The Keeper of Time

When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me a story about a cuckoo clock that she had seen when she was growing up. It was a large and imposing clock, with a little wooden house stuck on the centre where the hour and minute hands met. As the clock was about to strike the next hour, she always said, a little old man would step out of the house and slide the hour hand into perfect position before disappearing into his little wooden dwelling again. When you thought about it that way, time was always magical and within your grasp and and on most days, I would ask my mother to repeat it several times. I had so many questions.

What did the old man do if the clock stopped working? Did he ever step out of the house for anything else than changing the hours? How long did it take for him to get back into the house again after he was done with his task? I don’t remember most of the answers now.

But I do remember that there was a question that I didn’t ask my mother because I wanted to figure out the answer by myself. What did the old man do as he waited for his cue? Did he sit down? Was the house actually a proper one with chairs and windows? Or was his job to simply wait in the wings, on high alert for his cue? If he did have something else to do, how did he keep track of the hour-hand-task? Wasn’t he the keeper of time himself? And if he was, surely he could do nothing else other than just wait! Some days I told myself that the old man had an entire family with him and he was not alone. On other days, I was convinced that the clock would die the day the old man refused to step out.

I was at the shops with Miss A last week when we heard the news of the MH17 aircraft. We were in a busy mall, eating our lunch when the news flashed across screens.

Because I stopped talking, she did too, and we both watched in silence.

“Why does bad stuff happen to innocent people?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. They were showing scattered suitcases on the TV. “Perhaps that is why people believe in reincarnation because it seems so hard to make sense of everything in one lifetime.Maybe we need to blame it on the afterlife and the past lives.”

“If there was someone who wanted to turn over a new leaf the very next second, something like this would rob them of the chance,” she said. “How does reincarnation answer that?”

“I don’t know,” I said again. “We make up entire universes like that. Because so many things do not make sense.”

“Death is not the saddest thing there is,” she said, eyes still on the TV. “It is the getting left behind, the waking up everyday with such sadness. Death is easier that way. Those people that passed on, they no longer know of the chances they didn’t get. Their families will be sorry forever because they know.”

“The best thing to do is to be grateful for everyday,” I say. Though the food tastes awful by now and the pictures of those young children on that flight are setting my throat on fire and discussing shopping plans seems terribly trite and inconsiderate. “For this food and the weather and the fact that we got a car-park and all such things.”

But my words are lies and I don’t feel sure of anything.

“I suppose,” she says.

And then I realise, that she is looking for hope much more than I am.

“Even if it is not obvious, you have to believe. In the good stuff. In healing. In knowing that things will one day return to order.”

“Do you believe that?”

“With all my heart.”

“And those that are gone?”

“Especially for those that are gone. Because like you said they have no more chances left.”

“Where exactly on the map is Amsterdam?” my mother asks later. Many, many years ago, she used to point out these things to me on the atlas and quiz me later to make sure I understood.

I think of the old man in his wooden house then, I had forgotten he existed. While he was waiting indoors for the clock to run its course, my mother has forgotten her answers from another time. My daughter has questions that no longer have simple answers or even locations on a map.

“Who is to know what will happen to this world,” my mother says. “Nothing seems true on some days.”

The maps are changing.

The times are changing.

But after all these years, I think I know what the old man in the clock does while he waits.

I think he pulls up a chair and keeps an eye on everything that goes on around him. And then, no matter what, at the end of the hour, good, bad, ugly or magnificent, horrid or without hope, he walks up to the hour and advances it anyway. To signify the end, to signify the beginning. To keep things moving.


I finally know what the old man in the clock does all day long.

He does not let the times control him. I don’t think he ever has.