This story was first published in a small press magazine, Door is a Jar, in January 2020, but I’m republishing it on here, so people can read it for free. It’s only a very short ‘flash fiction’ story, but it holds a particular significance for me. It depicts in brief a moment in time that all parents have, or will, experience at some time or another. When I wrote this about a year ago, we’d yet to cross the hurdle I was describing so it was most definitely a case of imagining. We’re now just past this, and it wasn’t quite so anxiety inducing as it perhaps was for the parents in this story – but not so far off! Anyway, here it is…
The Old Station Clock
by Steve Haywood
The door clicked shut. It sounded louder than normal and somehow ominous.
“How long?” Julie asked.
“How long what?”
“How long will she be?”
I shrugged, shuffling on the sofa to get more comfortable. “Does it matter?”
My wife looked at me in exasperation. “Of course it matters. What do you think, five minutes to walk to the shop, no more than five minutes in the shop, five minutes to get home? Fifteen minutes tops, yes?”
“I suppose so. Fifteen minutes, yes, that should do it.”
Julia motioned to the clock on the wall above the TV. It was a large old station clock; my grandfather had rescued it from his local train station when it was closed down by the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. It showed quarter past eleven. “So, she should be back by half past.”
“Yes, she’ll be back before you know it.” I picked up my book, as much to end the conversation as because I wanted to read it.
It was difficult to concentrate with Julie fidgeting next to me. Eventually I looked up. “What’s the matter now?”
“What if she doesn’t look properly when crossing the road? The corner by the post office is a bad corner.”
“She knows; you told her already this morning. Several times. She’s walked that way hundreds of times with one of us. She’ll be fine.”
“I know, but she’s our little girl. She’s still so young.”
“She’s eleven now Julie; we’ve got to start giving her some more independence. We discussed this. In a few months she’ll be at high school, then she’ll be walking to school on her own every day.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right, of course. I’m just worried, you know?”
I squeezed her hand comfortingly. “It’s not yet twenty-five past. It’ll be fine. How about I make us a cuppa?”
“No, I’ll make it. It’ll keep me occupied until she gets back.”
Five minutes later, I sipped my coffee nervously. The long black minute hand had reached the bottom of the clock; half past eleven and still no sign.
“It’s half past,” Julie said accusingly. “You said she’d be back by now.”
“Give it a rest will you? There was probably a queue at the till. You know what those shop assistants are like; they’ll gab away to anyone even if the queue’s snaking all the way round the shop. Even as I said it though, beads of sweat were forming on my forehead. I thought she’d have been back by now.
Several minutes later, even I was starting to get a little worried when suddenly there was a loud knock. We both jumped up and practically raced each other to the door. I got there marginally ahead of Julie. I turned the handle, and I could see her ready to literally throw herself at Evie as soon as the door opened.
It wasn’t Evie. It was the postman. “Parcel for you,” he said with a confused look on his face. He obviously wasn’t used to such a welcoming committee.
“Thanks.” After he left, I walked to the end of the drive to peer down the road. She wasn’t anywhere in sight. We went back inside, exchanging a glance. I sat back down while Julie paced up and down the living room.
“What are we going to do?” she asked.
“Lets just give her another five minutes. I’m sure she’ll be back by then.” I tried to inject a note of confidence in my voice that I didn’t really feel.
Each minute passed slower than the last. We were just staring at the clock now, which had taken on a sinister appearance. I felt myself wishing it had a seconds hand; the wait for the minute hand to move on felt like an eternity. As time moved slower and slower, my heart beat faster and faster until it felt like it was hammering at my chest, trying to break out.
Twenty to twelve, she’d been twenty-five minutes.
“Maybe you should walk around the corner; go and find her. Or take the car and drive down the road until you see her,” Julie said.
“Won’t that be really obvious? She’ll think we’re pathetic.”
“Do you care about that right now?”
“No, I guess not. Okay, I’ll go. I went into the hall, grabbed my keys off the hook on the wall and reached for the door just as it opened before me. There was Evie, a slight flush to her cheeks, her long blond hair slightly askew from the walk.
“Hi Dad, you off out?” She held out a bunch of flowers. “I stopped off at the florists on the way back, bought these for mum. Do you think she’ll like them?”
Later that day, without saying anything to Julie, I took that damn clock down. It may have been in the family for half a century, but for ever after it would remind me of the most agonising half hour of my life. We gave it to a friend of ours with a young girl a few years younger than Evie. I imagined them sat in their house staring at that clock, waiting for their own little girl to get back, and suddenly felt a wave of sadness descend. Why does time have to go by so fast?