By Rene Steen

There is something serene and relaxing about the end of a summer's day. It gives an impression of washing away of the angst and hustle of the day. I like to experience the coming of evening sitting on the sand, on the beach, as the sun sinks to its bed casting a golden river of fire across the placid waters. It reminds me of being a child again; a time when the days seemed to last forever and each moment was a bright, wondrous experience.

While I was a child I rose with the sun, lingering over breakfast before escaping outside into the wildness of the fields and woodlands near my home. I still distinctly recall the sharp smell of warm grass and the sweet scent of the flowers of the field. Capering among the tall, fragrant grasses I discovered some of the small creatures that share the world with us; spiders ants, butterflies, small lizards…wondrous little creatures to fascinate me with their antics. One adventure would follow another and whole epochs of imaginary history would pass as the day slowly wore on towards golden evening.

Even long after the brightness faded from the day I would continue to explore my world in the gathering twilight that continued on and on for ages before darkness finally claimed the land. Each day was a year then, and every moment a treasure.

Later, as I grew into my teenage years the fascination with grass and flowers, insects and small creatures faded as my fascination turned to social interaction. Days were spent at the beach, in the surf and on the highway with friends both male and female while the night time gathered us into its cool cloak and allowed us the intimacy needed to explore each other. I guess the days did not last quite as long any more but the long slide from dusk until midnight kept up the illusion of things lasting forever. Besides, things were happy and fun-filled then. There was no sense of urgency or responsibilities and all I (we) cared about were fast cars, beach partying and girls/boys.

I don't know when this all faded. It seems that suddenly there was no time for the beach or the night time intimacies. I had a wife sharing my life with me and I had children who needed so much of my time. Days went past in flickering haste as I pursued the deadlines imposed by family and creditors, bosses and work. No more do I find myself peacefully rising to the surface of wakefulness to enjoy that special smell of early morning sunlight shining on the bed. Instead I find myself awakening to clattering alarms and downing scalding coffee as I shrug into a crumpled jacket. Children clamour for my attention, making herculean demands upon me, setting tasks that they, as children, know only dads can do. Now I'm juggling a cold slice of toast with sticky jam as I select reverse gear, rolling the car back and craning my neck so as to avoid crushing bicycles or the dog. Rush-rush, streaming down the highway, trying to stay at the forefront of the pack as lights blink at me, angry red or envious green. Somehow I manage to navigate the turbulent sea of steel until the maws of the company's indoor car park gape before me. I disappear into the bowels of the concrete monster where I shed myself of the car and walk a short distance through acrid exhaust fumes that burn my throat. Then I am fighting telephones and pushy people, the day swirling around me like a maelstrom until another clock tells me it is time to flee back to my domestic retreat. There are no memories of the day. Only confusion and snippets that whirl within me as I motor back to the coast where I live.

Stress makes a person feel giddy and disoriented, building up blood pressure and silently choking the life from one's heart. I still recall the morning that the sledge hammer hit me in the centre of my sternum; at least I can recall that, though not the rest of that day. Only brief glimpses of masked faces peering at me; fluorescent lights glaring down at me from moving ceilings and the noises of urgent beeping and disembodied voices. I slipped into a deep chasm free falling into darkness where pain and time have no meaning. More days passed and I cannot recall any of them. Later a matronly woman in white escorted me though a labyrinth of hallways until we reached the portals to the world outside. She held the door and gave me a tight smile as I stepped outside, into the sunshine.

Recuperation included therapeutic activities. Doctor Sanderson, my cardiologist, suggested a light hobby to occupy my mind and relax my soul over the next six weeks while I waited for my body to mend. That is how I found my interest in clocks.

My father had been a successful horologist in his day, albeit only as a hobby. He had been able to mend any clock or watch. He even repaired some timepieces that had been rejected by commercial watchmakers as unrepairable.

I bought some books on the subject and dragged out the large wooden box I had stored in my shed after dad died. It contained a tangle of parts and a small pouch of tools that represented the sum of his self-taught trade. I reflected upon the death of my father as I rummaged through the pieces. Was it yesterday? A year ago, perhaps? My mind tried to calculate the time that had passed since his passing, but I could not pin down the date. His death had been extremely traumatic for me, as I had really loved the 'old man' yet, now, I couldn't recall the date of his death. The time thief had taken away the days…even the years…that separated me from this event. I could not even recall what the weather had been like the day of his funeral, only a vivid picture of the shiny brown box disappearing into the Earth's gullet, swallowed up forever.

Time passes like a gentle summer breeze and it isn't long before I master the basics and understand how clockwork works…I could say 'what makes it tick', but I won't.

Deep in the bottom of the box I discover a special time piece that once belonged to my grandfather, and possibly his father before him. It is an old fob watch, silver plated with the brass base metal showing through in patches where the silver has rubbed off.

I take it into my hand and wind the milled crown lightly between forefinger and thumb until the resistance I feel through my fingers tells me the spring is fully wound. Releasing the crown I watch as the second hand begins its majestic sweep jerking in time to the steady ticking of the clockwork within. As I watch I suddenly realise that I am watching my life ticking away, second by second. It fascinates me and I imagine the ticking of the watch synchronising with the steady pulse of my heart, tickity-thump, tickity-thump. Hello the darkness, here it comes. My mind sinks back to that dark place at the edge of my memory; the gloomy chasm into which I plunged while the hammers worked at my chest. Round and round goes the little second hand, faster now. The ticking has sped up until the sound becomes a continuous rattle…

…My ten-speed bicycle when I was twelve. I was riding it on the footpath with a playing card rattling in the spokes, held to the frame with one of mum's clothes pegs. To me it sounded like a motor bike. I was riding the highways of my youth and the days were so long...

That's how the days pass, I think to myself. The time thief comes and suddenly the days are gone. I look again at the fob watch and see the second hand has actually sped up while the butter-yellow light of the sun shifts across the carpet, darkening into a golden afternoon glow.

Worn spindles or cogs missing teeth? I didn't know which yet, but this fob watch was definitely running fast...too fast and life is not forever.

It took a few days to puzzle out the problem and fix it. One of the difficulties lay in the fact that the timepiece was so old that parts were no longer available for it. I did not let this perturb me, however. I cannibalised dozens of other clocks and watches in my collection for cogs and spindles, carefully shaping parts by hand where required.

Finally I snap the back of the time-piece into place, satisfied that its mechanical guts are now unblemished and operating effectively.

I telephone for the time signal and carefully set the fob watch to the correct time. 'At the first stroke the time will be...' says a mellow male voice. He sounds so calm and no thief steals his time.

It is indeed a beautiful piece and I study the dial again. Within its metal skin I can hear the tiny mechanical heart beating boldly, ticka-ticka ticka-ticka, and the second hand sweeps around the face; one thousand-and-one, one thousand-and-two, one thousand-and-three... I know that a Swiss horologist could not have made it run sweeter or more accurately than I.

Recuperating means getting closer to rejoining the rat race. One day I awake, once again, to the shrill clatter of the alarm clock. I still have an insurmountable mortgage to service and a bank account written in red. Meanwhile I am growing grey, fat and balding as the days flickered past like railroad ties beneath a bullet train.

Soon I am back into the routine. Alarms awaken me before I have even nearly enough rest, and then I am playing dodgems on the highway with suicide pilots who think they are drivers. After a frenzied search for parking I find myself stampeding with the crush of humanity into the crowded offices where I work.

The days pass, flickering by like images on old celluloid. No memories remain with me other than fractions of faces and snatches of conversation as days and months disappear into the time thief's swag.

My wife has found greener pastures and has moved to claim them taking all of her possessions and over half of mine. I still have the mortgage though; she kindly left me that. Of course the children have moved to live with her, but that's all right. I still see them one Sunday per month.

A burning pain begins again deep in my chest and I look at my fob watch. Ka-tick, ka-tick...the hand sweeps onwards and the Roman numeral IX winks at me. It is going too fast. Outside the sun sweeps across the heavens as my secretary pops her head in through the doorway.

"Well, I'm off then. See you on Tuesday."

Tuesday? I look up startled, my eyes searching the calendar. Tomorrow is the start of a long weekend.

Saturday morning arrives suddenly. I get out of bed and shower, then fumble through some breakfast while reading the paper. I hate Saturday newspapers. They are so thick and unwieldy yet have no more news in them than any other day, only lots of advertisements...and sport. The last mouthful of coffee turns my stomach into a battleground and a warning twinge behind my ribs tells me that the clock is still racing onwards. My own fob watch tells me it is already ten o' clock and half the day is done. The thief has been here again. The watch mocks me as I stare at the second hand skipping from one numeral to another. It would not need to go much faster before I could use it as a fan.

Is it broken again? One thousand-and-one, one thousand-and-two, one th... It's no good. I think I am counting faster to compensate for the speed of the hand while outside the sun streaks across the sky. Across the room is a corner that does not see much sun and within its umbra stands a spectre in long flowing robes. Again I see the chasm as my world fades out of focus while the hammer dances within my chest. It cannot be this way! Why do the days move so fast? What happened to the years when the days were longer? I reach for the fob watch that somehow is now lying on the table. It is purpose built and I have a trick up my sleeve still.

"You cannot take the days away from me, you know. I have insurance, here in my hand." I tell the spectre.

It doesn't answer but I see some amusement in the ghostly eyes.

"You know that I control my destiny as long as I have this, don't you?"

I swear it nodded; then it vanished. I wait awhile watching the spot, but it doesn't return. I look down again at the fob watch in my hand. The second hand is scooting around so fast it is almost blurred and I can actually see the minute hand moving forward, advancing at the rate of a minute every second. Onethousandandone, onethousandandtwo... Afternoon shadow dulls the room. My thumb rests gently on the milled crown and I wince as a hammer blow strikes my chest. My vision blurs then clears and the pain settles to a muttering ache.

I twist the little knob a fraction anti-clockwise...'retarding' it would be called if the watch were a car. The sweeping hand slows down until I can comfortably count each second again as the hand touches each stripe between the numerals. One thousand-and-one, one thousand-and-two, one thousand-and-three. I feel the world slow around me and calmness settles on the afternoon. Outside a bird begins to twitter and I can hear the insects chirrup and buzz.

What a beautiful afternoon, I think, and suddenly I realise I want to walk outside in the sunlight of a dying day and savour the little things I had enjoyed when I was a boy.

Outside the afternoon has reached that glorious stage when the sunshine is burnished gold and the afternoon shadows stretch out like grotesque giants. My garden has never been more beautiful and I'll be damned if I can remember planting the numerous different bushes and flowers that are growing here. I approach a large red rose and wait as a bee drinks its fill before lifting off to seek other nectar, then I sniff at the perfume long and hard. My head reels with the heady scent and I am a child again, and everything is new.

Nearby, a short walk from the house, is the beach and I begin moving in that direction studying the plants and the scurrying insects as I traverse my garden towards the road. I pause and watch a nest of ants while nearby a small lizard rearranges itself upon a rock, seeking the late afternoon sunshine upon its back. Soon I am at the gate. It needs painting, I think to myself as I open it and let myself through.

A long road lies before me, as long as the shadow that stretches behind. Afternoon sunlight causes the bay to sparkle a half a mile ahead. I squint as the coppery orb above me sinks ever so slowly towards the west. I continue to walk at a leisurely pace towards the sea. There is no traffic and the usual noise of the city is absent, instead I hear the cry of seagulls high in the sky and the noise of crickets chirruping all around me.

The beach is deserted, a fact that strikes me as strange seeing this it the Saturday of a long weekend. A cool breeze fluffs my hair and sends tiny feet pattering along my naked back. I am wearing only trousers, no shirt, nor hat, nor footwear. My toes feel the sand, still warm from the day as I walk towards the edge of the water. A glance at my watch shows me it is just after six o' clock and the sun has turned into a huge orange ball its bottom edge already dipping into the water at the horizon. Above the fiery globe long fingers of gold caress the clear azure sky causing mauve and purple shadows on the blue. The sea is calm with only a slight ripple breaking the mirror smooth surface and a wide river of golden fire shimmers on the water. I sit in the sand and watch as tiny wavelets gnaw at the shore causing rills of foaming water to flow back into the ocean. Gulls wheel and dive in the soft warmth of the evening and everything is at peace.

Slowly I bring the fob watch up until its face is superimposed upon that of the setting sun and I count the seconds off as the hand sweeps silently, serenely from mark to mark. One thousand-and-one, one thousand-and-two, one thousand-and-three. I grin. A sloppy, dopey grin as I reach up with the ball of my thumb until it rests upon the milled crown. I wonder if the spectre is watching me? I turn my head, sweeping the beach with my eyes but the spectre is nowhere to be seen. Slowly I apply anti-clockwise pressure and the little knob gives. I spin it as far as it will go in the anti-clockwise direction. I don't look at the watch face.

My fingers relax and the watch drops away into the sand. I don't want to see the second hand sweeping my life away any more. I just want to sit here basking in the warmth of the dying day and watch the sun, a swollen golden ball at the end of the sky. I am going to sit here for a few years and watch old Sol perching at the edge of heaven. The hammer is back at work within my chest but it is not so painful this time. My last thought is of the watch lying somewhere beside me in the sand. I wonder who will find it and, above all, I wonder: Will that person figure out how to control the days and get everything he, or she, wants out of it?


© René Steen 1997

About the Author in his own words: "I am 44 years old, male and live in Port Lincoln, South Australia where I work as a police sergeant. Writing has been a hobby of mine for about ten years, although I have written stories earlier than that. To date I have not sold to a publisher. I am married with two children, a boy 22 yrs and a girl 19 yrs."

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