Happy Holidays, everyone!
As my posts fall on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve this year, I decided to write a two-parter covering both nights. I picked off the prompt words in Part One, below, but the Happy Ending will have to wait until next Sunday.
The unmistakable chimes of the Great Bell of London, commonly known as Big Ben, resonated across the moonlit, traffic-free city. A random snowflake drifted from the cloudless sky and settled on the roof of the Elizabeth Tower. It was officially Christmas.
Below the belfry, in the mechanism room, Sandy Sharp, the youngest horologist in the Palace of Westminster, waited until the last echo of the final chime faded. Then she threw the temporary switch that disconnected the hour train that caused the half-ton hammer to strike the fourteen-ton bell.
She wiped her hands on her jeans and traced the raised, gold-on-black inscription at the base of the legendary clock. Made in the Year of our Lord 1854 by Frederick Dent of the Strand and the Royal Exchange, Clockmaker to the Queen, from the Designs of Edmund Beckett Denison, QC. Fixed here 1859.
Officially the clock was shut down for refurbishment, but the powers that be had decreed the Great Bell should ring out to celebrate the start of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The Keeper of the Clock had asked for volunteers to babysit the process, and the other mechanics, who had families to consider, had accepted with guilty relief when Sandy offered to cover both shifts.
The team thought they knew why she wanted to do it. They weren’t wrong exactly, they just didn’t know the half of it. The critical aspects of her plan were too unorthodox to share with her profoundly rational colleagues.
Her earliest memory was of being carried in her father’s arms, up, up and around endless stairs to this room. As a tenth birthday surprise, Dad had let her place an old copper penny on the pendulum stack to speed up the mechanism by two-fifths of a second per day. On her sixteenth, he’d signed her up as his apprentice. On her twentieth, she’d joined the team as a fully qualified mechanic.
And then a scant few weeks later, joy had turned to catastrophe. Some time between the beginning of his shift on New Year’s Eve, and the end of it the following day, Dad had simply disappeared. It was as though the Elizabeth Tower had swallowed him whole.
Sandy was almost sure she didn’t believe in ghosts, but there had always been something…more…about the clock. Their team was small in number but great in reputation. Like her, most of them were the children and grandchildren of mechanics, and their hearts beat in time with the Great Clock’s two-second pendulum. Still, occasionally they made mistakes. When they did, somehow the mechanism corrected itself, rarely missing more than a fraction of a second. And very, very infrequently—a handful of times in a century—it stopped of its own accord for no discernible reason. So far the Keeper’s report had blamed weather, workmen, breakages and birds, because he couldn’t exactly write the clock has a mind of its own.
It had a presence, too. Even now she could feel it, though she knew, knew, knew she was the only living soul in the entire tower. The mechanism room’s mysterious aura had always felt warm, secure, something to wrap around herself and snuggle into on cold, lonely nights, but perhaps it was a trap. Had Dad felt the same way, before he disappeared?
The men joked about the Spirit of the Clock, even left a tot of whisky for it on New Year’s Eve, but they didn’t truly believe. Four years ago she’d assumed they knew better than she did. Now, after eliminating every likely and unlikely explanation for Dad’s disappearance, all that remained was the impossible or the improbable. And if her favorite fictional detective was to be believed, therein must lie the truth.
They’d think she’d lost her mind, but the facts were undeniable. The police had searched diligently and found nothing. No mystery fingerprints, no CCTV, no witnesses, no mistresses, no debts, no secret diary, no suicide note. And crucially, no toolbox. Wherever Dad was, he still had his beloved tools. And there wasn’t a clock on earth he’d choose over this one.
She turned full circle, confirming one final time that there would be nobody to share her story if this went horribly wrong.
“Are you here, Dad?” Her voice broke. He’d hate that. She took a deep breath and half-shouted her next question. “Can you hear me?”
Nobody answered, but the silence sharpened. Not threatening, never that, but the atmosphere hummed with watchful tension.
Someone or something was here. Where?
Her work boots kissed the flagstones as she paced, checking the clock’s three trains, the stone floor, the walls, the spiral staircase. Nothing. The only possibility was the inner wall, which was lined from floor to ceiling by a bronze panel, polished to a mirrored sheen.
She stared at the panel until her eyes watered, but all she saw was the wavy, glimmering reflection of a five-feet nothing, tight-lipped, curly-haired twentysomething standing, legs akimbo, in front of the world’s most famous clock.
From pure instinct she leaned forward and tried to press her palms against the surface. Her brain insisted she was touching the metal, but her skin said otherwise, and when she let her hands drop, no prints marred the lustrous bronze.
She checked the edges of the panel to see how it was fixed, but it seemed to blend smoothly into the stone. There were no bolts, rivets, rucks or loose sections, and when she tried to run her fingers down the join, she failed again.
Above her head, outside her range of vision, coppery-bronze reflections flickered in the polished panel.
“Sod this for a game of soldiers.” Sandy swung her rucksack to the ground by her feet, flipped it open, and took out her biggest hammer. Mostly horology was about precision, but the Great Clock was built on a grand scale, and occasionally force was required.
“Recognize this, Dad?” She held the hammer lightly and swung it, enjoying the balance. Her signature flamingo-pink custom grip, chosen to deter her workmates from borrowing her stuff, glowed a kind of purple-brown in the reflection. The diamond polished steel head, as yet unused, sparked ominously as it caught the lights.
“Okay. Last chance.”
The silence pressed on her as she reversed the hammer so that the pin end would impact the panel. She forced air deep into her lungs and screamed from the pit of her stomach as she poured the pain and fear and grief of the last four years into a mighty swing, intending to buffet the panel until it revealed its secrets.
Her eyes were closed, so she couldn’t say for sure that he stepped out of the mirror. All she knew was that one minute she’d thrown her entire weight at the panel, the next she was nose to chest with a tall blond guy wearing a forest green military uniform liberally embellished with scratchy gold frogging, and a snappy gold-braided shako hat. He smelled of clock oil and polished leather, and he grasped her right wrist so tightly she could barely feel her fingers.
She pushed away from him, and he relaxed his grip just enough to allow her to pull her arm free and step back out of reach. She retreated behind the clock mechanism at high speed, heart thumping, keeping her eyes on the stranger and her fingers around the hammer grip as she rubbed her sore wrist.
The blond man lifted his hands, palms facing her, in a gesture of conciliation. “Peace, Alexandrina Victoria. Lay your weapon down.”
Only one person ever used her given names. As the implications of that sank in, Sandy’s hindbrain erupted, engulfing her in pure molten rage. She dropped the hammer, rounded the clock and grabbed the neck of his fancy uniform in her clenched fist before her rational self even realized she’d moved. Her words came out in a guttural growl.
“Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my dad?”
I hope you enjoyed that!
For the answer to Sandy’s question, and more short story fun, please join me here on New Year’s Eve 🙂