It was the most peculiar sound. Almost indiscernible, it was akin to a peripheral vision where you can see something but at the same time, you can’t if you try to look at it squarely. This was a buzz or was it a hum? To some, it would be a high-pitched whine and where it came from would be anyone’s guess as you stared into the infinity of the warm night sky with nothing beneath other than the endless rolling hills of the English countryside.
Yet it was there in the quiet of dusk and it was getting louder. Now it carried an overtone of urgency – impatience even – as the industry of the maker was either running late or eager to get to his or her destination.
Dina was in her garden finishing up having spent the day waging war on the weeds which grew quicker (and taller) than anything she could cultivate. Her house, thatched and sunken, lay deep in the countryside accessible only by a track not even the postman would risk. It was overgrown and ram-shackled in a way that was homely and stuffed with artefacts and curios the most favourite being her two longcase clocks, of which only one appeared to be working. Dina was a true believer – a devotee – of sentience. She believed in the sound principles of animism proclaiming that all objects, places, creatures, plants, rocks, rivers and so forth (even weather systems) possessed a distinct spiritual essence and in their own way, were as alive as she was. Her clocks, therefore, were no exception and this supportive faith resulted in her living amongst the things she loved without the constant need for human company.
However, occasional visitors were more than welcome, and Dina very quickly picked up on the sound which now resonated all around her. In bird-like fashion, for indeed she was birdlike in both manner and stature, she blinked a bright eye suspiciously and cocked an ear as the first gaze of moonlight fell on the silver and turquoise rings that bedecked both her restless hands.
“That sounds like Motto,” she smiled knowingly and pulling a favourite cashmere close to her shoulders, she went inside to put the kettle on.
She paused to acknowledge her oldest long case clock – Mr. Cuff of Shepton Mallet – and smiled as she always did, at his crotchety ways and unhurried pace. A rotation of painted scenes directly above his dulled brass-clock face recorded the passing of the day and she was amused by the depiction of the cheery moon with its gay, rosebud lips as she thought how delightful it was to see a moon so obviously confused as to its gender.
She was mildly curious as to what the actual time might be and consulted her other longcase clock, Mr Bath. He hailed from Cirencester, not that this carried any significance but could be relied upon to tolerate no-nonsense. He rang out dutifully informing her that in his world it was exactly ten o’clock and since dusk was approaching, Dina took it to mean ten o’clock at night – give or take an hour or two – as opposed to perhaps ten in the morning.
Motto didn’t materialize but Dina nevertheless took her cup of tea outside into the remains of what might have once been a conservatory and lowered herself onto the rickety bentwood sofa where she leaned comfortably against a large floral cushion stained with watermarks. She observed the night-sky canopy, so magnificent in its hugeness, and identified – those that she could – the twelve planets she’d visited on her psychic travels. Silently, she recited the list as if a litany. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon and the new-comer 2003 UB313 of which even she knew very little about.
During her long unchartered life, she’d travelled greatly and had wandered – as she liked to put it – many an astral plain but of late there hadn’t been the need. Her role within the dictates of the Collective, the Collective being a sacred body ordained to serve the Hourglass, was that of Keeper – Keeper of the Hourglass. Privately, she thought this was an unduly grand title since to date very little had been required of her in this capacity other than to reassure, at regular intervals, there was nothing to report. It was a position bestowed upon her since birth and ancestry which reportedly (although never actually substantiated), reached back to the first influences of the Roman Empire and as such, due to the longevity of her association, her affinity with the Hourglass was regarded as unique. However, this passive responsibility was all about to change and by looking at the alignment of the stars and calculating the encryptions catalogued in her sacred Almanac, she knew that at long last the time of the Turning was fast approaching.
Impatient to be doing something, Dina got to her feet and paced back and forth. She caught a glimpse of herself in the ornate small round mirror hanging next to the inner door. The mirror wasn’t there for the purposes of vanity, it was there merely because she liked the way it captured the sun at sunset. However, she paused and gazed into it hoping to see either reflection of the past or a mirror to the future. She saw neither – just herself. She had a good bone structure with high cheekbones and haughty good posture. Her skin, although lined, still held a bloom and it was a kind face. A wise face. It was a face that had seen many joys and tragedies and had broken many hearts – and was still breaking hearts she confirmed secretly. She scanned her face for courage and found it was still there. She looked and wondered if she was still up for the task and as she tied her thick dark hair up into an untidy mound, she decided she was. In fact, she couldn’t wait.
But preparations would need to be made. She knew the approximate location of the Hourglass since this had been instilled in her by the Collective since childhood but that was a long, long time ago. She wasn’t unduly concerned about needing to be specific since she knew roughly where it was and anyway, she had sufficient faith to know it would be the Hourglass itself which would guide and reveal itself to her, not the other way around. She was just wondering what preparations she should make when she saw, as plain as day and not travelling too fast, a shooting star. It arced across the sky leaving a beautiful shimmering trail. Dina held the moment, transfixed. “Is this part of it?” she wondered, “…a prelude to the turning ceremony?”
It was a fair enough question to ask seeing as she’d never turned the Hourglass before, let alone having even seen it in the flesh, so before jumping to conclusions she listened to her instincts – that small voice inside her – and decided it wasn’t.
“Far too…. theatrical”, she snorted dismissively and even ‘though she knew it to be foolish for a woman of her age and wisdom the child within her couldn’t resist.
“But I could still make a wish,” she added mischievously.
“I wish…. I wish…. “
“I wish Motto would hurry up and get here before his tea goes cold!” she laughed and, shaking her head, went off inside to find some biscuits.
She returned with a fresh pot of tea and a plate of digestives. She resumed sitting in her chair and listened again for the whereabouts of the high-pitched whine which predictably, was getting closer as it climbed over the horizon. Sure enough, a spot of light appeared in the distance and was moving rapidly in her direction so pulling an old patch-worked quilt up over her knees, she continued her vigil and waited.
Young Raif Braithwaite, a boy aged 9-and-bit, with his tenth birthday falling on the approaching summer solstice, had never heard of Dina living in a condemned cottage buried in undergrowth not far from the south coast of England. He’d only been down that way once, to one of the big seaside resorts to see an aunt whose husband had died suddenly. Raif was just five years old at the time and recalled how he didn’t much like Aunty Mary – he didn’t like her cloud of sweet perfume or the way she kept patting his head. However, on the plus side, she had given him a prized clock.
“It was one of Frank’s,” she’d said mistily as she gazed at Uncle Frank’s newly enlarged photograph on the mantelpiece. “He’ll have no need for a clock where he’s gone.”
Raif recalled how she’d constantly checked the room for displays of sympathy and he never could decide if the sighs were sighs of relief or sadness, especially when his mum told him later that throughout the marriage Frank had frequently been away…
“Oh, thank you very much!” he responded politely and meant every word of it as he dutifully looked up at the photograph. “It’s a wonderful clock and it’ll take pride of place in my collection.”
“Frank was most specific,” the aunt said with eyes looking heavenward. “He’d said before he died – well, obviously before he died – he said young Raif must have this clock. So, there you are. Not my taste I have to say but it takes all sorts… Enjoy.”
As Auntie Mary reached for the clock, Raif continued to look at the photograph of Uncle Frank. He looked nice – sort of smiling – then Raif had the shock of his life when he was sure – he was absolutely sure – that Uncle Frank winked at him! He jumped back and checked the room to see if anyone else had seen this. They hadn’t but he nevertheless hastily put down his paper plate –worried he might drop it – being careful not to spill the wet, coleslaw vol- au-vent down his new, bright blue pullover. He didn’t want the embarrassment of dropping his plate on the swirly carpet either. Still feeling shocked by this very real experience and with his hands now free, he accepted the clock graciously. It was quite heavy for a five-year-old, so willing adults quickly came to the rescue and the clock was placed on the table where it remained silently if not a little incongruously until it was time to go. Raif kept looking back up at the photograph but Uncle Frank didn’t wink again.
It was a long drive back to Strawberry Bridge, just west of Halifax and Raif, sitting in the back of the family old but very reliable Ford Escort, had time to study the clock next to him on the leatherette seat. It was raining heavily and as Raif watched the rivulets streaming down the window, he puzzled as to why Uncle Frank would have wanted him to have it because he could never actually recall having met Uncle Frank? Still, the clock was now his and he decided that Uncle Frank must have heard about his collection and wanted it to go to a good home. Who knows?
Raif later found out it was a French Empire Mantel clock. Circa 1830, it was in reasonably good condition and Raif was convinced it was made of solid gold. It looked gold – gilt bronze gold – with a white enamel face and roman numbers. The maker, a rather grand Frenchman called Lenormand a Meaux had signed his name taking up two lines, but it was the figure, the classical warrior brandishing his sword who looked to be no more than ten years old himself, was what Raif liked best about it. He looked brave and defiant and if anything, a bit cheeky. He stood in a classical sword fighting pose and Raif knew, he could see it in his shining gilt face, that apart from looking a bit dandified, this boy meant business. A frieze on the base of the clock told a story of some kind of shipwreck and a tempest and winged creatures and a goddess emerging from either the waves or the clouds (Raif couldn’t decide which) confirmed to Raif that this barefoot boy in his helmet, cloak and armoured loincloth was a true fighter. But for what cause? Searching for clues, Raif studied the back-to-back birds embossed on the base on which the clock stood. One was definitely a dove and the other, some kind of raven or crow and they clearly didn’t like each other.
The rain came down harder now. Raif closed his eyes then instantly regretted doing so as the vision came to him again only this time it all happened faster as flashes rather than a narrative. Raif knew it so well the boy, the football, the wind, the water….
In a form of shorthand with the images jostling to get through, Raif allowed it to pass then opened his eyes. The sky had since darkened, and his dad had put the headlights on. Mum was asleep, her head nodded forward onto her ample chest. Raif leaned forward between the seats and gently put his hand on her shoulder to steady her. Despite the windscreen wipers being on high speed, it was becoming impossible to see anything. The noise of the torrential rain hammered on the windscreen, on the roof, on the bonnet as the whole world outside reached a deafening crescendo. Suddenly the water hit them like a brick wall shattering the windows, releasing them into a noisy black abyss. Either they’d come off the road and driven headlong into a river or they’d been hit by some kind of tsunami. Frantically, Raif thrashed around and reached out for his mum and dad but there was nothing, only black water which dragged him down deeper and deeper. What could he do? What could anyone do? There were no reference points to give placement or direction. It was what Raif always imagined it must be like to be in a black hole only this could only be a black hole filled with water…
Which way up? Which way out?
Paralysed with fear, he was sure he was on the point of drowning when from out of nowhere a bright light shone and it was enough for him to exhale his last reserves of breath and, with a tremendous effort, follow the thin trail of bubbles which he believed logically, would lead him to the surface.
He was right. Raif broke the surface and gasped. At first, all he could think of was taking in huge gulps of air – air he noted was hot and smelled of flowers.
Disorientated, he looked around and found himself alone and washed up on the banks of a small oasis? A couple of token palm trees formed the backdrop together with some other shrub-like plants he didn’t recognize although the large pink flowers they bore reminded him very much of rhododendron. Where on earth was he? Where was mum – and dad – what was this place? Was he dead? Was everyone dead? It was all too much, Raif pulled his knees to his chest and rocked and remained like this until he felt brave to peep through the crook in his elbow.
The oasis was surrounded by a vast empty desert. Sand and sand dunes stretched as far as the eye could see and above, a clear blue cloudless sky. No longer fearing any immediate danger, he got to his feet and began walking towards the oasis but found that the longer he walked and the faster he walked, he seemed to get no closer?
“Thou art doing it wrong!” laughed someone behind him.
Raif turned and was amazed to see the boy warrior. “I know you,” said Raif shielding his eyes, “you’re the boy on my clock.” But he hadn’t got his clock and where was this place? “Am I dead?” he asked, as it seemed the most logical explanation considering the course of events.
“No, thou art merely borrowed,” replied the young warrior. “Here, catcheth this.”
And from out of the sand he picked up a ball and threw it to him. Raif caught it but before throwing it back he looked and saw it was made of glass and inside, he could clearly see his clock on the back seat of their Ford Escort. Despite the sound being very faint he could hear the radio was on with Sounds of the Sixties. Dad was still driving, and mum was still asleep.
As if finding himself in a desert next to an oasis wasn’t weird enough, talking to the golden boy warrior from his clock was even weirder.
“I brought you forth,” said the boy warrior. “Thou needest to know, thou needest to be made ready.”
“Made ready? Made ready for what? You talk funny” he added.
“Ast too dost thou,” retorted the boy soldier.
Both boys regarded each other and having registered their differences, accepted there was no need to pursue this line of conversation further. Raif turned to more pressing matters. “Why am I here and not there?” he asked, still looking into the glass ball.
“Because they all cometh here first.”
“Why? I mean, who does?”
“What dost thou want – who or why?”
“Both,” said Raif, “Or neither. I just want to know why I’m here and anyway, where’s here? Raif waited for the boy warrior to speak. He needed answers, he needed to know to make some kind of sense of all this.
“Thou art here because thou art the chosen one. Thou art here to be made ready…” said the boy warrior eventually.
“Made ready for what and how did I get here wherever this here is?”
Obviously enjoying himself, the boy warrior drew strange circular pictures in the sand before replying. Raif found this infuriating but said nothing.
“Art thou aware that we standeth now in another dimension?”
Art thou aware that thou wilt journey and that journey will takest thou to turn the Hourglass?”
“No. What Hourglass?”
Again, the boy warrior sighed but Raif had now cottoned on to it being better to wait and keep silent as too many questions were confusing – like it took a while for the words to catch up and register.
“I will tellest thou only to make ready,” said the boy warrior at last. “To learn and accept that life is but an illusion. Thine eye seeth what thy hand toucheth not. Thou hast to believeth and keepeth faith. Doth thou believe thou art really here?”
Raif thought about this. In this funny language, the boy warrior was making no sense, but he decided the best way to find out whether or not this whole fiasco was or wasn’t real would be to pinch himself. If it hurt, it was real.
While he did this, he kept his eyes fixed on the boy warrior. He shut his eyes for a moment then opened them again. The boy warrior was still there and so was the vast desert behind him.
“Yes,” said Raif truthfully. “I’m really here.”
“Hast thou ever sat astride a tortoise?” asked the boy warrior seemingly changing the subject.
“A tortoise? What’s a tortoise got to do with all this?” he replied now getting even more confused and perhaps a little upset.
“Would thou likest to ride upon one?” said the boy soldier interrupting his thoughts.
In truth, Raif thought he would. He’d love to ride one but surely wasn’t about to happen.
“Then rideth this one!” grinned the boy warrior.
And the boy warrior stood aside as the biggest tortoise Raif had ever seen lumbered out from behind a skinny palm tree.
This in itself was an impossibility but Raif clung on to what the boy warrior had said about believing and walked steadily towards the fabulous creature.
The tortoise’s shell was smooth and shiny and Raif marvelled at the colours contained within. Gently, not wanting to alarm the creature, he put his feet into the wrinkled folds of ancient leathery skin and gently hauled himself up.
“I’ll raceth thou!” called the boy warrior laughing, “And I’ll giveth thou a league start!”
The tortoise started walking at a slow, stately pace whereas the boy warrior seemed to be running as fast as his legs would carry him but never catching up?
“I toldest thou!’ he called stopping to catch his breath with both hands resting on his knees, “Trust and believeth. Thou art the new Foundling and before thou art tenfold, someone will cometh for thee. Forgeteth not what thou hast learned here…”
And then he was gone. Raif slid off the tortoise’s back into the soft, warm sand.
“Thanks for the ride,” he said, turning back to address the tortoise but incredulously, she too had gone.
Once again, Raif found himself alone. He sat in the warm sand and felt small. In fact, he’d never felt so small as he gazed at the empty landscape around him and wondered what it meant to be the Foundling. Strangely, he didn’t feel frightened. He felt empowered but didn’t know why. But where was he? How would he get home? Would he ever get home?
Just as these thoughts were beginning to take hold creating as they did so a deep-seated fear – a sense of dread and foreboding – which was beginning to rise dangerously to the surface, another anomaly beset him. The sand beneath him began moving. Not very fast at first but soon it started to gain momentum. Raif scrambled to his feet and backed away from the oasis. Further and further he scrambled until he turned and stumbled, falling against the drag of the sand, and found he was running just as fast as he could. He turned for a moment and watched as the oasis was swallowed up and he hoped desperately that both the boy warrior and the tortoise would be safe. The sand kept on shifting until Raif too felt the warm clutches around his ankles and he knew. He knew he had nowhere to run to.
Everything appeared to take place in slow motion. He knew it would be pointless to fight – to struggle – so instead, he gave in to the sand. Sure, he was frightened, terrified more like, but he kept hold of what the boy warrior had said ‘believe and have faith’ and something about the eye not seeing what the hand was touching. Or the other way around. It didn’t change anything, but it helped and Raif found he no longer felt afraid. He just felt curious.
Soon he was outside himself looking down. Somehow he knew it was him even ‘though he was older and was now wearing a red pullover and jeans as opposed to shorts. He got smaller as he got further and further away until he was just a tiny red speck in a vast ocean of sand. But there was more. A blinding blue light enveloped him and propelled him upwards into a void where he could see that this vast ocean of sand was contained within an Hourglass and he could just make out the tiny red speck as it flooded from the top half of the sphere into the bottom part. Then it started to shake more and more violently with a discordant sound of interference getting louder until it roared in his ears.
“Nowhere to run to baby… Nowhere to hide…” The song suddenly cut through with such clarity it made Raif jump. He blinked and looked around.
“Martha and the Vandellas, 1965,” said his dad knowingly, tapping the steering wheel in time to the music as he continued to sing along with the song. Mum had woken up and had resumed crocheting yet another vast beige tablecloth.
“We’ll soon be home love, “she soothed in her soft Yorkshire accent. “Did you have a nice nap?”
It was fully dark by now and the rain had stopped.
“You missed a right cloudburst,” continued his dad wiping the misted-up windscreen with his sleeve, and with his kind blue eyes, he smiled at Raif via his rear-view mirror, dodging the floral cardboard air freshener which dangled between them. He carried on humming. And his mother smiled and carried on crocheting.
“By the way,” added his dad as if he’d suddenly remembered and fished in his pocket, “Aunty Mary forgot to give you this. She said she couldn’t open it, but I’ll have a look when we get home. She said Frank wanted you to have it along with the clock. He said you’d understand when you’re older.”
He passed Raif a small, oval silver box. He tried to open it but couldn’t since there were no catches or markings, but it felt nice; it felt comfortable in his hand. “Thank you, and thank you, Aunty Mary,” he said, curious as to why he’d been bequeathed such an unlikely heirloom.
“What do you make of this?” he whispered, showing it to the boy warrior on his clock. And whether or not it was just a bump in the road as they turned into the drive or something more mysterious, he was sure he heard a clock strike. It was just the once.
“What’s a Foundling?” he asked his parents.