Ridley Chesterton didn’t think of himself as being sentimental. It had surprised him as much as anyone when he snatched his father’s wind-up pocket watch from the pile of items destined to be listed in the auction brochure. Thomas started to object, to tell him the watch could buy them each a manor house in Radlett, but he drew back as the watch disappeared into Ridley’s pocket, recalling the sheaf of their father’s correspondence he’d set aside for himself before Ridley had arrived.

“Good of you to show up to help sort through this,” Thomas said. “Father didn’t have much of an opportunity to organize his effects for us.”

Ridley grunted, turning away from his brother to gaze through the window at the dense foliage that had been allowed to encroach upon the house. Their father wouldn’t have left any less of a mess for them if he’d had a thousand years to prepare. The man had thrived on chaos.

Ridley hadn’t been in his father’s house since he’d left for college 20 years before, leaving his father to his women and the drugs he claimed enhanced his creativity. Perhaps his father had been right about that; his writings had made him a fortune and established him as an icon. They hadn’t even bothered to say good bye.

Ridley let Thomas deal with the remaining details of the auction, as he had with the funeral and the other tedious details of the liquidation of their father’s estate, and headed back to the flat he shared with Abby, a six-year-old tabby he’d claimed as the only relic of a failed marriage. Like his father, his wife hadn’t seemed to mind his absence from her life, being content with the house in Chelsea and the Bentley he’d left her.

Entering his flat, he removed his jacket and emptied his pockets, setting his keys and the pocket watch on the kitchen counter, before digging a tin of cat food out of the cupboard. As he emptied the contents into the pink bowl by the waste bin, he heard the clang of his keys on the floor and bolted for the counter, hoping to forestall a similar fate for the watch. He needn’t have worried. Instead of batting the watch off the counter, the cat had retreated into the sink where she unleashed a series of meows, interspersed with hisses.

“What’s gotten into you?” he asked, feeling the cat stiffen as he lifted her from the sink. Intending to place her before her bowl, he got as far as where the watch sat on the counter, before the cat wriggled out of his grasp and jetted off into the bedroom, leaving a deep gash in his forearm.  Rather than pursue the cat, he stood staring at the watch, suddenly aware of the loud and steady ticking it emitted.

For a moment, he was six years old, standing beside his father at his mother’s funeral, the ticking of the watch loud in his ear as he pressed his head against his father’s chest. He remembered how the watch had seemed to mock him, answering his discordant sobs with its metered response.

The ticking continued as he drifted back to the present, an echo of his nightmare intruding upon the waking world. Ridley examined the watch, wondering what had compelled him to take it. He stuffed it in the kitchen drawer under the dish towels to let it wind down. By the time he was ready to retire, he’d forgotten about the watch, replacing it and the memories it conjured with more pressing concerns. He had an interview to conduct the next day. It was for an important position and it was imperative he concentrate on the present.

The next day, Ridley was ready. He’d familiarized himself with the applicant’s CV, which was impressive, and had reviewed the details of the position he was, most likely, about to offer.

“Send in Mrs. Kettering,” Ridley said into the box on his desk. A moment later, his receptionist showed a woman of about 30 into his office. Ridley was pleased to see Mrs. Kettering brought with her a professional and confident bearing.

“Have a seat, Mrs. Kettering,” he said, extending a hand over the desk. Mrs. Kettering took his hand with a grip of just the right firmness, smiled and sat down.

“I think we can dispense with most of this,” Ridley said, setting aside the folder on his desk. “Barlow recommends you highly. My only question is why they were willing to let you go.”

“To be honest, I hated to leave,” she said. “Unfortunately, they decided to move their operations to the continent, and I wasn’t in a position to relocate.”


“That’s certainly understandable,” Ridley replied, suddenly focused on Kettering’s wristwatch. It seemed louder than it should. Without realizing it, he raised his voice to compete with the sound.

“The position we are offering is centrally located,” he said, glancing in the folder. “It’s only about a 20-minute drive from your residence.”

The smile Kettering gave him was tinged with confusion. Deciding Ridley was hard of hearing, she leaned forward to make herself better heard, placing the arm with her watch on the desk.


Kettering was talking, but Ridley was only catching every other word, his concentration centered on the watch. The ticking was even louder now, and had gained in tempo, reminding him of the rapid staccato tapping of his father’s pocket watch.

Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick…

“I see you’ve noticed my watch,” Kettering said, turning her wrist over and shoving it in his face. “It was a wedding gift from my mother.”

“It’s very nice,” Ridley stammered, embarrassed. He leaned back in his chair to escape it, but the ticking followed, growing in volume as though angered at his effort to evade it. His collar seemed unusually tight, and he tugged at the knot of his tie. Kettering was talking, but Ridley now heard nothing other than the ticking. He nodded when she paused, hoping it was the appropriate gesture. Apparently it was. She smiled and her lips started moving again.


Ridley smiled wanly and dabbed the perspiration off his forehead with his handkerchief.

“It’s rather hot in here, don’t you think?” he asked, spinning his seat around to throw open the window behind him. He wanted to thrust his head out, suck in a gulp of cold fresh air and to immerse himself in the sounds of the city, but he forced himself back, turning to face Kettering.

“Are you alright?” she asked, her countenance reflecting a fraction of the apprehension that must have been on his own.

“Yes,” Ridley said. “I’ve been—having some health issues. I’m sorry. Could you excuse me?”

Kettering nodded, rising as he passed with the expectation she might have to help the man to the door. Ridley made it into the hall on his own, stopping by the restroom to splash his face with water before going to the Field Manager’s office to ask him to take up the interview.

“Apologize for me and offer Mrs. Kettering the position,” Ridley said. “If she finds our terms acceptable, have her ring me up in the morning, any time after eight.” It wasn’t until Ridley pulled out of the garage and onto the street that he realized the ticking had stopped.

Arriving at his flat, Ridley paused outside the door, only becoming aware of the passage of time when a neighbor, on her way to collect her mail, asked if he was alright. He had apparently been standing there for sometime with his key in the lock, listening. Hearing nothing, he nodded to his neighbor, not entirely satisfying her with the gesture, and eased the door open. Removing his jacket, he looked around for Abby. More dog than cat, she usually raced up to greet him, inserting herself between his legs, almost tripping him on more than one occasion. Ridley jangled his keys and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. The cat did not appear.

“There you are!” Ridley exclaimed, spotting the cat’s tail sticking out from under his bed after a furtive search of the living room and kitchen. He dropped down onto all fours and reached under to prod her out but, as his hand fell on her flank, she stiffened and hissed. He withdrew his hand and stared through the doorway toward the kitchen, startled by the muffled ticking. It hadn’t been doing that when he came in! He wandered toward the sound, mesmerized, almost stumbling over the coffee table as he passed through the living room into the kitchen. His hand quivered as he reached for the partially open drawer. Had he left it like that? He was certain he’d closed it. Sliding it out, he saw the watch, sitting atop the wash cloths he’d buried it under. Mechanically, he sunk his hand into the drawer and came out with the watch, feeling it’s steady heart beat against his palm.

Once again he was a child, turning the watch in his hand so the light spelled indecipherable messages on the ceiling as it reflected off the brass face cover. He depressed the fob and the cover shot up, away from the face with it’s dagger-like hands and mysterious Roman numerals. When he was six, he couldn’t read it, he didn’t know it was telling him it was 9:30, but now he understood, and he remembered what had happened at 9:30. That was when he’d found her, sprawled out at the foot of the basement stairs, her dark hair flowing out across the concrete. Only his mother had light hair, and the darkness coming from her head was growing, spreading toward, and then into, the circular drain. His father appeared from out of nowhere, scowling at the watch in his hand before flicking a switch on the wall that made the darkness flash red. He could barely hear the ticking over his father’s screams.

He dropped the watch, just as he had all those years ago, only this time he didn’t see his father bound down the steps to cradle his mother’s lifeless body in his arms. This time he was staring through his window into another window across the way. A young woman, not unlike his mother, glared at him before closing the curtains.

Was he losing his mind? He hadn’t thought about these things in years, not since moving away to college. It had to be the ticking. It had stopped when he’d dropped the watch, breaking the spell, but he had to be sure it never drew him back there, back to the bad time. He raised his foot and brought it down on the watch again and again, until the gears bobbed on springs protruding from the face. He watched the innards of the watch writhe as it died and then gave it a kick that sent it crashing against the baseboard, dislodging shards of metal and glass. As he swept the pieces into the dustbin, Abby appeared, running her body against his leg, her purrs echoing his own sense of relief.

Exhausted by his ordeal, and eager to banish his lingering embarrassment over the disastrous interview with Mrs. Kettering, Ridley decided to turn in early. He was sure he could convince Kettering to take the position, if she was hesitant, and might even be able to dispel any doubts she had concerning his sanity, if he could get a good night’s sleep.

He had barely been asleep for an hour when he was jolted awake by a sharp pang in his legs. He immediately recognized the cause originated in the claws of his cat, digging into his flesh through the blanket. Cursing, he threw the blanket off of his legs, sending it, as well as the cat, tumbling into a pile on the floor. Abby wailed as she disentangled herself and vanished under the bed.


How? How was the clock still ticking? It was slower now, almost feeble, the pulse of a dying woman. It was close, too close to be coming from the dustbin in the kitchen. Switching on the lamp on the nightstand, he sat listening for several minutes, concluding the sound was coming from the bathroom. He followed it and found the case for his contacts had slipped into the sink. The sound was just the drip from the faucet onto the plastic. Still, that didn’t explain Abby. What had set her off? He gave the faucet knob a twist, retrieved the contact lenses from the basin, and ambled back to bed.

Irritated by the sound of his heart thudding in the ear pressed against the pillow, Ridley tried to sleep on his back. It was an unnatural position for a man accustomed to sleeping on his side, and he rolled over, trying to use his arm as a buffer. He could still hear it. The beat quickened as he became more agitated, pounding in his ear and against his chest. His pajamas became damp and heavy, clinging to him like a wet shroud as the patter assumed the aspect of the ticking of the pocket watch. Ridley bolted up and threw off the covers.  He sat panting; his hand pressed to his chest.

He felt his heart slow as the scent of jasmine seeped from a half-recollected memory. A woman was there, standing at the foot of the bed. Her flesh faded in and out, flickering like a movie projected onto a skeleton. She extended a turned up palm over the rumpled sheets, her demanding expression, interspersed with flashes of the skull beneath, accompanied by a plaintive sigh that came from nowhere, filling the room. Ridley knew immediately what she wanted.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t have it anymore. I missed my chance to give it to you.”

The woman’s flesh fell away completely as she reached out and pressed a finger to Ridley’s forehead before dropping her arm and stepping back, dragging her shadow across the moonlight streaming through the window. The sheets ruffled as the shadow released its hold on the bed and glided to the woman, consuming her.

As a cloud passed before the moon, plunging the room into darkness, Ridley wanted to move about, to get out of there, to do anything to put some distance between himself and his memories, but his legs wouldn’t support him. Failing to stand, he fell back onto the bed and sat propped up on the pillows weeping into his hands.

He remembered it all now. He remembered how his mother had caught him with his father’s pocket watch, and how she’d tried to pry it out of his hand when he refused to surrender it. He remembered jerking his arm back, causing her to lose her balance and tumble down the stairs.


It was dawn before Ridley was able to coax his legs into taking him off the bed. He staggered into the living room and over to the bookcase where the inscribed copy of his father’s last novel sat wedged between two cookbooks on the bottom shelf. Although his father had given it to him several years before, he’d never read it. He’d never read any of his father’s books. He put on a pot of tea and settled into the recliner by the window with the novel. Abby leapt into his lap, trying to nudge the book out of Ridley’s hands as he opened it and read the dedication:

To Ridley

May time erase the walls of guilt between us