She said the present was special, that it was much more than it looked. To me it was special because it was given when she had no money. Was it for my 18th or 21st? I can’t quite remember. However it was one of those significant times, a supposedly awe-inspiring life changing moment.
“Now you’re a man, start acting like one. Finish that pint and I’ll get you another”.
All the significant times before were only truly great if you couldn’t remember them; if your mind had become blurred by drink and some gloriously stupid act had been performed. Something to look back on, for old friends to warm themselves by in later, more stressful times.
I unwrapped the package and there it was an ordinary looking carriage clock. I placed it on the table, wound it up and started the weight spinning and it began to tick comfortably. It seemed such an odd present, I laughed looking at it shining, a piece of heaven in the gloom of my under-furnished, cold, damp room.
“It’s special” she said.
“I know it is, it must have cost you a fortune.”
“Some.” She smiled and slowly caressed the back of my neck. “It means wherever you are, I’ll be there watching over you.” She bent her head toward mine. Her hair swung around me and our noses touched.
I smiled, “Whenever I want to know the time I’ll think of you.” We kissed, first slowly and then with more concentration.
She pulled away from me. “But you must realise it’s very special, it’s not what it seems, it’s a piece of me I’m giving you.”
“What is?” I kept my reply brief so I could concentrate on her lips.
“You’re not listening to me”. She pushed me away from her. I made a playful grab for her shoulders, but she shrugged me off. “No, you must listen.” She stared coldly at me, almost through me. My passion began to cool under her unblinking gaze.
“The clock is important. It’s to prove my love for you will outlast time, that…that….that it’s eternal.” Her face began to assume a messianic zeal as she uttered these words. “You must promise me as I’ve promised you to never stop loving me, even if we never see each other again.” As she grew warmer I began to notice the coldness of the room and feel the drafts that raced around it, the rain that had been falling for hours, beating a tattoo on the window.
“Of course I’ll always love you.” I’m sure the uncertainty in my words was plain. Love her always? I couldn’t even be certain of my feelings at the moment. I continued rather too quickly, “And I do wish you wouldn’t be so dramatic, we’ve tickets for that concert next week so you better still be here.”
She blanched “Why do you always have to be so flippant?”
“If I wasn’t, I’d have to take you seriously.”
“I am being serious, things never turn out as we think they should, or want.”
I stood up and walked to the curtains to gain time, to think and try and control my rising dread. I turned to look at her sitting, almost kneeling, her face compressed with intensity.
“Look, I’m not a child, I know life has this knack of taking what you want. But there’s no reason to be so resigned and helpless. We do have some control, it’s not all set.”
“Oh for God’s sake don’t be so gloomy.”
“I’m not being gloomy just realistic. Don’t you see,” her hands reached up and clasped mine, “this can’t last.”
“What can’t? The weather? My astounding run of good luck? What can’t last?” I asked desperately, “How do you know? Where’s your crystal ball?” I gripped her more harshly than I meant pulling her wraith like body towards me. “This is just all too strange. You say you’ll love me forever when you’ve only known me for two months, but you’re convinced we haven’t got a future. Why is it our conversations always end up sounding like a Gothic novel?”
I loosen my hold on her and walked to the door. I took my coat from the hook and slipped it on. Turning back to her I said, “Look, thanks for the present and everything,” She stood frozen, “but this is too intense for me.” I paused expecting a storm of words. I rubbed the back of my hand against my face, glanced at her and then turned back to the door, “I’m going out for a walk. I won’t be long; I just need to clear my head.” I opened the door and left her.
The rain lashed against my face, the cold needles of water anaesthetised it and felt good after the hothouse mood of my room. My coat was becoming sodden, but still I didn’t turn for home. A taxi slowed as it passed me to see if I needed a lift. I grinned in the approximate direction of the driver, waved him away and skipped across the road in the wake of the car. The light of the traffic pinned me to the darkness as it hissed by. I wandered on aimlessly, not wanting to face her, knowing that any discussion or meeting of eyes would destroy my resolve.
The street lights went out and darkness took full possession of the night. I finally turned for home as the rain became a drizzle. I could see the light from my room, piercing the night and illuminating the railings of the park beyond the house. I was calm, realistic and reasonable, I could feel the warmth of her arms around my neck and the depth of her eyes as our lips came together in a kiss. I’d been hasty and we hadn’t really argued. Couldn’t she see I’d been overwhelmed by some past horror, a memory of an unhappy birthday. A cruel encounter with a woman who’d crushed my heart. Can’t you see that shadow in my smile, that sadness which creeps upon me when I think I’m not being observed? After all, a woman finds a sad past more romantic than a dozen red roses.
I climbed the stairs and opened the door to my room. She wasn’t there. At first I thought the brightness of the light was playing tricks with my eyes, surely she was there smiling where I’d left her, God knows how many hours ago. I stared hard, willing her to reappear, but she didn’t. No trace remained of her; the room had been scrubbed clean of her presence. Only the slightest aroma of her perfume lingered in the pillow where I buried my head. As I lay on the bed trying to think through all that had happened, my consciousness began to unravel to the metalliferous beat of the clock. I turned my head and saw it on the table, the light glancing off its pendulum.
I did try and find her. I went to her house the following day with flowers hidden behind my back, but her room was as free of her as mine was. No one knew where she was or where she might have gone to. I’d never been able to find out if she had any family, she had kept herself tightly wrapped and so I didn’t have any numbers to call. I finished my search at the shop where she worked. Yes she had been in, suitcase in hand to resign. This reassured me, at least now I knew she hadn’t been abused by anyone else, or had done anything desperate. The bus station was close to the shop and I presumed this was where she had seen her last view of the town, before lurching away in a haze of diesel to an unknown destination.
As the weeks grew into months and into years my thoughts of her became hallucinations, until our time together became irreconcilable with reality. Finally all that preoccupied me when I did think of her was the ease with which she had cut the silken thread that binds us all to those we’ve loved. All that remained of her was the clock; through all the joys and pain that life flung at me it continued to mark the passing of time. Everywhere I travelled and stayed I always found a place for it. I worked to its reassuring noise, made love in front of its unabashed face and grew old and content in its turning hands. It remained constant and true, the only evidence to prove my past love had a kernel of reality.
And so my life continued with more happiness than sadness. I married and children came giving my wife and I joy before they left to fight their own battles with time. I was successful and our lifestyle became grand and comfortable but still I managed to find a place for the clock. It had quickly lost its brightness but still I ended my day by winding life into it.
The reality of those few months had not lasted as long as the metallic sheen of the clock and I knew what I carried with me some 40 years after was the distillation of a dream. It wasn’t the woman I was in love with, just the romantic idea I had created out of the pathetic remains. The attraction lay in the pain, in the closeness of disaster that we all need to prove we’re still alive. What I’d seen, or what I’d thought I’d seen in her was insane and dangerous: a maelstrom of destructive masochistic emotion; complete and total love for me. It was the only time in my life that I’d stared into the abyss of unfettered passion.
It was my birthday, callers had been arriving all evening and I had been overwhelmed with socks and whiskey. Grandchildren had run riot through the house while I guided everyone else around the glory of my garden. Once the happy noise had been replaced by calm, my wife and I relaxed in the garden and the red inferno of the dying sun. It had been a perfect day; I grasped her hand warmly and kissed it. Finally we retreated from the inky darkness, my wife to warm the bed while I made my pilgrimage to wind the clock.
I knew something was wrong before I even turned the light on, something was missing, but I also had an unnerving feeling that something was present. I hesitated in the doorway, my hand poised over the light switch. I coughed nervously praying I wasn’t about to be assaulted by a burglar. Nothing happened and the threat of imminent violence began to recede. I laughed at my nervousness, I was too old to be frightened by the dark.
I flipped the switch and light chased the darkness into the corners of the room. Were my eyes playing games? Was that a figure I’d seen hunched over my desk in the instant between dark and illumination? A sigh brushed my face and all the fears that I’d managed to dismiss came screaming back. I couldn’t make my body move into or away from the room. A curtain billowed behind the desk and I let out the breath I’d bitten down on.
Walking as calmly as possible I crossed the room, reached behind the curtain and closed the window to the cooling night air. I smoothed out the curtains, turned back to face the room consciously slowing my breathing using the silence of the room as a counterbalance to the panic I’d felt. Something was still unsettling me and then I realised it was the silence itself; the clock was no longer ticking.