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Rated: E · Short Story · Occult · #1367379
A tale of what can happen when one man trades experiance for time.
The pocket watch

         The sea made a rhythmic shushing noise as each small wave retreated down the beach. High above a solitary gull wheeled, searching for scraps.

         Peter had pushed the legs of his easel deeply into the sand, and working with quick, smooth pencil strokes, sketched a brief outline. He reached inside his canvas bag and brought out an old wooden paint box; it was decorated in daubs of vivid yellow ochre, cobalt blue and other colours wiped from brushes. Unconsciously he began to hum as he mixed the bright worms of paint, pushed from crumpled foil tubes, on his pallet.

         Peter worked for a couple of hours, immersed in his work, until he felt he had done enough to allow himself a break. Stepping back, he flexed his shoulders and arched his aching back. He was in his early twenties, thin, almost to the point of being gaunt, with a tangled mass of, sun bleached, blond hair. His pale blue eyes flickered back and forth between the canvas and the shore. On his left cheek, quiet unnoticed, was a smudge of sky blue from where he had scratched earlier.

         He frowned, trying to see what it was that did not quiet look right. Then he stepped closer, picked up a brush and began to paint again. Finally, an hour later, he laid down the brush and unclipped the landscape from its easel. He held it at arms length in the warm sunshine and smiled, satisfied.

         After the steep climb back up the red sandy cliffs to the car park he was out of breath. He put down his kit and turned, surveying the horizon. Out where the haze began, he could just make out a yacht. ‘I wish that was me.’ He thought as he turned back to his battered old Nissan Cherry.

         The car was almost a work of art in its self, the modern kind, different coloured panels, bare metal and gaffer tape. After driving back home he patted it’s dashboard tenderly, 'Good girl’ he said, grateful for a mechanically uneventful journey. 

         It was still mid afternoon, so he decided to walk down to the Fiddler art gallery in the town centre; in the past he had had some small success’s selling works to the owner.

         The pavement was radiating heat back into the already stifling air; pedestrians, sweating and grumbling, pushed past him as he carried his brown paper parcel along the street. 

         He swung open the heavy glass door and a wave of cold air broke like a welcome tsunami.

         ‘Close the door, would you.’ David Fiddler said lowering his newspaper. He was sitting behind a large, stylish, black and chrome leather desk. ‘Hello Peter, how’s things?’

         ‘Pretty good, Mr Fiddler.’ He said smiling.

         ‘Is that another one?’

         ‘Yeah... Could you, err, take a look?’ Peter asked, suddenly embarrassed.

         ‘Ok, but no promises. We haven’t shifted the last one yet.’ He said frowning and folding up his paper.

         Peter carefully unwrapped the picture and set it up against the wall opposite. It showed the red cliffs, the sea and a bright strip of sand, vivid between.

         ‘Oh Peter, Peter, Peter, I keep telling you, this sort of realism isn’t commercial. What people want these days is simplistic, expressions, blocks of colour. Art as part of interior design, if it doesn’t match the sofa it doesn’t get to go home.’ He said, as if explaining to a dim but much loved child.

         ‘It’s not what I see.’ He answered slightly truculently.


         ‘No chance?’

         ‘Come and see me next month.’ The gallery owner smiled kindly.

         Outside in the cruel heat he walked despondently back along the pavement. He checked his pockets looking for the bus fare home; he came up short. Hitching up the canvas into a more manageable position, he began the long walk home. Deciding, based on the fact that his shirt was sticking to his back, to cut through the old industrial district.

         The brick buildings in these worn out streets were all individually shaped, odd windows, sudden wide steel doors and haphazard rusting railings. Kids had painted a set of goal posts on the blank wall at one end of a street, beneath which a mongrel dog lay, panting in the heat.

         Although not naturally a sullen or downbeat character, Peter was feeling pretty depressed. If he didn't make a sale soon he would miss another rent instalment. Mom and Dad might bail him out again, but the price would be another lecture on getting a steady job.

         After he had walked for more than an hour, he came to the disturbing conclusion that he was lost. It was his hometown, he knew the city like the back of his hand, but he could not see a single familiar building. He carried on, down one street then the next, each more run down than the last.

         He had always been the type of person that people liked, at school, at collage, or down the pub, his friendliness had won most people over. Therefore, he assumed that if he knocked on a door whoever answered would naturally be willing to give him directions.

         At the end of yet another street of disused workshops, he saw a door set into the dirty grey brick. He would have walked past, except that by the side of the doorstep was an empty milk bottle, a note poking out of its top.

         Peter knocked on the door and heard a sudden thump and the sound of footsteps. He waited patiently; perhaps it was an old person, slow to reach the door. Nothing, no one came. He knew there was someone there; he had heard them, so he knocked again, this time louder and more insistently.

         After a long wait in the hot sun the door finally creaked open a fraction. The occupant didn't speak but peered nervously out of the gap.

         'Excuse me' Peter said politely.

         'Oh' exclaimed the man in an elderly voice. He appeared to have thought that his visitor must have left. Quickly he pulled the door shut.

         Somewhat perplexed Peter knocked once again; he needed directions, but more than that, he did not want to leave this old man afraid of who might have been at his door.

         The door complained as the man pushed it open a half inch. 'What do you want?' came the same dusty voice.

         'I'm sorry to disturb you.' he said edging sideways to get a better look at him through the crack. 'I'm afraid that I'm lost. I was just hoping that you could direct me back to the main road?' 

         'What's that?' the man said in a querulous voice.

         'Oh, this, it's a painting. One of mine.'

         The old man pushed the door open another foot. He wore an old scarlet dressing gown with worn gold braiding; his face was lined more deeply than anyone that Peter had ever seen. He pulled a fat gold fob watch from his pocket and clicked open the lid. 'To long.' He muttered to himself. 'Show me' he said, gesturing with a bony finger at the package.

         Peter stripped away the paper carefully and flipped the painting over to orientate it. 'It's a local beach about twenty miles from here.'

         The ancient figure looked at the image for a long moment, 'How much?' he asked bruskly.

         'A hundred and fifty?'

         'Wait here.'  The door slammed leaving him alone on the threshold. Eventually the door creaked open once again. 'Here.' A hand shot out with a fist full of notes.

         Peter took the money and handed over the painting. 'Thanks, it's an interesting...'

         But the door banged shut once again. He stood there, still lost, but now happily solvent. Stuffing the cash into his jeans, he began to retrace his steps.

         It was a week later when he decided to see if the old man would buy another. He daydreamed about a wealthy patron, someone, who saw something in his work and hungrily purchased every canvas. Though he seriously doubted that a wealthy art lover would live in that kind of place, stranger things had happened; besides, even if he only bought one more, it would still be a worthwhile trip.

         Peter decided to go in the evening; the heat would still be oppressive but better than the blistering midday sun.  He had felt confident that he could find the place again, maybe it was the lengthening shadows or remembering too many wrong turns, but he soon found himself once again bewilderingly lost. The brick faces of the buildings stared at him with empty window eyes, growing ever more malevolent as the sun fell.

         Then he saw the door, it sat back in a shadow and he might have walked past except the milk bottle with its note caught his eye. He approached with an inexplicable feeling of unease growing in his chest.

         Summoning up his courage, he knocked twice on the door. From inside he heard the same distant rustling steps. He waited, glancing back along the street, feeling awkward.

         The door opened a crack, 'What?' said the same desiccated voice.
         'Hello sir, I don't know if you remember me? I sold you a painting last week.' he said politely.

         'A week? Yes I suppose it was.' The old man said, muttering to himself. 'What do you want?'

         'I thought you might like to see another one.' He said hopefully.
         'Let me see.' An almost skeletal hand extended as the door swung open a few more inches.

         Peter passed over the canvas. 'It's the same setting, this time at sunset.'
         The old man closed the door leaving him again standing out on the street. A dog barked half-heartedly a few streets away, other than that only the distant droning of traffic reminded him that he was close to the city.

         The door swung fully open. 'Come in.' Said the old man standing to one side.

         'Thanks.' He said as he hesitantly stepped past him. The hallway was narrow and unlit; at the far end was another door, slightly ajar through which light made a thin gold band down one edge.

         'Go on, I want to talk to you.' The old man sighed.

         Peter pushed through the door and stepped into, into the most startling room he had ever seen. On every wall hung paintings, books were scattered everywhere; the floor, desk, shelves and walls were covered in precious curiosities. He saw an Ammonite next to a bust of Napoleon, a medieval map jostling for space with a dusty pile of scrolls, and there, perched on an antique writing bureau, sat his painting. As he spun, slowly trying to take in the treasures the old man spoke.

         'A life time of collecting the work of other men.' He said in answer to the unasked question.

         'You have some beautiful things.' Peter said breathlessly.

         The old man pulled out his fat pocket watch and frowned as he peered at its face. 'I have a proposition for you.'


         'I want you to take me to the spot where you painted this.' He said pointing to the first canvas. 'Tomorrow, in time for the sun rise. You can paint and I can walk along the sand. When you have finished I will pay you ten thousand for the picture. Does that seem fair?' He watched him with the same intensity as he had looked at the pocket watch.

         'More than fair. Are you sure? It's a lot of money.' He asked.

         'Quite sure. Now if you will excuse me...'

         He took the hint and began to move towards the door. 'Err; it seems a bit rude to ask but what about this one?' He said pointing to his latest work.

         'Of course, one hundred and fifty?' he said as he gestured for Peter to continue along the corridor.

         'That would be fine, Mr...?'

         'Good.' The old man made no attempt to deflect or acknowledge the question, choosing simply to ignore it. He pulled a sheaf of notes from his robe, the same one as the week before as far as peter could tell, and counted off the sum.

         Next morning at half past four, he knocked hesitantly on the deeply shadowed door, once again. This time the door flew open almost immediately. Standing there was the old man, dressed in a Harris Tweed hunting jacket, plus fours and stout, old fashioned, leather boots. If he had sported a deerstalker, he could have passed for a Victorian gentleman.

         'Good morning. It is a bit cool at this time of the morning. Do you want a blanket for your legs?' Peter asked, concerned for the old mans health.

         'No, I think its quiet invigorating, thank you.' He said smiling, the lines on his face creasing impossibly.

         They climbed into the rusting Nissan and Peter pushed in his seat belt.

         The old man watched with interest, then glancing over his shoulder, slowly and quiet deliberately appeared to copy him. He put both of his hands carefully onto his lap and nodding to the younger man said 'Proceed.'

         The car's engine was already warm so it started first time. They were soon slipping along the roads, empty at this time of the morning, heading for the ocean.

         Whenever he glanced across at his silent passenger, he seemed to be sleeping. 'Don't blame him. It was your idea.' He thought as he yawned for about the tenth time. Before he could see the ocean, he smelt the iodine tang in the air; his travelling companion stirred and opened one eye.

         'That was quick.' He said sounding impressed.

         'No traffic.'

         'Oh. Does that make a difference?'

         'On this road it can.' Peter said as he pulled the car smoothly into the cliff top car park.

         They walked down the steep slope to the beach, Peter supporting him by the hand where he seemed to need it. At the bottom, he found a low rise and set up his easel. 'Is there anything I can get for you?’ he asked kindly.

         The old man was looking at his watch again. 'No, I don't think I shall need anything else.' He turned and began to wander down towards the water.

         Peter watched him walking away; it seemed to him that there was a great unspoken sadness somewhere in the man's past. Shrugging, he took up his brushes and began to work. The sun had already turned the sky to a pale grey, shot through with pink, long before it made its appearance out of the sea. Slowly the almost impossibly thin band of fire turned into a bulging saucer, then into half a semi circle, so bright that it was impossible to look directly at it. All the time he painted trying to capture the raw beauty and ethereal tranquillity of the moment.

         At last he finished, he was pleased with the result, truth to tell, he thought it was probably his best work to date. Unclipping it from the stand, he set off down the beach to where the old man still stood, looking far out to sea. 'I have your painting.' He said cheerfully.

         The old man turned, his weathered face wet with tears. ‘Here’ he said holding out a tightly bound bundle of notes as though they were a packet of unwanted chewing gum.

         ‘Thanks, thanks a lot.’ Peter said, unsure of what to say to the old man.
         ‘Would you like to hear a story?’ The man asked, as he once again glanced at his watch.

         ‘Ok...’ He said, puzzled.

         ‘Back in the days before accurate clocks people actually debated the nature of time.’ He glanced at Peter, whose face wore the carefully blank expression of someone humouring an old man’s ramblings. ‘Now it seems ridiculous, a second is one sixtieth of a minute, which is on sixtieth of an hour, and so on. But back then, it was more complicated. Even as far back as the ancient Greeks, people knew that time moved at different speeds dependant on events.’

         Peter frowned.

         ‘You will have seen it for yourself; days that go on for ever when you are waiting for something, hours that fly by when you are having fun. Some philosophers believed that our actions actually effected time‘s passage for the individual.’

         The young man bent down and picked up a handful of smooth flat pebbles.

         ‘When clock makers began to dissect time, pairing it down into ever more precise units, one or two craftsmen took a different route.’

         He sent a stone skimming across the water as the old man continued to ramble.

         ‘A French clock maker called Milue back in the early sixteenth century became famous for his increasingly strange and elaborate time pieces. At first he had wealth and position, the great noble houses vied for his work, but as others developed more reliable mechanisms, his, frankly odd, machines went out of favour. Milue continued to work, becoming more and more of a recluse as the years went by. Some say he built a masterpiece, a watch that measured subjective time.’

         Peter sent another stone hopping out over the waves.

         ‘He was said to have claimed, that if you used the device to monitor your experiences you could ignore the worthless, time-wasting, humdrum, that fills so much of our lives. Instead, filling every hour with the vital, the new and important. He imagined a life lived to its maximum, free of the banal.’

         As he rubbed the sand from the surface of his next rock Peter looked at him, ’So what did he do with it?’

         ‘Well the story goes that he lived for a long time, you see what he also discovered was that by avoiding all those experiences, the humdrum and the vital, he could slow his personal time; extending his life well beyond what would be considered a normal span.’

         ‘Sounds cool.’ He said firing a stone over the first few waves.

         ‘Like any good parable, it has a sting in the tale. Milue lived a long life, filling it with hours of tedium, interspersed with occasional forays out into the world. Finally, on his deathbed he told his great grandson the secret. He begged the boy to destroy the watch, claiming that it was a cursed thing.

         The boy thought that he knew better, he took his ancestors fortune and hid himself away, miserly husbanding his subjective time on earth. Only very slowly, did he come to realise that his great Grandfather had been right after all; but by now, it was too late, the habit of self-preservation runs too deep in all of us. He found it impossible to voluntarily give up a single moment of his long life.’

         Peter stopped throwing and turned to regard the man. ‘So what did he do?’

         The old man looked sadly at the boy. ‘I think he passed it on, hoping that the young man would have the courage to destroy it. Courage that he himself lacked.’

         Peter stood there watching the motion of the waves on the water, thinking about the old mans strange story.

         ‘I want you to have this.’ Said the old man holding out the Pocket watch.
         ‘I couldn’t. I mean it must be very valuable, you have already paid so much for the painting.’ he said feeling uncomfortable.

         ‘This is for you to decide what to do with. For my self I have no longer any use for it.’ He said pushing it into the young man’s unresisting hand.

         He opened his hand staring down at the heavy gold watch. It was covered in strange sinuous lines and spiral patterns. When he pressed the catch, the cover sprang smoothly open. Inside the dial was plain white enamel, blank except for a tiny hourglass painted at the top. There was a single hand, thin and shinning blue black in the sunlight.

         As he watched, it wound back from the midnight position, finally stopping at about three o’clock. He looked up, and found he was alone, two sets of footsteps led up to the spot where he stood, and yet, only he remained.

         The waves were running smoothly up to the beach, high overhead the gulls were screaming at one another. A stone, or something like it, skipped once, twice, then slipped below the waves.
© Copyright 2007 Mike Day (mikeday at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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