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Fixing Time

Sallie Tams

  As soon as I see it, I know it’s my mother’s clock.  There’s a crescent-shaped scar on the top of it. I made it when I was ten years old—the scar that is, not the clock. It matches one on the side of my face; one I didn’t make.

  The clock is in the pudgy hands of a man with a bowling ball of a beer gut and a faded Wishbone Ash T-shirt. He’s holding it up, squinting at the clock face.

  I watch him from the corner of the junk store while feigning interest in a pile of musty books, their innards foxed and deckled. I’m not letting Beer Boy out of my sight, not while he’s got Ma’s clock.

  I shuffle from foot to foot and drift towards a display of ceramic ware. I scan it with a practiced eye. Just in case. If the clock’s here, there could be other stuff.

  I pick up vases, turning them over, checking the maker’s stamp. I can find nothing familiar here.  So I sneak another glance at the fat fingers clutching the clock; I can’t believe the guy hasn’t just put it down and walked on—there’s nothing special about it— most people wouldn’t give it a second look. It’s just a plain faced mantel clock in a wooden case with a little door on the back you can open up to inspect the mechanism.

  My father made it from a kit when he was a still stranger to me during the long, bitter gap between the issue of a badly fitting Burton’s de-mob suit and his finding a real job. It stopped working when it acquired the scar; my father said it was beyond fixing.

  By then it wasn’t the only thing.

  Beer Boy doesn’t put the clock down. He stands there with it clasped between his hands examining the face like it can tell him the secret to eternal life. Then he looks at me and I realise that squint is a permanent way of being; I think one eye is on my face but the other looks off somewhere behind my left ear. My plan to try to intimidate him with a menacing glare evaporates into indecision about which eye to go for. I may have to resort to other tactics.

  I edge a little closer and pick up an old cricket bat.  I heft it and give it a swing, liking the feel of its weight in my hands and the power it could give me. I imagine swinging it at Beer Boy.

  “How much?” I ask the stoop-shouldered septuagenarian behind the counter.

  She regards me with a withering stare that tells me if I have to ask, I can’t afford it.

  “Seventy-five,” she says. A multitude of charm bracelets rattle around her bony wrists like fetishes on a shaman’s stick as her small frame is suddenly racked with the spasms of a brittle smoker’s cough.

  “Bit pricey,” I say. “I could get a new one for that.”

  She shrugs as the coughing subsides and pulls a Lambert & Butler from a blue pack on the counter and lights it. I put the bat down and turn my attention back to Beer Boy.  He’s still holding the damned clock.

  Come on mate, just put it down and move on.

  He fails to oblige and instead clamps the clock under his arm like he’s heading for the touch-line with 20 seconds left in the game and no injury time. I could fix that; I could give him injury time. My chest feels a little tight and I’m fighting to stop my fingers from balling up into fists.  I could knock his bloody block off.  But the fight isn’t with him, it’s with me, and so in my head I run through the little mantra that they taught me in anger management classes:

                                                                   “Wha-hay guroo wha-hay guroo

                                                                     wha-hay guroo wha-hay jeeo”

  To be honest I feel like a complete pillock with all this new agey stuff or whatever the hell load of bollocks it is and fuck knows if it really does any good, but who wants to run the risk?


  The clock isn’t the first of her things I’ve managed to find.  It started with a table lamp at a flea market in Garstang. There was no identifying scar—it didn’t need one—his signature was on the bottom. He’d made it from a Spitfire propeller off a scrap pile at the factory where he worked as an engineer before the War. They were happy to give him the wood, but they couldn’t give him his job back; they’d already given it away—to his brother—along with his self-esteem. 

  Just like life, Ma used to say, things can change in an instant and there’s nothing you can do about it but try to salvage the pieces and make it into something else. 


  “This is a really nice clock,” I say, holding up an ornate, gilded affair with spinning brass balls. I wave it at Beer Boy.  He looks up vaguely in my direction, shakes his head and clutches Ma’s clock a little tighter.

  What could he possibly want with it? Will he try to repair it? Will it sit in his dining room gathering dust? Will he cannibalise it to make something else work, ripping out its guts then tossing it in the trash? I don’t want that sort of future for my mother’s clock.

  He couldn’t possibly understand the story of the clock. How we all watched as my dad laid every single piece of it out on the enamel-topped kitchen table like a surgeon preparing for surgery, the tiny parts dwarfed in his massive hands. Hands that moved with surprising deft and gentle grace to create an object so ugly in its plainness, it was almost beautiful. My mother loved it as if it were made of pure gold because he’d made it for her, and because she loved him.


  “Look,” says Beer Boy, running his fingers through the roots of his thinning hair. “I like this clock and I’m having it. You have that one, seeing as how you’re so keen on it.”

   “OK, OK. Whatever you pay,” I step closer, trying to get out of range of the coughing crone and whisper conspiratorially, “I’ll match and add five quid to it.”

  “I want this clock.”

  “Come on, Mister—it’s not worth the fiver. It doesn’t even work.”

  “Then why do you want it so bad?”

  “I just do,” I sound like a petulant child and even in the one eye that’s looking directly at me, I can see what he’s thinking: nut job, loser.

  And I want to say to him, “No, no, you got it all wrong, it’s my sister who’s the loser, not me.” 

  She’s the one who loses everything. She does it on purpose. Ma was hardly cold in her grave when my sister went through the house with the ruthlessness of a Balkan warlord, scattering everything to charity stores, flea markets and consignment outlets around three counties.  I wasn’t fast enough to stop her.  She said she didn’t want the reminders.

  “I can’t understand why you would want to dwell on the past,” she said, “wasn’t it bad enough living through it the first time?” 

  She tells me I should let go of it all and move on with what’s left of my life. I tried explaining how it helps me understand and deal with the anger, but she just doesn’t get it. I’m not quite sure I do myself. My therapist calls it a compulsion bordering on obsession. They can call it what the fuck they like, I just know I have to collect it all back.

  The consignment outlets were the easiest to deal with; I went to each one in the Yellow Pages. I bought everything back that I could find: the hand embroidered table linen, the fox fur coat, slightly mangy with age; the green Hornsea Pottery tea-pot with a cracked lid I bought for her 50th birthday, of course it didn’t have a cracked lid then. The worst was the heavy Flemish crockery cabinet which was an absolute bitch to get up the stairs to my flat by myself but I couldn’t bring myself to let go of it.

  I’ve crammed my apartment with my mother’s things— in piles, in heaps; on shelves, in cupboards, boxes and drawers; there’s some in a deposit box at Barclays and even some at my ex's. It’s one of the reasons why she’s my ex but not the only one. She says I’m obsessed—unhealthily—she says I’m a lot of things and none of them worth a round of drinks. As if I didn’t know it, but all the same, it’s never nice to hear it from someone else.


  “Listen, I really want that clock.” Inside I’m screaming at him, give me the damned clock, I have to have the damned clock; I need it. 

  I know I’m leaving myself wide open to extortion. His beady eyes flicker when he hears the note of desperation in my voice but I don’t care. Just the sight of that clock peels away the years and I can feel the hopeful nine-year-old come alive inside me again, the version of me I was surely meant to be, as a long- past summer emerges from the dust motes in that dreary junk store.

  I can hear her voice, husky and low. I can see her eyes, shining like liquid amber, their corners crinkling as she throws her head back, laughing at one of my father’s jokes.  It’s August of 46 and hope is coming alive in the world once more. He’s been back from the War for only a few weeks. They are sitting on the veranda enjoying the evening air, warm and heavy with the mingled scent of old roses and tobacco. His arm draped in a languid, yet intimate way around her shoulders and the hue of her golden-brown skin is amplified in the rays of the lowering sun.  He turns towards her, leaning forward, drinking her in with thirsty eyes, slaking that thirst with her; caressing her bare shoulders with those big hands as gently as if he was holding a baby. 

  I watch them from my hiding place among the heavy-headed Peonies and in that moment I’m captivated by their unity and the fortress of their perfect, seemingly indestructible love; love which had defied long years of separation and Hitler’s bombs and bullets.

  I remember thinking how my dad was home at last and everything was going to be alright again. I knew it because she’d said it over and over again in the long wait for him to be de-mobbed, not because I could remember that much about him before he left for the War.

  But my mind refuses to linger there; it skips forward to another summer and slams itself shut at a familiar place. A summer when the hope had gone again; a summer when his screams late at night as the nightmares returned, woke us with frightening regularity and my sister would crawl fearfully into my bed and bury her head under the pillows.

  It was a summer when my mother tried to hide the bruises on her arms and face behind pretence that everything was normal. It was the summer I learned that she was right about time and what it could do; the summer when I hurled the clock from the mantel in my juvenile attempt to deflect his rage from her to me. I missed my target but didn’t miss his response.

  And so in the summer of my tenth year I learned about the power of a fist; the summer when the walls of the fortress crumbled, just as his mind had done—the beginning of the end—for us all.

  I think I’ve been angry ever since and I’m tired of it, worn away by it; I am diminished by it. It is not who I was meant to be, but it is who I am. It’s what drives this compulsion I can’t explain.


  Beer Boy shuffles towards the cash register, the movement jolts me back to reality.

  “Thirty,” I say, “I’ll give you thirty for it.”

  “Look, Mister, I don’t know what your problem is, but you need help,” he says. “You wanna clock, go get one off eBay like everybody else. This is mine.”

  He hands a twenty to the woman who snatches it with a rattle of bracelets and wraps the clock in brown paper.

  I follow him out of the store. He whips his head around and stares at me, eyes jostling for position on my face.

  “You a freakin’ stalker or what?”

  “No, no—I just want that clock that’s all, honestly. Come on—please,” now I am pleading and it takes every ounce of self-control I have not to deck him with a punch, “forty, I’ll give you forty.”

  He stops and considers this for a moment, sucking his teeth.

  I take a step closer. He must think I’m going to try and snatch it because he twists away from me with the clock in a protective clutch.  His foot slips off the kerb and he starts to fall, the clock slips and I go to catch it but he’s got it in a death grip. I grab at him instead, trying to arrest his fall.

  There’s a ripping noise; I lose my footing, and fall backwards. Beer Boy lands hard, face-down on top of me with a loud grunt and an exhalation of sour breath.  His enormous belly is more solid than it looks and I can feel my ribcage flex and compress. The clock lands on the pavement, I hear a sound of splintering, but I’m not sure if it’s my ribs or the clock.

  “You asshole!” he yells, “Get the fuck off me.”

  I’m like a cartoon cat trapped under a heavy wardrobe and I’m convinced I’ll be completely flat when he gets off me. The moment is so ridiculous, it calms me. I would laugh if every ounce of breath hadn’t been pressed out of me.

  “You’re—on—me—you—get—off­.”  I squeeze each word out as a laboured gasp.   “Je—sus.”

  The pain might be in my head or my chest, I can’t exactly tell which. My hand stings with pavement burn, but that doesn’t hurt as much as the thought of the clock in pieces. He shifts his great bulk and rolls onto his knees.

  “Jesus ain’t gonna help you, sucker. Come on, you want this piece-of-shit clock—pay-up.”

  “Twenty,” I gasp, trying to re-inflate my lungs, “it’s completely broken now.”

  “You said fifty.”

  “I said forty.”

  “You tore my shirt, you moron.”

  “Alright, alright I’ll pay for the shirt.”

  “I should call the coppers. You tried to steal my clock!”

  “It’s my mother’s clock.”

  He heaves himself to his feet. His features soften for a moment.

  “Why the hell didn’t you say so, you retard?”

  I pull myself up, was that was a note of conciliation in his voice?

  “I didn’t think you would understand.” My voice light with hopefulness.

   I reach into my jacket and take out my wallet and hand him the forty.

  “Na,” he says, brushing my hand away. He’s going to relent, he’s going to give me the clock for nothing, I’m sure of it.

   “Your mother’s clock, you say?” He squints and sucks his teeth some more.

  “Yes, my mother’s clock.”

  “In that case then, I’ll be wantin’ the rest.” His features arrange themselves into an expression somewhere between satisfaction and a bad case of constipation.

  “The rest?”

  He points to his shirt.

  “OK. OK.” I hold my hands up in surrender. “Will another twenty cover it?”

  He looks down at me and smiles. It’s the sort of smile you see on the faces of serial killers in TV shows. For a second I think it will end in a fight after all although now I’m not sure I’ve got enough strength left.

  "Make it a one hundred and fifty and we’re done.”

  “What the f—?” 

  He scoops up the package with unexpected agility and makes to leave.

   “—OK, OK.”  I hand over the money and snatch the package before he can scam me out of even more. It sounds hollow and rattles like an over-sized box of matches.

  “Bloody nutter,” I hear him mumble as he waddles away counting the money between his fat fingers.


  I place the tiny shattered pieces on the kitchen table, arranging them side by side; I run my fingers over the scar, letting them linger as they connect with its deep groove. I close my eyes and wonder if perhaps, I can cut it out, like a cancer—if by removing this outward symbol of everything that was wrong, it would somehow make it all right again.

   I close my eyes and just for a fleeting instant, I swear I can smell old roses and wonder—maybe, this time, I can put the pieces back together and fix time.

  She would have liked that.





Sallie Tams, born in Yorkshire and now permanently resident in Staffordshire, by way of New York, Massachusetts and Seattle, came to fiction writing from a business background rather a little later in life than she intended.  Her most recent work, a collection of short stories, What We Didn’t Say, was published in print and eBook in 2013. In 2010 she was the winner of the Whittaker Prize for Fiction. In the same year she had a number of her stories published by Ether Books Ltd on their Ether app for smartphones and tablets. Her work can also be found in Body Parts & Coal Dust & To The Edge of There and Back anthologies. It also appears in various editions of The Right Eyed Deer Literary Magazine. She has been accepted as part of the 2014/15 cohort with Writing West Midlands Room 204 Writer Development Programme. 

What We Didn’t Say is available from Amazon




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