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2015 Youth Winning Short Story – Caretaker of Time

 “all rights retained by the author”

by Michelle Krasovitski of Goderich, ON

A loud ticking sound was present in the room. That’s the first bizarre thing that struck Ophelia – that the room’s underlying silence was shattered by a steady tick. She recognized it; possessing clocks in her room, but this one puzzled her because of its volume. She decided to investigate. So, whilst Ms. Andelman was making her tea, Ophelia broke her mother’s most important rule of “no meddling” and opened a white wooden door to a room she could only describe as absurd.

Ophelia found masses of watches. Watches and clocks; stuck to the wall and hanging from hooks – there were some laying on the floor replacing the carpet, and ones lining the windows so that the only light source was from the shattered, drab light bulb hanging from a dingy wire. Normally, a person’s clock collection would consist of one or two wrist watches, and a couple of plastic clocks hanging in sparse rooms. Evidently, Ms. Andelman was no such person.

Ophelia invited herself into the room and took a closer look at her surroundings. There was one watch which she swore she had as a child: its centre image was Mickey Mouse whose limbs were the hands, consistently showing the proper time despite how worn out it was. There was a clock which tried, and succeeded, to emulate the style of Salvador Dali; it was drooping and asymmetrical, something which would be adorned by a princess from a science fiction film. There were clocks referencing Star Wars and Harry Potter, clocks holding newspaper headers, and clocks with optical illusions. The focal point however was an elephantine Grandfather clock, which had immense designs carved into its skin, and whose ticks were bass and dominant – it was the lead baritone singer amongst a group of rookie vocalists.

“I see you’ve found my collection,” Ms. Andelman beamed, greeting a surprised Ophelia whilst shakily holding a tray with two cups of tea.

“I apologize,” Ophelia began, feeling ashamed at going into her nice neighbor’s room without permission.

“Don’t worry dear,” Ms. Andelman smiled, beckoning for Ophelia to follow her. “Let’s go into the living room and I’ll clear everything up for you.”

Ophelia nodded, cheeks still pink from having been caught intruding. She had been graciously invited into her usually-reclusive neighbor’s home earlier that day, when the two women had exchanged formalities in the hallway. As per routine, Ophelia remarked about the dollar whilst Ms. Andelman joked back that it doesn’t matter as long as everyone had their health. Then, they would converse about the weather, and go about their day, pleased at their socialization, despite its expendability. That morning, however, Ms. Andelman had a sudden burst of spontaneity which forced her to invite Ophelia in. The old woman was rather fond of her young, vivacious neighbor, who always helped her with her groceries and large parcels. And so, she decided to take their basic relationship one step further over the best thing that she knew: tea.

Ophelia matched Ms. Andelman’s slow pace, entering a living room surprisingly lacking any clocks. It was average in size, Ophelia noted, and decorated nicely. The couches were pink, and the windows had salmon lace curtains. There were many tables scattered around the room where dusty picture frames lay on frilly doilies. A large wooden piano stood by the curtains, dust caked on it thickly – evidence of serial abandonment. Ophelia took the tray from Ms. Andelman, allowing her to fall back onto the couch.

She began stirring her tea and then asked: “Well, what do you make of it?”

“Pardon?”

“The clocks – do you find them weird?” Ms. Andelman asked, taking three large sips from her cup and then putting it onto the table in front of her.

Ophelia took a pause from drinking her perfectly sweetened chamomile tea to think. Her brother Jack had collected stamps when he was younger, and her best friend Lindsey still collects coins. A reclusive woman would need to direct her attention towards something, she rationed. “Oh, absolutely not,” Ophelia reassured, giving her neighbor a hearty smile. “My only question is why clocks? Why not collect stamps or CDs? Don’t their ticks keep you up at night?”

Ms. Andelman laughed and shook her head. “No, no dear. I find it quite peaceful, actually. You see I was a piano teacher back in my day. I grew accustomed to the ticks of the metronome. Three steady quarter note beats if I was playing Moszkowsi’s ‘Liebeswalzer’, two if I was playing Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody’. It’s quite nice” – she began demonstrating by moving her fingers back and forth – “they’re just ticking away; reassuring too.”

“Reassuring?” Ophelia questioned. “In what way?”

Despite the old woman’s face being littered with wrinkles and creases, her features sunk with a youthful sadness. “I have not been the luckiest person,” she explained, cracked lips pursed. “My parents died when I was young, and my husband and two children were killed in a car crash. I felt abandoned – though it wasn’t their fault, I felt like there was no one out there for me.”

Ophelia couldn’t bear to make eye contact with her neighbor. She had been very fortunate in her life – she had her health, her family, and her friends. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be,” Ms. Andelman smiled, patting Ophelia’s skinny knee. “I found solace in two things: music and clocks. You see –” but the old lady wasn’t able to finish her thought, as she was interrupted by a cacophony of absurd sounds.

Checking her cell phone, Ophelia realized that it was one in the afternoon, and with the turn of another hour, the majority of the clocks in Ms. Andelman’s white room came alive. The two women sat through a minute of generic sounding “cuckoos” and satirical voices shouting “it’s finally the new hour!” and the like. As the commotion settled down, the old woman continued her speech, as if there was no disturbance at all.

“You see, I always got lost in my music. Liszt, Bach, and Mozart, took me away from my gloomy reality. I played for hours on end and found reassurance in the immortality of music. I found it comforting that a mortal man could make immortal art, and I saw it my destiny to keep the notes alive and breathing.” She looked sadly to her piano. “As you can tell, it’s been a while since I last sat behind it.”

Ophelia nodded, words filled with sincere curiosity: “why did you stop playing?”

Ms. Andelman laughed wistfully. “Remember how I said I wasn’t the luckiest person? That was an understatement. I developed severe arthritis and it was virtually impossible for me to continue playing. For about a year, I felt dead. I felt guilty – I thought that I had destroyed something previously indestructible. I tried to go against the doctor’s orders but it was as if a cruel presence tried to teach me a lesson: my shaking hands weren’t able to play even the first note. But then, I found solace in clocks. More so, dare I say, than I had in music.”

“Why is that?” Ophelia inquired, finishing the last of her tea.

“There is a certainty with clocks that is soothing; that no matter how upset of depressed I become, the clock will still tick, and the hands will still move. Even though my entire being may feel as if it were on fire, or if a crippling sorrow takes hold of every arthritis-struck limb, the watches will still tell time.”

“Don’t you have to change their batteries though?” Ophelia asked.

Ms. Andelman gave a sly smile, nodding in the process. “Have you ever been afraid of death Ophelia?”

Ophelia paused to think once more. She found it amusing that that very morning, she had absolutely no idea what the rest of her day would be like. For instance: currently, she was sitting in her neighbor’s home, with the steady tick of hundreds of clocks producing the background noise, whilst pondering life. She reawakened the existential thoughts she had as a teenager. “Very much so,” she admitted, averting her eyes because of inexplicable shame.

“Everyone is,” Ms. Andelman reassured, wise eyes glazed over with unwelcome memories. “Some people are just better at hiding their fear than others. Distractions – that the key. Distract yourself and you never have to think about life or death, you can focus on your nine-to-five job, and what organic meal you’ll be feeding yourself for dinner. Which is why silence is so deadly: it allows you time to think. With the absence of my beautiful music, I grew more and more fearful of death as I became gradually more acquainted with the concept. I needed something to fill the space – and what’s better than clocks?”

“You have some very cool ones in there,” Ophelia stated, her mind reverting to the Mickey Mouse watch. “I liked the Disney one; it reminded me of one I had when I was younger. I remember swinging off the monkey bars and checking it compulsively to make sure that I wasn’t late for dinner.”

“Everyone will find something in there for themselves,” Ms. Andelman said. “As for batteries, it’s sort of like playing God … at least it is in my mind. You see, the theory of time is eternal – but clocks need to be powered by batteries, which do run out. Sometimes it takes me hours to change one clock, just because my shaking hands can’t unscrew the bolt. But at the end of the day, I’m powering eternity – I’m its caretaker, and I take my job very seriously.”

Ophelia found her neighbor inspirational; not only had she overcome unimaginable obstacles, but through it all, she found a will and a purpose to live. To think that this complex and intelligent woman was living right across from her was compelling to Ophelia. She decided to never underestimate her neighbors – or little old ladies – ever again.

A generic-sounding ringtone echoed through the room, and Ophelia realized that she had to leave. Excusing herself politely, and helping the old woman carry the tray back to the kitchen, she couldn’t help but take in the consistent ticks one last time.“Before I go,” she said, already at the door with Ms. Andelman smiling behind her. “Is there anything else you need help with?”

“No, no dear, I’m just fine.”

And with that, their afternoon came to an end.

Ophelia and Ms. Andelman would never sit together in the same room again. They returned to exchanging formalities in the hallway; discussing the dollar and the weather. Ophelia forgot the majority of her experience with her neighbor thanks to her hectic job at her law firm. Her days were never filled with silences – she never had time to think.

Yet, two years later, upon returning to her apartment with two gravel-brown envelopes, she saw a large group of people gathered in her neighbor’s apartment.

She entered it, fearing the worst. “What’s going on?” she asked Rob, a tall nurse from the fifth floor, who was always kind to everyone. “Is Ms. Andelman okay?”

Rob’s hazel eyes filled with concern. “Oh Ophelia, I’m so sorry, I guess you haven’t heard? She passed away two days ago; she didn’t show up for her appointment and her nurse found her in the clock room.”

Ophelia was filled with strong emotions – none of which, she could describe as sad. She knew that Ms. Andelman had lived her last years without fear, and she was grateful for the serenity that filled the dead woman’s apartment – there was peace, instead of anguish. The following news, however, did surprise her.

“She left you something,” Rob said, reading a white document carefully.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, it’s written right here: ‘to Ophelia Fider, I leave my Mickey Mouse watch’. Does that ring a bell?”

Ophelia smiled, nodding. She made her way into the white room, now filled with a lot less clocks. The ticking noise was subdued, nevertheless, still present – reminding those within ear range of the woman who had lived there before. Ophelia saw her watch and took it, unlatching it from a hook.

Coming back into the living room, she turned to Rob. “What did she leave you?”

“The Harry Potter one,” he replied sheepishly. “She knew how much I love the series.” “I didn’t realize the two of you were friends.”

“Oh, well,” he said, shuffling his feet. “I’ve only been in here once. She invited me in for tea, and, sort of, explained the whole reasoning for the clocks. She did it to everyone in the building, really. That’s why there are so many people here. See Sheila” – he pointed to a young art student with vibrant green hair – “she’s getting the Salvador Dali watch. Arnold over there” – now he beckoned to a thin man with spectacles and an almost-embarrassing amount of freckles – “dabbles in journalism; he’s getting the newspaper clock. You wouldn’t think it, but Ms. Andelman knew everyone in the building better than they know themselves.”

The statement didn’t surprise Ophelia. “It’s no wonder, she was one intelligent person.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rob agreed absentmindedly, returning to the white sheet of paper. “The thing is, the old Grandfather clock was supposed to go to Diana Green, but she doesn’t want it. I’m supposed to make sure all these clocks find homes, but I suppose that one is too large for anyone’s taste nowadays, so I’ll just call a junkyard and have them pick it up. I’ve inspected it; it’s too weathered for an antiques shop. Shame, poor thing has to go.”

Ophelia agreed sadly. She watched it from the hallway, noting that each swing of its pendulum was one swing closer to its end, since his caretaker had unfortunately met hers. Ophelia remained with Rob for the rest of the day; ordering pizza around lunch time, and getting to know her neighbors even better. When evening came, everyone started filing out of the apartment with their new convenient-sized pieces of eternity in hand; Ophelia was the last person in the empty room.

Though she didn’t know Ms. Andelman for more than an hour on an intimate basis, she still felt as though she had lost someone close. Looking to her worn-out yet, nevertheless, special Mickey Mouse watch, she realized that she had to leave.

As Ophelia closed the white wooden door, the old Grandfather clock gave its last lively tick, before silencing for eternity.