This was my great grandfather’s watch, on my mother’s side. But is that my mother’s maternal or paternal grandfather? I don’t know for sure and I’ve no one to ask now, but I’m favouring the maternal side at the moment, though I’ve nothing more to go on other than gut feelings and the images that arise when I’m handling it. In other words I’m weaving stories with very little to go on. But that’s what writer’s do; they take the unknown and make it knowable, whether it be the truth or not, because even holding to a myth is better than saying we’ve no idea at all.
I discovered it among the keepsake belongings of a dear aunt who passed away recently – along with copies of wills, and family birth and death certificates going back to the 1850′s. The watch was thunder black and looked quite sorry for itself. The minute hand was missing, the seconds bent, and it wasn’t running.
A quick clean-up revealed a silver cased English Lever, hallmarked 1899. I consulted an old fashioned jeweller who was able to get it going for me. The missing finger was replaced with one that doesn’t really match, but apart from that the watch runs well now – most of the time.
I’ve written about old watches before, being a bit of a collector – always on the lookout for the half busted, bent and obsolete waifs and strays of a bygone era. I’ve waxed lyrical about their significance, speculated on their archetypal, psychological meanings – and described how at times of inner transition I find myself obsessing over my collection. Then this one turns up – the great grand daddy of them all – the size and weight of a small cannonball, pregnant with history, all of it muddled, mythical, and possibly irrelevant, yet rising from my unconscious like a well aimed torpedo and suddenly sinking me further down into my own past than I’ve ever been before.
And while I consider the story of this old pocket-watch, I feel the currents that normally drive my own fictions are becalmed, as if lost in the balance that follows a deep sigh. Indeed I find myself wondering if there’s another story in me now, or if I’m spent. It would have been unthinkable at one time, this sense of creative emptiness, but now I really don’t care. I’ve tried several fresh avenues since finishing my last novel. I’ve rummaged among the stuff on the back burner, but I find it all trite and foolish, and I’ve set it aside. Seven novels are enough, I think. So let the muse sleep, and me with her, in some Arcadian bower for a thousand years. And when we wake, let it be without the need to light the darkness with our stories any more.
A mechanical watch is like a human life. You create tension, apply it to a train of events, but without balance it would run down too quickly, deplete itself in a mad whirling blur. So the watchmaker creates balance with the hair spring – such a delicate little thing, like a heart. Set it beating and away it goes, regulating the life force, playing it out more slowly, more usefully in time. But the balance is also the most vulnerable part – easily lost, easily thrown out by wear or trauma.
No, I’ve not lost my balance here. That’s not why I’m becalmed. Rather I think this is one of those rare periods in my life when I can say I have attained balance, all be it temporarily – that I know it by having known the lack of it. And balance seeks no other purpose for itself than the is-ness of the moment. Ambition, thoughts, fears – they all fall away, and the need for stories too. I don’t know anything. Let this watch be what it is, without the need to weave a myth around it, without the need to put a name to it.
Whatever its story, this watch is telling me something else as I write. Its tick is loud, like one of those old Smiths alarm clocks, and it’s pulling me out of the place my thoughts seem most inclined to settle this evening. Of all my old watches, this one speaks with the firmest voice, and it’s telling me I’ve been writing a lot about the fact I’ve not been writing, that I’ve been weaving an elaborate story about how I’ve run out of stories.
Sure, antique English levers have an inescapable and somewhat unsophisticated bluntness about them. They were old fashioned and idiosyncratic even when they were new – a bit like me then, born old and eccentric, and a little unreliable. Yes, there were finer movements than this in 1899 – Swiss and American – fancy things, bejewelled and more innovative, yet here it is: this old English timekeeper, still ticking. And it’s telling me we’re not done yet, that so long as there exists a void in our understanding, there will always be one more story to fill it.
I can say what I like. It’s just a question of time.