Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Watchmaker's Wife

On the fractured coast of Penobscot Bay, where the forests of New England surrender to the grim, grey north Atlantic, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker came ashore and built a house that faced east, towards the ghettoes and the war. As soon as the roof was on and the chimney unfurled its smoky calligraphy across the wide, clear sky, Mr Kerchelskis walked down the steep and stony hill to the town of Stockton Springs, where he found a cosy inn and carefully selected the very first whiskey of his life. He drank slowly, standing up and facing east, his pale eyes focused on the spot beyond a foggy window where the sun would tend to rise.

This was where Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker was standing when Mildred McNamara found him, nursing his whiskey with the same dreamy detachment that her face displayed when she nursed the shattered wrecks of men at Stockton Springs’ Nursing Home for Disabled Ex-servicemen. Mildred had grown all her life in the loamy soils of coastal Maine, the descendant of Scotch-Irish immigrants who had come here to catch fish, cut timber and practice their Puritanism unencumbered, men and women who feared nothing but God and perished by the dozen in sunken trawlers and under fallen trunks, until the famously cheerful Mildred McNamara was the very last of their line: a homely, pink-cheeked girl with eyes that diverged slightly from one another so that she seemed to look around the world rather than directly at it. But even though Mildred’s drifting eyes divorced the image of the world from the world itself, they also possessed an almost supernatural ability to see its silver linings. Mildred’s optimism was born of her amnesia: she knew not the smallest detail of how her ancestors had suffered, nor the depth of the pain experienced by those who survived the tragedies that dominoed through the generations that preceded her. Mildred would live her entire life without ever knowing that she was the last daughter of twelve dead families.

Mildred McNamara saw silver everywhere. Indeed, it was by a quirk of geography and timing that the young nurse’s first view of her future husband was of his silver lining, for just as she entered the cosy inn where Mr Kerchelskis was acquainting his palate with the tang of whiskey, the lighthouse at Heron Neck flashed its dazzling beam through the east-facing window, obliterating the features of Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker and leaving only an angelic impression of a man so lean and lithe that he left plenty of room for strangers to hang their own ideas upon him. For Mildred McNamara it was a case of love at first blinding; none of the faceless ex-soldiers she had tried and failed to fall in love with could have quite matched the featurelessness of Mr Kerchelskis that evening, and she realised in that instant that none of them could ever have been wounded enough to earn the affections that this silhouetted stranger had just inspired.

On the same day that Adolf Hitler fired a piece of metal into the roof of his own mouth, Mildred McNamara and Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker wrapped metal around each other’s bodies: for him, a ring all the way from New York City, gloriously gold and new; for her, a watch – for what else could a watchmaker give to his bride? – made from the parts of watches worn by his mother and grandmother, each removed from their original owner’s wrist before tattoos were written there instead. The church’s throng of white lilies all died as Mildred McNmara walked down the aisle, and as the organist played, a hymn book or two fell fatally wounded in the trenches between the dark oak pews – but the only living Mrs Kerchelskis saw nothing but her own face, veiled and smiling in her husband’s eyes.

Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker carried his wife up the steep and stony hill to the house he had built, facing east towards the motherland and the past. He deposited her in the kitchen and spoke in an English that was too flawless and formal to ever be a mother tongue:

‘My love, my sweet delight,’ said Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker, ‘Happiness will be your sole task in this house. Do not trouble yourself with cooking and cleaning, for your hands are too precious for such menial tasks, your spirit too bright and gay to be rubbed away against washboards and burnt layer by layer by caustic detergents’ – but even as he spoke, the unhappy shadow of a small boy moved in the corner of the watchmaker’s eye, his face streaked with fresh tears, an empty jam jar in his hand as he moved towards the last carriage of a crowded train. Mr Kerchelskis paused, and blinked, and then continued – ‘However, if you wish, you may also occupy your time with the production of fruit preserves to pass the time before our first child is ready for the world.’

‘Oh darling, my darling! What a wonderful idea!’ trilled the watchmaker’s wife, unclasping her wedding watch, which she folded in a silk handkerchief and placed on a high shelf, far from harm’s way, and prepared to set to work.

Mildred Kerchelskis took up her husband’s suggestion with relishes; later, a sweet slew of jams and jellies; before too long, pickles and marmalades joined the assortment of jars in the crowded pantry. Over the years that followed, tens of thousands of gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears, and peaches were grown on the slopes of Mr Kerchelskis’ hand-built home and met their end in Mildred’s bubbling pot; while his wife sliced and stewed and picked and pickled, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker made watches in his little workshop at the bottom of the hill between the strawberry patch and the road to Stockton Springs. A sort of happiness took hold in the home of the watchmaker and his cheerful beloved, and only the ache of an un-conceived child prevented Mr Kerchelskis from entirely losing himself in the sugary joy that filled a thousand glass jars around their home.

In the week that a rush of fire and radiation brought down the final curtain on the Pacific theatre, bursting the eyes of 150,000 people and sending them running like bloody tears down their faces, Mildred Kerchelskis set a personal record: 150 jars of gooey strawberry jam, labelled and stacked in the corner of the coal cellar, each jar crowned with a circle of gingham cloth fixed in place with an elastic band. As pots of jam cooled on every available windowsill, and the heat of the world’s war cooled across London, Tokyo and Berlin, a colder war began, and Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker began to wonder if the frigidity of this new conflict had permeated his own body and that of his wife, for the child that played in his nightly reverie had still not been enticed into daylight.

In a fit of mourning that was partly for his unborn children and partly for the children he saw boarding those fire-breathing trains in Warsaw, Mr Kerchelskis took his wife aside and asked her when they might bring a new life into the world, a pinprick of light to shine against the bleak hinterland of his memory.

Mildred’s response was as plain and pragmatic as the string on a taut bow:

‘The problem with children,’ trilled the watchmaker’s wife as she simultaneously sliced the heads off seven little strawberries, ‘Is that they grow up. They cast their toys and carefree games aside, leave their schoolbooks to gather dust, and they go into the world, build their own lives and return only as a scavenger would, to pick at the bones of their parents’ homes, to leech from the old and infirm.’ Mildred threw the strawberry stems into the fire, where they disappeared with a satisfying hiss – ‘Why should we go into all the trouble of nursing and caring for a baby, and then the various challenges of a growing child, of giving it all of our love and our time, of feeding it my jams and jellies, only to see it outgrow our efforts, and walk down that road to Stockton Springs without even looking back to say goodbye?’

Mr Kerchelskis wanted to say that the memories of loved children are just as glorious and real as the children ever were, that they still glitter and bristle in dreams and recollection; he wanted to say that the greatest joy of raising children is precisely in the moment of setting them free, in that exhilarating instant of seeing them spread their wings and glide towards lives of their own; he even wanted to say – indeed he nearly did say – that not all children do grow up, and that children growing up never seems to be a problem when one has known children who didn’t.

But in the end, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker said nothing. All of these words, and many more, stopped dead at his lips, froze upon on his tongue, curdled in his fearful cortex – for he loved his wife, and he knew that she loved him, and true love will always inhibit the infliction of pain. Indeed Mildred Kerchelskis, for all her blind optimism and powers of dreamy detachment, could see that the silver lining of her husband’s face had been tarnished by her careless words, and so, reeling, she spoke again, so quickly that it felt as if her ears were learning of the words at the same moment as her husband’s:

‘Now if there was a way to have children who could stay children forever, who could be preserved in their youthful ways, frozen at the point that they are most precious and beautiful... That would be a project worth pursuing.’

And so it was, after much more discussion and deliberation, and shortly before their fifteenth wedding anniversary, that Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker and his wife Mildred opened their doors to the orphans and urchins of Maine. Through an efficient little agency in Portland, they were assigned young people from every corner of the Lighthouse State – from the bustling streets of Bangor and the quiet shores of Mooselookmeguntic Lake, children unloved or abandoned, infants and teenagers whose parents were too ill or mad or dead or imprisoned to care for them, all lugged their sad suitcases along the shores of Penobscot Bay to a house that faced east, across the roaring sea to the old world.

As the sixties began to swing, the house that Mr Kerchelskisbuilt shook with the laughter of other people’s children. Boys pinged the elastic bands from Mildred’s jam jars off the walls and ceilings; girls twisted and shouted in the kitchen; the coal cellar became by turns the pod of a moon-bound shuttle and a hideout for Russian spies, and the Vietnam War broke out in the same upstairs bedroom that had once served as the Texas Schoolbook Depository.

Amidst the banter and bedlam of course a little sadness would often fall into the lives of these little ones far from home, but through all those decades of temporary children Mr Kerchelskis was never quite as surprised by their differences as he was by the one thing that helped them all in their most difficult moments. Whenever a child was afflicted by a night terror or the pang of homesickness, the watchmaker would smuggle a jar of homemade jam from the tightly-packed pantry, down the garden to his workshop for watches. Some youngsters raced through their jars like hungry wolves; others would taste a morsel and then paint sticky pink beards around their faces – but however they were consumed, those delicious preserves never failed to bring a smile to a tear-streaked face or dull the pain of scraped elbows and knees. And when the time came for the children to leave their fleeting home, Mr Kerchelskis always made sure that he pressed a brand new jar of jam into their tiny hand on the platform of Stockton Springs Railway Station, for the watchmaker had promised himself that he would never again allow a small child to undertake a frightening journey with nothing to eat on the way. To this day they say you can still identify the orphans of Maine by the jars of jam they keep in their homes, every single last one still sealed, for some kinds of jam are more delicious in the memory than they could ever be in the mouth.

Mildred Kerchelskis and her sentimental husband grew old. Their bodies began to crack and creak, their voices dimmed, and a light dusting of frost on their hair gave silver linings to their faces. After fifty years, the children stopped coming – they had to, for no longer could Mr Kerchelskis’ tired old spine take the weight of a dozen daily piggy-backs, and it hurt his arthritic thumbs to launch elastic bands towards the shining moon. Besides, there was less and less jam these days, for Mrs Kerchelskis was more prone to dozing before an open fire than she was to stirring great pots and lugging sacks of fruit up to the house in wind and rain. There were times that the watchmaker envied his timeless wife, for she seemed so immune to the barbs of nostalgia. She lived only now, stopped the ache of time in its tracks, reduced and preserved, and never pondered the past nor worried about the lonely future. Things were not so easy for Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker, for his fate was to remember the smallest details of every child who had ever come up the steep and stony hill: every Gracie and Emmett, each Orville and Hilda, all the Lances and Amelies and Nathaniels and Noahs that time had swept through his life, leaving nothing but jammy fingerprints across his ticking workshop; he remembered the smell of each child’s hair, the shape of their hands, and he remembered every joke and question and observation and idea. When he was at his most pained, the watchmaker could only comfort his broken heart by reminding himself of the words that he almost said to his reluctant wife, all those years ago:

‘Children growing up never seems to be a problem when one has known children who didn’t.’

As he entered his ninetieth year, and the cloak of time began to move with greater determination in the corner of his myopic eyes, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker decided to make a present for his wife, for a woman who lived her life outside of time, who never allowed its passage to bring her any pain at all. They say that if you know the run of New England’s broken coast, and can find the precise road to take from Stockton Springs along the windswept shore, and if you know to follow the beam of the silver-lining lighthouse at Heron’s Neck up a steep and stony path, you can find the gift that the watchmaker bequeathed to his wife on the sixtieth anniversary of their Stockton Springs wedding day.

Press your nose against the kitchen window of their homemade house and you will see Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker and his wife, Mildred, frozen in time, a look of surprise in the latter’s divergent eyes – for the present that Mr Kerchelskis made was a very special clock indeed. Lined with silver, the clock looks west, away from all its yesterdays. The face of the clock is the face of Mildred Kerchelskis, daughter of Maine and watchmaker’s wife; its hands are the hands she used to make her famous preserves: left for the minutes, right for the hours, one passing over the other like a magician steadily moving through the motions of a well-practiced trick. The bones and ligaments of Mildred’s fingers, now unburdened of their flesh, glide elegantly on a network of springs and coils, pivoting from the socket where the scent of bubbling jams once entered her delicate nose: they point to her eyes in the evening, to her cheeks in the afternoon, and to her skinless chin each morning when the sun rises over Penobscot Bay.

The alignment of the room is such that Mildred’s timeless eyes are forever on a white bowl that sits in the middle of her old kitchen table. There is no fruit in the bowl. There are no grapes, which are the fruit of friendship and celebration and may be fermented into wine; there are no peaches, which are the smooth-skinned fruit of mothers and their children, and speak of the brevity of babyhood and the sweetness of being small; there are no apples, the fruit of knowledge and wisdom that transcends superstition and shows the path to a rational life; there are no strawberries, which stand for mellifluous kisses, for the primal warmth of lips against lips and of love in difficult times; and there are certainly no hourglass pears, for Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker preserved them all as hourglasses proper just days after he put his very last orphan on a crowded train in Stockton Springs.

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