The clocks struck eight. The sound of so many clocks chiming at once was somewhere between cacophony and the dawn chorus. Out of force of habit, Arthur Sand checked the watch on his wrist and noted its silent harmony with the rest. Thirty-five years of clock-repairs had inured him to the noise; in fact he had grown to welcome it, as a sign of order and precision in an untidy world.
The post had arrived early that morning and an unopened envelope leant against the teapot. It might, thought Arthur Sand, be easier to face after he had eaten his breakfast. He cast an eye over the cards already displayed on the Welsh dresser. Everyone seemed account for: elderly aunts and uncles, cousins, family friends - in short, the ghosts that gather at family funerals. And they really are like ghosts, thought Arthur. After all, one never saw these people at any other time. Did they really exist, outside of funeral garb?
They would all come for Edwin. The aunts would probably blush at the recollection of his face - that ‘charming boy’. The uncles had always got along with him, as he gave the impression that he knew the football scores almost, but not entirely, as well as they did. The cousins looked up to him, as the rich and ‘glamorous’ relation. So when they had expressed their sympathy, Arthur had no reason to doubt that they meant it. For a moment, Arthur Sands wondered whether they would have been so solicitous for him. But it was inconsequential. He sank his spoon into his egg and studied the envelope.
Pink. Was it permissible to be old-fashioned still and say that the colour pink and scent of flowers denoted a lady? Yes, Arthur thought, it was certainly a lady. The curl at the end of the words ending in “y” - few men would be so florid on an address. So who would it be? One of Edwin’s women? There had always been women. But he’d usually left them on such bad terms that they had wished him dead. Not the sort, thought Arthur, to send scented envelopes and sympathy cards.
As he reached the bottom of the egg, a name struck him: Crazy Daisy. That was the epithet Edwin had used of her towards the end. She had been the far side of 40, when Arthur first saw her, and she had looked rather like a motherless teenager, still squeezing into the school skirt from the year before, unable to judge that its time had passed and would never return. She had claimed that Edwin was the father of her child and, for a time, Edwin had been almost humble, asking Arthur for advice and help. When it was all over, when the woman accepted that it was the child of another ‘acquaintance’, Edwin had cried with relief. And then, as if to cover his shame at displaying such weakness, he had laughed at Arthur for being a prude about it all.
It was very unlikely to be Daisy. But the fear had now been let loose - the fear of an angry bottle blonde in a mini-skirt at his brother’s funeral. Arthur Sands grabbed the letter opener.
He didn’t read the verse or flick back to view the front. His eyes froze on the curly tails of the name, signed: With love from Penny Amery.
How long had it been? Fifty years? Fifty years. Edwin and Arthur Sands, living with their parents at number 3; Penny Amery in number 4, with her widowed mum. Mrs. Amery had worked as a dinner lady in their small village school. She took in washing in the early years. Once Penny moved schools at 11, Mrs. Amery took a cleaning job. Sometimes she wasn’t home when school ended and Penny would call round at number 3.
If Arthur had been as skilled with a pen as he was with his tools, he could have drawn every detail of Penny Amery. She had not been especially beautiful. The snub of her nose was always raised, as if in laughter. And her dark eyes had a way of dancing. Where Arthur had been quiet and reserved, Penny had walked as confident as a queen. They had parted, as young people do, when some are called to university, some to jobs, some to the home. Mrs. Amery had suffered crippling back pain, towards the end of Penny’s schooling. They had moved to the south coast. Mrs. Amery thought that she would feel stronger in the warmer air and Penny had planned to find work there.
Arthur would have written to her. He would have written every day for 50 years. But Penny had never liked writing and somehow it wouldn’t have been the same. Not to see those dancing eyes, to watch the nose point up, as she threw her head back. Surely she must have changed. She could not have laughed for all those years between. He tried to imagine the redness of her hair with a touch of grey in the wings. She would not sport her girlish bunches, but Arthur couldn’t picture her without them. Perhaps she was married and mother of six. Lucky man, thought Arthur. Lucky man.
The tea had stewed in the pot. But Arthur drank it anyway. He was far away, removed from sense of taste, sense of time, indulging in that dangerous game of if only.
At last the clocks marked that half an hour had passed. They woke Arthur from his reverie. He was no longer a schoolboy with dreams. He had made his choices, made his life, and he was quite happy. Penny was probably bossy. She had been, even as a girl. And that trait would look less attractive in a woman, stout like old Mrs. Amery. Yes, it was no use looking back as though life had stood still, as though people were where we left them. Time only stood still for broken clocks.
Arthur had arranged the service for 11 o’clock, giving the older relatives time to travel and the youngest ones time to awake. It was a simple affair. The aunts cried on schedule. The uncles bit their lip, in valiant salute of a man’s man. The small village church was full. Arthur sat alone on the front pew, the sole close relative of the deceased. He had looked at the faces on the way in, but without finding Penny.
It was windy on the top of the hill in the cemetery. Edwin was laid in the ground with the trees bowing and casting their petals to the floor. Arthur smiled, knowing that Edwin would have appreciated the dramatic weather. But it was not good for the old aunts. Arthur huddled them back to the cars just before the storm burst. It took several trips to fit everyone in, but at last Arthur Sands brushed the rain from his hair and removed his sodden coat at the buffet reception in the back room of the pub.
There she was. It was like stepping back in time. Penny had broadened into the plump shape of her mother. The red hair was tinted strawberry blonde and cut prettily about her ears. She wore a black dress, with a silk scarf of cornflower blue. She ran across the room, her heels clicking with every step.
“Oh, Arthur! I’m so glad to see you after all these years!”
She flung her arms around him. She was shorter than he remembered. Her head rested on his chest. She squeezed him tightly, with the girl’s lack of inhibition.
“Thanks for the card, Penny,” said Arthur, a little shyly.
She turned her head upwards, the snub nose pointing up once more. The eyes were still black and they danced. “Oh, it’s nothing. I had to come. I heard from one of the ladies mum worked with at the school. She’s kept me informed on both of you all these years. She told us you were doing very well for yourself, your own shop indeed!”
“Well, I always liked mending things,” began Arthur. Penny bubbled into speech once more, “I remember that time I tried to fix the tap in our house - oh you remember! - and I got it all apart. And you repaired it.”
“That was Edwin! I was only six at the time.”
Penny smiled, “What a wonderful man he was. Edwin Sands. We won’t see many more like him, will we Arthur?”
Arthur held Penny at arm’s length and studied her face for the first time. “How are you my dear? Are you here with anyone?”
“No. I’m alone now. I was Mrs. Staines for a few years. But Mr. Staines died in a road accident - he’d had a few too many, bless him. Then I became Mrs. Lyle. That didn’t work out - jealous type, you know. I gave myself a few years off marriage, just seeing people I liked. You know how it goes ... I was about to marry again last year. He seemed too good to be true - in fact, he reminded me a lot of your brother. Such charm. But a week before the wedding he crept out of our house with all my jewellery. So that’s it, I said to myself, I’ll be an old washer-woman like me mum and none the worse for it!”
Arthur steered the ample Penny towards a quiet table. She was so rough around the edges that had she been anyone else, Arthur Sands would have been repelled. But he saw the girl in the woman, the promise and the warmth grown old but still breathing, and he liked it. He had seen, when they were only 15 that she would love too easily and be hurt as often as she permitted. But she had been too passionate for anyone to help, too full of joie de vivre to be constrained. He hadn’t realised until this moment that he had carried her in his pocket all these years, carried her as a memory but also as an ideal. Long before he had become the image of the recluse, the clock-repairer, the tidy bachelor with old-fashioned manners, he had known a girl. She had liked him for who he was and, more than that, she had allowed him to walk in the wake of her confidence. While he had admired with aesthetic wonder many other women, he had never loved anyone but Penny.
“Oh, Arthur. I have to tell you. You probably never knew, but I had real cause to pay my respects to your brother Edwin.”
Arthur had been thinking so loudly, he was surprised to hear a voice. “What’s that, Penny?”
“It was years ago. I think you ought to know, because your brother was a good man. And today of all days, you need to hear how much he was admired.” Arthur gave a flicker of a smile.
Penny sat up straight in her chair. “It happened the summer we finished school, before Mum and I moved. I remember your Edwin was back from university already. I’d hardly seen him - just now and then. I thought he looked very handsome, very fine. Well, I was on my way back from school and I took the shortcut through the park. It was such a nice day, that I thought it would be full of people. But it wasn’t - it was eerily quiet. I remember I was thinking about everything that had happened that day. Suddenly, I was struck from behind. My legs went from under me. Everything went black. I started to come round a bit and realised that someone was dragging me along the ground, into the copse at the edge of the park. I struggled and tried to look backwards, but he had me so tight and was moving so fast, I couldn’t get a heel into the ground, let alone turn my head. I heard someone cry out: Leave her alone! I passed out then, or fainted. Because the next thing I know, is your brother, leaning over me. He looked so concerned. His bright, beautiful face and those gorgeous eyes looking into mine. He was everything I admired, everything I loved. And he’d saved me. I remember asking where the man had gone. He told me not to worry, that I was safe with him. He helped me to my feet and got me home, leading me through the trees in case the man was still hanging round. I just loved Edwin from that moment on. And believe it or not, when me mum was away and your parents were asleep, I’d let Edwin in some nights and we’d have a regular party - just the two of us. He was one of the best, Arthur. Very naughty, mind you. But you're only young once and he was one of the best. You should be proud of his memory.”
If Arthur Sands had been one of his clocks, then we could safely say that a spring snapped, a spring that had been under pressure for 35 years.
“You and Edwin? You and Edwin? I don’t believe it!”
“Well, believe it, sweetheart. I wasn’t born under a gooseberry bush. He was my first, my forever love.”
Arthur Sands turned purple.
“He said ... he said!”
Penny looked around the room, a little embarrassed by the number of relatives whose attention was fixed on them. “Arthur, dear, keep it down. I thought you’d be happy ...”
“Happy? Why on earth should I be happy?”
“Your brother was my hero. He saved me ...”
“Oh, did he! I don’t suppose you looked behind you as you staggered away. I don’t suppose you noticed the figure lying in the long grass, bleeding from his lip and dazed from the punch that had just landed on his head?”
“What man? What are you talking about, Arthur?”
“I was there. I was walking home too. I heard you cry out and saw you being dragged into the copse. I fought with him but came off the worse. I always did, because he was bigger than me. But I tried. I tried!”
“No, dear, Edwin was the one who saved me. You weren’t even there!”
Arthur stared at her. “Don’t you understand? Edwin was the one dragging you into the bushes. Not very subtle, my brother Edwin. He’d learned a few things at university, but not much in the way of subtlety. But he always got what he wanted, one way or another.”
Penny Amery stood up from the table, her bosom heaving with rage. Her fair skin went even whiter. The snub nose was now horizontal. The black eyes were no longer dancing, but staring through Arthur. “Of all the mean and spiteful people. It’s no wonder you are alone, Arthur Sands. You deserve to be. How dare you take the credit away from your poor brother, him only just in the ground today. Don’t you know you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead?”
The spell had been broken. For the first time Arthur Sands saw Penny Amery as she really was. He saw the influence she had held over him in his youth, the way he had been content to stand under her wing in the hope that one day she would stand under his. He had hoped, through all those years of youth, hoped to make her happy. And she had chosen Edwin.
The pattern of her life had been set so early. She had trusted a rogue and always would trust a rogue. Meanwhile, the gentleness of Arthur Sands, the patience and quiet love, had been dismissed as inadequacy.
It stung. He emptied his pocket of a romantic ideal and looked at the coarse woman beside him.
“I am sorry I never told you, Penny. I should have told you, but I couldn’t find the words. And since you were leaving and Edwin was going back to university, I didn’t think it needed saying. I was wrong. I fought for your honour. I didn’t think of fighting for mine.”
The clocks struck six. It was over. Edwin Sands had been buried and with him all the folly of youth. Penny Amery had left the reception early. She had looked at him differently by the end, as though she saw in him, in Arthur Sands, some of the masculine power that she so admired. Her look contained fear mixed with love - the only combination she understood. But it soon melted into pity and she left with a mocking nod towards the bachelor who ‘knew nothing of life’.
The relatives had not stayed long after that. By careful positioning of their chairs, they had overheard a good deal of the conversation. Those who had seen the brothers in recent years could believe the truth for Arthur’s sake, but they didn’t like it. They resented the destruction of a myth and tiptoed away, with the general conclusion that Arthur Sands was going mad and should do so more quietly.
Arthur was aware but he did not care at all. In fact, he felt strangely free.
Time had stood still for far too long.
Copyright © 2016 Abigail J. Fox