It was Christmas Eve, and as usual Maurice Whitaker ignored the carol singers. The uncharitable, middle-aged man tuned in to the local evening news. Whitaker was a clockmaker; a dying occupation, or so he had boasted. He was a loner and had been all of his life. Some commented that stingy Maurice had never married or indeed been involved in a relationship, because that would mean him sharing. Sharing wealth, happiness or love did not appeal to the recluse. Others claimed his refusal to smile contributed to his solitary lifestyle.
The balding man with the hook nose and hollow cheeks had worn the same suit and shoes for over two years. To conserve energy he often sat in the dark. He lived in a small village just outside Whitby and drove to his workplace every morning. His cloistered nature ordained that he worked alone and was unwilling to pay employees. Yes, Whitaker was a modern day Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean man without friends or scruples.
His small cottage was sparsely decorated, and many of his beloved clocks adorned his habitat; the incessant sound of their ticking synchronised. No portraits or photographs hung from the plain walls, for friends or family he discounted. There was no evidence that it was the festive season. Christmas was just a waste of money he would often tell himself.
He would arrive home from work late afternoon and would dine on his beloved homemade broth, which was made from the most inexpensive ingredients. As his eyes focused on his treasured television, the shadows of the dancing flames from his open fire seemed to give life to his austere living room. He perspired heavily, but his condition had nothing to do with the heat from his fire. His grey eyes were unblinking as the newsreader reported on the main story.
“A young eight-year old girl was killed this morning outside the village of Ruswarp. It is believed she was a victim of a hit and run driver. Sally Fitzgerald lived within the travelling community, and according to her parents, she was on her way to feed the ducks at the nearby River Esk, as she did every morning. Anyone with any information, please contact the police on this number… Now we turn to sport. The…”
Whitaker switched off his television and buried his head in his bony hands. The carol singers, obviously strangers to the area had given up and moved on.
“She was only a gypsy girl,” mouthed the callous man. He switched on his television once more and tuned in to the cartoons, which offered him a rare opportunity to laugh. He resumed feasting on his hot vegetable broth, the dead girl forgotten.
It was Sunday afternoon, two days before Christmas and Whitaker was sat in his threadbare armchair, reading a copy of Robinson Crusoe, which he had purchased at the local church hall jumble sale. He heard a mysterious, inhuman sound outside and put down his book.
“Piffle,” he groaned, and advanced towards his window.
Outside, it was snowing, and through the flurry he could see an old woman. She held what looked like a large cage. She stood motionless at the end of his path and seemingly stared at his cottage.
Whitaker reluctantly opened his door and shouted. “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying. Please go away.”
The old woman approached slowly. The bitter wind and fall of snow obviously did not concern her. She wore a black veil and matching gown, her bejewelled, icy cold fingers attached to a cage. The parrot cawed, before it spoke. “Hello. Hello.”
Whitaker frowned, although he seemed impressed by the colourful bird. Through the veil, he could make out the features of the woman. Her face was wrinkled and her teeth were rotten, but it was her eyes that bothered him. The orbs were black, like nuggets of coal, emotionless and dead.
She held out her trembling hand and spoke. “Can you spare a few coppers for an old lady?” The words were delivered in an Irish accent.
“No, I don’t encourage charity. Now please go away.”
The parrot, with its plumage of blue and yellow cocked its head to one side and cawed. “Spare a few coppers! Spare a few coppers!”
Whitaker seemed amazed by the antics of the bird. “This… This parrot. Is it for sale?”
Although Whitaker detested companionship, this creature had mesmerised him.
The woman’s dark eyes were unblinking. “This bird is special. You cannot afford this bird.”
“Five pounds,” offered the clockmaker. “I’ll give you five pounds for the parrot.”
The woman was now covered in a film of snow, but no invitation to pass over the threshold was forthcoming. “You have a deal.”
Whitaker almost smiled. “Wait here.”
He returned seconds later with a crispy five-pound note and handed it over to the woman. “What does it eat?”
“She… It is female,” croaked the old woman. “Seeds, nuts and fruit.”
“Does she have a name?”
Whitaker accepted the cage and felt the woman’s cold hand grip his wrist. She grimaced, her vile breath repulsive. He wrestled his hand free and watched as the woman shuffled away and disappeared into the growing snowstorm.
Whitaker settled down in the evening in his armchair and nibbled on an apple, which he had purchased at a supermarket. As usual, he would wait until the produce was almost out of date before he bought it cheaply. He fixatedly watched the cartoons, sliced pieces of his apple, and fed them into his mouth.
“Twelve, seven, thirty four, sixteen, one, fourteen,” came the call from the parrot.
Whitaker turned in amazement towards the parrot and slowly approached the cage. “Tch, tch,” he mouthed.
“Twelve, seven, thirty four, sixteen, one, fourteen,” repeated the parrot, as it moved its colourful head in time to the words.
Whitaker grinned and hurried towards his ancient sideboard. He returned moments later with a notebook and pencil. “Again, Afrit.”
“Twelve, seven, thirty four, sixteen, one, fourteen.”
The excited clockmaker copied down the numbers. He wedged a slice of his apple between the bars of the cage and retreated once more to his armchair. Outside, he heard the whistling wind crash the snow against his window. He inspected the numbers and scratched his head.
After a few minutes, Whitaker whooped with enthusiasm. “The lottery. They’re lottery numbers.”
That week, Whitaker had waited in anticipation of the Wednesday lottery draw. Never before had he felt the need to gamble, but the parrot’s constant calling of the numbers convinced him that the creature had a gift. He had parted with his beloved one-pound coin and was now sat eagerly in front of his television.
Christmas Day has passed him by; just another scam for shop retailers to sell their goods in abundance he deemed. In truth, Whitaker had advertised a sale in his shop, and professed that the clocks were vastly reduced, but it was all a fiasco.
The ticking of the many clocks were audible, and seemingly became louder when the lottery programme commenced. The parrot again called out the numbers, and Whitaker grinned and held up his precious ticket.
“Yes, I know, Afrit.”
The result was read out and the grin on the greedy clockmaker vanished, as one by one, his numbers proved to be incorrect. His eyes bulged with rage and he approached the parrot. With his pencil he poked the bird viciously, and caused it to fall from its perch and to cower in the corner of its cage.
“Useless bird. I wasted money by listening to you. You’ll be punished. Oh yes, you’ll be punished. No seed, fruit or nuts for three days. I’ll compensate for my lost money.”
Afrit cocked its head and cawed at its owner. Unbeknown to the creature, the punishment and abuse of the magnificent bird would be ceaseless.
Four weeks had passed since Whitaker’s initial attempt at winning the lottery. He was now obsessed with the numbers as Afrit constantly called them out, usually every hour. With every failed attempt at becoming wealthy, Whitaker punished the parrot. It was now undernourished and its feathers had begun to moult. There were dark welts on its body, where its master had viciously poked it with his sharp pencil.
The death of Sally Fitzgerald was for now forgotten by the media. During his trips to work, Whitaker now drove the long way around the village, as he did not wish to be questioned by the police.
It was just before midnight when the interior of his living room illuminated with the flash of lightning. Outside, a vicious storm was imminent. Whitaker placed another log onto the dying embers of his fire, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
“Shut up!” he screamed at the parrot, which again recited the numbers. Earlier in the evening, the lottery numbers once more failed to match the prediction of the bird. That the numbers may have had nothing to do with him winning a fortune did not occur to the obsessed man.
He picked up his book and proceeded to read Tom Sawyer, his new purchase from the church hall. There was now almost complete silence, apart from the incessant ticking of the clocks. In unison they chimed midnight, which prompted a chorus of words from the neglected parrot.
“Tick, tock, it’s twelve ‘o’clock. Tick, tock, it’s twelve ‘o’clock.”
The peeved man looked towards the parrot, its face now lit up by another flash of lightning. Never before had it recited those words. He squinted, and his tired eyes watched the bird. He laid his book to one side and approached the cage, his eyes disbelieving. The face of Afrit had now transformed to that of the old woman who had sold him the parrot. He blinked rapidly, as his eyes obviously played tricks on him.
“Tick, tock, look at the clock. Tick, tock, look at the clock,” the parrot repeatedly said.
Whitaker reached for his pencil, and after he poked the offending bird, it hissed, the eyes of the parrot now jet-black. The shocked clockmaker covered the cage with a sheet and slumped into his armchair.
A tremendous clap of thunder caused his heartbeat to accelerate. He now found it difficult to breathe.
“Tick, tock, look at the clock. Tick, tock, look at the clock.”
Whitaker’s frightened eyes now focused on one of his many clocks. It was six minutes past twelve. His heartbeat accelerated, the reciting of the parrot incessant.
“Shut up! Shut up, be damned!”
“Tick, tock, look at the clock.”
Again, a flash of lightning illuminated the room, and Whitaker clutched at his chest. He watched as the clock now showed seven minutes past twelve.
“Twelve, seven,” he gasped, and recalled the obsessive numbers. His eyes now turned to his calendar and the date tormented him. It was the sixteenth of January, 2014.
“Tick, tock, look at the clock, tick tock, look at the clock.”
“Twelve, seven, thirty four, sixteen, one, fourteen,” he wheezed. “Seven minutes past twelve… Sixteenth of the first, two thousand and…”
The second hand was now on number seven, and proclaimed the last dying breath of Maurice Whitaker.
The clocks stopped, as if their maker’s death had asserted their demise. The sound of the parrot as it fell from its perch could be heard. Afrit had served its purpose. The death of little Sally Fitzgerald had been avenged.