Clock

How could anyone have known that there was a world lying hidden between the last tick of Tuesday night and the first tock of Wednesday morning? Who could have foreseen that the steady, predictable progression of our seven-day week hid a secret? Concealed within a fold of time: an eighth day, unknown and unseen by mortal men. And who else has visited this place - or am I the only one?

It was a discovery unlooked for, unguessed at, made in circumstances which were by no means out of the ordinary. I had been at home for some few days. This was a matter of weeks before the Christmas of 1882 and the seasonal slowing of trade meant that my business in the city would not suffer from my extended absence. I had taken the opportunity to retire to my country residence with the intention of catching up with friends and relatives, reading an improving book and taking regular brisk walks around the neighbourhood. All activities which would have been essential to the recreation of my health following such a hectic period over the summer but, as is always the way, I proved unequal to putting these noble intentions into practice and had so far spent the week unproductively, lounging around the house or practising shots in the billiard room.

On Tuesday evening I ate heartily, perhaps too heartily, drank merrily, certainly too merrily, and retired to bed early. I had a touch of indigestion as proof of my excesses, accompanied by a nagging feeling of another day wasted. Predictably, a restless night was the price I paid for my indolence and gluttony, and I awoke several times after being so cruelly rejected by the arms of Morpheus.

On the final occasion, after twisting and turning for several minutes in a vain attempt to succumb to unconsciousness, I arose defeated to see if stretching my legs might bring some relief. I felt, I recall, distinctly peculiar. It is customary, when one rises, that one should take a few moments to acclimatise to a proper state of wakefulness; to allow the remaining fetters of slumber to fall and leave one free to meet the day with a clear gaze. On this occasion I found that I could not ascribe these odd sensations to the lingering bewilderment of oblivion; I was, I felt sure, fully awake and had been for some time.

I clearly recall the distant chimes of the clock in the hall as it struck midnight, its muted, sombre tones echoing throughout the silent house. Odd - outside it seemed to be uncharacteristically bright. I moved to the thick curtains and twitched the heavy velvet folds aside. There had been a light fall of snow earlier in the day and at first I thought it might be reflecting the moonlight. But tonight there was a moonless sky. Odder still, there was a golden glow upon the horizon, unmistakably an indication of the coming dawn. The clock in the hall - it must be wrong. I should ask Jenkins to send for someone to repair it. But still... Could it really be daybreak?

I asked myself that question once more as I watched the new-born sun bob up over the horizon like an apple rising to the surface of a water barrel. How could there be any doubt, the fact of the matter was quite literally as clear as day? But the sun rose so quickly, so unusually quickly, as if impatient for the day to begin, that I could not but question the reality of what I was witnessing. It felt like minutes were being compressed into mere moments as I observed the sky brighten, the dark blue shot through with veins of amber and red, burning away the mist, glistening off the icy fields and roadways and gleaming through the treetops until every last shadow was dispelled.

I snatched up my watch, lying on the bedside table and freshly wound before I had retired. The faintly glowing hands told me that it was moments after midnight. I dressed quickly and went downstairs. Save for the ticking of the hallway clock, the house was deathly quiet. Not a creak, not a sigh, no signal of movement to suggest a fresh new day had begun. I collected my hat, slid back the bolts on the front door and went outside.

The air outside was crisp and sharp and fresh. A crust of frost lay across the fallen snow, making it sparkle and shine. Everything seemed clean and bright and intense as my hot breath hung in wispy clouds about me. I stepped briskly down the path and out into the lane beyond, the ground crunching softly beneath my feet.

This was no ordinary day. By what power I knew this I cannot say, but I was absolutely certain that this was not the Tuesday that I had just lived through, nor the Wednesday that I had expected to greet me upon my awakening. This was something other, hidden between the two and more vivid and more intense than anything I had ever experienced.

I started down Horsham Lane towards the green, finding to my delight that the neighbourhood I knew so well seemed cast in a wondrously exciting hue. The early birds that twittered in the trees and hedgerows seemed more vigorous; the little stream, that bubbled and popped beside the lane, more vibrant. Bands of mist still swathed the patchwork fields to the east, which twitched with a hundred dark shapes as a murder of crows pecked at the freshly ploughed soil for worms and grubs. At some signal unintelligible to all but our avian cousins, they simultaneously rose up into the air, one billowing black cloud of feather and wing, carrying themselves over the treetops and away towards some unseen destination.

I was keenly aware that I was alone here. Some supernatural intelligence informed me that no one else had witnessed the daybreak this morning, as I had. No human being, in any case. The grand houses that stood beside the lane displayed no sign or symptom of activity. The windows were curtained and barred as their owners slept on and I knew that the same pattern would be repeated in the towns and villages beyond. This was not the world of men. I alone was abroad to bear witness to the strange phenomenon that had replaced night with day.

What would happen, I wondered if I went up to one of those big houses right now and rapped upon the door? Would I be able to wake anyone? I doubted it. Whatever enchantment had enabled me to witness this anomaly would, I knew, keep them soundly asleep. When I reached the village green the story was the same. The buildings that gathered around that communal space, with its duck pond and its water pump and its pretty little flower beds, were silent. On any other morning this would be such a lively place, criss-crossed with people making ready for the busy day ahead. Now it was frozen, immobilised, as static as an insect trapped in amber.

The loneliness of my situation suddenly struck me quite profoundly and I felt a sickly surge of panic well up from the pit of my stomach. And yet, in the same moment, I knew that I was not alone. There were others here, I could feel them, but I could also sense that they were not of my kind. I have heard people speak before of the sensation that they are being watched. I had not experienced this before, but I felt it there and then for the first time in my life. It was not a pleasant feeling. I had the impression that there was something behind me, lurking out of sight, and yet when I turned I saw nothing.

That is, at first I saw nothing. My gaze was drawn to a spot further down the road where the bright sunlight struck the dark wet earth, kicking up a glare that was uncomfortable on my eyes. Could I see something moving? I forced myself to study the spot harder. Something was emerging, shapes coalescing gradually from thin air as if they were fashioned from wisps of mist. Each was a white shadow, a smoky outline imprinted on the air itself. There were so many of them somehow issuing from that single point in space, moving towards me, each one roughly the size and shape of a man.

Had they seen me? Was I as unreal to them as they were to me? I swung myself through the gateway of a nearby cottage and took cover behind a hedge. From this position I could watch them as they shuffled up the lane, their sluggish and laboured movements suggestive of some unseen burden. The closer they came, the more substantial they seemed to become until, at the point where they passed the cottage, it was possible to make out features and forms. And although they appeared much like mortal men in shape and attitude, they were less than human: misshapen, broken and incomplete.

I must have counted nearly forty of them as they filed past, slowly but deliberately, with some unknown purpose. When they were gone I leaned back against the gatepost and contemplated the meaning of what I had just seen, but before my thoughts had chance to settle I felt cold, rubbery hands about my neck and shoulders, pulling me down from behind. A deathly grey arm locked across my throat, pale flesh pressed about me, smothering me and I felt myself sinking down into a senseless gloom. I tried to fight, tried to struggle but I was powerless to break free and oblivion promptly overcame me.

***

I was dimly aware of being marched along, half senseless, bundled and tumbled by twisted limbs, cold breath on my face and neck. I recall a kaleidoscope of colours, at one time blinded by the bright sunlight stabbing like needles through a leafy canopy above; at others I was in darkness, a world of charcoal grey, with hardly any sensation save the singing in my ears.

Finally we reached our destination and they pressed me down upon a rocky seat. I gulped in the air and searched about me for some clue as to my whereabouts. I was confused, disorientated. I seemed to have been deposited within the skeletal remains of some once great building, the fractured walls and columns thrusting upwards from the rutted ground like broken teeth. I knew this place! This was the folly in Ogilvy Woods, built when such fanciful constructions were fashionable amongst the idle rich; a monument to frivolity and wastefulness.

I had played here as a boy; had enjoyed the loneliness and isolation. I wasn't alone now - I was ringed by a multitude of distorted simulacra of the human form. A great gathering, motionless, watching me. I blinked, struggling to focus, trying to make out the detail of these strange and disturbing beings. Was it me, or did my eyes simply fall away from them? The harder I looked, the more indistinct they became, as though they weren't really there at all.

Ruins

I rose to my feet, pushing myself up from the toppled column on which they had left me. I tottered unsteadily, anxious to hold my balance. The air was warm and muggy, as if it were late afternoon. Surely the day could not be so advanced already? How long had we taken to get here? Or should it be no great surprise to me that time here passed at an unfamiliar rate?

"Who are you?"

My words came out falteringly and met no response. Not one of these creatures moved, not one of them spoke.

"Why have you brought me here?"

Again, no reply, but this time there was motion from within their ranks as one of the figures pushed its way through. It approached, moving softly for all the clumsiness of its frame, hardly disturbing the ground underfoot, and stopped barely two feet in front of me. Even at this distance it was an effort to perceive anything but its basic form. I got the impression of skin that was watery and pockmarked, features twisted in a gruesome parody of a man, hair matted and damp. The most disturbing aspect of this encounter was that, in spite of its strangeness, it seemed somehow familiar.

"This is not your time," it said. Its words came out breathy and reedy. I repeated my demand for an explanation and my own voice seemed tremulous and faint.

"This is not your time," the creature said again. Such words I knew to be indisputable: I could not claim to belong here in this curious fold of existence.

"What are you?" I asked.

"We are what you have left behind," it said and I noticed that although its mouth was moving, the voice seemed to come from somewhere else; somehow it emanated from within my head, the words tumbling effortlessly through my conscious mind.

"We are the mark you make upon the earth, the footprint in the sand, the outline beneath the crumpled sheet. We are the echo of your passing, the memory of your deeds and the promise of everything you could have been. We are the spilt blood, sloughed skin, the shed hair, the spent breath of your every moment, gathered together, given form and set upon the earth this day to fulfil ambitions left unfulfilled, tasks left undone, dreams that were never realised. We are you."

We are you, it had said and with those words I suddenly understood why I had felt that this creature was known to me. He was me! A roughhewn, incomplete and hideous copy; a facsimile of myself. And then it grinned; a horrifying grimace that at once set my nerves jangling, for I knew for certain that this thing meant me harm.

"Ambitions left unfulfilled," I repeated, trying not to betray my dread. "What do you mean?"

"Everything that you set out to do and failed," it breathed. "Every stillborn ambition and aborted endeavour. Every moment you wasted in idleness. We are the shadows cast upon this unseen splinter of time, striving to accomplish everything that you had the power to achieve but did not. We are what could have been and we have been doomed to fail, until now. Until you came. Now I can be all that you can be."

If I had ever had occasion to lament a misspent existence, then I surely did so at that moment. The repressed guilt of every squandered minute had been brought into being. Given form, given purpose and the power to seek redress. But how, I asked?

"By becoming you," it replied and reached out to touch me.

And so I ran. I ran because I knew that had I not taken the opportunity to flee at that moment, the chance would not come again. I broke through their ranks, keeping clear of their groping, outstretched hands, plunging into the wood, crashing through the nettles and branches that snagged my legs and feet until I found a path.

I had no idea where I was headed but the track led steeply downwards and I knew this must take me out of the woods. The way was criss-crossed with roots and vines, threatening to trip me at every step. At one point I entered a narrow, steep-sided chicane, where my foot struck a protruding rock and I stumbled into a thick bush of brittle leaves and thorns. It tore at my clothes and hands as I freed myself but I could not stop to check my injuries, for I knew that those terrifying shadow creatures were in pursuit.

I skittered down the path with a speed and nimbleness that I had never been called upon to exhibit before, and which I hope I may never need to rely upon again. I could not see my pursuers but I knew they were close. I could hear them, feel them, and I was certain that if I tripped again they would be upon me before I could recover. Twice I found myself sliding, a rattling of stones spraying out from beneath my soles; and once I narrowly missed a tree stump, avoiding catastrophe only by good fortune.

Just as it seemed that my descent might never end, the gradient began to grow more shallow and I reached a little stream on the edge of the wood. The path took me across two stepping stones and into a neighbouring field and I paused for one brief moment to risk a glance behind me. The vision of those creatures through the trees is one that remains as vivid to me now as it was upon that day. In my dreams I still relive the sight of them rolling and tumbling over each other like a grey tide in their haste to reach me.

I pressed on, doubling my pace as I followed the path, skirting the edge of the field and then striking off, away from the wood and towards a stone wall, shining golden beneath the sinking sun. The sinking sun? Was evening approaching already?

I had to get home before nightfall. Something told me that if I didn't I would be trapped here forever. And then with a sudden burst of joy I recognised where I was: I was not so very far from my house! Wading through the long grass I reached the wall, squeezed through a stile and found myself in Horsham Lane! My own pretty little road with its carpet of fallen leaves - it had never looked so welcoming.

Long shadows had grown all about me now. The sun was almost upon the horizon, the sky red and gold, fading quickly to deep purple as the light failed. I started towards my house but, horrifyingly, I found myself being dragged backwards. My pursuers had overtaken me! But now, in this broken light, they had once more become shadowy and indistinct. I struggled to free myself but I was engulfed, drowning in their murky tide. Smoky and obscure faces emerged before me, rising and falling in the melee, but their grip was diminishing. As the daylight waned so too did their strength. Moment by moment, they melted into the evening until, at last, I could break free!

I ran past those slumbering houses until I reached my own door. All the while I felt my pursuers keeping pace close behind me - invisible, their rasping voices whispering, their smoky fingers reaching out and brushing me but with no power to hold me. I went inside and slammed the door, listening in terror as they scratched and scrapped at the wood. I could not stay there. I took the stairs two at a time up to my bedroom, pulled the curtains closed and tumbled onto my bed. How I was able to fall asleep I could not say and yet, with those persistent hissing voices still echoing through my mind, this is precisely what I did. It seemed that unconsciousness was somehow forced upon me with the closing of the day; a blackout, as in a play, to assist my transition to the next scene. And as I slept, the scenery changed.

Night time

Wednesday morning met me when I next awoke. A bright and glorious Wednesday morning. A golden beam of sunlight infiltrated the room through a chink in the curtains. Downstairs I could hear the sounds of my housekeeper as she prepared breakfast. From outside in the lane came the welcome noises of everyday life as people went about their business. Ordinary.

We are familiar, all of us, with dreams that leave such a vivid impression upon us that we carry those sleeping fantasies over into waking life. The thoughts, the feelings and the memories stay with us. That's how my disturbing experience seemed to me when I awoke: the memory of a dream: intense, persistent but too strange and inexplicable to have actually happened, surely? And yet I had slept in my clothes. And there, on the floor, were my muddy boots and the wet footprints that I had left just a few hours ago.

I went to the window and threw open the curtains. I needed to look out upon the world I knew; a place I felt at home. The drayman's cart rattled by with the man's eldest boy hanging lazily off the back. The postmistress struggled with an overflowing basket. The paperboy, tromping up my garden path to deliver the morning's Times, saw me at the window and waved, and I waved back. All of these people were going about their lives unaware of the desperate hours concealed in the crease between one day and another; unconscious of the existence of a realm populated by pitiful echoes of ourselves.

Here was a place where hours and minutes marched by at a steady rate; a place whose citizens could, if they so wished, fritter away their precious time in any way they saw fit. But I had seen another world and knowledge of it meant that I could no longer tolerate such waste. I had been shown that every minute was precious, every moment a miracle. I had to make them count.

I pulled on my shoes, put on my hat and headed downstairs, calling to my housekeeper to let her know that I would forgo breakfast. I had things to do, people to see, errands that I had put off for too long, promises that I had failed to keep. This much I owed to myself: to make the most of every second allotted to me.

I paused to look at the clock in the hallway as it steadily counted out each second of my life, and as I did so I focused for a moment on my reflection in its face. The imperfect glass summoned forth a roughhewn and incomplete facsimile. Yes, this much I owed, also, to my abandoned shadow, a creature to be pitied, who would forever occupy the space between the last tick of Tuesday night and the first tock of Wednesday morning. I went out to make this day my own.

Stupid Stories

Taken from Stupid Stories, available from Amazon

 

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