Read by Greg Page
“The pocket watch in the window. Is it a Ballian?” I asked.
“Indeed, sir, a Ballian.”
“And its provenance?”
“From a master, sir.”
“May I examine the piece?”
He took the watch from the shop window and passed it to me. It was clear a master had finished it, for the brass was rendered with delicacy and the glass had a curve and quality seen only in the finest lenses. However, I had seen a hundred pieces with such a finish and none of them were a quarter the price of this Ballian.
“Is it really so expensive?” I asked the shopkeeper.
He took the price-tag in his fingers and showed it to me. “This is the price, sir.” He spoke with a correctness uncommon in a man of his age: perhaps twenty-two.
“But I saw such a piece in a shop not a hundred yards from here, priced at no more than thirty guineas.” He did not respond. I looked again at the watch. It had stopped. The establishment looked respectable and the window display, with several models from Europe, and even a split-stem Flanchard, had intrigued me. Inside the shop the choice pieces were well-displayed in glass cases which looked like they had been cleaned that morning.
But it was the shopkeeper who rankled. He had airs. He carried no watch, but instead sported a rose in the buttonhole of his suit, the tailoring of which was surely beyond the means of a shopkeeper. His shirt was well-starched – not the work of the farthing laundry in Milk Street – and his hair was coiffured in a manner I had only seen on gentlemen parading by London Wall. I decided that a shopkeeper who paid more attention to his appearance than to winding his watches was unworthy of my trust, and I left.
Back in the street, I congratulated myself on the good sense which had saved me from conducting my business with a man of such obvious disrepute. But when I looked back at him through the shop window, I saw something extraordinary; he was dipping the Ballian in what appeared to be a glass of beer.
I went back inside. “What in heaven’s name are you doing?” I asked him.
“Nourishing the Ballian, sir.” And he continued in his practice.
I was about to stop him when I observed that the watch had started again. At first I thought it was a trick of refraction, but no, the watch was plainly operating. I observed it closely for trickery but found none. I checked it against the Flanchard in the window, for I knew this model to be an excellent time-keeper, and the Ballian matched it perfectly.
“There is no crown or key. Is it self-winding?”
“Well, what is the mechanism?”
“It is a Ballian, sir. The mechanism is a cog for each hand.”
“Yes, of course, but what drives these cogs? How is the spring charged?”
“No spring, sir.”
“No, sir. A spring would be corroded by the nourishing. If sir requires a sprung watch, I stock several pieces of that specification.”
“How does the watch, this watch, work?”
“It contains a maggotry, sir.”
“Yes sir, a maggotry – a nest of maggots.”
Either this gentleman-shopkeeper was a jester, a hoaxer, or a magician; and yet I could not but observe his practice. Again and again he dipped the piece, bending the meniscus, then breaking it so that beer streamed down the watch’s face like the cascades of water on a launching ship.
And something more. Under the effect of beer, the watch gleamed. Not just the metal work – maybe partly this – but more. It came to life. The Ballian thrived. I don’t know what I should say. The whole, the beer and the glass, everything around the watch, hummed with life. I was transfixed. A phrase came to mind, something I had read in Andersen about a Swiss piece, perhaps a Guillard, when he talks about “Time Manifest in Mechanism” whereby a piece is so finely-crafted that time is not so much measured as “distilled.”
“I shall take the watch,” I said.
“Very well, sir,” the shopkeeper said, but he continued with the “nourishing” as if I had not spoken and I could not but continue in my fixed observation. I saw microscopic worms escaping the watch and oscillating through the beer and into the glass, which hummed like a bee buzzing in a bell-jar, becoming so strong I feared it would shatter, or perhaps melt; for I knew not what realm of physicality I was observing. I willed the glass to break, that the illusion might become clear to me. And yet the watch showed that the very thing that seemed to mesmerise me for hours lasted but a few seconds. As the shop reverberated and the second hand drifted, in that moment it became clear to me that at the heart of everything, there must be a maggotry.
“Very well, sir.”
“Your watch, sir.”
Before I knew it, the shopkeeper had handed me the Ballian in its box and I was paying an inordinate sum for it. I left and walked back up Cheapside towards my lodgings. I was unsettled, for I had spent an amount far beyond my means, at a time when my allowance from The Society was far from guaranteed. Furthermore, my timekeeping would have been just as well-served by a watch half the price, for I am not engaged in the type of science that requires precise temporal measurements.
Despite this, when I reached home and unveiled the piece I was not disappointed. I am no expert, but I do know that even the best-crafted watches display a recoil in the second hand. But this Ballian had none. I swear there was no recoil. Also, the minute-hand was visibly moving – one of Andersen’s requisites for a quality piece. But the hour-hand could be seen to move too! You’ll think me mad but, as I watched it, I saw the hour-hand move so definitely it could have been a galloping horse. Again I was transfixed, marvelling at the piece, at the very concept of time itself. I had to force myself to close the watch, else I feared I would have been stuck there in tempore vacuo.
I was late for The Mechanists, an informal group of physicists, philosophers and academicians who met weekly to discuss advances in our respective sciences. I entered the back-room of the inn and sat to the left of Dr Henkel, who was describing, with some mocking intent, a clockwork bookbinder, and holding forth on the future of such mechanisms. We went on to discuss a new cure-all, a study of clouds that was soon to go to press, and some bathtub experiments that a certain geologist had undertaken. One member told us how he had presented to Parliament a voting system very much in the manner of servants' bells, as seen in grand houses. Another would have us compute the workings of the economy using a system of cogs, wheels and pulleys arranged on a board the size of a wall.
I had become quite involved in the proceedings and had almost forgotten the Ballian until I took it from my pocket and saw it had stopped. The watch-seller had emphasised that I should nourish it every three or four hours, lest the maggots “alter their state”: whether he meant they might perish, or transmute into flies, I could not say. Nevertheless, I wanted it stopped so that the Mechanists could witness the reviving effect of beer upon it.
Some of the younger members spoke of an unpromising experiment in ballistics which utilised a hexagonal arrangement of pistols, and then the group broke to attend to their needs. I ordered a fresh beer, into which, on their return, The Mechanists found me dipping the watch.
“What is this? An experiment in madness?” Henkel said; but I could tell he was intrigued.
“Behold the Ballian!”
But the watch's hands remained motionless.
“It has stopped,” Henkel remarked.
I removed it from the glass. It felt heavier, like a piece of metal.
“Perhaps you should not have put it in the beer?” Henkel said, to the laughter of the assembled company.
I told them about the watch-seller, the maggotry and Andersen’s “Time distilled”: I received nothing but derision. “He has worms in his brains!” said one. “Do the maggots have watches?” asked another, who sketched a diagram of a barometer run by bees. It was only by a supreme effort that I joined their mirth, despite my humiliation.
The next morning, I was awoken from uneasy dreams by the ticklish sensation of a small fly crawling on my ear; harmless enough, yet I had the discomfiting impression that it had been emerging, rather than entering. I immediately checked the Ballian, but it was still stopped. I recalled last night’s humiliation and determined to confront the watch-seller immediately.
But, out on the street, I was all at sea. My head was askew from the previous evening, there was a thick buzzing, as of tinnitus, in my skull, and all London seemed determined to shout in my face or step in my way. I had to cross the road several times for fear of a burst sewer, a madwoman, a street brawl, a gang of urchins, or unscrupulous street-vendors on the lookout for a gentleman not on top of his wits. I did not dare look at St Paul’s for fear of being overcome by its majesty.
I normally thrive within the business of the city but today I suffered greatly. I wondered how much I had drunk yesternight: I had no recollection of what had happened following my humiliation. Perhaps I was sickening: I felt estranged from my own senses.
As I reached the law-courts, a defendant’s family was rioting. I stumbled down a lane by some guild or other. I retched. I feared I would fall to the pavement and be kicked to death. My ears rang like bells. I found my way along the wall, holding onto guttering, street-lamps, or whatever came to hand, bracing myself against collisions until, mercifully, I reached the shop.
The shopkeeper brought me a chair and a glass of water. I thanked him. I rested a while and gathered myself. My eyes closed, but the apparition of microscopic worms played so brightly inside my eyelids that I was shocked back into consciousness.
“The Ballian has stopped,” I said.
“Did you nourish it promptly?”
He took it from me and held it to his ear.
“When did it stop?”
“When? You can see plainly. By heavens, I –” I retched again, dizzily.
“Yes. I came here yesterday. I bought it here. It was yesterday.” It was yesterday, surely? Yet I wanted to say tomorrow or Thursday, although I knew this to be ridiculous. Time distilled, distorted, distended ... what was Andersen’s phrase?
“Did you nourish it promptly?”
“Perhaps it was... perhaps I was a little late... I...”
Without speaking, he fetched a glass of beer. He dipped the Ballian again; and now, as the beer washed over the face of the watch, it was as if I was watching the flow of a glacier. It was all apparent to me, every detail: the beer tenacious like honey on the case, the refractions of glass and liquid, the sound of swilling as though I were next the sea, all measured against the continuous motion of the second-hand. Bubbles in the beer loomed like planets in the cosmos. Every part of every part of everything was so apparent. The shopkeeper was speaking, but his words were a drawling drone, impossibly low. I could not move. Not one inch. I was appalled to find I could not move.
A fly crawled from the warm crevice of my ear and flew slowly before my face. As it hovered in front of my eyes, I watched its wings gradually slow, until they stopped.
(c) Gordon Collins, 2012
Gordon Collins (www.zipple.co.uk) has a BSc. MSc. and PhD in mathematics and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. He has been a market risk analyst in London, a maths lecturer, an English teacher in Japan and a computer graphics researcher specialising in virtual humans.