Happy New Year, everyone!
This year I decided to write a two-parter in response to our Christmas Short Story Challenge. Click here to read Part One, in which our heroine, horologist Sandy Sharp, searches for clues about her missing father and encounters a mysterious otherworldly character at midnight in the clock mechanism room of Big Ben’s tower.
New Year’s Resolution
The mystery man was so tall, Sandy’d had to stand on tiptoe to reach his collar. He’d been fast enough to catch her wrist, strong enough to block her and absorb the momentum of her entire bodyweight as she swung the hammer at the panel. He could have broken her hold on him, could have swatted her like a gnat, but he didn’t.
He leaned down, just enough to allow her feet to settle back on the ground and relieve the pull on the fabric of his uniform. Above her clenched hand, his shoulders rose and fell in a slow, steady rhythm. Under the peak of his hat, his brown-rimmed hazel eyes gleamed, focused and calm. Waiting.
Seconds dripped by. The pounding in her chest slowed to a rapid thump-thump-thump that made it easier to catch her breath. Then her whole body started to shake, making the gold braid scratch against her fingers. With a supreme effort of will, she opened her hand and stepped back out of reach.
He straightened to his full height, walked around to where her hammer lay forgotten, picked it up and returned to present it to her with a polite bow. “I apologize for frightening you. I suppose it’s too much to ask that you forget you ever saw me?”
“Much too much.” Sandy’s heart was still racing, but now it was with excitement. “There are 334 steps up to this room, and I know you didn’t climb them. You weren’t here a minute ago, and you just called me by a name only my dad ever uses. You’re the only link to him I’ve found in four years of searching. I intend to find out every last detail about you.”
“I watch and wait. I seek information when it is necessary. And I drink whisky on Old Year’s Night.” He lifted his shako and ran a hand through his wavy blond hair. “Now you know everything, and I must go.”
“Right.” Sandy reached for her rucksack and slung it over her shoulder. “When you go back through that shiny panel, or around it, or under it, whatever you do, I’ll be right behind you.”
He shook his head, looking troubled. “That crossing is not open to you.”
“Then I’ll open it.” She hefted the hammer, ignoring the pang in her sore wrist. “If this doesn’t do it, I’ll try a really sharp chisel. Or a drill.”
“You’ll fail, and you’ll get into trouble. Maybe lose your job.” He stepped aside, leaving her facing the panel. “Try the hammer now, and you’ll understand.”
She stepped forward, examining the gleaming surface to see if she could find a flaw or potential weak spot.
“Start gently, Alexandrina, and prepare for recoil. If you try a swing like the one I prevented earlier, you’ll hurt yourself, and George will never forgive—”
The sudden silence in the small room was more painful than the kickback from the hammer could ever have been.
“George will never forgive you?” Sandy let her rucksack slide off her shoulder and slump at her feet. She dropped the hammer on top of it. “As in, George, my dad will never forgive you if I hurt myself?”
He sighed. “My name is Nelson. I guard the crossing. George asked me to watch over you for him.”
Everything was starting to make a strange sort of sense. “We call you the Spirit of the Clock. Did you step out of that panel because you feared the hammer would recoil and I would hurt myself?”
Nelson shrugged one broad shoulder. “Yes. I couldn’t allow that. I promised.”
Sandy clenched her fist and rubbed her knuckles across her chest, trying to relieve the knot of tightness that had settled between her ribs. “Do you think any physical injury could be as bad as not knowing whether my dad’s alive, or hurt, or in trouble?”
His lips compressed, and that was answer enough.
“Tonight I found out he was here all along, in his favorite place in the whole world. He asked you to keep an eye me, but in four whole years he didn’t even send me a message, didn’t let me know he was safe?” Relief warred with betrayal, and betrayal won. “You’d better tell me the whole story, Nelson. And he’d better have a good reason for what he did, or I’m leaving, and I won’t be back. See how he enjoys not knowing where I am or what I’m doing.”
A deep crease appeared between Nelson’s pale brows as he considered her threat. Sandy let him stew. When he threw up his hands, she knew she’d won.
“Swear never to reveal what I’m about to tell you to any other person.”
“Who’d believe me anyway?”
Nelson crossed his arms.
“Fine. I swear.”
He walked over to the sturdy oak door, shrugged out of his jacket, hung it on the hook and added his cap. He looked younger, less formal, more approachable without all the gold braid.
He paced the room in his shirtsleeves, tracing the circuit Sandy had followed earlier. After a couple of rounds he stopped in front of the mechanism. “There are two clocks in this tower,” he said. “The one you call the Great Clock calls the seconds, and the minutes, and the hours.” He hesitated. “It also drives what we call the Other Clock.”
“The Other Clock?” Sandy looked at the copper panel, where the mechanism of the Great Clock was reflected in a distorted golden, wavy image.
“The Other Clock calls the years, and the decades, and the centuries,” he said, “but it does more than that. In the final minute of Old Year’s Night, as your clock tolls midnight, it causes ours to close down the year, to add it to the archives of history, and to start afresh.” He grinned at her. “In your parlance, I believe you would say the Other Clock rolls over the year.”
Sandy waited for him to laugh. He didn’t. “You’re serious,” she said at last.
“Absolutely.” He leaned forward, not a glimmer of humor in his eyes or lips. “Believe me or not. Your choice.”
Well. It certainly explained why the authorities had been adamant that the Great Clock must ring out the year, no matter what other repairs had been scheduled. And why Dad had always volunteered to work on New Year’s Eve.
“I told you to make it a good story,” she said. “You’ve surpassed my expectations. Now I expect you’re going to tell me Dad is somewhere the other side of that panel, fixing the Other Clock.”
“The Other Clock is unique. It’s also delicate, temperamental and in need of constant care.” Nelson took a breath, exhaled slowly. Here it comes. “Your father has given us much advice over the years, but never more than that until Old Year’s Night four years ago.”
Sandy curled her hands until her nails dug deep into her palms. “Go on.”
“For the entire minute the two clocks are connected, the gateway stands wide open. If you stand right at the threshold you can see the Other Clock at work. Your father never missed an opportunity, so he was the one to see when the gear slipped and time stopped. Thanks to his quick thinking and even quicker action, a disaster was averted.”
“He crossed over to your side and fixed the Other Clock. And then the gateway closed and he was stuck.” Sandy frowned. “But why didn’t he come back the next year?”
“Your clock drives ours, and while the two are linked you can cross, but only in that direction.”
She had a hundred more questions, but if Nelson was telling the truth she already had the only information she needed. “Then tell Dad I’ll see him here, next week, on the stroke of midnight.”
Seven interminable days later she waited by the panel, heart in her mouth, palms sticky with sweat, as the Great Clock’s pendulum counted down the last minutes of 2017. And then it was time.
Bong! The copper panel melted like early morning mist and there was dad, a little older, a little greyer, rumpled and familiar. Nelson hovered at his shoulder like an over-protective nanny.
“Looking good, Dad,” she said quickly.
“Alexandrina Victoria.” He took off his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you, but I’m not sorry I crossed the barrier.”
“Are you happy?” He looked happy, and relaxed, and excited.
He stepped aside so she could see the complex clockwork mechanism behind him. It made the Great Clock look like a child’s toy. “This is the most amazing piece of engineering I have ever seen, but it needs a lot of TLC. I can make sure it doesn’t go wrong.” His smile suffused his entire face. “Your future depends on it. The world’s future depends on it.”
He turned and ran a loving eye over the weights and gears, cogs and levers, as the Great Bell tolled the end of 2017. Apparently everything was in order, because he turned back to her with a satisfied smile.
Four years of hurt and loneliness, and in half a minute he’d be gone again. “What’s it like, Dad, over there?”
“I love it,” he said simply. “It’s like London, but greener and cleaner. The people are kind, and there are clocks. Lots and lots of clocks.”
Sandy rolled her shoulders, checking that her rucksack was firmly settled in place. “Need an assistant?”
He blinked a couple of times, sniffed, nodded and opened his arms wide.
And as the final chime of 2017 tolled and resonated across the moonlit, traffic-free city of London, Sandy Sharp stepped across the threshold and into her future.
Sorry, that ran a bit long, but if you’re still with me…thank you!
And here’s wishing you all a very happy, healthy and fulfilling 2018.