The clock face was cracked. The clock hands remained defiantly in the place they had struck when the watch fell to the cold hard floor. Since then they had not moved. It was as if the watch had died when its owner had hung himself from the beamed ceiling, slipping from his tiny wrist in the final seconds. Yet it was not that fall that cracked the watch; it had always been cracked.
I sat beside the fireplace in my velvet red armchair. The heat of the fire was making me drowsy and I could feel the weight of the watch as my arm drooped. I shook myself firmly, determined not to fall asleep. I can’t sleep. It’s been a week since I last slept. They come in my dreams; illusions, distortions of my life. As I stared at the silver watch I felt my eyes close.
“Oh no,” I muttered as my eyelids flickered open. The living room was gone; no fire, no armchair…I knew this place. I always knew them. The familiar crunch of twigs underfoot did not reassure me as I stepped through the misty night. The moss covered greenhouse with its cracked glass a missing panes leered at me and I could faintly make out the growing tomato plants within. I blinked, surprised. I thought I saw a shadow of a man staring at me. I breathed heavily. No, it couldn’t be…
I was standing by the sweetcorn patch watching the plants swaying in the nightly breeze. Overhead I could feel the swooshing of apple tree branches. Feeling peckish, I took a small russet apple from the closest branch and bit into its flesh. The sweet taste washed through me and I took another bite; but I knew that any second now it would happen. The sky began to darken as thick clouds swirled overhead and blocked out the shining stars. Clang!
“Bleurgh!” The second bite of apple had turned to ashes in my mouth and I spat it out disgustedly. I looked down at the half eaten fruit in my hand; it was swarming with maggots in its bruised mouldy flesh. I threw it to the ground and wiped my hand on my sleeve. I did a double take. The grass was white and wriggling. It took me a moment to realise until I felt the maggots crawling up my leg.
Everything went black.
They were gone. I shook my leg to make sure but no maggots fell out. I looked around. No, I thought quietly. They weren’t gone, I had moved. It took only seconds to work out where I was. I recognised the granite archway, the mismatched paving stones, the wires that hung from building in a crisscross pattern; all of it. The familiarity chilled my bones and I saw him again. Leave me alone.
Check the watch. I tilted my wrist to gaze at the silver watch; at first I didn’t understand. At first I was taken aback. The time had gone backwards. That’s not possible. I looked at the cracked face again. There was no mistaking it, the time had reversed. Clang! Clang! The paving became ice under my feet and I struggled to keep my balance as I made a desperate grab for the black lamp post. But that too was not what it had been. It was frictionless to the touch and my fingers would not close around it. Why won’t this stop? Let me sleep. Please. The crisscrossed wires were sparking; crackling with electricity as the paving froze thicker and thicker. Black ice made it impossible to stand still and I felt powerless as my feet slid carelessly.
Think! You have to think! It made no difference. My mind was fogging up as the sparking wires grew louder; they had snapped away from the lefthand side of the street and the loose wires now flapped aggressively in the icy wind. Once or twice I felt the wires coming dangerously close to my face as I fought to keep my balance. My breath was coming out in ragged gasps, heavier and heavier. I have to run. I have to get out of here. I closed my eyes and ran.
A dark fog descended around me. It did not matter, I had to get away from the nightmare. I had to wake up. Next second the ground dropped from beneath my feet and I was falling.
“Stop!” I yelled the word across the plummeting sky but it did not stop. Voices began to chatter uncontrollably in my mind. I was still falling. There seemed to be no end in sight, no ground coming up to meet me. Then it hit me. The pain was unbearable as my skull throbbed. I felt ready to throw up but as I wretched, I took a gulp and swallowed the sour bile. The haze in my head began to clear and my new surroundings swam into view. I kicked my shoes off and dipped my toes into the cool, refreshing seawater. A weak sun hung in the air shining its rays upon me. The watch. I looked at the cracked face again. 3 O’clock read the hands. Time had gone forward this time or else it had reversed further. I couldn’t be sure of anything here but I knew where I was. A tiny bay, covered in pebbles and rocks and a turquoise sea that broke gently. I had not come here since…No, I will not remember that. I spotted the old boat shed, the wood wet, dark and soft. It still stood as tall as the first time I had laid eyes on it. My heart pounded as I waded towards it. The single rowing boat was there as I had expected, tied up tight.
“I have to row,” I mumbled numbly. It was the best plan I could think of. The only plan. With shaking hands, I grasped the wet oars and dipped them into the ocean. I had no idea where I was going or if I would ever reach it. Just keep rowing. The waves were calm. I need a compass. There was no compass, not here or anywhere. I had to chance to fate as I pushed the boat further out to sea. Head north, I thought suddenly. I shifted the oars in the water and turned the boat in the direction I thought of as north. Clang! Clang! Clang!
That sound again. What did it all mean? Each time I had this nightmare, the same noises yet I was no closer to discovering its meaning.
The sea grew rougher, foam frothed on the tips of 6 foot high waves that cascaded over my head. I was soaked to the skin, my clothes sticking to me all over my body but still the waves kept on coming. I continued to row but the boat was being pushed and flung in every direction. Just keep going. You can beat it. You have to beat it. Another cold wave crashed down upon me, the water pouring into my mouth and causing me to splutter and cough. My eyes were stinging from the salt as the boat began to capsize silently. Moments later I found myself thrown beneath the sea. I forced my head above the waves, rasping for breath. I looked around for the boat. It was gone.
I squinted in the dark, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. I made to shake myself like a dog but my clothes were dry. I did not like where I was standing. Although it was thick with darkness, the crystal of my watch gave me a small source of light and I recognised the room I now stood in. It was a room I had hoped never to see again.
“Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.” My voice echoed back to me in the gloom; it vibrated off the concrete walls.
“6 O’clock,” I said out loud, staring at the watch until the hands swam into view. It echoed back to me. There has to be some way out of this nightmare. I looked around, holding my arm aloft as though the watch was a torch. Of everywhere I had been taken, this was by far the worst. In the others I could see, I could flee, yet here the darkness was overpowering. It sneered at me from every orifice. I was afraid. More afraid than I had ever been. My knees trembled as I walked; I could feel them knocking together and bruising the bone. Help me. Yet no help would come. I was alone.
Nothing had altered. No sudden noises. No unexpected perils. Yet I could not help feeling uneasy. The nightmare had so far followed a similar, devastating, pattern. So why was this different?
“Is this some sort of game?”
“Game. Game. Game. Game. Game. Game…” My hands clenched as the echo soared back to me growing louder and louder.
“Why here? Why take me here?”
Then for the first time the impossible happened. I was answered:
“This is your memory,” the voice said. There was no malice in its tone but there was no hint of friendship either. It was frail but it spoke with a sense of clockwork.
“Who are you?” I asked stupidly, checking over my shoulder for its source but in the dark I couldn’t have seen it even if it was there. The disembodied voice continued to respond.
“I am you and I am not you. I am real and I am not real. I am this memory and I am every memory. I am what you see and what you can’t see.” My mind was screaming. “I am everything.” I wrung my hands through my hair in despair. None of this made any sense. What do I do?
“I’m lost,” I called out weakly.
“Lost. Lost. Lost…”
“I don’t want to remember this.” I was pleading to a voice I did not know, to a body I could not see but as far as I could make out my situation, I had no other choice. “Please help me.”
“You must help yourself,” the voice told me without deliberation. “You must remember.” I continued to fight off the memory but as the details came swimming back to the forefront of my mind I realised that I could not stop it. “Remember!” The frail voice was stern. And I remembered. My eyes brimmed with tears. I remembered everything. The cold, dark nights as a child locked in this room. Abandoned, alone, terrified. No. Not alone. I could see his silhouette coming towards me, growing larger with each echoing step. His snarling teeth, pearly white glistened in the gloom. I shuddered. He was nearly upon me, I could smell his putrid minty breath. His hands were groping me. I felt sick; sick with terror, revulsion…rage. There was nothing I could do to stop it. It was just a memory.
I started to run. I had to get out of here. I had to escape and fast. The memory of this place was overwhelming me. My footsteps reverberated on the stone floor but I did not care; I kept running. Then it happened again for the fourth time. That dreaded sound. The sound that made my heart stop dead in my chest. Clang. I looked around for the surroundings to change again. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Seven sudden sharp noises. I was never sure of what made me do it. I checked the silver watch. What I saw caused my mouth to drop open and my eyes to widen. 7 O’clock. It was telling me the time. I shook my head in disbelief. I had never thought to link the noises to the watch. Yet know I realised they were inexorably linked.
What was the one constant of this nightmare?
The noises and…
Look at the watch.
Cracked in the struggle.
I glanced at the watch one last time and in that moment it finally hit me. I thought back to when I found the watch a week ago, abandoned at the back of the jewellers. I could have chosen any wristwatch; it wasn’t even the cheapest. I had felt drawn to it as though I had been meant to have that particular watch. I twisted my wrist and stared at its back. It had always been mine. He had given it to me on my tenth birthday; I had sold it when I turned 18. I laughed shallowly. I should have known all along. I should have spotted the link. The nightmares began when I wore the watch.
Not nightmares, memories. My hidden memories. I always knew they would come back to haunt me. I always knew I could never escape. I can still hear his laughter. There’s only one way I can be free of this.
The pen slipped from his hand and fell to the floor with a tiny echoing clatter. He tightened the belt around his neck and kicked off from the velvet armchair as the fire faded in the grate. The silver watch loosened and fell.