TICK TOCK

by Helena Aeberli



Runner-Up of the Summer 2021 ORB Short Fiction Competition, judged by Larissa Pham.


Frances Dawson is running.

She is also running out of time.

More accurately, she has lost time.

It’s eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning and her world is meant to be changing.

What’s actually happening is that she’s is kneeling on the gum-pockered ground in the Kings Cross concourse, under its space-age spiderweb of a ceiling, tossing every item from her bag with the precision of a bat flying in the daylight, whilst making gratuitous use of the word fuck.

“You alright, love?” asks a balding man in a neon vest who looks so much the stereotype of a builder she half expects him to be hugging a flask of black tea. No one else stops moving. They’re all whirling onwards, coattails and briefcases and clouds of sweaty perfume swinging behind.

“I’ve lost my watch,” she says.

The probable builder does that sad half whistle people do when they feel sorry for someone but don’t know what to say. Air between teeth. Open lips. Pathos incarnate. It sounds like a missed tube train hurtling away down the Underground, mocking her.

“Family heirloom?” the probable builder — who is even more probably a probable builder, because he’s shirking his work to chat — asks.

Frances would laugh at that, if she wasn’t in quite so much distress. The watch is very far from a family heirloom. It is not even particularly nice. She’d bought it two years ago with a thirty quid Argos voucher her cousin had bestowed upon her for her birthday, partly because she liked the idea of a stopwatch function, and partly because it was painted a yellowy gold colour which matched nicely with the tacky bag her other cousin had sent her from a sabbatical holiday in Majorca after she’d had a breakdown in the middle of her nursing home workplace and requisitioned a bed from one of the elderly residents to recover.

The cousin, that is.

Not Frances.

Though give it time.

Also, Frances has never learnt to read an analogue clock.

This is the sort of thing people invariably laugh at her for when she tells them, but she’s never found it funny. Not least because she doesn’t like being laughed at.

There’s something nice about a digital watch, anyway. The untethering of time from its elitist roots, liberating it from structures of quartz and glass, from hands whirling round and around like the patterns of a life, the same old mistakes, the same old mistakes. Tick tock, tick tock. There’s something insectile about an analogue watch that she finds disturbing. Digital is safer, an anchor to the modern world, when the past is always threatening to drag her back.

Henry hates digital watches. Not quite as much as he hates smartwatches, but still.

Hated. Hates. Hated.

She could try and explain all this, but she won’t.

“It’s…” she says instead, petering off. “It’s just mine. Or it was mine. Now it isn’t mine, because I’ve lost it.”

Interesting. Who do things belong to when they vanish? When they’re lost and floating alone, disembodied from any interpersonal relations and historical meaning they may otherwise bear. The watch is probably somewhere in Hyde Park, where she went for a walk with Henry last week, before everything started going wrong with the regularity of a ticking clock.

Tick tock. Hah.

She’ll assume it belongs to Hyde Park, then.

But who does Hyde Park belong to?

The Queen?

Should be abolished. Property is theft and all that. Commodity fetishism. Political Philosophy degree. Useful. See, Mother?

Her mouth is still open and she’s not sure she’s blinked for the past five minutes. Like an aquarium fish, bumping up against the window of its tank, desperate for a taste of freedom it can’t breathe.

“Ah,” the builder says. Then: “Cheerio then. Good luck and all that.”

Making conversation, she reminds herself, is an art. One she used to be adept at. Once upon a time she’d enjoyed it, chatting to old ladies on public transport or flirting with bartenders in badly lit bars, getting to know colleagues over coffee and finding common ground with relatives. But now… It’s like her life was an incandescent bubble, constantly expanding, encompassing, until it couldn’t expand any further, and vanished.

Vanished with a pop.

Like her watch.

Maybe it’s in the Serpentine. The argument had started by the Serpentine. She hadn’t wanted to go boating, and he had. And as always, things had escalated. Like a wave sweeping over the bow of a ship.

She can almost see the chintzy paint flaking off as the watch sinks to the lakebed, enticing acquisitive fishes with beady eyes.

Pearly eyes / full fathom five / and all that jazz. Sounds

theatric.

Like her partner—

sorry. Ex-partner.

The fucking drama queen.

Henry.

Henri.

Henry.

At least she’ll never have to take his surname. The earth trembles a little with the force of Frances’s mother rolling in her grave every time she thinks about taking a French surname.

Especially that French surname.

d’Artagnan.

Jesus. His ancestors had to have made that up. To elevate the family’s standing. Which would be apt. Given what he’s like.

How to—

How to—

How to explain Henry.

She could start at the beginning or she could supply an anecdote.

Such as

the time he’d pointed out that Frances sounded rather a lot like Francis, and that Francis I and Henry VIII had been notorious frenemies. So they’d spent a whole day pretending to be Renaissance princes. It had led to some of the most interesting sex she’d ever had, but eventually the novelty had worn off.

Novelty never wore off for Henry. Things were always new and exciting; the world was always beautiful and fresh and glistening with dew, green as a prayer. You’d be a good salesperson, she’d joked a couple of times, and he’d been affronted by that. Selling out to the establishment, etc, etc.

That’d been him; protest actor, mob theatre, small company, big fuck you to the National Lottery, but at the same time, wow, if the National Lottery ever picked him and his crew, he’d fuck with the National Lottery. Christened Henri but rejects the bourgeoisie, couldn’t live without his coffee machine and en suite. Born and bred Londoner, citizen of the world.

Says his bones are full of ocean instead of marrow.

Novelty never wears off for Henry, except for the novelty of Frances.

Contradiction of contradictions. That’s her Henry. Or rather, that was her Henry

d’Artagnan.

Jesus fucking Christ.

(Her mother’s grave sparks a magnitude 7 earthquake at that bit of blasphemy too).

Where do things go when you’ve lost them?

Tick tock, Frances, you’re late. Late for a make-or-break meeting, a long-longed for chance. Late for a date starred in the calendar for months now, counting down the days like notches on a cave wall, or four leaf clovers.

Hyde Park. A week ago.

Henry: What if you find three four leaf clovers? Then it’s just one big three leaf clover.

Frances: Triple the luck?

Henry: Double positive is a negative. Right?

Frances: Wrong. Double negative is a positive. Like…I don’t not love you.

Henry: Smart arse.

Frances: We haven’t even seen one four leafer. Not even one.

Four leaf clovers tower into the grey nothingness inside Frances’s head.

On which note

Frances squeezes through a throng of tourists in Harry Potter gowns and hats

and into Kings Cross station

past the Pret

and down the stairs to the gates

where her Oyster Card is promptly rejected

which causes a pile up

in which a commuter nearly scalps her with his briefcase

and another Harry Potter fan stabs her under the armpit with a broomstick.

Into the melee, milord!

Frances’s eyes are watering, threatening to send spidery mascara tears down her face, as she checks the time on the ATM

11.22

balance — inaccessible. Her other card (the one in her name) is down the side of the sofa in the flat. Fuck shared bank accounts.

Why should she take his surname anyway?

Frances tops up with cash. The Queen shoots her a smug smile from the backside of a 20p piece, her cornet of hair prim and proper and prejudicial. It would have meant something, back in the day. Cash = dead. An irrelevant art form, like conversation. Or letter writing. Or theatre (fuck you, Henri!).

Or journalism, says Henry, from the velvet chaise lounge of fleshy grey matter he occupies in the back of her mind. It’s all very Freudian, very analysable, if she could afford the therapy.

Ouch.

The escalator is broken so she stomps down the station stairs into the hot wet mouth of the Underground. Sweat clings to her skin and her head hums with the seeds of a migraine like her body is a shit nightclub. A redundant ventilator coated in grime and fluff like some sort of post-apocalyptic moss hums and hurrs.

Faces slide by like oil on water. Frances buries her fists in her coat pockets. Nice coat. Nicked from the set of yet-another military dictatorship set Shakespeare.

Not interview wear, though. Not with all the holes.

She should’ve thought of that.

She hadn’t.

She’d been—

been

been thinking about other things.

Thinking which has become as hard as talking lately.

There’s a mirror on the station wall. Nice touch. Something a bit surrealist about it, a bit meta. She feels like her skin will start melting if she looks in it. So given her mind is already melting (pooling into little oozy puddles like school cafeteria raspberry jelly around her boots) she does. And regrets it instantly.

Is this her face? Is this what she looks like, to the other people on the train?

What she’ll look like to the interviewing panel?

Is this what she looked like to—?

To—?

To Henry?

God, is she sick? Mauve shadows like overripe plums burst in a plastic carrier bag, like her eyes are black weevils. Was she always this pale? This…vampiric?

Frances bares her teeth at mirror-Frances to check for points on the end of her incisors. She’s suitably fang-free, but she does have some spinach stuck in her molars, and she’s halfway through wiggling it out when she remembers that she’s in public, and wiggling spinach out of your teeth with your tongue in front of a grimy mirror in an underground station in Central London is not, actually, one of those things you’re meant to do, actually.

Polite society, her mum would say, through gritted teeth. Polite. Society. Frances. Dawson.

In her mum’s idea of polite society, nearly-thirty-year-old women should be happily married housewives, providing their high-earning banker husbands and two small children with four course dinners day after day, in a never-ending purgatory of starched sheets and Le Creuset casseroles. Daughters do not call themselves ‘freelance journalists’ despite never having any actual work, and cavort around London in third-hand army greatcoats from costume stores in dodgy pub basements, chatting up strangers (female strangers) to conjure up a modicum of jealousy in their feckless partners-not-husbands?

Also, in polite society nobody wears a digital watch.

Not that Frances is currently, at this moment, wearing a digital watch.

Or any watch at all, for that matter.

Thank God Mrs. Dawson’s been dead half a decade, then, right, Frances? Not around to see polite society drop out number one crash and burn?

Right, Frances?

Right?

Her mirror self quirks a dubious brow. Which is impressive, given Frances hadn’t even known she could raise one eyebrow without both shooting up and twisting her eyes into sailor's knots.

She’s a woman of many enigmas, mirror-Frances.

Layers of Frances sealed up like an onion under its crinkly sepia skin.

Henry hates onions.

Frances looks back at the mirror to shoot her mirror self a wry smile. Except its not a mirror, is it?

It’s a clock, its hands removed to leave a face as shining as a baby’s, innocent and clear, smiling silvery down on her with pearly Roman Numeral teeth.

It’s a fucking clock.

Frances Dawson takes one last look at her haggard, pallid face, and then, in the middle of Kings Cross underground station, at half past eleven on a Tuesday morning, on the day that’s meant to change her life, she puts her back against the wall and, like a Dali clock in a desert, slides to the floor.

“You alright?” says a voice from above. “You alright, love?”


HELENA AEBERLI is a writer, poet and director currently studying History and Politics at Jesus College. She likes caffeine, long coats, and longer walks.


Art by Kathleen Quaintance