Toucan

Tommy was opening his birthday cards. He was five years old. He had lots of cards made to look like a number 5, and more with pictures of boats and trains. But one caught his eye.

“Oo look, Mummy, Auntie Tanya has sent me a pretty card with a bird on it. What kind of bird is that, Mummy?”

“I think it it’s a Toucan. And look, it’s brought a present from Auntie Tanya, just like in the picture.”

There on the breakfast table was a big square box, carefully wrapped up in red paper with a yellow ribbon round it.

“Did the Toucan really carry the present all the way in its beak, Mummy?”

“Of course, it did, darling! That’s magic! Now open it up and see what Auntie Tanya has sent you.”

****

The Toucan was grumbling to his wife.

“I’m fed up with carrying big presents around in my beak. And I am fed up with trying to put a smile on my beak. Don’t they know beaks don’t smile?”

“There, there,” said Mrs Toucan soothingly, much more concerned about getting breakfast for her chicks. “It makes the human children happy.”

“It’s jolly hard work,” said the Toucan. “And it’s confusing. I don’t know if I am a real Toucan, an imaginary one carrying a present in my beak, or a pretty picture in a card. I think it confuses the human children too.”

“Never mind,” said Mrs Toucan. “Just fly up to the top of the tree and see if you can find some nice fruit for the chicks’ breakfast.”

****

After breakfast, Tommy was watching a wildlife programme on TV. He wasn’t supposed to watch much TV, but Mummy said it was OK to watch these programmes because they were educational, although he wasn’t sure what educational meant. There was a man standing in front of a tree, then the camera went up and there was the bird again, actually a whole flock of them, flying around in the treetop.

“Mummy, mummy, mummy!” he cried out, “There are birds on the telly just like those that brought my present from Auntie Tanya.”

Mummy came into the room drying her hands on a teatowel. “So there are, darling, isn’t that lovely!”

****

“This is a bit much,” said the Toucan to his wife. “That human child doesn’t know the difference between a real bird, a picture on a card, and imaginary bird-parcel delivery, and a television picture. And we don’t even live in the same part of the world! It confuses him and it confuses me. Why doesn’t he learn about sparrows?”

“You take these things too seriously,” said Mrs Toucan, “And you didn’t bring much food back for the chicks.”

Just as she said this, the eldest baby Toucan piped up. “Daddy, when I grow up, will I have to fly round the world with big red parcels for small children, just like you do?”

“I don’t really carry the parcels, darling. It’s just that we get caught up in human make-believe,” the Toucan replied. Then he turned to his wife. “You see, she is confused as I am.”

“If you’re so upset, you’d better go as talk to the Toucan guru about this,” she said. “He’ll know how to sort it all out.”

****

Tommy was playing with his little friends, who had come round for birthday tea. First they played cowboys and Indians; then the played stalk the tiger; they were just about to start playing Doctors and Nurses when Mummy called them in for Birthday Tea.

‘Look!” he said, showing them the card, “This is the bird carrying the present all the way from Auntie Tanya’s house. And when he had done this he was on the telly flying around in the treetops.”

The children looked at the card suspiciously. Did the bird really bring the present? Was he really on the telly?

“’Course it did!” said Tommy scornfully. It was, after all, his birthday, so he had every right to be right today.

****

The Toucan had flown to the top of the tallest tree where the Toucan Guru was perched.

“You see,” he said, “I am a real Toucan, and there are not many of us left. But I also seem to be a pretty coloured bird on a card, a parcel delivery bird, and then I turn up on the telly as well. I don’t know who or what I am. My baby is confused. And I don’t think the human children know what is really real and what is made up. What should we be doing?”

“Ah,” said the guru, shuffling his feathers wisely and looking down his enormous beak. “This is a problem of personification, a confusion of the real and the projected, a muddle between the archetype and the stereotype. The difficulty humans have derives from anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism; their Cartesian dualism is muddled up with a scientific materialism, all the while co-existing with a naïve folk animism. In their postmodern world, they are increasingly muddled and confused by arbitrary textual signifiers and hyperobjects. They worry about ripples in spacetime. They project their repressed wildness onto the world about them. It is a form of mass hysteria brought about by addiction to the hyperreal in a digital age.” He cocked an eye at the Toucan to make sure he was listening.

“Oh!” said the Toucan, not really sure if he understood (well, actually quite sure he didn’t).

“You have to give them back their projections,” said the guru, “And they need to get out more.”

“How do I do that?” asked the Toucan.

And at that point, O best beloved (for this is a true story), the Toucan guru ruffled his colourful feathers so they whirled around like a hallucinogenic rainbow. Then he clattered with his enormous beak, making a rhythm so complex it spun the Toucan’s brain round and round until he was quite giddy. It was all he could do to hold onto the branch where he was perched while his brain whirled around and seemed to leave his body and travel far away….

****

Tommy was tucked up in bed, tired at the end of his exciting birthday. Mummy was reading him a story from a book that Auntie Tanya had sent. It was about a Toucan who carried an enormous present wrapped in red paper with a yellow ribbon around it all the way from Harrods… or was it the zoo… or was it the deep jungle of South America? Tommy didn’t know, because he was fast asleep.

And he was dreaming. Of course he was dreaming! In his dream, the Toucan flew into his bedroom with a large box, wrapped, as you have guessed, in red paper with a large yellow ribbon round it. He dropped it on the bed, and went to sit on the windowsill, fluttering his feathers and chattering with his beak in a most strange and confusing rhythm.

And in his dream, Tommy eagerly pulled off the yellow ribbon, tore away the red paper and pulled open the box. More lovely presents from Auntie Tanya, he thought. But as he opened the box, out of it poured bits of twig and bark, half eaten fruit, hard lumps of dried bird poo, and, most horribly, a dead baby bird. Suddenly, he was a Toucan, sitting on a branch in a hot jungle, pulling at the fruit hanging from the tree, looking around to make sure no other Toucan was going to try to steal it from him… he was searching through the branches of another tree for eggs and baby birds to catch and take back to feed his own babies… he had one in his beak that he took back to his nest in a hole in a tree… the baby bird had a human face, a bit like Tommy’s.

Tommy screamed in his sleep. Half awake, turned over in his bed, which was scratchy and lumpy, as if full of all the mess that had fallen out of the parcel. The Toucan sat on the windowsill, silent now, feather smoothed down… and gradually faded away. Mummy came in and stroked Tommy’s back till he was fast asleep again.

****

Next morning, while Tommy was having his breakfast, he saw the blue tits swinging from the bird feeder, pecking at the seeds. He got down from the table and went to look out of the window. He could see a blackbird, shiny feathers and an orange yellow beak, hunting for worms on the grass. A bunch of sparrows were fluttering in and out of the privet hedge, cheeping away to each other. And a jackdaw was sitting very still at the very top of the tall tree at the bottom of the garden. Tommy watched and watched.

“You know,” he said to his mummy with all the seriousness that only a five year old can muster, “I don’t think the Toucan really brought that present from Auntie Tanya.”

****

The Toucan was sitting on a branch in the South American jungle, eating fruit and minding his own business.

Toucan 2