The low clickety-click of the faulty carriage clock continues its muffled sound as it has done for generations. It was The Mother’s pride and joy. The brass mechanism’s carcass, an ugly beast of veined marble and gilt towering on the mantelpiece for as long as Marge can remember. An inheritance from two Greater-than-Great maternal figures shrouded in a time when genteel families found gold and heavy drapes fashionable.
No one ever knew why it made that noise. It just did, the anomaly accepted for decades even though carriage clocks were supposed to be silent. Not this one. It had arrived complete with a murmur as if it contained the sick heart of a ghost. Not one starched member of the upright family had sought an explanation. That would have entailed extracting miniature nuts and bolts, revealing delicate cogs not designed for disturbance. Generations had lacked courage to seek out the truth. That same fear as when confronted with the choice of having a tooth pulled at the dentist or to run. Family generations chose to retreat and accepted the annoying sound into their front room. Clickety-click it went, the brass balls turning in uneven rhythm to a silent sarabande.
Uttering the word “balls” always sent The Mother into an indignant rage. You are a dreadful child, she would scream. I forbid you to say that. It is vulgar. Spheres, brass spheres, that’s what they are.
A child now grown into woman remembers spheres synonymous with fears as The Mother harped constantly. Discipline, discipline, that’s what you need in life.
So discipline had fallen in that room as regularly as the clickety-click and circling brass, in the form of a heavily-perfumed hand on a child’s cheek, raising crimson blood and dusky bruises that filled the mouth with copper-tasting blood as teeth gouged the soft flesh inside. The overbearing clock on the mantelpiece was a fixture, a constant, a reminder, the clicks in time with The Mother’s moods. It had gleamed from industrious housewifely attention, along with the other souvenirs, knick-knacks and inherited objects cluttering space and bridging time.
Clickety-click and Marge turns slightly in her armchair to the empty one opposite, allowing an apprehensive gaze to at last confront the vision. Stained and faded chintz hold nothing tangible, no breath disturbs the air, no pulse of flaccid flesh, but she continues to see and feel its presence. The Mother had disciplined, controlled and bullied her daughter into non-existence, rare tentative bids for freedom violently thwarted on each occasion. The Mother, her mother. Her nemesis, now an unseen shadow against a grubby armchair. Marge shrinks farther back into her seat, fingers twitching like dancing black-fly on the armchair chintz. The dense smell of rotting foliage comes from a neglected houseplant hidden somewhere in the darkened room.
A penny for them, Marge, Violet says from the sofa where she perches uncomfortably, a tiny unbalanced bird on a wire. A battered black hat sits askew on her silvered hair, strands of spun gossamer escape in misty wisps. Violet, Marge’s aunt, younger sister to The Mother. Auntie Violet, always dishevelled as if time had run out during her clothing preparations. Violet the runt of the family, the one that neither grew as tall nor as plump as her siblings but remained small and submissive towards Marge’s domineering mother. Perhaps that was the reason why Marge had never called Violet aunt, because as a child, she had sensed a shared suffering, a complicity in their weakness.
You’d have to give me ten pounds for my thoughts, Violet, quips Marge. Lightness, they need lightness in this lightless room where they sit.
Oh, I can’t afford that on my pension, the aunt laughs before asking nervously, she is still here, isn’t she?
Abrupt quiet hangs like a thread between them, broken only by the incessant clickety-clicks coming from the mantelpiece, then a disruptive chink from Violet’s direction as she moves the silver spoon around the porcelain cup to dissolve a sugar lump in her tea. Marge smells the tangy aroma combined with a faint drift of camphor wafting from the shapeless black outfit draped on Violet’s bony frame. Memory of a dead blackbird lying shrivelled and raggedy with falling feathers, she had found as a child comes to mind. How ironic that the younger sister looks so frail when The Mother had remained obscenely overweight and red-cheeked from table excesses right to the moment of her death. Irony. Always embedded in the twists and turns of life. Clickety-click as the brass spheres swing in their continuous circle of movement.
Marge again stares uneasily at the stained chintz armrest. There, where The Mother’s paralysed hand had lain, where a sweaty palm had insidiously soaked the fabric over the days, months and years, is a semi-invisible imprint. She makes out the blurred edges of what could be outlines of fingers and unwittingly moves her body farther back into her seat, is comforted by the cushioned softness sucking her into a reassuring protection. Move away, escape, slip between furniture, hide in corners was the quickened sarabande she had danced through time. No more hiding, now.
The Mother had gone quickly, unexpectedly even, but her presence continues to impregnate the room. Old fears creep back and Marge’s fingers grip the armrest. The touch of the fabric is reassuring and she gently scratches with her nails, feeling the chintz’s roughness against fingertips as she returns to the old habit of keeping still, but allowing tiny parts of her body to rebel. Keep alive, stay breathing. Scratch, scratch and clickety-click fill the darkened room.
The furniture will be thrown out, she thinks, as if emptying the room of two armchairs and a sofa could eliminate years of oppression. Marge suddenly remembers that hands have a body and a body has feet. Her eyes look down to the carpet where, in front of the armchair The Mother’s slippered feet had lain. No stain, but the pile is worn.
She certainly stamped her feet a lot, didn’t she? Violet’s tiny voice drifts with tea and camphor across to Marge.
Yes, she did Violet. And the kicks, trying to trip us up all the time. Do you remember those tricks? A full tray or cup of hot tea and she’d do her best to make us stumble. She couldn’t get up, but knew how to swing those fat legs…right to the day she died, as well.
The two women fall quiet in a complicit recollection of events.
She’s still here, you know, Violet whispers, as if fearful of arousing suspicion amongst the dead. I can feel her.
I can too, Violet, but she can’t harm us anymore. Marge then doubts her own words and thinks, or can she?
She always was a wicked one. The way she treated you was terrible. Violet shifts on her perch and attempts a cracked smile with faded lips.
Yes, is all Marge is capable of saying. The Mother’s death has washed emotions from her, cleansing the hurt and ending the wait. Years of counting hours and days until she could be free from her at last. Marge floats in a calm emptiness and welcomes the relief it affords her. But that stain, the worn carpet pile…
Not long, now, Violet. It will soon be finished and then we can go. She will never be able to make you afraid again.
Together, Marge? You won’t leave me again, here with…her, will you?
Of course we’ll be together. We have waited too long for this moment. I won’t abandon you, I promise, she says, sending a reassuring smile. Marge senses Violet’s fear across the camphor and milky tea-scented air. Clickety-click, as she looks intently at the clock willing it to stop. The spheres continue their circular movement; dance a slow sarabande, brass dulled by dust and grime. Time continues, she thinks. Time turns like a tide, flows in then out, ebb of life waxing and waning like the moon.
It is night behind the drawn drapes. A sliver of lamplight enters timidly from the street, as if fearful of the room’s occupants. Clickety-click and a porcelain chink as another sugar lump dissolves in the hot whirl of tea and milk.
Do you think she remembers, like us?
I hope so, Violet. Marge is quiet and continues gazing at the carriage clock above her.
What she did to you was…
I know, Marge cuts in. Unspeakable. So let’s not talk about it. It won’t be long, now. Be patient, and remember what she did to you as well.
The women’s silent wait settles like dust within the dark room, the younger held safely within the cushion feathers, fingers scratching the chintz fabric in apprehension. The older woman still teetering on the sofa’s edge, hands picking nervously at an invisible thread sprouting from black clothes. Clickety-click as spheres go round and the minutes turn by.
Marge and Violet sit in the room together, watching an empty armchair and awaiting the final departure. An uneven clickety, clickety…then no click, just silence. The spheres cease their slow sarabande and come to a standstill. Marge smiles knowingly as she sees the static balls and listens to the profound silence for the first time, ever. The darkness has swallowed the faint shadow on the armchair.
The Mother has gone, Violet. We can leave.
Violet’s pale features light up. Yes, please, Marge. Together, forever now? Time to say goodbye to this unhappy house. The joy-filled words tumble out of her drained lips as she now stands, holding out her hands to the younger woman.
No goodbyes, Violet. No goodbyes will be said. It is time to put all this behind us and leave for better things. Come on now. Let’s go.
The two women lock pale hands together and take a last glance at the front room. Marge smiles at the carriage clock and sighs with happiness for the first time ever. Silence.
Blimey, James, find that bloody light switch, will you?
Alright, I’ve got it. Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark, Steve? A big man like you!
Not anywhere else, mate, but this house…people talk, you know. Things happened here. You’re a young’un, you won’t remember.
Bloody hell, look at all this! Couldn’t the old biddy get a cleaner in from time to time, with the money she had?! James stares in astonishment. Stacks of cardboard boxes and newspapers are piled high in the entrance hall, in every corner, on each stair to the upstairs landing.
She was a mean witch, that’s what she was, James. Come on, let’s get moving, can’t stand here all day. Have to empty and clean the house before the estate agent comes next week.
What happened here, then? There aren’t ghosts are there? James’ laugh quickly subsides as Steve glares back at him.
People talk, that’s all.
What about, Steve? Come on, tell me?
Steve stands still, gathers his breath and memories and squares up James. I lived down the road, you know. I knew the girl, the old witch’s daughter and the aunt. They all lived here together. Then the girl died. An accident, they said. She fell over in the front room and hit her head on the fireplace. Pretty girl too, only thirty or so. The aunt died about fifteen years later and the old biddy lived alone after that. What was strange was the aunt had the same accident, falling over in the front room and hitting her head. That’s when people started talking.
James stares eagerly at Steve. So what happened next?
They sent carers after the aunt died. You see, she had a stroke quite young and the daughter and aunt looked after her. So when they were gone, the Council stepped in. None of the carers stayed. Too scared. Not just of the old lady, but of spooky happenings in the front room, apparently. The old lady kept on threatening to smash their skulls with an old carriage clock as well. Here, I’ll show it to you, bloody ugly thing it is, too.
Steve pushes open the front room door and points to the mantelpiece where the carriage clock thrones in ugly glory. We all thought the old witch had killed them with that. He hesitates on the threshold and listens. Well I never. It’s not working anymore.
I bet you the daughter and aunt had something to do with it, says James. They probably waited all these years for her to die. That’s what ghosts do, mate. They hang around until unfinished business is sorted. If she really did kill ‘em both, then they’ll be waiting for her. I wouldn’t like to be in the old biddy’s shoes now, he murmurs.
A porcelain cup containing mouldy tea-dregs lies on the table beside an empty sugar bowl. Blackfly dance a slow sarabande above a stained chintz armchair. A faint odour of camphor lingers as the blood-red marble carriage clock rests quiet on the mantelpiece amongst the dusty knick-knacks and family heirlooms. Clickety-click, clickety-click, click, click…