In Short Stories: Schwarzenegger Season

Sunday

Grandma sits out on the fire escape like it was an old front porch. She uses one foot to make her small wooden rocking chair go back and forth, enjoying the peace of the silent street below.

The birdsong. The breathable air. The warmth of the sun. They combine in a way that says, this is how we are supposed to live. Grandma wonders if she is still agile enough to avoid the clutches of Death if he comes knocking.

All the apartment-dwellers have their windows wide open to let in the breeze that is so rich in oxygen.

It is quiet enough to hear Jomar and Buddy bickering from the apartment below her. A child shrieks from an open window high above, quieted by the snarl of a man who is not her father.

Yesterday morning, Grandma met Jomar coming home from work. She watched him as she prepared to venture out to the market. He was so tired that he leaned on the heavy door of the apartment building, forehead resting on the cool glass. When he looked up, he saw her standing inside the lobby, waiting with her home-made mask stretched over her nose and mouth and tight around her ears. He looked sheepish for a second, then pulled the door open and held it for her as they edged past each other.

Are you well, Grandma?

Yes thank you, Jomar. I’m well.

She skirted the bag that held his uniform, and carried on walking.

Today is Sunday, she feels, although she isn’t sure. Sitting out here on the fire escape, today feels like a Sunday, but so do all the other days.

The sound of a guitar, softly played, washes over her. It will be Rita, with her long, clever fingers. Rita, who lives in the apartment next door. Grandma doesn’t altogether like her ways.

Rita is always in the middle of some excitement or other, with her finely arched eyebrows raised high and her bronze-coloured eyes wide open. Only last week, the father of one of Rita’s children was standing in the street, bellowing up at them, demanding to see his son until finally Rita got the boy to wave through the window. Neither party was happy, but what else could a person do in these times? Grandma is grateful she is too old for all that melodrama.

Rita plays a lazy, improvised melody that echoes Grandma’s sweet, warm mood. Most of her neighbours like their music loud-loud, but recently there have been periods like this, when a quieter, acoustic vibe prevails. Grandma can smell marijuana. That will be Rita, too. Two breaths: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, and the joint will be extinguished. Gone before anyone can complain, let alone identify the culprit. Grandma realises she misses smoking pot on a hot summer’s day. Misses the gentle relaxation and the thoughts drifting through her mind, dissolving and reforming like clouds across the sky.

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The bickering from downstairs has stopped, and now Buddy’s voice is full of mock outrage. “Hey everyone, guess what? There’s another movie, one I’ve never even heard of.” He climbs out onto the fire escape and waves the battered old film guide he pulled out of a dumpster last week. “We missed it off the original list.”

“We voted on a longlist, then we voted on a shortlist,” Jomar calls from inside, “and I’m not going through all that again. We decided, man. And it was hard work.”

“You two still arguing about this?” Curtis asks from the window above her. His voice has the impact of a stone thrown into a pond. It carries easily past Grandma, further down to Buddy and Jomar, and probably right on down to the ground.

“Not really,” replies Buddy. “I was just teasing Jomar. Feels like a big deal to get it right.”

“Only if you ain’t got nothing else to do,” says Curtis.

“Yeah, well, none of you got anything else to do,” says Jomar. “I’m the only one working around here.”

The sudden tension in the air is no more or less uncomfortable than it has been in the past, when her neighbours have had their various disagreements. They all know each other by sight. But the recent enforced proximity means they all speak to each other far more than usual. They have begun to strike up half-decent conversations, getting to know one another. Except for Grandma, of course. Because she is old, they avoid her. They do not know how to be with her, or act around her, or speak to her.

Which makes what she is about to do next, all the more difficult. She clears her throat, not sure how to approach this. Not sure how her voice will sound out loud, she so rarely uses it these days. She decides on a direct approach. Has to try a couple times to get her voice to carry on the air. “You boys think you could fix it so as I could watch too?”

There is a sudden silence. Rita stops playing. The breeze dies away. Grandma stops rocking. She is all ready to jump up and apologise, to cover over the awkwardness.

Somebody whistles, a falling note that says, oh boy!

Jomar speaks first. He can’t stand the thought of anyone being left out. “Sure, Grandma. We can figure a way…” She can hear Buddy trying to hush him.

Curtis sighs, disapproval so heavy she can feel the air flutter with his breath. Even his sighs carry more weight than other people’s. “Yeah, Grandma. I guess we can rig something. Might have to run a cable, though. You ok with that?”

Grandma hurries to say, “Sure Curtis, anything you need. Thank you.”

Rita says, “And me.” No question mark in her voice. “You been bigging this up all week. I don’t want to be left out.” She makes the strings on her guitar emphasise her words with a little shake.

“You can pay for it your own damn self.”

“No Curtis. Can’t pay for nothing right now. Not even food. If you do this for me, I’ll do Frankie’s hair and nails for free when it’s all over. I promise.”

Grandma hears noises overhead as Frankie pushes Curtis to one side and leans out of the window. “That’s a good trade, Rita. Hair and nails for free a couple of times. Whaddya say, Curtis?”

Curtis sucks in a sharp breath. Frankie makes the noise she makes to her children when she puts her arms around them and rocks them out of a bad mood and into her way of thinking. Grandma can hear the floorboards creak above her as Frankie takes Curtis in her arms and rocks him back and forth.

“Like living in a goddamn commune,” grumbles Curtis. But everyone knows he dotes on Frankie and the children. Will do anything she asks.

Monday

Monday is set to be hot again. Grandma is back out on the fire escape, early. In the freshness of the morning she feels her lungs expand the way they did when she was a child. She settles down with a magazine. It is only a few weeks old, but already it belongs to a distant era.

In the afternoon, Curtis knocks on her door, rousing her from sleep in the baking sun. She has been dreaming of flowers and the scent of cut grass. It takes her some time to climb back through her window into the apartment and open the door. Curtis is standing well away from another man who she recognises as the one who snarls at his stepchildren, high up on the fourth floor.

“Grandma, this is Steven. He’ll make it so you can watch the movie tonight. Gonna put you on the network.”

She makes her face go expressionless at the word.           

Curtis looks at her for a minute, a small quirk of the lips saying he knows a blank face when he sees one and that he figures she has her reasons. He makes no comment, is clearly not interested enough to ask. When Curtis turns away and leaves her alone with Steven, they can hear him run his fingers softly along the wall in the hallway as he walks. He taps lightly on Rita’s door – more a brush than a knock – and keeps on walking.

Grandma hopes that this is just the physical expression of a passing thought. Rita is beautiful, she is lonely, she is always the centre of attention. She’d take Curtis, but she doesn’t need him. Not the way Frankie and the children do. Rita doesn’t open the door and Grandma is relieved. She wishes Rita would look outside the building for her next Mr Right.

“Hi Grandma,” says Steven. He has a voice like a running engine, but an engine that is running rough. He shrugs off his backpack and pulls out a plastic container. It is full of raw kernels of popping corn complete with a little knob of butter wrapped in clingfilm. “The kids sent this. They said you can’t watch a movie without popcorn.”

He steps cautiously into her apartment. She does not like the way his eyes take inventory of everything she owns.

“I’ll leave the popcorn on your table. Now go and sit over there, while I get to work.” She watches him read her expression. He seems to think she is concerned about possible damage. “Don’t worry,” he tries to sound reassuring, “It’s real simple, I promise.”

She drags a chair away from the table and over to the stove, and sits down on it to watch him work. The word ‘network’ has chilled her spine. She does not live in a world of networks, does not own a computer. She thinks back to the occasions when well-intentioned people have tried to show her what to do. She never could do it right. Just sat there feeling stupid.

Steven is kneeling on the floor by her television, looking at his phone. He does not explain what he is doing and she does not want him to. “It’s really just one button, Grandma,” he says, showing her. “I’ll call you and talk you through it before the movie starts.”

As the time for the movie approaches, she pops the corn. Can’t let good food go to waste.

Her phone rings for the first time in weeks. Steven says, “OK Grandma, here’s what to do. The kids think I should climb down the fire escape so I can show you through the window, but the truth is, I’m scared of heights.”

He laughs, a smoky rasp that comes from deep in his chest. She finds herself laughing too. He reminds her again what to do. It is surprisingly simple. “OK, that’s it, Grandma. Film starts in five minutes. Buddy’s going to bang a pan lid, or something.”

She readies herself in front of the television with her popcorn. Anxiety makes her stomach hurt. She understands in that moment how out of balance her emotions are. How crushing the disappointment will be if she has failed to follow his instructions correctly.

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The sound of Buddy banging a pan lid with a wooden spoon startles her into action. She pushes the button with her breath held and eyes closed, and to her delight, a movie starts playing on her TV. She has seen the film before but remembers little or nothing of it. She settles back to watch the forging of a sword fit for a hero with a mixture of pleasure and relief.

She thinks about the week-long debates, the arguments, the complicated voting system the others had put in place to choose what she was watching. Just like the Primaries, Buddy had said, delighted with himself. She could have corrected him, it was not anything like the Primaries, but a week ago she had not inserted herself into this activity.

She tries not to think of the vase, which should be standing on the shelf behind the TV. Although she never really cared for the thing, she misses it, now it is gone.

Tuesday

On Tuesday afternoon, Grandma waits for the smell of marijuana to waft onto the fire escape. “Rita,” she calls, “I need you to do something for me.”

She leaves the money outside her apartment door. Hears Rita’s door open, three steps, a pause, and then Rita going back into her own apartment.

Outside her door, Grandma finds five perfectly rolled joints wrapped in another magazine, this one a more recent issue, but no more relevant to her life.

Later, Stephen sends his oldest girl downstairs to make sure Grandma pushes the right button. She brings more popcorn kernels and another carefully wrapped little knob of butter. The girl is shy, watchful, no more than eight or nine. She waits patiently while Grandma goes to get last night’s popcorn container, carefully washed and dried. They do a complicated dance, passing it from one to another while maintaining the gap between them. The child shows her the correct button to press. Her shyness makes both of them feel awkward.

After the girl leaves, whispering goodbye, Grandma heats the oil and puts the corn on to pop. Then she searches through her kitchen drawers and finds a half-empty box of matches behind the darning block.

Without thinking about it, operating on muscle memory alone, she sits down in front of the television with her popcorn in a bowl and lights the first joint, allowing herself a long, shaky puff. She fights the urge to cough and leans back into her chair, certain from the air wafting through her window, that half the building is doing the same. After that, the movie makes her laugh. It is the sequel to last night’s film but the actors are puffy, the jokes are ponderous. The only memorable thing about it is the lead actress, and Grandma is astounded all over again by her physicality and the perfect symmetry of her face.

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At the end of the movie, the mood is subdued. Grandma rocks on the fire escape and listens as the consensus is reached that this one has been a mistake. The next time they hold a themed movie season — which will probably be next week the way things are going — they will have to be more careful.

Curtis is particularly vocal. “You all kept choosing it, I don’t know how many times we had to vote.”

“Everybody loves Grace, man,” responds Buddy.

“Maybe one of the comedies would have been better,” says Jomar. But he’s not blaming anyone.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, Steven sends his middle step-daughter; a round bellied, gap-toothed seven-year-old. She has not yet learned to be shy or watchful like her sister. Perhaps she is Steven’s favourite, and has no need to worry. She stands on one leg, far away from Grandma and points at the button.

Grandma feels guilty. The missing vase has been there all the time, sitting on the floor, moved out of harm’s way by Steven. So she sends the girl back upstairs with a batch of home-made chocolate chip cookies.

Despite the name the building has bestowed on her, Grandma has not, in fact, had children – let alone grandchildren – but she knows how to bake cookies, and she wants to make amends for her suspicions, even though no one is aware of them but her.

When Buddy bangs the pot lid, she starts the movie and is immediately overwhelmed with nostalgia for the sights and sounds of the early ‘70s. She marvels at the clothes the men are wearing. The exaggerated proportions, the extra-long collars and the wide lapels are alien, yet so familiar to her.

She is drawn in to the drama that unfolds despite herself. Halfway through, all she can think of is the amount of food it must have taken to build those muscles, and about the deprivation required to reveal them. The train of thought makes her hungry, so she eats one of the cookies she has kept for herself. It tastes of her mother’s love and for a fleeting second, she regrets sharing this with people who are little more than strangers.

The people in the film speak differently to the way she has become used to hearing on screen. The slang is old-fashioned, of course, but the voices themselves seem different. The ghosts of forgotten regional accents bring back unexpected memories of people long gone from her life.

In the end, she finds the movie motivating. Those men and their odd obsession with their own bodies, ended up inspiring the entire world. She feels powerful, energised. But then she catches sight of the skin on the backs of her hands, and she remembers where she is, and who she is. Her frame was not designed to bulk up with muscle and even if it had been, there was never enough food to spare.

She goes outside to take the air. Buddy and Steven are pumped up, half drunk, half joshing, half ready to start a fight. She can see Jomar holding Buddy as he leans out from the fire escape, looking up at Steven. The level of conflict is escalating; she can hear it brewing in their voices, which fly up and down the side of the building.

“There’s got to be a space in this building where we could put a weights bench…” rasped Steven.

“I’ll look in the basement, tomorrow,” Buddy replied.

Photo by Leon Ardho from Pexels

We’ll look in the basement,” called Steven.

“No room down there,” said Curtis. The mood flattened. “No damn room anywhere in this building — in this city. No room to breathe.” His voice is a growl. You can hear the tension in his throat and feel it in your own.

Get off me, woman,” he says, as Frankie tries to soothe him.

“Is Daddy mad, Momma?” asks one of the children, and the baby starts crying. The baby next door starts up and the cries meld into a sonic wave of unfiltered anger and frustration.

Grandma hopes Frankie is not trying to take Curtis in her arms. That would be the worst thing she could do to a man feeling trapped and suffocating.

Rita tries to cut through the noise before the whole building starts screaming. “Be great to get the dumbbells out from under my bed,” she calls.

“Instead of in your bed,” says Frankie, loud, to hoots of laughter from Steven and Buddy.

“We’ll think of something,” says Jomar. “We can work this out.” His tone is confident, soothing. Grandma realises this is how he speaks to patients who are seriously ill and afraid. He tells them to get well while he washes and dresses them.

She feels a brief little lift of optimism. But it is probably just the pot.

Thursday

Thursday is even hotter. Traffic fumes have disappeared, but the air is starved of oxygen. The fire escape offers no respite. The birds have sung themselves out and are resting in their shambolic nests, roughly assembled on any spare ledge.

Grandma feels a bead of sweat trickle down her back. She is summoning up the strength she needs to walk downstairs to the basement.

It is a dismal place, ignored and unmaintained. The bare brick walls are rough and the space smells of damp earth and mould. Burned out lightbulbs have not been replaced. At one time there had been a single coin-operated washing machine down here for residents to use. There was a brief flurry of excitement when it was installed; but the new laundry was so dark and frightening to be alone in at night, that everyone carried on using the laundromat and the machine was taken away. Nowadays, most of the apartments have their own washing machines, but Grandma still washes her clothes by hand in the sink, drying them by the radiator.

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She assesses the items in her storage space, wishing someone would fix the lights, but pleased their lack has kept people away. Her things are familiar, but not old friends. She can convince herself there is nothing here that she wants to keep.

The space is not huge but judging from the film she watched last night, there would be just about enough room to store a weights bench and some dumbbells. And, if you used the corridor as well, enough space to lift them.

The opening of the film distracts her.

Just like the movie, the night she saw it first, started off one way and then changed into something else.     

She thinks about the man she saw it with. She thinks about his hands, how strong they were, how elegant his gestures, how gentle his touch. The memories are old, she has not seen this man for decades. But she still remembers the way the date didn’t end until the next morning.

Watching the people in the movie carry on their life-or-death struggle, refusing to give up, makes her think of the things the man fought for, the things she and her friends had fought for. More often than not, we won. When did the fight go out of me?

Besides the man, whom she loved deeply, there were others – men and women – whose company she did not value enough when she had it. Friends forgotten and left behind. She is overwhelmed with a feeling of loss as she remembers nights of talking and laughing and smoking until dawn. Of being with people who were so full of ideas and plans that they felt a physical need to release them. So they danced, through the night.

Where are they, those people who had such an influence on my life? Even if most of them are dead now, I would like to know that. And I would like to know what happened to them.

Her thoughts drift back to the present. What will become of us? We can’t even imagine the worst that could happen. We know that now for sure.

The sound of Buddy cheering in the room below rouses her. He takes a childish delight in every explosion, every blow. She enjoys his pleasure.

The story behind the film is still powerful after so many years, and they are all jittery with adrenaline when it ends. There is no animosity on the fire escape tonight.

“What did you make of it, Grandma?” Buddy calls up to her. “Bet you weren’t expecting that.”

“Young man, I saw that movie when it first came out. I knew exactly what was going to happen. And guess what? It turned out just like it did the last time.”  

“Yass, Grandma,” calls down Frankie.

“Frankie, send Curtis down to see me tomorrow, you hear?”

“Sure, Grandma. I’ll tell him.”

Grandma does not stay out to rock her chair tonight. She wants to be alone in bed with her memories.

Friday

Friday, she wakes sour. She can feel the air pressure changing. Her joints ache with it. An electrical storm is coming. She hopes it brings a decent, cleansing rain. She wants the colours of the city to be clean; the stonework of the buildings French grey, the sidewalks velvety black, the trees in the far distance, brilliant green.

She opens her apartment door. She has not walked along the hallway since Saturday. She puts a brightly coloured enamelled bangle down on the floor and knocks on Rita’s door.

“What’s up, Grandma?”

“Found this when I was cleaning out a drawer. Thought you might like it.”

Rita bends and picks up the bangle. Inspects it and says with genuine appreciation, “Grandma, this is lovely. Are you sure?”

In truth, it is one of Grandma’s tiny hoard of treasures. She swallows the sourness she felt on waking and makes the words come out sweet. “After this is over, when you can go out again,” she puts the lightest emphasis on the word out, “you’ll find Mr Right, no question.”

Rita glances at her, then lowers her eyes.

“He’s out there, honey, you just need to look. And if you’re wearing my good luck bangle, he can’t fail to notice you.”

Back on the fire escape, Grandma rocks and watches the grey clouds build. The youngest of Steven’s step-daughters is crying, a whiny half-hearted effort that is pitched just right to set any adult’s teeth on edge. She is three, Grandma thinks, maybe four.

            “Will you stop that noise?” Steven’s shout is accompanied by a slap, which is followed by a scream of pure rage. The volume is extraordinary.

            Grandma rocks, but does not want to listen to this domestic drama. Equally, she doesn’t want to be forced back inside.

            They are all shouting, now. Maybe it’s cathartic, she thinks. Then, maybe not. She rocks for a full minute, considering, and climbs back inside her apartment. She looks at the walls, not seeing anything new, and picks up the phone. She hesitates, screws up her courage and hits last number recall.

“Yeah?” Steven’s voice is more ragged than usual. The volume of the background noise slamming into the phone’s cheap microphone hurts her ears.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

***

Three little girls file into her apartment, round-eyed with curiosity. The smallest one will have to stand on a chair to reach the table. This is likely to get messy.

 “Now,” she says, taking a deep breath, “the first thing we have to do is measure out the flour.”


           ***

She is still cleaning up, when Curtis knocks on her door. When she opens it and steps back, he follows her in. He is busy, impatient. Not waiting for her to get out of his way. Since they all started talking, he no longer treats her as a demented old woman. She is not one of them, exactly, but some of the distance between them, and the deference, has gone. If she wants to belong, she has to act like the way they do. She has to stand straight, move briskly, speak firmly. Keep up.

She too, has important work to do, and she is doing it right now.

Curtis runs his fingers along the back of a chair.

“What is it, Grandma? You need help with something?” Now she is becoming part of his group, he sees her as another burden, another problem to deal with.

“Yes, as a matter of fact I do, Curtis.” She watches his shoulders lift and slump as he sighs. “I want you to take this key and go down to the basement and empty out my storage space. Take whatever’s in there, I don’t care what you do with it.”

“Well, all right, Grandma. I can do that.” She can see that he is puzzled by her sudden urgency, but a lifetime of minding his own business prevents him from asking.

“Good. And once my things are out of there, you can keep the key.”

He looks at her then, a sharp glance, quick as an arrow. She half turns away from him, busying herself with straightening the tablecloth.

He doesn’t say anything for a full minute. Then he replies, his voice soft. This is his true voice. The one he uses for his family. The one he speaks to his mother with.

“Thank you, Grandma.”

She can’t help having the last word. “Man needs his space, is all.”

It is time for the last movie in their little season; the sequel to the one they watched last night. After he bangs some pan lids together to get their attention, Buddy makes a little speech. He reminds them that this is the film that received the highest number of their votes, and says he hopes they can do it all again, soon.

He reads aloud from the film guide. “This film is widely regarded as one of the rare examples of a follow-up being even better than the original.”

“Yeah, it better be,” Curtis drawls, “We ain’t forgot the Tuesday night turkey.”

Grandma half watches it, more interested in her memories than what is on the screen. By the time she saw the film the first time round, the man she loved had moved on. His activism came first, he told her. He had no time to settle down into a life of choosing drapes and raising kids. She was too conventional; not imaginative enough for him.

Because he was a man she admired, a man whom many people admired, she took this as a universal judgement, an opinion that would be shared by everyone she met. She allowed his rejection to change the natural trajectory of her life. She lowered her sights.

And now, during this time of isolation, she had spent more time with people than she had for years. And enjoyed it. She sensed the possibility of lasting change. Whether the change was in her or in the world, she was not sure. Maybe it was both.

In Short Stories: Claiming Kin

Mother. Orphaned only child of only children. Blue jeans washed to grey. Hair wild. Dun brown curls that moved in clumps.

She’d stand firm. Feet together, sentry-straight by the roadside. In the early days she leaned a small holdall against her leg. Later a small child.

Fragmentary memories of the travelling years always accompanied by the smell of old cars. Tobacco, sweat, sunburned vinyl and gasoline. The holdall and I would slide from side to side on the back seat as we rode. The map would be unfolded. And the driver would always say, well, I can’t take you all the way.

The journeys would take days, moving from car smell to car smell, interspersed with periods of waiting. Some roadsides had white painted lines to stand behind. Never to be crossed without me, baby girl. All of them had grit. There are no surviving photographs of me from that time, but I imagine a fat-legged infant playing in the dirt, making piles of roadside gravel.

We never came back to the same place we left. 

It would only be a week or two at most before she found the name of another person in another town. New kin to claim.

New doors to knock on. New faces with the same old expression: surprise, confusion, suspicion. Some of them invited us in. For a glass of water. A sandwich maybe. She said having me along helped a lot with that. 

I don’t remember the names of the people we met on those long journeys. The intricate branches of the family tree my mother was tracing were never laid on paper. 

I knew then as I know now, that some kin just don’t want to be claimed.

One heavy August day behind the white line. Never cross that line without me, baby girl. A big old white car pulled over for us. Covered in brown dust. She said, wait right here, baby as she ran ahead to the car, just like she always did. The driver opened the passenger door and she leaned into the car. Glanced at me. Then she jerked forward like she was diving into that car. Legs sticking straight out and kicking. The car started up and sped off with a squeal of tires and a spray of gravel. Door hanging open and legs hanging out. 

No kin came to claim me. Waiting behind the line.

In Short Stories: Birds of my Father

The fantail, known as piwakawaka, appeared on the day of my father’s death. He hopped along the top of the garden fence, brown and grey tail feathers erect, until I stood still and looked directly at him. He was heralding the fact. Making sure I understood that death was now in my life. He wasn’t laughing, exactly.

After that, my father took his time leaving. The sound of his voice saying my name, once, coming from the room next door. The double rap-tap on my window in the middle of the night. That one gave me a hell of a fright.

The world of death was a smear of grief and effort, of crossing time zones.

I watched obsessively for signs of him, ransacking his study, pawing at his books. But a private man is a prudent man. There were no clues, no trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

When the waxeye, the tauhou, the stranger came, he took up residence on the clothesline where the blackbird used to sit.

I was relieved in a way that the cat was also dead.

How that blackbird had tormented her in her last years, always sitting just out of reach. They would chatter at each other, cat to blackbird, blackbird to cat. The bird knew exactly how far the cat would walk before collapsing to the ground, scratching her back, collecting the fine grit of the footpath in her fur.

The waxeye’s stare oppressed me. For several days I was reluctant to leave the house and walk past it to the street.

Finally, I plucked up the courage to approach the bird. The silvery-white rings around its eyes flashed bright against the overcast sky. We stood in silence. Face to face.

Something about the way he held his head —

Reminded me.

Of.

My.

Father.

The waxeye came each day and I would wait for him, just like the cat would wait for her friend, the blackbird.

In those eyes, so dark against their silver rings, I thought I saw my father’s wisdom. Indeed, as time passed, I became convinced that the intelligence I saw in those eyes was communicating essential information for living — for my future.

We gazed into each other’s eyes, recognising each other’s truth.

The jet lag and the grief made the task of clearing my father’s house proceed in a dazed slow motion. I had no way of keeping my father’s things except for the smallest items, easily packed in a suitcase.

The books were the heaviest, and the hardest to leave. I made my selection and hoped that I had chosen wisely.

Eventually, I laid everything out before the waxeye and asked him which I should take with me. The rest would be disposed of.

The things I could not carry were taken away by strangers who sneered at the unfashionable and obsolete objects that filled my parents’ home.

The kitchen was full of unexpected memories, ready to ambush me as it emptied. The plates used every day, washed and dried and put away. The dish reserved for apple crumble. The butter knife with the mother-of-pearl handle. The baking tin for Christmas cake. The crystal bowl for fruit salad. The pavlova stand. The marmalade dish.

Finally, on the day I was due to fly home, the house was empty. I had taken the waxeye’s advice, and my suitcase was full. I knew by feel the weight of it.

I left my set of keys on the bare kitchen counter and closed the door behind me, gathering myself to say goodbye to the waxeye.

We acknowledged each other, he with his head on one side in that way so reminiscent of my childhood. I imagined he thanked me for taking such care of a lifetime held in a house.

And I understood that my father was gone.

That the waxeye was a bird, staring at me from a clothesline.

Image by J Prem from Pixabay

In Short Stories: Don’t keep the ticket in your pants

“Don’t keep the ticket in your pants,” Carla said, shrugging into her work uniform.

His hand went automatically to the pocket where the ticket was. The pants had multiple pockets in different shapes and sizes. Several of them had loops and Velcro closings.

Since he bought the pants from the hardware store, Greg found himself daydreaming about things that could be stored in the pockets.

The objects that floated into his mind excited him. He sensed that with enough effort he could create a life for himself that included items more interesting than phone, wallet and keys.

He wore the pants constantly, resenting the time they were in the wash.

The hardware store was old-fashioned. Greg had to squeeze along the narrow aisles between the shelves to find the lightbulbs or batteries he was usually looking for. He enjoyed looking at the range of power tools on display, and the rows and rows of small trays holding the nails and the screws, the electrical components and tap washers.

The cramped apartment where he and Carla lived offered little potential for home improvement. But he dreamed of one day being able to buy a fixer-upper with a garage he could turn into a workshop. Like the before and after shots you saw on YouTube. Where did they even find those bargain wrecks in the first place, he wondered.

He found nothing strange in this desire although he had taken journalism in college instead of something useful like electrical installation or plumbing. Dumb, he thought, real dumb. There was no money in journalism — probably never would be again — and the bestseller he planned to write to pay off his student debt was still half-finished. It had been sitting there untouched for more than six months, he realised. Journalism had become a side hustle; the only money he was making was from his job at Marty’s, an OK bar that showed the sports, two blocks over.

The hardware store had become a kind of playground, a refuge for men like him, drifting to thirty, watching their girlfriends start nesting, wanting children, wanting he realised, to keep things moving, to keep the momentum of life moving.

He had no desire for children. He did not want his life to move in that direction, did not have the patience required.

So he started to hang out in the hardware store. Hiding there, Carla would have said if she knew.

The pants were hanging on their own at the side of the counter, when he first saw them. The clerk, a taciturn man related in some way to the owner, was unusually expansive.

They were a late return, he said, they hadn’t stocked those pants for at least a season. But the man who bought them had died before he got the chance to wear them — still had their tags in — and when his widow brought them back, he didn’t have the heart to say no to her.

“I gave her a wrench for them. She was happy. Said her hands weren’t strong enough to undo anything her husband had tightened. Not much I can do with a single pair, though — unless you want them. Ten bucks?”

“Are dead men’s pants the same as dead men’s shoes?” Greg was joking but the clerk’s mouth tightened into a straight line.

“Suit yourself,” said the clerk. “I’ll put them back on the rail.”

Greg looked at the tag, swinging back and forth. The pants were in his size. They had reinforced knees and heavy overstitching. The sort of thing a man would wear in his workshop, if he had one. The price tag said $39.95.

“Ten bucks? Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

***

Carla showed little interest in his new pants, only commenting that it would take him a long time to check the pockets every time he washed them. She was working long hours in a bid for promotion, having long ago relinquished her own writing dreams.

The pockets fascinated Greg. The variety of items that could potentially fit into them was enormous. He dreamt strange and fascinating dreams, feeling on waking that the perfect answer had just eluded him.

The time he spent at the hardware store was more purposeful now. He spent hours in the aisles, picking and discarding items as he walked. Days passed. One afternoon he’d experimented with putting some loose change in the top right pocket. But that wasn’t the right thing at all. He dumped the coins on the counter of the drugstore next door and bought a lottery ticket, still wondering whether that old-school folding wooden ruler would be better for the long pocket on his left thigh.

When he remembered to check the lottery ticket, he was astonished. The world seemed to tilt slightly on its axis. He had the winning ticket for one of the daily prizes — it was worth five thousand dollars, more than he had earned this year.

He could hardly stand still, shivering with excitement and delight as he told Carla; then regretted it when she started listing all the utilitarian purchases, repairs and repayments they needed to make. That was after she’d checked the ticket three times just to be sure.

Greg hadn’t realised they’d let things slide so far financially. He’d been thinking about a holiday — somewhere warm, relaxing — Florida maybe or even the Bahamas. Now he realised how much of a hole they were in. He’d relied on Carla to take care of all the boring financials. That had obviously been a mistake.

They ended up quarrelling over money. Greg complaining about the their inability to get the balance on their cards down, Carla telling him he had to increase his hours at Marty’s.

He hadn’t told her that he had lost his job after calling in sick one too many times from the hardware store. Hadn’t told her yet.

Just need a little more time to find something else — surely, he could find something more lucrative than bar work.

That night he smiled as he dreamt exactly what he needed for the pockets in his pants.

Buying it all took what he had left from his last pay check plus a bit more. But that was all right. They had the winning ticket.

When Carla looked it up online, it said they had to go to a lottery centre to collect their winnings. There was one in Marquette, Carla said. She was off the day after tomorrow so maybe they could drive up there together, as long as he wasn’t working at Marty’s. Collect the money, find a great place to eat, maybe even stay the night.

“Great idea,” he said.

***

“Don’t keep the ticket in your pants,” said Carla, shrugging into her uniform. And then, “No. Please.”

As his hand went automatically into the pocket where he kept the ticket, Greg remembered he had washed the pants last night, and put them in the dryer to reduce the amount of time spent without them.

He fished out ruined pieces of paper from the pocket. Bleached white, the colour of bones, and covered in grey fluff. On one of the pieces, he could just make out the place where they had signed the back with a jet-black Sharpie. The barcode was destroyed.

He eyed Carla. Waiting for an I told you so. Waiting for confirmation that she had been right, as usual, while he was wrong. The exchange took place practically on a daily basis. He felt the familiar resentment flare into anger and then rage when he realised what they had lost.

For once, Carla was speechless. After that Please. No. she was silent. Her mouth was actually hanging open. Her eyes flicked between his face and, he realised, his crotch.

He looked down to see what she was staring at, wondering if he had left his pants unzipped. There sure as hell wouldn’t be anything else down there attracting her attention. Not these days.

His hands were moving, seemingly without his volition, so assured and practiced were his movements. It was as though he was watching someone else’s hands load and sight the gun he had bought from the hardware store. He felt smooth and easy, just like the way the ammo fitted in his pockets.

Image by KoalaParkLaundromat from Pixabay

In Short Stories: Stealing Charlotte’s Heart

Emily Jane could not be saved. Nor Anne.

But Charlotte’s heart will never be lost. Again.

When you were introduced to her, she peered up at you, as short sighted and flat-faced as a pug.

I met you once. Before.

We eyed each other. Two in-between women, like pressed flowers in a lending library book.

She had no conversation. Was not acquainted with the art of being silly and gay and entertaining. Did not know about lifting the mood of a dinner, brightening a dull drawing room. Did not have even the merest snippet of gossip to offer.

Or so you said.

She was so constrained, so naïve, she was almost impossible to be with. She would sit, quietly, away from everyone. Expecting you to do all the talking. As if she had been reared alone, isolated in a solitary tower, far from anywhere and anyone.

or

She stood no higher than your chest, so whenever she looked at you, she seemed to be looking straight into your heart. She had to tilt her head right back to meet your eyes.

or

Her own eyes were rather bulbous. She goggled at you the way a child would. She seemed in a state of almost constant surprise.

Perhaps you were.

She were a good listener, I’ll give you that. Just the sort to be creeping around a big house, watching, listening, prying. Always discovering secrets.

Didn’t matter whether you were maid nor master, she’d find you out.

I know about secrets. The secret acts between a man and a woman; the betrayals that can only come from within your own family.

I know how far we in-between women will go. And so do you, Charlotte, and so do you.

Lie still, now. I have come a long way to see you. To sit with you in your final hours. The least you can do is listen.

Listen to the true story of Claire Claremont.

We hear the voices of the dead, you and I. They swirl around us even now. They judge us harshly. I wish you could write my story, Charlotte, I really do. In your hands it would be poetry.

We start off as clever girls. Clever, perhaps, with a needle or a pen, but not clever enough to survive by elbowing our sisters out of the way.

An in-between woman would not do that.

An in-between woman lacks the strength, at the last, to overpower an inconvenient wife, a more ambitious sister. She finds herself quite suddenly displaced. Having to find employment or starve.

S—‘s first wife, poor, dear, muddled Harriet was scarcely more than a babe when she allowed him to penetrate her. Gimlet-eyed Eliza guided her every step of the way, I’m sure.

Spinster sister staying at home to look after their parents? She was old enough to be Harriet’s mother… and we have always thought —

After the elopement, Eliza never left them alone. She seized her chance and forced her way into their marriage and into their home.

Another in-between woman.

So sad for Harriet — and Eliza — that the union lasted such a short time before S— found other interests, and my sisters stole him away.

Harriet had been a respectable girl from a respectable family. Quite how she managed to drown herself in the Regent’s weed-infested duckpond, I shall never know.

And hard-faced Eliza was forced once again to move back to her father’s home to take care of him in his declining years.

A common fate for the in-between woman.

***

It had been difficult to drop Fanny. You would not have treated a sister so badly. But she had missed her first chance with him, even though he was so intrigued by the idea of a daughter of such a mother that he practically offered to buy her.

Sadly, the reality was a disappointment.

Fanny was so accustomed to being treated as second-best, that by the time she was eleven or twelve, she was frequently mistaken for one of the servants.

Looking and acting like a servant is, of course, a requirement for an in-between woman. And we did nothing to stop it.

All the girls at school believed that one day a hero would appear to raise us up in a whirl of love and money.

Fanny should have come with us on our grand adventure. But Mary refused to take her. She knew he had already overpowered Fanny, even as Mary herself was seducing him over the grave of her dead mother.

And make no mistake, it was the presence of that gravestone that aroused him to such an excess of passion.

Fanny was sent away to Wales in case there were consequences, poor little thing. Once she understood what it was that he had done to her, and that there might be a baby, she confessed all to her stepmother.

Mary was made of stronger stuff. As was I.

Fanny was my friend, and I loved her. She took her own life… she took her life after her stepfather told her he would not keep her any longer. Only Mary.

And when Mary and Claire ran away with S— they all blamed Fanny. So she lost the man who she loved and believed loved her, to her own sister, and ultimately her only home.

The consequences of any transgression by the in-between woman — or even a change in the circumstances of the household — could be severe. Even deadly. As you know only too well, Charlotte.

Mary took me with her because I wanted B— so much I had no eyes for S—. She above all, knew how fickle he was.

Oh, eventually he had me too. He was perpetually randy, like a little dog constantly thrusting himself against your skirts. In that crowded smoky cottage, full of babies and death, it was difficult to avoid him.

He would put his lips to my ear so that his voice quivered against my skin. “You let Him,” he would say, over and over. “You let Him, so why not me? Why not? Why not?”

In the end , the constant importuning wore out your refusals. It was easier to simply say, ‘Yes, Sir’, and let him put it in. There was no pleasure in it.

He spoke so earnestly, so publicly about the truthfulness of love. The freedom of love. But he was careful not to let Mary see what he was doing.

She knew. How could she not?

What I chiefly remember of it now, was the dampness of his hands and the wideness of his eyes, as he stared at me, even while he was doing it. He actually held my head between those wet palms so that I was forced to meet his gaze. Of my own physical sensations I have no recollection. His wife, my mistress, turned me out once I started to show and that was that.

So in the end I gave in. The first time, I felt nothing truly, except regret that I had allowed him to persuade me, and terror of being discovered by Mary. It was all over in an instant and I was left leaning against the kitchen wall with S— gasping against my throat. Whereas B—

Well, let me tell you this. Your hero, your lord of the imagination, took my virginity as perfunctorily as a chore to be got through, no more.

We were mad for him, of course. Who wouldn’t be? The greatest poet of our age or any other.

The terror of all the secret arrangements, the shabby room at the inn, the travelling there and the travelling home again. I was breathless with excitement before he laid a finger on me.

There were no murmured endearments. At least he was honest enough not to pretend there was any affection between us.

He was very fat at that time, Charlotte. He panted like a dog. And all the while he told me how much he despised me. A heavy pompous man lying atop a virgin.

I was prone to giggling, to helpless, undignified mirth in those days. I giggled then, as he told me how ugly my heavy breasts were, and turned me to lie on my front, sure he was only teasing, in his cold imperious voice.

We, who knew him in that way (and some rather better than others), knew that he liked his women titled and illiterate, and his boys pretty and slight.

Despite my plumpness and laughter he had no difficulty finishing within minutes. He did it with a sort of nasal bray, like a little donkey. Any pleasure I felt was all in my head. My bodily pleasure had barely begun when it was over.

Of course, he took no precautions, so there was a baby on top of all the other secrets.

I was not terrified, like Fanny; I was exhilarated. I exulted in carrying the poet’s child. To a girl like me, undistinguished daughter of a very ordinary mother, the baby was enough. Enough to get over the hurt of his rejection. His cruelty. The pain of the birth.

He commanded that one of the babes be taken to a convent where I believe there already resided a half-brother and at least one half-sister, none of them formally acknowledged. We shall probably never know the true number.

Mary was always trying to send me away, S— always bringing me back. Although I did not know it then, it was the first subtle sign that I was to become an in-between woman myself.

When the end came, it was a shocking, needless, wasteful death. They all were.

You and I have had so much grief in our lives, Charlotte.

She refused to have me in the house, shouting that I should instead ask B— for money. He refused that as he refused all my requests.

She said that I was not her sister by blood and had no claim on her. That Fanny was her only sister and Fanny was dead.

How cruel a repudiation of all that we had been through together.

***

In desperation, I concealed my past and any association with them.

For the wealthy families of St Petersburg, a woman calling herself governess who could speak good French and English was much sought after. So much so that many of them were employed after the most cursory of enquiries. We know of several who caused their employers much trouble.

In truth the children in my care learned little, but I took care always to be gay, always amusing. I earned my place at the family’s table. But it was hard work, and not without its dangers.

I implored Mary to rescue me from the indignities of being an in-between woman, but she would not.

The truth is, lords and masters do not marry besotted governesses, still less their cowed maids. They take advantage of them.

As Mary obtained a comfortable living from S—‘s family, from his life and works, my fury increased. She wrote about him. She did not mention me.

She kept his heart in a silk bag, wrapped in a poem, in her writing desk so that he would always be near her. Of course, there was speculation that the bag actually contained his liver.

I wanted that silk bag.

Imagine my horror when I discovered, too late, that she had died and no one thought to tell me.

That they should deny me, refuse to tell me of my own sister’s death. And, most hurtful of all, to keep that which should have come to me. To me, as the last survivor of that summer on the lake.

I had so little money, and what little I had, I spent on bribing the sexton to dig her up.

The family denied it, but she was buried with the little bag next to her heart. I have them both.

Just as I have B—‘s heart in a purse of hard leather.

Emily Jane’s heart would in some ways have been the choicest of all. But I did not learn of her death until much too late.

That tragic and short-lived marriage to such a hard-handed dolt reduced her cachet, as Mrs Gaskell so acutely perceived. She was no longer the virgin in the vicarage… her passion no longer… pent.

They require a fourth, a female heart, and they have asked for yours, dear Charlotte. They desire your creative force.

or

Rejoice, you are near death, but you will join the immortals.

or

I’ve always been clever with a knife.

***

Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

In Short Stories: THE CLOCKMAKER AND THE SWAN

“Of course, nothing will happen,” said the Archbishop’s special envoy, although his left eyelid twitched and a large boil had sprouted on his sallow neck above the expensive white lace.

“Nothing will happen,” he repeated for emphasis, “but the Archbishop desires to have his palace clock and the Pražskÿ Orloj strike six at exactly the same instant — and then he wants some bell ringing. Possibly some cannon fire…

“It is extremely important that the Archbishop’s clock is seen to show the correct time, and that all is well before we sit down to breakfast.”

Jan Kilian knew for a fact that for all his fine ways, the priest had come up from rural Odolina Voda. He had seized the opportunity to climb very high.

“Thank you, your Grace,” he replied dutifully, suppressing a groan as he picked up his wooden toolbox and rose to his feet, knees aching.

He left the envoy’s office and walked back through the vast halls of the palace, passing men wearing the capes and high-crowned hats of foreign cities, arguing excitedly in Viennese and several other languages, with many Latin words he recognised thrown in. He would have liked the opportunity to converse with them but there was no time for talk.

Lately he had made the journey to the Archbishop’s palace daily, with many stops along the way to adjust the clocks in his care. His head was full of clicking and clacking, clappers striking, bells pealing and tolling — he heard them day and night – the sound ran through his dreams.

Even with his five sons, good men all, he could not meet the city’s demand for accuracy. According to the people of Prague it had never been more important to know, to the pars minuta prima, the correct time, the exact hour.

So, the six of them were hurrying through the streets, from castle to church, palace to townhouse, mending, adjusting, replacing. A nudge here, a crimp there. They climbed stairs and ladders into clock towers and belfries, frequently crawling across rough-hewn rafters, gathering splinters along the way.

The largest, most important, machines were reserved for Jan Kilian as the city’s most senior clockmaker. Although at his age he lacked the physical strength to effect major repairs alone.


After all, the weight suspended from the Pražskÿ Orloj exceeded one hundred and eighty pounds. These days, he supervised the winding when he could. It took two strong men to wind the ropes around the capstan and they worked with care under his stern oversight.

Normally, Jan Kilian loved the clock; loved the lung-bursting two hundred and seventeen steps it took to reach it; loved the brutal wrought iron strength of the ancient machines driving it. Loved especially the precision of the engraving on the astrolabe and the orderly movements of the stars and planets it illustrated.

He had looked after the Pražskÿ Orloj for more than forty-two years — two-thirds of his life — they represented but a brief moment in the clock’s remarkable history.

Now, as May turned into June, he felt as though this clock and all the others in the city were crushing him under the weight of their tics and flaws. For weeks his workshop had been overwhelmed with notes demanding his services. Clock owners crammed into his shopfront every morning or sent their servants, shouting commands — beseeching, begging, threatening. He missed his Jewish customers, prudently remaining behind locked doors.

Adjust the clocks! Fix time! We must have accuracy, there is no room for error!

Decades ago, under mad King Rudolph, the city had been a magnet for charlatans and tricksters, the merely deluded and the simply mad. Astrologers and Magicians, Alchemists and Sorcerers, Fortune-Tellers and Wizards could be seen on every corner. Even now, after all the troubles and reversals, the new faces in power, the old ones wouldn’t go away. They had brought a feverish belief in omens to the city and it had spread among the townspeople like a sickness.

Jan Kilian was a man of numbers, of mechanical precision. He had no time for visions and portents. He had lost count of the number of signs that had been reported in recent weeks: falling stars, fleeing rats, florins lost and ducats found, ghosts seen walking along the castle walls.

No. He was sure in his gut that six ante meridiem on the sixth day of June — this briefly palindromic moment — would be followed, as usual, by seven ante meridiem.

He recited silently in his head his own, dangerous, catechism: Hell is not going to open up and engulf the sinners. God is not going to appear and fly the saved up to Heaven. This outrageous statement was always followed quickly by: What is the sign of a true Catholic? The cross.

Everything would continue just as it always had.

If only the people of Prague shared his certainty, then they wouldn’t put such terrible pressure on the Pesina family to mend their clocks.

Even his unmarried granddaughters, lovely girls all, had been quietly pressed into service. They sat in the back rooms and worked on ornate carriage clocks and watches brought in by worried owners. Their delicate fingers were ideally suited to the work and it was safe as long as no one saw them doing it. After all, they deserved to find good husbands.

As he trudged back over the bridge towards the Klementinum, a swan floated past him.

He recognised it as the one always getting in the way of the riverboats, causing general annoyance, and seemingly uncatchable. He felt in his pocket for a crust and threw it at the swan, not much caring where it landed. The swan caught the bread with a neat snap of its beak. The sun seemed to glow with extra intensity behind its head.

“Thank you, Jan Kilian,” said the swan. It had a shrill voice like steam escaping from a kettle. The voice tickled unpleasantly at the back of his head.

“You’re welcome,” said Jan Kilian automatically. He glanced around furtively to see whether this had attracted notice. He was relieved to see that no one was paying any attention to him at all.

It was a warm evening — beautiful, in fact. The kind of evening he would have relished as a younger man. The kind of evening made for elegantly attired citizens to stroll along the golden streets. If he hadn’t been so busy, he would have enjoyed sitting in his courtyard with a glass of good wine, watching the sun go down. Instead, he was walking across the bridge, with many clocks left to adjust, speaking to a talking swan.

“Jan Kilian, have you ever considered that it might all be true?”

“What are you talking about, Swan?”

“That the world might end as soon as the hand of the clock touches the six.”

“No. Now go away before I decide to roast you for my dinner.”

The swan paddled a little further out of reach. “What will they do to you, if you fail to make the clocks strike at the same time?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“This town is bad for clockmakers. Stay away from windows, Jan Kilian, and protect your eyes,” the swan glided away from him. “Just sayin’…”


Jan Kilian finally reached the sprawling halls and towers of the Klementinum and its wondrous library, still pondering the vividness of his daydream on the bridge and the strange way the bird had of speaking. Talking swans? Ridiculous.

The monks at the university had been generous with their knowledge once they recognised the depth of Jan Kilian’s skill and dedication. He had formed a deep friendship with Father Tomasz, the cleverest man in Bohemia. He looked forward to visiting the old priest and reading the letters he received from other men of great learning throughout the world.

“Prophecies and malignant dreams, old wives’ tales, predictions and prognostications all will come true,” read Father Tomasz from a pamphlet so recently printed he could smell the ink.

“A strange greeting, Father.”

“Strange times, friend. We are men of science, are we not? We study calendar-making and astronomy, telescopes and microscopes, geometry, hydraulics and geography.”

“Yes, indeed. We give no credence to mischievous reports of signs and visions.”

The monk threw the pamphlet on to the fire and absent-mindedly wiped his ink-stained fingers on his robe. “I understand that you had an audience with the Archbishop’s special envoy today?”

“He wants to make sure that the Archbishop’s clock and the Pražskÿ Orloj both strike six at exactly the same instant. ‘To display authority in the matter of the sixth hour of the sixth day,’” he mimicked the envoy accurately.

“But you will take the time from the sundial at the top of the Klementinum’s observatory?”

“Oh, yes, Father. The Archbishop’s man has still not correctly aligned his sundial.”

“And therefore, his clock is not quite the authority he thinks it is.”

Jan Kilian shook his head. “No, Father. The ancient one is still more accurate.” He leaned wearily on the sturdy old table. “You know there will be a complete cacophony of strikes and clappers and bells from all the clocks in Prague. Some will be early and some will be late, just as they always are.

“Then there are plans to fire a cannon or two, to add to the noise, which will be indescribable. There will be general bell-ringing and kettle-bashing as soon as the two main clocks strike the hour, and general ringing in our ears for two days after that.”

“Both clocks are inaccurate. How do you propose to make them strike at the same time?”

“My oldest, Vilem, has been working to find two clocks that run closely in tandem. We’ll set one in each clocktower at midnight, wind them and let them run. My sons will help hold back the hands of the Archbishop’s clock and the Pražskÿ Orloj until as near to the sixth hour as we can, then let them strike simultaneously.”

“Admirable. And you have no concerns?”

“No, Father. We have also taken the precaution of setting sundials within view. The sun will rise just before the fifth hour. There will be no doubt. ”

The old Jesuit peered at him. He was so close that Jan Kilian could see the pupils in his milky blue eyes and the red veins across his cheeks.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

How well did he really know Father Tomasz? Jan Kilian took a half-step backwards, half-formed thoughts and questions pounding at his temples. Wanting to trust him, to believe.

As a youth, he had seen twenty-six good men die for their beliefs. Guards had herded the townspeople into the Old Town Square and forced them to stand and watch in shocked silence as the executioner did his work. It had taken four hours and four swords to behead them all, the bodies left where they fell. The blood seeped through the raw boards of the newly-erected wooden stage and fell to the ground below, lapping around the base of the enormous wooden crucifix positioned at the front of the platform.

He had never seen so much blood. Even now, so many years later, he was unable to cross the square without the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. The event had made him curb his tongue — until now.

“Jan Kilian?”

He took a deep breath. If he was to die, he would die having asked the question.

“It’s not the hour, Father, we know the hour — take it from the sun and as long as the dials are properly aligned, it’s always right. But what about the date?

“We’ve been using Pope Gregory’s calendar for more than eighty years. Now, I’m not arguing with his Holiness — of course not — but how do we know that in the sixteen hundred and sixty-six years since the birth of the Christ child, someone didn’t miss a day, or even a week? What if the actual sixth day of June was yesterday — or next month? How would we know?”

He closed his eyes waiting for the Jesuit’s response.

There was a long pause before Father Tomasz replied. “We are men of faith as well as reason, Jan Kilian. We can’t know: we have to believe. That is the truth.”

Warm relief flooded his body. “Yes, Father. Thank you… and Father?”

“Yes?”

“What do you know about swans?”


It seemed the swan was waiting for him. It had been resting by the riverbank with its head under a wing and now it glared at him side-on from one black eye. Jan Kilian tried to hurry past without looking at it.

“Don’t mess up, now,” it said. “Tick-tock.”


Early the next morning, Jan Kilian and his sons climbed the two hundred and seventeen worn, uneven, steps to the Pražskÿ Orloj, the day’s heat already rising. His heart pounded with the exertion.

It would take three of them to stop each clock. He prayed they would be able to start them again.

Jan Kilian continued to breathe heavily. He worried about the possible damage they could be about to inflict on the ancient machine. His youngest, Hans, built like an ox and not very bright, braced himself to take the weight and stop it from falling. Mattias, his next youngest and much cleverer son, was also wedged into the tight space under the clock, rope in hand to help pull.

Jan Kilian climbed above them, perching on a short, unsteady ladder, which enabled him to reach over into the innards of the clock. Giant black wheels with viciously sharp teeth rotated below him.

None of the men had slept well. During their walk through the darkened city they could see that the people had been awake all night, feasting or praying, making love or beating their wives, holding their children close or sitting alone, drinking themselves senseless. The queues for confession wound out of the churches and into the streets as the priests tried to deal with a sudden, urgent, demand for absolution.

Vilem and his brothers had shaken hands with their father before they parted to cross the bridge and climb up to the Archbishop’s palace. There was much gentle banter amongst the younger men.

Almost as if we were going to war.


Jan Kilian watched one of Vilem’s chosen clocks balanced on the beam in front of him. The mechanism was a marvel and he was proud of the skill it had taken to produce. The pendulum will be next, he thought. But I am not the man to put a pendulum on the Pražskÿ Orloj. That will take a younger man. A man who is ready to stand up to the city fathers and insist on modernisation. I am too old, and I like my Pražskÿ Orloj just the way it is.

He knew this to be true, even though when Father Tomasz first showed him a diagram of a pendulum, bought at great cost, his entire body lit up in an explosion of joy. The drawing was so right, so beautiful, he felt he had always known the truth it revealed.

Vilem and Mattias were secretly working on new mechanisms, fully aware that the Church did not automatically accept innovations. Hans had not understood the mathematical calculations involved and probably never would. But he was a good father and would be happy enough to learn to set up a pendulum without having to know how it worked.

It was time.

“Now, lads,” he called.

Hans and Mattias reached down through the trapdoor and took the strain of the ropes suspending the enormous weight. The clock stopped moving the instant the weight was no longer turning the wheel. Jan Kilian carefully moved the ancient hour-hand into position at the number six.

Each man held his breath and waited, sweating quietly in the stifling heat of the clocktower.

I am a man of punctuality and order, of verges and escapements, of the click and the clack.

Jan Kilian looked at the huge cogwheels of the clock, now still. The sun pierced the narrow arrow slits and cast a single beam across the yellow hair of his sons, waiting below.

For a moment he allowed himself to imagine the world ending. Would God really tear apart the fabric of sky and stars and cast all the sinners into Hell? Or would he stand aside, delegating the work to a pack of demons who, presumably, would relish it? He thought of all the sins he had committed in the course of his long life. Minor, petty things — occasions when he had not behaved as well as he should — mild criticisms of the Church, rarely voiced, but thought. And the occasional tiny, timid doubt about whether, in the end, it really mattered how the people of Bohemia worshiped God, for all the notice he appeared to take.

Besides, weren’t the sinners always other people?

An unexpected image of the Blessed Virgin entered his head. Jan Kilian was a man uncomfortable in the presence of women but he had always appreciated Mary’s even temper, her passivity, her apparent lack of desire. She did not clatter around the kitchen or bustle through the house commanding and demanding. The image intensified, strangely oppressive. It was as if he could not unsee it. Eyes closed or open, she filled his vision and his head to bursting point.

The pressure moved to his chest, his lungs filled. His heart made a strange crump-crumping sound, rather than the strong regular beat he was used to. He struggled to catch his breath.

Then Mary faded and the world went black.

Was this it? Was this really the end? In the dark? He wasn’t going to die, surely? He was so busy, he had so many things to do!

He was terrified, unable to move, unable to breathe. His mind gabbled idiotic prayers — don’t let it hurt, hide, hide, please don’t kill me!

“Father!” Mattias’s voice, so faint and far away. “Father! It must be time — we’re going to lower the weight!”

“No, don’t,” croaked Jan Kilian, his voice a dry thread in the darkness. “Please don’t!”

He knew they couldn’t hear him. His precious sons were not sinners. He dared to pray that they were among the saved, using the words of his childhood.

And then immediately apologised.

Blessed Mother, please don’t let Him come!

Mattias and Hans grunted with effort as they slowly and gently lowered the weight until once again, it was pulling the rope on the capstan. The cogs and wheels started moving, roughly coming together at first with a horrible screech of metal on metal, then eventually fitting together cleanly.

The clapper struck one… two… three… The bells roared.

On the fourth strike, Jan Kilian’s vision began to clear, his breathing eased slightly. He could hear other clocks nearby striking, bells ringing, people shouting.

Five — the noise intensified as the townspeople used whatever they could to make a noise to drive out the Devil — and six!

The evil minute passed. The hour hand moved a fraction. The cannons fired. The people outside cheered and screamed with a wild joy not normally heard from the sedate inhabitants of Prague.

The weight lifted from his chest but he was weak — so weak he could hardly stand — and deafened by the clamour inside and out. His head ached with the waves of noise beating against his skull.

Mattias and Hans clapped each other on the shoulder, laughing with relief. They reached up to help Jan Kilian down the ladder.

Through the arrow slit he saw something madly flapping outside the clock-tower and, at first, thought it was a flag. Then he saw sunlight bouncing off the tips of brilliantly white wing feathers.

“Told you,” hissed the swan inside his head.

“You did not! You did not tell me anything!” he bellowed, outraged, but shockingly no sound came out. He tried to take another step up the creaking ladder and his legs wobbled.

“Later!” laughed the swan and flew away.

Jan Kilian could see Mattias and Hans looking up at him in bewilderment as his legs buckled. He could not explain about the swan, about the Virgin Mary, about any of it.

He staggered, lost his balance — arms flailing for something to cling to — and fell, headlong into the workings of the ancient clock.