The Millennium Clocks

Fact is, Geoff and I needed to find some money and quick. We were on our uppers – he’d been laid off and the company I’d been working for had gone bust. We’d been through our savings and out the other side. We were sitting in a bar making two halves of bitter go as far as they could.

This was back in August 1999. The big thing then was the millennium bug. This would, according to the stories, make every computer explode on the strike of midnight, as many programmes only used two numbers for the years rather than four. Planes would fall out the sky, telephone systems would fail and the internet, which was only just getting going, would collapse.

Geoff put down the Standard he’d been looking at and pointed at a headline. “‘Y2K meltdown fears’,” he quoted, then looked up reflectively at the grimy ceiling. “How many things have most people got in their homes with a timer on it?”

“A few.”

“More than a few. Microwave, oven, TV…bedside clock, central heating system. If they have a car, that’s got one. Watches…”

“Hang on, watches won’t…”

He held up his hand. “It’s not what’s true. It’s what people believe.” He pointed at the paper. “We don’t have to convince them of anything. They’re sold already. They just need a solution.”

Geoff worked in sales, by the way. I was an editor. Poles apart when it came to caution.

He explained what he had in mind. “You can be the boffin with the clipboard. I’ll do the pitch.”

I had a few objections but Geoff was off again. “We’re going to need business cards and certificates. I know a bloke  – leave it to me.”

Without being at all sure about this, I nodded.

He got up. “See you back here tomorrow evening.”

I nodded again.

*

“What’s a chronological consultant?”

“What it says on the card. You know what ‘chronological’ means? We fix people’s clock…stuff. Make them Y2K compliant.”

“It should be ‘chronometrical’ . That’s to do with clocks.” He looked at me blankly. “My uncle was a clockmaker,” I explained. “‘Chronological’ is to do with the passing of time. Not clocks.”

“Too late now,” Geoff said. We hadn’t even started in this lie and already we were telling the wrong one. Precision of words has always mattered to me. For Geoff, the best word was the one that created the biggest short-term effect, regardless of its meaning.

“And what are these letters after your name,” I asked glancing at his card. “BSC? No, don’t tell me – “British Society of Chronologists. Or Chronometrical…ists.”

“Whatever. And, look – you’re one too but you’ve got ‘(Tech)’ after it. That makes you the boffin. So keep your mouth shut. I’ve also got you this,” he said, passing me a small and rattling satchel. “Your box of tricks.” I couldn’t immediately face looking inside.

“Drink up,” he said. “We’re off to our first client. Islington way, twenty minutes’ walk. Lady Louisa Dunbar.”

“Who’s she?”

“Friend of a friend of a friend of my mother’s.”

*

Lady Louisa Dunbar was about seventy and greeted us with a mixture of trepidation and relief. She lived in a beautiful but dilapidated house in Barnsbury that had probably been immaculate in 1965. There was no sign of poverty but rather a failing to come to terms with the implacable workings of gravity and rust. I intuited that the departure of her children about twenty years before and the more recent death of her husband had made these kind of things inevitable. During our conversations, I learned that these guesses were correct.

“It’s terrible what they say in the papers,” she said once the conversation had worked its way from the tenuous connection between them to the matter in hand. “This 2YK germ…” She shivered slightly.

Geoff had been right. She, and many others, were frightened by something they neither welcomed nor understood yet which had, like a colony of rats, infested their homes. The papers had been short on detail but long on menace. And now, here we were with a solution.

Geoff didn’t overplay his hand. “A lot of it is rubbish,” he said. Lady Louisa nodded vigorously. “They want to sell papers.”

“Well, of course they do,” she agreed.

He mentioned other issues – the National Front, Ugandan Asians, the Cold War, hippies, the unions and football hooligans all came trotting out. He was building up a picture of her from her reactions. I felt uneasy and looked at my shoes and, more occasionally, at the form on my clipboard. Lady Louisa talked on. She wasn’t a stupid woman, just lonely and slightly rattled.

Then he pounced.

“Well,” he said, standing up and looking at his watch. As if we were connected by wires, I stood up too. “We’d better look at the devices.”

More slowly, Lady Louisa got to her feet. The change from general to specific, from anecdotal to commercial, had been abrupt. I could see the thought crossing her mind that she’d wasted the valuable time of these professionals with tittle-tattle. With a horrible fascination I waited for Geoff’s next move.

He smiled, now in control. “Perhaps we could start in the kitchen,” he said. He gave me a glance to show I should take over.

“Do you have a microwave, Lady Louisa?” I asked. She clasped her hand to her chest.

“A microwave oven,” I explained, thinking she thought I’d meant a cardiological implant.

“Oh, yes…I don’t really use it…it doesn’t seem natural…of course when my grandchildren…ah, here we are…” She swung open a cupboard door.

I don’t know when the first microwave was sold in the UK but this might have been it. It had three controls: on/off, four power settings and a timer. It was as far removed from the Y2K nightmare as a rocking horse. I swivelled the dial. Immediately there was a ‘ping’.

“Classic sign,” Geoff said.

There was no escape. I turned round to face him. “Looks like an RKG,” I said at random.

For the benefit of Lady Louisa, Geoff twisted his face into an expression that could have conveyed any emotion from despair to amazement. “Try the chrono valve on it.”

I reached into my satchel and pulled out something that looked like a distributor cap for an Austin Seven. I pressed a lead against the front of the microwave, made the dial go ‘ping’ again and turned round, writing on my clipboard. Lady Louisa seemed about to speak but Geoff was too quick. “On to the next,” he said, then swivelled round. “Ah, an oven timer.” He moved towards it, squinting theatrically, drawing Lady Louisa forward with his interest. “Looks like our old friend the C-14.”

“Could be,” I said.

It went on like this for about half an hour. While I was doing my pointless fiddling, Lady Louisa engaged Geoff in chat about children, families, politics and the arts. She established that he had read no books for pleasure, played no musical instrument and had no partner. In his confident mood he was unaware the tables were turning. She was now getting as much from him as he had earlier done from her.

We were in her bedroom, me poking at her Teasmaid with a 1980s guitar tuner. This marked the end of my awful inventory. Although I’d said little apart from invented acronyms, I felt drained. I passed the clipboard to Geoff. He glanced at it. Again he did this thing with his face, squirming his mouth and eyes but finishing with a hopeful raising of the eyebrows.

“Tell you what,” Geoff said. “Why don’t you go and do the…rectifications. I’ll have a chat with Lady Louisa about the commercials.”

I nodded weakly as they went into the living room. More for the form of the thing, I went back to the bedroom. The furniture was beautiful but faded. The chest of drawers was, I was sure, a Hepplewhite, though sunlight-stained in one corner and with one drawer-front chipped with a child’s initials. The bed, with its high, curved headboard, looked 18th century Venetian. It was made up for two though only one side had recently been slept in. I glanced around at the paintings, recognising a Hockney and a Sickert. Everything had been furnished with the help of, not only money, but taste and style. I, however, was a fraud, creeping around while my mate ripped off the owner over a cup of Lapsang. More for the form of the thing I re-set the Teasmaid clock to the correct time by my watch, nine minutes ahead of where it had been.

I fiddled around for another ten minutes while Geoff worked his awful alchemy, then paused in the hall. I checked my watch: ten past four. At that moment, there was a breathy, arthritic sound from over my shoulder. I swivelled round. There was a pause when, as always happens after such chronometrical preambles, the air seems to be sucked clean away, followed by a mechanical exhalation and the release of a glorious chime in a B flat. The wonderful Bornholm grandfather clock stood at the far end of the hall was striking four.

My uncle had owned one like this. Seven feet tall, it had the elegance of a cheetah and the symmetry of a cathedral. I stood back to admire it. As I heard the living room door open, a name rose unbidden to my lips.

“Is that a John Calver?” I said to Lady Louisa.

She froze in amazement.

I was now ten years old again, dragging up what I could remember of my uncle’s passion. “No, it’s too tall. Perhaps a Thomas Webb? No, it’s a bit later than that. Bullock?” I turned round, almost breathless.

She gave me a surprised and appraising glance as if she was seeing me for the first time. “Almost,” she said. “Not far away. Samuel Bowles, Dorset, 1799.” She ran her hand down the right side of it. Unbidden, I did the same on the left. “My grandfather bought it. My grandfather’s grandfather clock, what do think of that?”

I smiled but could think of nothing to say. Nor, in the background, could Geoff.

“Do you know how to wind it?”

*

“That was smart of you, making that stuff up about winding it,” Geoff said.

I was annoyed that, in his world, everything was seat-of-the-pants. “I knew.”

“Really? And she said she might know some other clients.”

We parted at the end of the street. I accepted a hundred pounds as I needed to pay the rent but it seemed like blood money. I was certain this was less then half of what Lady Louisa had given him.

We got a similar gig a few days later, a Mrs Crowbridge in Gospel Oak, seemingly another friend of a friend of Geoff’s mother. She used to be a concert pianist but could no longer play as her hands were gnarled by arthritis. She had a clock, this time in her living room, which she was unable to wind properly. “It should be a seven-day clock,” she said, “but…”

“Eight-day,” I said automatically. “That’s what they’re called.”

From over her shoulder, Geoff rolled his eyes.

“Eight-day?” Mrs Crowbridge mused. “How nice. So they throw in an extra day.”

“Yes. Since about 1720.”

“Goodness me.” She apprised first me and then the clock with fresh eyes. “It doesn’t go for more than three or four days. I don’t like it when it stops. Even if it’s in the middle of the night I hear it and have to get up and wind it as quickly as I can. Silly, I know…” She paused again. “My husband bought it. Nearly 50 years ago. Twenty-five guineas, more than we could afford. He died three months ago. He used to do the winding, of course…I don’t know why I say of course. Just because I’m a woman it doesn’t mean I can’t wind a clock. Except it seems I can’t. At least, my hands can’t, not now.” Geoff made a dumb-show gesture of looking at a watch. She smiled again, now back in the present. “It’s important to keep the clock going,” she said, “though I can’t say why. I mean it’s not as if I’m connected to it…”

The room was suddenly completely silent. Mrs Crowbridge lurched forward and I thought she was about to faint. She gathered herself together, her hand on her chest, and pointed. The clock had stopped.

I crossed the room and pulled open the door. The crank key was on a dusty ledge inside. The clock was English, probably from about 1790, so wouldn’t have opposing winding. I turned the crank clockwise and, like a paramedic doing CPR, felt the mechanism turn deep inside. With each wind, the wheels and cogs seemed to gain strength. After twelve the turning became harder.

“You mustn’t over-wind it,” Mrs Crowbridge said. I held up my hand: I needed to count. After five more I could feel the stop work lock into place. I replaced the key, opened the top glass and moved the long hand forward for the minute or so we’d missed. I shut the door and, dusting my hands, turned back to face my client. “Sorry,” I said. “I was concentrating. It needs seventeen turns.” I looked down at her hands. “I’m guessing you give it, what, ten? Eleven?”

“Ten, normally. After that it’s too hard. Anyway, Andrew said I must never over-wind it.”

“You can’t,” I said. “It’s a fusée. It’s got a mechanism to prevent it. Your husband might have been used to older clocks, which you could over-wind.”

“Yes, he was. His father had a…what was it called? Foil?”

“Foliat.”

“Yes, a Foliat. How clever of you,” she said. “I don’t suppose…could you come back next week and wind it for me? How much would that cost?”

At the mention of money, Geoff came to life. “Perhaps we could discuss the commercials in the kitchen,” he said, ushering her towards the door.

She looked at him narrowly. “The kitchen is that way,” she said, pointing at the door on the far side of the room. “But why do we have to discuss money there?”

Geoff had no answer to this. Mrs Crowbridge manoeuvred me into a corner and had persuaded me to agree to return in a week’s time. “Would you think twenty-five pounds enough?” she asked under her breath, glancing at Geoff over my shoulder as she pressed some banknotes, conjured up by god-knows-what unlikely dexterity, into my hand.

“Fine,” I said, retracting at the last moment the temptation to shake her arthritic hand.

“I have friends who’d like to meet you,” she added with a smile. “You have to keep the clock going.”

Something about her earnestness confused and discomfited me. I nodded.

Geoff, sensing that he was being excluded, was stalking round the room. He picked up a TV remote control. “Is this Y2K compliant?” he asked. He pointed in at the television and pressed a few buttons. Nothing happened. He threw it down. “If not, it’s a death-trap,” he muttered.

“This time next week, then,” Kate Crowbridge said, ignoring him completely. She reached out her hand to seal the deal. Hesitantly, I took it. She grimaced slightly. Then we left.

*

That was the end of my relationship with Geoff. I gave him one of Kate Crowbridge’s tenners but he was too busy bitching about my “smarmy-pants act” to question the division of spoils. At the end of the street he turned left, I turned right. I had the vague idea that he might be able to cause me trouble but was wrong about what form this might take.

*

Over the next few weeks, I found myself seemingly the only practitioner – certainly in the swathe of London between Chelsea Embankment and Hampstead Heath – of a craft that I never knew existed: clock-winder to rich widows. I soon had about twenty weekly clients, including Lady Louisa and Kate Crowbridge. This gave me the best part of two grand a month, cash in hand. Each session took about an hour, not including travelling from Vauxhall. About ten minutes was spent winding, the rest listening to the stories I was told by their owners over many cups of tea.

I comforted myself that this was an act of corporeal charity. The women were lonely and needed to talk about their glories and triumphs, their war-time memories and their lost loves. My skill, which I took care to improve through research, was valued. The good workman is worth his wage. I was prepared to indulge their recollections.

After a few weeks, however, a number of clouds began to gather. I was becoming struck by recurring threads in their behaviour and narratives that made me question what I had got myself involved with.

In the first place, the clock-winding itself was a moment of high anxiety. Most were concerned lest I over-wind. More surprising was the fear that I under-wind, something which they themselves frequently did as the mechanisms were often stiff. Although they expressed it in different ways, all shared Kate Crowbridge’s apprehension about the clock stopping.

After the winding they relaxed and, this major worry removed, the talk flowed. I had developed, after about an hour of tea and chat, various ways of delicately extricating myself. Few excuses worked better than the suggestion that I might otherwise be late for a similar appointment elsewhere.

When you have less of something you perhaps count it all the more carefully: but that shouldn’t mean you start to feel an affinity with the abacus. There was, however, an alignment between their own well-being and that of the clocks which went beyond the normal apprehension about the consequences of what these measured. All had grown up in houses where the clock management had been a matter for the paterfamilias. All had had husbands – or in one case a brother and, in another, a female partner – who had performed this role. Time in this digital age was more democratic but they were still lumbered with these implacable remnants of their past. Not to maintain, cherish and observe them would be a betrayal. And now the millennium was about to descend, shattering the old century and, through the half-understood Y2K threat, undermining all their assumptions of the certainty of time.

*

It was around this time that I learned that Geoff had been impersonating me to take the less subtle route of conning elderly people out of their savings. We looked quite similar: a carefully led and impressionable witness could convince a jury that it had in fact been me. I couldn’t concoct alibis as I didn’t know where or exactly when he’d been doing this. I thought about going to the police but I didn’t have any faith that this wouldn’t create a worse muddle and solve nothing. We had, after all, conceived a mutual and dishonest project, from which is there is rarely any escape.

*

My problems really started on a Monday in late November. I had two calls. The first was to Mary Gaynor-West. She was probably the richest of my clients, inhabiting an immaculate town house in Primrose Hill filled with beautiful furniture and decorations, including a Chippendale cabinet, two sumptuous oriental rugs, what seemed to be a genuine Degas and several Sisleys. She had a number of younger relatives, she told me more than once, all of whom were constantly “chivvying me about my will.” I found myself thinking of the stoats and weasels “chivvying” poor Mole in the Wild Wood.

The will was much on her mind and she returned to it several times during a long session of tea and biscuits after dealing with her clocks, which included a French Verge probably worth more than many of the cars parked outside along Fitzroy Road. The document was on the walnut coffee table when I arrived. More than once she would pick it up and read part of a clause to illustrate her point. “…and of course, Cynthia always thought…”, “…I’ve never trusted Martin one inch…”, “…naturally, Marjorie thought she was being cut out…”. It was like unwittingly and unwillingly eavesdropping on a private conversation. At one point, I saw a figure in a long list of bequests: £80,000. Whatever was going on clearly involved high stakes.

The doorbell rang and she went to answer it. She returned with a man of about forty whom she introduced as “my nephew James.” I was simply “the man who winds the clocks.” There was a minute of desultory and increasingly embarrassing chat, during which I stood up to make a meaningless adjustment to the carriage clock on the mantlepiece. James had a way of making one feel remarkably ill at ease. I moved towards the doorway, keen to be gone.

“My word, what’s this?,” he said, gesturing to the will on the table. “Has the lawyer been here?” His tone was jocular, his expression anything but.

Mary shuffled the papers back into the envelope. “I’ve been considering a few…changes,” she said.

James’ glance swivelled round to meet mine. The inference was clear: I, a stranger, was privy to her will: he, a relative, was not.

I said goodbye to both of them, promising to back at the same time next week.

I had hardly turned into the street when I heard footsteps behind me. I turned to face James. He was breathing heavily as if he’d just run from Chalk Farm station.

“What the hell are you playing at?”

I denied any sinister motive: I was, I reminded him, just the man who winds the clocks.

“Oh yeah? Well, let me tell you that no one needs help winding a clock. You just wind them.” He poked me in the chest. I pulled back, a gesture he interpreted as weakness. He did it again. “I was watching you, you greasy little chancer,” he hissed. “I don’t want anyone trying to…to trick her into something she might not mean, like you did with Louisa Dunbar. Playing games with her.”

Again, I repeated my innocence and made to turn away. As I did so, I caught sight of Mary Gaynor-West observing at our confrontation from the living room window. The curve of her mouth suggested a mixture of excitement and satisfaction. I watched James stalk back into the house, feeling that his last accusation had been directed at the wrong person. Someone was playing games but it wasn’t me.

Having made one enemy, within two hours I had made another. This debacle took place at Amanda Gosling’s house near the Royal Free. This time we were interrupted, as I was about to leave, by a man who was not a nephew but a son, in his late fifties. He too was called James. He had the spindly frame, nine-months-gone belly, paunchy cheeks and bloodshot eyes of a man who had been in the pub since about 1972. His mother was obviously afraid of him but at least managed to introduce me by name, adding that I was kind enough to drop in “to look after her clocks.”

He looked at me suspiciously.

“He winds them.”

Winds them? Does he get paid for winding them?”

“Thirty pounds.”

“For winding a clock?”

“Three clocks.”

He strode over to the nearest one, a rather lovely Seth Thomas mantel, and savagely pulled open the case. The crank key was on the right-hand ledge. He grabbed it, casing the clock to shudder on the marble, and inserted it into the left winding point.

“Excuse me,” I said, speaking for the first time. “That one doesn’t need to be wound. Also, you look as it you’re about to wind it the wrong way.”

Without paying any attention to me, he gave the key a good turn, this time counter-clockwise.

“It doesn’t need to be wound,” I said again.

He turned to face me, flushed with a self-righteous rage. “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?” he said. “Anyway I thought you said you wound clocks. Now you say this doesn’t need to be wound. So what are you doing here? Snooping around? Casing the joint?”

“James…” his mother began.

“It has two winding mechanisms,” I said, trying to keep calm. “The right one does the hands, the left one the chime. Your mother doesn’t want the chime as it wakes her up. That’s the one you’ve started winding.”

He put down the key and looked first at me, then his mother, as if he expected to see signs of collusion.

“I’ve heard about you,” he said at last. “I’m going to make enquiries. This isn’t the only house you prey on, is it? Kate Crowbridge? She’s another of your victims, isn’t she? You better watch your step.” Then he gave his mother a perfunctory kiss and swept out, slamming the door behind him. It was just four o’clock. At that moment, with a wheezy gasp, the Seth Thomas gathered itself together, struck four times and relapsed into slumber. As before, this seemed like a good time to leave.

I walked down Malden Road and into the human zoo of Camden Town deep in thought. The enterprise was involving me in things that went way beyond clocks or even conversation. I was walking, blindfolded, into a series of domestic typhoons. I had annoyed one James and humiliated another. Neither was likely to forget this.

Nothing I had done in these last few weeks had been reprehensible but the fact remained that the first visits Geoff and I had made, particularly to Lady Louisa, had been predicated on deceit, which could yet come back to haunt me. That many of my clients had been recommended by her seemed to transfer the original sin. I was a sinner who had not formally renounced his crime. I wondered if returning the 120 pounds which had been my share of our only two gigs would assuage this. I doubted it. In any case, my immediate problems were more pressing.

Both Jameses were aware that I had other clients. Word of me had obviously spread in more ways than I’d hoped. I now saw that I was viewed as a real threat to many people’s financial ambitions. I’d been threatened and poked in the chest, accused of mind games and testamentary ambitions. Would it end there?

Worse still, the necessary regularity of my various visits gave me a problem. Should I go back to Amanda Gosling and Mary Gaynor-West this time next week or not? To do so might be to walk into an ambush; not to do so would admit my guilt.

Eventually, I decided on a kind of compromise and gave myself the next day off. I had two appointments, both inconveniently timed and a long way apart: Mrs Crowbridge in Gospel Oak and Mrs Daphne Mercier in what she called Brompton but which every one else called Earls Court. I left messages with both saying I was sorry but something had come up and I could fit them in on Thursday morning. True, the clocks might have stopped by then but I reflected uncharitably that this would make my service all the more important as well as proving that it wasn’t a matter of life or death. Either that or they could find someone else to wind them. I’d had enough of clocks for a bit. I turned into Royal College Street where I was due to have a drink with a friend.

I arrived at Mrs Mercier’s house on Thursday just as the ambulance was preparing to leave. A paramedic ushered me inside, perhaps thinking I was a member of the household. I found myself alone in the hall. The door of the living room was ajar.

“…Daphne called me this morning at about nine,” a woman sniffed. “I live across the road. She was worried it was going to stop.” A mumbled question. “No, not her heart…her clock.” Another mumble. “I don’t know why it bothered her. I came and helped. We’ve always had old clocks in our house.” She sniffed again.

“Take your time,” the policewoman said.

“Well,” the neighbour continued. “We caught it just a few minutes before it would have stopped, or so she told me. At quarter past nine.”

I nodded: this was true.

“My, it was hard work. I can see why she got the young man to come to do it.” Mumble, mumble. “No, I don’t know his name. Then she stood up to put the kettle on when the clock struck the quarter. She just keeled over and…” There was more sobbing and more mumbling.

I didn’t like this. I was about to get mixed up in something which looked alarmingly like an unexplained death. I pushed open the front door. I turned left, so walking past the living room window. I looked over my shoulder, just as the policewoman was looking out. Our gazes briefly locked. Click-click went the mental shutter behind her eyes, or so I assumed. Feeling now both guilty and foolish, I hurried down to the end of the street and headed for the bus stop.

Half an hour later, Mrs Crowbridge’s house seemed quiet. I hovered by the gate for a few moments, so conveying to anyone who might been watching the very impression of shiftiness I was so keen to avoid. As I reached for the knocker the front door was suddenly pulled open, revealing a police officer, male this time. I stammered my introduction.

“To wind the clocks?” said the officer, who had introduced himself as Detective Sergeant Briggs. “How interesting. May I ask you a couple of questions?” He gestured towards the kitchen.

I told him just about everything I’d been doing for the last six weeks, omitting Geoff and today’s visit to Mrs Mercier’s house. He told me that about an hour before the cleaning woman had heard a thump from the living room and discovered Mrs Crowbridge dead on the floor, a winding key in her hand. The clock had stopped.

“What time was this?” I said.

“Why do you ask?”

Because of a curiosity born of increasing dread, I could have replied. Instead I shrugged. “If it hadn’t been wound, it would have stopped at about half-past ten.”

He nodded slowly. “And yet it hadn’t been wound.”

“No. Well, not by me. I usually come every Tuesday. Yesterday I couldn’t.”

He nodded again. “That’s all, for now. We’ll be in touch if we need to ask anything else.” I got up and made for the door. “One more thing,” he said. “Are you aware of any of your other…’clients’ having had similar problems?”

I thought quickly. Did he know about Mrs Mercier, or that I’d been to her house? If so, or if it came out later, my furtive departure would need some explaining. Would it not be good time to do this? I wasn’t sure.

Some of the confusion must have shown in my face because, after a few seconds, Briggs raised his eyebrows. “I don’t think so,” I said.

“Any problems at all?”

Wondering if I should mention the two Jameses and again deciding to stay silent, I shook my head.

There was a pause. “Are you going to keep on with your other clients?” he asked.

The question was unexpected, appearing to be human curiosity rather than part of the interrogation. “I hadn’t thought about it. I suppose so.”

“They seem to need you.”

There was nothing I could think to say to that.

“That’s all for now, sir.”

I did my normal calls for the rest of the week and wound the clocks with particular care. On the last call on Saturday I was half an hour late and was alarmed to see that Lady Louisa had a doctor with her, taking her pulse. She jumped to her feet when she saw me. “At last,” she said plaintively, her face unhealthily pale.

“Dear Lady Louisa, please…” the doctor said.

I wound the clock, conscious of the tension behind me. When I turned back to face them the colour had returned to her skin and the the doctor was packing up his case. He handed her a small jar of tablets. “Now, if the faintness returns, take two of these…” She wasn’t listening to him but looking at the clock, then at me. She knew what had caused her seizure. Now, beyond all possible doubt, did I.

On Monday I returned to Mary Gaynor-Clark’s, an hour earlier than usual in the hope of fooling James. He wasn’t in the house but was waiting for me afterwards outside on the street.

“I warned you before,” he said. “And yet here you are again.”

“I’m here to wind the clocks,” I replied neutrally.

“Oh, yeah? Winding up my aunt, more like. Getting her to change her will.”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“Oh, no. Butter wouldn’t melt in your…mechanism.” For a moment I thought this was a joke. I found myself thinking of the Mad Hatter’s tea party when the March Hare admitted to putting butter into his watch, making it stop – “but it was the best butter.” Then I looked at James and realised he was, once again, beside himself with rage. “Well, the police might be interested. Do you do this to all your clients? Charm them, wind them up…then kill them,” he hissed.

I should have laughed but, after yesterday’s events, I couldn’t. I suspect I stared at him with a wide-eyed horror which might have made him think he’d got me taped. I couldn’t explain to anyone, and certainly not to him, that my coming round every week would produce exactly the opposite result.

As before, I observed Mary Gaynor-Clark watching us from the first-floor window. Again she seemed excited and satisfied. God knows how many other people had been used by her to keep his expectations dangling. What James didn’t understand was that I was as much trapped in this as he was.

So, there I was. I had eighteen clients, each of whom it seemed would die if I didn’t wind their clocks every week. No one else’s winding would suffice. To abandon them would be morally impossible and would lead to deaths that even the thickest detective could connect with me:and perhaps with Geoff, so ensuring me still deeper. To continue would be to expose myself to a lifetime of drudgery and to increasing physical threats from nervous relatives. Nor was it certain for how long this would go on. All the women were old. Would I, twenty years hence, be ministering to a group of wraiths, forced to play God and to decide when a life should end? Would deaths from other causes prove more potent than the strange and unwelcome power that I had come to wield?

All that was certain was that I was trapped in the consequences of a crime that I had so casually entertained three months before: a practical reminder that no one should try dishonestly to interfere with the passage of time, whether measured by the turn of a key or by computers at the turn of a millennium.

So you, my reader, rich with hindsight twenty-one long years on from my dilemma; so you, wise with your twenty-first-century digital certainties; so you, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère – what would you have me do now?

 

Brian Quinn

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Many thanks to Chris Bessent of The Clockmaker in Hungerford who kindly answered a number of questions I had about clock winding. Any correct facts are his: any errors are mine. No doubt about it, he’s the man to get the tick and tock back into your clock – just don’t ask me to come and wind it for you…

Thanks to Chris Clack for the photo.

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