So, tonight was the night. Now or never, and all that. That's the thought I kept trying to push to the front of my mind, to keep back the disappointment that I'd started feeling even now, before I even knew.
She'd been a drinker, our mum, though she swore blind to us she'd never touched more than half a glass. When we were kids, we never knew what it was that made her weird, but Dad did. They fought a lot after we went to bed. But when dad was away, sometimes, she'd come back from the pub all calm and thoughtful. What thoughts she had were no good, of course, the not-quite-sane bubbling of a pickled brain. But one thought she went back to night after night, and sometimes even when she was sober, was this old grandfather clock. It was her mother's, she'd slur, and her grandmother's. “Heirloom” must have been the word she searched for but never discovered. Which meant, I supposed, that it was now mine.
Except that it wasn't. Because our mum didn't just drink away our money, she drank away other people's too, and now them people wanted it back. So tomorrow, the debt collectors would be coming. Dad said we couldn't stop them taking anything they wanted, so we figured that meant our life was about to involve a lot of sitting on the floor and no TV. Any normal kid would be outraged. At any normal time, so would I. But since our mum passed away, nothing's seemed real anyway. Like it doesn't matter whether we have a sofa and a telly, because something's changed that's beyond that, like something the TV and dad and the collectors and the rest of them could never understand.
The clock clicked, its minute hand advanced. Eleven fifty-eight. Now what was it that mum used to say about this thing? That at midnight… something. She was never very clear about what happened if you watched this clock strike midnight. We were never allowed to stay up and watch it anyway. But mum was gone, and if the collectors took her clock no-one might ever watch it at midnight ever again! We owed it to her, really. It was like a tribute to her, to find out whether what she said about it was true.
Click-click. One minute to midnight.
Tommy had fallen asleep on my lap, so I shook him awake. Poor thing, having his big sister keep him up long past his bedtime.
“'stelle,” he mumbled. “What's…”
“Look,” I said, and pointed. “The clock! It's nearly midnight!”
“Oh.” He rubbed his eyes. “Oh, I remember.”
“Shush, look.” I'd been timing the seconds in my head. Tommy looked up, his eyes widening.
Click… bong. Bong. Bong.
It was just chiming like it always did. Maybe it happened after the chimes?
Bong, nine. Bong, ten. Bong, eleven. Bong, twelve.
We sat there watching it for two seconds, three, four. Nothing.
Slowly, very slowly, we turned to face each other. His eyes were wide.
“Don't be scared,” I said to him, though really it was aimed at me just as much as my brother. I'm not sure either of us were convinced. But still, we waited and waited, and nothing happened! Minutes passed, and our hearts sank.
“That was it?” I asked nobody in particular. “All mum was going on about, all those times, is that the clock's like… a bit broken? It goes thirteen times instead of twelve? Shit. Come on Tommy, we're going back to bed.”
But that was when I heard it, heard the music. It sounded like it was coming from outside, but it weren't the usual hip-hop or trashy dance that every kid on the estate cranked up on their car stereos. It sounded like a whole orchestra!
Nervously, I made my way to the front door, and opened it just enough to peer through. Complete lack of musicians. Just the dim orange glow of streetlights, lightening and darkening as the one just up the street flashed on and off.
I went back to the living room to tell Tommy, but as I did, the music just got louder and louder! I found him staring at the old clock, like he hadn't heard a thing.
“It's getting slower,” he said.
“The ticking. 's getting slower.”
I turned, and I listened, and it was! Every tick and every tock, the time between them was getting longer, longer still, until…
The clock stopped. And from where its pendulum lay stuck, light appeared and expanded and surrounded us until all I could see was white in every direction.
“Lady Estelle Lloyd and Master Thomas Lloyd!” announced a voice that sounded like it was in front of me, though I'd long since lost my sense of direction. Without me willing it, I stepped forward and crossed the threshold. Light contracted and flew away behind me, leaving Tommy and I at the top of a flight of red-carpeted steps. And beyond them, at the bottom of them, lay a sight the like of which I'd never seen before and I've never seen since.
All kinds of Lords and Ladies pranced about like some royal ball centuries ago, but it was all… weird. Like what Greg from the year above reckoned tripping was like, though we all reckoned he'd never done drugs in his life. Some of the women had long pointy ears, and some dressed all in black like it was fashion to be a witch. And some of the men had horns, and hooves – women too, now I looked closer! There were all kinds of strange ears and feet and hands going on, and I felt out-of-place just looking, you know, normal.
Tommy followed me down into the spinning, prancing mass of people – of things, whatever they were. Elves, I guess, or faeries, strange glittering hybrids of human and animal and other things. They nodded and smiled and made way for me, and even complimented me on my outfit. Outfit! I was wearing pyjamas, and being complimented on my dress sense by creatures wearing gem-studded ballgowns!
A waiter came and offered us drinks in tall glasses that would taste of wine if wine were made of oranges, and was blue. Tommy had some too, and hiccuped to the great amusement of everybody nearby. Then he must have wandered off, I suppose, but I found myself with a second drink in my hand and for some reason I didn't seem to mind. I should have, I know I should – the poor boy is only ten – but it was so obvious then that it was a dream, and in dreams that kind of thing doesn't really matter, right?
So I drank and I danced, waltzes and tangoes and all kinds of things that I didn't really know how to do, and there was a feast full of impossible dishes, of suckling peacock and spit-roast blueberry, and giant steaks of dragon that someone said Tommy had slain. And there were speeches and cheers, and fireworks that turned into golden birds, and dancing, dancing, dancing on and on and on until the world was a blur that melted into gold…
We woke up, collapsed in a huddle together on the living-room floor. Dad was staring out the window, looking depressed. The room was bare. No TV, no sofa, and as we came to, we thought we heard the sound of the debt collectors' van driving away down the road.
But the clock was still there, showing quarter past ten like nothing had happened at all.
“Why not the clock, Dad? Thought mum said it was worth a few bob.”
“Nah,” said Dad with a sigh. “Nothing. Besides, ain't really mine to sell.”
“Oh,” I said, wondering if he meant it was Mum's or mine. But I looked up at its slowly swinging pendulum, and its hands ticking on towards another midnight, and I realised it didn't really matter. What mattered was that everything was going to be okay in the end, and someday, we'd dance again.