Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
The room is dark, and silent apart from the mechanical heartbeat of the carriage clock over the hearth. One of my own creations, rosewood and the brown metal, I forget its name. I forget so much, now.
I don’t even know what day it is. Such a strange end to a life which revolved around time, like the little cogs turning in the back of a timepiece. I made clocks for customers all over the world. Once I even made a clock for the prime minister. I can’t remember his name.
The girl will be here soon. It’s so dark today. It’s hardly been light all day. I must put the light on.
It isn’t working. The bulb must have gone. I wonder if I can find another one? There must be a spare bulb in one of these drawers.
The girl is here. Fiddling about in the kitchen.
‘Are you alright, Mr Fletcher?’ she asks, in an unnecessarily loud voice. ‘Can I get you something?’
I shake my head, then change my mind. ‘I’m hungry.’
‘I’m not surprised, you didn’t eat your tea last night. I’ll make you some beans on toast.’
‘I hate beans on toast.’
She stares at me, hand on hip, a little annoyed. ‘No, you like beans on toast. You have it all the time. Remember?’
I don’t remember but I nod because it’s easier than arguing. I walk over to the clock on the mantelpiece and pick it up.
‘Don’t start messing with that again,’ she calls from the kitchen. ‘It took me ages to get the back on last time.’
I begin telling her about the clocks I used to make but I can tell she isn’t listening. Suddenly I think of something.
‘The light. It isn’t working.’
She hands me a plate of beans on toast, which I put to one side. I hate beans on toast. I’ll make myself something later.
‘Let me try it for you. Oh, you’re right. It’s gone again. I don’t know what you’re doing to it, Mr Fletcher. I only changed it two days ago.’
She fetches another light thing from the cupboard and replaces the defective one.
‘Right then. Is that everything?’
Something about her stance takes me back to a different time. I was in my workshop, tinkering with one of the clocks, when Anna walked in. She was young and elegant then. Her father had ordered a longcase clock in the Edwardian style, to replace one that had broken. I barely glanced at her at first; I was engrossed in my work, as always.
She gave a little cough to announce her presence. I finally looked up. What was she wearing? The green coat, I think. She looked beautiful, in a carefree way.
‘Is my father’s clock ready yet?’ she asked.
‘Mr Fletcher? Are you going to eat this?’
The girl is handing me a plate of beans on toast. I take a bite. ‘It’s a bit cold.’ The girl is rolling her eyes.
‘It’s a good job they pay me,’ she comments.
It’s gone very dark outside. I wonder where the girl is today. There are dirty plates in the kitchen. I look for something to clean them but all I can find is a towel, so I use that. There’s a line of four cold cups of tea near the kettle.
The man’s here again. He doesn’t say anything, just sits in the corner, waiting. I can hear the carriage clock on the mantelpiece. Tick, tock. I made that clock, back when I was a clockmaker. Handmade clocks for the walls of the rich. Each piece crafted in my workshop. I’m trying to finish it, but my hands shake too much.
‘Is my father’s clock ready yet?’ she asked, glancing around the workshop. I stopped what I was doing.
‘Mr Jessop,’ she replied, to the unasked question.
It was not finished. She came back the following day to ask the same question. Impertinent, hand on hip. I found myself taking longer than necessary in order that she might come back to the shop. Eventually I could stall no longer, and the clock was handed over. And yet she returned the next day.
I decide to open the curtains but it’s pitch black outside. The clock is pointing to half past 11. Time has become meaningless. I try the television but the screen remains stubbornly blank, no matter which button I press. There is a note on the wall: Press the red button on the silver control. The instruction seems eerie to me, like the notes Alice finds in Wonderland: DRINK ME. I press the red button and the screen pings into life. The programme seems to be aimed at a young audience: there is a young man with one of those girlish haircuts they all seem to like now. He swears a lot and makes jokes I don’t understand. I try to turn over but the screen goes fuzzy. Then I see another note: Use the black remote control to change channels. Frustrated, I abandon the endeavour.
I went to Anna’s father to ask for her hand in marriage. He said no; he was affronted that a tradesman should consider himself worthy of his precious daughter. I thought that would be that. Anna was not one to be refused, though. She suggested we elope, and we did. Anna’s father was furious: he wrote to us a few weeks later, disinheriting Anna and refusing us permission to visit him.
Why are you here, in my memories? He sits there and grins, like that cat in Alice in Wonderland. Anna loved that book; it had been given to her by her mother before she died. Get out of my head. Go back to the corner, and sit there like a naughty child. Why are you here, taunting an old man?
‘Mr Fletcher. Mr Fletcher! Are you listening to me?’
The girl’s here. She’s standing over me, hand on hip, like a school mistress.
‘Mr Fletcher have you been here all night? You’re wet through! Why didn’t you go to the toilet?’
She huffs off into the bedroom for some clean clothes. She leads me into the bathroom and hands me a cloth.
‘Give yourself a wash and get dressed, Mr Fletcher. I’ll clean the sofa.’
I obey without a word: I am meek, reduced.
A brilliant summer’s day: Anna and I stumbling out of the registry office, arm in arm, Anna giggling and trying to catch the sunlight with her new wedding ring. Her pale blonde hair long and girlish, before the practicalities of aging made her decide to cut it short. We’re happy, in love and interested only in how to make the other one more contented. Only years later, when the bitterness had begun to creep into our marriage, did Anna admit that she was a little disappointed in our wedding day. No cake, no beautiful gown, no guests, apart from…apart from…
‘No! You weren’t there. Stop trying to spoil it, laughing and jeering at my memories. I know what you are thinking. But you don’t know a thing. Get back to where you belong. Get out of my memories.’ He places a hand on my arm and I push him away. ‘Get off! Why are you doing this to me?’
‘Mr Fletcher, stop!’ The girl. It is only the girl. She is on the floor, looking shaken.
‘I’m going to get help,’ she says, getting to her feet and backing away from me.
She looks upset. I move towards her to offer some help but she hurries out of the door. I move over to the window, wondering if it is time to close the curtains yet. I glance at the clock on the mantelpiece. One of my own creations, back when I was a clockmaker. I never did finish it. It says twenty minutes past eight, but I can’t tell whether it’s the morning or the evening. I try to switch the television on but the screen is fuzzy. I feel hungry; I go into the kitchen and put some bread in the thing, the bread-browner, but it won’t work, so I just eat the bread.
We honeymooned in Venice. We couldn’t afford to honeymoon at all, but Anna insisted, so I borrowed some money. It was a wonderful city, fascinating for an artisan. Inspiration was everywhere; I bought myself a little notebook and made sketches of the gothic palazzos. Anna drank in the romance of the city; we ate in little cafes every night, listening to violin music. It was a taste of a life we would never be able to have; a life Anna might have had if she had not married beneath her.
I’m hungry. I can’t find any food in the kitchen. I decide to go to the shop. I put my coat on and step outside. My feet are cold and I realise I’m not wearing any shoes, so I go back in and put on my slippers. Why am I wearing my coat? I must be going for a walk. I grab my walking stick and step outside. It’s dark and cold. I decide to walk to the park. It must be around here somewhere, although the streets are unfamiliar. I stop a young couple, who look at me with concerned faces.
‘Is this the way to the park?’
The young man points in the opposite direction but the girl says, loudly: ‘Are you sure that’s where you want to go? You know it’s two o’ clock in the morning?’
I feel confused, and embarrassed, so I walk past them. After a few moments I see a petrol station, and realise I’m hungry. I go in. There is an Asian man behind the counter who seems to recognise me.
‘Mr Fletcher. How are you today?’
He’s being kind, I realise. What a pathetic old coot I must seem.
‘I see. Did you bring any money today?’
I begin to search in my pockets for loose change but there is none. Then I realise that I am wearing pyjamas underneath my coat.
‘No. Sorry,’ I say, and begin to leave, but he stops me.
‘Take this,’ he says, passing me a sausage roll. ‘You can pay me next time, OK?’
I nod, and take the roll, ashamed and grateful.
‘You know how to get home?’ he asks. I nod, and point. He looks concerned. He takes me outside.
‘Listen now. Go straight along this road, and turn left. Go through the gates, and your house is number seven. Can you remember?’
I nod, and set off in the direction he had pointed. Nothing is familiar.
The grinning man is sitting on a wall, watching me. Why must he follow me? Why does he taunt an old man?
‘Can’t you see that I paid for what I did? I’ve lived in hell for years. Leave me alone, will you?’
I can feel tears trickling down my face. Where am I? I just want to go home. There is a young couple standing nearby, watching me. They walk over.
‘Where do you live?’ asks the girl, loudly.
‘I… Gloucester St,’ I say. The girl shakes her head.
‘I don’t know it. Is it round here?’
I don’t know so I just say ‘I’m a clockmaker. It’s my shop. I live above my shop.’
The girl looks at her boyfriend with raised eyebrows. ‘Are you sure?’ she asks. ‘Only I don’t remember seeing that kind of shop round here.’ Her boyfriend sniggers, quietly.
‘Maybe it’s in between Poundland and Betfred,’ he suggests, smiling. His girlfriend glares at him, but in a playful way.
I begin to walk away. The girl calls after me but I keep walking. The grinning man walks behind me, always.
I’m cold. I look down and I see that I’m holding half a sausage roll, still slightly warm, and I eat it hungrily. After a little while I see a bus shelter and sit down, wearily. My ankles feel cold; I notice I’m wearing my pyjamas, and they’re wet at the bottom. I must go home. I wonder vaguely why I am at a bus stop. After a few moments a bus approaches; it’s going into town. I hail it, and the driver lets me board without a word.
The windows are dirty, and all the streets look the same. I stare out anyway, remembering.
A bus journey back from Dover. Anna and I returning from somewhere or other. Was it our honeymoon? Anna was still full of excitement about our holiday, but I was gloomy. She tried to infect me with her joy, as women do, but I turned away from her and stared out of the window, morose, listless, and eventually she gave up.
‘Oy, mate, you getting off?’
The bus has stopped. I look outside again and see we are in some kind of station. I must have dozed off. I get to my feet and shuffle off the bus. The driver switches the lights off as I leave.
I walk through the station until I find an exit. When I step outside I see the town hall clock tower in the distance, so I know I’m near home. The roads look so different so I decide to head directly for the town hall. I begin to walk and don’t realise I am on a busy road until I hear a driver shouting at me from his car.
‘Get off the road you idiot! I nearly killed you!’
I scuttle across the road and the car drives past, the driver continuing to shout. I feel anxious and I don’t know where I am. I think I’m trying to get to the town hall, but I can’t remember why. I can see the clock when I get to the corner of the street, and I head towards it. When I reach the plaza it seems familiar, although I don’t recognise any of the shops and bars. There are strings of lights all over the square and a decorated tree in the centre. I know that this means something, but I can’t remember what.
I recall the first time we saw the shop. It had been a hat shop, I believe, but the owner had long since died. Anna found it enchanting; I lacked the vision to see beyond the dust and grime. I spoke to the bank manager who agreed to lend me the money to buy it.
It cleaned up well; Anna made a display in the window of my unsold clocks, and we turned the rest into a workshop. Anna painted a large sign: T Fletcher – Clockmaker.
Suddenly I’m standing there, outside my shop. Except that it isn’t my shop anymore, it’s a pharmacy. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know why my shop isn’t here. I look around at the neighbouring buildings and I know I’m in the right place, although everything looks wrong. Now there are wine bars and clothes shops where the tradesmen’s stores were.
‘Excuse me mate, you alright?’
I turn around to see the young policeman walking towards me. I realise I am making a noise. My face is wet with tears.
‘Do you live round here mate?’ asks the young policeman. I nod.
‘There,’ I say, pointing at the pharmacy. The policeman looks at the shop, doubtfully.
‘I think you should come with me, and I’ll find you a blanket. You shouldn’t be out in your jim-jams at this time of night.’
I want to protest but I realise I don’t know where my door key is. I don’t seem to understand anything anymore. So I walk with the policeman to his driving thing, where he hands me a blanket and instructs me to get in.
I seem to be in the back of a police car. ‘Excuse me? Have I done something wrong?’ I ask. The young policeman looks back at me and smiles, looking a little exasperated.
‘No, no, you’ve done nothing wrong, just sit tight, we’ll be at the station soon and we’ll find out where you live.’
‘I live above my shop. In Gloucester St.’ As I say it I remember something. ‘No, I moved. I live in a house in…’ I am at a loss.
‘Don’t worry. We’ll get you back home. So that used to be your shop, did it? What did you sell?’
‘Clocks,’ I reply. The policeman nods, distractedly.
Everything was wonderful for a while. A few months after we married Anna discovered she was expecting a baby. The business was going well; my name had travelled, and we had orders coming in from all over the world. I took great care with my clocks, and my customers knew this. I would spend the days in the workshop, and Anna would fuss around me contentedly. Why didn’t it stay that way? Why did you have to walk through the door?
‘Alright mate, calm down a bit. We’re here now.’
I seem to be in a vehicle. There is a policeman with me.
‘Why am I here? Have I done something wrong?’
The policeman ignores my question and leads me into a building. He stops at a desk.
‘I found this fella in town. He’s a bit confused and getting a bit agitated. Can we get a social worker? And get him a cup of tea.’
I’m led into a police cell and given a blanket and a hot drink. The woman who leads me into the cell says ‘I’m going to have to leave you here for a bit, but I’ll come and check on you in a little while, OK?’
She locks the door as she leaves.
‘I’m not alone though, am I? I’m never alone. Why are you doing this? I try to finish it, but my hands shake.’
He just watches me, grinning as always, as he did on the first day I met him. I should have known that there was something wrong. Perhaps I did. I can’t remember. Perhaps it wasn’t him at all; he invades all of my memories now.
The door opens.
‘I’m sorry sir, but we are going to have to put somebody in here with you,’ says a woman I don’t recognise. ‘Behave yourself,’ she advises a young, inebriated looking man, who tries to blow her a kiss and falls over.
He notices me and says ‘Merry Christmas mate!’ before he starts laughing and singing a song I don’t recognise.
Christmas. I am transported back to another Christmas. Our first in the shop. Anna had bought an artificial tree from Woolworths and it was proudly displayed in the shop window, surrounded by tinselled clocks. She was pregnant, and we were happy. I was working on a new commission. I recall her standing over me, hand on hip, as she tended to do.
‘Can’t you leave that for tonight? It’s Christmas!’
‘In a minute,’ I replied, brusquely. Anna looked a little hurt and I remember feeling slightly guilty, but I still didn’t stop working.
I’m in a small room, like a prison cell. There’s a young man on the other side of the room; he is fast asleep, and snoring loudly. The door opens. A female face looks in; I think I recognise her, but I don’t know from where.
‘Mr Fletcher! Thank goodness! We’re going to have to put an electronic tag on you at this rate!’
She takes my arm and I’m led through what seems to be a police station. The young woman takes me to her car, a small blue thing, rounded edges, as so many of them seem to have these days.
‘Am I going home?’ I ask.
‘Yes, you are. And hopefully this time you’ll stay there! I don’t know why they won’t listen to me when I tell them you need to be in a nursing home.’
‘I don’t want to go into a nursing home,’ I reply. The girl rolls her eyes but doesn’t reply. We begin to drive through streets I don’t recognise, and I feel warm, and drowsy.
‘Wakey-wakey Mr Fletcher. We’re home.’
I’m in a car with a woman I don’t recognise outside a house I don’t know.
‘Where am I?’ I ask.
‘This is your house, Mr Fletcher,’ replies the girl, brightly. ‘Now let’s get in and I’ll make you something to eat, and perhaps you can have another sleep.’
The girl takes my arm and leads me in. The rooms are dark and the wallpaper is yellowed. There is an unpleasant smell.
‘Do I live here?’ I asked. The girl nodded.
‘It isn’t much, but it’s home, Mr Fletcher.’
I sit down on a brown armchair and the girl brings me some toast and a cup of tea, and puts the TV on.
‘Right! That’s me done. I’m going to ask one of the other ladies to pop in this afternoon to make sure you’re OK. Then tomorrow the doctor’s going to come and see you.’
I nod, and she leaves. I start watching a news programme and begin to feel sleepy.
When I wake up it is dark. I see a piece of toast on a plate next to me; it’s cold, but I’m hungry, so I eat it. The television is on but it’s one of those arty programmes so I switch it off. The room is very dark; I fumble around for the light switch and eventually find a lamp, which I switch on. I know he will be there before I see him; he’s the only thing I can remember clearly.
‘Make yourself at home,’ I say, but he just grins, as always. I begin to shiver and reach for a blanket.
Another time. Anna and I hadn’t been married long; I think she was pregnant. I remember feeling worried about money. We had had a few good months when we opened the shop, and I had enjoyed buying Anna some of the things she deserved. But the sales had begun to dwindle. Anna wanted to do up the baby’s room but money was too scarce.
When he walked into the shop all charm and smiles, it seemed a godsend, but I was a cautious man. He wanted to place an order for 50 standard carriage clocks, to ship over to the States. I made him draft a contract before beginning the work, and he offered to pay a retainer. With that money we hired a man to decorate the nursery. Yellow and white, suitable for either sex.
I began to work on the clocks. He had given me a four month time limit; not much time for such a massive order. Once I had the materials I began to work throughout the day and into the night. I hardly saw my wife, but I told myself that this was an unfortunate necessity.
Occasionally Anna would come into the workshop but I’m afraid I found the intrusion annoying, and sent her away. She began to feel resentful, and who could blame her? She said I was becoming obsessed with my work, that I wasn’t the man she married. I remember thinking that I just had to finish the order, then all would be well again.
‘Was that when I first starting seeing you, you foul thing? Is that when you started following me?’
He sits and waits. He will always be there until I finish making the last one. If my hands would stop shaking I could complete it, and perhaps he would go.
When I had completed thirty or so clocks the man came back into the shop. The situation had changed, he said. His American customer needed the clocks earlier. No, it can’t be done, not enough time, I protested. We made an agreement; he would take the clocks I had already completed, and he would return in four weeks for the rest, and to settle his account. Why was I so foolish?
‘How are you today Mr Fletcher?’
A middle aged African man sits opposite me. The girl is here too.
‘I’m tired,’ I reply.
The girl snorts. ‘I’m not surprised, wandering all over town the other night!’
I wonder what she means. The man, who I assume to be a doctor, asks me a series of short questions. I guess some of the answers. After a few minutes he addresses the girl as though I’m no longer in the room.
‘The patient is clearly showing signs of dementia, but I’m afraid I still cannot recommend that Mr Fletcher goes into residential care at this time. My report will suggest that we continue with home based care for the time being, and reassess the patient in a few weeks.’
The man leaves and the girl looks annoyed. She turns to me and says in an exasperated tone: ‘why is it that whenever I get someone to assess you, you suddenly become brain of bloody Britain? Every time.’
I don’t answer. I feel like I’ve done something wrong, but I’m not sure what.
I had completed all but one of the clocks. I was working on the last one when Anna shouted from upstairs. She had begun bleeding, bright, scarlet blood. We called for an ambulance but we both knew what had happened. The doctor explained to us in precise medical terms that our baby had died in the womb.
I believe Anna blamed me for the death of our baby. I had not been with her throughout the pregnancy. I think she believed that if I had taken better care of her, our baby would have lived. I believed it too.
When we returned home I tried to complete the last clock, but every time I picked up one of my tools my hands would begin to tremble. I was fearful of what would happen when the man returned; but surely he would understand why it hadn’t been finished? I could not sleep; I don’t think I have slept a full night ever since. When I did drift off the man occupied my nightmares. He became different; his easy smile became a rictus grin, and his eyes became sharp.
‘Yes, I’m talking about you, my friend. You won’t let me forget, will you?’
I have to finish the clock. He will never leave me alone unless I complete it. I move over to the mantelpiece and try to pick it up but it is heavier than I remember, or I am weaker. I manage to lift it but it slips from my grasp and shatters all over the floor. It has broken into hundreds of pieces, beyond repair.
‘I’m sorry!’ I cry, but for once he’s not there. ‘I tried, but I can’t do it.’
I am sitting on the floor. All around me are pieces of broken wood, glass and metal. Oh no. It is the clock, his clock. I have cut myself on a piece of glass, red blood dripping from my paper thin skin. I try to stand but my legs feel weak and I stumble, bumping my head on the arm of the sofa. I try to move but I can’t get up so I lie on the floor and look up at the ceiling.
He never came back, of course. Part of me had always known he wouldn’t. The cheque he had given me the last time I saw him was useless. We were in severe financial difficulty.
Anna suggested we sell the shop, but I could not bear to give it up. Anna got a job working in a cafe, but I could tell she resented me for it. She became distant and cold. Our conversations became functional, nothing more.
We lived that way for many years, both of us too preoccupied with our own misery to care about the feelings of the other. And one day she just left.
I supposed she had gone back to her parents’ home, but found out many years later that she hadn’t. I never found out what happened to my Anna. To my shame, I didn’t go to find her.
‘It’s too late now. Too late.’
I lie there for what seems like days, but who can tell? Time is such a strange thing. I have spent my life trying to subdue time, compartmentalise it, and yet it defies me by moving at its own pace. I’m bruised, and aching. I can’t remember why I am lying on the floor but I can’t move.
‘Mr Fletcher! What happened?’
The girl is here. She looks flustered. She fusses around me for a moment and places a soft thing under my head. I ask her to help me up but she ignores me and starts talking into her small rectangular thing. I am feeling very tired.
I wake up as I’m being carried into an ambulance. The girl is beside me, talking a lot.
‘Mr Fletcher, I’m so sorry I was snappy the last time. I hadn’t slept very well, Jonah’s teething and Adam’s sick. But I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.’
I have no idea what she means but she seems upset so I pat her hand. She has tears in her eyes. I realise she is very young, 22 or 23. I also notice she seems to be pregnant. She places her hand over her belly as Anna sometimes did.
I really am very tired. I decide to have another sleep.
When I awake I am in a hospital bed, attached to a machine which continually makes a loud bleeping noise. The curtains are drawn around me; there’s a disinfectant smell, and a strange wailing sound. The man is sitting on the end of the bed.
‘Here again are you? Can’t shake you off, can I? Why don’t you find someone else to torment?’
But he just grins, as always.
The sound of my voice must have alerted somebody, because in the next moment the curtain twitches and the head of a woman appears in the gap. ‘Ah, Mr Fletcher. Are you feeling better? You’ve been quite poorly.’
I nod. ‘Why am I here?’ I ask.
‘You’ve been quite poorly,’ she repeats. ‘I’ll let the doctor explain it to you. She’ll be along for her morning visit soon. Would you like me to open these for you?’
She begins opening the curtains without waiting for my reply. I see that I am in a room with five other beds, all containing old men. One of them is wailing loudly. I think of something.
‘Why am I here?’ I ask.
The nurse does not answer but a man in the next bed says ‘You’ve just asked her that.’
I feel embarrassed. ‘Oh,’ I reply. I want to turn away from him but I am very weak, I can hardly move.
‘You’re in the geriatric ward of St Michael’s. You were moved here last night from intensive care.’
‘Oh,’ I say again.
‘You talk to yourself a lot,’ comments the man, then he picks up a book and loses interest in me.
A middle aged woman with a clipboard and a stethoscope walks across to me.
‘Hello Mr Fletcher,’ she says. ‘I’m Dr Hunt. I would like to explain some things to you, if that’s OK?’
‘He won’t remember them,’ comments the man in the next bed. Dr Hunt draws the curtains and sits on the chair next to the bed.
Dr Hunt begins to tell me that I have had pneumonia and a bladder infection, and have been in the hospital for about a month, in the intensive care unit. I awoke two days ago and was transferred to this ward yesterday.
‘We’re going to monitor you for a few days. We need to make sure the infection has completely gone before we let you go home.’ She looks as though she is about to leave but then stops. ‘There’s one thing troubling us. Your care worker says that you sometimes see hallucinations. I would like to find out what’s causing that before you leave.’
She stands up. ‘I’ll come and see you again tomorrow morning Mr Fletcher. The nurse will be along shortly to take some more blood.’
I look at the grinning man. ‘You see, they know about you. You’re a hallucination. They’re going to get rid of you.’
‘You’re a loon,’ comments the man in the next bed.
It is dark. I am in a narrow, unfamiliar bed, attached to tubes and a machine. My wrist feels sore and I see there is a tube inserted into the skin. I can hear somebody crying, distantly. The grinning man is sitting by my side. He reaches out to take my hand.
‘Why are you doing that?’ I ask, surprised.
‘It is time,’ he replies.
‘It is time,’ I repeat. ‘It’s always been about time, hasn’t it? Time is all I’ve ever had.’
My head is hurting and I feel so tired. I need to finish his clock. Perhaps he will stop tormenting me if I do. I don’t know where I am; it looks like a hospital. He is beside me, grinning as always, saying something about time. He is the only thing I can remember, and I know he will be with me till the end.