The Man who Wound a Thousand Clocks

The Arts

It’s time for a story. I wrote this a very long time ago, when I was very enamoured with Persian culture. I’ll drop the second half tomorrow.

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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-Tarrazin yali, 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 second part arrives tomorrow

10 comments on “The Man who Wound a Thousand Clocks”

  1. Rob C says:

    Thank you for this, hasn’t it been published in a collection before? I’m sure I remember it.

  2. Roger Allen says:

    Bravo!

    On a pedantic note: if you were “very enamoured with Persian culture”, and Sultan Omar Mehmet Shay-Tarrazin is Persian (and Shiite) he cannot be directly descended from Suleyman the Magnificent himself, who ruled the rival Ottoman (and Sunni) empire. Neither had any concept of legitimacy or illegitimacy in a sultan’s sons.
    Have you read Robert Irwin’s Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh, another fine novel about the misadventures of a Sultan’s offspring?

  3. admin says:

    No I haven’t, Roger, but I’d read ‘The Arabian Nightmare’, although I find Irwin hard going. I preferred ‘Lord of the Horizons’, Jason Goodwin’s history of the Ottoman Empire. Thanks for the tip – I’ll track it down.

  4. Bob Low says:

    Lovely stuff – was this first published in a magazine? I dimly remember coming across it in either “The Third Alternative” or “The Edge”. A Good New Year to you both wen it comes.

  5. Roger Allen says:

    Irwin’s work is almost as varied as your own, Admin – even if he’s less prolific!
    I’d also recommend The Mysteries of Algiers, with a very unpleasant first-person narrator.

  6. BarbaraBoucke says:

    A lot more clocks than seventy-seven and no tontine. I look forward to the second part.

  7. Helen+Martin says:

    I imagine the new year has already dawned in London. Apparently there is a parade in London and film will be shown here. I look forward to that and part two of the story. Best wishes to you, Pete, and the denizens of this site for this bright new year.

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    Apart from the mechanical fascination they provided, clocks and watches in the Muslim world were justified early on for their religious benefits. Punctuality in performing prayers five times daily, knowing when to begin and end a fast in intemperate weather or at night (when the sun was not visible) and to demonstrate by their very existence, the brevity of life and thus the future afterlife — were more than ample reason to permit the intrusion of Western technology. In fact, the origin of the modern clock (from the Medieval Latin ‘clocca’ for bell) is religious itself and can be traced back to 13th c. Europe and the ringing of bells to signal and notify of canonical hours (the regular intervals for fixed prayers) and public events.

  9. SteveB says:

    The Arabian Nightmare is great! As you may know Irwin also wrote a semi-scholarly introduction to the Arabian Nights. There’s another fiction of his Exquisite Corpse which I didn’t enjoy though.
    His book on Orientalists really should be required reading as an antidote to Said and the like. While I’m at it, his study of Ibn Khaldun is also to be highly recommended.
    Anyway: I wish Admin, his hubby, and everyone in this little community all the best for 2022, I really do.

  10. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Thanks SteveB! All the best to you and everyone else as well for this New Year.

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