THE TIMEPIECE "How did you get the toupee to stay on?" The new apprentice whispered. He wished the cold, white-tiled workroom behind the funeral parlor could be better lit and the winter rain wouldn't strike so loud on the window. "Speak up Tom, it's only the two of us. The dead can't hear and they don't care what we say or do," said the old hand. "Is there a special way of doing toupees?" Tom spoke louder wondering about advances in the craft in the 21st century. "I was clean out of double-sided tape but I managed to find a couple of masonry nails," said the old hand pointing to a hammer lying on the tiled work bench beside the body. "They don't care and they don't bleed." Tom tried hard to manage his composure. He said nothing but more of the color drained away from his face and he clasped both hands hard on top of his head. The old hand worked on in silence. Make-up and a three piece suit soon had the deceased looking something like his old self. The toupee was combed over the nail heads. The body was lifted into the coffin ready for the final adjustments. Tom watched carefully, partly out of grim fascination and partly mindful that he too would be doing all this one day. He promised himself he would never run out of double-sided tape. "This is a real beauty," said the old hand fastening a pocket watch onto the body. "It's marked as a railroad watch. Looks like an old one. It's not gold and neither is the chain but it has to be worth something. Who says you can't take it with you. He's going to. He left special instructions for his own burial. Not many do that." Soon the deceased was nicely laid out so that respects could be paid before the coffin was closed. One of the relatives asked about the watch but no one knew why he had insisted it should be buried with him. Someone said. "When he was sick and knew he wasn't going to pull through he seemed to be more concerned about what would happen to the watch than what would happen to his family." An old aunt said, "It stopped when he died." Then the old hand was brought back to close the coffin and everyone moved on to the graveside. Time passed and Tom said nothing when the old hand started coming to work wearing a railroad watch and chain. Soon the grave and the funeral and the life it marked were forgotten like all the others. The old hand got a little older and then he got sick but he had never saved his money so he had to carry on working. One morning Tom arrived and overheard voices in the workroom. They were not speaking loudly so he could only make out parts of the conversation, something about railroads. Not wishing to intrude he didn't go in right away. When he did eventually go in, he wished he had gone in earlier. The old hand was all alone and there was death in his eyes. When he saw his young colleague he pointed to the watch lying just out of his reach. He was struggling to speak but his eyes were rolling and the words just wouldn't come out. Barely pausing, Tom put the watch in his pocket for safekeeping and called an ambulance. He did his best to remember the little first aid he knew but he saw that the end was near. "Do you want to come to the hospital with your friend?" the ambulance lady asked. "Thank you but no, he won't know and he won't care," he said for now he knew death well. A few days passed and the old hand was back again but now as a customer in the cold, white-tiled workroom. His funeral and the life it marked would soon be forgotten like all the others. Tom waited a few weeks then took the watch for repair for it had stopped when the old hand died. He asked about its background. "Don't know too much about it myself but there are collectors who specialize in railroad memorabilia. There's one who brings railroad watches in sometimes," said the watch-repair man digging around in a drawer for a name- card. Tom put the card away to follow up on when time permitted. That night he worked late and alone. He locked the door for he feared the living more than the dead. Few visitors came to the cold, white-tiled workroom and he had drifted into the habit of talking to the deceased as he worked. "I'll soon have you nice and comfortable in there," he said nodding towards a coffin. This would not be an easy lift when working alone so he paused for a break first. Some small movement outside caught his attention and he went over to the small window but there was nothing to see in the darkness except the trees straining in the wind. He took out the watch to check that it was still keeping time after the repair. "The chain's not right," said a hollow voice behind him. Fear gripped him at once with icy fingers that dug deep into his back as if to hold him immobile in the path of some horrible and unseen danger. It was with no small effort both physically and mentally that he turned towards the voice from beyond the grave. He felt the air was suddenly colder and saw the scene had changed behind him. The body was lying where it had been but now the tiled work bench had somehow become a plain wooden table. Adding to the terrible strangeness, the deceased was now clothed in some sort of old railway uniform and the whole room was starting to change into something different, something older. He blinked just once and it was all gone with everything back in its proper place. He backed off towards the door pulling out his key and was glad, very glad to get out of that place. In his panic to secure the door behind him he broke the key in the lock and had to leave the workroom unlocked behind him. It was with a great fear of being followed that he ran off into the night. It all seemed so different the next morning. The sun was out. There was time enough before the funeral to finish the body in the coffin. He even managed to pull the broken key out of the lock with a good pair of pliers. He thought, perhaps working too hard makes one imagine all sorts of things. However he took the afternoon off to visit the railroad collector who knew about watches, the one with the card. The railroad memorabilia collector was pleased to be asked. "Well let's see. It's a conductor's watch marked Western Maryland Rail Road Co. That makes it an old one for they changed the name to Western Maryland Railway Co. in 1902. It's what they call a 'Railroad-grade Pocket Watch'. Now the standard for that didn't come in until 1893. So there you are, it was issued to a conductor on the Western Maryland Rail Road sometime between 1893 and 1902." The collector's expertise was matched with a deep enthusiasm and he brought out a pile of neatly indexed albums. Together they looked through old photos, newspaper cuttings, and lots more besides all about railroads and railroad watches. "He wouldn't have worn it on a chain. He would have used a leather strap and probably some sort of leather holder. You can get good replicas on the Internet." Tom took the chain off and put the watch back into his pocket. He wondered if the collector had noticed his hand was shaking a little. "Just wait here for a minute," said the collector. "I'll show you something else you can get on the Internet." He returned wearing an accurate replica of the uniform of a railroad conductor of the late 19th century. "What's wrong, you look like you've seen a ghost?" said the collector. Tom was still pale and shaky when he thanked and left the collector. Having lost time by taking the afternoon off, he once again had to face working late and alone in the white-tiled workroom. This time he left the door unlocked and tried to stay close to it. He turned to his evening's work and said with as much confidence as he could. "Now you stay quiet and we'll get on just fine." Working more quickly than usual, he prepared the body and maneuvered it into the coffin without stopping for a break. Thankfully he took out the watch and was pleased to see how early it was. It was then that a sudden coldness in the air made him shiver. He felt himself becoming a little light- headed and rubbed his eyes hard. The fear returned with a dreadful rush when he opened his eyes again. The scene was changing back and he could see it more clearly this time. Once again, the deceased was in the uniform of a railroad conductor. The room was no longer white- tiled, bare and modern. It was now just like the collector's pictures of railroad waiting rooms of days long gone. But none of these old photos had a dead conductor in a coffin on the table. "Keep it well wound up. For when it stops you will have to come with me." The ghastly voice alone would have been more than Tom could have coped with. This time it was made much worse for the conductor was struggling to sit up in the coffin. Fear seized Tom in its paralyzing grip. The watch slipped from his hand. Time seemed to slow and he had one last terrible moment of realization as his eyes followed the watch all the way down to smash on the floor. They found him in the morning with a wild look, set frozen on his face. His lifeless eyes were still staring at the watch. "That must be when he died," said someone pointing to the time on the watch. "Looks like an unusual timepiece. I wonder if it can be repaired." end The Timepiece was First Place in Adult Creative Writing Club, Competition No.75, 2007.
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Copyright  Colin W Campbell A Sarawak based writer.
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