Clockwork Heart (Part VI)

It was late, and the streets in the area surrounding the Pyms’ home were deserted. As well they might be, for this was a well-to-do borough, and the constabulary kept a weather eye out for burglars. I was surprised I had not been accosted myself, but whether by chance or fate I apparently passed unnoticed through those smart cobbled avenues. At a crossroads I heard the sound of hooves coming towards me and turned to confront a hansom cab. The driver tugged on the reins as he approached. I hailed him but he told me he was on his way home and would not take me. I told him where I wished to go and he laughed. I insisted, and I could not say whether it was the exorbitant sum I presented him with – almost of all of what was left in my pockets, indeed, almost all I had in the world – or the fell light in my eyes, but he complied. He grumbled the whole way, which was some distance, but in the end we reached our destination. This was as far from the genteel place I had just left as could be imagined. A foreign visitor might be shocked to find both in the same city, so squalid were my surroundings. The cabby, a prosperous looking fellow with a clean coat and a hat without so much as a dent in it, looked fearful. “Will you be wanting a ride back, sir?” he asked tentatively.

“No. Be on your way. Go home to your wife and children. This is no place for decent men.”

He looked unsure, as if he was reluctant to abandon me here, but his desire for home overwhelmed whatever human charity had compelled him to ask after me and with a crack of his whip he was off and away, barely taking the time to tip his hat to me.

I looked around. This part of London was a miserable warren of ancient houses leaning in on one another, almost totally occluding the sky, not that there was much to see on this dreary night. Rain had begun to fall, and it did not improve the look of the winding alleys and narrow passages all around me. I passed beneath a mouldering brickwork arch into a crooked street barely wide enough for a wheelbarrow, but which nonetheless was filled with piles of manure and rubbish, all wallowing in the puddles that were beginning to form in the damaged cobbles. It was very dark, for there were no lamps here, and yet there was the noise of activity all around me. Not the chattering of people coming and going as might be heard on a thoroughfare in daylight, but instead the whispers of the night, and strange and desperate calls from upstairs windows. Around the corner a dim glow from the window of some sordid drinking den was cast across the ground, and I could hear the sound of arguing behind the door as I walked by. For once, it wasn’t alcohol I sought. No, I had something far more morally degrading in mind. Something which, in spite of my better nature and my good upbringing, I was feverish for. Something Marjory would not give me, perhaps not even when we were married. I stopped at the address I had been given some time ago. There were lights on in the upstairs windows, but it was stuttering candlelight, and the noises that drifted through the panes – some broken, others missing glass altogether and patched over with boards or even sackcloth – were very different from the others I’d heard. The door was a clapboard plank tied shut, and more candlelight shone through a wide gap underneath. I unhooked the pitiful lock and shouldered my way in.

Inside, I was confronted with a dank parlour. A rickety wooden staircase led upwards in one corner, and another door led to a narrow yard outside. It was cold and draughty, and there was a persistent sound of dripping water. A man sat on a stool with an upturned barrel serving as a table. He had a half-full bottle of gin before him, with a filthy glass he was just in the act of refilling. He was a scrawny thing, with greying whiskers on his lopsided chin. His eyes were rheumy and his clothing patched. He wore fingerless woollen gloves that might once have been a colour but had now turned grey with age or wear. He squinted at me.

“Clement,” I greeted him.

His mouth spread into what I might have charitably termed a smile, revealing a handful of brown teeth projecting from inflamed red gums. “Why,” he said in a barely-intelligible rasp, “if it ain’t Mr Tick-Tock.”

“Tilstock,” I corrected him.

“Yeah, so you says, Tick-Tock, but until you get that pocket watch of yours fixed, I think I’ll go on calling you whatever I likes.” He tapped the side of his grizzled temple with one crooked finger. “‘Elps me remember, see?”

“Fine. Whatever you prefer.” I looked around the foetid dwelling with distaste. I had met Clement in a repulsive hole of a tavern only a few streets from here. Not the one I’d passed on my way, but another one, even less reputable. He had made certain offers at that time, trying to persuade me to make use of services to which he had access. I had rebuffed him in no uncertain terms, but he had left me with directions to his establishment – if it could be termed such – should I ever wish to, as he said, ‘drop by for a tickle or what-have-you’.

Now, Clement rose and straightened, at least as much as he could. He looked like an old man, but I thought him no more than forty. He was stooped by degeneracy not age, for he was as unpleasant and vile as any villain in all of London, and party to all kinds of foul business, not least this one. He eyeballed me, stepping close. Once I would have looked him eye-to-eye, but now I towered over him, tall and erect, and he had to crane his wretched neck to meet my gaze. “Never thought I’d see the day,” he said.

“Oh?”

“Although,” he continued, wriggling the tip of his finger in one ear, “you wouldn’t be the first gentleman ‘as come down here to my little abode. Oh, we’ve ‘ad ‘em all. Fancy fellows in fine coats, sailors an’ soldiers, even a few of ‘em from nob ‘ill. Oh yes, you wouldn’t believe it, Tick-Tock. They all likes a bit of rough, see? They all likes what only old Clement can provide. You gentlemen all thinks you’re above it, don’t you? Too good for the likes of us down ‘ere, but you all come eventually. You all come where it’s cheap an’ nasty. Oh yes.” He rasped a laugh and I stepped back, repulsed.

“Then why are you so surprised to see me?”

Clement peered at me. There was an unpleasant gleam in his pale eyes. “I made my way in this town through bein’ a good judge of character, Tick-Tock. I seen ‘em all in my day; lords an’ ladies, thieves an’ killers, peelers an’ judges. I was born in a workhouse, see, an’ grew up a tosher. Then I done a spell workin’ in a stable, then…well…you name it, I done it, Tick-Tock. So when I says I knows people, you’d better believe I measn it. An’ you…” He pushed his face close to mine so I could smell the reek of gin on his breath, “you I never took for the type, not really. You was honest. You was clean. But now somethin’s changed, ain’t it? Can’t rightly say what it is, but it’s somethin’ all right. Yeah.” He was looked at me strangely, as if he could learn everything about me just by staring through my skull for long enough. I had no wish to be known by a character like Clement.

“You know why I’m here,” I said, turning away and stalking around the tiny parlour. “Tell me what I need to do to get what I want.”

“S’very simple, Tick-Tock, s’very simple.” He sat back down on the stool and smiled at me again in that ghastly manner of his. “You take a shillin’ or three up those stairs, you have a little rabbit with the girls, you pick one as takes your fancy an’ then…” he spread his hands, “you do your business. She does ‘er’s by relieving you of your ‘ard-earned coinage, an’ everybody goes ‘ome ‘happy. ‘Ow does that sound, eh?”

“Repellent,” I said shortly, but the very real disgust I felt at his frank description of the transaction was tempered by a fascination, and an odd thrill I couldn’t explain. I pulled some loose change from my pocket. “A shilling or three, did you say?”

He shrugged. “Girls set their own prices, guv’.”

“Really?”

“Aye, I just watches the door, see?” He shoved a finger in his ear again and swivelled it ‘round contemplatively.

“I’m sure.” I left him where he was and headed up the creaking stairs. There was no light and the treads were uneven, but I stumbled my way onto a landing lit by stubby candles set in a few irregular holes in the brick wall on one side. Four women sat around in various states of undress, on chairs and stools. They all looked at me blankly as I dusted myself down. There was another bottle of gin here too, but I noticed it was a cheaper brand than the one Clement had been drinking. The girls looked tired, but one stood up and swaggered towards me.

“‘Evenin’, sir,” she said with a smile. Her teeth were brown and crooked. She had dirty yellow hair, the colour of straw, and wore a threadbare dress that hung open at her bosom. She had fleshy pale breasts, saggy and unappealing, and she reeked of cheap drink. By her hips, I thought she must have had several children. I had no desire to bed her.

I looked past her at the others. Two were dark-haired with swarthy skin. Sisters, I thought. They stared at me mutely, with fearful looks. Next to them was a younger girl, as pale as she who had approached me, but with reddish-brown hair. Her eyes were large and watery, and she had a slightly crooked nose and sores around her mouth. Under my scrutiny she tugged at her thin dress shyly and affected what she possibly judged to be a ladylike pose. For all her flaws, I found myself drawn to her. She would not have been out of place in a much finer setting, given an opportunity to bathe and perhaps a little decent tuition in manners. I pointed at her. “That one,” I said.

My hostess laughed and stepped out of my way. “Jenny,” she said to the young girl.

Jenny bobbed her head and rose. She led me down the hall, where doors were locked on either side. Some sounds came from within. How many girls could ply their trade in this foul den? Jenny entered an unoccupied room with a sagging bed by the window. A candle was lit on an upturned box. She pulled her dress over her head and lay down on the bed, legs parted.

I halted, transfixed by indecision. “How…how is this done?” I asked.

“You stick it in there,” she said, pointing.

I felt my face turning red. “No…I mean…the payment.”

“Two bob, mister.”

I cringed at the smallness of the sum, but dutifully put the two shillings on the box beside the candle. I felt repulsive, but the sight of the woman – the girl, for she was barely more than a child, with small breasts and narrow, skinny hips – waiting for me inflamed the lust that had been smouldering within me for too long. Marjory was one thing: my desire for her was driven by the forbidden nature of the act, I realised. I had spent my entire life refusing to acknowledge this part of me, the natural needs of the male body, fearful of corruption that impropriety was sure to sow in my heart. But now I had a different heart, and I was a different man. I took off my shirt. Jenny’s eyes went wide. “What’s that?” she asked.

She was referring to the circular plate embedded in my chest, to the crooked scar that split my torso in twain, to the curious bruising all around it. “A war wound,” I told her.

“What ‘appened?”

“A blackguard cut out my heart.”

She was staring. I’d meant it as a joke, but she seemed to take my words at face value. As well she might, for she was surely young and naïve. “What do they call you, mister?” she asked me in an awed voice.

“Tick-Tock,” I said. I began to unbutton my trousers, but then glanced at the money on the box. “How long does that buy me?”

“Long as you need.”

“I don’t think that will be fair.” I took another two shillings from my pocket and tossed them onto the box. “I am not made as other men.”

“‘Ow do you mean?”

“I mean…I have certain quirks of biology.” And I knew it was true. I threw my clothes aside, standing naked before this stranger save for the key hanging around my neck. I had been afraid, but I had been so much more exposed to Aisa already, so what did I have to fear from this whore? Memories were swirling through my mind. Not my own memories, but someone else’s. Memories that told me I had done this a thousand times, and that by virtue of my clockwork heart, I would have stamina well in excess of ordinary men. I spread Jenny’s legs. As I loomed over her, I knew she could hear the sound of my ticking heart. She looked terrified, but she opened to me willingly enough.

*

When I emerged, the sky was turning grey. I felt strange. Both refreshed and exhausted, repulsed and joyous. My heart ticked faster as I headed back the way I had come. I had no plans for the day. There was nowhere I needed to be. I would not see Aisa for my final operation for another week. I considered my future. The situation with Marjory must be resolved, somehow. I must try to win her back, and win over her father at the same time. But I did not wish to give up what I had gained of late. I could not bear the thought of returning to my old life, to the weak man I had once been. That man would never have come to this part of the city, and he certainly would not have even considered entering an establishment of such manifestly low character and doing what I had done. It would have been utterly unthinkable. I was changed. I was remade, and I liked it, even as I wondered at where this path would take me.

I emerged from the mouth of an alley and nearly walked into a tall figure in a black suit and top hat. I stepped backwards, intending to apologise, when he turned and I found myself looking into the purple face of Mr Pym. I gawped at him helplessly. “Tilstock!” he thundered.

“Pym? What…what are you doing here?”

“Searching for you, you scoundrel. What are you about, eh?”

I still didn’t understand what he meant. “What am I about? I’m just going about my day, Pym. Here, who are you to talk to me this way? By your own pronouncement, the marriage is off, and you’ve no hold over me.” I moved to walk past him, but he stopped me by placing his cane on my chest.

“I know you were in my house last night, Tilstock. Marjory was near insensible when we found her, weeping in her room. The window was open. She almost caught a chill.”

“I never came near her, Pym. I say, move aside will you?” He was blocking the pavement and the gutter was awash with mud and sewage.

“You’re a nasty fellow, Tilstock,” Pym said with a curl of his lip, “I never saw it before, but I do now. Maybe you fooled me, or maybe you changed, but I see the kind of villain you really are now. You think I don’t know where you came from?”

“Where I came from? Whatever do you mean?”

He gestured down the alleyway with his cane. “I know what’s down there. Not much happens in this city that escapes me, and that hovel is notorious. I followed you here when you ran away. Not so clever as you thought, eh?”

“Get away from me,” I said, shoving past him. He was as immovable as a mountain and he grabbed me by the collar roughly.

“Now see here, you damned cad, you trespassed in my home and scared my daughter half to death. Do you think I’m going to let you get away with that?”

“You’ll need to drag me all the way to Scotland Yard, Pym.”

He grinned evilly at me. “I don’t think so, Tilstock. I said I’d take your head off, and I mean to now.” He swung his cane right at me, and I only just ducked aside, flattening myself against a soot-blackened wall. I’d never been in a fight in my life, but the ticking of my heart grew louder and faster. The cane came at me again and this time I managed to grab it. I wrested it free with a strength neither of us knew I had. Pym gaped at me. I took the cane – a stout wooden stick thicker than my finger – and snapped it in two as if it were a straw. I tossed the remains into the gutter.

Pym was shocked but undeterred. He grabbed at my collar again and tried to wrest me into the road. His grip was fierce, but I pushed him away. He lost his grasp on whatever he held and fell backwards, slipping in the muck. I heard a jangling sound, but before I could identify its source, my ears were filled with the sound of hooves again. We were at a wider road now, and though it was an hour or more before dawn and the morning belonged only to footpads and bakers leaving this street deserted, a cart roared around the corner. It was drawn by two horses, and the driver looked barely in control of his team. His eyes were like saucers in his head as he bore down on us. He was a young man, perhaps trying to make good time with whatever he ferried through the town. It was a terrible mistake if it was so, for the horses reared as they came upon Pym who rose his arm in a feeble effort to protect himself. The cart overturned, throwing the driver clear, but the horses ran on, crashing into Pym and running him into the cobbles. Their harnesses became tangled and the whole conveyance collapsed in on itself, horse and cart and trappings and shouting driver merging into one scene of chaos, and beneath it all, the bloody shape of Mr Pym, quite still on the hard ground.

Shouts were coming from elsewhere. I stared at the carnage and then turned on my heel and ran back the way I had come. I sprinted as fast as I could down the alley and then darted into the warren of tumble-down homes and filth-strewn passages. I did not know where I fled, I intended only to put as much distance as I could between myself and the scene of the accident. Pym was dead, I had no doubt about that. But surely only he knew where I had been this evening, and the knowledge had died with him. There was no connexion between me and this event, and if the driver of the cart survived, his testimony was unlikely to be reliable. But I must not be close by. The coincidence was too great, for Marjory and Mrs Pym knew quite well of my quarrel with their husband and father.

I could hear the ticking of my heart in my ears as I ran. It got faster, more insistent. I had great stamina, for my heart was not flesh and blood, but metal and clockwork. It would run for all time. Except, of course, it wouldn’t. It was a machine, and machines must be given power. I felt the tightness in my chest, the grip of death squeezing me from within. The gears had nearly run down, and no wonder. I had climbed and run even before I came to this benighted rats’ nest of a borough and engaged in my depravity. Of course I had need to wind up my heart, though I did not relish enduring that indignity and pain in this cramped and reeking alley in which I now found myself. I leant against the wall and reached into my shirt. I pulled out the chain, but it came lose in my hand, broken. I stared at it in incomprehension. I recalled then the jangling noise as Pym had pulled free of me and shortly thereafter met his demise. The key had been lost then, the chain snapped in our brawl. I turned. I could not have retraced my steps anyhow, and already I felt my legs growing weak. The pain in my chest was increasing, and I could draw only ragged, desperate breaths. I saw spots swimming before my eyes. I staggered onwards, splashing through a brown puddle, ignoring the wetness soaking into my shoe as I went ankle deep in the filth. I tried to keep walking, for I knew that even as I loathed returning to the accident, it was now my only hope of survival.

I fell. My legs could no longer support me. I landed on my left arm and felt a new blossom of pain erupt in my elbow. I was lying in the slurry on the ground, clawing helplessly forward. My strength failed. I felt as weak as I ever had been. I rolled onto my back, trying to suck in air, but my lungs no longer seemed to function. I felt cold. For the first time in months, I could no longer hear ticking. The sudden yawning silence was profoundly disturbing. The world turned black.

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