The clock tower sat lonely amidst the gathering gloom, the turret thrusting confidently into the grey sky as other nearby buildings and rooftops appeared to baulk at the challenge under the weight of the storm. Bare, lifeless branches from the cluster of surrounding trees clawed at the clock tower, their bony limbs swaying and grasping without success in the capricious breeze.
The clock faces, all four of them, pelted unrelentingly by the rain continued about their business calmly, ticking in unison, one second at a time, treating the elements with a derision bordering on contempt.
Within the tower, protected by the layers of tiles, stone, insulation and cladding stood Ian Donald. In one hand he vigorously clutched hold of a piece of chalk, worn down to no more than a stump. Pale, gaunt, the scent of ill-health about him, he stood staring intently at the wall only inches from his face. The rain rebounding off the tower, the creak of the floorboards, the constant mechanical clunking and whirring of the clock’s cogs and machinery, the scurrying of rats and the erratic fluttering of sheltering pigeons; none of the sounds made the slightest impression upon Ian’s mind.
His mind, every fragment of it, was focused solely on the walls encircling him. What little light had managed to creep in through the clock faces dimly illuminated portions of said walls. Writing. Words. Numbers. Declarations. Formulas. All scrawled maniacally across every spare inch of the damp-stained structure. The chalk quivered in his hand as his eyes, ablaze with fire and fury, darted from side to side, word to word, formula to formula.
‘Bah!!’ his outburst was sudden, the chalk striking harshly off the wooden floor and dissolving into dust. ‘I must get this, I must…I MUST!’
He crouched down, staring piercingly towards a myriad of etchings scrawled slightly above an-equally-as-covered skirting board. His body was still, perched almost in a combative pose, however his eyes once more betrayed the inner torment raging in his mind. The doubt, the despair, the anguish.
A spark of optimism suddenly glimmered in his eye, his hand raised in restrained triumph. A breakthrough of sorts it appeared. He reached out, grasping for the chalk, only to clutch hold of a handful of chalk dust.
‘No no no!’ shouted Ian as his crouched form instantly mutated into a frantic, desperate one as he scrambled in a futile effort to locate more chalk. He caught a glimpse of one of the inverted clock faces as the hour hand lingered tantalisingly close to the hour mark. Desperation became panic. ‘No no no! Time! I need time! We need time! TIME!’
As the last syllable fell from his lips the clock tower filled with the sounds of the hour. Cogs whirred, mechanics shunted into gear, bells peeled. Desolation filled Ian’s skeletal features. The despondency somehow seemed to cut further and further into his pale, crevice-strewn expression.
‘Time’ he muttered disconsolately as he fell back against one of the walls, slumping to a sitting position, ‘I just need more time. Time. That’s all. For the answer. For the true answer. To correct. To…to repent…’ His mumblings drew to a close, segueing into a dry, rasping cough that competed admirably against the increasing ferocity of the storm surrounding the clock tower.
Sleep followed the final whispered mutter into the ticking, creaking, storm-heavy air. His breathing was laboured, sporadic. Each wheeze sounding more painful and drawn out than the last. Time indeed was what he needed. And ultimately what his body was running short of. With each wheezing, wrenching breath, his time was slipping away.
And as the storm slowly abated and the weak morning sun shone in through the clock faces Ian Donald did indeed run out of time. His body too frail, too deprived of sustenance, too short of life to survive. As he lay slumped on the floor, lifeless and defeated, the sun momentarily lit up the interior of the clock tower. Each cog, each pipe, each bell glimmered gorgeously in the fledgling morning light. And strewn throughout the room, sprawled on the wooden floor, lay corpse after corpse. Rotting, all. Each stripped to the waist, their ruined flesh covered in the same words, numbers and formulas adorning the walls. Only where chalk had sufficed for the latter, crude blood-soaked carvings had fulfilled the duty on the scattered corpses. Close to each body lay empty plastic cups. Signs of their own downfall, of their own folly.
Signs of Ian’s folly. The leader who had convinced them. The one who had walked them along the path of salvation and led them into the arms of redemption on the day of judgment. Or, at least, what Ian had calculated to be the day of judgment. What Ian was convinced, with all his faith, was the day of judgment. Only, when the moment finally arrived, and the other believers had unflinchingly taken their step into ascension, Ian had baulked. Uncertain, unconvinced, without faith. As he watched his fellow believers slump one by one to the floor of the clock tower, accompanied by the crushing realisation that end times were not upon them, he became fixated on time. On its scarcity, on its accuracy. Above all on its relentless, marching, taunting beat.
Time was what had failed him. And yet time was what had continued to mock him. Each tick reminding him of his failure. Each tick accompanying his increasingly starved and emaciated body to its premature end.
As the sun crept higher into the clearing skies, and the branches dripped generously with the remnants of the previous night’s storm, the clock tower stood proudly once more, thrust into the air with all the confidence and nobility it had always had. Ticking. Ticking through rain, through shine. Ticking always. The keeper of time.