Perhaps it would open to the clean-combed green of the Queen’s croquet ground, rife with jolly flamingos and hedgehogs. Perhaps it would open to the Sugar Pyramids near the Kingdom of Dreams outside Oz. Or, perhaps instead the door would open from the never-tree, which grows and is then cut down in the middle of the Lost Boy’s underground lair at tea time every day.
George sat tailor-fashion under the table, imagining the possibilities. Mum’s silver shoes clicked by, and then Father’s, and then many more shiny shoes danced past for which George could not identify the wearers. He recognized Nanny’s mannish pair, a contrast to the fashion and speed of the others. No doubt she was searching for him. He held his breath and waited, still under the tablecloth’s scrim, listening to the laughter and the band and the clinking of glasses. He had not yet counted to fourteen when her sensible shoes plodded away.
It was Nanny who had read to him about Wonderland and Never-Never Land and all sorts of places fantastic. The child in the story only had to fall into a hole, or out a window, or through a cupboard to be taken to a realm of magic. But, it had to be the right doorway and, of utmost importance, the child had to truly believe.
George navigated his way through footwork of the pixilated party guests. They took no never mind. Whether party nights or elevenses, the grown-ups generally didn’t seem to notice him at all. So, there was no witness to a five-year-old in cotton pyjamas climbing into the waist of the great long-case clock.
It was a grand old thing. Taller than Father, who wound it with two special keys each Sunday. The case was intricately carved with woodland flora and fauna. Golden moons smiled knowingly atop the face as the gilded hands ticked towards each numeral with inarguable precision. There was an elaborate striking sequence coordinated to every quarter hour and the complete melody of Saint Michael’s chimes played every full hour without fail.
George checked the time before opening the door of the waist. The three-quarters sequence had already played yet there were several minutes left before the grown-ups would turn their attentions to the clock to count in the New Year. Hidden in the case, behind the carved relief, were the mechanisms, pulley, weight, and pendulum, and just enough room for a very small boy.
George folded himself up behind the weights, careful not to touch the pendulum. The door swung closed on its own and the case was very, very dark. His hair, as bristly as on of Alice’s own hedgehogs, brushed against the pulley. It was frightfully cramped. The biscuit in his pyjama pocket crumbled as he pressed his arms against his chest.
Soon, he consoled himself, he’d be in a land of endless biscuits and jam. There would be dangers, of course angry pirates, perhaps, or man-eating plants or winged monkeys. But, there would also be fairy beavers or talking cats or other friendly creatures to help a boy who was good, noble, and brave.
It was oh so dark. The party lights could find no purchase in the heavy case. George was brave.
The noises outside the clock came to a sudden cease, and he knew the New Year was near. At Saint Michael’s chimes, the magic hour, that was when he’d enter into the new realm. The pendulum quivered. The sonorous chimes peeled. The sparse air in the case was filled with sound.
George pressed his palms flat against the inner back of the case, feeling every centimetre of the grain in search of the distinctive spot that would open the portal. He pressed with all his strength and conviction. He knocked against the wood in a code of his own invention. He closed his eyes and wished it so. He mouthed an incantation he usually reserved for rare shooting stars and four-leafed clovers.
Outside, the chime sequence ended and the grown-ups erupted in a merry roar. The band broke into “Auld Lang Syne” at double volume and enthusiasm. George hammered at the back of the case with his small fists. No other world to him opened, no one in this world heard him.
Perhaps this was not the right door. Or, perhaps, he mourned, he was not a good enough boy. He pushed against the front of the clock case, the door through which he’d entered, and it wouldn’t budge. He was at once heartsick for the smell of Mum’s perfume, the feeling of her bobbed curls against his cheek when she’d say her good-nights in the nursery.
He pounded and pounded the case with his feet and his fists. It was not built for getting in, and even less so for getting out. “The flames of Love extinguished, and fully past and gone. Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold… ,” sang the grown-ups, Mum and Father’s voices lost amongst them.
George cried out, but no one came. His breathing became frantic and he ricocheted against the sides of the case like a bug in a matchbox. The cabinet was built so well, nothing save the mechanism trembled. George whimpered and wiped his wet lashes against his striped pyjama sleeve and still no one came.
He was terribly frightened, then terribly sad to be the type of boy who would get frightened, then calm for a moment. Then frightened again. The air seemed thick as Christmas pudding. It did not move in and out his lungs as it ought. He thought of the Deadly Desert and Great Sandy Waste that surrounded Oz and imagined his body was filling with sand.
His head felt heavy as stone and he rested it against the case. He cupped the pendulum in his hands and studied his distorted reflection. George was quite sleepy. His breath slowed and quieted. His eyes closed.
The band played on.
When George awoke he was in the ballroom. He held no memory of escaping the clock cabinet. Indeed, the room was empty, quite deserted save the clock, whose countenance was undisturbed. The curiosity of his rescue was soon replaced by the curiosity of the empty space. No carpets, no furniture, no draperies. No sound, not even the ticking of the clock. The two large hands were pointed at the XII. The small third hand was still. A layer of dust coated the mouldings and window sills. The dust motes played across the streaming sunlight coming through the unadorned windows. A bird had built a nest atop the clock’s bonnet.
He waited for what seemed a very long time. He allowed himself to daydream again about enchanted isles and forests. He was neither hungry, nor tired, nor cold, nor particularly bored all things he almost always was before.
Some time later, George did not know how long, a time after the bird’s eggs had hatched and the fledglings had flown from the top of the clock, visitors came.
George saw the motorcar coming up the drive. It was shiny and strangely enclosed. A man and a woman, both in sports clothes, emerged from the vehicle. She was wearing trousers. He’d never seen Mum in trousers. He could hear them exploring the rooms. Soon enough, they entered the ballroom. George sat on the sill in his rumpled pyjamas, swinging his bare feet.
“It’s awfully cold in here,” the woman said. “Much colder than the other rooms.”
“It certainly seems so,” said the man, a steam cloud forming on his breath to confirm her observation.
She looked the room up and down, there was little to see except the long-case clock.
“It’s a grand old thing, isn’t it?” She extracted a handkerchief from her handbag and dusted the glass lightly to better see the dial.
“Made by Allam & Clements,” she said “Eight-day movement. Valuable as all get-out. It’s a wonder they didn’t take it with them when they moved to the States,” she marvelled, “but it’s heavy as sin.”
The man nodded. He was impatient to see the library and the gun room.
“At any rate,” she continued, “The keys have been lost ages ago. And I don’t believe it’s chimed in more than eighty years. Not since… ”
She looked towards the window where George sat. The clouds were gathering. It would rain soon.
“Not since the family gave up looking for the boy. Quite the story of it’s day. Almost as famous as the Lindbergh baby… They looked throughout the estate for him. Granny says that his mum wouldn’t even step foot into here once she’d found he’d gone missing. She felt too guilty that she had been celebrating the New Year when he’d been in lost or in peril.
“I’ve heard there were even fraudulent ransom notes sent to the family, criminals trying to extort payment for a child they hadn’t taken. It’s sick, isn’t it? Preying on parents in distress. …
“It’s awfully cold in here,” she repeated. She passed her hands across the foxes and flowers decorating the clock’s waist. “It’s terrible how the family fell apart of course, but we can’t let it cast a shadow on our future here. It’s about time this estate was brought back to its glory.
“Let’s have the house-warming party in the ballroom,” she brightened. “Once the restoration is done, we’ll deserve to celebrate… ”
George hopped off the sill and ventured to the man. He shivered but did not seem to see the boy.
“And we’ll get this grand old beauty chiming again, too.” She wrapped a manicured hand around the clock-waist door and pulled.
“It may have warped a bit with age.” She tried to pry it again. “Here, help me do it. I want to see if the pendulum and all the mechanics are still together.”
The man put his hands over the woman’s. With slight effort, the door opened from the outside.
The woman screamed and screamed. George screamed, too, quite unheard.
Inside the long case the pendulum and weights were as shiny as new. Beneath them lay a skull and pile of bones and something small garment of blue-and-white striped cotton.