Short Story: A design for life.

This short story was written on the theme of ‘Clocks’. Again its quite satisfying for me as its very far from myself. Its an entirely made up world and person.


A design for life.


Annie liked the ticking variety. She considered them more honest and infinitely more pleasing to the eye. Who would be having those garish glowing digits on those little boxes that let slip minutes every time you turned round.

They squawked at you too.

Some of the others had them and she would hear them going off in the morning. Or in the middle of the night. Alarms in here. Why would you need an alarm in here? A real one – a time piece – sat upon her new mantle, set 5 minutes fast. Exactly.

She looked at it now. Twenty to five. She shifted in her seat, felt a heaviness come upon her. A nap coming on. She could sense them like the onset of rain. She leaned back, into her chair, and relaxed.

Then she opened her eyes, looked at it through narrow eyes and made herself a plan. She would have a nap, wind it and then go through to the big room. She would wind it, enough for a day.

And with her resolve made up she dozed.

She woke and felt the cold immediately. The place was well heated but she felt starving with the cold. Her Granny used to say that.

Starvin I am, down in my bones.

What would she have made of this place? A quick satisfying answer came rattling out of her. The shortest of shrifts. But things were different then.

When they asked her, to move (move, she thought) she said she’d think it over. And she did, she prepared herself. When they advised it was for the best she knew they were being polite. And appreciated it. She went without a fuss, with a stoicism that was in equal parts of her generation and of herself.

She shuffled out of the chair and went over to the mantle to lift the clock. She stood then and held it. Enjoyed the heft and feel of it. Heavy. The grain of its wood, natural, beautiful, almost animate. She stroked it. It was polished just yesterday. She had given it a really good clean. It was hard to get the right polish for it. Especially here. Especially now. But some of them tried for her. It looked, she reflected, like what it was; not new, but exceedingly well cared for.

She listened keenly to the seconds rattle out. She loved the rhythm that masked the complexity within. The tick-tock, that sound of something so much more complicated than a tick and a tock. She could just make it out. Was it getting quieter?

Annie sometimes thought of clocks as companions. It was a thought privately held, but fervently believed. They had history. A personal heritage held in their familiarity. Stories infused in the memorable times.

She sat back down again – the clock in her lap – and reflected how everything was so badly made these days. She tried hard not to think like that, but it seemed true. The other day she had seen a whole array of clocks in a catalogue for less than twenty pounds. White, plastic, sad looking things. Who would have one of those? Who would fix one of those? Just get a new one she supposed.

Polly would get it. They all listened to her stories about her friends, and the bank and her father’s workshop. But Polly was most interested. She was remarkable. Polly. Funny how names came round again. She loved them all. They were each so busy with living. And she and they exchanged the same thing between them: patience and interest. That gift that often skips over a generation and is passed lightly over the heads of bemused parents.

She and her mother would be there the next day. Atmidday, sharp. Yes she’d like that.

She took the little key and fitted it into the back. She could feel how many turns were needed immediately. She wound, let the task envelope her and was released from the close awareness of an empty space. There descended a peaceful stillness.

In her chair she let her mind wander – as it was keen in that season and it went unbidden to her father’s workshop many years ago.

She loved going down to visit him. She wasn’t allowed during the day. Or rarely. Exceptions were made. But at the end of the day, it was her job to fetch him for his tea. And as she grew and came to understand what he was doing she would go earlier and earlier so she could watch him work with those beautiful machines that the great and good ofEdinburghhad brought to him.

Down there she was not to speak. Down there she came second. That was fine. She was like a ghost. Watching closely. Observing everything. How everything fitted together. How one thing led to another, the flow, the logic of the room and the place of her father in the middle of it. It was understandable. Wonderful. She got how he was central – her father’s meticulous and skilled intervention to fix these broken things was everything there. But then he would step back, recede and let them go. She learned to celebrate his focus, craft and dedication to a discipline. That was a design for life.

As time went by he would speak more. It was like it was the continuation of a conversation. As if he thought at some point she knew enough to make sense of whatever he was doing. And she was putting it together.

The big door slammed at the end of the hall – fire doors did that – and she was back in her room. It was nearly five. Just an hour until tea. Six. Her favourite time.

Straight up and down. She responded to the symmetry. She found pleasing the happy geometric split. Six. A good time to rise and a good time to settle. The Angelus too. She no longer said it, but the chimes still stirred her. She marvelled at how things learned in that way never really left you. They echoed emptily down the years. She no longer believed. Strange how it still felt like a decision met yesterday. But it was forty years ago now. Near as makes no odds. Burns Night. A milestone birthday just gone. She had just dropped it. Her casual adherence to a culture that passed for a religious outlook. She often made a late secret resolution to herself then on that rowdy night. She would still pause though and have a think at six.

Ten o’clockwas pleasing too. The things she used to get up to, her and Bill.

I’ll see you after ten…

She had met him, Bill, every day at four. He was punctual, naturally. You had to be in those days, especially in a bank, and especially a Scottish bank. Time was as precious as the stock. The Bank Manager always referred, reverently and sparingly, to the money as the stock. Like it was this entity kept in the vault. And no one ever looked in the direction of the vault. One of the many unwritten rules. Money and time were precious, almost sacred commodities. Back then.

She smiled as she remembered that little jumped up clerk. She would never sign his late book.

You continue to defy me Annabelle with your insolent smile.

He could never get around that smile. She knew it was silly but it was almost a duty. Little men were there to be tormented.

I could not bring myself to tell a man of your sensibilities and convictions what made me late today, Sir.

And she would wait him out, until he shuffled off, frustrated.

So for a year Bill, from the other branch, had delivered his parcels and letters and then walked out, with barely a word said between them. But as the warmth became obvious they began to exchange a well chosen word or two. And when he had finally plucked the courage from wherever men kept it to ask her to step out one night, she was neither surprised nor even especially pleased; it was more like a promise at last met. She wanted to get on with it. And so they had arranged to meet.

Eight. Another good time. The pictures. Some romance. His choice. Neither of them paid it much heed. They were too full up with expectation and confusion and youth. He had talked a bit at first, until she quietened him, with a look that said, it was going to be alright. He said he knew as well as she, from those early times, but that it was just nerves. He had always met providence with nerves. She loved the way he talked, when he got going. How he revealed himself and his reserves in the quiet moments. She had no reservations about owning the fact that he reminded her of her father. Strength, learning and quiet humour were things to be admired.

They had a great night, and then a great life. Everything that had been in their gift had been refined and well made.

Half past twocame to her. When the frenzied efforts were halted. When a rushing vacuum opened, between one second and the next, between the tick and the tock. She could still count the seconds of life. Still hold them, this meagre showing, each one filled with a billowing awareness, a knowledge of everything that could have been and would never be. From that day to now. For always and forever.

When the clocks went unwound and the blinds were drawn down. She still sometimes paused then.

‘Who winds that clock?’ she said it aloud without thinking to the room. She had made her way to the big room, which lay almost empty. Two old dears sat the other end of the beige carpet, so far away they didn’t count. New carpet. Beige. Everything was beige.

‘What’s that Annie dear?’ One of the nurses, or assistants, who was dusting a shelf mechanically, answered her.

‘Just thinking out loud.’

‘Tea soon enough.’

She looked at her for a second. Watched her idly. Her movements were practiced and routine along the shelves. Her hands danced but with no passion. Most of them moved that way.

And then her eyes quested for the view that she loved out of the window. She looked out across the glen that fell away from the big picture window. Windswept, and she always thought, full of muted Scottish fury.

She could barely see it now. The light was flailing fast. It was more like a memory that caressed her. Like the hoped for touch of a loved one.

She closed her eyes. Drifted back to a day surrounded by others like it. A holiday in the far north, high summer. The sun finally surrendering into the sea. She and Bill and the little ones, walking in a rhythm that they made themselves. Every day full of whimsy and the serious pursuit of the things that they deemed important to them. Crafts and music and play. That and nothing else. The design of their life condensed into those few days.

Yes, it would soon be six. She considered it a second morning. It had some of the same grace. A time to settle and think, before getting on with the rest of the evening. A time to start over.

But it was cold in there that evening. She felt it deep in her bones. Unusual to be sleepy again so soon. She felt the room expand. Her mind seemed lighter than before. Things rushed at her. The cold left her. Or she it. It was but nothing.

She looked up, through narrowed eyes, at the clock and then out, towards the bracken, and the heather and the slow rise of that harried glen that ran on into the black mountains in the distance. And then, in the gentle quickening, at six o’clock exactly, she closed her eyes.

In her room the clock ticked on.


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