Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ello, not sure if anyone notices this, has been a while since my last post. Been writing again, regained the joy I had when I first started out. I've a new story going up this week on TKnC but figured as a shoe-in back into the blog world to post some stories that only got aired in some anthologies. Starting with, A Stopped Clock.


A Stopped Clock

Stan stood in the dark of his wardrobe with a digital clock wailing in the room outside and smiled.

*

He sat on the bed and rubbed his forehead.

The second alarm had been set for 7:40 and it let him know he was still alive.

Stan reached and thumbed the switch swapping the alarm to post-meridian ready for the evening. He did the same to its companion.

There was a third timepiece.

This one more archaic compared to the cheap radio-alarm clocks.

A pocket-watch with a gold casing. His fingers worked the catch. The delicately wrought and blackened hands stretched out to point at 7:32, the second hand stood static.

It had all gone strange since he'd found the pocket watch.

He laughed the same bitter laugh as the same bitter thought trampled through his mind, ‘You can’t turn back time.’ His laugh soured, ‘You can’t get it to go forward either.’

Stan stared at all of the things he’d scrawled upon the walls throughout the sleepless night. Fear had brought obsession, and like every obsession it became dominant, visible, inked upon the walls.

*
The find.

Scotty shouted: "Hey, Stan, come have a look at this."

Stan went over to see what Scotty had found. Scotty was holding up a mucky magazine, turning it this way and that

"Fuckin' hot, huh?" Scotty said, grinning.

“Nice.” It was half-hearted.

"Nice?" Scotty was shocked. "Nice? This is a hot piece of ass, Stan, Christ how long you been divorced now? Two, three years? That's more than enough time to stop thinking of it as just something to piss out of."

Carl slapped Stan's shoulder. "You know what he's like, mental age of a brick."

"The worst part is he has a point."

"You'll get back in the game when you're ready." He hiked a thumb over his shoulder, "That dingbat, he talks a good game, put him in a room with that lass from the jazz-mag and he'd shit himself."

*

He stopped on the path. The headache was back so he dry swallowed a couple of Paracetemol.

There werea half-dozen bulging bin-bags. Number 32, old chap, always generous with his Christmas Box. Stan looked to the skies, he wasn't religious but he hoped the old feller had gone on to a better place.

Stan grabbed up a couple of the bin bags.

Something shiny caught his magpie eye.

It was gold, but stood out from the fake gild of the cheap pub trophies. He dipped a hand in and took the watch out. He found the tiny catch and thumbed it. The second hand performed its stuttered lap. He knew the old man lived alone, but there might be offspring that would like such a keepsake. He looked at the face of the watch. The second hand had become static. He put it to his ear and heard only silence. That was probably why it had ended up in the bin.

Scotty was setting up a bin. Stan saw the dirty magazine was rolled up in Scotty's back pocket. "Saw you bringing out those extra bags, why'd you bother?”

"The old man's dead. The stuff would just lie rotting."

"Anything decent?" Scotty asked.

"Just junk by the looks of it."

Scotty grabbed the lid.

He hoisted out a trophy. He held it aloft liked he'd won it.

"Oi, Carl! I won the 2003 West District darts championship, what the fuck did you do that year?"

"Bollocks you did."

"Yes I did, look, got a trophy to show for it." Scotty stomped off to the front of the wagon with the trophy. Stan moved on to the next bin, the weight of the watch in his pocket constantly playing with his morals. Just because it was broken shouldn’t mean that any surviving family member wouldn't want it. Back at the depot he'd be able to ask a few questions, hopefully find someone to give the pocket watch to.

*

"Hello?"

"Stan?" It was Alice from the depot. He reckoned she'd a soft spot for him. She'd managed to get hold of the phone number of Mr. McGee’s only daughter.

"Hi, Alice."

"Just phoning about the watch, I spoke with the daughter."

"That's great.”

"Stan, she doesn't want the watch. Says that's why it's in the bin."

"Oh," Stan managed, feeling a little deflated.

"Stan, it was good of you to think about getting the watch to her. Good news though, it's yours if you want it."

"Mine?"

"Yeah, she said you can have it."

"I'll come get it. And thanks, you know, for doing this."

"You can always take me out for a drink."

His heart leapt a little, it was a good feeling. "Sure."

"When?"

"Friday night?"

"The Swan and Brick, about seven?" Alice suggested.

"Sounds good. I’ll be popping in for the watch in a little while."

*

Stan was surprised to find six watch menders in the local vicinity. His pointing finger dawdled over Butler and Sons Watch Repairs; they fixed all manner of time pieces, established in 1893.

*

The hanging bell over the door tinkled.

With the old-school decor of the place Stan had expected to see a withered, hunched, bespectacled man come doddering out from the back. Instead the man was a little younger than he, no stoop and no limp.

The man smiled. "Good..." He paused and looked at the various clocks to garner the time. "...afternoon. I stare so long at clocks; the time itself just becomes a background noise. What can I do you for?"

Stan pulled out the watch. "I was wondering if you'd be able to fix this?" He set it down on the counter. The man picked it up, evaluating it by turning it this way and that. "Nice," was his whisper, "very nice."

“You wanting me to pop it open and let you know what’s up with it and give you an idea of a repair price?”

“Sure,” Stan said.

The man sat down and pointed to a stool in the corner. “I’m Tom by the way.”

“I’m Stan.”

“A pleasure.” Tom said. He carefully discarded the back of the casing and turned his professional eye upon the gala of springs and cogs that made up the music that the pocket watch should have been dancing to.

“Oohh,” Tom said.

“What?” Stan asked.

“This is probably worth a few quid.”

“How come?”

“Well, if the makers not above ground the price usually hikes, and it’s a pretty rare piece. Arthur Covington was the maker. His chicken scratch mark is here. Only seen a couple of his, mind if I ask where you got it?”

Stan squirmed a little on his stool. “It was left to me in a roundabout kinda way.”

He fiddled with the inner workings for a few minutes and then looked up, his face a little embarrassed. “Everything looks like it should be working. I mean there’s nothing that jumps out at me as to why it’s not, ticking. But this to me should be running reliantly. Do you want to leave it with me?”

“No.”

*

Stan put the watch into his inside pocket and patted it. He strode down the street, the afternoon sun bold above him. Stan didn’t notice that everything he passed re-worked its shadow, pointing to the hour that the watch had stopped. Once he was a few feet away the shadows snaked, worming after his ankles.

A voice called him from the doorstep of a closed down shop.

“I can smell it on you,” The tramp said from his cardboard seat.

“What?”

The diseased alcoholic in rags grinned. His mouth was a patchwork of teeth, the majority of which were absent or blackened. “The cancer, I have it too. It’s in my lungs, all black, watch me cough.” The man thumped his chest as if to loosen something and then hacked and coughed like a sixty-a-day-smoker. He spat onto the ground. Pointed to the mess and said, “That’s my cancer. Cancer’s eats away at you, just like time. You’ve gotten cancer of time, how long who knows. I could be dead tomorrow or next year, it’s all just a waiting game, more so for you.”

Stan wasn’t even aware of his words as he asked. “What kind?” He was finding it hard to decipher the lunacy.

The tramp poked at his little puddle of illness and looked up. “Spare some change for a sick man?”

Stan shook his head, still bamboozled by the nutter’s ramblings. The tramp snarled, “Then fuck off.”

Stan shut his front door and leant against it. Every whacko that had something to say said it to him on the way home. The phone rang and he jumped. His hands were reluctant as they grabbed at the receiver. “Hello?”

“It’s Alice.” He wasn’t expecting a call from her.

“What’s up?” Stan wondered if she’d had a change of heart about their date.

“I’ve just had Mr. McGee’s daughter on the phone again.”

“What does she want?”

“She didn’t want to tell me on the phone, she asked for your number, I told her I wasn’t at liberty to divulge it. So she gave me hers, if you feel like calling it.”

“What’s the number?”

*

His fingers hovered an inch above the buttons, reluctant to start hitting them in case he heard something he didn't want to, he gave in and dialed.

“Yes?” It was a woman’s voice.

“I’m Stan Perkins, you were trying to get my number?”

“The man with my father’s watch?”

“Yeah, that’s me.” He waited for her to say she’d changed her mind about the whole thing.

“I might have been a little abrupt with the woman from the bin centre, or whatever it’s called.”

“I’m sure Alice wasn’t offended.”

“Good. I was basically just calling to suggest you throw the watch away, to be honest it brought nothing but ruin to my father.”

“Ruin?” Stan had always been a glutton for superstition.

“As in ruined his life.”

“I’m sorry, you’ve lost me. It’s just a watch.”

“It sounds silly to me too, and I really am loathed to be talking about it to you. But before my father found that watch in a box of junk at the auctions he was happy go lucky. Soon afterwards he started to fixate about the watch. That it had stopped, but it wasn’t broken, didn’t need winding, and that it was a harbinger. Look, it doesn’t matter to me either way, I’ve warned you, now it’s entirely up to you what you do with it.” Without another word she hung up. He took out the watch, turned it this way and that, it was a watch, nothing more.

He sat down at the computer.

He had Wikipedia up on the screen.

Arthur Covington, watchmaker, born 1811, died 1876, not a bad innings. He started reading through his biography. Where he was born, where he was educated, He was married to Aphelia, his only child, a daughter Cecilia. Finding out how respected figures of the time craved to own a piece of his work and how he had suddenly retired and moved away, to where was only speculation. Where the mundane finished the hearsay started, the kind of things that if it was said in today’s times it would end up with a court case and a serious lump of compensation. Clicking on a few of the links most of them to external sites it gave him more of the story involving the Watchmaker, the Earl, and the Watchmaker’s daughter.

February 14th 1850

The light from the oil lamp burned as bright as he could get it. The recognition he was receiving was alarming. It gave him a sense of great pride for folks to think of quality when they heard the two words, watch and Covington in the same sentence. He used tweezers to settle a small spring into place. He ignored the sound of the shop door opening, his concentration purely on the work at hand. With the job done he left the workshop and walked through. On the inside he cringed and felt disgust, on the outside he managed a smile. “Good morning, M’Lord.”

The Earl was tall, broad at the shoulders and moved in a manner that let everyone know of his importance. “Arthur, fine day outside, don’t you agree?”

“Yes, M’Lord.”

The Earl was moving around the shop. “That delectable daughter of yours not here today?”

The internal cringe turned into a knot. The Earl was renowned for his predatory like chasing of the ladies and of late Arthur’s daughter Cecilia had been the subject of his hunt.

“I’m afraid she’s helping her mother today.”

The Earl slapped his glove down on the counter. “Damn shame, I know how much she looks forward to my visits. But, alas, if she’s not here it mightn’t be such a bad thing as I have business to discuss with you, a commission.”

The knot tightened. It was bad enough doing the repairs and the maintenance on the Earl’s clocks without having to commit to crafting him one from scratch. The Earl also wasn’t a man that was easy to say no to.

“You’d best come through to the back.”

“Splendid.”

*

“Cecilia,” Arthur said, lowering the flames in the lamps.

“Yes father?” She was sweeping the shop.

“Be a dear and give the place a little bit of a tidy, I promised to go and have a look at the butchers clock, should be good for a leg of lamb.”

“Of course father. Will you be heading straight home then?”

“My stomach feels as though its throat has been cut, so take that as a yes, you’ll be fine to make your own way home?” He reached for his coat from the hook. Cecilia smiled, nodded and began to wipe down the surface of the work table.

*

Cecilia heard the front door open. She smiled, for a man with such precision for making watches her father was clumsy in the mind at times. She looked around the workshop wondering what he had forgotten.

A voice came from the front of the shop. “Arthur?”

Cecilia’s heart froze. It was the Earl. She instantly wished she had followed her father through and locked the door after him. It was too late now for the fox was in the chicken coop. She took a few calming breaths, straightened the front of her dress and headed through.

The Earl smiled and raised an eyebrow. “I had expected to find your father but instead I find a gem of the purest beauty, my luck has turned, for the better. Is your father in the back?”

”He’s popped out.” She kept the counter between herself and the Earl.

The Earl’s smile widened. “Lucky us.”

“I can tell him that you called.” Her mouth was running out of spit.

“Never, it’s dark outside, there could be all manner of brigands afoot. I just could not live with myself if anything befell you, oh how angels would weep. No, I shan’t hear of it, we can get to know each other a little better, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

*

Arthur headed on home with a decent sized leg of lamb. It was good to get paid in money but there was something about trading that seemed to have a nobler feel to it. He hung up his coat and embraced the warmth from the fire before heading on through to the kitchen. Margaret was busy at the stove. She smiled as she looked back over her shoulder. The smile faded a little. “Is Cecilia not with you?”

“I left her to finish up at the shop. I’ll pop back, mayhap she’s just having problems with the locks again, won’t be a tick.”

*

Arthur tried the door and found it unlocked, once or twice Cecilia had struggled with the lock, he decided that he would do something about it and get it fixed, but not tonight, his stomach wasn’t the most forgiving of creatures.

He called “Cecilia?” But gained no answer.

He ventured deeper into the shop. He could see that the lamps were still burning in the workshop. He didn’t get over the threshold before his legs threatened buckled. His stomach forgot about food and sickened. “Cecilia!” he ran to her. She was a crumpled mess in the corner. Her dress was torn, her hair disheveled. She looked up. Her face was bruised, one eye blackening. She began to sob, the sobs grew louder.

*

It had been a week and Cecilia had barely said a word. She sat and simply stared off into some other place. Once Arthur had carried Cecilia home and had called for the doctor he had made straight for the constable. Arthur hadn’t expected to get anywhere there, not when the buffoon was under the thumb of the Earl. He ended up buying a pistol in a rage.

*

Arthur looked at the clock above his workbench. The clock had been made by his father soon after he’d finished his own apprenticeship. The Earl had sent a message that he would be by a little before noon to see how the watch was coming along. Arthur couldn’t believe the audacity of the bastard. The man was above the law, shielded by his position, even from rape and battery. Arthur opened the drawer and looked hard at the pistol, the shine of the barrel enticing, whispering to him about the justice it could deliver. There were some laws that even the likes of the Earl couldn’t dodge. He heard the door open. He slid the drawer shut, steadied his fury and stood.

“Good day, Arthur.” The bastard was all smiles as though he hadn’t done anything to his daughter. The Earl marched up to the counter. “Right then, how are we getting on with my watch, and how’s that daughter of yours?”

Arthur’s jaw clenched. There was a look in the Earl’s eyes that was practically daring Arthur to say something. “She’s fine my Lord, she’s work to do at home. Come through to the back.”

Arthur motioned to the half constructed watch upon the bench, nowhere near finished. Since the attack on his daughter he had wanted nothing to do with the Earl’s watch. The Earl was leant over, staring into the casing as if he had half a clue as to what was what inside. Arthur’s hand went to the drawer. Yes it would be murder, but justifiable, if not condonable under the circumstances. Yes he would hang, but justice would be served. He opened the draw a little way, the Earl spoke. “Oh, I nearly forgot. I hear you have been to see the constable over a mistake.” He didn’t look up from his musings.

“A mistake?” Arthur could hardly get the words out, he choked on every syllable.

“A mistake, an error on your daughter’s part I should wager. It is not farfetched to believe the fanciful imaginings of a young girl besotted by someone of my stature.”

“The bruises? The torn dress? The rape?” Arthur was shaking with his rage.

The Earl looked up, his eyes narrowed. “I hear that rumour again besmirching my reputation and there will be consequences, very, very harsh consequences. Do you understand me? But for your piece of mind I will let you in on the facts of that night. I came to see you, but found only your daughter who how shall we say made certain advances that I rebuked but such was her desire I had to take a firm hand with her. And also I heard a whisper that this week you purchased a pistol. You wouldn’t be having any foolish notions would you? As if I even suspected such a thing you would be straight to the gibbet.”

Arthur slid the drawer shut.

The Earl smiled. “Now show me where we’re up to with my watch.”

*

That night Arthur didn’t go home. He worked feverishly. He took parts from other watches to finish it as quickly as he could. The workshop broke out in chorus at the strike of midnight. Arthur stared at the watch as the lamps died down to darkness and he sat in the dark and began on something that there would be no coming back from. Before the chiming had ended the lamps relit themselves and Arthur began to weep.


*
“Magnificent,” the Earl said, holding his new watch up to the light.

“I’m glad you like it,” Arthur replied, his look switching from the watch to the face of the bastard that was working the fob through a button hole.

The Earl pulled free his purse and began to count out a small fortune. “I’m glad you managed to get over that earlier silliness and see sense.”

“Thank you my Lord, I’m glad that I saw sense too. I hope you enjoy the watch.”

“I’m sure I will, good day.”

Arthur watched the Earl’s back, no smile on his lips as he knew that revenge wouldn’t taste sweet. He looked at the walls of the shop that had become his second home. Those feelings were gone, torn away along with his daughter’s innocence. Arthur strode to the door and turned the closed sign over. His shop was shut and wouldn’t be opening again. He checked the time. His family would be waiting for the coachman. It was time for a new life up North, far away from this place but regardless of where they went he would be getting that little bit closer to damnation.

*

The Earl tore free the envelope on the watchmaker’s shop door. The watch had cost a fortune and within the space of a couple of hours it had stopped dead. He tore out the letter.

My Lord,

You are a consummate bastard and I wish you nothing but ill-fortune. I have refunded the money for the watch and left it with your cronie, the constable. Please do with the watch what you will. But know this, the time that it stopped is the time of your death, only you will not know whether it be of the morning, or of the evening. May the Devil welcome you to his halls when the time is right, I will already be watching from the galleries no doubt.

Yours faithfully,

Arthur Covington


The Earl crumpled up the missive and cast it to the ground. There was naught he could do. He’d been refunded, and permitted to keep the watch. He opened the watch and looked at the time. The previous evening when it had halted the hands had pointed to 5:15. The Earl sneered at the closed shop and stormed off. He noticed as he went that the shadows were acting out of character and seeming to bend as he passed them by, tuning their darkness to the direction of his supposed our of death. The Earl walked that little bit faster with a feeling of unease sprouting in his gut.

The unease grew.

The wine no longer tasted fine.

The beggars and the halfwits would harass and hound him. All issuing whispers about something they should not know. Slowly his madness and paranoia wrapped its slick grip about him until his death sixteenth months later.

*

Stan sat back in his chair. Most of the stuff he'd read had come from pages about ghost stories and urban legends. He opened the watch, even though he didn’t believe in such absurdities it did make him feel a little unsure. The way it had been working, the way it had abruptly stopped and there being no way to get it going. It didn’t help when he read that the Earl had gone a bit doo-lally and had been obsessed with the time of his death, right up to it. When he mentally matched that with what Mr. McGee’s daughter had said on the phone the feeling began to swell. It was like an uncontrollable wave that rolled through his core. The lunatic spitting bits of charcoaled lung onto the floor and what he had said. It made Stan dash for the front door. He rushed down the path to stand at the lamppost on the other side of the gate. Its shadow was pointing in the same direction as the rest of its brethren until Stan grew close. It snaked around and mimicked the hour hand of the watch. Stan walked backwards, the shadow returned to normal. His heart thumped in his chest and his hands began to feel sticky.

Back inside he clicked on link after link about watches and time until seven o’clock rolled around. He grabbed the radio alarm clock from the spare room and sat it next to the one in his own room and began setting the alarms. One to warn him it was nearly the allotted time, the other to inform him that the time had passed. He felt foolish letting his imagination get the better of him. He jumped as the first alarm aired. He switched the alarm off and didn’t know what to do with himself. With one minute to go he climbed into the wardrobe.

The dark of the wardrobe seemed to hold the ability to stretch time into infinity. When the second alarm aired the sensation of relief was astounding. Stan practically burst out of the wardrobe cursing himself for having such notions. Then that feeling returned, reminding him that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, or he hoped, wrong twice a day.

Sleep was impossible and the next morning he found himself phoning in sick. He couldn’t risk being outside and working when 7:32 rolled around so when the first alarm sounded he returned to the wardrobe and waited for the second, praying to hear it.

*

Alice pursed her lips. There was still no answer. Stan had phoned in sick two days ago and hadn’t been in touch since. Their supposed date was tonight. She was starting to wonder whether or not he was using it as a way of chickening out. Her head started running through scenarios of what might have happened to him, all of which were not good. In his sickened state he might have taken a shower, slipped and banged his head. He might have fallen down the stairs. The sickness could have been worse than what he'd said and he might be in dire need of help. She got up, ran into the filing department and asked if one of the girls could cover for her so she could take an early lunch, medical reasons.

She peeped in through the living room window, there was no sign of him. Something was up. She dug out her mobile from her handbag and dialed his house number. She let it ring as she lifted the letter box and listened to the unanswered ring through the slot. She hung up and dialed treble nine.

She put the backdoor window through with a cheap gnome.

“Stan?” she called as she moved from the kitchen to the hallway. She checked what she guessed was the spare room and the bathroom, both of which were empty. The third room she figured to be Stan’s bedroom. There was scrawling on the wall in marker pen that unsettled her.

She stared at one scribbling that read, ‘Nothing is immortal, especially time.’ Alice turned around, her eyes found something familiar.

The watch.

It was dangling from the door of the wardrobe by a length of string. Her hands pulled at it. The wardrobe door came with it.

Alice screamed.

*

She watched his body lifted into the back of the ambulance. All she could think about was what the paramedic said when she’d asked if he knew what had killed Stan. The paramedic had suggested that by the bloodshot eyes and the way the body was lying he may have died of a brain aneurism.

He might not have even been aware of it.

Maybe just some headaches for symptoms.

He said they were like time bombs, anything could be a trigger, undue stress, to it just being ready to blow.  She asked how long he had been dead. The paramedic had said at maybe as little as five hours. She looked to her wrist, it was a little after twelve. That would have him dying around seven o’clock.

Alice walked away from the house. The road seemed to stretch on forever as she walked.

The image of Stan haunting her.

Her car was still parked outside his house. She felt she needed to walk, she didn’t know where. Just to walk. She couldn’t help herself. She dipped a hand into her bag and felt relieved by the touch of the watch. She had just wanted to take something away, something of his. It wouldn’t be worth anything, the watch had stopped a few seconds after she had opened it. She walked on, ignorant of the shadows that migrated positions as she went.

4 comments:

  1. Welcome back, Lee - and a hell of a tale to come back with! I love the layers within layers of the story. I'll be watching for you at TKn'C!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Welcome back, buddy. hell, I've missed my doses of Hughesisms. Chuffed to bits to see you writing again, buddy.

    ReplyDelete
  3. p.s. excuse the over-use of 'buddy' I'm currently writing with my US head on. Awright, mate?

    ReplyDelete