My grandmother’s house was full of clocks. 

They were never wound properly, their haphazard ticking all over the place — a cacophony of irregular mechanical heartbeats — so at any given moment one of them was busy striking or chiming, or emitting a sort of ominous purr as it geared up to pronounce its random judgement on the passage of time.

I hated this elaborate clock army because it would not let me sleep, what with all the booming and shrieking and battles for dominance. Worse, it was a reminder that I would soon have to leave my grandmother’s house for another year. There is never enough time for children of immigrants: we are forever destined to cross out numbers on a calendar, until all calendars run out.

I could write a novel about my grandmother — her quirks and her anxieties, the grateful way she welcomed a good joke, clapping her hands and scrunching up her face in a paroxysm of giggles. Or the way her wispy hair always flew out of the bun on her head, and how she smelled of frying oil and Organza perfume. Or how she was constantly checking her regiment of clocks and hurrying off in a wiggly little half-run. 

She adored antique shopping, the clocks but a noisy by-product of her addiction — and filled her apartment with wooden recliners that you were never allowed to recline on, intricately carved couches that gave you back pain if you so much as looked at them, and Victorian cabinets full of painted porcelain tea sets. 

One day, as she browsed and I languished in a particularly dusty shop, she bought me a small picture of an autumn day in the park, painted by some long-forgotten artist. I would spend hours watching the picture up close, then slowly backing away as the yellow and orange dots — random clumps of dried paint begging to be scraped off by a vandalising fingernail — suddenly straightened out into cascades of autumn leaves: mid-fall, or clinging on to the tree for dear life, or strewn over the path in the foreground of the painting, a path that led to unknown depths beyond the frame, somewhere I could not see. 

I never saw autumn colours quite as brilliant until I moved to a remote village in the mountains. Come the changing of seasons, the green velvet of the slopes reluctantly gives way to frayed patches of golden rust, the bald cliffs above the timberline donning powdered wigs of first snow. In the village below there is a main street with half-a-dozen shops; a church; a primary school; and a cemetery not even twenty paces away from the school playground.

The children run around in full view of the cross-pillowed graves beneath the slopes, where bouncing slinkies of rainbows spring up after a downpour. The children play hopscotch, squealing, blithely unaware how short the twenty paces are from the playground to the cemetery. How only the mountains overhead can resist the inevitable, and even then just a touch longer than us. 

The old painting came to my mind after my grandmother died, when the calendar she gave me on her last New Year’s ran out of pages. Slowly, I watched her walk down the leaf-strewn path in the gathering twilight, her footsteps making the leaves flutter in the stillness until she was beyond the frame and out of sight. 

Nowadays, the end of everything peeks at us around every corner, from the news we scroll through to the entertainment we consume. It feels different when you contemplate it from a graveyard next to a school: a quiet reminder that our lives are unforgivingly linear. Or when you scan your thoughts and find an emptiness once filled by someone, a blank space where a whole person used to live. This hollow pit births an endless supply of memories — sometimes enough for an entire novel — but never as good as the real thing. 

And thousands of miles away, the clocks keep chiming in my grandmother’s house, reminding no one in particular that all we have is a little time. 

Läilä Örken has a PhD in law and works in the field of international relations. In the evenings, she writes fiction and is working on a novel. Her stories appear in the Eunoia Review, Hobart, Bright Flash Literary Review, Grim & Gilded, and elsewhere.

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Every Day Fiction