Father brought the clock back from the war. He’d found it in a bombed-out village in France, the only intact item in the house. When he asked about the owners from those who had not fled or died, he was greeted with shaken heads and mutterings. The same when he offered money.
A cuckoo clock, he told me. Exquisitely handcrafted, with a stamp on the underside which told us it was made in Germany in 1888.
I have it on my desk beside me as I write, my wonder at its intricacy and brightness – unfaded over 100 years – as much a delight as it was to the five-year-old me.
Father set the clock on his desk – this desk where I sit now – and carefully wound it, moved the slim brass hands to the correct time, and then we watched and waited. He had saved all this to do until we were together, wanting me to feel the suspense of expectation, of hope, with him.
The grandfather clock in the hall struck midday, and the little bird sprang through the red doors of his cage. Not a cuckoo. Father and I looked at each other. What bird was this? Gold tufts sprang from his head, laid back in a smooth wave to rest on gold and black horizontal neck feathers. His breast was the colour of ripe greenhouse tomatoes blending into a royal blue body. As if to half-apologise for all this finery, his tail was long and well-feathered, but in shades of brown and cream. Every feather had been carved and carefully painted. He seemed alive. But what was he?
Our question was stilled however, when the bird sang. A tune as mysterious as the songster himself. A haunting melody which reached into my young soul and nestled there, taking root, sending out tendrils of joy and contentment. My eyes welled with happy tears and my heart soared as the bird’s song rose and fell. I looked at Father. His eyes shone, glistening.
When the song’s minute ended, the bird retreated smoothly behind his doors. Father and I gazed after him, and then at each other.
‘We must wait another hour,’ he said, ‘to hear the magic again.’
‘I can’t,’ I cried. ‘Let’s set the clock back and let the bird think it is noon again.’
Father grinned. ‘Of course, clever girl.’
But when he put his fingers to the slim brass hands and gently eased them backwards, they stuck fast. He pushed them forward. They would not move.
‘Let me try,’ I said. I pushed my way between the clock and Father, and even as he cautioned, No, don’t force them, I tugged too hard.
Snap. The minute hand broke, our glorious songster’s tune silenced forever.
Find Cheryl’s flash fiction and short stories, including audio versions of some, here!