The Clock Tower

April2018

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.

‘Time…’

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.

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Early Retirement

 

When I first started climbing this mountain, I’d only a vague idea where the summit was, and my map was rubbish. I’d heard a few people had climbed it before but I didn’t know any of them personally then, they were just people in story books to be wondered at.

When I began hillwalking way back in the day, my first pair of boots really hurt. I mean, really hurt. I was later to find out that they were just wrong for me: wrong size, cheap leather, rubbish soles, everything designed to torture your feet. I almost gave up before I’d even started.

I went back to the shop to discuss my problems and discovered Goretex. Thank God for Goretex. My subsequent sets of footwear were slippers in comparison and I knocked off the smaller peaks as though on a summer stroll. This one’s been tough though despite the better footwear, and I even managed to get a better map though you might never guess it from the number of wrong turns I’ve taken. Still can’t quite make out the summit with the cloud and mist coming and going.

It’s not as bad as tramping in New Zealand where the maps had a helpful warning, ‘subject to change’, written across the contours. I think even Mt Cook had changed height the year before I was there! Not much fun when the mountains change around you as you try to climb the bloody things. Made it interesting I suppose, more of a challenge.

Back home now though and this bloody climb I started so long ago. Now almost everyone I know has mastered its peak, though most of them got some sort of chairlift to the summit, lucky bastards. I’m going to have to walk all the way on my own, under my own steam, as always.

But maybe not. When I did my mountain leadership course I was always told to know when to turn back. Getting to the top wasn’t more important than you or your party’s safety and, if you enjoyed walking, wherever you got to was going to be enjoyable anyway. And there were usually good views from any height as long as you stopped to look at them.

So I stop on the ridge and have a good look around me. A large bird of prey swoops past, hunting for its young family, paying no attention to me. I can see a small herd of deer down in the glen, absent mindedly grazing, breath just visible in the cool air. It’s quiet, perhaps faint noises from other parties climbing ahead, and below. I neither see them nor care any more if I’m ahead of them or behind.

I think I can see the summit rising above the clouds in the distance, but it’s actually really nice here, right where I am. And besides, my knee’s twitching a bit and the blister on my right heel has burst. It’s been a good climb this far, not many even get onto the ridge far less scramble along to the top. So maybe I should just go back down. After all, I heard there’s a storm coming from down south, snow and blizzards likely. I wouldn’t want to be stuck up there caught up in the middle of that.

 

(Daily Prompt: Not everyone want to stay in it for the long haul.)

Benches

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It was perhaps the 15th bench she’d pointed out as he carefully tried to move her away.

“This one is dedicated to ‘Mr Peterson of Comely Bank’. I wonder who he was and why there’s a bench dedicated to him, it doesn’t say.”

“1917”, Eric pointed out the date just below the inscription. “Perhaps he died during the First World War.”

“Oh that’s too sad”, Moira said, rubbing her nose slightly with her left hand and sniffing gently. She clasped her right hand tighter into Eric’s, intertwining her fingers through his, locking him to her, and pulled herself closer to him so she could lean against his shoulder. “Do you think his wife, or whoever dedicated this bench, came here often to sit? Maybe his sweetheart? Maybe his children? Maybe his grandchildren still come here and sit here and think of him?” Her voice almost pleaded for positive affirmation of her thoughts.

“Unlikely”, Eric said. “Like most of the benches here they’re probably forgotten. You can tell by the state most of them are in. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s just some scam by the council to get people to pay for benches so they don’t have to.”

“Oh don’t say that”, Moira exclaimed, “I’m sure that’s not true.” They stood in silence for a moment before Eric managed to start moving further down Prince’s Street towards the Mound, carefully pulling Moira with him. However, they soon stopped again.

Moira was reading another plaque. “See this one, ‘To my dearest Johnny, I will think of you always when the Cherry Blossoms, Your Margie, forever and always.’ Isn’t that so sweet?”

Eric sighed, but imperceptibly. It had taken over half an hour to walk from the West End to this point and at this rate, they were never going to get up the Mound to the High Street where he had a small student flat, only rented of course. You couldn’t buy property in this part of town for love nor money. He still had a little packing to do and could do with an early night.

“Do you think”, Moira was saying, “that you’d like me to dedicate a bench to you when you’re gone?”

Eric stared at her incredulously, “But I’m only going to Stirling!” he exclaimed.

Moira pulled at him using their locked hands, jolting his arm quite suddenly and a little painfully. “No silly, when you’re dead and I’m left all alone in the world, pining after you as a wee old white-haired widow, remembering my famous husband, the bio-chemist Eric McDonald.”

Eric looked up at the castle, now lit up in shades of red, noting how like Stirling Castle it looked. Would he think of this night as he looked at that different castle in the years to come? Would he remember it at all as he ventured out on a new life, a new University, his PhD course, his career, his future? He smiled sadly at Moira who was still staring at the bench. “Come on”, he said, “I’ve got to pack. I need to be away by ten.”

From Here I Can See The Sea

From here I can see the sea.

The waves lap. Angry. Full of discord. Suffused with venom. All pretence of a blue, quixotic picturesque sea drowned beneath the sheer violence of the dark, foreboding waves that cascade into one another.

I can almost hear them. Separated from me by this window and several hundred yards, yes. But I can almost hear them. They snarl. They growl. They whisper. Their hushed declarations tapping at the window, desperate to enter. Desperate to consume.

The sky above the waves hangs heavy. Impenetrably grey. A scrawled canvas of meteorological misery. Threatening rain. Threatening an uptick in violence. Confident in its ability. Assured, comfortable, in its malevolence.

My eyes refuse to deviate. The sea, the waves, forever holding my attention. The bridge striding across the watery expanse fails to wrestle my gaze, my attention, from the depths. Its beauty, its magnificence nothing more than a brightly-coloured splash on that scrawled canvas. Timid in its idealistic demeanour. False in its promise.

My pen hangs loosely from the frailness of my fingers. The paper beneath sits unsullied. Untroubled. The cursor on the screen in front of me flashes constantly. Never ceasing to remind me of its impotence.

But still I gaze. My thoughts colliding into one another, mirroring the actions of the waves. My mind seemingly connected to their motions, to their behaviour. Pushed and pulled, I imagine myself weightless, at the mercy, at the whim, of the tide. It threatens to release me; allowing me the time, the space, the oxygen to breath. And then, through sheer malice, it draws me back in. A tortuous game of cat and mouse played out under the cover of an all-consuming darkness.

The waves will calm. They will subside. They always do. But the mocking remains. Steadfast. Even at its most calm, at its most serene, the sea continues to mock me. Prodding at my indecision. Scratching at my festering wounds. Even the sun when it finally returns promises nothing more to me than pity. Condescension.

At one time the waves, the sea, in all their and its unbridled, unhinged glory comforted me. It spoke of character, it provided depth. A glimpse into the darkness that so often compliments, and enhances, the continual unremitting light. But not now. Now it strangles. Now it suffocates. Its candid schizophrenia engulfing my mind with doubt, with indecision.

So from here stare out at the waves. Angry at my submission. To their whims. To their ebbs. Their flows. Enraged by my acquiescence.

From here I now hear nothing but silence. From here I can feel the darkness slithering around me.

But from here I resolve to change. To resist. To overcome.

From here I resolve to fight.

No matter how hard it may seem. No matter how hard it will be.

The tide will recede. The waves will subside. Of that I am sure.

They need to. They must.

From here I can see the sea.

I Dream Of Mermaids

Last night I dreamt of mermaids.

Again. Like I do most nights. Or some nights, at least. Frequently. Let’s just say frequently.

I dreamt I was sitting here, right where I am now, by my bedroom window. Staring out at the sea. The sea that appears so choppy, so gloomy. So grey. The near-sand-less, pebble beach that lines the coast adding to the moribund demeanour of the town. A once-renowned seaside town, or resort, that has long since seen its glory days pass by. Signs swing from side to side in the breeze to a squeaking soundtrack of rusty hinges. Eyes stare down at the rain-spattered pavements as the backdrop of boarded-up shops and graffiti-strewn walls drift by. The pier, once so fabled and so full of life, of colour, stands broken at the edge of the water. Rotting wooden posts thrust out of the water like fingers, reaching out for any kind of salvation as they gradually sink beneath the waves.

But when I dream I see so much more. The sea itself becomes a backdrop. The waves become the bit-part player. The rocks that occasionally make an appearance during lower tides become a stage. The stage. The stage for the mermaids as they glide so gracefully out of the water, resting on the rocks with poise and finesse. Two, three, five, nine; more and more cut through the water, revealing themselves amid the ethereal glow of the dreamlike surroundings.

I stare at them, from this seat, by the window. I am transfixed. Their beauty surrounds me, invades me, illuminates me. Their hair strands of perfection, flowing down past their bare shoulders, coquettishly concealing their supple breasts. Their eyes, beams of kaleidoscopic perfection, burrow into my trembling soul. Feasting. Devouring. Their smiles, warm and disarming, siren calls with power enough to ensnare any man, women or child who dare look upon it. And their tails, flicking gently, calmly. Almost demurely. Their scaly lower halves shimmer in the evening’s twilight, mesmerising my eyes as the grey becomes imbued with the slightest, most transient dashes of reds, greens, purples. I stare at them. I wish I were them. Amongst them.

And then they beckon me. All as one gently curling their hands into ‘come hither’ gestures, calling out to me, inviting me into their world. I look down and I am transformed. My legs replaced by a shimmering, smooth, scaly, majestic, stunning tail. And when I look up once more I am with them. Gracefully laying on my own rock. Within the ocean. Within the group. Surrounded by my fellow mermaids. My tail flicks confidently, breezily, bringing the slightest of tears to my eyes. The others whisper to me, sing to me, call to me. Praising my beauty, my poise, my everything. I am at one with myself. At peace.

And we slink beneath the waves. As one. All slipping from our rocks, from our stages. We curve and pirouette through the water, laughing and singing, allowing the waves to gently carry us towards the deepest, darkest realms of the ocean. Before we slip into the depths I look down, transfixed with my own beauty. By the smooth grey scales that delicately and intricately protrude from my torso.

And then they fade.

Transforming into the cold, grey, metallic sterility of my wheelchair. The grey of the steel, the wheels, the footrests infusing me with that familiar feeling of resentment. At the chair. At my legs. At my useless, lifeless legs. And sleep takes me, chewing me up and spitting me back out into the dreary morning’s banality. The struggle. The arm-aching struggle with this contraption that I despise so.

And so I stare out at the sea once more. Grey. Sitting by my bedroom window. In my chair. Willing, wishing, hoping for it to change. For mermaids to decorate every rock, every wave, every inch of the horizon. And yet, it never does. Only as I sleep. Only when I dream. Each time the same dream. Each time the same pull from my mind, the same existential plain of fantasy carved into my imagination.

Each day I watch the dreariness, the bitterness. Letting the minutes tick by.

Ushering me to the realm of sleep once more.

So I can dream yet again.

Once again.

So I can dream of mermaids.

 

Time to kill

Nanny was waiting by the door and hurried the child inside the porch.

‘What time do you call this?’ she said. ‘It’s way past your bedtime. Where have you been?

‘On the..the..viaduct.’ said Damian.

‘On the what?’ said Nanny.

‘The..the..v.v.viaduct,’ said Damian.

‘I’ve told you time and time again not to go there. What on earth were you up to?’

‘M.m.making a sacrifice,’ said Damian.

‘A what?’ said Nanny

‘A s.s.sacrifice,’ said Damian.

‘What kind if sacrifice?’ said Nanny.

‘A m.m.mus. c.c.cul..a.ar sacrifice,’ said Damian turning round

‘Whatever do you mean? Spit it out,’ said Nanny.

Damian’s eyes glazed over as confidence became diction.

‘Must kill her, must kill her, must kill her,…’

Nanny saw a carving knife flash in the moonlight and then nothing more.

stab

 

 

Growing

‘Puts me in mind of a pepper’, he said, peering through narrow glasses perched halfway down his long, angular nose. He continued to view the plant from all angles before straightening his bent body and peering around the small room.

‘No tomatoes?’, he enquired.

‘I keep them in the Grow House, over by the wall’, nodding in the general direction of the cheap, plastic contraption sitting at a jaunty angle by the south-facing wall. ‘It’s far sunnier there and they seem to do better.’

His eyebrows arched in exaggerated surprise. He then nodded sagely, but with obvious disbelief, mumbling about the cost of a greenhouse, it not being positioned in the sunniest spot in the garden, and it not being used for growing tomatoes. And then, adding how I had far too much money to waste.

‘And this little table and chairs?

‘It’s so we can come out of an evening, sit in the warmth and have a glass of wine’, I smiled. ‘It’s a nice place to relax and see the garden without shivering in the cold.’

He shuffled in a circle to get a better view of the garden through the glass walls but stumbled. I caught him and rested him on one of the chairs as he started coughing, placing his stick to one side. ‘Just as well I had them’, I quipped. He ignored me and started fumbling in his pockets, wheezing heavily.

Pulling out a battered packet of cigarettes he paused, looked up at me and asked, ‘This is outdoors isn’t it?’

For anyone else I’d have said obviously not, but for him I said, ‘yes dad, this is outside’, and heard those words echo in the small, half-empty glass house as I stared down at an empty chair, imagining the smell of tobacco in the air.

***

In memory of William McDermid, 19th June 1922 to 30th August 1998. He’d have loved a greenhouse xx

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