When Clocks Stop
by Rebecca Holmes
You ask me about my obsession. Well, I’ll tell you.
It goes back to my childhood, to my grandfather’s house where everything was old, including the air. The furniture was big and dark, and gave me nightmares. Carpets were faded where they’d baked in the sun through the windows. Black and white photographs of stern, stiff relatives long gone glared down from the mantelpiece.
Grandpa had yellow-stained fingers and smelt of mints. He played Snap and Ludo, and told me stories about trains, that he never read from a book and which always changed even when I’d asked for the same one again. Sometimes he used words he wasn’t supposed to. If a train had a bump, which happened often, the others would say ‘Yer daft bugger’, or ‘Bloody ‘ell!’.
One day the train stories stopped. My parents talked in low voices and told me to play quietly.
‘It would have to be in the holidays,’ I heard my mother complain to our next door neighbour, as if I was deaf. ‘How are we supposed to entertain a five-year-old child in these circumstances?’
My granddad had to stay in bed. I was only allowed to see him for a few minutes at a time. He was different. His hands trembled and his nose looked bigger, while the rest of him seemed somehow smaller so that the bed didn’t even creak as usual when he tried to move. The curtains were drawn shut, and in the half darkness I could sense the massive wardrobe and dressing table watching like predators, ready to creep forward when they had a chance.
It wasn’t just Grandpa. The whole house was different. The television, which had always been on loud, now wasn’t on at all. The hush as I filled in my colouring book at the table by the front window was unsettling. Only the grandfather clock carried on as usual, its steady sound filling the room. When I laid my hand on its front, I could feel the ticks it made, followed by the deeper, more ominous tocks, like a heart beating behind a wooden chest.
‘See the gold flowers painted in the corners of its face?’ Aunt Carol pointed out. ‘I used to love those as a girl.’
Aunt Carol was Dad’s sister, though I’d never seen her before because she lived a long, long way away in a country called Canada. She wore brightly coloured clothes and dangly earrings and was a lot younger than him. Dad said she’d come over to visit on a holiday. It seemed a funny sort of holiday to me.
Mum wasn’t pleased to see her.
‘It’s amazing how she makes the effort to turn up now, when she never bothered before,’ she complained. My father muttered something about making her peace, but a piece of what, he didn’t explain.
My mother was different at the moment, too. She frowned a lot and always seemed to be shoving sheets into the washing machine, pulling a face as if she wanted to be sick. She kept talking about a home for Grandpa, which was silly because he already had one.
Dad shook his head. ‘He always swore the only way he’d leave that house would be feet first.’
I was glad Aunt Carol was around. She told me about when she and Dad were young and what it was like living in Canada. Even about Grandma, who’d died before I was born. When the clock chimed, she said that was how she’d first learned to count. She explained the numbers on its face, which weren’t like ordinary numbers at all, and sang a song about a grandfather clock, but stopped before the last line and went out of the room suddenly. Not that it mattered. I already knew. While the clock kept going, Grandpa would be all right. So I watched it and willed it never to stop. The clock understood, because it carried on ticking steadily, and I trusted it.
Other people came to the house – ladies with clipboards who wore drab clothes and tutted when they saw me. Only the doctor who came round with his case didn’t seem to mind my being there.
‘Families used to be together through all sorts of circumstances, in different generations,’ he said. ‘Too many people live in isolation now.’
I wondered if that was a country, and if it was as far away as Canada.
Every day, I watched the clock to make sure it didn’t stop. Sometimes I put not just my palm against the front, but the side of my face as well, and closed my eyes.
Dad kept winding it up with a special key. He even opened the door and showed me its insides. There were two weights, and a tarnished metal disc that swung from side to side in time with the ticking. But I looked away. It was too private.
After a while, the adults started to speak in normal voices again. Aunt Carol went back to Canada and promised to keep in touch.
‘He couldn’t have carried on by himself;’ my mother said to anyone who’d listen.
We visited Grandpa in the home every week. All the old people at the home kept looking at me all the time as if they wanted something from me. Every window hosted a vase of tired-looking flowers in pale colours. The walls were painted pale, too, and the rooms smelt of soap and wee, just as his sheets had.
I only went to the house once more, to say goodbye. It had been empty for a while by then, so we no longer knew each other, and it meant nothing. One day Dad said someone new was going to live there.
‘I might bring some of the furniture here. It seems a waste to throw it away.’
‘What? That dark, depressing stuff?’ said my mother. ‘Not on your life.’ I’d possibly never loved her as much as I did at that moment. ‘We’ve no room for it, anyway.’
‘But the grandfather clock could fit into a corner. I’d be loathe to let that go.’
And so the clock came to stay. My father wound it up every Sunday evening, just as he said Grandpa had always done. It lived in the lounge. When I watched television, it was there. When I played with my toys, it was there, and I didn’t mind. It represented something special to me, though I could never explain what.
One weekend, Dad got the flu and stayed in bed. He was still there on Monday morning, so that Mum had to phone his office to say that he wouldn’t be in.
That Thursday, the clock stopped. I put my hand and then my ear against its front, but felt only emptiness. I sat on the floor beside it and cried as I had never cried before. My parents didn’t have to tell me the news.
I’m famous for my collection now. I have clocks in every room of the house. Magazines feature me. And I wind every clock every week, because that way I know all my loved ones are safe.