Sitting at her desk she rested. A thriving plant of pristine purple leaves spilled out over the edge of a patterned porcelain pot. Sweet music filled the room. A lamp resided over the desk and its rays lent a warm glow to the golden veneer of a ticking clock. For as long as this lady had known, this clock had ticked and tocked and she had not heard it for many a year. Little did this lady know that there was life inside her small desktop clock. Perhaps if she had taken the time to assess the clock from each of its sides she would have noticed that this clock was constructed from glass panes, which slotted into the golden veneer in a very old fashioned way indeed. In fact, this clock had been her mother’s. The lady had inherited several items from her when she passed away. In all the time that had passed she had lived with the clock at the head of her desk and so she sat face to face with the heirloom each and every evening before bedtime. The front panel was a piece of glass constructed just as the other sides, save the bottom, which was made of tin. However, unlike the other glass panels, which allowed the curious to examine the fine mechanisms within, this one was opaque. Obscuring her view of nuts and springs and rivets and washers and all manner of splendidly delicate mechanisms was a white surface of an unidentified material. This white surface was adorned by roman numerals painted by hand. She would remember her mother as she looked at these numerals and marvelled at their beauty. Her mind wandered to the wonderful poise one must have to control a paint brush so. And then, just when her mind had wandered to a world in which everyone exercised such control and how wonderful such a world would be, she stood up and said to herself ‘time to hit the sack’ and off she went to bed.
‘A good friend of mine is on his way over,’ called a mushroom headed creature named Layak from deep within the clock’s structure. ‘Good!’ came the response from Nico, another member of this strange species. These creatures were so small it would only be correct to describe them as miniscule. But make no mistake! What they lacked in stature they more than made up for in number, for this species dominated the innards of the clock like none had done for aeons, sprouting from every last nook and cranny. On this occasion these particular mushroom headed creatures were having a party, a small one, but a party nonetheless. ‘Who is it?’ asked Nico. ‘He’s called Ben,’ replied Layak, his shaggy, scaly cap concealing a filthy trail of liquid filled with spores slipping down his stipe beneath his shirt collar and soaking his suit thoroughly. ‘Though I’m not sure if you’re going to like him,’ he said. ‘Is he a good shroom?’ asked Nico. ‘Yes, really good,’ the slippery fellow replied. ‘Then I see no reason why I wouldn’t like him!’
Nico smiled and turned towards Kristina, the host of the party and a false champignon if ever there was one. A small white toadstool, she sat on the sofa with perfect form smiling and laughing at just the right moment to relay that she understood all and everything her guests could say to her. She had a few lines prepared for conversations spanning the great works of literature to the minutia of her guests’ current predicaments. In any case, another week at work had gone by and she was grateful to have good company at short notice. Nodding attentively she listened to Adriana, her longest-standing friend and a mushroom known for her beauty as her stipe seemed to go on and on and on again and her cap! Oh, wonders never cease! Her cap swirled around her stipe as a magnificent blood red lampshade pirouettes about its base. Kristina used to envy Adriana but years of observing her travails had led her to reassess. ‘He hasn’t picked up my calls for days and I don’t know what to do,’ moaned Adriana as she sobbed meekly into her caramel blouse. Kristina did not know what to do either. Everybody she called was always more than happy to answer. ‘Stop calling him,’ she suggested.
Nico’s younger brother Lucas, the chestnut to his portobello, pushed open the front door to this tiniest of tiny apartments, though good-sized in the context of the kingdom it ought to be said, to the sound of a creak, which alerted Kristina et al to his arrival. He was with Archie, a popular figure in the crowd and a shroom with a cap that ebbed and flowed like chocolate-brown-coloured molasses but unlike molasses there was nothing slow about Archie. No, Archie was known to his contemporaries as a shroom bestowed with the greatest of intellects and the rarest of humilities. Everyone congregated between the landing and the hallway and reacquainted themselves with each other until Layak launched into his latest rant. This one had something to do with his professional successes and social shortcomings but no one was listening and Layak did not mind this one bit. Well, at least Archie had caught the tale end of this sorry tale and that was all it took for him to conjure up a thoughtful response. ‘Perhaps you should try slowing down…I love your intensity but it may be too much for some.’ A flashing light, the kind you see front and centre on a police car’s roof, blinded everyone in the apartment out of the blue. ‘I can’t stop oozing!’ cried Layak and off he dashed to the bathroom.
The sound of a siren hushed Archie before he could ask Layak what he meant. The doorbell rang and Nico sauntered over to answer it. He asked ‘is that Ben?’ on the intercom and was greeted with a groan followed by something that sounded like ‘who the fuck else is it going to be?’ Ben leapt up the stairs and bobbed among the guests. A white t-shirt hung off his slender, well-proportioned stipe and a short, scraggly beard did its best to conceal a tired cap, almost as pale as the t-shirt. Layak burst out of the bathroom and seemed to speak so quickly as to compress time itself - ‘how are you mate it’s really good to see you it’s been so long!’ Ben had the look of a shroom disgusted to its very core. ‘Fuck off you d-dirty imbecile,’ he squawked with a hint of a stutter. Layak bit down on his jaw and when he was able to release it again he introduced Ben to Kristina and Nico. ‘Fuck the pleasantries I can’t be f-fucked’ shot Ben, whose agitated gait was making the party decidedly uncomfortable, though he was not perturbed in the least. ‘Where are the bugles?’ he shouted at the top of his lungs, shaking the very superstructure of Kingdom Clock. The glass panes of the kingdom’s outermost walls rattled riotously and the rains roared down against those panes and pitty pattered as though that were all they had ever done. But this infernal racket did in fact cease after not so much time at all.
‘Sorry about that,’ Ben whispered. ‘I’m Ben by the way,’ he said, turning to Kristina. ‘Nice to make your acquaintance.’ Kristina smiled at his softness and exclaimed that she was pleased to make his also. Lucas skipped over to offer Ben a tiny bugle from a box that housed twenty at one time. Now the tally stood at seven. Ben thanked Lucas graciously and rewarded him by playing this tiny bugle so sweetly that the room was moved to a standstill. ‘So, Ben,’ Kristina went on, ‘what is it that you do?’ Ben’s bemusement was evident and he made his disdain for the host of the party as clear as broad daylight. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ he asked wearily. The room stood still. ‘I play the bugle of course!’ Everyone let out a light sigh in unison at this most obvious of obvious facts that had somehow evaded them. ‘He makes a shit tonne of money doing it too,’ crowed Layak from the bathroom doorway. ‘Fuck off you smelly mess of a shroom,’ retorted Ben. ‘He’s not wrong, though. I am the most supreme and excellent of all bugle players to have ever ticked along in this giant clock of ours.’ This mightily bold claim astonished Kristina but she was entranced and shrieked ‘it is your passion to play the bugle - how wonderful it is to meet a shroom with such skill and good looks too! Oh, it is like a dream!’ Archie nodded along and pondered the very essence of passion, while Lucas sat still perched on the corner of the sofa. Ben was bemused once more. ‘Passion? My passion is money! The bugle is but a means to an end.’ Kristina baulked at the delivery but nodded at the sentiment. She believed it noble to pursue a passion but not shameful to confess to a lack of one. That required an altogether different type of courage, she mused. Taking a wine glass to her lips she paused before drinking and let the scent fall over her. She peered across the room at Nico, whose demeanour was unchanged since Ben’s arrival. She remembered the orange she had been gifted on her eighth birthday and how Nico loved that story. He always asked her how old she was when she received the orange, even though he knew she would answer ‘around eight.’ Kristina had never seen an orange before that day. To hold it was an experience in and of itself - its skin was so shiny and taut! For a time she took the fruit with her wherever she went, until it lost some of its lustre. ‘Did you eat it in the end?’ Nico would ask. Kristina did not remember. She sipped her wine. ‘It was just an orange,’ she thought.
The room was silent save for some silky jazz music spilling from the stereo. Ben was bored. ‘Shut up everyone!’ he yelled at the top of his lungs. Adriana locked eyes with Ben, unsure what to make of him. Experience had taught her that shrooms who did not know what they wanted from life were less sure of themselves, yet Ben seemed to buck that trend. ‘Oh come on Ben,’ she said playfully, probing at the puzzle before her. ‘You must want something else. Money can’t possibly satisfy you!’ Ben yielded to her to the surprise of Archie but not of Lucas. ‘You’re right,’ Ben conceded. ‘If all I had were money I wouldn’t be able to ask you out on a date but luckily I’m really good-looking too. Kristina even said so herself just a moment ago!’ Adriana’s curiosity disintegrated into a sigh that went unnoticed to all but Archie. He rolled his eyes. It was not Ben’s manner that bothered him. ‘Politeness is a strategy,’ he pondered. ‘There’s no reason why rudeness shouldn't be too.’ Instead, he was fixated on the malaise hovering over his new acquaintance. Archie had been humbled time and time again in his quest for understanding the world and those creatures that inhabited it but such setbacks only stoked his curiosity. He was sure of one thing, though. Ben’s boldness was something he never had and never would have. ‘So do you do anything other than play the bugle,’ he asked. ‘I do everything! Whatever I do, I’m the best at it. I’ve always been the best. Since day one - the best.’ Archie was unconvinced by Ben’s vagueness so he pressed on with his examination - ‘care to give an example?’ Kristina was upset with Archie and she made it known by telling him to show more respect to the guests. ‘I’m a guest too!’ reasoned Archie, but Kristina was having none of it. ‘You’re not a guest like Ben is a guest.’ Deeply sorry, the shroom of the undulating molasses muttered under his breath ‘well he is new I suppose.’
The railway tracks echoed under the rocking of carriages hurtling through the night and car tyres skidded through puddles the length and breadth of all of the streets in the neighbourhood. Nico had been left cold by the aforementioned exchange between Kristina and Archie. He solemnly stared out of the window and gazed for miles and miles to the very edge of Kingdom Clock but all he could see was darkness. ‘Archie is invaluable at events such as these,’ he pondered over the epic puddle before him. ‘She just doesn't understand,’ he thought. It was Archie’s role to make sure guests were at ease and stimulated by an array of poignant questions which would reach from physics to philosophy and back again. ‘But you have to start with the small things - and that’s what Archie was doing!’ In any case, he kept these thoughts to himself and returned to his role, which was to ensure the guests had everything that they could possibly need at any given moment. ‘Hey Ben!’ he called. ‘Do you play pint-sized bugles as well?’ And at that Ben’s eyes lit up with all of the clarity of the midday sun. ‘Of course!’ he screamed with the utmost joy. ‘Wonderful,’ said Nico, already making for the kitchen to retrieve a fitting bugle for a man purported to be a master of this realm and also, lest we forget, the newest addition to the group.
A saxophone solo hummed through the living room and the lady rolled up the blinds to let the morning sun in through the bay windows of her rooftop turret. The paperboys slithered through the cracks of the neighbourhood’s basin distributing today’s news. WE ARE IN A STATE OF ALERT rang the headlines. ‘Oh, the horror!’ cried the lady as she met with the sax in the living room and switched on the television to learn of the latest developments. ‘Threat levels are severe,’ she repeated after the anchor. She rushed to her tablet and clutched it as she ran down the corridor opening the blinds on her way to the kitchen. The kettle whirred and the lady sought some solace in a cup of milky tea as she processed the following information: THE CURRENT THREAT LEVEL FOR INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM IS SEVERE.
The telephone rang. Dashing back across the apartment in the sky the lady grabbed the receiver at the third ring. ‘Mornin’ Marie,’ came a laconic slur. ‘Good morning, Karen,’ replied the lady to the caretaker. ‘Whatever is the matter at this early hour?’ Karen took a moment to reply and when she did she delivered the news with the stony steel of a cowboy assassin. ‘It’s Elizabeth. Down in flat number seven. The first floor. You know, Elizabeth, flat seven. Hello? Anyone ther-’ ‘Yes yes I’m here Karen. Now please, spare me the suspense - what exactly is happening down in flat number seven?’ A pregnant pause presided. ‘It’s Nigel. He fell off his bed. Three o’ clock in the morning. He’s been on his back for four hours.’ Marie let out a delicate sigh of relief. Luckily her son was staying with her in the guest room. ‘OK Karen I’ll send Nico down post-haste.’ And with that she went to knock on the guest room door only to find her eldest son awake, writing. ‘Nico, darling, there is an emergency in flat number seven - Nigel’s fallen agai-’ ‘I’m on it!’ called Nico already halfway down the stairwell, skipping over the aged green carpet in his slippers, taking two stairs at a time.
A sweet musk struck the tip of Nico’s nose as he entered flat seven. Walls stacked with picture frames hung over ornaments of all shapes and sizes. As a bull in a china shop the young man darted through this labyrinth of objects to the bedroom where he found Nigel lying prone beneath his wife of many a decade at the foot of the bed. ‘There he is Nico. He’s all yours,’ shrugged Karen, pointing at Nigel. The radio reported the details of an attack several neighbourhoods to the east: LATEST COUNT FOUR CONFIRMED DEAD TWENTY-ONE IN A CRITICAL CONDITION. COUNTLESS OTHERS INJURED, THOUGH THEY ARE SAID TO BE IN A STABLE STATE.
‘Terrible, all of this, isn’t it Nicholas?’ chirped Nigel. ‘It is,’ replied the young man. ‘Now let’s get you back where you belong.’ Nico scooched by Elizabeth and crouched behind her husband, gently sliding his hands past his shoulder blades and under his armpits until they rested where his forearms met his biceps on the underside of his elbows. He levered the old man gently though firmly through one hundred and eighty degrees of motion and laid him to rest at the head of the bed. ‘The lad is strong,’ wheezed Nigel and then he coughed and then he sneezed. ‘You’re a football player aren’t you?’ Nico smiled at the old man who had decided he was a football player ever since he saw him kicking a ball around in the park across the road. ‘That was almost ten years ago now!’ replied Nico, as per usual, and with a hearty laugh to boot, also as per. ‘Anyway, Nigel, you have a good day now. And you, Elizabeth, please call us at any hour of the night - I was wide awake at 3AM - you really needn’t worry about the bother as there is none, my dear.’ Elizabeth rotated on her walking stick at snail’s pace and looked up at him. ‘Thank you, Nicholas,’ she said.
It was clock-winding day at the apartment in the sky and Marie informed her son of this on his return through the front door, as she did every Thursday. ‘Yes, mother, very good,’ replied Nico. Marie sat down at the desk and stared wistfully out towards the treetops of the park and wondered where the building was that always seemed to appear to her between the trees on Thursdays - clock winding day. She soon accepted that she would never be able to work it out and turned to the clock, which was still as still could be. The morning light gleamed across its golden veneer and she smiled contentedly to herself as she swivelled the clock around one hundred and eighty degrees on the sun stained tan brown leather surface of the desktop, and she wound the clock back up. The clock began to tick and tock and tick and tock and Marie smiled with glee. ‘Oh, life! How I adore the sound of thee!’ The drama of her day was over.
Meanwhile, deep inside the Kingdom of the once-again-ticking clock, several neighbourhoods to the north of Kristina’s apartment, stood Layak in all of his morning glory. Thick globules of an inky puss-like substance secreted from the pores where his stipe met his cup. He slid around the bathroom and whenever he tried to steady himself so that he could look at himself in the little round mirror hanging over that small square sink of his, he would fall back on his derrière right in the middle of the dung-covered floor tiles. ‘I’ve got to get to work I can’t keep missing days in the office because I’ve been playing the bugle with fucking Ben all night it’s ridiculous fucking ridiculous look at the state I’m in for fuck’s sake,’ he yelped a-word-a-second. Finally, after many a tumble, Layak managed to grab on to the small square sink with the squid-like tentacles that had formed from the congealed ink-like substance that oozed out of every orifice. Heaving himself up with all of his might, this slippery, slimy mushroom headed fellow reached for the minuscule sack of brass nestled just under the mirror next to his razor and behind his toothbrush. ‘Thank heavens!’ he bellowed. ‘Oh no!’ he rasped. And he swallowed a thick globule of ink the size of a cantaloupe as he pulled the minuscule sack towards him with all of the courage he could muster.
Lying in the swamp that was his bathroom, Layak managed to meld a microscopic piece of brass with two other pieces, more microscopic still, into a bugle. ‘It’s small but it will do I can always go and get more brass there’s a shop yes that new metal supermarket haven’t you heard of it you know that one that’s just opened around the corner may as well go there instead of to work. Work’s a write-off mate!’ Then, he tried to play the microscopic musical instrument he had fashioned. He pursed his lips with incredible force but his tongue was taut and would not cooperate with the rest of the muscles in his face. ‘Who am I kidding?’ he said to himself, resigned to his fate, ‘I haven’t had a job in a year and I have no prospects of getting another one in a state like this.’ These were the first true words Layak had uttered to himself, or indeed to anyone for that matter, in the whole preceding year. It was in this moment of truth that he forgot to breathe. The bumbling bandit started drowning in the rising swamp of his bathroom floor. ‘Help!’ he screamed. But it was no use. Layak swallowed a whole heap of dung and ink and any number of tiny bugle fragments and choked to death.