The winning story from M magazine short story contest, which was held in conjunction with Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
A Day With A Parrot In A Palm Tree
A day begins. Another episode in my very own soap opera. Except this one is filled with dust and has the smell of the Empty Quarter still clinging to it with determination. And it's ragged. Ripped and shredded by the electricity pylons and half-completed tower blocks that it passed through on its way to me. Just another day of my new life.
I ruffle my feathers and look around. I consider a few facts.
Firstly, I can't survive out here much longer. Nights in suburbia are not what they seem. They are filled with evil the moment the sun goes down... evil with wings. Look let's not get all PC about it. Let's call it what it is. Crows.
No wonder they get such a bad rep. Evil to the bone. And outright aggressive. Carried in from the scrap heaps of India like a curse. Luckily they're not too bright, not for a fellow like me, raised in a living room with a flat-screen TV that was seldom off. CNN, the History Channel and House. That's right, I'm a graduate of the University of Satellite TV, my friend.
Secondly, there's no way I can make it out of here on my own. There are finches that drop out of the sky like a soft winter rain in exactly the same place and at exactly the same time every year. They have their in-built navigation to thank for that. Unfortunately navigation was something left out of my DNA. As my little furry friends settle down at night in the hedges and trees of the neighbouring gardens, I hear them talk excitedly of their migration to Africa where grass grows tall as a man. They fly there every year as effortlessly as if they were catching a budget airline to an all-you-can-eat resort destination. Not that I'd want to go to Africa, you understand, it'd just be nice if I could. Me? I had trouble finding the cuttlefish in my cage.
Thirdly, this is not how it was supposed to be.
I was born to grace magnificent villas with tiered chandeliers, entertain guests as they eat canapés over double-ply serviettes. I was bred to add colour, an exotic complement to catered seafood barbecues and world music around infinity pools.
Yep I've lived the high life, I have. I've sat on the shoulder of a sheikh from the Royal Family repeating Arabic love poems in his ear. I've sipped champagne from the glass of a Russian tennis star and part-time model while squawking increasingly slurred "nostrovia's" to a small but amused crowd. (She was number three in the world at the time before injuries forced her into early retirement.) And I've had my cage cleaned by a cute Filipina maid who I think quite fancied me.
When did it all begin to change? Difficult to say really. The parties thrown by my owners became less and less frequent. And when they did take place, the guests seemed a little more shady and a little... well a little more like the crows, I suppose.
Then the monkey was sold. Carlos. The one with the nappy.
Can't say I particularly liked the little fellow. He used to throw imported grapes at me from the crystal fruit bowl in the middle on the dining room table. Quite accurate he was too. But we had a few things in common. We were both from an entertainment background for one. And we both had electronic tags about our person - mine rather fetchingly around my right ankle. His, so he said, futuristically shot under the delicate skin of his wrist by something resembling a nail gun. And, of course, his departure presaged the hardship to come, though, of course, I was blind to it at the time.
The fights were another telltale sign of our deteriorating fortunes. Him, the man of the house, coming home later and later with the smell of smoky bars and financial desperation clinging to his suits like cat hair. She, his wife, drinking alone on the sofa watching Dancing on Ice (a little predictable last season) and Mamma Mia!, the movie, over and over again (not a patch on the musical in my opinion).
Even the maid saw the writing on the wall before I did. She began hiding valuable items around the villa, like the beautiful jewel-encrusted egg that she placed behind the metal grill in the faux fireplace. I kept that little secret to myself, perhaps to thank her for all the times she had to scrape my droppings (almost the size of those of a small child) from the metal tray that served as the floor to my cage.
But by the time that the late- night phone calls started, there was no more denying it. Life was changing. For the worse. He would step out on to the patio under the warm moon, closing the door behind him. But not all the way. And through that gap I'd hear his whispered conversations, the words coming to me on little wings like insects of the night to a buzzing bulb. I'd turn my head this way and that, absorbing them. Odd words, phrases and whole sentences, each one more incriminating than the next as he became more and more desperate. There was talk of siphoning funds, empty escrow accounts and property developments that would never get off the ground. Names, dates, details. Admissions of fraud and flights booked to countries with no extradition treaties. And perhaps the most damning fact of all, 14 little digits that constituted a secretive Swiss bank account.
I'd store those facts away in my memory banks beside whole episodes of Desperate Housewives and the lyrics to the entire first Carpenters album. (She loved that melancholy music, his wife did.)
So why did I do it? Why, when the young CID officer brought his large almond-shaped eyes and smooth cheeks (with just a hint of fuzz) close to the bars of my cage, why did I repeat all those whispered phone calls and practically end my own privileged life?
I'd like to think it's because I felt sorry for the wife... that I was helping her to exact revenge for all he'd put her through. That would be noble, righteous I suppose. Make me a martyr of sorts. But the truth is, I just couldn't help myself. I didn't particularly care for her. Or feel pity for her. I'm a born entertainer, that's all. I was bought to bring smiles to people, and when that wasn't possible I'd go for surprise or shock.
And that's exactly the reaction I got from him, my soon-to-be ex-owner. Shock. Not disappointment or anger... just shock. There was some discussion between him and the CID lad about whether my testimony would stand up in a court of law and a rather demeaning jurisprudential debate on the difference between me and a digital phone tap. That was it. Then he was gone, to a cage much like my own I presume.
She continued for a week or two, clinging onto the furniture like Kate Winslet in Titanic hanging on to that life-raft (good movie, though I'm not sure it deserved 11 Oscars). Then she also drifted out the door, along with all the white goods.
I was left with those beautiful sunsets over the increasingly green infinity pool. But nothing to eat. Nothing besides the odd wayward moth or drowsy fly. And nothing to do but watch the dust grow heavier and heavier on the marble floors. My beloved flat-screen TV had long since disappeared.
I thought I was done for. I'd already shredded the two-month old copy of Vogue that lined the bottom of my cage in search of nourishment. (It was the insightful and moving issue featuring the life of Alexander McQueen, which goes to show how desperate I was.) The water in my bowl was also running perilously low.
Then, one morning, the maid suddenly returned. Looking good in tight jeans I might add… albeit with a little too much make-up for my taste. Behind her, I could see her taxi waiting in the street. I watched her cross the empty room straight toward the faux fireplace and, after a brief search, locate and pocket the bejewelled egg. Then she left. I tried to call out, but my throat was too dry. Imagine, me, lost for words at a moment like this.
But at the front door she stopped, hand still on the gold doorknob. Then she turned and came back towards my cage, simply opened it and hurried away.
I waited for about an hour. The only way I'd left the cage prior to this was on the extended index finger of a human. Wings were just something used to wipe caviar and champagne off my beak. But then, pushed and prodded by my thirst, I stepped on to the threshold of my cage, extended those wings and jumped. The wind lifted me like my very own professional Strictly Come Dancing partner. I was flying. Imagine, flying... just like the birds outside. Bang! Straight into the glass sliding door.
Dazed, disorientated, I walked around the villa for a while, finally getting out through the cat flap they'd installed for Carlos. Then I cautiously flapped my way up into the widespread, welcoming leaves of the palm tree, the one that shaded the infinity pool.
And that's where I still am. Waiting. Watching for crows. Wondering. Perhaps I should follow the finches to Africa. As a continent it looked a little short on luxury the last time I saw it on Animal Planet, but the major urban settlements might be worth a shot. For the moment, though, I think I'll stay. I've been in this city too long. It's given me a life that most birds can only dream of. Memories. Great dinner stories. So I'll stick it out with the crows a little longer. See who moves into the villa next and what kind of TV bouquet they subscribe to. I don't think it'll be long. The rents have come down 25 per cent in this quarter alone. And I've got a good feeling about the future... even for an exotic tropical bird homeless in the Middle East.
About the author
Mark Shadwell, 45, is a Dubai resident from Cape Town. Married with one daughter, he is a creative director for a Dubai-based advertising agency. He has had other stories and poems published, and says of A Day with a Parrot in a Palm Tree: "My entry was inspired by an article I read in a newspaper. A pensioner passed away alone at her home in the UK. In order to determine the cause of death, the police interviewed her parrot as it kept repeating her dying words. I also felt it was an interesting way to view the consequences of the financial crisis and the effects it has had on the lives and morals of UAE residents, both the humans as well as their furred and feathered companions." On creative writing, he says: "First, find a voice that's unique to you, or at least feels natural. Second, write about what you know. Third, keep practising." Shadwell plans to put together an anthology of UAE short stories and asks writers to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.