The Keeper of Time

I know that this is a little late for Halloween but I only just found out that it was unsuccessful in a short story competition, so I thought I’d post it now.

She had been walking for just over an hour. Her thighs burned and her calves ached. Blisters had erupted on the little toe of her left foot and on her right heel. She should have worn walking shoes instead of trainers. At least there were no real gradients in the Norfolk landscape.

Karen had escaped from London for a week of solitude, walking in daylight and reading at night. This was the second day. Where she was staying there was only an old-fashioned radio, not even DAB; she had specifically searched for a holiday cottage without a phone or Internet access. She needed breathing space from people and the modern world. She had left her laptop and mobile on the desk at home and the only technology she carried, apart from her digital wristwatch, was a Moleskine notebook and a pen in her backpack.

The sun was directly above her, so it had to be around lunchtime. At least, that was what her stomach was telling her. She hadn’t seen a pub, shop or any other building for at least half an hour. Weeds and nettles grew above her shoulders on a path that led along the bank of a Broad – she wasn’t sure which one. Pushing willow branches aside, she hobbled over stones and tree roots, stopping only to sip from a plastic bottle of tepid water. If only she’d packed the cool bag.

Looking up from replacing the bottle in her backpack, she spotted the cottage behind a mass of willow leaves. It looked run down, almost a ruin, with a ragged fringe of splinters where floods had rotted the bottom of the front door. The dust-smeared windows were draped with cobwebs that mingled with the reflections of willow branches and shadows on the other side of the glass.

Flicking a desiccated moth from her t-shirt, Karen pushed against a tree trunk to give her extra leverage over the serpentine roots that eroded the soil. The sting of the blisters was excruciating. If she could just sit down for ten minutes, remove her trainers and socks, air her feet…

She gasped, finding herself directly in front of a filthy window. The frame looked like sun-bleached bones, cracked and swarming with ants. Spitting on her finger, she rubbed an eye-sized circle in the dust and peered through it.  Directly opposite, a decaying grandmother clock leaned against the wall, hands frozen at a quarter to three. Along another wall stood a sideboard below a framed portrait of a regal woman, perhaps a queen, it was hard to make out through the layer of dust. The top of the sideboard was cluttered with objects: a couple of gas masks, a framed black and white photograph of a couple, an old lantern, and some other unrecognisable objects. The house was frozen in time. It was mesmerising, begging Karen to come on in.

Limping the few steps to the door, she gave it a push. Dust and cobwebs exploded in her face, the door swung open on one hinge and she found herself on the threshold, staring into the gloom, lit only by a thin light dappled with the shadows of leaves.

Karen walked straight into a living room, or was it a dining room? The inhabitants could have left just a few minutes previously: there were cups and saucers, plates and cutlery on a table and, lying on top of an open newspaper, abandoned spectacles, lenses facing down, and arms akimbo. Karen peered at the faded date on the newspaper: 28th April 1941.

Startled by a movement in the periphery of her vision, Karen straightened up, confronting her own face in a large mirror over a wooden mantelpiece – and froze. A second face loomed out of the shadows, just by her shoulder.

‘What you doing in my house?’ The Norfolk accent was thick, like the dust that covered the table.

Karen’s throat tightened, strangling the words as she forced them out: ‘I thought it was abandoned – that nobody lived here’.

‘Then you thought wrong.’

The voice wasn’t threatening or harsh. It creaked, as if it hadn’t been used in a long time.

‘Now you’re here, I suppose you’d better sit down, my woman.’

Karen pulled out a chair from the dining table and sank into it, her feet and head throbbing, her heart on hold. She heard the swish of a skirt and a short stick of a woman moved around the table and sat down in a chair opposite her. The woman clasped her hands in front of her and looked Karen in the eye.

‘So you make a habit of entering other folks’ property?’ The inflection turned a statement into a question.

‘Well, no. I’ve never come across a cottage like this before,’ Karen replied. ‘I was curious.’

‘You know what curiosity did.’ The woman’s lips drew into a half smile. She was middle-aged, sallow-skinned and her eyes were a faded, misty blue, like early autumn cloud. ‘Are you in need of something?’

‘Plasters for my blistered feet – I have some in my backpack – and a few minutes to get my bearings. Then I’ll be on my way,’ Karen said, relieved that she was having a civilised conversation. She reached into her backpack and rummaged around for the plasters. When she looked up the woman was winding the clock.

‘I think you’ll find it’s about half past twelve,’ Karen said, checking her watch. She observed the woman as she moved the hands around the clock face until they were correctly placed. Then she reached inside the body of the clock and the echo of a pendulum restarted time.

Karen unlaced her brand new footwear, removed her damp sport socks and tucked them inside the trainers. She picked at the backing of a plaster, removed it and pressed the antiseptic pad against her toe, tucking the adhesive wings under and pressing them into place before pulling a sock back on. She stuck another plaster on her sore heel and looked up to see the table had been cleared and dusted; there was a tray with clean cups, a teapot and a jug full of milk.

‘You didn’t have to go to all that trouble,’ said Karen, smiling as she pulled on the other sock. The light in the room was brighter, the willows no longer crowded the window and the smell of damp and mould had dwindled.

‘Don’t get many visitors here,’ the woman said. ‘I’m glad of the company,’ and she poured copper tea into the cups.

‘May I ask you a question?’ Karen said.

The woman nodded.

‘Those gas masks on the sideboard – are they from the war?’

‘Yes. We were issued them in case of bombs, but the Jerries never really got this far.’

‘I hope you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look old enough to have lived through the war.’

The woman stared at her for a while. Then she nodded slowly.

‘I suppose it might seem that way,’ she said.

They sat in silence, holding the warm cups in their hands, sipping the strong, bitter tea. The clock ticked and tocked. Time passed.

‘Do you live here on your own?’ Karen hated to think of the woman being so lonely she made tea for anyone who passed by.

‘I’m expecting my man back at a quarter to three,’ the woman replied.

Karen smiled encouragingly but the woman said no more until the clock struck the hour.

‘Now finish supping that tea and you’ll be right as rain and on your way.’

The tea had fortified Karen and her feet no longer ached. She took a deep breath, pushed the chair back and stood up.

‘I’d better get going if I want to get some lunch,’ she said. ‘How far is the next village from here?’

‘Just keep following the path you were on and you’ll come to a staithe. Walk back up to the main road and it’s another mile on. The pub doesn’t stop serving until three, so you’ve plenty of time.’

Karen thanked the woman for her hospitality, shouldered her backpack and said goodbye. Hunger pangs niggled at her and she strode on, eager to get to the pub. She didn’t look back.

Two hours later she was sitting in the neat beer-garden of a Broadland pub, the sun on her back and a glass of cider on the table beside the remains of a ploughman’s lunch. Children ran between the picnic tables and parasols, vehicles entered and left the car park in a steady stream, and Karen decided it was time to pay the bill and get moving.

The man behind the bar in the bustling lounge smiled and nodded at Karen’s shoulders.

‘You’ve caught the sun,’ he said, as he totted up the bill.

‘I hadn’t noticed,’ Karen replied. ‘I was more interested in the woman I met on my way here.’

‘Woman? Which woman would that be?’

Karen described the house and the woman in detail. It was only when she had finished that she noticed the silence – the chatter and buzz of the lounge had stopped. She cleared her throat and handed the man a ten pound note. His hand shook as he took the money.

‘What time did you say was on the grandmother clock?’ he asked.

‘A quarter to three.’ Karen looked down at her watch and checked it against the clock above the bar. It was four o’ clock. Her brand new digital watch had stopped at a quarter to three.

‘That’s the time the bomb went off, the publican said. ‘It was an unexploded one left over from a previous air raid. The German bombers destroyed a pub in a village several miles away. This stray bomb missed the house, nose-dived into the ground and then a day or two later it blew her husband to smithereens on his way home from France with a leg injury. She’s been keeping time ever since.’


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