ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Royal Couple," a story by Alf Marks

Each day, Ethan, like a farmer in a drought, searches from his back porch the blue pools of sky, the clouds that won’t knit but drift away as if escaping an invisible net.

He tilts his head to relieve the ache between his shoulders brought on by craning his neck. Holding his position, he sees wavering wrinkles, flocks scribbling across the dome. The wrench of a new season.  

Again he scans the etchings in the sky, knowing those flocks are just a marker. His birds arrive co-incidentally. They are not migratory; a tree to tree species doing their rounds. They prefer the sanctuary of tall gums. Perhaps this year, already a week late, like any older couple, they have opted for the comfort of home. Or perhaps they have just lost their way.

He’d do better to search above the tiled rooftops. Watch behind the pool that bush with its fan-like leaves, offering the purple berries that lure them here every year.

The first time they came gliding over the tiles, he thought they’d hived off from the distant flock. But he learned they flew a different route, worked their sovereign circuit.

And now, talk of the devil, flashing red and green, they swoop over the pool and land in the shrub.

“Evie, Evie,” he bawls into the kitchen, “They’re back— They are back.”

“What, what?” she shuffles out, her hair awry, alarm in her misty eyes.

He points to the shrub. “The King Parrots, Evie. Their majesties. They are back.”

“Oh, you frightened the life out of me. I thought you were having a heart attack or something.”

“Can’t afford that, Evie. Who’ll bell the cat?”

She tiptoes to the edge of the porch, her eyes mist over again. “Beautiful creatures, you can hardly see them in there,” she murmurs. She shuffles into the kitchen and comes out with a mug each of coffee and the burnt Anzac biscuits she has just baked.

She lays them on the table and draws up a seat. He takes a biscuit, bites down on its hard, singed sweetness. He sips his coffee, half a mug full and lukewarm.

He does not complain.      

“Are our friends still here?” she asks.                          

“The royal couple, of course. They’ll take their own sweet time. They’ll be dining in there all morning.”

They spy on the red and green flashes tilting at the shrub’s berries.

“Do you know how long they’ve been visiting us?”

“Oh, God, I don’t know,” she says, disturbed at his question. “Work it out yourself.”

“Well, I’ll tell you, Evie. Thirty years, each season, perhaps to the very day. They hone in on those berries in that bush. Rest of the year you don’t see ‘em---marvellous.”

“How do they know the berries are ripe, Ethan? How do they even know how to get here?”

“Beats me. Maybe micro-circuitry. Their sense of place seems more reliable than ours. We dissected a bird once in biology class. It had this teeny weeny brain.”

 “Met some bird brains in my time,” she says.

 She can still be arch.  Although that trait nowadays emerges less and less. He has to admit that his own sharpest memories are for the recent and the long ago. Middle distances are fuzzier.

In the long distance past she lashed him with her tongue when he felt sorry for himself. That sting in her words somehow easing their loneliness when, from different southern countries, they were living in that northern place— antipodean birds blown off course.

Ice blue eyes to douse the flame, back then her hair was a blaze of auburn. A camouflage in the rust of fall leaves. She would disappear into the forest, then emerge into the clear day, as if from a fog. He discerned her by her lips painted fiercely red. She dazzled. Vivid as these birds. Lithe as their flight.

Now her footsteps scrape the porch boards. Her stoop is becoming more pronounced. Her glowing hair has become a pixie cap of ashes. Her eyes remain unreadable —present or absent.

Wary that a sudden movement might frighten their guests, they spy on the couple picking about in the spreading fingers of the glossy shrub. This distinguished pair daintily eating. They disappear when they turn their green backs, flare into sight when showing their red plumage. The male’s crimson head and green body. The female’s green head and red body.

Each year he enacts his careful vigil. Examines the pale, green berries fattening into clusters like golf balls. The globes maturing to the colour of ready mulberries. Until the fruit ripens, their majesties will not deign to make their grand entrance.

“Well, Evie,” he teases. “Do you think they’ll spot you an invite to their castle in never-never land.”

“He should have got me one,” she says.

“Who, Evie?”

“That man.” She points at him stony-eyed.

“Oh, that man, yes.”

He sneaks to the porch edge to better view his banqueting guests. At their leisure they go about their business, masking their watchfulness, ignoring him, too illustrious to care about him. If he comes too close, they will calmly take off in measured flight. Surprised, they might consent to an airborne squawk.

He admires their self-assured temperament. They don’t screech or fly off in panicked flapping like the raucous, white, sulphur-crested cockatoos. They aren’t like the cheeky little lorikeets gossiping in the trees.

“What say you, Evie? What do you love about them?”

“The clash of red and green. On any other bird it would be gaudy. The males have a blue collar, you know. But it’s all about the red and green. Takes your breath away. Any other colour on them is just gilding the lily.

He sighs. “Well, you are pretty clear about that.” 

He looks up at her in admiration. Blue collars. Her powers of observation have always outstripped his. But age has taught her to doubt them.

“I’ve lost them,” she suddenly cries. “I’m adrift.”

“Don’t worry,” he consoles. “They’ve just turned their backs on us. There, — see the red flash.

He sees in the shrub’s branches a colourful tail. These creatures so suggestive of royalty. They touch his imagination that way with their perfect plumage and grooming, their unhurried demeanour, their refined eating habits. They are cautious, conservative, classy. It is a small leap to think of them as avian monarchs appearing in their fine feathers at public functions: their sumptuous costumes for ceremonious occasions. He divines in them an inviolable sense of dignity. He chuckles at the excess of his fancies.

He turns as she thrusts the bird book towards him.

“That book again, Evie.”

“Read it for me, Ethan,” her eyes implore.

He reads matter-of-fact, detached.

“Not like that, nice for me.”

He changes his tone. Okaay, just for her. He reads on:

These are truly regal birds. But contrary to the popular myth, the early botanist, George Caley, did not name these blue bloods of the bird kingdom King Parrots because he saw in their appearance and behaviour, something royal. Although in his descriptions and his impressions of “The Kings,” he certainly makes reference to their courtly appearance. But in what can only be seen as a stroke of flattery, Caley named the birds after his friend and governor at the time, Governor Philip Gidley King.

In all this malarkey, he wonders what the aboriginals named these sparks of life. Probably something insightful and closely observed.

“There,” he says, “does that satisfy you?”

\She has seeped away from his presence. Perhaps she is simply concentrating on the birds. She used to casually ignore him when she needed to focus. The powerful attention emanating from her spirit and intelligence, no longer abides.

She bites down on her biscuit, her mother’s recipe which she perpetuates.  She must bake and he must accept the risk.

They are elderly now; she colourful still, but often skittish. He, ponderous. They have swollen bellies, man and woman gone to seed. Her hair wispy as spiders’ webs his, grey as an old battleship.

He watches her almost unconscious to him, their many incarnations squeezing at his heart. That northern country, the murderous teeth of icicles, a frozen cascade suspended from the gutter of the house in the snowbound, small town. The wedding cake icing on the car’s windscreen. The dark, stripped candelabras that are the giant maples.

“Remember the icicles that broke off the roof and nearly speared me to death, Evie?”


“Remember, we bumped down that terrace on the toboggan and nearly broke our backs?” “The same day we got the snow tyres put on.”

God, she remembers that!

They gathered up their children and flew south to her country. To her kith and kin for neither had any in the north.

“I guess we weren’t migratory either, Evie. We are more tree to tree.”

“Are they in the tree?”

He assigns no blame. That northern land had been as kind and cruel as any other. It was just too lonely, too isolated.

For a while they worked in their professions in the southern land then, perhaps foolishly, abandoned their vocations and went into business. She the brains, he the brawn.

She watches the birds, captured by their gentle mannerisms, their flashes of colour, their tilting tails.  Her expression is soft, loving for God’s creatures. A lump rises in his throat. “You were so smart in that business, Evie, and so beautiful.” And then for his own relief, “And I was so handsome.”

“Handsome is as handsome does,” she chants sing-song.

She is not so far away as he thought.

“But you remember the business, Evie.”

“Of course, you were never handsome, ‘what’s your face’. There is more coffee in the pot.”

He smiles. You never can tell. He has become ‘what’s your face,’ sometimes that fellow. Angry with him, he is that Libra bloke. That ‘Libra bloke’ yearning to be embroiled again in marriage-long conversations.

“You’re the wishy washy sign, the scales of justice,” she’d say with contempt, “always weighing things, never making a decision.”

“But you’re on the cusp.” he would fire back, “you’re neither,” You don’t know whether you’re Aquarius, the water bearer or Capricorn, the goat. Are you Arthur or Martha?”

“You get what you deserve,” she’d say. “Kisses for good boys, a butt on the backside for naughty ones.”

She’d plant on purpose a sloppy one on his cheek or butt him when he least expected it.  Her fire is still short lived. She is mostly Aquarius. Then he is Ethan again.

“We’re opposites, Evie,” he’d say. “How come we’ve lasted this long?”

“Common ground,” she’d say emphatic. “Both air signs.”

He sneaks a sly look at her, the damage of the years forged in her expression. The water bearer providing their mid-morning sustenance, the retirees about their back porch rites. Aah, water bearer, from what domain do you pour your pitcher now?

Still beguiled by the alluring plumage, they observe this royal couple at their cultivated eating. These winged creatures striking out flints of colour as they slip about the bush. The male wraps a claw around a small branch and, deftly shutting a clipper-like beak, snips off a ball of berries. Human-like, he holds the fruit in one hand and offers it to the female. She quietly accepts it as her right.  Now they pick from the ball a single berry each and take their time in crushing it. They make no sudden movements, seem to express only their enjoyment, concentrating on the taste as they chew away. These unhurried gestures somehow seem to him aristocratic in their insouciance.

“Look at those velvet feathers,” she cries. “They’re wearing royal cloaks. No wonder someone named them Kings.”

“Evie, naming them Kings had nothing to do with them looking regal.”

“Who named them, Ethan?”

“I told you Evie”

“Tell again.”

“George Caley. He named them after Governor George Philip Gidley King.”

“Governor— Gidley what?”

“Governor King.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He was governor around eighteen hundred for a few years. He wasn’t a well man. He died shortly after his tenure.”

“And who’s agent Scully?”

“George Caley. Agent Scully--- is from The Twilight Zone.”

“So who gave Caley the right to name them after some governor?”

“Dunno, took it on himself. He was trying to suck up to the Gov.”

“Crazy. Naming a bird after a man.”

“They still do.”

“Who do they do it for?

“Famous people.”

“You’re having me on.” Her accusing look of suspicion.

“I’m not,” he says. But he can’t control his laugh, his weakness for her. He is always guilty even when he isn’t.

The creatures deftly clamber about the bush. These shy, sedentary, genteel beings.  There are silently devoted, humble.  

“Dear creatures,” she says. “Tell me more about them, mister.”

“You know about them, Evie.”

“Say again.”

“They have four cones in their retina. It allows them to see deeper into the colour spectrum than we do. They see yellows that we can’t. It’s a bit like living in another dimension, I reckon.”

“How many cones do we have?”


Do they mate for life?”


“Is that why you love them?”

“Yes. They go about their business. They are quiet, they stick at it, they don’t want to turn the world upside down.”

“Do they have chicks, mister?”

“Yes, missus, two at a time. If the chicks still needed feeding, this pair wouldn’t be here.”

“Like that young buck in the Eastern Suburbs.”

That young buck, their son, forty seven, married late, two young daughters.

“Perhaps they are empty nesters like us?”


“They are empty nesters like us. They are boring like us. I don’t see anything royal about them.”

Well, the things that come out.

“How long do they live, Ethan?”

“About thirty years.”

“Same time as we’ve been here. So one or both of them might not come back next year.”

“That’s right.”

She rises, scoops up the coffee mugs and the empty biscuit plate, puts the coffee mugs back on the table, hesitates at the door, goes inside with only the plate. He doesn’t call her back. He will take in the coffee mugs.

She comes back to the porch, fixes a puzzled stare on the coffee mugs.

“They don’t squabble, Evie,” he says. “They really seem to hold squabbling in disdain. In that way they are not like other birds.”

“They’d have squabbles with that relation of yours.” More resentments he wasn’t aware of.

“Who, Evie?”


“Name her.”

She fights herself. “Cat’s whiskers.” She scoops up the mugs again. “Anyway open the door. You can see my hands are full.”

Capricorn arisen. The old goat ramming his behind.

 He returns to see the royal couple, their dignified plundering of the berries. If one, from their kingdom were sick, would the other honour their engagements?  See things through. Yes, separate or together they would do their duty.

The couple rise from their hosting shrub. No squawk. No quibble. Their wings gracefully caress the air. Flying a shallow path, they levitate across the backyard and, with a last gasp of colour, they skim the garden fence and vanish.

He looks into her eyes hoping for a sign of regret they might share. It is as he expected.  Just mist. She’s in there, the lights are on, but no one is home.


Born in South Africa, Alf Marks spent his early childhood in that country before moving with his parents to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where he grew up.  After emigrating, he earned a degree in Journalism in Canada and an M.A. in Education in the USA. His journey subsequently took him to Australia where he has lived for many years.
He has worked as a reporter, a teacher, and an old wares and antiques dealer.
His African stories have been published in various magazines in Australia and South Africa. Entitled “The Heavens of Home,” they are available from Amazon. His Australian-themed stories have been published in journals in Australia, Canada, and the USA.

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