By Connie Schoales
Skeletal fingers danced over the workbench, darting in and out of hundreds of drawers that lined the walls of the small room, grasping at the gold filaments and silver cogs inside.
After centuries of careful practice and skilled making, it took less than a few minutes for the stack of cogs on the desk to become a gently ticking pocket watch. A chain was looped through a small, golden hoop soldered into the frame of the watch, the clasp showing two hands joined together, in harmony.
There used to be humming and singing as work commenced in the candlelight, but now there was just silence apart from the ticking of the clock on the wall, and quiet, inhuman whispers from the shelves on the walls.
The room was shabby and decaying, with cobwebs filling up corners, and buckled wooden floorboards that crackled like eggshells when stepped upon. There were no doors-, instead mouldy grey walls crammed full of minute drawers. Black beams hung low from the ceiling, pushing the shelves down into the uneven floorboards. There was a desk, cramped into the corner, with a dulled candelabra sitting on it, waxy white light emitting from its forever-lit candles. A black-robed man- haggard, bearded and thin- sat at a low, broken stool next to it, polishing the pocket watch.
A window was fixed into a wall, the only window. Beyond that was darkness, a darkness of nightmares, an invading black that seeped into the mind and made any insane. The old man had often considered jumping out of that window, knowing that whatever lay in the impenetrable shadows was better than the prison he was in, but it was locked with a key he did not own- only the pocket watches could pass in or out of his cell. He could no longer see the perpetual nightfall beyond, as blind to that as the pocket watches he created.
Once the last screw had been placed, the lid of the pocket watch was flipped open with the simple flick of a catch, the clockface unlocked beneath it. Darkness spilled out from behind like ink, darkness that felt like it could swallow you whole, like a starless sky. Just like the darkness outside of the window.
The whispers from the shelves grew louder as box upon box were pulled down from dusty darkness, each packed with small compartments brimming with thin stoppered glass vials, all filled with a black, writhing substance, itching for the darkness beyond the clockface. Curses.
The old man’s eyes, no longer the eyes that could see everything before it, flitted over the bottles, his hands feeling for a strong pulse, his ears listening for a loud whisper. It depended on the curse. It needed to be the right one. The fingers halted and reached out to break the stopper off a bottle that had been screaming at him, screeching to be chosen… deathdoomdarknesspromisedwantblacknesscanbringdeathdoomdarkness… He poured it into the oblivion beyond the clock face. The lid was snapped shut and the curse was trapped, forever trying to escape from its imprisonment, once it had realised that it had been tricked.
The thing that he hated the most was his eyes. Useless, white, empty orbs. All he could ever see were shadows. Blinded, weakened by the curse that held him there, he used to have to fumble around, knocking things over, feeling for the drawers. Now, he knew where everything was, could dance through the room as nimble as if he wasn’t blinded. He didn’t need his eyes, but he wanted them. He wanted to see himself, the clocks he made, the clock on the wall…
As he crossed his small, cobwebbed workshop, feeling the worn path on the floorboards, to the dusty window on the other side, he clutched the pocket watch in his hands, now no more than bones, and sighed. He had bought so much misery to the world. Everything bad, everything evil, everything that caused suffering… All his fault. All of it.
Once Earth had been golden, perfect, untouched. But cursed pocket watches did not like pure worlds, and so they slowly destroyed the place that had once been his home, devouring the good and spitting out evil. It seemed a fitting punishment for his lie, a lie that he could barely remember, and yet an action that had sent him to the edges of the universe, to become the maker of curse pocket watches.
Earth. The thing he wanted back the most- even more than his eyes. He could have appreciated it, known that it was magical. Special. Instead, he had wasted it away. Done the wrong thing. Become as cursed as the people who his clocks were intended for, and who would eventually find them in their possession.
As the window opened itself, a blast of coldness lashed out from the darkness on the other side, stealing the pocket watch from his hands, casting it out into the gloom. The window slammed itself shut, locking away the nightmares behind it.
The man slumped onto his broken stool, and felt for a cog, and then a pendulum. The making had begun again, his hands knowing exactly what to do, a conscious urge that he could never understand, an automatic process that he could never stop. He was making even when he wanted to rest, even when his mind refused, his hands leapt to work like puppets on strings – strings that he was not controlling.
As he thought about his lost eyes and his lost Earth, he listened to the ticking of the clock on the wall, listening to the curse that it so quietly sang, the dark melody as lilting as a nursery rhyme.
Dangling above the desk was a clock, a giant pocket watch, with a curse inscribed around its cracked clock face, the hands still ticking in time with the steady beating of his heart. The heart that should have stopped beating a long time ago.
Forever shall you be making
Through all of twisted time
All evil and all shadow
The clockwork darkness, ticking curses
You will never be forgiven.
He couldn’t touch the clock on the wall. A force always pushed him away, knocking him back into his stool, forcing a half-made pocket watch into his hands. He had had enough. He was tired. Yet he had to go on.
Tick Tock was part of Connie Schoales’ entry to the Northern Writers’ Awards 2021, which was highly commended in the Young Northern Writers’ Awards (Year 7-9) category.