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Fiction, Short Fiction
by: Stiubhard Og
I think I have attended to everything. I'll just put another log on the fire and then it will be simply a matter of waiting. Just under three hours… two hours, forty-seven minutes and however many seconds. I'll just sit here quietly and enjoy the glass of wine that I have poured. Just the one glass for now. It didn't take very long to sort things out. There aren't too many people that I am really close to, that's why there are only five envelopes sitting on the folded-down slope of the writing bureau. They look so stark and functional, so white against the faded green leather, each one with a carefully printed name. I wonder if anyone will read them? I hope that in two hours and forty-eight minutes I shall be able to walk to the bureau, lift each envelope and consign it to the back of the fire. I'll pour myself another glass of this excellent pinotage then, and toast my own good health as I watch the envelopes blacken and curl. I hope to be able to do that, but for now I must sit and wait, and listen to the tick… tock… tick of the clock in the kitchen.
'Railway Cottages'. The name itself was so quaint and essentially English that it could have been lifted straight from a storybook, or perhaps from the title of a Victorian watercolour. Indeed the neat terrace of three small homes could have been a watercolourist's inspiration the first day I saw them on an afternoon in late summer, when the pocket-handkerchief sized gardens were crammed full of lavender, lilies, foxgloves, larkspur, hollyhocks, salvia and comfrey; an unbelievable riot of scent and colour that would have looked improbably perfect on an English Heritage poster. Tucked away at the end of a grassy lane the sight of this oasis immediately conjured up images in my mind of picnics served from proper wicker hampers onto red and white checked tablecloths, jam and scones, delivery boys on big black bicycles, and elderly lady beekeepers retired from the Raj, all the ridiculous mythical imagery of an England long-gone, if it had ever existed at all. Yes this was indeed a special place, just forty minutes from the city yet a world away from my office. And the most special thing of all about Railway Cottages was that number 3 was now mine.
A slice of nostalgia doesn't come cheap, but I had done well for my company during the year, the markets were at a five year record high and City bonuses, including my own, had reflected the 'feel good factor'. I could afford it, and after the living hell of avoiding Glynn for six months while we shared the same flat I bloody well deserved it. It had been a hell of a strain skirting around each other in the no-mans' land that our converted canal-side warehouse apartment had become, while our relationship deteriorated and soured. In number 3 Railway Cottages, I thought, I can forget about the wine bars and the sushi bars, the constant bitchiness and competitiveness, Glynn and his too-loud friends; here if I want to I can pretend that I am part of that Miss Marple world of croquet on the lawn and tea at the Vicarage. How dull it would be if we couldn't pretend.
"I'm afraid there isn't much in the way of furniture and fittings," the young man from the estate agents had told me that bee-busy afternoon. "The solicitors sent an auctioneer and valuer out to look at what the old lady had left, but there wasn't anything really, a couple of old vases and an umbrella stand, and a brass bed upstairs I think. Anything that's left is yours, if you want it" The old lady, whose name I had discovered was Miss Wilson must have lived very simply. The cottage contained no modern electrical appliances at all (although the agent assured me that the wiring had been fully inspected and met the latest government standards). There was no television, no radio, not even an electric kettle. The building retained its original two-up-two-down lay out; a front living room and a back kitchen downstairs, and a bedroom that overlooked the garden upstairs. The back bedroom had at some stage been converted into a functional bathroom containing a large iron claw-foot bath, a white porcelain wash basin and a white wc with a high cistern and a dangling chain flush, which I vowed to retain for it's conversational value alone. The bedroom had a linoleum floor covering and contained an old wardrobe and chest of drawers in the heavy, dark style of the 1930s. The living room downstairs housed a single overstuffed armchair covered by a worn and plucked floral print, two ladder-back chairs and a scored and scorch marked drop leaf table. The kitchen was the most interesting room, boasting an original quarry tile floor, a jawbox sink under the window, and a grey-blue enamelled gas cooker that looked as though it weighed half a ton.
"I wonder how the auctioneers missed that?" the man from the estate agent said, pointing with his clipboard to the clock that hung on the otherwise bare wall opposite the window "It looks as though it should be worth a few quid". The clock certainly looked old enough to have been of interest to a collector. From some dusty storeroom in my mind where I kept useless information I dragged out a memory that told me this was a 'drop dial' clock. I guessed that it might have been a feature of the original railway; perhaps it had hung in the long demolished waiting room. It was roughly fourteen inches in diameter, with a plain white enamel face. The hours were marked off in latin numerals while an outer band of sixty small black check marks indicated the minutes. The case looked to be mahogany, while a bezel of dull brass circumnavigated the glass. Two thirds of the way down the dial was a large hole that was obviously for the winding key. The hands pointed to 1:43 which, when I glanced down at the Tag Heuer chronograph on my wrist, I was delighted to see was correct.
"Well, like I said, whatever is left is yours, so it looks like their oversight is your good fortune"
I walked closer to the wall, looking up at the clock face that now hung perhaps two feet above my head. The loud, slow, regular tick was somehow comforting, perhaps a memory from the womb of an ever-present heartbeat. Up close now I could see that there was a copperplate inscription on the upper dial that simply said 'Bristol' while on the lower part of the dial three windows showed the day, date and month in a charmingly archaic Victorian font. I let out and involuntary gasp.
"Are you o.k. Miss?" the young man suddenly looked worried.
"Oh, yes. I'm sorry" I laughed, embarrassed and delighted "It's just that date, there on the old clock… Monday the 19th of April… that's the day I was born!" I laughed again "You needn't worry about giving me the big sell, I think I've just come home."
Three weeks later I returned with the keys in my pocket and a car boot filled with cleaning materials. The latch on the garden gate presented the first obstacle as I tried to open it while wrestling with a mop, floor brush, dustpan, scrubbing brush and mop bucket. I was cursing my own stupidity for overburdening myself, and casting an eye about for something with which to prop open the gate to facilitate my shuttling between car and cottage, when a rich male bass rumbled "Allow me". An arm reached past me and opened that gate latch and a man's tanned hand pushed the gate and held it for me. I turned to face my Galahad and looked into the very handsome, weathered face of a tall man in his early 50s. The gallant treated me to a dazzling smile and continued in his deep voice
"Richard Milroy. Richard or Richie, whichever you prefer. My wife and I are your neighbours …that is if you are the new owner of this place."
"Jenny …Jenny Carver." I managed to free my right hand and offer it to be shaken
"Well Jenny, welcome to Railway Cottages. Let me give you a hand with some of that stuff."
Richard relieved me of my load, allowing me to lead the way up the path and into the cottage.
"Where do you want it put?"
"Oh, just pile it in the corner here if you would, thank you. I'll be needing all of it soon enough so there's no point in putting it away". I walked into the kitchen and pointed to a spot beside the old sink. A voice carried through from the front of the cottage.
"You can't have him, he's mine, but I rent him out at a reasonable rate for gardening and odd jobs."
Richie smiled at my look of confusion. "My good lady."
A woman approximately Richard Milroy's age, and as beautiful as he was handsome, appeared in the front room and walked smiling towards us in the kitchen, her hand outstretched. She wore not a trace of make up and looked head-turning, even in a pair of jeans and a man's oversized white shirt. "Valerie Milroy. I hope you don't mind but the front door was open and I had seen this old roué of a husband of mine disappear in here with an attractive young woman. Sometimes he still thinks he's thirty." I laughed and introduced myself.
"Very pleased to meet you Jenny" She looked around the all but empty kitchen and then smiled at me once more. "These old cottages are as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. We just love ours. Wouldn't dream of moving anywhere else now. And the good thing about this one is that so much of it is original. A lick of paint and some curtains and you can have it looking just whatever way you want it. The daft sod who owned ours before us fancied himself as a bit of a handyman and we had a hell of a time trying to fix all his bodges before we could even get started". She looked round the room again, at the sink, the cooker and finally to the old clock on the wall.
"I see you found a key then?"
"Sorry?" The solid ticking of the clockwork movement had seemed so natural and so much a fabric of the cottage that I hadn't consciously registered it. "Oh, the clock. No …why um …I never thought. I suppose it was the agent, or somebody. Some of them can go on for ages without winding, can't they?" As I spoke I looked at the enamel face and noted that the time seemed still to be exact, and the display remained stubbornly stuck on my birthday. Valerie gave a small frown. She seemed about to say something and then stopped, as if she had thought better of it. She took another tack.
"Well, let's not stand here gabbing. If we all grab an armful each we should clear the boot of your car in five minutes and then into our house for a cuppa, eh?"
"We moved here four years ago" Valerie and I were sitting at the table in their cosy kitchen enjoying a second cup of coffee while Richie, banished to the back garden with his briar pipe, was standing a couple of feet the other side of the open door and occasionally joining in the conversation. "Richie had just retired after 32 years in the police …look at him, hard to believe he was Chief Inspector Plod." Richie grinned and did an impression of a stage copper, tucking one thumb under an invisible breast button and bending his knees theatrically. Valerie and I both laughed. "I had been nursing and was able to take early retirement. We had both led hectic working lives and we needed somewhere we could just relax for a while, get to know each other again and unwind. This place was perfect. At first we were just going to stay here for a year or two while we looked for a place in France or Spain, but Railway Cottages suits us down to the ground. Richie amuses himself buying and selling old police memorabilia on the internet and I do a couple of mornings a week as a receptionist at the GP's surgery in town, just for the gossip" We both laughed again.
"What about the other cottage? " I asked.
"Oh that's Gordon. You never know when he will turn up. We've only seen him three times since we've been here. He's in the merchant navy, an officer on a cruise ship, and from what we can gather he spends most of his time sailing around in the Caribbean. Nice chap, but I couldn't recommend him for a rail side romance. He'd be more interested in Richie than you or me, if you get my drift." I giggled while Valerie continued "There was only Richie and myself and Cissy here for most of the time".
"Miss Wilson, Cissy was short for Cecilia I believe. Anyway, she was a real love and Richie and I were both very sorry when she died. She was an amazing woman for her age; 91 and as sharp as a tack. She was actually born in your cottage you know?"
"Really" I replied "I had no idea, but then I didn't know anything about her other than her name."
"Oh yes, she told us all about the history of this place. Her father was the stationmaster here."
"And her grandfather as well" Richie returned from his exile in the back garden and rejoined us at the table. "He must have been the original occupant of your place. Cissy's fiancé worked for the railway as well but he joined the army during the war and was killed at Arnhem. She never married. Spent her whole life here. A lovely old dear, as Val said."
"So what happened?" I asked
"A heart attack. Out like a light. Not a bad way to go after such a long innings. Richie was out in the back garden and thought he heard her calling. When he went to the door she was lying on the kitchen floor, dead, poor love." Valerie stopped but I sensed that there was more to come. She began to turn her empty coffee cup in circles on the tabletop in front of her.
"There was nothing strange about Cissy's dying like that. It was always probably going to be her heart or a stroke. God knows I'd seen enough of them in my nursing career. Richie notified the police of course, that's routine in any case of sudden death, and it was the young constable that came out who noticed."
"The clock. The big clock on the kitchen wall. It looked as though it had stopped when Cissy had died. Twenty to four on Thursday afternoon. Thursday the 5th of May." Valerie Milroy had stopped turning her cup and was looking at me with an almost apologetic smile. The soft skin between her perfect eyebrows had wrinkled into a frown once more. "I saw it myself."
"I'm sorry Jenny, Val wasn't trying to spook you, you know. She and I have both seen some inexplicable things during the course of our working lives." Richie was walking me the short distance to the door of my new home. "Neither of us believe in ghosts though, but if we did I can assure you that Cissy Wilson, living or dead, wouldn't harm a soul. I hope you haven't been put off."
"No, don't be silly" I hoped that I sounded as sincere as I felt "Really. I'm not a believer in things that go bump in the night either. I'm intrigued though. I was thinking …we all assume that the clock needs to be wound because of its age, but maybe it has been converted. It was a coincidence that the clock apparently stopped when Cissy died, but then someone, it doesn't matter who, put a new battery in it. That would explain why the auctioneer left it alone; it wasn't kosher anymore." Richard's face broke into a child-like grin.
"And I'm the one with thirty two years service! I'd start you in CID in the morning. Well, let's have a look at this old ticker and see if you're right."
Once again I led the way through the house to the kitchen. The afternoon was late, and the light in the back of the cottage was poor. I flicked the light switch and the room became illuminated starkly by the single unshaded bulb. Richie walked straight to the old timepiece. He a good two or three inches over six foot and so he and the old clock were face to face. He placed a hand on either side of the casing and pushed upwards. Nothing happened.
He angled his head until his forehead was resting on the wall. For several seconds he intently examined the interface between clock case and wall, then he moved his head into the identical mirror position on the other side. Once more he raised his hands to the outer arc of the mahogany casing, this time sweeping both from zenith to nadir as he felt for a hook or a nail. Finding neither he turned his attention to the brass bezel, but although this was clearly fitted with small brass hinges on its right side, the glass front refused to open. Richie stepped back defeated, and clearly puzzled.
"I haven't a clue" he admitted "unless… hmmm… unless of course it isn't a battery at all, maybe it was converted to run off the mains." His smile returned as he warmed to his theory "Yes, that makes sense, I mean how would a frail old woman of 91 be expected to climb up there to replace batteries? She had the old thing wired into the electric and it's the wires and the plaster that are keeping it tight to the wall. " He faced me with the boyish grin again lighting up his features and making him seem mischievous and younger than his years. "You may learn to love this old thing, Jenny, because barring taking a hammer and chisel to it, it's there for keeps."
I waved to Richard across what was now our mutual garden fence as he re-entered number 2. "Tell Valerie thanks again for the coffee. Next time it's my turn." I felt that I was going to enjoy the company of my charming new neighbours. As I closed the door and turned to face the interior of my own new home I was also sure of something else. There were no ghosts at 3 Railway Cottages. Cissy Wilson had loved the old place and had moved on, now it was my turn to share the comfort of these walls for a while, to make it my haven, somewhere where I could learn to be me again.
As it turned out both my insights were correct. Over the months Val, Richie and I became fast friends and as the months went by all I felt in number 3 Railway Cottages was happy and secure. Little by little I got the old place looking just the way I wanted. A small chaise longue and a pair of leather armchairs fitted snugly into the front room, along with the writing bureau that I had smuggled out from my old apartment while Glynn was off on one of his rugby club weekends. In a small antique shop I found a brass bed to replace the one that the auctioneers had requisitioned, and thanks to the marvel of the internet I was able to find two beautiful old Appalachian quilts to cover it. The bathroom acquired a Heath Robinson contraption that was actually a reproduction Edwardian shower, while in the kitchen a small welsh dresser a butcher's block and a 1950s style fridge had joined the newly serviced and re-enamelled gas cooker and the old clock, which continued to tick away comfortingly. It came as no surprise to me when I sleepily shuffled into the kitchen on the first cold morning in November to see that the venerable timepiece had adjusted itself. "Chalk one up to Richie's electric conversion theory" I thought to myself, as I padded to the sink to fill the kettle. My day and date of birth remained obdurately on display, however.
I continued to work long hard days in the City, but now I was inclined to shun the after hours frolics of my colleagues, preferring instead to come home down the grassy lane to the peace and tranquillity that I had found in the small terrace. I didn't buy a television set, although I did manage to find a clever little audio unit that looked for all the world like an art deco radio but hid within it a state of the art digital tuner and a cd player. I often spent my evenings relaxing with a glass of wine and a book while Mozart or Mahler played softly in the background.
A fortnight before Christmas a small bright yellow sports car arrived in the lane and two very tanned young men carried matching leather cases into number one. For a week I would see them as they walked together past my window, often laughing, sometimes arm in arm. And then, as suddenly as they had arrived the yellow soft-top whisked them away again. One of them, I assumed, had been the elusive Gordon.
Christmas was the quietest and most relaxing I had ever spent. I had skipped the pre-holiday round of parties and excursions, although by now I didn't even have to go to the bother of inventing excuses. Those of my workmates who had a penchant for inventing gossip where none could be tracked down opined that I was nursing a broken heart in the aftermath of the break-up with Glynn, while others simply declared that I had always been 'odd'. I cooked myself a traditional Christmas dinner, which I ate alone while Debussy provided a gentle backdrop. In the evening I exchanged gifts, hugs and kisses with Val and Richie before returning to the security of my own front room where I sat in my favourite armchair and admired my gift to myself, a gorgeous antique kilim rug. It amazed me to think of that rug being hand woven so long ago and far away, when there was still a railway line running along the back of Railway Cottages, when steam trains hissed and puffed along the track, when Cissy Wilson's father was the proud station master and Cissy herself not yet born. The rich faded colours of the weave seemed to mingle with the scent of nutmeg and cinnamon as I sipped mulled wine and toasted the soles of my bare feet in front of the crackling fire. "Perfect" I thought, smiling to myself "If I was a cat I would purr."
January brought storms as that month often does, heralding the new year with fallen trees, blocked roads and swollen rivers. I fought my way in and out of the City as best I could, either on trains that were delayed because of leaves and debris on the tracks, or negotiating the labyrinth of diversions on the roads, hunched impatiently and tensed behind the wheel of my car. The wind howled in spiteful bad temper around the chimney tops of Railway Cottages while the fire in my hearth blazed and greedily devoured log after log. On one such wet and gale-rent evening I was curled in my armchair, my legs tucked beneath me as I tried to shut out the roar and rattle of the wind at my windows and lose myself in the pages of my book. The young heroine had just arrived as a new bride on her husband's Jamaican sugar plantation when the light above me was suddenly extinguished. My heart was momentarily in my mouth at the unexpectedness of it before reason took over and I realised that the storm had brought about a power cut. The fire in the hearth gave a out a red glow that illuminated the room, but not enough to read by, so I decided that the best course of action was to go to bed where I could snuggle under the comforting weight of my quilt and hope to shut out the din of the storm. My legs tingled with pins and needles as I rose and walked to the hall, but the absolute blackness of the stairwell and the banshee howls of the wind outside unsettled me. Suddenly I felt ten years old again, afraid of the dark, but this time on my own with no one to come when I shouted "Daddy". I scolded myself, but my courage remained skulking somewhere deep inside, cowed by the elements and the pitch darkness of the stairs.
Candles, that was the answer, and I had plenty of them in the bottom of the Welsh dresser. I turned from the stairs and made my back across the firelit living room to open the door into the kitchen. The flicker and glare of the firelight did not extend very far into the kitchen and I found myself standing once again in stygian gloom, the floor tiles cold beneath my feet while the wind tore at the window frame like a wild beast. The panic was rising in my breast and I could feel the first sting of tears. "Pull yourself together Jen, you aren't a little girl anymore". But that was exactly what I was as I stood alone and afraid in the middle of the dark kitchen.
I tried again "Calm down Jen, calm down" I struggled to regulate my breathing "Calm down Jen"… slow breath in… "Calm down Jen "… slow breath out …"Calm down Jen"… tick tock tick… the steady familiar rhythm of the clock took over and became the metronome for my mantra. "Calm down Jen"… tick tock tick… "Nice and slow"… tick tock tick. The panic receded. Still obeying the soothing beat I walked steadily and unerringly to the dresser drawer. Inside my hands found the cool wax surface of several loose candles, and in the same drawer my groping fingers brushed against the rough striking surface of the matchbox. Moments later a match flared and the room was lit by the flicker of candlelight. I turned and left the kitchen, walking slowly with my hand cupped in front of the candle flame to shield it from the draught. My brain had latched onto the three beat monotone rhythm and now refused to give it up. As I passed again in front of the chair where my book lay open and face down on the soft leather arm I stopped, realisation dawning. The power was off yet the clock still ticked. No human hand had touched it in perhaps six months and yet it continued to run, wheel on wheel, cog against cog, the advance and sweep of the hands checking off the hours and minutes. An involuntary chill ran up my spine and I cast a nervous glance back towards the kitchen door before hurrying to bed. That night it wasn't the clamour of the storm that kept me lying awake.
As so often is the case the morning after the storm was bright and calm. The sun glared from an ice blue sky and air almost crackled. All my doubts and fears had vanished with the wind. There was a power at work in my little cottage that I could not begin to comprehend, yet all I had ever felt within its walls was happy and content. I was convinced that whatever was manifest in the form of the station relic hanging on my kitchen wall was at least neutral and perhaps benign. There were no ghosts in Railway Cottages and there was no threat either. I would stay.
In the months that followed I never once regretted my decision. As the year progressed I put the finishing touches to the cottage as I trawled the antique shops and architectural salvage yards, a set of taps for the jawbox sink, six lovely cast iron Edwardian radiators, finely decorated with ivy leaves
"Two hundred quid the lot, darlin'. Salvaged them meself from an old convent school. If only they could talk, eh?"
The spring brought me the chance to enjoy the first garden I had ever owned. I spent so much time weeding, planting and digging that Richie Milroy took to calling me the Earth Mother. On my birthday, the 19th of April (which fell on a Wednesday that the clock refused to acknowledge), I decorated the living room and kitchen with balloons and streamers and Richie, Val and I got alarmingly drunk on nettle wine that he had made. Everything was perfect. Until today.
Today is Sunday the 3rd of September. If I needed any proof all I have to do is consult the clock in the kitchen. I noticed the change late this morning. I was about to do my usual Sunday morning run to the shops to buy the papers and was searching for my car keys. Richie and Val had gone to the Lake District on a whim and so I was looking forward to a long lazy day without interruption. Read through all the sections and magazines, a hot soak in the bath, perhaps a walk after tea. I don't know what made me look at the clock face, or rather what made me register that something was subtly different. It was 10:51, accurate as usual, but… my stomach churned… after almost a year of showing my day and date of birth the display was showing Sunday the 3rd of September. That was today! My birthday had gone, just gone! Why had it changed? What could it mean?
Without remembering having done it I walked into the living room and sat in my chair. I felt dizzy and sick. The Victorian font wasn't so charming now, was it? Oh no, now it was so black, so stark, so …so funereal. I walked in a daze to stand in and look up once more at the white enamel face. The movement still proclaimed the passing of the seconds, tick upon tick, but now it wasn't just time that was being measured in the passing, was it? I stood on the spot where Cissy Wilson had lain, where Richie and Val had found her, and realised that was the last time that the timepiece had shown the correct day and date. With the realisation came a certain knowledge. Richie had been wrong. A hammer and chisel would never wrench that clock from the wall. It was part of the fabric of this cottage so completely in a way that we would never fully understand. It wasn't malign or judgemental, but it measured as surely and accurately as an apothecary's scale. Cissy had been a part of the fabric too, born here, dying here, the cottage, the clock and the old lady in a complex yet paradoxically simple symbiosis. Had the clock merely acknowledged Cissy's passing or predicted it? And then I had come along. It had stopped to mark an ending and started again when I arrived to mark a new beginning, setting itself to the very day and date of my birth in salute and recognition. And now? What?
My first thought was to run, just get in the car and drive somewhere, anywhere, just to get away. But what was the point? Can we outrun destiny? And besides would the act of getting behind the wheel of a car as frightened as I was not put me in real danger? I tried to rationalise. An unpredictable old clock has suddenly started showing the correct date, so what was there to fear in that? Some part of the movement that had previously been jammed had freed itself and now it was behaving as it should. The logic was sound, but the deeper, instinctive side of me that had made me such a canny trader knew better. Never before had I been so aware of my mortality, my frailty. Every part of me screamed that this was wrong. But still I knew; there was nothing I could do, nowhere I could go, no one else I could turn to. I had thirteen long hours before Sunday the third slipped into Monday the fourth, and all I could do was wait through them.
So I have waited. The hours have fallen away like pages torn from a calendar. I haven't been able to rest or eat as I have sat listening to the seconds telling away. What is the mantra now? Tick tock tick… face what comes… tick tock tick… it hasn't slowed or faltered. The letters I wrote should put my affairs in order, and now the effect of the wine on my empty stomach is making my head spin. I look again at the five white envelopes, crisp against the green leather. My wineglass stands beside them and I notice how the reflected firelight has brought out the ruby fullness within the wine and made it glow. It is like a scene from a painting, not a watercolour this time but a study in oils, rich and intense. Is it a still life or the background for a memento mori? The sun will rise tomorrow and the morning will know; I just wonder if I will see it and share the knowledge.