker Island, an isolated job that is said to drive one insane. Fred became a dedicated alcoholic, ending up in a men’s boarding house in Moreland Road, Brunswick, when that part of Melbourne was considered a ghetto for the poor or dispossessed.

Uncle Fred on the right, my father, Jack, on the left. 1940s

Uncle Fred, the owner of Cocky, taught him a few colourful phrases and tricks. It was said that Cocky had had a previous owner, so some of Cocky’s party tricks may have come down through time. Apart from calling for those girls each evening, Cocky could swear with passion, and sing and dance like a cabaret star. He definitely had mood swings. To this day I’m not sure if Cocky simply replicated Uncle Fred’s moods, from singing to cursing, the range of emotions induced by alcohol, or whether Cocky had his own real moods. Although a pet, he only spent part of the day in a cage, which was the place where he was more likely to perform his song and dance routines, Cocky want to Dance. When free, he would often enter my grandparents’ house through the back door and stomp around the living room in a bad mood, yelling bloody bugger bloody bugger, terrifying all who were present. His ugly moods may have been an attention seeking act, the expressed anger and words learnt from Uncle Fred.

I also have a pet Cocky who, like Uncle Fred’s Cocky, has no special name. It always makes me laugh when I hear about others who call their pet cockatoos Ralph or Kevin. My Cocky reminds me of the past, of all the cousins I never met, and of my grandparents who lived at the Port, whose simple lives were in tune with nature and the tides. When my Cocky first visited, he looked unkempt, dirty and thin. He had brown dust marks on his chest and seemed to be a loner. Over the last two years, Cocky has become a gracious bird: his white coat glistens, he is well fed and clean with a beautiful deep lemon crest: at one point last year, he also had a mate. He also has his foul moods. Most of the time he sits on the same broken bough of our Melia Azedarach tree at about head height. He seems to enjoy listening to us talk to him and is not simply after a free handout of sunflower seeds. And yet there are days when he stomps around our verandah table, throwing things off with obvious displeasure, as if he is annoyed by our mess. If we’re away from home for more than a day, we return to find all sorts of odds and ends removed from the small green verandah cupboard and thrown about on the ground. He is either wise, gentle and a good listener, or an angry bird. Perhaps I should call him Fred.

Cocky in a pleasant mood.

In Memory of my cousin L Vardy, another cousin I never met, who passed away last year. Len’s poem, Home, takes me straight back to Port Albert and to Pop, that skilled navigator, the grandfather we both shared.

Extract from a work in progress. Another extract can be found here.

18 thoughts on “of cockatoos and cousins unknown”

  1. Love this story!! There’s also the story of cocky not seeing his owner (which I wrongly thought was Jack’s father???) for 2 years as he was in hospital but dying 2 hours after him (or something to that effect). Nana will remember the exact details, I am hazy, but I loved that he knew when to let go like his owner.

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    1. Yes, that’s right about cocky dying just after Pop Robinson, the kindest of men. But I don’t know who looked after cocky in the meantime… there are a few gaps in the story I need to fill.

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  2. A delightful story, Francesca, of a time and lives well past. My Dad used to call us home with his two-fingered whistle. When we heard that ring out we knew it was time to say goodbye to friends and head for home.

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    1. And most likely Anne, you, like most others of our generation, were free to roam. It’s a childhood so unlike that of today in many ways. The world outside school hours was one big place to explore.

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      1. Yes! We lived next door to a large area that was partly the local tip (no food rubbish, thankfully). We had so much material to build cubbies, ride our bikes along the dirt roads and spend hours with our own imaginations. Now the tip has been buried and made into a soccer field. Rather an apt metaphor for our time, I think.

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  3. My biggest memories of Port Albert is being eaten alive by sand flies, the rats in the ceiling, and sitting in the car at what I believe now was a funeral. 8 years made a big difference. I think I remember cocky, but it could be just reinforced by others’ memories.

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  4. Beautiful piece of writing, nostaglia, family history, local history, memory and cocky appreciation. I love that it adds to a larger collection. My mind wanders -of course, as many family historians do- to the wonders of other broader stories & connections and whatever became of Yvonne and Isabel.

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    1. Yes, I sometimes wonder about those girls too. Most of my family stories are dreams or memories that are written while I’m sleeping. They write themselves. My plan is to get them all down, then complete the family story- history-fiction as a series of short episodes. Non chronological, sometimes dreamlike, stories not histories.

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  5. I love this writing, so evocative and vivid. Cockatoos are amazing birds, and keepers of human history it seems. And I love your plan for a series of short episodes, ‘non chronological, sometimes dreamlike’. Thank you for transporting me far away from our seemingly endless lockdown to that wild, haunted corner of Victoria. Another world.

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    1. Thanks Helen, it seems that the urge to write these days only occurs when I’m deep in the throes of lockdown, and the distractions of the real world can be dismissed.
      Those parrots have charmed me lately.

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  6. Love this Francesca. I had a pet ‘Cocky’ for the 4 days I spent on Hamilton Island in 2015. He hung out on my balcony and posed for photos. I named him Lorenzo because the shape of his nose reminded me of portraits of Lorenzo the Magnificent. I knew to keep the door closed when I was out….my neighbours room was subjected to the wrath of Lorenzo! The place looked like a tornado had hit. Good times! Ciao, Cristina

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