Sheelagh Russell-Brown; A Room Full of Clocks: A Tale of Time Found

A Room Full of Clocks:  A Tale of Time Found

            He didn’t know how the name was born.  Neither, so they told him, did his parents.  He imagined it coming to them one hot and humid summer afternoon as they lay panting upon the sweat-soaked sheets of the bed on which they’d made him.  His mother’s rounded belly, full almost to bursting with the bones of him, maybe it was the catalyst.

            “Egbert!” his father exclaimed.  “Egbert Eddington!”

            It had a certain ring to it, perhaps they’d thought, a certain wry cleverness.  So he became “Egg,” just like that.  The wry cleverness, the whimsy, was all at his expense.  It held inside its fragile shell his life unlived as yet, only unhatched potential.

            He didn’t know where the ticking came from, the ticking inside the Russian clock shaped like an egg.  It was his first, standing on two thin golden columns, no thicker than a sparrow’s legs, its delicate blue and gold holding inside a rhythmic scratching like the sound of a tiny chick’s ineffectual escape.

            It was his first, and more would follow, until the din within the shop became an assault on all ears but his own. But still they came, the customers, those wanting an artifact of time, a way of touching minutes and days and years long past. 

            “Egbert Eddington, Timepieces,” the sign above the thick blue door cried out.  Pieces of time for sale or rent. 

            No windows giving a glimpse into the space, each corner filled with booms and chimes, with creaking doors opening onto cuckoo’s calls, a rotund man, a Humpty Dumpty man with sparrow’s legs, all dressed in blue and gold, set all the life inside to ticking.  He pulled up chains, wound little dials, set weights into position.  Each hour he checked that all were primed to tell their time.  He waited for the man, the woman, the child whose history was kept inside the ticking chambers. 

            Perhaps a tearful girl of nineteen or twenty might ask to see a watch like that her soldier lover had, returned to her when he did not.  He’d search inside the glass case, listening to the whispering that told him all the lovers’ tales, finding that one that suited.  She’d hold it, smiling, to her ear to hear once more her soldier’s soft endearments.

            Perhaps a mother, now middle-aged, came looking for the nursery clock, shaped like a bunny or a butterfly, that stood beside the nightlight by the crib of a now-grown son whose voice she seldom heard these days. 

            Or an old man, still dapper, a much-polished gold watch and chain hanging from his vest, would pay to spend some time beside a tall grandfather clock.

            “Just like the one that chimed the hours in the hallway outside the room where my own mother died the night that I was born.”

            He’d put his arms around the polished wooden case and croon the soothing words his mother whispered to him only in dreams. 

            For some he’d charge a weekly or a monthly price of admission to the time preserved inside, never more than they could afford.  For some he asked no price at all.  The men and women who had long abandoned present days to dwell forever in the past.  They slept in doorways or in underpasses beneath the rhythmic clatter of trains on tracks above them.  They brought their bags, their baskets, their cardboard mattresses with them, each choosing a piece of time whose bygone sounds would silence for a while the noises in their heads.

            And so years passed.  The room filled up with clocks, with watches, with sundials, and with hourglasses.  He heard each grain of sand falling through the narrow channel, and when all had settled in the depths, he still could hear hushed whispering—“Is it time yet?”  “And now how much longer?”  “Should we begin again?”

            No rays from windows fell on the sundials.  Yet through chinks in door and walls, a tiny beam would move to touch the stone, inconstant as the clouds that masked and then revealed the sun.  As the stone warmed, it gave off a subtle humming, and if he listened closely the voices spoke in unfamiliar words and cadences.

            But all this time he’d never found the clock that spoke to him alone.  He was a part of every other life, of every piece of time that came inside and then departed.  But no life was his own.  In the glass cases of clocks and watches, he saw reflected his egg-like body and felt as if inside a shell of rock-hard crystal.  He could see out, they could see in, neither touching the other.

            One day when all the clocks were clamouring for ears to hear them, a woman entered the empty shop.  Her face was veiled in gauzy black that streamed below a black velvet headpiece.  On each few inches of the veil a tiny spider was embroidered.  He could see from her hands and neck emerging from her black dress that despite the ancient clothing she was still young, perhaps no more than thirty.  She pulled behind her a wooden box on wheels, painted with nursery scenes like those he could remember in his own childhood home.

            He asked her business there.  She raised a hand and took out of the box a clock unlike any he’d ever seen before.  It seemed made by a madman, with bits of this and bits of that, of clocks and watches, sundials and hourglasses.  It was a giant egg with crystal shell and all the workings of life inside, open to view.  At first, its voice was rusty, as if from long disuse, but when she turned a wheel, pulled up a weight, and wound it up, it sang.

            It sang a song like the one the waves make breaking on the shore and running back out again.  It was the tune the moon croons to the stars as they cross paths in the dark skies above.  It pattered like the rain on roofs, lulling those inside to peaceful sleep.  It whispered like the wind in the bare branches of the elms, roared like the gales that bring them down.

            She left as quickly as she’d come, and left the clock behind.  Throughout the day and into the evening, it sang, it roared, it whispered.  But no one but himself seemed to hear its voice as the customers returned. 

            A man had found a clock upon the wall shaped like a little lapdog, with wagging tale to mark the seconds out.  He put his ear against its face and smiled a little, recalling his lost childhood playmate.  A child of nine or maybe ten, thin face ravaged by signs of long sickness, stood before a schoolhouse clock, stern ticking sounding out the passing hours while her classmates longed to be set free.  The voices of the schoolroom came to her, the teacher’s kind and loving hand upon her shoulder, and she not there to share it.

            But no one seemed to hear the clock the woman brought.  None remarked upon its presence on the counter.

            Throughout the day the strange clock sang, slowly and more slowly as the hours passed.  Into the evening it sang, until he turned a wheel, pulled up a weight, and wound it up again.

            It sang until the glass upon its face grew dusty, and he grew dusty with the days and years that passed.  A room full of clocks with this, his prize, that spoke and sang to him alone.  Although at first it soothed him to sleep with the voice of his mother, long forgotten, he now remained awake lest some sound slip by unheard.  Its voice became the only voice he noticed until at last, though they still came, the other listeners paid less and less, and he lived on, not caring much to press them for their fees.  Some even took away with them their timepieces and did not return.

            He sat upon a chair, his spindly legs thrust out in front of him, above the unswept floor, his ear against the crystal egg, and smiled with love on those who entered.  He’d long gone deaf, but still he heard the songs for him alone and trusted that the others heard their own as well.  Some brought him food from time to time, and sat with him to while away the hours, nodding in rhythm with the beating of their hearts.  None knew what songs he heard, but still he smiled.

            He smiled at songs his mother sang, at songs his father had sung to her, even the teasing songs they’d made at school to mock his name and body.  He marked out time in swinging of his legs, now fast, now slow, and then more and more slowly till the crystal face of his strange clock cracked into a thousand stars.             

                 And so he did not notice when living had become the past tense of life in a room full of clocks.           

*

Biography

After having taught at an international high school in the Czech Republic for seven years, Sheelagh Russell-Brown is now a lecturer in English literature and a writing tutor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  Her research interests are in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and European literature, the portrayal of the Roma in art and literature, and the foregrounding of marginalized female roles in neo-Victorian literature.  She has been published in The Fem e-magazine, in Abridged poetry and art magazine, and in Tales from the Forest e-magazine, and will have a short story published by TSS in November of this year.  She has also won second prize in the first Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Short Story Contest, and was shortlisted for the second Irish Imbas contest, as well as for the 2016 Fish Publishing Short Memoir Competition.  She is a contributor to Backstory e-magazine, to Understorey e-magazine, and to Historical Honey.

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