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Time and the Clock Mice, Etcetera
By Peter Dickinson, Emma Chichester-Clark
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Peter Dickinson
All rights reserved.
I prized the hatch loose. Inside was a deep hollow, with crank-rods running from the floor to pivots and joints near the top. On the floor, to the right of the rods, was a mouse's nest.
Now, you don't want mice in the works of clocks. They're dirty creatures, their droppings and leavings clog things up and they tend to gnaw around at random. I've often trapped mice, and put poison down, but when I've found actual nests with babies in them I've never been able to bring myself to destroy them.
The mother's run off, of course, so I scoop the nest up with the babies in it and tuck it away somewhere and hope she'll find it. Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn't. I don't worry much, either way.
But this nest was different. For a start, the mother hadn't run off, though she must have heard me forcing my way in. She was terrified, gazing up at me, quivering. She'd withdrawn her milk and her tiny blind babies were nuzzling uselessly at her teats.
The nest was the neatest I'd ever seen. The floor was so clean it might have been swept. Against the wall, near the rods, stood several of those plastic cylinders you buy camera film in. They held stores, bird-seed and raisins and bread-crusts.
And then I saw it wasn't just the way this mouse did things that was different. She was different.
It was the eyes. If you look at an ordinary house mouse you'll see it has bright, slightly bulgy eyes. They look quick and cunning. But then you realize it's all on the surface. They're like shiny pebbles. You can't see into them at all.
But this mother mouse had stayed with her babies. She kept things tidy. She stored food in containers. And you could see into her eyes. They had depth, like people's eyes. We stared at each other for a long, long while.
"OK," I whispered. "Good luck with the family. Just don't let them muck around with the works."
I inspected the cranks and pivots, gave them a touch of grease, closed the hatch and left the mother mouse to it.
So that's how I found out there were such things as Clock Mice. And that's how I knew from the first that they were different.
FIRST ESSAY ON MICE
The books say there are six kinds of British mouse.
They're wrong. There are seven.
The books will tell you about House Mice, which are very common. There must be millions of them. And about Wood Mice, which are the same as Field Mice, which are common too. So are Yellow-necked Mice. Harvest Mice used to be fairly common, but are getting rarer.
They'll tell you that Dormice aren't really mice, because they have furry tails and are halfway to being squirrels. They're getting rarer too.
The books will even tell you about Fat Dormice, which are pretty rare, but you'll know if you've got them because of the way they thump around in the attic. You can eat them, but the books don't tell you how to cook them.
That makes six kinds of British mouse.
The seventh kind is Clock Mice. They aren't in any of the books, because no-one has noticed them so far. They're very rare indeed — there were eighty-three last time I counted. They all live in the Branton Town Hall Clock.
FIRST ESSAY ON CLOCKS
There are hundreds of kinds of clocks.
There are pendulum clocks and spring clocks and quartz clocks and water clocks and cuckoo clocks and Mickey Mouse clocks and turret clocks and lots and lots more.
The Branton Town Hall Clock is a turret clock. All that means is that it's a big clock in a tower, like a church clock. There are plenty of those. But there is only one Branton Town Hall Clock.
Tourists come from the other side of the world to see it, and to photograph and film and video it as it strikes the quarters. It's pretty impressive even when it's not striking. It has dials which tell you the time of day (of course) and the date and the year and what the moon's doing and high tide at Branmouth Pier and where the planets are and when Halley's Comet is next due round and things like that, but what makes it really special is the way it strikes the quarters.
At fourteen minutes twenty seconds past the hour, six small bells tinkle a tune. A door opens on the right, below the moon dial, and two lambs prance out on their hind legs, followed by a shepherd playing Pan-pipes, followed by Lady Spring in a yellow dress with a circlet of flowers in her hand, then another shepherd and two more lambs. They stop at the centre of the tower and twirl around while four bells strike the quarter, and then they begin to move away towards a door which has opened on the left.
But that's not the end of it. Before they reach the door, Old Father Time comes rushing out of the right-hand door with his scythe held ready to strike. He moves faster than they do, so you can see he's going to catch them just inside the door — in fact, his scythe is already swinging towards them as they all move out of sight. Tourists — people who've seen the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids and the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China — still gasp with amazement the first time they see the Branton Town Hall Clock strike the quarters.
(They bring a lot of money into Branton, those tourists.)
The half-hour and the three-quarters work the same way. Lady Summer wears a blue dress and has milkmaids and calves to dance with her. Lady Autumn wears gold and has harvesters and (I don't know why) rabbits. But Lady Winter ...
She's magical, I think. She wears a cloak of green leaves and her face is as brown as a fallen leaf. Woodmen and foxes dance with her. Beyond them waits a grim-looking man, also dressed in leaves, with a club in each hand poised above a drum. Inside the tower is a big bell called Old Joe, and as the hour booms out the man beats down on his drum at each stroke. Then Time comes out again and hunts them all into the dark.
That's the Branton Town Hall Clock. It's the place the Clock Mice call home.
SECOND ESSAY ON MICE
Most mice aren't clever. Rats are clever, as animals go, but mice are pretty thick. Sometimes House Mice will do something which seems clever, but that's because House Mice are crazy. They'll try anything, so sometimes they do something clever, by accident.
Clock Mice are different. They're really bright. Much brighter than rats, even. As bright as people.
They're bright because they have language.
It isn't a language like English or Spanish or Urdu. It isn't a language of eeks and squeaks, though Clock Mice can eek and squeak if they want to. Their real language is pictures. Pictures in their minds, which the other mice see in their minds, and then answer with their own pictures.
For instance, suppose Simon Dock ...
Sorry, of course Clock Mice don't have that sort of name. They use pictures — nick-pictures, mostly. Miriam Dickory has slightly frizzy whiskers, so her family call her
It's like calling a boy Curly because he has curly hair. But because I use word-language I've got to have word-names to talk about the different mice. There are three main families, so I called them the Hickorys and the Dickorys and the Docks. It's a bit obvious, I'm afraid, but I'm an old man and I can't change now.
Where was I?
Oh yes, suppose Simon Dock wants to tell his family that Mrs. Oliver spilt a tray of macaroons just before the Market Inspector reached her stall.
She didn't want him to see the mess so she scuffed them out of sight under some boxes, and then forgot about them.
Quick, before the dustcart comes round. Simon doesn't squeak or point or take the others and show them. He thinks a sort of flowing picture, with everything in it, something like Emma's drawn here.
Simon thinks quick and small, like whispering, because he doesn't want the Hickorys and Dickorys getting there first. Then suppose old Mavis Dock wants to say, "Be careful! Where's Juno?" (Juno is the Town Hall cat. She's bright, for a cat, so she's dangerous. Later I'll tell you how she got Jeremy Hickory, though it was his fault, really.) Mavis can do that all in one go.
Clock Mice can put tones in their pictures, the way we do with our voices, if we're angry, for instance, or asking a question. The jagged edge round Mavis's picture shows it's a warning, and the wavy look on Juno shows it's a question — it's not really like that, of course, but it's the best we can do in a drawing.
(How do I know all this? How do I even know Clock Mice are as bright as people? I'll come to that later.)
Don't ask me how Clock Mice came to have this gift. Perhaps it isn't quite as extraordinary as it seems, because wild animals, especially the ones that live in groups, do seem to be able to let their companions know if they're angry or frightened or excited without making a noise or using other kinds of signals. They just feel it somehow. So maybe a cosmic ray hit the chromosomes of an ordinary mouse which happened to be living in the clock, so that that mouse's children were better at mind pictures and passed the gift on to their children, and so on ...
That's the sort of scientific explanation I'd have given you a few months back, because that's the way I think.
But now, in spite of myself, I don't think it's like that at all.
I think it's got something to do with the clock.
SECOND ESSAY ON CLOCKS
Clocks are simple. And complicated.
They are complicated ways of using a simple idea.
This is the idea. All you need is something that happens at an exact speed, and a way of measuring it as it happens. The trouble is, not much happens at an exact speed, and most things happen too fast to be useful.
Drop a weight from an air balloon and it will fall faster and faster and faster, and hit the ground in less than a minute.
Not much use. You've got to make the weight fall slowly, and evenly.
So you hang your weight from a rope and you wind the other end of it round and round a drum. Now you've got to let the drum turn, but only slowly. You put a cogwheel at the end of the drum, and beside it you have a pendulum which swings to and fro. Pendulums swing at an exact speed.
At the top of the pendulum you have a special-shaped arm with two teeth which fit into the notches of the cogwheel. At each swing this arm lets the wheel turn one notch, and at the same time the wheel gives the pendulum a shove so that it goes on swinging. That arm and wheel are the real heart of a clock. They're called the "escapement."
That's why clocks tick, and why the tick is different from the tock.
Of course, you need some more cogs to turn the hands and so on, but that's the basic idea of a pendulum clock.
The Branton Town Hall Clock is a pendulum clock. Bit by bit it's all very simple. Put the bits together and it becomes very complicated indeed.
It has ten weights. The ones that drive the dancers weigh over a ton between them. I wind them all up. The pendulum swings. The hands go round until they almost reach one of the quarters.
Let's say it's the quarter-past. Inside the clock there's a wheel moving at the same speed as the minute hand. At twelve past, a peg on the side of this wheel reaches a lever and starts to push it. At fourteen past, plus twenty seconds, the lever flips over and turns a rod which releases a catch which has stopped one of the weights pulling down. Now, that weight drives a wheel which moves some hammers to strike the six small bells to ring their tune, and when it's finished it closes its own catch and releases two others, a small one to open the door and a large one to turn the carousel and bring Lady Spring and her team out into the open. (The carousel is a thing like a roundabout at a funfair, a big flat turntable with all the dancers on it.) As it stops it releases the catch that holds the other main weight, which turns the dancers. And so on.
Each bit of it is so simple that anyone could understand it. Putting all the bits together so that they work with one another, and keep on working ... Ah, that's another matter.
In fact, the Branton Town Hall Clock is so complicated that really, by rights, it oughtn't to go at all.
But it did. It ticked its slow tick and the quarters tinkled and Old Joe boomed the hours and the dancers danced and Time chased them away for the world to see until one day last year when, for the first time in all its ninety-nine years, the clock stopped.
The clock-keeper was a nice enough old boy called George Baff. He told the Town Clerk he'd done his best and anyway he wasn't feeling too good so he was going to bed. Luckily that happened when the tourist season was almost over, but everyone in Branton knew that they'd better get it going again. Next year was the centenary year, right? There could be a lot of money in that.
FIRST ESSAY ON PEOPLE
People want a lot. And even then they don't really know what they want.
Way back in 1893 the people of Branton thought they wanted a clock, so they asked my granddad to build them one.
He built them the Branton Town Hall Clock.
They said it wasn't what they wanted.
"It's too big," they said. "It's covered with fancy dials. Figures pop in and out and dance in a suggestive fashion. And that Father Time — depressing, he is. People will laugh at us, having a great big fancy clock in the Market Square."
"It's a work of art," my granddad told them. "It's a Wonder of the World. There isn't another clock like it."
"That's just the trouble," they said. "All we wanted was a clock like Yatterby has, and Sniffield, and Gloag, but you've gone and landed us with something like nobody else has got at all. It's not what we asked for, so we're not going to pay you."
So Granddad went off in a huff. He took the plans with him.
My dad was never that interested in clocks. Airships were his thing. But I took after Granddad. Almost as soon as I could tell tick from tock I was hanging around his workshop. Before I was eight I'd built my first clock from two fruit-boxes and a few cogs and a weight from under his bench and the bell off my bicycle. Its hands went backwards and it ran for three and a half minutes, max, on a good day and it struck all the time it was running, but it worked. It was a clock. And it made my dad realize he was never going to get me interested in airships, so he let me be apprenticed to Granddad when the time came.
Granddad never went back to Branton. He wouldn't let me go, either.
"I've shaken the dust of Branton off my shoes," he'd say. "I'm not going back till they send for me. That clock's not going to keep running for ever, and when it packs in there'll be no-one else can put it right."
So he waited and waited and waited, and then he died.
He sent for me when he lay dying, and told everyone else to clear off. Then he got me to pull a chest out from under the bed.
"There's a green folder in there," he croaked. "That's the plans of the Branton Town Hall Clock. One day it's going to pack in, and there'll be no-one but you can put it right, because you've got the plans. All you've got to do is wait."
Then he ate two pork pies and drank a glass of stout and died.
So I waited, and carried on my trade, making and mending clocks. It wasn't hard to get news of the Branton Town Hall Clock. It was always popping up on TV, when they'd nothing much else to finish a program with. Then, one day last year, it was on the main news. First item was one of these princesses getting into another kerfuffle. Second was a war starting somewhere. Third was the Branton Town Hall Clock. It had stopped.
I sent a card to the Town Clerk, telling him I was the only one could get it going, because I'd got the plans. They sent one of these fax things back to Mrs. Willink, who brought it round — that's how much of a hurry they were in.
I remember that first afternoon when the Town Clerk showed me round. The clock's got its own tower, a bit to the side of the Town Hall, looking over Market Square. The tower's not all that tall, just three floors, though it looks like four from outside. The bottom floor's a big room where the WI sell cakes on Tuesdays and the Oxfam helpers sort clothes on Thursdays, and things like that happen.
You go up a winding stair in one corner into the weight room, which is double height, seven meters to the ceiling, to give the weights room to fall. Above that is what we call the going chamber, where the works are.
George Baff didn't come with us that day. He said he was still too ill, but as soon as I set foot in the weight room I saw why.
Excerpted from Time and the Clock Mice, Etcetera by Peter Dickinson, Emma Chichester-Clark. Copyright © 1993 Peter Dickinson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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