Time Waits For No Man
Tempus virum non expectat
There are those that say that a man’s life is measured, heartbeat by heartbeat, from the time he is born to the time he finally expires and that there are only a finite number of heartbeats available to them. Slow the heart and you prolong the life.
Others are quick to dismiss it as unscientific mumbo-jumbo, the delusions of the wishful yearning for that which is beyond them. They say that the terms of a man’s life are mere happen-stance, their end being up to the whims of uncaring, unaware fate.
The truth is that neither are right, that our ends come by stranger means than they could imagine. I should know, I who have long plumbed the depths and mysteries of time, seeking to capture it, to tame it and measure it.
What are my earliest memories? My first recollections are of sitting in my father’s workshop as he tinkered and built marvellous horological creations. My father was one of the finest clock makers in Europe, with gentlemen approaching him from far and wide for his works. As such I was surrounded from an early age by the constant tick of clocks; of carriage clocks, cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, pocket watches and more. At times he even dabbled in other time keeping devices, such as chronometers and even sundials.
I found the constant tick of the clocks around me comforting. Silence seemed to me as an unnatural event and I could not sleep unless a clock was near at hand to lull me into security.
As I grew older, my father began to instruct me into the secrets of clock making. At first he merely showed me the inner workings of clocks and watches, their delicate mechanisms and movements, but as I aged I began to assist in the making of them, learning how to cast and file cogs and springs, pendulums and the other parts that made a clock run. Only perfection would do, for without it the clock would not run smooth.
In search of perfection, my father would experiment with other materials, of bone and ivory and shell from the most long lived of animals, such as elephants and whales and most especially the chelonian species. He tried wood from trees thousands of years old and even gold, and alloys of gold, that immortal metal. While its malleability made it easy to work with, it also hindered its true purpose in the keeping of time. For all that, my father’s search went on.
“It may be,” he often told me, “That the perfect material for the horological arts has not yet been devised in the crucibles of science, or it may never be at all. Time will tell all.”
There were two time pieces in the workshop that stood out marked different than the others. They lacked the gilt and ornamentation of the pieces that my father crafted and yet to him were far more precious. In time they would come to be so for me as well.
The first was a simple piece in a rough wooden case, one unpolished. The face was plain white, while the hands and roman numerals stark black. The other, a fob watch, was in a brass case, unmarked and unworked.
Not simply was the lack of ornament what made them stand out, for each bore three hands, the standard minute and hour hands and one other, a larger one that from when I first saw them seemed not to move. In time I observed that they did so, but only very slowly, creeping along over the years. The hand on the clock was at around the mark of the eighth hour, while that on the fob watched hovered between the first and second hour.
What is more, neither of the two time pieces showed the same time. When I asked my father about it, he simply smiled.
“They show the correct time, that is all that matters my son. Remember, they are never to be changed.”
Every morning my father would come into his workshop and meticulously wind up the pair, checking them against the watch he carried in his pocket at all times, even if their times did not match his.
As I reached my majority, finishing my apprenticeship, I began to take over more of the business of my father, producing the time pieces that were in such demand. This left more time for my father to tinker and experiment, and more often he turned his attention to the two special time pieces, the plain clock and fob watch. Opening it up, he would spend hours staring at the workings while the hands kept ticking away.
“Tempus virum non expectat,” he would say to himself.
I was ever an indifferent student of the Latin, but I believe that what he said, or meant to say, was time waits for no man. I failed to understand my father’s growing obsession, and obsession it was, for he slept less the older he got, spending even more time in the shop, labouring away feverishly until he collapsed with exhaustion.
In the meanwhile I worked and, as was natural, fell in love and married. My wife lifted the troubles of the house, for the perturbations of my father had cast a pall over it. More joyous news was to follow when my wife announced that she was expecting.
That announcement did in some way change the demeanour of my father. Late one day he brought me into the workshop, setting down on the table the two special pieces. Despite my skills and training, never before had he allowed me to touch them.
He set his hand upon the clock in its wooden case, stroking it with a tender affection the like of which I had never seen before from my father.
“This clock,” he told me in wistful tones that left me a touch disturbed, “Was made for me by my father before I was born. It started ticking the moment that I arrived in the world and has marked the passing of my years faithfully. Take a look at the face, my son, and tell me what you see.”
I did so and upon viewing it could see that in fifteen minutes all three hands would be pointed to twelve of the clock. I pointed that out to my father.
He nodded slowly. “In fifteen minutes I will die,” he solemnly stated.
I found the concept an absurdity, an impossibility and I let my father know that. It was an opinion founded in scepticism and fuelled by fear.
Father simply smiled. “I too felt likewise when I was first told.” He opened up the workings of the clock and bade me look inside. “Tell me what is wrong with the mechanisms.”
I did so, spending my time observing the intricate workings of the springs and cogs, all wrought by the hand of a master, as my grandfather had been. At first I could not make out what father wanted me to see, but a dawning of understanding hit me. The large hand was not connected to any other part of the clock and should not have been able to move.
“It should not work,” my father stated, “And yet it does. We believe that tiny inconsistency in the workings, minute vibrations from the lack of absolute perfection, drive the lifehand. How it knows the hour of our death, that is another matter.”
I still did not believe – did not want to believe.
Father dragged out an old battered chest from where it was stored and opened it up. Contained within were a dozen timepieces, all simple to the eye. The oldest were rather crude in construction but they showed an improved in refinement and timekeeping the newer they were.
“These are the clocks crafted, father for son, by our ancestors. With each our skills improve, the materials we use are better, and so the clock keeps more accurate time. With it comes longer life. My father gifted me with sixty five years. You, if I read you time piece correct, will live for eighty. With what I have taught you, with the new advances science affords us, your son will live ninety years, perhaps even a century.”
I wondered what just the goals of our pursuit of perfection was, what it would lead to.
“Immortality, my son. A perfect time piece, without error or flaw, will result in the lifehand no longer moving, and the owner of such a timepiece no longer dying. It may be in ten generations, or a hundred, but we will get there.” He closed up the time pieces and set them aside. “What we have is both a blessing and a curse. We do not suffer the uncertainly that others do, wondering when our death shall come, for we know, but the closer you come to it, the less time you have to undertake all that you wish to. Not only that, our fates are tied to these time pieces. Should anything happen to them…” He left that sentence unfinished, but I understood the implications. It helped explain the fastidious way in which he undertook tending to them each morning.
I knew not what to say. I should have said something, but it is hard to formulate the words when such revelations are heaped upon you.
Then the clock began to chime, one beat after another, counting up to twelve. Upon the twelfth chime the clock ceased to tick and with it my father breathed his last.
The following morning I was back in the workshop to wind up my timepiece. Now that I knew the importance of it, I understood the need to care for it. Father’s clock I stored with all the others of my ancestors.
I sat for some time in the workshop simply staring at the clocks around me, ones finished and others in various stages of construct. With the prospect of my wife giving birth to an heir to carry on the legacy of the family, I turned my mind to designing a timepiece for him. In some manner I felt closer to my forebears than I ever had before, sharing with them this experience, knowing that they to had gone through it.
I knew then that I would not make just a clock for my son, but a perfect clock, the perfect clock, without error or blemish or imperfection. I would not wait ten generations, or one hundred, for it to occur. I would not allow my son to go through the same emotions that I had. Even now I could feel the hands on my watch wind their slow path towards my death, knowing that the inevitable was bearing down upon me.
And so I set to work. The work of my ancestors had afforded me a wide array of tools and materials and the wealth needed to acquire more. Taking adamant and diamond and other exotic materials, I laboured long over the crafting of the cogs and gears and springs that would form the inner workings of the clock, the movements and the mechanisms.
For months I laboured as my wife’s pregnancy progressed, shaping and testing and reshaping each part until I was certain that it was perfect. Slowly the clock built it shape, glittering in the gaslight. It seemed to me that I was not so much creating the clock as giving form to something that already existed, and that it as much built itself as I did.
It was not until mere days before my wife was due to give birth that the clock was complete. I had driven myself hard – too hard perhaps – but I had done what I set out to do.
The clock was perfection, all shimmering crystal surrounded by a case in part of immortal gold, protected from the ravages of time. It would last as long as it needed. Taking the key, I began to wind it up, to set the springs that powered the movements of the timepiece.
It did not start.
At first I thought that I had made an error in my work, but that was not possible. I had poured my heart and soul into it, straining to the utmost every inch of my skills. It could not but work. Yet it just sat there, staring at my without life.
I puzzled long over that until I remembered what my father had said – they did not start ticking until the moment of birth. And so I set it aside and readied myself for the birth.
A few days later the momentous moment arrived. I sat in the workshop waiting as the midwife assisted my wife, staring at the clock. I would know when the child was born the moment that it started ticking. I was certain that the child would be a boy, a son to carry on the tradition of the family. The possibility of a girl never occurred to me.
I heard the scream at the moment that I heard a chime from the clock. Cogs began to turn and spin within it as the scream continued on. Something was very wrong.
I hastened from workshop to see the midwife dash from the house, ashen faced.
Vaulting up the stairs to the bedroom where my wife lay, I feared the worse. The child had been born – and alive else the clock would not have started. What then could have scared the midwife so?
I was soon to find out. My wife lay in her bed, propped up on pillows, pale and concerned, cradling the newborn in her arms. She looked up at me with pleading, helpless eyes, uncertain as to what to do.
I could see in an instant what was wrong. The child was frozen, not by mere cold but by something else. I had made the perfect clock. Too perfect as it turned out. The child was immortal by virtue of being locked outside of time.
As I gazed upon the child, I perceived something else. Rather than a son, I had a daughter, as fair as a spring day.
There was no movement from her, locked rigid in place. She was not dead for their was colour to her cheeks, simply that she was frozen in an instant outside of the flow of time.
I promised my wife that I would rectify the problem. I raced back down to the workshop and the perfect clock I had made, puzzling how to fix what I had created. The clock ticked away as it should, the minute and hour hands making their slow circuits around the face.
The problem, no doubt, lay with the lifehand. If it did not – could not – move, then there could be no life. Life needed both beginning and end, else it was not life.
I had no spare parts left for the clock, having poured all my time into the making of the perfect ones. What I needed was an imperfect one, to introduce a flaw into the clock so that the lifehand would begin it slow movement.
What could I use though? It would take too long to fabricate a new one. How long could my daughter last as she was? Did she need to be alive to survive or could she remain as she was forever? I could not afford to take the risk and waste time.
It struck me, then, that I had the perfect imperfect part for her, already available, already made.
I opened up my own watch, the one my father had made for me, crafted by his hands as best he could. With the tools of the trade, I extracted a single gear from it. Even as I did, I heard the clock wind down and with it felt my own heart beat erratic. I had little time, and I knew more than any how precious time was, having surrounded my life in it.
I could feel myself dying, yet I could not stop. Nothing else mattered to me. Opening up my daughter’s clock, I took out a single gear from it and replaced it with my own. At that moment I heard a lusty cry from above, that of a newborn child. It had worked, my desperate ploy, the introduction of an imperfect part to an otherwise perfect clock. The lifehand would begin its slow count.
I do not know how long my little girl will have, only that it will be a long, long time, far beyond the span of a normal life. Time enough to fix the problem with her clock. Time enough to fix the error in my watch.
Fumbling hands replaced the missing part in the watch with the gear I had taken out of my daughter’s. Perhaps it was too late for me, my watch already broken beyond repair. It was much as my father had said, that our fates were tied to them and if anything happened to them…well, that I had now found out for myself.
I was content though. My daughter would live, and live properly. Just as part of my blood was in her, so too was part of my time piece in hers. I would be with her, and especially in the workshop, for I had invested much of myself in it, as had her ancestors. We were part of it now.
Tempus virum non expectat, my father would say, and now, at the end, I understood fully the meaning of that. Yet, in the here and now, with a daughter and not a son, it did not apply.
And so time did not wait for me, and nor I for it and thus my tale is done.