My mother smiled at me, her cheeks flushed from the cold. I looked up into an infinite sea of falling ice, tracking a perfect snowflake as it fell past my vision, melting as it landed on my dark grey coat. Father paid the coachman then ushered us both into the carriage.
Being only four, I was too small to even attempt to climb up the three steps, so suddenly I became lighter as Mother picked me up and dropped me, a bit too heavily, onto the red leather seat. The confined space was thick with cigar smoke, making me cough a little. I noticed one of the buttons was missing on the cushion and went to pick at the hole when Mother sat next to me and pulled my fur-lined shawl even tighter around my tiny neck. The cold still bit into my skin regardless.
Father sat opposite, placing his hat on the seat to his side and making some remark to Mother which she ignored. His words formed moisture and hung in the air. She looked away through one of the small windows as if the answer to his comment would exist outside in the snowstorm. It was now falling more heavily than when we all set out for the theatre earlier in the evening. She turned back to him and they started arguing. They were always arguing.
I tugged on the warm hood, so it covered my ears and tried to see through the frosted glass. For a moment I was lost in the perfect crystalline symmetries that masked glows from gas lamps and houses as they sped past. I wanted to be home. My new dollhouse was waiting, and my dolls wanted to explore its rooms. But mostly, I wanted to be out of the dark and cold.
Suddenly, the carriage came to an abrupt stop, and I fell forward. Luckily, Father caught me and placed me on the seat next to him. Outside, voices played amongst the howling wind. Mother and Father looked at each other, and that’s when I saw the glint of a silver barrel from inside my father’s overcoat.
“Stay here,” he said to Mother and left, disappearing into the swirls of white ice before she could reply.
She tried to see outside to where he had gone, and, for a moment, I thought she’d forgotten I was even there, but then she pulled me forward to sit beside her.
In my dream, I wait for the sound. The sound which was the starting pistol to my descent into hell.
A popping noise mingled with the wind, making Mother jump. Instinctively she pushed open the door. The scene played out as it had done a thousand times before. She stepped out into the night as I tried to grab at her coat, but my hands were not strong enough to keep her with me, and she too was gone. I went to follow her, but the wind angrily slammed the door shut almost catching my hand.
Is that how it happened? I wondered, locked within my own dreamscape.
Another pop. Then the silence of the wind once again.
Even in my child’s mind, I knew something terrible had happened. I looked at the door. I wanted to open it and run to my parents. I slipped off the seat and lunged for the handle, but the world started to move and shake once again, streaming past the windows. I fell back momentarily then gathered my strength and pressed up against the door, trying the handle but it wouldn’t open, the ice storm refused to allow me to leave. I hammered my fists on the cold wood, shouting and screaming, but the carriage moved further away from my salvation.
Faster, the windows and brick outside passed me by, my world being left behind. I pushed one last time on the bronze lever, and it lowered. I fell forward, sky, snow, and trees rapidly changing places until they stopped, and I was encased in a snowy grave. I wondered if I was dead.
Slowly I got to my feet and looked around but only saw a wall of white. Beyond, I heard the faint sound of horses and a man shouting.
I saw a vague human form on the road above me. At first, I wondered if it was Father, but then his clothes became visible, lit by a lantern dangling from his hand.
Not Father, for this man did not care for his appearance. Then, somewhere lost in the opaque haze behind him, there was another voice, shouting for him to return. ‘We have to go back!’ were the words my mind conjured from the past.
The man shook his head in frustration, his rotting teeth peering through his split, dry lips.
I crouched down, my hands now useless to me as they were frozen.
The horses roared, and the carriage wheels creaked as, slowly, it turned to face the way it had just come from. It rolled forward alongside the man with the lantern.
“The child is not here, we have to go back!” shouted the driver. His tone was desperate.
Without warning, air escaped from my lungs, instantly freezing and the standing man whipped around in my direction.
I crouched even lower into my wintery pit, my eyes just being able to peer above the wall of ice in front of my nose.
He walked closer, waving his light towards me. On his hand, lit by the covered flame I saw a burn scar. In my dream, it looks key-shaped, but after all these years I wonder how truthful that recollection is.
I was scared my trembling would dislodge the snow covering me, making my position obvious.
The man grumbled something then turned and jumped up onto the carriage. The driver snapped the whip and the horses hurtled forward.
As the carriage faded into the storm, I faded into the cold.
I awoke, frozen as I was on that fateful night, but this time it was from fear. I felt the damp sheets beneath me as sights, sounds, and smells started to invade my senses. The glow from the burning lamp at the base of the stairs. An odour of wood glue, brass, and silver from my worktop, then the damp, rotten smell of the sewer just beyond the iron grating above my head, and horse manure from higher still, in the street. Last of all the ticking of countless clocks covering the walls.
I suddenly remembered where I was. In the basement of twenty-five Fray Street, London, or to give it, its commercial name ‘Gladwell and Sons Clock and Pocket Watch Seller and Repair. Est. 1816’.
I looked at one of the intricate timepieces on the wall.
It was my favourite, a vintage 1811 model from the Black Forest. With a little modification, I had altered it to display the date in hand-carved painted blocks. Tenth of October 1872, a Thursday. About three weeks from my birthday, or at least the birth date I was given in the asylum.
Mr Gladwell had given up the clock being of any use to anyone, saying, ‘Even you can’t repair this one, Cog!’
I told him ‘nothing is beyond repair’, and two months later it was hanging and ticking next to the dozens of others.
I rolled over, trying to loosen the duck feathers in my pillow, but they stubbornly remained clumped. I sighed in frustration but then, I did not really want to give my earliest memories the chance to take root in my sleep again.
Noises spewed from the grate above me. The city was already waking. I knew the sounds like my own heartbeat.
The clack of hooves from horses pulling omnibuses full of clerks, hurrying to get to their jobs in the city. Others moving on foot with children from the slums chasing them for any spare farthings they might have. A sandwich board man shouting his prepared advertisement: ‘Belly-water only one shilling a pint!’, while another promotes his warm ‘Baked potatoes, only halfpenny! A healthy breakfast for the young man on the rise!’
I allowed the muffled sounds to paint a picture in my mind and started to feel sleepy again when a knock came at the front door in the shop above. No doubt little Bobby Perkins, delivering Mr Gladwell’s daily edition of the London Gazette.
In another hour, the sign at the entrance door would be turned around, and previous customers would be returning for their items and new ones would be looking to buy.
I looked at the basement, which had become my Aladdin’s cave since Mr Gladwell found me on Carver Street seven years prior. Those who, like myself, existed in the nether world that most in the capital did their best to ignore, named me ‘Cog’. This was for my ability to turn so-called rubbish into something that might be of value. A halfpenny for a toy soldier, two pennies for a dirigible or if I had a good week finding parts, a clapping monkey for a shilling. Having witnessed my attempt to sell my toys to some of the tourists on Jury Lane, and impressed by my engineering skill, Mr Gladwell offered me an apprenticeship to help out in his shop. That was when I was fourteen.
For the first year of my time here, not more than ten words passed my lips, and I kept my distance from him and anyone else that might come too close, but I watched, nodded, and shook my head when I needed to, and that was enough. The first clock I repaired was a modern 1868 type from Paris. Mrs Green was most pleased with the result, despite her not being aware that it was I, and not Mr Gladwell, that had performed the operation on the piece. That had been our agreement from the outset. I would help, but the customers must not know a child, or worse still, a female had performed such a service.
‘I have lived in many times, Cog, and alas this one has strange views upon women and labour. For now, we shall say I have done the work. For those that pry, we shall say you are my grandniece and you are here to learn how to act with customers that enter the shop.’
As the years passed, I would frequently be frustrated at not being given the recognition for my work, but each time I would venture back to the streets and see those who were once like myself, I was reminded of how lucky I was to have found gainful employment, and anyway, maybe one day things would be different, and I would have my own repair establishment.
I stood, taking my blanket with me, and walked a short distance across the floor which, despite my cotton socks, still felt cold. On one of the many shelves I had constructed, sat a device of my own design. A barometer to which I had added some extra cylinders to provide more information about the air pressure. Simple pictures told me not just if it was cloudy or not, but also if there would be rain, snow, or, as it was showing, fog. For the previous week, most of London had been shrouded in an opaque mist, where one’s hand was not visible even if it were touching your nose.
I shivered and pulled the blanket tighter.
Creaking from above heralded Mr Gladwell’s awakening. I walked sleepily up the wooden steps, pushing the door at the top open, moving the sheet which acted as a partition between the two ground floor rooms and walked into the even colder shop. A cacophony of ticks accompanied tocks as the various carved timepieces continued their purpose, and I continued mine, across the ornate rug to the door where I pulled the latch down.
“Getting the paper?” shouted Mr Gladwell from the room above.
“Yes!” I shouted back then pushed the door open, making the small bell above it ring.
The sounds of the city rushed in, along with a chill.
Carriages, two- and four-wheeled, hurried past in the street while those on foot did the same, both coming from and moving into a thick blanket of mist. A wall of ghosts all with the same concerned look as to whether they would be late or not. Opposite, Mrs Ballingsworth who owned the ‘Red Lion Street’ inn, was shaking her blankets, no doubt to dispel them of any bugs. Mr Ballingsworth kissed his wife briefly on the cheek and joined the throng. She then noticed me and smiled. I looked away. For the time I had been under employment, I had tried to keep engagement with others in the street to a minimum. No good came from unnecessary friendships.
I picked up the newspaper and quickly pulled the door closed. The bell rang again.
Creaking came from the wooden stairs behind me.
“Anything important happening in this metropolis of ours?” said Mr Gladwell, reaching the bottom. He was already dressed for his day of work, and his white beard and moustache were perfectly trimmed.
I unrolled the paper and scanned the front page, a ritual which had become daily since my elderly employer’s eyes had gotten worse.
‘Fire at Canterbury manor’… ’Fog kills another three workers at the docks’… ’Lord Cannington approves design for new orphanage construction in Spitalfields.’… ’Mr. D. Wakefield, youngest ever to pass medical exam’… ’Turnwell’s theatre, leading man most captivating.’
I ignored most headlines knowing they were of no interest to the man checking the roster for today’s customers. Then my eyes stumbled upon a local crime story. He always wanted to know of such events, and I started to read aloud the printed words, which were already leaving their ink on my fingers.
“Elderly couple assaulted by ruffian! At approximately 9 p.m. in Badger Lane, Marylebone, two men approached Mr and Mrs Hayward, while they were between illumination. Mr Hayward, who was once previously an army officer said he thought something was off with the two men and encouraged his wife to increase her pace. Unfortunately, the two men caught up with them, and Mr Hayward’s suspicions were justified when the older of the two ruffians accosted them and made off with a ‘good amount of family items of utmost value!’ said Mrs Hayward. When being asked if she could identify the individuals involved, she simply replied, ‘Well, they were both obviously of low stock, being unwashed, but the older man also had a key-shaped scar on his’…”
I was back amongst the frosted bark and snow that came up to my chest. Some yards above, the man from my nightmare waved his iron lantern back and forth, his key-shaped burn clearly visible…
“Cog?” Mr Gladwell’s voice ripped me from my memory. I blinked, absorbing my surroundings. He was standing facing me. “Are you OK? You were shaking.”