Mitch never liked the fireplace. It reminded him of a grotesque tombstone with the fire of hell burning at its centre. A kind of grey brooding monolith with a clock crouching on its mantle counting down the hours minutes and years as if to say ‘it’s only a matter of time’.
Often, after his family had retired for the night, he would spend long hours staring into the black abyss in which flames mocked and danced, writing unfathomable messages in glowing specks on a sooty backdrop.
He was to spend the weekend alone, his family were visiting relations in the west. It was Saturday morning and he spoke to his wife on the telephone. She laughingly gave him a list of household chores to carry out. He faithfully did the washing up from the previous night, dusted the furniture then began to clean out the fireplace.
The blackened half-burned logs were still hot from the night before and singed his hands as he placed them in the metal bucket. One piece seemed hotter than the others, and as he picked it out of the grate it suddenly burst into flames. He threw it onto the floor and it immediately burned a hole in the carpet and a column of acrid smoke rose into the air floating like a black cloud above his head.
Grabbing it with both hands he flung it back into the fireplace burning the skin from his fingers. It landed in a shower of sparks, then the flames suddenly subsided. He looked down at his damaged hands, then the burnt carpet and then up at the fireplace. ‘You’ll not win’ he muttered under his breath. After tending his burns Mitch set about completing the housework and laid firelighters, kindling and fresh logs in the grate. He placed a rug over the blackened carpet. There was no way he was going to light the fire this weekend, he would leave it ready for when his wife returned.
That evening he took advantage of his newfound freedom and joined his friends for a drink or two at The Black Horse. Actually, it was more than one or two, and when he left the pub he trod an unsteady path back to his house! As he turned the corner into his street he noticed smoke coming from the chimney on his house. For a moment he forgot he was home alone and imagined his wife and children sitting in front of the fire watching the TV or playing games. But then it struck him. He’d left the house empty, and the fire unlit. As he walked to his door the house was in darkness except for a flickering orange glow in the lounge window.
He fumbled with his key in the lock, then stumbled and half fell into the hallway. He pushed open the lounge door and the heat from the blazing fire hit him in the face sending him reeling back on his heels. The fire hissed and crackled and spluttered and sparked. The clock ticked and tocked, getting louder and louder with every second. The whole scene was unbearable and he clasped his hands over his ears then screwed up his eyes to lessen the glare of the flames. Suddenly the clock began to chime. It hadn’t chimed for years – he’d never got around to having the bell repaired. One two three. The clanging of the chimes got louder with every strike of the hammer. Four, tick tock, five, tick tock, SIX, TICK TOCK….
Mitch slapped his hand on the light switch. He frantically flicked the lever up and down. On, off, click click click click. Nothing. ‘Light damn you’ he yelled. Suddenly the clock fell silent and the bulbs in the chandelier flickered and flashed into life. But it wasn’t the normal comfortable glow. It was as if he was a prisoner held under the piercing glare of an interrogators lamp. It was so intense that he felt an excruciating pain in his head; it was as if his eyeballs were about to burst. He grabbed a cushion from the couch and pressed it against his face then felt his way back along the wall to the switch. Click click click. He could still see the light through the puffy cushion and the heat from the fire was burning the backs of his bandaged hands. But they wouldn’t turn off. Click click click. Nothing. Then a second or two later there was a series of loud pops and when he dropped the cushion to the floor the only light he saw was that from the roaring fire which seemed to be laughing in his face.
Tick tock tick tock mocked the mantle clock as it came back to life. Its hands sat at ten minutes to two as if it was grinning at him. And then the chiming started once again getting louder and more piercing with each strike.
There are times in everyone’s life when you just know that the action you are about to take is the wrong one. Mitch knew that the chimney stack from this monstrous fireplace ran up through the house and was crucial to its stability. He sensed that the fireplace knew this too as it seemed to laugh in his burning blistering face. But sometimes rationality and reason ebb away and emotion and rage take their place.
He rushed out the back door and ran to the tool shed. The cold night air stung his face and hands but he hardly noticed. The door was locked. The key, the key – where was it. There was normally a spare hidden under a flagstone, the one over there to the left. He tore the stone from the ground splitting his fingernails in the process. Where was it? ‘Where are you for Christ’s sake’ he screamed. He burrowed at the cold earth like a frantic rabbit, but it was no good, it wasn’t there. He got up to his feet. He was steadier now. What was going on around him had dispelled the effects of the alcohol, and he was totally focused on the task he knew he had to perform. He kicked and thumped the shed door. Bit by bit it splintered and buckled then eventually ceased resisting and flew backwards crashing down onto the floor inside. Where were they? He threw spanners and hammers into the air. ‘Where are you?’ he screeched. Then he found them. He’d bought them years ago. His wife had laughed at him. ‘What do you want with a lumberjack’s axe and that enormous pneumatic drill?’ she’s asked.‘They were a bargain’ he joked. ‘Who knows, they may come in useful one day’. And he reminded her about it a year or so later when one day she decided she wanted the concrete patio dug up. But right now he wasn’t joking. He rushed into the lounge, dropped the drill onto the floor so he could use one hand to shield his eyes from the dancing flames which licked the back of the fireplace. He knew what had to be done and damn the consequences. He screwed up his eyes, clasped the axe in both hands and began to swing it round and round then slammed it into the mantelpiece. He heard the clock crash to the floor. There it laid defiantly ticking tocking ticking and tocking, louder and louder and louder and louder.
Mitch swung the axe again. Down fell the mantelpiece shattering into pieces on the hearth. He opened his eyes. The flames didn’t seem so bright now. He suddenly felt in charge of the situation. Time for the pneumatic drill.
He managed to shove the plug into the power socket and with a squeeze of the trigger it roared into life. He began pushing and twisting the drill which rat-a-tatted against the fireplace until it started to break up and collapse. Then he turned his anger on the wall above. He was aware of the danger in his actions but right now it seemed not to matter. He thumped and pressed the head of the drill against the wall until he felt the massive concrete lintel crack. The job was done. The burning logs began to hiss and scream like frightened animals and the flames shot outwards as if trying to escape. The wall was slowly moving downwards. A spider’s web of cracks in the plaster darted in every direction. The ceiling started creeping lower and lower in a series of groaning jerks. He rushed out into the street and watched as the once proud chimney stack began to descend inch by inch into the roof. He laughed out loud and watched as the tiles sprung off in every direction as the roof began to buckle. There was still time to rush back inside and have one last look at the dying remains of the fireplace which had taunted him all these years. Tick tock tick tock went the clock under the rubble. Tick tock tick tock TICK TOCK……..
The next morning Mitch stood a way back from the crowd which looked in shocked amazement at the smouldering remains of his house. All that stood were the four outer walls. Blackened timbers stuck out here and there like giant children’s pic-a-sticks and shards of glass covered the garden glinting in the sun. The fire officers had done all they could. They’d worked all night bringing the inferno under control and were packing away their hoses and equipment. Suddenly someone shouted for everyone to be silent. ‘Something’s ticking’ she yelled. ‘Listen’
There was indeed a loud ticking coming from within the crippled structure. A strange echoing sound. Tick tock tick tock it went. ‘It’s a bomb’ shouted an elderly gentleman as he turned and started a rapid retreat. The others followed him. The fire officers went into a huddle then one of them took a few cautious steps toward the house.
Mitch ran forward. ‘Don’t worry ‘he shouted. ‘It’s just an old clock. It is, I promise you’. But the officers carried on as if he wasn’t there. One was having a conversation on his cell phone. Mitch heard the word bomb, and again he tried to assure the firemen that there was nothing to worry about. But they ignored him. They didn’t even acknowledge him. They couldn’t see him. Why? It was crazy.
‘I should know it’s my house’ yelled Mitch. ‘It’s my clock’. But still, they ignored his pleas.
The instruction came for everyone to stand well back. Mitch, however, remained where he was, unnoticed.
The explosion was enormous. Windows in houses the length of the road were blown in. Squawking birds spiralled up into the sky as the trees shook and the ground shuddered. Mitch just stood there, unmoved, unshaken. The army arrived soon after. A search of the remains gave no reason to suspect that another explosion was likely. Suddenly a soldier shouted ‘There’s someone under here, look, I can see an arm just below these bricks’. They started throwing the bricks away from the scene and there it was, exposed for all to see. An arm which would hopefully be attached to a body. It was clearly the arm of a man, and on the arm was a tattoo in the form of a snake. As Mitch looked on a feeling of terror rushed through his body. He pulled up his sleeve and stared at his shaking arm. On his arm was a tattoo of a slithering snake.
And then once again, tick, tock, tick, tock. By the time the body was pulled from beneath the rubble, the paramedics had arrived. Mitch stood staring, open-mouthed. He started prodding himself and pulling at his hair. He shook his head violently from side to side as the realisation set in. He was looking at his double. The tick tock tick tock resounded in his head getting louder and louder every second. He squeezed the palms of his hands over his ears. Why was nobody else disturbed by the deafening noise? He began to shout. ‘That’s me, it’s me. Someone, please tell me what’s happening’. But nobody heard him.
‘Does anyone recognise this body?’ said a police officer.
‘Yes, it’s Mitch, the poor soul’ said one of the firemen. ‘I know him from the golf club’.
The green-uniformed paramedics worked slowly. Clearly, the life was gone from the body; there was no need to rush. But suddenly one of them called to his colleagues. ’Quickly, he just stirred’.
They began frantically pumping his chest. The crash cart was rushed over from the ambulance, and there was a sudden sense of urgency. Mitch looked on in disbelief; the pain from the ticking in his head was unbearable. Then the chiming started. Why could no one hear it? One, tick tock, two, tick tock, three …
To the amazement of the people gathered around, the body suddenly began to move.
Five, tick tock, six……
Then it sat bolt upright, its bulging eyes slowly turned towards Mitch.
Seven, tick tock, eight, tick tock….
Mitch felt himself grow weak. Everything around him became hazy and the ticking and clanging and clanging and ticking began to fade away. Then he was gone.
How Mitch survived after being buried alive and assumed dead was little short of a miracle. He made a slow recovery but always seemed very distant as if his mind was elsewhere. His wife and daughter made regular visits to his convalescence home. They were never quite sure if he remembered who they were, but the nurses assured them that their visits were important to him.
It was his birthday and the nurse came into his room with a bundle of cards and a letter. He went through the cards one by one then slowly and carefully lined them up along the window ledge. ‘Aren’t you going to open that letter?’ she asked. But he just stared at it and shook his head. And days later the letter still sat there, unopened, propped against a coffee mug. Something about that letter seemed to worry him – scare him even. Whatever it was he wouldn’t open it.
His wife and daughter had moved to a new house in another part of the country, and they hoped that one day they would all be back together again as a family. Mitch’s consultant suggested that a visit to the new house might be beneficial, and so the next weekend his wife collected him and his overnight bag and they set off in her car. He hardly spoke during the journey. When he did it was about the weather or comments about the way she was driving! As they entered the driveway to the new house the expression on his face hardly changed. Did he even understand where he was or who he was with? His daughter rushed excitedly down the steps and ran to greet him. For one second she thought she saw him smile, but perhaps it was her imagination showing her what she so desperately wanted to see. They led him inside and he slowly looked around saying nothing.
‘Do you remember the lady who lived next door to us at the old house?’ his wife asked. ‘She found something of yours in the ruins of the house’. Mitch pulled a disinterested expression. ‘She said she wrote to you about it. Do you remember getting her letter?’
Mitch’s expression changed as if something was frightening him.
Come with me’ she said.
‘No‘ said Mitch shaking his head. ‘Don’t be silly!’ she laughed as she led him by his hand into the lounge ‘Look’ she said.
And there, crouching on a shelf on the wall was the clock. Its hands were stopped where he saw them last, ten minutes to two as if mocking him.
Tick tock, tick tock went the clock. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…….