Survival of the Fittest
I used to entertain myself on wet and damp days in Wales by imagining my family as ants and trying to figure out how my mother would achieve a better social standing for us in the insect world. Would she push us to imitate bees or dragonflies? And I wondered how long the colony would tolerate us before they threw us out. We might be a bunch of unwanted worker ants, I could hear my mother saying, but there was a whole phylum of possibility waiting for us. And that's when the goldfinch would swoop in and snatch me away to a higher calling.
My mother immersed me into her ring of social refinement by demanding I attend choir practice, Scouts, piano lessons, Latin and Greek classes, classical topiary, Wall Street economics, Sunday School, church rumble sales, and equestrian lessons — which I fondly referred to as nag riding.
But her greatest pièce de résistance was elocution lessons. So it came as no surprise when, on the Saturday morning of my first lesson, my mother said, "If Margaret Thatcher can reclaim an island full of penguins, then by God, Queen, and Country, I'm going to make sure you learn how to rise above your social squatting position."
My only response to this was to crack my hard-boiled egg that nestled ever so gently in my Big Ears egg cup.
My mother sighed at the insurmountable task, but then must have remembered her Darwinian pledge because she snatched my hard-boiled egg and soldiers from under my nose, flung me into my coat, and drove me to my lesson.
To the best of my ability, I can't remember having diction like Huckleberry Finn or a brogue that was so thick I could wear it on cold days but, nonetheless, it was decided by genetic vigor more vital than mine that I should have private elocution lessons.
We drove away in our recently purchased Renault 5, a jaunty French motor that cruised with cosmopolitan efficiency, but shifted with an audible grinding of gears. My mother turned on the radio, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel to some half-garbled pop song. I noticed how she avoided taking the motorway exit, but swung twice around the roundabout in order to clip along a country lane that led to an upmarket village. As coal miners walked out on strikes and clashed with police, my mother slowed for the posted speed limit, luxuriating in her surroundings as if in a bubble bath. She pointed out the enclave of tidy cottages now owned by the English. The spotless green sheen of the golf links. The straight telegraph poles. The commonplace boutique where bras supported well-endowed mannequins. The lack of tiresome sparrows and the abundance of swans gliding along the sluggish river.
"This is what the great naturalist intended," she sighed as the Renault spat out a dirty cloud behind us.
I wish I could have seen what my mother saw. My attention was focused on a stout basset hound trundling along the street, his testicles swinging back and forth. When he stopped at an empty kiosk, I knew what was coming. But, by then, my mother had floored the accelerator, her angry gaze fixed on the road ahead. Only once did she peek in the rearview mirror to make sure her unsullied village was still there.
My elocution teacher turned out to be an older woman from England. She was recently married and lived in an Edwardian house in a very urbane and self-selecting suburb of Llanelli called "Beagle End." She had a Volvo in the drive and ornamental cherry trees in the garden. Her husband was a younger man and a member of the local Conservative Party who had unsuccessfully tried to run on the ticket of slashing the unemployment benefit for the lazy and classless rabble that depended on the state like children. "Is this what Darwin had in mind when he wrote On the Origin of Species?" he'd asked rhetorically. Apparently, yes, because he lost the election in a landslide. But he'd won my mother's admiration, especially when she learned his wife was a speech teacher.
Mrs. Harding met my mother and me at the front door. She greeted us in a diction I'd only heard once before spoken by Steed from The New Avengers. She pronounced the simple "Hello" with all the blood of a century of aristocracy behind it. "Or should I say Shw mae?" she asked, sucking on the Welsh vowels like a boiled toffee. My mother was instantly impressed. Until Mrs. Harding opened the stained-glass door wider and my mother saw the dressing gown. There was a brief moment of hesitation. But then Mrs. Harding spoke again. "Won't you come in?" she said, making it sound so beguiling, so tempting, so completely alluring, that my mother melted like a young suitor before Greta Garbo. My mother shoved me in, said she'd pick me up in a half hour, glanced again at Mrs. Harding's dressing gown, shrugged, and left.
"This way, darling," said Mrs. Harding as the door shut with a well-pronounced click. I followed her into the room where she held her private lessons. It was furnished with soft, colorful linens, gossamer scarves, and hand-painted throws on the back of a leather couch and chair. A green and blue parrot hoisted his head feathers as I entered. There was a lush sheepskin laid out on the floor and fine silks draped over tall lamps. Potted ferns spread their large arms out in supplication and there were rich and sticky orchids heavy with scent in every nook and cranny.
"Have a seat, darling," Mrs. Harding said. It felt like a velvet throw had enveloped me. I went weak at the knees and fell back into the lush leather couch.
"Get off that, you little shit!"
I shot up. Stared open-mouthed.
The parrot had spoken. It scowled at me from its dark, ageless eyes. Its head feathers sprang up like a row of knives, head bobbing back and forth as if it was having some kind of mental fit.
"Oh, Emerson, you naughty bird, you," sweet-talked Mrs. Harding. "Let's have none of that now."
"Fuck off," replied the bird.
Mrs. Harding sat in her chair as graceful as a gazelle and crossed her legs. "Take no notice of the parrot," she said to me. "It's having a bad day."
"Like hell," it replied, peeling a sunflower like a deranged madman.
"Shall we begin our lesson?" asked Mrs. Harding with a voice that could have made Cadbury try to figure out a way to sell it as a silky chocolate bar.
I felt myself dissolve into the leather seat. I would do anything this woman told me. Anything. "Yes," I sighed like a soft, down feather.
"Fat little twerp," laughed the parrot as a hail of sunflower seeds landed on my head.
"Emerson," scolded Mrs. Harding. "Will I have to cover you with the Cloth?"
"Pretty Polly. Who's a pretty Polly?"
"Good," said Mrs. Harding, prolonging it like a long string of honey. "Let's begin now, shall we?" She opened a book in her lap and handed it to me. "Please read me the first sentence."
I took the book like a devotee from a goddess.
Mrs. Harding flipped the lid off a silver box. Her long fingers removed a Turkish Delight and dusted the pink sweet into a mound of white powder.
I began to read: "Lady Sidwell stro… stroked her manservant's bulge as he shakily poured the tea. Her little Pekingese cocked its leg and peed on the manservant's polished shoes just as Lady Sidwell's husband, Lord Granthom Sidwell, walked into the dining room with his hunting gun cocked over his arm."
"Not bad," said Mrs. Harding. "Although we are going to have to work on that stutter. And we are going to have to do something with your diphthongs. And you're a bit too soft with consonants. Otherwise, not bad. Read on," she said with a wave of her hand as she settled back into her chair, the corners of her mouth dusted with white powder.
I coughed and flicked a few stray sunflower seeds from my lap. " 'What's for lunch?' snapped Lord Sidwell, a horde of yapping mutts in his wake. The manservant stared at the puddle around his feet as the silver ladle slipped into the soup tureen."
I would have read further if the parrot hadn't begun his antics again.
"Filthy harlot!" it screamed.
"Emerson! I will not take any more of your nonsense. Either you eat your seeds in peace, or I will use the Cloth."
The parrot hissed with its grayish tongue and grabbed another seed. He peeled it with his beak and mumbled something under his breath.
"I heard that," said Mrs. Harding.
I returned my attention to the book in my hand, Lady Sidwell's Velvet Couch, by Victoria Peacock. I swallowed hard and tried to concentrate on being less soft with my consonants and work on my diphthongs.
A sunflower shell landed on my head. Then another. Followed by two more.
"Read me some more," said Mrs. Harding, the exotic persuasion in her voice turning my head to soft, sifting sand. I held the book before my face like it was a recently unearthed religious tablet full of wise words.
"When the manservant slowly swirled in the milk, Lady Sidwell squeezed her knees together. Her husband sat with a flatulent groan and eyed the soup tureen. 'Is there any roast beef?' He demanded. The manservant plopped two square sugar cubes into Lady Sidwell's delicate teacup as she kicked off her fluffy slippers under the table and wriggled her little toes."
"Much better that time," said Mrs. Harding. "The mellifluous tone of your Welsh accent played beautifully with the vowels. Go on, read me some more, there's a good boy. And this time, remember to breathe into the glottal stops and try not to sibilate too much."
I parroted in my head, Anything you say…. Anything you say… Anything you say.
I went to turn the page when Mr. Harding poked his head around the door. "My sweet Puss in Boots, would you have a minute to hear the speech I've written for the next party meeting?"
Mrs. Harding waved in my direction with sugar-dusted fingers. "I have a young student, darling," she said.
The parrot patrolled his perch and laughed like Rasputin.
"Apologies, my sweet dandelion." Mr. Harding squeezed his portly frame inside. "It's just you're so good at pointing out the bullshit."
The parrot cackled like a deranged bird of paradise.
"That noun," stressed Mrs. Harding "is not welcome in my sanctuary."
Mr. Harding hung his head and studied his scuffed wingtips.
"Fat twerp," shouted the parrot.
"Commie bastard," shouted Mr. Harding, his cheeks manifesting a violent scarlet.
"Enough," yelled Mrs. Harding. "Do you both want the Cloth?"
The parrot picked at its scaly feet. Mr. Harding picked at his bitten nails.
"Maybe I should come back later," said Mr. Harding.
"Yes, bugger off, fat lard," said the parrot, clasping and unclasping one clawed foot.
"Why, you filthy little hooligan," snarled Mr. Harding, lunging for the bird.
The parrot squawked and flapped its wings. "Go eat your onion rings, fatty," it chanted over and over.
Mr. Harding swiped at the parrot. "I'll murder you, you, ungrateful little foreigner."
I squeezed Victoria Peacock's book between my knocking knees, squishing my finger that bookmarked the page until it went numb and tingled.
"Spank me, darling," shouted the parrot.
"God will punish you for your insolence," roared Mr. Harding, his face as red as the devil's.
"That's it!" Mrs. Harding pushed aside her box of Turkish Delights and sprang out of her chair. Like a glamorous movie actress from the Roaring 20s, she slipped free of her gown and draped it over the parrot.
"You rotten bitch… You rotten bitch… You rotten bitch."
She grabbed her husband's wavy hair and dragged him out of the room as he spluttered and foamed. "I'll pluck that damn lazy bird and baste him with good English herbs."
Mrs. Harding slammed the door shut and, in the violent gust, a few petals fell from her delicate orchids.
The sound of Mr. Harding sobbing competed with the sibilant hisses from the parrot.
"He will stop that in a bit, darling," Mrs. Harding said to me as she slid back into her chair, dressed now only in a transparent nightdress. Her sugar-dusted fingers reached for another sweet. She lounged in her chair and nibbled on a Turkish Delight, sugary dust falling onto her diaphanous gown like fairy dust.
Emerson quit his racket.
Mr. Harding sobbed one last time and fell silent.
The shrill sound of the doorbell startled me.
"That will be your mother," said Mrs. Harding with a perfect sigh. "We shall have to stop for today." She rose from her seat and gently tugged her dressing gown off the parrot.
"You'll pay for that, you worthless slut," screeched Emerson.
"Shall we say the same time next week?" asked Mrs. Harding, stepping over Mr. Harding lying in a fetal position before her door.
"Yes," I replied with the best diction I could muster.
"Grand," said Mrs. Harding as she knotted her gown and brushed the sugar from her mouth.
My mother stood on the step in a glowing realm of excitement. "So, did he do well?" she asked.
"Perfect," purred Mrs. Harding. "Although he does need to work on his pronunciation. He has a tendency to rush his words together. But I'm quite sure I can help him with that."
"Oh, good," said my mother. "I was afraid he was a lost cause."
"Not yet," said Mrs. Harding, her sugar-dusted fingers beginning to close the door. "I'm of the opinion that my students should either excel or fail. In fact, I ascribe to the philosophy of survival of the fittest. Those who are willing to please me will succeed. Those who are not diligent with practice, I can do nothing for. It's all a matter of practice, perseverance, and taking pleasure with the English language. You either have it or you don't. And I would say that your boy could definitely have it."
The door was almost closed now. But before it did, a sultry "Goodbye," drifted out of Mrs. Harding's house like a kiss.
"You see," said my mother as we drove home, "if a person puts their mind to something, they can do it. They can change. That's what Mr. Darwin was on about. Change or meet the Dodo."
"I know," I said, "even her parrot speaks."
A triumphant smile crossed my mother's face. "Her parrot speaks! Imagine what she can do for you, then."