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The Nutcombe Tales


About Time

The Nutcombe Parish church committee meeting was unusually well attended, the vicar having made it known that a decision was to be made regarding the clock in the church tower. It was visible for miles and until recently had kept good time, but now only three faces displayed the correct time, the other being exactly ten minutes slow. This was a matter of some social consequence. Many relied upon the clock as they went about their business, and it was inconvenient for one quarter to operate in a different time zone to the other three. Moreover, even those who had access to the Greenwich time signal on the BBC were beginning to use the church clock as an excuse for lateness, and punctuality for appointments was no longer the norm. The headmistress of the village infant school, Miss Abigail Knightley, was particularly critical of the clock's malfunction, her pupils having swiftly recognised the advantage of coming to school by the west face but going home by the other three. At its last meeting the committee had instructed the vicar to obtain quotations for the repair of the clock as a matter of urgency, and it now assembled to hear his findings.

It was not good news. The vicar informed them that the fee demanded by the clockmakers simply for attending the church was more than could be met from parish funds. They would then make a further charge for going up to the clock, the amount depending upon the ease of access, yet another charge for examining it, and a further charge for preparing a formal quotation. The cost of actually making a repair would be of a similarly multiplex construction - dismantling, removing faulty parts, supply of new parts, fitting of new parts, and reassembly, each being charged for separately. The vicar had made enquiries of two other churches whose clocks had required attention. One had obtained a full quotation, and had decided in consequence to leave its clock unrepaired. The other had gone ahead with a repair, and it had cost the whole of a roof fund painfully accumulated over a period of thirty years.

So you see, said the vicar resignedly, we simply cannot afford to get the clockmakers in.

That's that, then, said Bob Wetherby the baker, and made as if to rise from his chair.

Not necessarily. Fred Atkins from the garage had spoken without thinking. He had no idea what might be done about the clock; he just wanted to contradict Bob.

All eyes turned to Fred.

What do you have in mind, Mr Atkins? asked the vicar.

What indeed, wondered Fred. Well, he said, cudgelling his brains for something to say, I could have a look at it myself.

You? scoffed Bob. What do you know about clocks?

A clock's mechanical, isn't it? answered Fred belligerently, and I'm a mechanic.

All the same, Mr Atkins, the vicar suggested tactfully, there is a deal of difference, is there not, between a clock and a motor vehicle?

Fred might have taken this opportunity to back out of his rash offer gracefully, but he was now swept along by the current of his own obstinacy. Not so much difference as you might think, vicar. Oh sure, the motor is different - clockwork instead of internal combustion - but it's not the motor that's gone wrong, is it?

How do you mean?

Well, there's only one clock, isn't there, with four faces? Now there's nothing wrong with the clock itself, is there? It still keeps good time. It's just that one of the faces gets it wrong. It's obvious, isn't it? There's something wrong with the transmission.

Transmission?

Certainly. The motion of the clockwork has to be transmitted to the hands. There have to be gears, a drive shaft, a crown wheel and pinion to turn the motion through ninety degrees, and axle shafts to turn the hands.

The committee gazed at him in silence, wondering why it had never occurred to them that a clock and a motor car were almost indistinguishable. Fred was encouraged to elaborate.

Now then, where the axle meets the hand, it won't be round, will it? It will have flats on it, and the hand will have a hole with corresponding flats, so as to force it to turn with the axle. Haven't you noticed that the clock face that's wrong is exactly ten minutes slow? Not nine minutes, not eleven minutes, but ten minutes. What does that suggest to you?

He looked around, but received no answer. Why, the end of the axle must be hexagonal, and the hand, on account of wear or a loose set screw, has slipped one face on the hexagon. That's where the trouble lies, I'll be bound.

Neither the vicar nor Bob Wetherby had any answer to that, and so it was agreed that Fred would have a look at the clock the next day.

*****

The following afternoon Fred turned up at the church accompanied by Amos Lovejoy the undertaker and Lovejoy's assistant, Eric. Fred had asked Lovejoy to come with him in case I need someone to hold a ladder, and Lovejoy took Eric with him as it was safer than leaving him to work unsupervised. Fred carried a toolbag, and Lovejoy two coils of rope. The vicar's wife, Joyce, met them and showed them to the clock tower. She had been verger at the church before she married the vicar, and still performed many of her former duties. She led them up a narrow winding stone staircase to a room with two large crank handles on one wall.

This one's for winding the clock, she explained. Twenty full turns every Sunday. The other one is for adjusting the time. I never have to use it, except when the clocks change for summer time.

She pointed to a ladder leading up through a trapdoor in the ceiling. The clock's up there. You're on your own now. This is as far as I go.

Fred tried to hide his disappointment. Joyce had been ahead of him up the staircase, her shapely calves inches in front of his face, and he had been anticipating following her up the ladder with some eagerness.

Joyce went back down while the others climbed the ladder. They found themselves in a large room occupying the full width and breadth of the tower, and more than ten feet high. Daylight flooded the room because the upper part of each wall contained the lower part of a glass clock face. They could see, from behind, the numerals V to VII, and the lower parts of IV and VIII. The time then being twenty-five minutes past four, they could see the lower part of the minute hand through three of the faces, but not the fourth. In one corner of the room was a ladder leading up to a trapdoor. In the middle of the room an iron frame held the clock mechanism, parts of which were in motion. A stout shaft ran upwards from the mechanism through a hole in the ceiling.

There you are, what did I tell you, Fred declared. There's the motor for the clock, and that there, that there is the drive shaft. Come on, up we go!

They climbed the ladder to the next floor into a chamber even more brightly lit than the one below. The larger part of each wall, from the floor almost to the ceiling, consisted of the upper two-thirds or so of a clock face, through which they could see the numerals from VIII to IV, the hour hands, the upper parts of three of the minute hands, and the whole of the fourth. In the corners of each wall, at floor level, was a small wooden door about two foot square. In the centre of the floor the shaft from below rose eighteen inches, topped by a large metal wheel six feet across, horizontally aligned. The wheel carried two circles of teeth, one in the centre and the other around the edge. Just above the wheel four horizontal shafts ran radially, passing out through the centres of the clock faces.

What on earth? asked Lovejoy.

Fred was gazing on the contraption with a beatific look on his face, like a novice nun seeing her first vision of the Blessed Virgin. After a reverent pause, he murmured, Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

Beautiful? queried Lovejoy. What's beautiful about it? Come to that, what is it?

Can't you see? replied Fred. Like I told you, that there's the drive shaft coming up through the floor. What we have here is the crown wheel and pinion, and the axle shaft for each face - two axle shafts for each face, actually. If you look carefully, you can see that to each clock face there is a thick shaft running from the circumference of the wheel, and a thinner shaft running from the centre. The thick shaft is hollow, so that the thin shaft can pass through the middle of it.

It's all very well for you to talk of Cromwells and opinions, protested Lovejoy, but what's it all for?

I'd have thought a child of five could see how it works, sighed Fred. Look, the clock motor below is turning this wheel slowly, one revolution every twelve hours. In the middle it carries a crown wheel which engages with the pinion on the end of the thin shaft, the axle for the hour hand. The pinion has the same number of teeth as the crown wheel, so the axle and the hour hand on the other end of it turn at the same rate, once every twelve hours. Round the outside of the wheel are the teeth of another crown wheel, twelve times as many teeth as the other. They engage with the pinion on the end of the thick shaft, the axle for the minute hand. That has the same number of teeth as the other pinion, so it and the minute hand on the other end of it turn twelve times faster, one complete revolution every hour.

So what have we got to fix, then? Lovejoy asked.

Oh, nothing in here, Fred replied breezily. Our business is with the way the minute hand is fixed to the end of that shaft outside. He pointed to the shaft leading to the face showing the wrong time. Let's have a look.

He moved to the small door at the left hand side of the face in question, opened it, lay down on the floor, and wriggled forward until his head and shoulders were outside. His head swam as he found himself looking straight down the side of the tower to the ground. Four or five feet below the door was a stone ledge, eighteen inches wide, running across underneath the clock,. He turned slightly and looked across the clock face. He had hoped to see how the hand was attached to its shaft, but could not. He edged back into the room and stood up.

Right, Eric. There's a nice wide ledge down there, just at a handy height. You shouldn't have any difficulty. I'll tell you what to do.

What, me? exclaimed Eric. I'm not going out there. I might fall!

No, no, you won't fall, Fred assured him. We're going to fix a rope for you.

Eric watched apprehensively as Fred and Lovejoy held a brief consultation. Fred took a large nut from his tool bag and tied it to one end of a rope. He lowered the weighted rope out of the left hand door and lay with his head and shoulders thrust outside, while Lovejoy assumed a similar position at the right hand door.

OK, Amos, I'll start it swinging, and when it swings far enough, you catch hold of it.

After a few attempts, Lovejoy called, I've got it! and crawled backwards holding the end of the rope.

Fred took both ends of the rope and tied them together. There you are, young Eric. Now we've got a rope slung across the face of the clock for you to hang on to. Seeing that Eric still looked less than confident, he swiftly added, But to make absolutely sure, we'll attach another line to you. Before Eric could protest he fastened the other rope around Eric's chest.

Now here's your tools. Fred took from his bag a wide canvas belt fitted with loops and pouches holding a variety of tools. Into one of the pouches he had put a collection of old feeler gauges which were no longer fit for their original purpose due to rust or distortion. He draped the tool belt over Eric's shoulder, bandolier fashion. OK, lad, out you go, on your belly, feet first. Don't worry, we've got a good hold of you.

Eric slowly backed out of the door while Lovejoy paid out the rope and Fred held his wrists. When only his head and arms remained inside, Fred said, Right, now you should be able to feel the ledge under your feet. Got it? OK, stand on the ledge, get your arms out, and feel to your left. You should be able to reach the rope we slung across. Get a good hold on that.

As soon as Eric had cleared the doorway, Fred poked his head out of it and gave him instructions.

Good. Now edge a bit to your left. Get inside the rope. OK, far enough. Now look up and you'll see both hands of the clock. The minute hand has just about passed the hour hand. Now, reach up and give it a good pull downwards. Don't let it take you by surprise. It'll probably give quite suddenly, and swing down vertical. OK? Give it a go.

Eric followed Fred's instructions. He was beginning to feel quite brave. The rope that ran across the clock face was now behind his back, and its presence comforted him. He had to stand on tiptoe to reach the minute hand, but that was an advantage, as he could hang his whole weight onto it. Contrary to Fred's prediction, he could feel the resistance changing as he forced the hand to move, at first getting tighter and then looser, and he was not taken by surprise as it swung down through ten minutes to show the right time.

There, I've done it, Mr Atkins. Can I come in now?

Well done, lad, well done! One more thing to do before you come in. We don't want it slipping back again, do we? Edge across further until you reach the middle.

Eric shuffled sideways until he was face to face with the minute hand, now correctly indicating the half hour.

Right, lad. Now in the top pouch of the tool belt you'll find some bits of old feeler gauges. Reach up and slip as many as you can into the gap between the shaft and the hand.

Eric tried, but he had to stretch above his head to reach the centre of the clock face.

I can only just reach, Mr Atkins. I can't see what I'm doing.

You'll have to get higher then. Climb up the hand a bit.

The arrow head of the minute hand was somewhat baroque, and had two long backward facing tines. Eric climbed up, first into the stirrup formed by one of the tines, and then onto the points themselves. He was now staring straight at the centre of the clock, and could see where the minute hand was a loose fit on its shaft. Working one-handed, the other arm being wrapped tight around the hand of the clock, he managed to insert a few shims into the gap. Following Fred's instructions, he hammered the shims home. When he had done, he lowered himself back to the ledge.

That's fine, Eric! I couldn't have done better myself. Now just shuffle back here, and we're all done.

I can't move, Mr Atkins. My trousers are caught!

Such was indeed the case. In lowering himself, Eric had kept too close a hold of the hand, and one of the tines of the arrow head had gone up his trouser leg.

Just lift your leg up to free it, lad.

This however proved impossible. With every second which passed, the clock hand was crawling onward, tightening its hold on Eric's trousers. The increasing tension on his leg now prevented him from climbing back up the hand.

There's only one thing for it, lad. You'll have to take your trousers off.

I can't go without my trousers, wailed Eric.

Look at it this way, lad. If you stay in them trousers, in fifteen minutes you'll be horizontal, and in half an hour you'll be upside down - if you haven't fallen out of them by then.

Eric fumbled at his braces, but the task of unfastening the buttons with one hand defeated him.

Seeing his plight, Fred called, Use the Stanley knife to cut them, lad.

Eric sobbed with grief as he obeyed this instruction. He was especially proud of his braces. They were red with yellow polka dots, and had brass plated adjusters. They gave him, he believed, an air of sophisticated distinction. After the braces, he applied the knife to the buttons of his trouser fly. The trousers fell to his knees, but still they held him fast, and were by now threatening to pull his legs from under him. In desperation he hacked at the seams of the trouser legs, and succeeded in cutting them loose with only seconds to spare.

With much relief, Eric began his short journey back to the door. The time now being twenty-five minutes to five, he was able to release his hold on the minute hand, which continued its progress adorned by the remnants of a pair of trousers, and transfer it to the hour hand. He edged around the hand, hugging it closely - too closely.

Mr Atkins! Mr Atkins! Now my underpants are caught!

Eric, my son, it seems to me we have been here before. The only difference now is, it will be four hours before you are horizontal, and you'll be upside down for six. Have you still got the Stanley knife? Then you know what to do.

Eric started to cut off his underpants. Although there was considerably less material to cut through, nevertheless they posed in some ways a more difficult task than the trousers. For one thing, they were more closely fitting, making the wielding of a knife blade hazardous, especially considering the region in which they were worn. With the last sweep of the blade which released him from his nether garment, Eric let out a despairing cry.

Mr Atkins! Mr Atkins! I've cut myself!

Eric's cry was loud enough to be heard by the small knot of onlookers who had been standing for some minutes outside the church gate observing the drama aloft. Children had stopped on their way home from school, intrigued by the sight of Eric apparently crawling over the clock face. Disputes arose between those whose entertainment was home grown, who were suggesting that it was Will Hay, and those with access to transatlantic literature, who insisted that it was Spiderman. Miss Knightley was a latecomer to the audience. Pausing to see what was the focus of the children's attention, she was in time to see the separation of Eric from his underpants and to hear his cry. She recognised Eric as a former pupil. She had always stressed to her students that education did not end when they left school, and she was pleased to see that Eric had continued to develop. She took off her glasses, polished them vigorously, and replaced them. It was time, she thought, for another visit to the optician. Her distance vision was not as good as she would like. Who would have thought, she wondered, that Eric Wrigley would turn out to have such a strong head for heights. It might be worth asking him to come round and have a look at her downpipe.

Meanwhile Fred and Lovejoy had pulled the sobbing Eric back through the door. Lifting his shirt-tail, they were relieved to see that he was still entire, although there was a slight trickle of blood coming from the tip of his foreskin.

Nothing to worry about, lad. You've just got a little nick, that's all.

The two men seemed to find this diagnosis a matter of some amusement.

Come on, lad. Let's go down and get you fixed up.

Eric insisted on going first. In his present state of dress he wanted no-one below as he descended the ladders. His wish was frustrated. The vicar's wife was waiting for the workmen in the winding room. Watching Eric descend, Fred saw her standing below, and called down, Look out, Eric! Mrs Higgins can see your predicament!

Joyce could indeed see that Eric was in trouble, as spots of blood were spattering onto the floor at the foot of the ladder.

You poor boy, what have they done to you? Never mind, come with me and I'll see to it for you.

She ushered him out down the circular staircase to the vestry. There she drew a small bowl of water and washed his wound.

We'd better get the doctor to take a look at it, just to be on the safe side.

She telephoned to the doctor's house and returned to re-examine Eric.

Oh dear, it's started bleeding again. Pressure, that's what it needs. She took hold of the tip of Eric's foreskin between finger and thumb, and squeezed hard. Come on now, let's get you to the doctor.

But Mrs Higgins, I can't go out like this.

No, I suppose you can't. Wait a minute. Wear this. Without letting go of Eric, she reached behind her with the other hand, opened the top drawer of a tallboy, and pulled out an adult size chorister's surplice, white with purple trimmings.

Eric was thankful that it was but a short step to the doctor's house. Under other circumstances he would have been proud to be seen out with Joyce Higgins, but not while he was wearing a frock, with the hand of the vicar's wife up the skirt, leaving no doubt as to what she was holding. Luckily, few observed his humiliation. One who did was Miss Knightley. To Eric's great relief, she addressed herself to Joyce Higgins, taking great care not to let her gaze wander downwards.

Thank goodness you were there to look after him, Joyce. Mind you take good care of the poor lad.

The doctor's wife, Sophie, opened the door to them. Before she could give any expression of amusement at the sight which met her eyes, Joyce fixed her with a stern stare, and said firmly, Eric has met with a slight accident which needs medical attention to staunch the flow of blood. Please show us through. Her incipient merriment having thus been efficiently quenched, Sophie led them through to the surgery, where the doctor was waiting.

Now then, young Eric, let's take a look, shall we? He laid Eric down on the couch and lifted the hem of the surplice.

Joyce took Sophie by the elbow, saying, I don't think the doctor will need any assistance. He will ring if he does, and led her from the room.

The doctor cleaned the affected area with surgical spirit.

It's not much more than a scratch. Anywhere else on the body, we could slap a plaster on and it would be right as rain in twenty-four hours. But in this location, hygiene rules that out. Of course, I could put a stitch in it, but the scar tissue might give you bother later in life. If I referred you to the hospital, they wouldn't mess about. They'd have your foreskin off before you could say Jacob Rubinstein. You'll just have to keep it clean and try not to do anything that could start the bleeding. When you micturate . . .

Oh, I don't, doctor, honestly! Eric protested.

When you urinate, when you take a pee, don't wave it about to get the drips off. Just dab it with toilet paper. If it does start to bleed, use this. He gave Eric a styptic pencil. It's what barbers use to stop small cuts bleeding. It stings, but it works. Oh, and Eric, no unnecessary friction, right? Have you got a girl friend?

Eric shamefacedly admitted a deficiency in that department.

Well, if you did have, you would have to tell her to take it easy. That's all. Your sister's a nurse, isn't she? If you get any problems, ask her advice. If she can't help, call me.

On his way out, Sophie lent Eric one of the doctor's raincoats.

*****

Reviewing the events of the day as he lay in bed that night, Eric pondered on the unexpected manner in which his mishap had been dealt with. He would have expected an accident to so personal a part of his body to have aroused derision from females, and sympathy from his male colleagues. Instead, he had been mocked by Lovejoy and Fred, and treated with dignity by Mrs Higgins, Miss Knightley, and Sophie Kendall. The women's matter-of-fact attitude, acting as if his injury were no different from a nose bleed, had spared him much embarrassment and humiliation. Eric began to believe that there was more depth to the female sex than he had hitherto suspected. His regard for his employer, on the other hand, which had never been in any danger of approaching the level of respect to which Lovejoy thought he was entitled, sank even lower, and before he went to sleep he gave some thought to how he might obtain reparation.

The following morning he arrived at work in good time, walking stiffly and with suppressed grimaces of pain. On seeing him approach, Lovejoy smirked and began to whistle The Colonel Bogey March. Eric changed into his work apron, and said, It's all right, Mr Lovejoy. I think I can manage. He went to the timber racks and began to take down an oak plank. I'll be careful, Mr Lovejoy. I don't want to cause you any expense.

Expense? Cause me expense? What are you talking about?

If I had to go into hospital, Mr Lovejoy. But the doctor said that if I take it easy for a week, it shouldn't be necessary for me to go into hospital.

How would you going into hospital cause me any expense? You don't think I'd be buying you grapes, do you?

No, of course not, Mr Lovejoy. Only my sister Carol - she's a nurse, you know - she says that when they have people in hospital who have been injured at work, their employers have to pay for their treatment.

Perhaps they do, Eric, and perhaps they don't, but that's neither here nor there, is it, because you haven't been injured at work.

I have been injured, Mr Lovejoy. You saw it yourself.

I know you've been injured, Eric, but it wasn't at work, was it?

Wasn't it, Mr Lovejoy?

You know very well it wasn't. It was up the clock tower.

But I was there on your instructions, Mr Lovejoy, during working hours, Mr Lovejoy, and working under your personal supervision, Mr Lovejoy. I have been advised that under those circumstances a court would certainly consider that the injury was sustained during the course of my employment.

Eric had combed the innermost resources of his vocabulary to formulate this statement, and he could tell by the look on his employer's face that it had been worth it. Lovejoy could not imagine how, when, or why Eric would have sought legal advice, but the mention of court frightened him, and he could see the strength of the case that Eric had outlined.

A week, the doctor said? If you take it easy for a week, you won't have to go into hospital?

That's what he said, Mr Lovejoy.

Look, lad, put that plank down. We're not that busy just now. Why don't you go home and rest?

For a week, Mr Lovejoy?

Yes, if you like, for a week.

On full pay, Mr Lovejoy? Seeing Lovejoy's reluctance to accede to this suggestion, Eric added, Because I can't afford to lose my pay. I'd have to come to work if I was going to lose my pay.

Yes, all right, on full pay then.

Full pay, Mr Lovejoy? Including overtime? Because I'd have to come work if I was going to lose my overtime.

Yes, yes! Including overtime! Now just go home and rest!

Thank you, Mr Lovejoy.

Eric changed out of his apron, and left. As he went, Lovejoy saw his features twitch in another grimace of pain. Or was it, he wondered, a triumphant grin?

*****


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