Fantasy

Clockwork

By Trent Jamieson
4,271 words · 16-minute reading time
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Clockwork

Trent Jamieson

 

"Horologe, I'm dying."

"No you're not, Mr Nod. I -"

"Don't you look at that watch! Don't you DARE look at that watch."

 

Horologe 18 - Razors and Rivers

 

The light comes on. Ashley’s caught me at it again. Her lips purse with disappointment and I cannot meet her gaze nor stop the flush creeping up my neck and across my cheeks.

The pencil in my hand is slick with sweat. Sweat has streaked the page I'm working on, though I’d not noticed until then. Even in the dark I can draw the citadel, just as I can feel it hundreds of kilometres away, across the State border; my dreadful Mecca. The paper is laid out on the desk. The different clock faces given their –- now smeared -- time relative to their companions.

"It has to stop, Michael. You have to stop doing this."

"I don't know if I can." The pencil snaps, digs into my hand, but fails to break the skin, even in this I am not up to the task.

"Then see someone."

"Who? Whocan I see?" I realise I am raising my voice. One of the kids stirs.

Ashley's touch, when it comes, is light, and her kisses soft, hesitant, then stronger; lingering, almost catching me.

I pull away.

"Not now. I'm nearly done, it's almost finished."

But we both know I am not. The final Horologeis as far from completion as ever, stalled on a moment, as I am stalled.

I look into her eyes and see not hurt but clocks, second-hands dancing, racing, winding down.

"Where are you?" she whispers. "Where have you gone?"

We both know the answer. I grit my teeth and smile. "Not now, my love. I don't have time. I--"

Ashley, patient Ashley. She puts a finger to my lips, draws me close. I know this dance, but I am awkward at first. She holds me tightly and I can feel her tears on my neck, an accusation, an outpouring of love.

“I have an idea,” she says.

 

 

We pulled into the lookout, and it rose above the engine noise, invaded the silence that filled the car; whispered damningly in my skull. Even in the car park, at least a kilometre away from the citadel, the great machinery could be heard, its ticking clear.

Ticking, yes, but such ticking, it contained far too much of the clicking of crickets or the dry scrapings of bones. Though I was later to have a more intimate knowledge of its gears, escapements, balances, main springs, palettes, and wheels through schematics in popular mechanical magazines –- bought guiltily as though they were porn -- that was how I always imagined the sound; nothing mechanical about it, just the dry insectile rasping of bone upon bone.

"Stretch your legs?"

Dad's voice was odd, his eyes slightly unfocused. It was the first time he had spoken since we had started driving.

I nodded and got out the car.

The air was heavy with the fragrance of shadows, of fields given over to moon and stars. Night was coming and the citadel seemed to call it on.

This was long ago, when I was five, predating the citadels transformation into a fetishistic and kitschy tourist destination. Before anyone had even considered constructing a Giftshop of Time or the Chronometrical Museum. Before everything was branded and logofied. Not even a single streetlamp to disturb the coming evening with the gaudiness of light.

They had yet to tar these roads or even bother over-much with grading them. The drive was long and dusty and everything was possessed with the kind of hyper-reality that precedes a migraine.

My head ached and my stomach was knotted with a bilious vertigo soon to uncoil -- and violently -- but I couldn't tell my father.

I really didn't know what to say. We were a collection of silences even then.

Mum had always spoken for us. But she was dead and I felt sick and we were here and I didn't know why.

And I don't think Dad did either.

We looked into the valley filling up with night and then something shuddered within my father. I stared up at him and watched a shadow cross his face, a deep grief indistinguishable from cruelty.

He picked me up and put me on his shoulders and walked towards the concrete steps leading down into the valley.

And with every stride the clocks grew louder, and the stars spun sickeningly above me in time with all that ticking. I struggled for a while, finally giving up; my head ached too much. Simply blinking made me nauseous.

We descended. Down into the valley. Down into darkness and across the valley floor until we were next to the citadel. Until all I could hear were the clocks. My heart pounded, trying to match a cacophony of time.

Dad pushed my hand against the metal and I felt it as I heard it. Clocks, cold and restless and hungry. Creatures caged, but caged inadequately.

Dad lowered me to the ground and walked away and something hanging from the nearest buttress brushed my head.

 

The Clockwork citadel was built during the Depression and finished on the eve of the Second World War, when countries had tumbled to madmen and old leaders wept and realised how badly they had fared. The citadel's architect, Malachy Van Nurrish, an eccentric millionaire, hanged himself that night, from the Western buttress -- a spider leg of steel spanning half the valley. A minor player in the League of Nations, he could not bear to see it come undone.

I don't think there is a more wonderful piece of work, at least not in the Southern Hemisphere. A sizeable chunk of Van Nurrish's millions were used in its construction. The finest craftsmen from Germany, Austria and Switzerland were employed.

And they made a marvel. I have spoken to engineers and every one of them agrees that it could not be built today, the art and craft of the thing is lost and such horology is beyond us.

Einstein's theories of relativity were a little over thirty years old and they had gripped Van Nurrish like a madness.

Time is not static but fractured and warped, dependent on so many factors. None of the clocks on the citadel ran to local time. Some ran faster, others slower. On the Eastern wall there is a clock that will take over a thousand years to make a circuit, barely three minutes have passed since its assembly.

In sunlight it is the colour of rust-- that thousand-year circuit would, in all likelihood, never be completed. A great iron edifice from which project five spiralling buttresses and at the base of each, and all over the tower, are clockfaces, each declaring a different time from its siblings and none of them correct.

For none can be correct. But, then again, none are actually incorrect either.

I have only seen it once and still it marks me. All that noise, all that ticking. And still I can feel it, sense it against my skin, from that multitude of weathered casements time passes, washes out on to the world.

And it cannot be stopped.

 

 

I started writing comics when I was ten, and he was there from the beginning.

Mr Time, the Chronoman and, finally, Horologe. I filled dozens of scrapbooks with his adventures.

At first he had been an avuncular old man, guiding his companion, Mr Nod, in their battle against crime. But then Mr Nod died and Horologe transformed into something darker, colder. His watch would mark out the minutes to his opponent's destruction. In his eyes the very world ran down and time and death became his enemies.

I don't know what Dad thought of it, he never told me. But he tolerated my dreams as long as I kept at my schoolwork and I got up at four to help him move the cows to the milking yard from paddocks that wore their mist like tattered rags.

When I sold my first strip to a fanzine called Martyr and, a few months later, convinced the editors of a metal zine called Archole to give me a semiregular spot, I think Dad was proud.

Horologe with his dusty black hair, his gaunt and tired face -- eyes haunted and heavy with loss.

His secret hideout was, of course, based on the clockwork citadel.

"What is time, gentlemen, but decay? And your plans are run down. Just like this WATCH"

"Horologe, TIME is all I need to play this out."

"And time you shall NOT have."

"And yet it is TOO LATE. Your wife is dead. Ah! Do I see a slight tick of emotion there. Has the Hanging Man made you cry.

"I KILLED her and even you cannot turn back the clock, and should you, could you. It would still already be TOO LATE for you.

"In your HEADyou will have always failed her. Whatever happens now, her death is the CAUSATION of it all. A knotted ROPE twisting in your mind. Time must have a beginning, don't you think, and what is better than my beautiful wickedness?"

"Horologe, this TIME I have won."
 

Horologe 29 - Causation Agents

 

"It's what, a seven hour drive?" Ashley’s eyes shine with this sudden conviction.

We can't go there. I can't.

"Yes." But in my mind it is a flickering of eyelids away: a ticking beacon waiting to pour into my head.

"We've got to go there?"

"And when do we have time?"

"Now, we are getting in the car. Right now and we are going."

Such impulsiveness. I have to say yes.

"No."

Ashley's lips tighten.

"Not this time." She grabs my shoulders and shakes hard. "We are going now. This has to stop. You'll never finish until you face it."

I smile weakly. "You drive first."

"Then you wake up the kids."

They are excited, of course. I pile them into the back of the car.

We're on the highway in half an hour and at this time of night it's as though it was made for us alone. In the dim light I stare at Ashley. My wife is so beautiful.

Her face is etched in my mind and I know its lines and dips. I've sketched the curve of her chin a thousand times, I've felt the weight and light of her eyes, and know all of their possibilities. Or think I do until she suddenly surprises me with something new. And now it is strong with resolve, with a purpose I can only marvel at.

 

 

 

But I lie if I say I have never been there since. Some places you visit in dreams again and again. Some places visit you. Fourteen and it found me.

I stood knee deep in grass, brittle, yellowing, summer grass. The citadel rose above me, its clockwork beat roaring in my head; gears and wheels rumbling, ticking, tocking, groaning under the weight of all that time.

On the furthest buttress from me, though I dare not look, I knew he would be there, a single figure hanging, broken-necked, spinning in short circles, dancing on the dry hot wind.

And because I was doomed, because the dream was a tide and inevitability, I walked towards the citadel.

When I was near, so close that I could almost touch it, the ground shook and the brass doors at the tower's base flung open like the wings of an iron dragon and I stared into the guts of the machine.

What I saw was all gleaming carapace and legion, and it came pouring out. A cloud of razor-jawed insects their wings beating in time with the clocks. And on the dry wind they raced -- hungry as time is hungry -- towards me.

I woke my bones rattling in my skin, my heart clenched and stung with adrenalin.

And I was shuddery with the realisation that I would die. That my life was finite and my heart would beat only so many times.

I pulled myself out of bed and staggered to the mirror and my murky reflection there. My body was lean, my arms smooth, but in the half-light of night, everything was grainy, like an old photograph. Everything was drained of life and I could not see my eyes, just the bare outline of a face that in the dark could be anyone's.

In my coffin, I thought, it would be darker than this and the darkness would melt my features and I would not know peace, just nothingness. Nothingness forever. Filled with that cold, unspoken inevitability, I sat down, cupped my face in already hardening hands and cried.

Four o'clock in the morning, in the greasy, uncertain light, I worked with Dad. And we worked in silence.

I wanted to ask him, to tell him everything about my dream, about the cruel truth gripping me.

But I didn't say a word.

 

It's simple really.

I am always in that car, on my way back from the citadel. And Dad is always beside me, driving the car in his capable way. And though we can't talk it doesn't matter. And though Dad left me alone in the dark, we are here now and the citadel is a hundred kilometres behind us.

For a few years at least Dad's are perfect.

On the way back -- my head full of ticks and tocks and the world narrowed down to the space between the headlights and the green, radioactive glow of the dashboard -- we almost hit a roo.

Dad swerved and slid momentarily out of control. But he was Dad and he brought the car out of its fishtail, I looked back and the roo was standing in the middle of the road, oblivious to how close it had come to death.

 

 

I left the farm when I was nineteen. It ate Dad up, but he did not say a word. Just wished me well as we sat on the porch, drinking beer and looking over all I had turned my back on.

"We've got some good hands on now. But you'll be missed by some of the younger ones. You'll be back for Christmas?"

"Yeah."

But I was back much sooner than that.

Dad did not last the year. I can picture him there in the quiet of his room, looking over the test results one more time. Did he think about time, did he think about it running down?

He put the gun to his lips and...

 

Dad had left me a note. Simple, straightforward. And as maddeningly enigmatic as he was.

 

Goodbye.

 

I hadn't even known he was sick.

I sold the farm, I could not bear to face the ghosts it held. I thought it would be enough.

 

 

 

Ashley is driving and, guiltily, I fall asleep. A dream finds me, I am sure it was following the car, waiting for this moment, waiting for me to fall into it.

I am in a bathroom the colour of a migraine, alone but for footsteps fading away. I call out, no-one responds and soon the footfalls are gone.

Something is ticking. The noise hurts my head. Filling me with such terrible pain that I have to find it. I open the first toilet stall door. Nothing. The second one, and yet again, nothing.

One by one, I open the doors until I get to the last. The ticking grows louder. I am certain the source of my agony lies behind this door. I take a deep breath and kick it open.

The stall is empty.

Then I taste blood. I cannot breathe, my throat is tight with fear.

I cough, dislodging an enormous clot that shatters on impact with the white tiles.

Then the floodgates open and I fall retching onto my hands and knees.

Blood. There is more, surely, than one body can contain, but it is all mine. And I see the blood for what it is; thousands of tiny cogs and wheels.

Clockwork.

 

 

There is money to be made in anything, if you are industrious, if you possess a certain talent and a lot of luck. Horologe never made me much, just enough to live off - which, believe me, in this industry isa lot. He also gave me a certain reputation.

I wore my black leather jacket. Attended just enough cons to keep the work coming and ghosted my way through the nineties.

And selling the farm gave me enough money to not have to worry about much financially.

I met Ashley at a con. I don't think she had read a comic in her life. She worked at the Brisbane Convention centre and we bumped into each other at a café. Literally. By the time I had wiped coffee off my jacket, and gotten up, red-faced, to help, I was already offering to buy her another and she was already saying yes.

I ducked out of two panels that evening. We both loved The Pixies, our favourite movie was "The Wizard of Oz". I thought she was beautiful and she laughed at my jokes.

We were dating seriously by the end of the month. I proposed within six.

I had never been so certain about anything in my life. I never wanted kids until I knew her.

My sketchbooks were littered with clocks and the spiny form of the citadel. But I could hide it as work. Horologe's base and then the Tickers in my children's books.

But such obsessions cannot be hidden for long; the greater the subterfuge the more fragile the secret. 

When Ashley first walked in on me drawing the clockfaces, over and over, I felt guilty as though she had caught me masturbating.

"What are you doing?"

"Drawing. This, it's what I do when I can't think. It calms me. Keeps the writer's block at bay."

Ashley smiled, but it stopped at her eyes as she reached for a tissue and put it to the side of my face. It came away wet.

I brought my fingers up and touched my damp skin, had I been drooling or weeping?

 

 

 

"Ticking. Tocking, counting down. How long did it take you to walk these halls?" asked Ticker 7.

"12 minutes," Edmund said, not understanding how that would help him find his father.

"Ho Ho! Ha Ha! That's where humans always fail. 12 minutes and five point two seconds. You'll never be a Ticker, Edmund, if you ignore the seconds and all gradations of."

"That's why I need the Timepiece."

"And that's why we will help you!"

 

The Twelve Tickers of Tasmania

 

 

 I don't see the roo until the last minute, because all I can think about lies two hours in the future. It is a creature sprung whole out of the darkness, conjured up by my headlights, and all I can do is swing the wheel sharply to the right.

Tyres squeal, lock up and, for a moment, the wheel is a dead thing in my hands.

A moment pinned on forever, until I'm back in control, and the roo is past and both of us are lucky to be alive. I glance in the rearview mirror, but the night has already claimed the creature, there are nothing but shadows behind me.

I take a deep breath, slow the car right down and look over at Ashley, she's opening sleep-heavy lids. From her obvious lack of reaction I'm not even sure if what happened actually happened.

"Not far to go now."

She pats my leg and falls back asleep.

"That was close," a voice says, from behind me.

"Yeah, don't tell your mother."

"Tell, mum what?" Ashley asks.

Chris yawns. "Nothing. Just boy stuff."

I wink into the rearview mirror.

"Yeah, just boy stuff," I say.

 

 

 

And it just kept getting worse. Every day I would catch myself drawing the clocks. Every night the citadel would come to me in my dreams. And the happier I was the more terrible it became.

I had a woman I loved, and two children, two wonderful children and all I could do was wonder how long we had. How many minutes there might be left to us.

When Confluence Comics picked up the Horologe series for twenty more issues, it made it worse. I hooked them with the promise that by the end, Horologe's journey would be done, and they would own a small piece of comic book history.

I had to finish the series. I had to do something else, but I couldn't. I couldn't find an ending, only clocks. Clocks running down, deadlines that I couldn't get a handle on.

And like father, like son. I couldn't say a word just drifted further and further from my family.

 

 

The gravel growls as we pull into the lookout, and there below us is the citadel. Everyone is asleep, morning is still little more than a murk in the sky and I pull the car to a very gentle halt.

I stare at my family, sleeping, then down at the tower. I'm out quickly, shutting the door quietly behind me. And then I can hear it.

The citadel is a plug of darkness below. The power must be out but, then, I knew it would be. I don't even notice until his hand is in mine.

"Dad?"

Something hangs from the Western buttress, down where I had stood as a child, in the dark abandoned to time; it could be a banner torn free by the wind or it could be a man.

"Dad?"

He grips my hand tightly and begins to lead me to the steps. Mutely I follow.

Down we go, into the ticking, unabated for thirty years. Sinking into time.

Before I know it we are there.

"Here's what you wanted. Here's what you're afraid of."

I look down and realise that the kid is not Chris. I look down and see my own six-year-old face. I push my hand against the metal and it is throbbing and hungry. Something brushes against my shoulder.

A foot. Van Nurrish stares down dead-eyed and then the doors swing open, the great doors at the front of the citadel and I see it all. The clockwork, the machinery of time and of death. And for a moment I shake, but I am not the boy I was. I am a man. And it has taken me all this time to realise that. I face the emptiness, stare at it, not with horror or anger, just resignation.

"Go," the boy me says. "It's waiting for you."

He tries to pull me to the door and I easily turn away.

"No," I say.

And it is enough.

 

Dawn is breaking, spilling out over the hills as I reach the car and wake my family.

"How long have we been here?" Ashley asks as they get out.

"Not long," I say.

Chris races to the rail, Ashley yells at him to walk. I pull Jessica from the car seat. She's a little weepy at first, but she snuggles into my shoulder

The clocks are ticking down below, echoing as clearly as they have ever done in my mind.

 I walk over to Chris. "What are you thinking?"

Chris looks up at me. "It sounds like a thousand typewriters going at once."

"I wish I'd thought of that."

Chris looks at me.

"Dad, are you alright?"

"Yeah, I think I am." I hug him tightly.

Did Dad ever love me? I'm not sure, except he hurt me in the way only those who love can.

We walk down to the citadel.

For a moment I think the doors will open again, but they do not. For a moment I imagine the clockfaces shaking in their casements, straining to drown me in their substance.

And maybe they do, but it doesn't matter.

For this is what matters.

Ashley kisses my neck. Jessica is staring up at it in rapt fascination, until a bird rifling through a nearby rubbish bin catches her gaze, then she doesn't give the tower a second thought.

Chris touches the nearest section of the tower, a tiny clock is right next to his tiny fingers. I reach my palm over his hand. Here is cold iron and warm fluttering flesh. And they are not alike.

"Dad, what does it do?"

I smile, pull his hand from the iron and hug him. "It tells the time, just not very well."

"Would you know the moment of your death? I can tell it to you."

"And to what purpose?"

"Ah Ha. You understand. Each minute is the same, is it not? The finer the timepiece the more identical those minutes grow. I can tell you the moment of your death, indeed I can measure the length of your life."

"But only I can live it."

"Yes, people are the opposite of clocks. Time is meaningless. We give it meaning. Each minute is a clone of the one that precedes it and the one that follows. But we make them different."

"The moment of my death signifies nothing, except that I have lived."

“You finally understand. You’ve a life out there, man. Now go, live it.”

 

Horologe 120 Final Edition - Chronos' Captive

 

 

2003

This story originally appeared in Glimpses - 2000.


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