Welcome to our stately home,
kept as a museum
All along the mantelpiece,
treasures - let's go see 'em!

The Secret Life of the Mantelpiece
Fob Watch

I knew from the beginning that if I was allowed to wind down it would mean the extinction of the universe. My servant carried me in his waistcoat, winding me at midnight and so allowing me to usher in the new day. I was a rather benevolent god, hardly demanding many obsequies, just that little act of worship to ensure I could fulfil my duty to creation.

The next servant was sloppy, barely managing to notice when the silence between ticks lengthened. I dreaded that the worst might happen. Until, at the last moment, he would bring me out, hold me to his ear, smile into my face at some recollection and finally perform his duty.

Then I was passed to a little wizened dwarf with a jeweller's eyeglass who licked his lips and handed over cash to my servant. I was left in a cabinet until I was sold. Left unwound I filled with dread, waiting for the city to vanish, the people to disappear, the Earth to evaporate in dust and the stars to go out. And yet it all endures without my running.

Yet as I wait on this mantelpiece to be wound again I put aside any doubts I have had that the universe could exist without me. It is just that - in all those eons when I ticked on and on I did my work so well, storing up a little potential - there is some time left before the final running down.

Two Penguins

There was a penguin, and another penguin. And there was an iceberg on which they stood. And though they were made of porcelain and occupied a space together that was no bigger than a human fist, theirs was a conflict unmatched in its intensity and force. Between them was a fish, and the fish was everything.

They had been cast and painted as frolicking figures: the larger bird, Geoff, fumbling comically at the tail-end as the fish flipped out of his grasp; his brother, Eff, seizing the head-end, a glint of triumph in his eye.

It was the glint that did it.

Because the birds had been painted with their eyes locked, and as the years and decades passed, that glint in Eff's eye became a sneer, as Geoff's look of desperation in turn became a hateful glare. Those eyes, painted open, cartoon white, never changed, but behind them something darker grew. In time the birds, once buffoons, became Cain and Abel.

There was a penguin, and another penguin. And though they were made of porcelain, and their clockwork mechanism had long since ceased working, everyone who looked at them saw only their own greed, envy, pride and wrath. So they were turned to the wall; but their conflict raged on.

Church Scene Diorama

It wore jewels, many of them sapphires and diamonds about its head; rubies on the bodice of its gown; rings of emerald on its fingers. Its veil was thin and ragged, but covered the worst of its old bones. It sat in a high chair by the altar, in ancient brocade. Rubies shone in its eyes. Each morning, it lifted its skeletal hand and pointed to the East, then brought the palms of its bones together, clunked forward onto its knees held together with wires of copper, and prayed. And pieces of bone fell from its hands and fingers, flakes and dust and, three weeks ago, a small finger bone that lay still on the mantelpiece because no one had been brave enough to reattach it.

The skeleton's bones came from the crypts of ancient Rome, sold onto a small German church as the relics of a Christian martyr. There was no one to say, now, if that was true. And when a clever man who travelled with the court had wintered here a hundred years ago, he had strung its bones with copper wire and given it life. It - no, she, for it was a woman's bones beneath that veil, beneath that rotting dress threaded with mildew - she prayed on. Each morning, like clockwork, as her bones wore to dust upon the facsimile church floor; and the clockwork priest swept them up each afternoon.

The Lion's Cage

There's no key for the lion's cage. It works by music. You play this tune on the drum once and see - the lion rears up to trample down the bars. You play again and he sticks his head out and roars. Then you play the tune in reverse and he goes back inside.

I got it from a musician, who said the lion was once a live creature in a circus, too vicious to carry on working, until it was miniaturised and tamed by a magician who turned it into a toy. The musician was tired of the circus by the time I met him and I helped him leave. In return, he gave me the cage and showed me how it worked but he warned me never to play the tune more than twice. He was glad to be rid of the thing by then. He said it was ruining his sleep.

I didn't believe most of his story, not until the lion started coming alive in my dreams. I felt the weight of him on my stomach and the stink of his breath, night after night, and I knew what he wanted me to do. One day, I started the drum tune for the third time and the lion's paws came down onto the mantelpiece, claws out, and his eyes began to shine. When he licked his lips, I lost my nerve and put the tune into reverse. Since then the dreams have been more terrible than ever. I'm not sure how much longer I can resist.

Tears of a Broken Toy

Dollie was cried out, truly. Her plastic cheeks dry, her expression was fixed, numb.  The bladder that had been the internal reservoir of her tears had long been used up and there was no-one who cared to refill it. No-one needed her, no-one to dry any tears.  No-one had cared to dress her in her doll clothes, a leg was twisted the wrong way and only one of her eyes opened, staring into nothing,

She sat flopped on the mantelpiece, a plastic husk with the other discarded things; once upon a long time ago she had been the most loved. Lizzie had loved her; Dollie had been the most important thing in the world to her. When they had been separated, Lizzie had cried all night, and then on and off for weeks, until an identical toy had been found in the toy shop.

On the outside, the thing on the mantelpiece, Dollie, was cried out. But inside, the tears of the fragile little soul that had flowered in the little toy's body never stopped weeping for what she had lost.

Marching Teddy Bear

Once I marched. Now I stand. A cobweb spans from helmet to gun. The forgetful hero of an ill-gotten war. I can't recall what it was I fought for. By tooth and by jaw. By paw and by claw.

I am afflicted by the mysterious outcomes of ancient battles. Sabre scar slashes. Fur charred and seared by mortar shell and cannon ball. Wounded snout and blighted muzzle. My stillness attracts new afflictions. Rust on my cogs. Lint in my wheels

Fragments taunt me. The noise. The smoke. The frantic whirr of the clockwork charge. The terrifying clattering response of simian cymbals.

My comrades are fallen. Regiment Polar. Regiment Grizzly. Regiment Brown and Regiment Black. Every bear that ever there was, sent down to the woods for the big surprise.

I mourn them as the embers grow dull in the hearth beneath the mantelpiece, tainted medals like leaden weights upon my breast. But glass beads may shed no tears. I imagine the faraway call of a bugle. My mouth craves the taste of cordite. My finger aches for the feel of the trigger.

If I could move I would march. But my key is gone. My spring hangs slack. I stand here in the dust. I stay here in the dust.

Clink, Clink, Clank, Clank, All the Money in the Bank

Clink clank. The boy wound me up.

My hands began to move, shifting the copper cups beneath my porcelain fingers. It felt good.

My lips parted and a pre-recorded voice that sounds nothing like my real one, emanated from me. "Wahaa! How fast are your eyes? Bet a penny, find the ball, and walk away a rich man."

I must have said something similar to the devil when he came to my stall. Why else would he make me say it for eternity? Want some advice? Never best the devil.

The boy rested a penny on my little square marked "coin". Tinny circus music piped from my voice box and I started my trick. For the next thirty seconds I was free, no longer confined by cogs and wires. I made the ball disappear and reappear, shifting the cups right and left. I scratched the place behind my ear that had been itching like a mother for the past two months, then made like the ball had been hiding in my ear the whole time. When all the cups were back in a row the music stopped.

"Now choose."

The boy chose wrong. I showed him where the ball was, then reached down and ate his penny.

My cogs slowed, forcing my hands back to the cups.

"Best of three?" my recording said, as my last cog stilled, but the boy had already moved to the next wind-up wonder on the mantelpiece.

Clink clank. 

From the music I imagined a pretty ballerina. From the clink of her coin I knew she only took pounds. If the devil had made me a bank that took pounds, I'd have paid him back years ago. Still it could be worse. Somewhere behind me is a cast iron cockney magician that only takes sixpence. He'll never pay the devil back.

Ballerina: A Cautionary Tale

Imprisoned in her wooden box,
the sentence for a misdemeanour.
No match for several golden locks,
imprisoned in her wooden box.
She struggles, mute; she knocks and knocks:
the tiny, captured ballerina,
imprisoned in her wooden box -
the sentence for a misdemeanour.

She danced the prima in Swan Lake,
as elegant as any bird.
The world's rewards were hers to take,
she danced the prima in Swan Lake.
But gods are harsh; their whims, opaque -
a spiteful goddess woke and heard
she danced the prima in Swan Lake,
as elegant as any bird.

The goddess watched with jealous eyes -
the ballerina whirled and spun.
She planned the dancer's swift demise,
the goddess with the jealous eyes.
The ballerina shrunk in size,
her cruel tormentor's curse begun.
The goddess watched with jealous eyes -
the ballerina whirled and spun.

The goddess grasped the statuette
and crowed: "Pride comes before a fall.
No more for you the pirouette."
The goddess grasped the statuette,
and in a wooden box, she set
her down: a dancer, one inch tall.
The goddess grasped the statuette
and crowed: "Pride comes before a fall."

And here the ballerina stays,
a prisoner of jealousy.
The goddess will not change her ways,
so here the ballerina stays.
She'll dance like in her prima days -
unlock the box and turn her key.
And here the ballerina stays,
a prisoner of jealousy.

The Snow Shaker

Gemma gazed at the snow shaker in fascination. The scene slowly revolved by clockwork as she looked at it. One minute it showed a daytime scene; the next, it was night. It was a shame the scenes were so boring, though; nothing happening and no people. She sighed, and went to bed.

She couldn't sleep. For some reason, she couldn't get the snow shaker out of her head. Eventually, she got up and went downstairs, creeping over to the strange mantelpiece. As she came to the snow shaker she jumped. She was gazing at the night scene, but, where before she had been sure there was no building, now a tall, round, stone tower stood etched against the skyline, and bats flew across the moon. She peered closer. There was a figure leaning out of the single window high in the tower. A woman, arms outstretched and mouth open wide in a soundless scream. 

Then the scene revolved and she was looking at the interior of a house, afternoon light flooding through the windows. She had seen this before, but this time, there were people in it. A big, burly red-haired farmer stood over a cowering woman, beating her with a stick. Gemma could see the bruises standing out against the woman's white skin. Was this the same woman who was leaning out of the tower? If so, which scene came first? And were they really taking place somewhere? Was she seeing a window into a different part of the world, or perhaps a different time? What could she do to help?

The simple answer was nothing.

How about if she moved the fob watch a little more to the left and the marching bear could squeeze across to the right so that there would be no apparent gap?

Nasty snow scene. Nasty snow. Into the dustbin with your troubling visions!

Working Model of Earth and Moon

Family history has us acquiring this last piece some time around The Great Exhibition, that Victorian gathering of bearded inventors and gentlemen of science that marked Prince Albert's crowning glorification of Empire.

At first glance this decorative toy - a Moon orbiting the Earth, both spheres beautifully finished in abalone and similar polished semi-precious stones - appears to have nothing automated about it and no moving parts at all. And yet: look at it on a Tuesday and you will find Luna to one side of Gaia but return your gaze next Sunday evening and the placement has changed. Has the maid been in dusting again and not returned the object exactly as was? Clumsy Gemma is not to be trusted but her duties have been confined to the kitchen area since… well, never mind that business.

It is my belief that the mechanism is constructed to perfectly mimic our satellite's revolution about our orb. And here's the amazing thing: there is no visible or tangible connection between the two spheres. So how does the Moon hold its position in this miniature model? Surely the answer must be the obvious one, that lovely anagram of "gravy it".

My father and my father's father and on back through the generations have stressed that I am not to attempt to take this apart on pain of death. But sometimes I have picked it up very carefully and held the world in the palm of my hand, feeling a sense of power, of drive, of constant though barely discernible turning.

There remains a nagging worry: if this process was set in motion back in 1851 or earlier, what shall we do when the winding mechanism inevitably winds down? I am sitting now pondering just such a catastrophe. To be honest, I believe that I have noticed some irregularities of late. Clear-eyed observation and detailed note-taking will prove key to finding a solution.

I have sent all visitors away and I have not been out of the house for several days. The swiftly accelerating effects of climate change make venturing abroad foolhardy at best. And although our house is high up on the cliff top, the waves seem ever more riled, reaching upwards with their lashing wet tongues, pulled by a tidal force grown overly strong and certainly out of kilter.


 (Clockhouse London Writers appeared in this order: Gary Budgen, David McGroarty, Madeleine Beresford, Sandra Unerman, Mark Lewis, David Turnbull, Robin Lupton, Sarah Doyle, Rima Devereaux, and Allen Ashley)