Happy birthday, my darling. I remember last year like it was yesterday. You opened the blinds and there were the daffodils, their faces smiling at us and calling for the world to wake up again. With breakfast over, we pulled open the French window, stepped out into the garden for the first time in weeks, and filled our lungs with crisp March air to celebrate.
And how we talked. Just like we used to.
Later, we had a spot of lunch, then I went to bake your cake. Chocolate, with soft icing and bits of Flake on top. Your favourite, fortunately, as it’s the only one I ever got to work.
When I got up to leave the room, you were rolling your shoulders against the back of the chair, the way you do before taking a nap. You said you loved me. I kissed you and told you I loved you right back.
Those flowers wait so patiently for the first hint of warmth to draw them from their slumber and never disappoint. If the sun shines this morning, they’ll be out by lunchtime. I’ve watched them for the last three or four weeks, ever since they poked the tips of their noses through the half-frozen soil again to greet the sun. We’ve got snowdrops, too, for the first time in years, and crocuses on the lawn.
Did you ever hear such silence?
Apart from the ticking of the clock your father left us, of course. I only notice that when it stops. Otherwise, it’s always there. As constant as a pulse or a heartbeat, counting down our lives from the moment we’re born.
Your grandfather passed it to him, about a month or two before he died. He spent his last year giving all his possessions away to save anyone else the fuss. The clock was a gift for him and your grandmother on their wedding day, though I forget from whom. Your mother told me all the stories associated with it, and more than once. I never understood how you could sit and listen to her talk, yet not remember a single word she said afterwards. Once we moved into a place of our own, you avoided coming here for a few years. You often turned a little strange after three or four hours in her company.
I loved to listen to her. The stories she recounted rolled back and forth like waves on the sea. I hope she knew how fond I was of her.
The clock wasn’t new, even when your grandparents took it home and stood it on their mantelpiece, but it kept good time. It still does, though not without the help of that strange little man from the village who understands cogs and springs and gears better than he does any sentient being.
Apart from his dog, perhaps, his oldest friend. The Clockmaker’s Apprentice, you called him, sitting three feet away from his right knee, watching him all day like the one on those old records.
I expected the old man to take it away, but he dismantled it right here on the table. He said they don’t like people moving them around, not in cars, at least. You asked if horse-drawn carts were better for them. He pretended not to hear.
You never cared for that clock, did you? I’m not sure I like it myself anymore. It’s too late to find a new home for it now, so there it will stay.
Once a week, I wind it carefully. Your father showed me how to do it the first time you took me home. Complimenting him on his fine clock seemed harmless enough; it turned out to be the surest way to his heart. Even more than taking you off his hands, I think. He was so excited by the prospect of passing it on when his time came, he couldn’t wait to marry us off and secure its future.
And when the time came, he left us the clock, along with the house. We packed our belongings, watched the men load them into their lorry, and here we are.
When you first invited me to sit down, your mother’s chair was in this precise spot. On winter evenings, she sat at the table where the light was better for her needlework. Whenever we changed the room around, I insisted my chair - her chair, really, even after we replaced it - remained where it was. And the clock, of course. The rest was all secondary and subservient to the twin icons of the space, like planets in orbit around the sun.
And now the clock repays me by counting down the last of my months and weeks and days. Has it no feelings? No awareness? That face has seen out two generations of your family, its heartbeat a constant reminder of the approach of mortality.
How many seconds are there in a year? I could always rely on you to remember things like that. Don’t worry. It’s academic now. I could count them down at double speed, well into the night, and still not get to the end.
There goes another hour. The mechanism is getting ready to play its song.
When we were young, time was the only resource we had which nobody could deny or take away from us. We let it pour through our fingers like the water in the stream in the middle of the woods where we played, waving it past as if it held no value. I longed for the day when I might see the top of Mother’s head without her bending down. She wasn't a tall woman. When I was fourteen, I ticked that ambition off my list and forgot about it, already racing towards my next milestone.
I never expected my journey to finish here, nor for its end to appear so close, though, just as I never imagined falling in love with anyone who wanted to fall in love with me in return. Yet that happened too, on a day like any other in the briefest moment I ever knew. It shocked me as much as when I heard my brother’s voice drop an octave while Mother passed the cakes around at teatime.
Once upon a time, I saw a meteorite.
It flashed brightly through the black sky, moving so fast my brain couldn’t tell whether it was high or low. I thought I heard it scream, but was never sure. It disappeared in seconds. It’s the only memory I have that compares to the first time I fell in love.
Our eyes met, and time stopped. The world changed colour. Days altered their shape. Apart from us, there was nothing else.
We talked and laughed and shared our secrets until Orion looked down from the top of the darkness and the moon hid behind the tower blocks to our left. Then we walked home, already making plans to do it again tomorrow. I remember the first time we held hands. And our first kiss.
In less than six weeks, I lived another lifetime and believed I understood what forever felt like. And then the magician who brought us together waved his wand a second time to break the illusion.
The agony slowed my days to a crawl. I thought I could never allow myself to revisit such happiness at the cost of such pain. Yet, just as unexpectedly, with a lot less fanfare, it happened again. I felt no more prepared this time than last.
And that, of course, was where you came in.
There were no meteorites, nor omens of any description. Only our local firework display, down at the park. An entirely predictable event held at the beginning of every November. I didn’t even want to go.
My brother’s girlfriend stood him up. I can’t say I blamed her. Our parents begged me to go with him instead. We could feel the weight of his sulks from the far end of the house. I don’t believe my emotional meltdowns were as bad as his, but I doubt I’m the best judge of that.
We arrived in time to see them light the bonfire and moved towards it to warm up. I was too old to let my brother believe he was babysitting and annoyed that, as always when we were alone, he pretended not to know me. Then he saw you in the crowd and dragged me over to stand beside him while the two of you talked. Minutes before the display started, he stumbled away to buy himself another drink, leaving us to ignore one another until his return.
Did you speak first, or was it me?
We told one another our names, that clod of a brother of mine. I could see you thought no more of that clod of a brother of mine than I did and asked how you knew him. You said he was a regular at the cafe where you worked on Saturdays. I asked which one, and you told me. Then you leaned towards me to make yourself heard above the noise.
“Come on”, you said. “Let’s hide!”
We didn’t go far. I looked over occasionally to see him wondering where we’d gone. I felt slightly guilty, but it served him right. Dad would give him hell if he went home and had to admit he’d lost me. About halfway through the display, you brushed your hand against mine. I grabbed it eagerly, if only to warm up a little. We let the crowd disperse around us at the end. I let go just before he found us.
Then we said goodnight. I gave your hand another squeeze as we parted and you smiled. I’m glad you never lost that sparkle in your eyes.
I walked past your cafe at eleven-thirty the next morning and found myself ever so slightly thirsty. I walked in as if entering teashops on my own was second nature. I looked around but didn’t see you.
I bought a drink, and sat close to the door, thinking I could escape if you decided you didn’t like me. I watched the world walk and drive and talk and laugh past the window, and wondered where you were. Minutes later, you crept up behind me and tried to make me jump. I laughed, and you pretended to look hurt.
I stayed until the end of the afternoon. You gave me drinks whenever the boss was out the back, and a couple of slices of cake. I was high as a kite on caffeine and sugar by the end of your shift and talked at twice my usual speed all the way home. You couldn’t see me on Sunday, as you went out with your family and expected to return late. That was the last time a day passed when we didn’t see one another.
I used to wish you had been my first love, but perhaps I needed to get that doomed fairytale romance out of my system first. No-one would ever have looked at me, then or now, and believed I was the type. I don’t give my brother credit for much, but he taught me to keep my feelings locked in a trunk in the attic. I felt unsafe with them when he was around. By the time you and I met, I had packed my wings away alongside them. They, too, frightened me, until I grew too old to care. By then it was too late.
This time around, I sought and found happiness much closer to the ground. I discovered it suited me perfectly.
Is that the phone? It’ll be Terry, I expect. Regular as clockwork, on birthdays, Mother’s and Father’s days, Easter and every other day the post office sells cards for. I’d better answer, or an ambulance will be on its way before the cake’s done. I’ll leave the kitchen door open to hear the timer. It smells good already.
Hello, how lovely to hear you. Yes, fine, thank you. The daffodils are out. Yours aren’t? That’s because you’re further north, I expect.
I wonder why we never brought them into the house before? I cut about a dozen yesterday, and now they’re flowering too. It cheers me up, seeing them on the table. It's so long since we used a vase, I was unsure whether we still owned one. Their trumpets seem to be scanning the sky, watching for aliens, perhaps.
Maybe they’re looking for you, wondering where you’ve gone. Just as I do, several times a day.
Today will be the last time I bake, I expect. I’ve said nothing to the children. You would have told them, I know. To you, words came easily, and tears never embarrassed you the way they do me.
The last time the clock man came, he asked where you were.
He said old clocks often stop working when… well… you know.
Then he lowered his eyes and fiddled around inside until it started ticking again. I wished they could have done the same for you. They did their best, but you had left already.
I wound it yesterday, which means it’s good for another week at least. I wish one of our children wanted it. They’re going to give it to the repairman when I’m gone, although I think even he’s weary of it now.
I’m glad I saw the daffodils again. And I’m looking forward to a piece of cake. It’s one of my best, I think. I wanted to make the most of today, especially for you.
Happy birthday, my darling.
I’m so close to you now. If you hold out your hand, you might almost reach me. And, when the time comes, I will hold on with the last of my strength and never let go.