A Twist of the Watch
The scruffy thirty-four-year-old man was already frighteningly dead. His blank eyes stared at his grisly feet, which were atrociously white and bare, shuffling slowly as the stoic guards pushed him forward, their grainy red uniforms shifting in the faint wind. His sallow hands were tied behind his dead back with coarse twine. A small, imperfect patch of fleeting gray whiskers stood out harshly against his lifeless, white face. Ragged prison clothes fluttered about him, showing off holes and stains in their demented, foreboding fabric. His hair, greasy and unkempt, hung long and lanky around his shoulders.
Ahead of him, he could see through a narrow aisle that the police had managed to carve out of the maniacal crowd. The gap showed him a crude wooden platform with two thick poles protruding from its roof like menacing canines. Fastened purposefully between them was a shaft of mahogany wood, from which a rope hung, tied in an eager noose. That noose held all the eyes of the crowd fixed in place. They could not shift their gaze from the object that would take the life of the already-dead man, the forlorn man who was looking through the jagged slit of the pulsating crowd.
There was one face in the endless throng that made the man smile, an action that pained him immensely due to cracked and battered lips. The face was excruciatingly simple. It was round and plain, slightly flushed, and it looked down. The face reminded him of his son’s face, back in France, at the heavenly shop with all the little ticking watches. It reminded him of the face that had greeted him every morning with “Salut, papa,” or “Se lever, papa.” It reminded him of the face that would run into the shop full of marvelously ticking watches and laugh as it stared at each one in turn, moving like the graceful dancer that it belonged to. The already-dead man would smile with lips that weren’t yet broken as he watched his son float around the room with flowering wings of happiness. The boy’s mother would glide gently down the stairs that connected the small ticking shop to their even smaller apartment upstairs. She would lovingly slide her arm around his waist and lean her head on his shoulder as they watched the scrumptious wonder in their son’s eyes.
The already-dead man felt a greasy, red-coated guard push him roughly from behind, and he stumbled out of his stupor. He felt the eyes of the round face in the crowd boring into him from his left, but he dared not look again.
Behind the calm, downcast eyes of the round faced boy, a storm was brewing. His simple, 19-year-old mind spiraled on a collision course with disaster. It flew back through the fabric of time to the day before the catastrophe.
The beautiful maid had curtsied to him, with a faint smile on her face, as they had passed each other in the hallway of the apartment above the bakery on Pudding Lane. His face had flushed to a bright red and, hoping she hadn’t noticed, he clumsily bowed. She had let out a slight, tinkling laugh that sounded like a cascading brook softly flowing through a still, uninhabited forest.
That night, as he was dousing the fire in the bakery’s huge stone oven, the round-faced boy was still hysterical with joy. He let that cascading stream laugh resonate throughout his mind. He carelessly tossed empty flour sacks into a corner, then grabbed the bucket of water that rested dutifully by the oven. He threw the water over the blaze within the stone kiln, and then, still dreamily thinking of clear water and silent woods, he floated upstairs to the small bedroom that housed the bakery’s servants. Meanwhile, downstairs, the embers still glowed in the huge oven, just waiting for something to set ablaze.
The already-dead man felt a harsh stone strike his cheek. He didn’t need to look to know that it had been thrown by the round-faced boy. It made him sad to see such a young soul so angry. It reminded him of the judge on the day that he falsely confessed to starting this horrible catastrophe. The judge that day had been furious, flying to a standing position as his chair was shot backward and fell over from the force of his leap. He had leaned over his desk and yelled at the already-dead man to “Confess! Confess! Confess!” The man had stolen a wild look from a member of the jury, and used it to force his mind to confessing to many petty crimes. He had confessed to shoplifting, to pickpocketing, even to breaking and entering, but the judge simply became even more aggravated. He swiped his desk clear of everything on it, creating a shower of stained paper that fluttered all over the small courtroom, and shouted at the already-dead man to “Confess! Confess! Confess!”
The attacked, dead man became exasperated. He dangerously obtained a frivolous lunacy that matched the judge’s, and he began yelling back, confessing to bigger and bigger crimes. It was never enough for the judge. Finally, the courtroom had fallen into a deadly silence, within which a fuming stare-off had occurred. The already-dead man had lost it. He had turned his head slightly to the left, stared at the ground, and whispered quietly, “I confess to starting the Great Fire of London.” The judge had leaned back with a smile of contempt on his face, and nodded his approval. Meanwhile, the already-dead man had another type of great fire raging behind his eyes: a great fire of internal fury.
The man saw the boy pick up another stone. He saw more internal fury behind those simple eyes. The boy was burning up in an inferno of self hate. The face in the crowd remembered the smell of smoke at one o’clock, a horrible thing to wake up to. He remembered hearing a scream that reminded him of the cascading-stream laugh, which reminded him of the embers left sizzling in the oven… he had started this blaze.
He remembered springing to his feet, and yelling, shaking the other servants awake before running into the next room where the maids slept. There was one already awake, the one with the cascading stream laugh, and she was waking the others with a hurried calm. He remembered running down the long hallway to his master’s bedroom, the bedroom that housed Thomas Farriner and his wife. They woke, and he helped them out of bed with a gentle urgency. The walls were burning.
The round-faced boy remembered staring out the bedroom window towards another roof, one that was not yet ablaze. He remembered yelling at everyone to come into the master’s bedroom, and then opening the window. He beckoned to Thomas Farriner, who came and stared out the window for a split second that seemed to last for an eternity before he made a flying leap and landed on the distant, adjacent roof. Thomas Farriner grimaced, but then stood up and beckoned to the rest of the servants, maids, and family.
His wife went next. She barely made it; her fingers had scrabbled for the lip of the roof at the last second. Next went all of the servants, except for the boy, and then all the maids, except the one with the cascading-stream laugh. The boy remembered her horribly pale face as she looked at him in that instant, all traces of her beautiful smile gone. She told him with a wobble in her flawless voice to go first. He remembered hesitating, staring into her eyes, and then jumping, feeling his feet hit the opposite roof. He could feel the heat from the inferno that he had started. He turned around… The maid, the one with the cascading stream laugh, was gone. The boy never saw her again.
The already-dead man felt his body being roughly lifted onto the coarse wooden platform with the two poles and the noosed rope. He numbly felt his neck being encircled by the rough rope, felt his windpipe slowly close off as the guards raised him into the air. He calmly spotted the boy in the throngs of people, thought of his son and his wife, and fell limp. He embraced death, for he knew that one day his family would join him in the heaven of their ticking workshop in France. He died as a forlorn man who found a spark of joy in everything, even in the face of the young man who had thrown a stone at him for taking the blame of a crime that he did not commit.
In that mind, the mind of the stone thrower, there was nothing but a bleak landscape of guilt and grief in which the maid, the one with the cascading-stream laugh, reigned supreme. She was the cause of his self-hate; he had obliterated the one thing that there had been for him to love. And now, he had only hate to hold onto. The boy had tried to blame the maid, had tried to hate her, but he could only love her. He had tried to blame the man hanging from a noose, dying while finding joy in everything. He had tried to lay the blame on the man that everyone else believed committed the crime, but he had been unable to. In a selfish way, the boy loved the dead man too. He loved him for saving his life, for saving his dignity even though he had already lost it in a horrible way that he was not aware of. The boy loved the already-dead man because he could viciously attack him without needing the consent of the public, because they all wanted the same thing. The boy loved him because he could go unnoticed in his grief due to the already-dead man, because he could retreat into his own bleak mind while the public had a distraction.
The man who had previously been figuratively dead was also dead now in a literal sense. The noose had aggressively bit into his neck and drawn a thin line of blood. The boy loved that noose, but he also loved the man hanging from it. He loved the limp man because of his death, because he paid the ultimate price for a monstrosity that was committed by the younger face, the face that could have a future. The scruffy man hanging in front of the boy had sacrificed his love for his family, for France, for life itself, and unknowingly traded them all for the bleak future of a small boy that he had never met, a boy who had promptly killed the one thing that the boy had loved. Now that the man was dead, the boy realized that he loved him too, but for different reasons. Now both of the things that the boy had loved were dead.
An obvious thought flew into the boy’s head. He would inevitably join his loved ones in the transition from life to death, but why not shorten that transition? He could take his own life, end this horrible journey that had ended disastrously. He walked down the street, away from the hanging man, thinking his dark thoughts. He stayed close to the side, near the reflective windows that lined the street. He heard a ticking sound, and he stopped. He slid into a small shop, one of the many businesses where there was an apartment on top. As he entered, he was greeted by a chorus of small, ticking watches. He felt a smile come to his eyes, and his mouth opened wide. He lifted up onto his toes, and leaped around the room like the dancer he was not. A man came down the stairs from the apartment above and watched the boy, who was oblivious to the older spectator. Soon he had an audience of two. A woman had joined the man, and they had leaned against each other and smiled as they watched him.
That night, the boy was happy in the small apartment above the ticking watches. He had found happiness, he had found work, he had filled the hole left in the world by the man who was still hanging between the two harsh wooden poles fixed to the crude wooden platform. The boy with the round face was now becoming a watchmaker.
24 Years Later
The boy with the round face was not a boy anymore. His hair was gray and brittle, his face melancholy, his body slightly frail. His face still showed discreet signs of past tragedy, and his eyes still looked downwards. The corners of his mouth lifted, however, when the little bell that rang whenever the mahogany door swung open tonged gently and his son floated in, lightly and wondrously gazing at the endless ticking watches that lined the walls of the small London watch shop. The man stood by the open door that showed the corner of stairs leading up to the cramped apartment above that was home and watched his flowering son float around the beautiful room, dancing from watch to watch and listening intently to the unique ticking of each one. The man’s wife came silently down the stairs and gently slid her arm around the man’s waist. She leaned her head on his shoulder as they watched their son together. They smiled as he laughed while he spun around the shop, and they watched his hat as it flopped around on his head, and they watched his face. He had the same simple face as the man had had, twenty four years ago; round, plain, and normal, yet simultaneously wondrous and beautiful, just like the simple watches that they both loved.