When a lost parrot dropped in for Christmas lunch in Kenwyn, it set in motion a bizarre string of events nobody could have foreseen.
I can't really seat 14 people, so when every single person I invited accepted the invitation, it took some ingenuity to make sure nobody ate Christmas lunch on their laps.
Glasses and cutlery and tablecloths had to be bought, and furniture from other parts of the house was pressed into service. Three guests came early and they worked like Trojans.
We drank, ate, and chatted, played the Secret Santa game, and then ate some more – as one does at Christmas lunch. Just as we were gathering our strength for dessert, bird poop dropped from the tree onto an empty plate.
As we looked up, there it was: an African Grey Parrot, with a bright red tail. It was messily eating red berries from the tree and doing that upside-down parrot thing, hanging by its beak – and clearly not in the least put off by 14 strangers. So what would you do? I was, for once, speechless.
Efforts by two guests to coax it down with a broom handle failed. Parrots know how to use their beaks to good effect. Who doesn't emerge from a self-respecting Christmas lunch with a battle scar or two?
And then the first of things in a bizarre chain of events unfolded. One of the guests is an office manager at a vet and has years of experience working with birds. (I mean, come on, what are the chances?) Within a minute or two it was sitting calmly on her arm.
It was hungry and very thirsty and I found some sunflower seeds in the dark recesses of my kitchen cupboards. I have three cats, so to avoid having a dead parrot on my hands, it was shipped off to the guest bedroom, where it calmly sat (with head turned sideways) on the wooden clothes dryer, and decorated the Oregon pine floor beneath it.
We finished dessert. The office manager phoned her boss, a vet, whose husband is – you might have guessed it – a bird enthusiast.
The parrot then calmly travelled by car sitting on the office manager's shoulder, and was handed over at Constantia Nek to the vet coming from her Christmas lunch in Hout Bay in a scene reminiscent of a spy movie from the 1960s.
And now to find the owner. Messages followed to and from Neighbourhood Watch Whatsapp groups, searches were done on the internet, phone calls were made to animal organisations. Suddenly there were seven people claiming to have lost their parrots. But they either got the gender wrong, or the leg on which the bird was ringed, or they were just simply too far away for it to be plausible.
A parrot with half-clipped wings isn't going to fly 25km to get to my backyard.
Some of them were genuine and in real distress, but the thing is these birds go for thousands of rand, so one cannot just hand it over. Meanwhile our Christmas parrot is getting comfy in its new surroundings, courtesy of the kindness of the vet and her family. It flies around in the house and teases the dogs and is starting to learn the children's names.
Six days pass. And then the parrot starts to speak. Clear as a bell, it says: Salaam Alaikum. Again and again. That settles it. Chances are it comes from around where I live, where the majority of the population is Muslim.
I phone my Muslim neighbour, who happens to be the chairperson of our extremely active neighbourhood watch. He is on holiday, but he manages to set the grapevine in motion. It works. Three hours later, as we are lighting the fire for a New Year's Eve Braai, the front door bell rings.
A snappily dressed man (on his way to a New Year's Dance) and his wife from the suburb next door has heard about the parrot, and he produces a photo, has the gender right, as well as the ring on the leg. They are ecstatic, as they had assumed that he was lost forever.
The parrot's name is Billy, and he escaped on 23 December when there were neighbour's kids visiting. And when I say the bird is speaking, he asks if it says Salaam Alaikum.
It does. It later turned out that out he also has a further choice vocabulary, for which the kids next door get the blame.
The next day, eight days after his Christmas adventure, Billy was reunited with his owner at the vet's house. He lifted his wings, screeched, and then lurched into rather more colourful words. What could have been a sad story with an unhappy ending, turned into an early highlight of the new year.
If that is the way 2019 begins, it can only be a better year than last year. Salaam Alaikum, Billy.
Image credit: iStock