Short Story – Precision
Updated: May 21
This was my first big win back in 2015 so has a special place in my heart. It won the Segora International Short Story Prize. I hope you enjoy it.
The silence was thick, leaning on her like a heavy neighbour. She glanced at her shoulder, expecting a smudge of dust to have accumulated. There was something final about her stillness; her legs felt eroded of strength. At least, still like this, there was no chance of upsetting anything, knocking things out of place. She craved order. Something crafted and considered to guard against the burgeoning of nature. She stared at the grey rose, its messy substance refined to angular perfection. It seemed to press more solidly into the dresser, lay more heavily on the world. Even the shadow seemed more solid, reaching out towards her as it crept along with the fading light. Shunts of thorns, evenly spaced, the petal curl at an exact angle. Just so. A ticking rose and fell, rose and fell, dropping into the silence of the afternoon light.
Things had been so much simpler before. That fleshy curtain, screaming and distorted, it covered everything now. The smell that had come with it, milky and sour, it was even in the curtains. It was all fresh then, before her moment of scant glory against the kitchen worktop. She used to spend most of her time downstairs, in her workshop. Of course, not really hers, but since Mother and Father had gone it had gradually succumbed to her influence. The neat catalogues of parts on one side, the stack of orders on the other. Tiny drawers each bearing a label, a tally of the exact number of pieces that lay inside, not the shambles that her father had wallowed in. It quickened the brain, knowing where everything was, increased productivity, simplifying the assembly, emboldening her to try out new variations, impressing the regular customers.
Secreted down there, she hammered and screwed, each coil and spring submitting under her fingers. From the hair spring to the balance end stones, each found its place. The regulator kept a watch over it all, a steely eye monitoring the other parts, like itinerant children. The last step was her favourite. When the scudding sound of the wheel cased, everything was set in motion. It was hardly noticeable. Only when you held it to your ear could you detect the metronome of it, carving out time itself. It was a wrench, to part with them, though the knowledge of them resting on wrists around the city gratified her. A decoration of precision.
When her usual monthly residue failed to appear, she appropriated it calmly. She measured it in books, pulling down the encyclopaedias and medical journals from the library to examine the tiny mechanism growing within her. She set up a chart next to the display clocks, tallying the length of it next to a representative piece. Barely a number three screw to begin with, blooming all the way to a cuckoo pendulum. She placed the stick next to her belly, a sharp snap as she tried to press it around. Impossible that she would become stretched like this. The pieces went into the pile to be reused.
Father was relieved at her reticence to court, believing her silence to be a lack of internal ardour. The boy tapped on the door one day, offering deliveries. It was all covered really, but she felt bad turning his eager face away. She agreed to a few bits here and there, nothing that would counterbalance the books. Every Friday, his collar done up so smartly around his neck, not an inch of him showing except long pale fingers. Bit by bit she got him to come into the kitchen, go directly to the fridge, so she could capture him in the light as it opened. It cut shadows into his cheeks, adorned his lashes with brightness, pulled the pink out of his cheeks. He was like a clockwork man, pallid and perfect.
It was three weeks after the accident – the funeral costs had barely left the accounts. She wasn’t sure there was anything to waste on allowing a sandy haired boy in so you could gaze at him in cold light. He’d given her a card of condolence at the step, their fingers brushing over the rigid paper. That moment of pressure led her forward. She shut the back door. He looked up at the noise, something like fear in his eyes as she approached him across the slate floor. There was a murmur, it might have been ‘wife,’ but she pressed her lips against the word as it left his mouth, stole her hand up inside his shirt, knocked half a dozen eggs on the floor in her haste. He hadn’t spoken after that. Pressed against the slab of wood she used to hack up the potatoes, he’d lifted her skirts and allowed her pent-up mechanisms to spool out. He still came every Friday, without the eggs. Until she’d told him.
She decided to mark each month with a new model, to help her count through the time. On the fifth month she secreted a tiny scrap of diamond that had chipped off the decoration that was ordered for the Watsons’ centrepiece, so small she could only see it through a lens. Deep beneath the scurrying parts it lay, just like the treasure soon to emerge from her. The sixth was a dot of silk, she was sure it was a girl. On the seventh her attention wavered, the rhythms of her body moving beyond her. She went down to the workshop less, unable to rouse herself from torpor, desiring nothing but cold drinks. The pork chops on a Thursday brought her heaving to the toilet, the orange juice in the morning bitter and curdling. She would not be deterred. In the eighth, she placed a fragment of glass, like a tiny drop of water. An acknowledgment that some shifting would have to be absorbed. The ninth was empty and unfinished. It accelerated out of her too soon, rushing out in a flurry of pain, needles and starched hospital gowns. Her first glimpse was of a squashy red thing, silent and angry.
Clora. The opening of the final syllable, unending and liberated. Nothing could have prepared her for this cloying affection that stuck to every part of her, suffusing her clothes, the room, as she contemplated the little face. It appealed to her sense of intricacy. The etched lines on each finger, the round crease of the elbow, the perfect nub of a toenail. She segmented time, allowing for the allotted tasks – sleep, feeding, changing, washing, cleaning, bathing. Then it was repeated. Each day sliced, metered out. A week later, or possibly two, she wasn’t sure, something slipped. She no longer crept into her room at night, peering through bars at the cogs of her sleep. The thought of descending to her workshop grated like a size nine file. Simple tasks failed her. She sensed the smell of herself, leaching up through twisted sheets she had no energy to rise from. Her head was fogged like an indistinct glass. Was that a cry, or birds outside? Had she changed her, or was that the washing she had hung out? Underneath the endless thrum of her head lurked her former self, wailing at this inconsistency, this lack of order.
The flower wasn’t the first thing that changed. It was when she’d decided to eat, no sense of when anything had last passed her lips. The apple looked so bright. She always chose the most uniform shapes, the most even colours. Bringing it up to her eager mouth, she noticed the sheen darken slightly, rendering under her hands. By the time it had reached her lips it was too late. Her teeth met a hard, impenetrable surface. She dropped it, the sudden increased weight thudding the tabletop. Fearing her own fingers, she went back to bed, covering her ears from the wailing in the small yellow bedroom.
When she woke, this silence was everywhere. The apple still lay on the table, no imperfections. Almost a perfect sphere, dented by its root and stalk. She snapped a rose from the vase, its petals quite rumpled and old. Once separated and laid on the table, it succumbed to the same fate. Stroking the metallic curve of the petals with one finger, her mind sat quietly, snicking over gently, as it used to. It was so quiet. She didn’t have clocks in the house, couldn’t stand their intrusion, the spilling away of life. Only in the workroom was time allowed to intrude. Something nagged at her. She crept to the small bars, peering between them.
The baby’s face looked so soft and peaceful. Finally, the imposition of rituals had been accepted. She could return to a better sense of order. She swept up the tiny form, pressing it to her. In seconds the transformation began. A hardening of the shell, a crust of silver over those precious features. Rushing to the front room, she placed the still figure in the light from the window, the soft shine of it mirroring the fruit and the flower. She lifted it to her ear. Something still echoed within. They settled, together, all impetus leaving her limbs. She sat in the afternoon gloom, the ticking of her daughter’s metallic heart rising and falling.
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