Nottingham 1976

The clock had always been there, at least as far as Jessica was concerned it always had. It stood as tall as her Aunt and was a deep mahogany brown, scratched and worn. Her Aunt Helen once told her it was a grandfather clock and it had been a few years before Jessica learned that didn’t mean her grandfather had built it. It was just a name.

If she had it her way, she would have happily sat watching it for most of the day, every day that she stayed at Aunt Helen’s, but Helen told her it wasn’t healthy to be sitting indoors all the time, and especially unhealthy to sit blurry-eyed and gazing at a clock that didn’t even work properly.

It was the sound, Jessica thought. That was the fascination; the sound that it made instead of a tock.

Tick, thunk, tick, thunk, over and over again.

It wasn’t a hollow sound, though. It had substance. It echoed somewhere and Jessica wasn’t sure if the echo was inside the clock or inside in her head. It wasn’t broken. She was sure of that, even if Aunt Helen insisted that it had once made the right noise, back when it didn’t need the minute hand adjusting every few days.

It lost minutes. Not many, only two every day, and Aunt Helen would keep adjusting it when it went out too far. She was always complaining about it and suggesting that she should send the old thing to auction.

But Jessica knew she wouldn’t.

“Why do you keep changing the time on it Auntie?” she asked one day, when she was about four years old.

“So it tells the right time, of course,” her Aunt had replied, with a smile.

Jessica had gazed at the clock for a moment.

“But what if it does tell the right time and your watch is what’s wrong?”

Her Aunt hadn’t answered that one straight away. Instead she stood chuckling to herself as she stood in the kitchen.

“You do have some strange ideas, petal,” said Aunt Helen.

Petal. That was what her Aunt had always called her, though sometimes it was Little Petal or My Petal. She had never understood the nickname but she knew it was a good one.

Jessica always looked forward to her visits with her Aunt. They weren’t frequent enough for her. Just three weeks in the year. She hadn’t known until she was much older that they were so her mother could have some time to herself, or what she got up to with that time, though it hadn’t really mattered by the time she did find out.

The TickThunk clock, the huge garden with all the apple trees at the back that she could climb and sneak apples out of when she thought her Aunt wasn’t watching, the smell of baking bread – real bread, not like that fake stuff in a packet back home, the birds singing in the morning, and her Aunt’s habit of humming tunes that she didn’t recognise. These were all the things she enjoyed about those visits.

But that had all ended when she was seven.

It had been her summer visit. The second of that year, and the weather had been terrible. Where she would normally be playing outside, imagining all manner of fairy tale stories coming to life in the myriad of secret corners of the garden, she sat indoors, either reading books, listening to the rain, or when her Aunt wasn’t looking, gazing at the TickThunk clock.

It had been Thursday, or was it Friday? She couldn’t remember. Either way, it was the last day of her visit, and her case was already packed and sitting in the upstairs hall.

It was getting dark outside, and the wind was picking up, blowing through the trees and rattling the clothes line against the window of the lean-to at the back of the house.

Her Aunt had sat reading her book, trying to ignore the sound, but eventually put the book down, sighed and went to shut the window. The noise stopped and her aunt came back into the study.

“I’m going to get the clothes in off of the line,” she said, “I was hoping they would dry so that they could be packed for you tonight, but I think we may have to pack them in the morning. I’ll hang them in the kitchen.” She headed out to the hall.

“Shall I help?” asked Jessica, glancing out of the window as it started to spit with rain.

“No, No. You stay there,” her Aunt said. “No point in both of us getting cold and wet now is there?”

She watched her Aunt walk across the patio and over the grass towards where the clothes swayed in the wind, and then look back down at her book, turning a page back to figure out where she had got to, but something flicked across her peripheral vision, just for a moment, a shadow of some kind that she hadn’t noticed it immediately, just at the edge of her vision, in that blurred spot where movement catches you, before clarity. It was a shift of the light, and not one that is caused by the wind. It wasn’t the branches swaying in the wind, but a swirling wave of darkness, a momentary tornado that was gone almost as quickly as it had arrived. One moment the bright colours of her Aunt’s blue cardigan had been there, and the next there was nothing.

Jessica looked up, frowning at where her Aunt had once stood, but it didn’t register, didn’t comprehend, didn’t Thunk. She just sat watching numbly as her Aunt’s headscarf floated off across the garden to settle in a flower bed.