There’s a clock on our mantelpiece which has been around for pretty much as long as I can remember. It belonged to my father and two things I know for certain about it is that it is over 100 years old – probably well over – and that it is American.
I remember it ticking on a wall mounted corner cabinet, oh, it must be 60 years ago, in the little holiday bungalow he and my mother had bought in Suffolk and where they thought one day they might retire. In those days he and I would travel up there at weekends – a three hour haul then. He would read of an evening in front of the fire, and I would sit at his feet gazing onto the flames, his old dog wheezing away in his sleep at my feet.
It is an “eight day” clock, and so when he wound it up when we arrived on Friday evening, it would still be ticking the seconds when we returned the following Friday. And chiming the hours.
My mother died in 1953, when I was six. The old dog died in 1962, and my father in 1971. And then I got the clock. It ticked and struck the hours faithfully, decade after decade, until about 10 years ago when it just stopped chiming. I opened the back, tinkered with the mechanism and put a few drops of oil when it seemed they might be needed, but to no avail. I took it to a seller and repairer of antique clocks, but he looked down his nose at the clock, and, I have to admit, at me. “Nothing very special about this” he said and then quoted a price I thought ridiculous. Perhaps he just wasn’t interested in my custom. So I took the clock home and set it ticking again, consigning the sound of its chime to memory.
Last spring the old Bath stone chimney stack at our house in Wiltshire dropped some masonry, and the possibility of a total collapse looked frighteningly real. A good stone mason was engaged, and an application to the council made to allow us to commence with the work (the house is a listed building, and English Heritage is most particular that that any repairs be in keeping). And we thought that while we were at it we might as well have the chimney flue lined and a nice wood burning stove installed in our living room. By the end of the summer all the work was complete, and come the cooler months we basked contentedly in front of our new acquisition. In drowsy moments I fancied once or twice that I could hear the wheezing our old dog there in front of it …
Then two weeks ago I made a mistake, fortunately without the dire consequences that could have been: I left the bottom vent of the stove wide open, loaded it with fuel and set it going. It overheated. Some paintwork on the mantelpiece was scorched, and my wife had to go round the house opening windows to let out the smell, and I closed all the vents, wearing an oven glove. Gradually all began to settle, and it seemed that no harm had been done.
And at midday the clock struck 12.
I suppose it must have had to do with the heat getting into the depths of the antique mechanism and freeing something within it. We were delighted, of course. But would it all seize up again when it had returned to its ambient temperature?
Well, it hasn’t so far. And every hour is a delight. And memory after memory flood back, some joyous, some bitter sweet and some sorrowful. Just as is life.