It happened late last Winter in a house named Johan Strauss that in the wee hours of the night the beat of a grandfather clock came to falter. It was no more than the briefest of hesitations, a silence no one heard.
Beside the clock was the foot of a staircase, and up at the top of the flight, an out-dated carpet lead you to the room of the house’s sole occupant: an old man teetering on the brink of his end, one tired foot balanced precariously on the thinning tightrope of his life.
He lay abed, curled up small, a timid child beneath his duvet clutching tight to the warmth of his water bottle. His feet tucked high to keep the night’s cold air at bay, and half a glass of whiskey within arm’s reach on the locker.
He had fallen deep into sleep, unaware of what awaited him, for at the very moment the clock had ceased its ticking, a dark dream took him. Through a cloud of white mist, appeared a solitary skiff in the midst of troubled seas. A figure lay within: the dim shape of a man, curled up and lying on his side. As the dream’s view turned, the man was revealed as at first bright with youth, then instantly haggard and old.
The boat’s bow surged high and low, powerless against the ocean’s undulations. Colossal waves encircled him as he gathered himself and clambered to his feet. Raising his arms defiantly, he dared the waves to come. For a moment they held back, then whatever demon it was that unleashed the waves of hell, unleashed them.
In an instance they were on him tossing him to and fro like a feather in a storm. He was thrown into the deep and then by the miracle of dreams landed back aboard; his boat somehow still upright. And so the man forged on and on his face he wore a grin, the grin of a man who no longer ran from fears.
Then there came a sound, a melody rising from somewhere unseen that grew in the ear to a waltz. The seas around him calmed. The clouds too became pillows of white lazing back on a pleasant sky. The sun shone bright, the world was postcard pretty.
Ahoy! Another skiff approached his own, moving fast through the calm of the waters. A woman sat crouched within, her hands clasped around her knees. The woman was young, with a bounce of long black hair. As she passed, she gestured to the man for him to follow. His boat obeyed, turning with hers and following till the two boats moved together across the quiet seas.
The man stirred in his sleep, the boats slowed and circled at the edge of the waters while the sound of the waltz faded away. The woman stood and as she did she cusped her hands around the swelling of her belly. And then she and the boat were gone to some far off place unseen.
The old man woke and at the very moment of his waking, the clock downstairs resumed its work, having stopped for no more than a couple of seconds.
His mind lay awash with swirling thoughts, as if his head still dizzy from the waves of his dreams. Instinctively, he stretched an arm out across the bed for a someone no longer there.
‘Fool,’ he said to himself.
Reality came back on him like an unwelcome caller, ringing the doorbell of his mind with the temerity of a veteran salesman. He put a palm to his temple then sat up and dangled his feet over the edge of the bed. He rose and made to put his socks on but he couldn’t reach that far today. He’d have to settle for the slippers. He totted his way off into the bathroom where he peed a thick unhealthy yellow. In the mirror, he saw a stranger staring back; an old man with grizzled cheeks and heavy eyes, a deep scar across his temple, and the broken capillaries known to those of too many misspent days.
He threw his gown on and made his way downstairs to the kitchen placing the old copper kettle on the stove. As it whistled to a heat, he stared out the kitchen window to the garden, seeing not a garden but a crowded dance hall. And there through a throng of bodies he saw a black haired woman, who having sensed his eyes on hers, returned his gaze to him and even dared return his smile.
“It was a Friday like today. October 19th. 1956. I’d seen that face of yours before. There was something in it, an ineffable attraction for me in the simplicity of its design. It pulled me in but put the fear of God in me all the same. Was formulating my grand attack when the enemy struck. Blood rose. Eddie Keane had the effrontery to try his hand, did he? Keane, always a pup.
“You said no. Out of nowhere Billy Byrne nudges me on the shoulder and bets me I wouldn’t fare any better. Won myself a drink and took you home on the crossbar. Didn’t say much to you on the way. I wasn’t good at the cycling or the talking to women yet, and I was wise enough for a fool to avoid the trying of both simultaneously. That night we had a Hunter’s moon, shone bright and large like a torch on the gravelly winding road to your house. Didn’t stop me from hitting a puddle. And didn’t your dress get an awful recolouring. I begged forgiveness. You laughed. Later, you said your mother swore and your father grumbled his displeasure from behind his paper, that way of his I would learn to know so well, God, you’d almost think he didn’t have a head.
“When we got to yours I grew nervous, and somewhere in the midst of a long awkward goodbye I managed to ask you to go to the pictures on Friday, to see The Searchers. You, calm as you like, said you were already going, but if I wanted to come along you might save me a seat. I knew then you were no more than trouble dressed up pretty. Wouldn’t say I was all too wide of the mark.”
The old man took a seat at a kitchen table set for two. He poured tea into the two cups positioned before him, christened the closest with a dram of something stronger and then took it for his own. His free hand tapping out a jig onto the placemat as it was often wont to do. Then, directing his words towards the empty chair opposite, he leaned in close, cocked his head, and spoke to it a rusty whisper.
“Can you hear it? You’ll have to be quiet. Now? That’s the clock you bought me. The grandfather, or longcase as they call it. You put an inscription on it, too. Do you remember? ‘Dá fhada an lá, tagann an tráthnóna.’ However long the day, the evening will come. You told me I’d better wind it. You said my heart and its beat were one. Sure enough, I gave it my full attention after that.” He forced a laugh till the laugh died and left the quiet in its wake, a quiet tinged with sadness.
He took a quick sip of his drink and then paused for a moment to listen, craning his head in that odd way people did to hear something better.
“Tick-tock,” said the clock, “Tick-tock.” And then nothing, a silence all too evident, a gap as plain as day. He clutched his chest in pain, the pain subsided and the clock resumed its steady beat. “Tick-tock,” it said again, “Tick-tock.” There was no mistake, the delay and the pain came together, dare he actually believe the words of his wife. He shook his head, “Sorry, Dear, I’m getting distracted.” Taking a teaspoon of sugar from a bowl, he sprinkled it into the cup opposite, stirring briefly before finishing the rest of his drink.
As day ebbed into evening and darkness made again its slow advance the old man became consumed by notions of repentance. Religious beliefs long dismissed, were once more entertained as the weight of lifelong sin and a growing sense of his own mortality weighed heavy on his soul. He tried to recite one of the penitential psalms, but as a scared child kneeling before the lattice, he had to improvise his own when memory failed him.
It was late evening when he shuffled his way into the sitting room, seeking out the framed photograph at the centre of the mantelpiece, that one of the woman and the boy. It had been too long since he’d allowed himself a glimpse, a fix; a layer of dust had gathered on the glass. Wiping this away he found himself revisiting the scene around the photograph, and hearing once again the welcome tones of voices long silent. The joy of it cut him deep; he made for the drinks cabinet nearby and fixed himself a small one before quickly retreating from the room and shutting the door tight behind him.
The world outside was endless black. He stood at the kitchen window seeing not a dancehall now but the slight reflection of an old man staring into the abyss and seeing but himself. Around him he had lit several candles, preferring them whenever possible to the rude glare of incandescent lights. He decided to retire for the night and watch the telly from his bed. Before that, he’d make another brew. After the kettle had boiled he poured himself his tea and sat at the table in the darkened glow of the candlelight.
“Do you remember, love, when all you wanted for was the moonlight and the stars and the crossbar of my bike?”
The man remained quiet as if waiting for a response, and all was silent but for the ticking of the clock.
“I can still see you and Seán Óg on the swing out the back. I could hear ye through the kitchen window. He was sitting on your lap and he was laughing. He wore one of those baby sun hats, you had his small hands by the wrists and you were dancing along to a song big at the time, ”Needles and Pins” as I recall. You noticed me and you smiled and I smiled back and I knew even then that when it all came to pass and I was an old man looking back that that moment was going to be close to the best of it. And just like that the moment was gone.”
The old man looked down at his withered hands, to the cracked skin and to the dirt deep beneath his nails. A shudder passed over him like a cold ocean wave. He raised his hands and clenched them into fists. And he thought of the boy, his little boy, and the drive home from the bar, and the crash and the smash of the glass, and the blood, the blood he can’t wash off, and the woman who could smell the lies off his breath; the pregnant woman who left him long ago because of it and the child he never met. Three lost in one tiny second, what was no more than the tick of a clock.
“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
At that the house fell quiet, not a sound was to be heard, not the steady drum of fingers on a table, not the whistle of a kettle, not even the ticking of an old grandfather.