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Open Features: The Clock

Owen Clement tells an intriguing tale about an old grandfather clock.

I was astounded when Mortimer arrived at my door one morning. I had been outside only moments before. I live in an isolated farm house, I had noticed only a bare landscape in every direction. No sooner had I entered my house than there was a knock on the door. There was Mortimer, all six foot six of him. A grin spread over his beefy face when he saw my surprised look.

‘Good God, where the hell did you come from?’ I asked.

‘That’s no way to greet your old cousin, Frank,' he said, coming inside and giving my shoulder a hug.

Still stunned by his miraculous appearance all I could say was, ‘How’re you doing?’

‘I could murder a cuppa coffee. It's freezing out here.’

I closed the door, led him into the kitchen and filled and put on the electric jug. Beckoning him to sit at the table, I took down a tin of biscuits from above the fireplace. I realised I had not seen him since I was at school, which would be over ten years at least.

We chatted about inconsequential matters such as the weather and the desperate need for rain until he said that he had just popped up for a visit.

‘You come all the way out here from way out west and all you can say is you popped up for a visitas the most natural thing in the world.’

‘Of course it is. Anyway, I’ve brought something for you.’

‘Oh! What?’

‘All in good time, besides, it’s too big for me to bring inside.’

This made it even more incredulous. I just could not take it all in.

The jug boiled and I made us both a cup of instant coffee. He, like me, had it black with no sugar. I sat opposite him. More than anything, I wanted to study him, to see if he still was the same sunny-natured bloke I had known.

‘Well, tell me where have you been all these years?’ I asked, ‘My mum was always asking your mum where you were. She also said that you were her favourite nephew. She told me that you were working on a mine out in Western Queensland, driving one of those huge vehicles, and that you would barely be home and you’d be off again.’

‘Yeah, I really liked your mum too. How are your parents?’

‘Okay, they moved to Brisbane last year. I took over running the farm, which I must say pleased Dad. He couldn’t bear the idea of selling it.’

Mortimer helped himself to a couple of biscuits and sat back. I recalled to the last time we had spent together when he and his parents had come to visit when mine still were on the farm. I remember him being very like his father in many ways. He was an only child who loved playing cards, which was something we did and his family never did. As I was an only child as well, we clicked, despite our ten year age difference.

As soon as I was able I finished my coffee and made as if to get up. He continued to sip his drink slowly with an amused expression on his face.

‘Can I get you anything else?’ I asked.

‘Relax Frankie boy, your surprise can wait.’

‘I see you haven’t changed a bit. You always were a hell of a tease.’

He gave a deep throated chortle, ‘And you have always been very impatient. It’s been a while as you said, come on, tell me what’s been happening to you all these years?’

I told him that I had spent most of my high school years as a boarder in Brisbane, which I hated. I managed to scrape through my HSC with a pass and could not wait to return to the farm to help Dad. When he became ill, I convinced him to let me run the place, so that he and Mum could live in Brisbane, where he could be near medical facilities.

‘I knew he had been ill, but I didn’t think it was serious. Is it?’

‘He had a melanoma. It was a major operation. It appears the doctors were able to remove all the cancerous cells. Only time will tell. It’s been a battle doing all the work on my own with occasional help at odd times, but I’m managing and, I must say, enjoying the life immensely.’

‘You look well; make sure you don’t end up like your dad though.’

‘Don’t worry, I will. Now, enough about me, you’ve got me intrigued, what large item have you brought?’

He gave another chuckle. ‘It’s outside, come on,’ he stood up. I followed him and to my surprise found a small open-topped van with a tall object wrapped in a heavy waterproof covering. When Mortimer uncovered it I saw a large antique grandfather clock.

‘Where do you want it?’ he asked.

I had no idea. I scratched my head wondering why I needed such an object and why he had brought it all this way to me! I saw him watching my expression.

I faced my cousin and merely said, ‘Explain?’

He laughed, ‘It’s a long story. Let’s sit in the sun on the veranda. Do you remember the old song, “My grandfather’s clock”?’

‘Vaguely,’ I answered.

‘Well, that one, like the one in the song, hasn’t been used for many years. Our granddad made my dad promise, seeing it was a family heirloom that it was kept in the family. As my place is far too small to accommodate something of that size, the only place I could think of was the farm, so that’s why I brought it here.’

I remembered our grandfather, Dad’s father that is; he was a crusty dour-natured man with a Scottish accent, so broad I sometimes found him hard to understand. I could not imagine him being sentimental and wanting to keep an old clock that hadn’t been used for years and why insist on it being kept in the family?

‘Tell you what,’ I said, ‘I’ll keep it if, one, I can get it to work and two, if you tell me why it has never been fixed.’

‘It works alright; you need not worry about that.’

He could see my bewilderment and once again chuckled.

‘I did say it was a long story, one that I only found out about myself recently when I questioned Dad before he died.’

This time he noticed that this was something I had not known.

‘Sorry,’ he said when he saw my shocked expression, ‘I didn’t mean to blurt it out like that. Dad had been ill for a long time and died a couple of weeks ago. I sold off most of his stuff and kept a few things. The clock was a problem, as Mum wanted me to get rid of it, saying it was sure to fetch a good price. But, because of my promise to Dad and my unit being too small, I decided to bring it here.’

I folded my arms letting him know that he had not completed his explanation.

He sighed, ‘According to Dad, the clock had been a wedding gift from his parents. I’m sure a young couple could have done with something far more practical, but, that’s what they were given. Dad was never quite sure if it was deliberate, as his father had never taken to his daughter-in-law, and vice versa. They had disliked each other from the moment they had met. When I asked Dad why, he said that it was probably due to the fact that his mother was a Catholic. “Bog Irish” Dad’s father had called her. In the beginning she had put up with the clock’s very English Westminster chimes going off every quarter of an hour. One midnight, when they seemed to her to go on forever, she stopped the pendulum and said to my father the next day that the chimes had to be silenced. The clock had other ideas, as whenever Dad tried to get it to work without the chimes, it played up. He had it looked at by one watchmaker after another. Eventually Dad gave up. The clock remained in the corner of their living room as a constant reminder of their stubbornness, Mum’s, Dad’s and the clock’s. In my opinion, Dad was secretly glad as it had to be wound every single day.

My mouth fell open, ‘And you expect me, with my busy life, to wind it up every single day?’

‘There you go again, jumping to conclusions as usual.’

I folded my arms trying to control my temper.

‘Remember my promise to Dad that I would not sell it?’

I barely nodded.

‘You never made such a promise, did you?’ he said pointedly staring at me.

I shook my head and frowned, my curiosity aroused.

‘Well, there you are.’

‘You expect me to advertise it and try and sell it from out here?’

He shook his head, his expression one of exasperation.

‘If you will let me finish, instead of interrupting,’ he said pretending to be cranky. ‘I had to fulfil my vow and actually physically give it to you, a member of our family, before I could do anything. You had to accept it, which you will. In fact, anticipating your response, I’ve arranged for it to go to Christie’s, a branch of the famous auctioneer of antiques in Brisbane. The profit will be yours, unless you want to share it with me,’ he said with a grin, ‘do you agree?’

‘What a complicated business, couldn’t you have just rung me without all the palaver?’

He shook his head, ‘As I said, I had to give it to you, actually give it, to keep it in the family, don’t you see?’

Of course I agreed; although I said to him that our grandfather would be turning in his grave and his mother, I’m sure, would be prancing around her house doing an Irish jig.

I invited Mortimer to stay but, true to his mother’s comment to my mother, he had barely arrived when he was off again. I watched him drive off with the old clock repacked and securely tied swaying in the back of the vehicle which soon vanished in a cloud of dust.

© Clement 2009

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