Isolation Tales 3: The Man Who Wound A Thousand Clocks

Reading & Writing

I am an obsessive timekeeper. From the windows of my flat I can see two clocktowers in opposite directions, and if I wake in the night I can usually tell the time to within three or four minutes. I am never late for an appointment and get irrationally annoyed with people who are perpetually late. So the subject of this story appealed to me immensely…


The Sultan Omar Mehmet Shay-Tarrazin was a ruler much given to statistics, not particularly through his own choice. It was simply that he had so much of everything, there was a fascination in quantifying it. He had seventy-three concubines and four hundred and twenty-six children. His great summer palace of white and ochre wood, Mehmet Shay-Tarrazinyali, built between two streams known as the ‘Sweet Waters of Asia’ on the banks of the Bosphorus, stood on the threshold of two continents. It had nearly six hundred rooms, passages, portals, halls and courtyards.

The Sultan trained fifty imported Arabian stallions, each an undefeated champion in its class. The land he owned stretched so far and wide that one could ride from dawn to sunset for six days on the fleetest of his horses and still cross no more than one fifth of his property. His political allies could be found as far afield as Britain, China and the Cape of Good Hope. He sailed fleets of gold-crested vessels laden with cinnamon, cumin, hashish and nutmeg, and fought holy wars for the reliquaries of gods, and issued stern unpopular edicts, and cremated his chancellor for dropping tangerine peel on the steps of the royal harem, which was unfortunate for the innocent chancellor, who was allergic to tangerines and still alive to protest his innocence when the execution pyre was lit. The Sultan’s slightest whim became the harshest law.

How did one man ever become so powerful? Omar Mehmet Shay-Tarrazin was the last thin trickle in a long dark bloodline winding down through the centuries from the offspring of Suleyman the Magnificent himself. His family had ruled in every shy corner of the East, and though depleted still planned to continue its rule far into the future, until fate intervened.

Shay-Tarrazin’s wife, Melek (the woman chosen by Allah, his grandfather, and his father in that order) had been raised solely for the purpose of betrothal to the Sultan, and was so finely bred that she could walk no more than five paces without requiring assistance. But one hot morning she died in childbirth, and her sickly son only survived the ordeal until sunset. Now there was no-one pure enough to continue the line without polluting it, so Shay-Tarrazin made do with his plump young concubines and his ivory stallions, and watched his power slowly settle until he relied entirely on the news of couriers for his dealings with the outside world, and hardly ever left the grounds of his palace. His wealth and status allowed him a life beyond all restriction, and yet it was filled with so many rules, laws, arrangements and appointments that he became a prisoner of his own making.

It happened that the Sultan was newly fascinated by the concept of time. Like many royal rulers he was seized by fads, and longed to make sense of a world he mostly witnessed through the tortoiseshell latticework of the throne-room. Having grown bored with the wonders of astrology, biology and alchemy (and having cremated the practitioners of all three sciences whom he had invited to the palace to instruct him) he turned to more ethereal concepts, and discovered time. He liked the idea very much. It was tantalisingly intangible, unlike biology, which had required the dissection of living animals, or alchemy, which had blackened the walls of his temples and filled the orange-orchards with the stench of smouldering sulphur.

Shay-Tarrazin knew that time would only exist in its measuring, so he started collecting clocks of every size and description, from a microscopic Russian gold chimer to a twenty-two-foot-high gilded Ormolu state-clock that took fifteen men to carry it. There were Austrian clocks with dancing figures that popped from doorways and fought duels with tigers. There was a German clock featuring an enamel tableau in which an executioner beheaded his kneeling victim on the quarter-hour. There was a set of Siberian winter-sol-stice clocks that fitted inside each other like wooden dolls. There was a Castilian clock that predicted the weather with miniature globes of coloured water, and a Brazilian timepiece that measured the passing moments by the fall of tiny purple gems. There was a Belgian celestial clock depicting the movement of the heavens, topped with a gold-chased orrery. There were Portuguese ceramic clocks, Chinese Coptic balsa clocks, booming British grandfather clocks, imperial Ottoman clocks inlaid with mother-of-pearl and decorated with panels of Kutahya tiles, clocks in polychrome, walnut and stained glass – it made the head spin to even think about them.

There were nine hundred and ninety-nine of them.

And they all required winding.

So enamoured did the Sultan become with the concept of time that he came to rely upon it completely. Before the idea had been explained to him, the daily business of his kingdom had been ordered by the position of the sun, so that no work was ever undertaken after dark, and tasks were completed eventually, with no sense of haste or urgency. Life was allowed to run its natural, unhurried course. But once Shay-Tarrazin had installed time in his palace, he and his courtiers, their retinue, the concubines, consorts, servants, cooks and porters were all capable of being late. And as being late upset the running of the kingdom, it became an offence punishable by beheading or cremation. The Sultan was not a wise man, or a fair man, or even a good man, but his empire ran well and provided commercial intercourse with the world, advancing business and society, and making the globe spin a little faster on its axis.

So it became absolutely imperative to keep the clocks wound.

For this purpose, the Sultan sent five dozen of his guards to search the city for a reliable man, someone with a sense of routine and responsibility. Sabin Darr was such a man. He was twenty-two years old, had a wife and three small children each as handsome as he, and earned a living as a carver and furniture repairer of no small ingenuity. He dwelt in a small orange house in the green foothills of the river basin, and was taken by surprise when the king’s men hammered at his front door with the butts of their daggers.

While his family cowered behind their modesty curtains, Sabin Darr stood before the guards and answered each of their questions as truthfully as he could. It quickly became clear that he was the man for the job, but as he proved reluctant to join them, three of the king’s men slipped between the curtains and ran his wife and children through with their sabres. Hearing their cries above the slither of steel, Sabin ran back to find his sandals splashed with the blood of his family. Half-blinded by grief and fury he watched as the guards dropped torches of burning pitch on to the roof of his house, and bade him mount the horse they had set aside for the first part of his journey to the clockhouse of Shay-Tarrazin. For Sabin Darr, time stopped on that terrible day.

The Sultan himself came out to greet the slender caique that docked before the steps of his palace. He explained why he needed Sabin Darr. The job had to be performed by someone with no social ties. It was demanding and all-consuming. Every single clock and watch had to be wound each day, and there were so many that it would require every hour of daylight to perform the task. Those that were slow or fast would have to be recalibrated until they were as accurate as the most immaculate timekeeper in the palace. Some clocks required ladders to reach their winding mechanisms. Some had winders that were so microscopically tiny and fine that special tweezers had to be used to turn them. Some clocks had processions of mechanical figures with joints that seized up in the warm dry air, preventing their steady movement. They had to be cleaned and lubricated. Some clocks had keys that were hidden away in elaborate decorations, and required the solving of a puzzle to free them. Some could only be wound at certain hours of the day, because their winding holes were in their faces, and the hands passed over them, preventing access. Yet others were not wound by conventional keys at all, but by the balancing of vials of oil and water, by filling with sand, by the displacement of marble pebbles, by the resetting of tumblers, by the stacking of ball-bearings, and by turning upside down.

Sabin was set to work in the great hall of the clockhouse, which had been built in a raised piazza beyond the main courtyard of the palace, above the shining blue Bosphorus, and he learned how to keep time. His task was arduous. There were only just enough minutes in the day to wind every single clock before the chimes of six rang out. Each night as the sun settled inside banks of heated crimson dust, he raced to refresh the final mechanism and only just succeeded. His winding schedule was so exact that the spring of each timepiece was fully unwound upon reaching it.

After leaving the hall he was presented with an oval copper tray of bread, meat, wine and fruit. At night he washed the noise of ticking from his head and fell asleep on an arrangement of yellow velvet pillows in the Eunuchs’ quarters of the Selamlik. As he lay looking out at the deepening sky, he remembered his wife and children, and tumbled his thoughts into salted teardrops.

The Sultan’s fascination with time gradually dimmed, but the course of his kingdom was now set. With time had come punctuality, and efficiency, and profitability. It was not a concept, like the alchemical one of turning coal into gold, that he could easily discard. His guards checked on Sabin every day, and issued him with a warning; should he fail to wind just one of the clocks on one occasion, he would forfeit a digit from his left hand. This was proof that the Sultan was not a wise man, for such a punishment could only reduce the clockwinder’s dexterity, but punishment was regarded by Shay-Tarrazin as a purely legal matter, and everyone knew that laws were not subject to the influence of common sense.

In time, Sabin Darr’s wrath turned into the infinite sadness of resignation. He learned the art of winding the clocks, and had them rearranged in careful declension, so that he might perform his task with the greatest efficiency. Thus, Sabin was able to fulfil his daily chores, Shay-Tarrazin was able to behead any cook whose dishes arrived a minute late at his table, and everything was cared for in its fashion.

It happened that a favoured son of the Sultan’s (as much as any child born of a concubine could find favour in his court), returning from an excursion in Rome, wished to ingratiate himself with his father. This was for the sake of his mother, who had reached the age of two-and-twenty and had been discarded, and now languished in a shabbier section of the harem, unloved and forgotten. Through guile and deceit the boy had been able to procure a fine Italian timepiece for presentation as a gift. It possessed six onyx clock-faces, each smaller than the last, each requiring daily winding with its own special silver key.

The new clock was the thousandth, and a straw to break a camel’s back; it upset the balance of the clockhouse, since Sabin Darr’s schedule operated on the thickness of a hair. After much calculation and consideration, planning and paperwork, he reordered the collection to incorporate the new clock, and rehearsed the windings through the course of one night. The following day, still weary from his exacting rehearsal, he slipped while running between the final two clocks and dropped one of the winding keys. It slid across the marble mosaic floor and came to rest beneath the case of a water-clock, and Sabin lost precious seconds retrieving it. As the clocks all began to chime six, there still remained one last clock to wind.

Moments later, two guards marched into the great room. They laid his hand on an alabaster block. One of them expertly slammed a sabre-blade down on his little finger, neatly severing it at the base. The other laid the red-hot tip of a dagger he had heated in a mangal, a cremation brazier, across the little stump, cauterising the wound and instantly staunching the flow of blood. It was all very efficient.

That evening, to ease his pain (for he was not a man without pity) the Sultan sent a beautiful honey-eyed and amber-breasted harem girl called Safieh to deliver Sabin’s food. Abducted as a child by corsairs, she had been sold into the seraglio as an ikbal, a love slave, and was the most adept at her arts. She fed him lovingly, inserting her tapered brown fingers into his waiting mouth, and sweetly played to him on her ney, which is an instrument rather like a lute. After Sabin had eaten his fill she entwined with him on the velvet cushions, and brought alive his memories of the woman he had loved (for she knew his history), and stayed with him until one hour before dawn.

It was almost worth losing a finger for.

But lest you should think that the hero of this tale is merely some passive reed, bending this way and that with the events of his life, forgetful of avenging his poor family, rest assured that he was concocting a cunning plan.

First he made a series of careful tests and calculations, just as he had for the winding of the clocks. He knew that Shay-Tarrazin and his guards had only one way of knowing if he had fulfilled his nightly task, and that was by checking that all the clocks were working, and that he had wound the last clock before the chimes of six. So Sabin started to wind each of the clocks with a single quarter-turn less, which meant that each timepiece ran down and stopped just a few moments before he reached it. He still reached the final clock on time; in fact, he arrived a fraction earlier now that there was time to spare. This made Sabin’s life a little easier, but more important, it changed time by imperceptibly stretching it. As the days turned into weeks and months became years, the Sultan’s interests moved on to other concepts, such as animal husbandry and flying machines, and he visited the clockhouse less and less frequently. Sabin continued to underwind the clocks, carefully allowing their mechanisms to slow, their springs to expand, their hands to shift less sharply, so that time itself geared down to a lazier pace.

The change was so slight that no-one noticed. All of the other clocks and watches in the kingdom took their time from the clockhouse, and though it was perceived that the sun and moon had altered the times of their appearance, the kingdom was so powerful and so right that it was assumed the heavens had revised their cosmic schedule in order to be more accommodating. After all, how could one measure time but from a clock, and if all the clocks ran slow who was to say that the clocks were wrong and that time itself was right? Absolute time could not be measured in any other way, particularly if one believed that earthbound humans had more power than the heavens.

For the next eight years, Sabin slowed the pace of the world. And at the age of thirty, to celebrate the anniversary of his birthyear, he took it slower still, giving each of the thousand keys a half-turn less.

Safieh, the bountiful harem girl, stayed with him four more times. Her appearance was a mixed blessing, for it meant that he had lost another finger, but he would experience a night of love. The clocks were subject to imperfection, and occasionally broke down. When this happened the royal blacksmiths forged new cogs and wires, and Sabin replaced the damaged part once he had concluded his tour for the night.

Incredibly, it failed to come to the attention of the ageing Omar Mehmet Shay-Tarrazin that his kingdom had fallen out of step. It had grown so lethargic that his ships sat docked in the Bosphorus for months on end, their cargoes rotting, their crews drunk and asleep. His Grand Vizier, that is to say his prime minister, passed his days sweating in the hamam with his favourite concubine, and no longer bothered concerning himself with affairs of state, because they were resolved too slowly. Those states whose borders touched the Sultan’s empire withdrew their trading agreements and found new allies. The slave girls that peered beneath the jalousie– screens into the mabeyn area of the palace grew fat and bored, for they were visited with more vigour in times of prosperity (men always sought to prove their sexual prowess after proving their trading acumen). The peacocks in the formal gardens of the palace wandered through the overgrown lawns tearing out their feathers through inattention. The very air ceased to buzz with the energy of insects, and even the battalions of ferocious ants that swarmed across the flagstoned embankments now droned as softly as bees in an English garden. Lassitude settled over the kingdom like a warm dry shroud.

Finally, when Sabin had reduced the clocks to their slowest possible rate, he requested an audience with the Sultan, and built a special royal viewing platform upon which to receive his guest.

The reply, borne on petal-scented paper from across the courtyard, took five full days to reach him. Sabin watched from his window, and finally saw Shay-Tarrazin’s entourage moving as slowly as a constellation toward the clockhouse. The Sultan had grown old and bewildered. His rheumy eyes peeped out from beneath a huge turquoise turban that had a feather dipped in molten gold attached to it with an eagle-claw. To Sabin, the Sultan’s willingness to visit the clockhouse upon request was a sure sign of how far the empire had fallen into disarray. Once, Shay-Tarrazin’s most gossamer caprice would have been set in stone. Now, too much time had made him lose his will and his way.

Upon sighting Sabin he slowly – so slowly – held out his jewel-encrusted hands and warmly clasped his arm.

‘Ah, my loyal clockwinder!’ he exclaimed. ‘How – how – ’ But here he lost the thread of this simple exercise in conversation, and his unfocussed eyes drifted up to study a lizard on the ceiling as he sought to regain his topic.

‘How runs your kingdom?’ prompted Sabin.

‘Indeed.’ The Sultan smiled vaguely. Behind him, several members of his retinue had begun to fall asleep standing up, their chins slumping on their breastplates.

‘Why, this room is the heart of your kingdom, sire,’ said Sabin, bowing low. ‘If you would care to step upon my platform and listen carefully, you may hear its beat.’

And with that he climbed the steps and cupped his ear, bidding the Sultan to follow his example. Unaware of the impertinence, Shay-Tarrazin followed Sabin’s example and listened, and came to realise that the ticking of the thousand clocks mirrored the slow, slow beat of his own weary heart, and now the concept of time that had so long eluded him became clear. For his fogged brain realised that true time was a personal thing, the measurement of each man’s life on earth.

And with that, the first of the thousand clocks stopped. The Sultan and his retinue noticed nothing, but Sabin’s finely tuned ear registered the absence.

Then another clock stopped.

And another.

And another.

And another.

So that the dense sound of ticking was gradually stripped away, like members of a performing orchestra laying down their instruments one after the next. The Sultan was paralysed by the phenomenon. With each stopped clock his heart grew a thousandth part weaker. After eight years, Sabin was winding the clocks so little that time’s elasticity had been stretched to breaking point.

Shay-Tarrazin’s eyes widened in horror as he dimly realised that his life must cease with the stopping of the final clock, and that for him, as it eventually did for everyone, time would soon terminate altogether. The ticking grew thinner and thinner as pendulums stilled, movements stopped moving, gems and sand and water ceased to pour, suns and moons no longer followed one another, and as the hands of the last clock ceased their movement around its calibrated surface, the Sultan’s heartbeat demurred to the point of extinction, his body seizing into silence. He fell gently from the platform, cushioned by his saffron robes, into the great gold-filigree case of his best-loved Ormolu clock, where he lay unaided by his snoozing retinue.

As Sabin was the only man in the kingdom who had learned to master time, he assumed the responsibility of helping to bury the Sultan and attend his mourning rituals. Even the Grand Vizier (once he could be found and woken) agreed that this was appropriate and seemly.

The clocks were never wound again. The once-great empire of Omar Mehmet Shay-Tarrazin never emerged from its reverie. Sabin Darr was finally granted the freedom of the kingdom. He resolved to return to his village, and requested the slave-girl Safieh as a reward for his unstinting loyalty to the Sultan. The Grand Vizier was happy to grant him this, and to seal good fortune on the couple’s union, presented them with a golden clock.

The hands of the clock did not move. Its interior mechanism had been removed, and the case had been filled with diamonds and sapphires.

For Sabin Darr, who had lost his family and his fingers, but not his sense of time, the world started to revolve once more.

10 comments on “Isolation Tales 3: The Man Who Wound A Thousand Clocks”

  1. Bob Low says:

    Did this story first appear in a magazine called The Edge, or am I confusing it with something else? I remember you writing a column, and reviews for the magazine as well

  2. admin says:

    Yes, The Edge turned into Black Static, which presumably disappeared when horror dried up. I never thought of myself as writing horror anyway. More on this in a future column…

  3. Brooke says:

    Time (concept of, instruments of, subjective vs objective) features in your writing–imo some of your best stories, as you forego a linear story line. Did you grow up thinking about “TIME?” On twitter you posted a view of the Greenwich Tower red ball, a “view that coloured my whole childhood.” Influence?

  4. Bob Low says:

    I’m pleased to say that Black Static is still with us

  5. admin says:

    I’ve always regarded time as something to be calibrated and appreciated, and honoured in the passing. Looking through the collected short stories, I’m a bit shocked to see how often it recurs as a theme. I was so angry yesterday that I hammered out a story which – today, looking back on it – is all about time.

  6. Allan Lloyd says:

    Just being pedantic, but “The Third Alternative” became “Black Static”, I still have a few copies of “The Edge”, and it was a great magazine, though I don’t think it ran for long.

  7. Bob Low says:

    Allan – it was indeed a great magazine, and unique in the mixture of stuff it brought together, everything from sharp cultural commentary and reviews, to fiction including contemporary horror, science fiction and fantasy. I think Michael Moorcock contributed his last Jerry Cornelius short story to one of the last issues. The Third Alternative was wonderful as well, back in the days when the future of horror fiction was sees as lying in ‘slipstream’ fiction, if anyone remembers what that was!

  8. admin says:

    Ah, TA3 – the missing link – I’d forgotten about that.

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    TTA Press still publish Black Static (#74) as Bob said is still going, the SF magazine Interzone (#286) is the other one they publish, Crimewave, the crime magazine is the one that has gone.

    Horror is in an odd place, doing well on film, TV, comics, both in the mainstream and the indie side; books are slipping in through other ways, cross genre, romance oddly enough and YA as noted in other threads. The indie side is as buoyant as ever for books and online it’s at busting point in all formats; creepy pasta being an odd incarnation that spawned The Slender Man, and an attempted murder.


  10. Jan says:

    How can think you weren’t writing horror after Roofworld?
    Surely the central core was horror?

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