Turning the Clock Back

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Agnes wants her son back - and would sell her soul to get him.

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Agnes stood at the kitchen table, her body stiff with fear, and stared at the telegram. Her hand was trembling, causing it to flutter slightly between her fingers. She didn’t want to open it. She knew what it would say. People like her didn’t get telegrams. This wasn’t any ordinary telegram. This was THE telegram. The one nobody wanted to receive. The one that would tell her that Jonathon was—a door clanged shut in her mind, refusing to allow her to finish the thought.

The Lord had only ever seen fit to send them one child, but He made up for His meanness by making that one child the most perfect and precious that had ever been born. From the moment she had looked into his eyes and felt his tiny fist curl around her finger, she was in love.

Jonathon was beautiful, with blue eyes and golden curls – so beautiful that even after he was breeched people often took him for a girl. She and Frank vied for his attention; she wanting to keep him in the house, Frank wanting to take him to the shop and show him off to the customers. Everyone loved Jonathon.

Complete strangers would stop her in the street, gaze into his perambulator and say, “What a beautiful child! He’s going to grow up to be a real heartbreaker!” And Agnes revelled in the praise, never dreaming that the first heart he would break would be her own.

Jonathon was not only beautiful but, despite the fact that everyone conspired to spoil him, he was a good child - polite and biddable. And he was intelligent - always top of the class, always winning prizes.

Only once, in all the years he was growing up, did he cause her grief, and that was when his teacher told her that he was bright enough to go to university. Agnes had panicked, knowing that if he went to university she would lose him. He would meet clever people, people from wealthy backgrounds. He would become ashamed of the neat little two-up and two-down terrace house in Seaton, the busy little tailor’s and haberdashery shop next door.

There was some talk of raising the money to send him but, to herimmense relief, nothing ever came of it.

She wanted him to settle down in Seaton, work in his father’s shop, marry a nice local girl.

When he met Nettie her joy had been complete. Long before they got engaged, she and Frank were busy in preparations for turning the rooms above the shop into a small apartment for them. What could have been better? Her beloved son living right next door - her grandchildren coming over to play. Everything was as perfect as it could be!

Ah well, they say pride comes before a fall.

The telegram shook violently in her hands and she placed it, very carefully, on the table, smoothing it out and turning it over to see the other side.

She felt, if she didn’t open it, if she didn’t actually read the dreadful words, it couldn’t have happened. That somehow the very act of reading them would make it real.

The day war was declared Jonathon had come bounding into the kitchen, flushed with excitement, waving a newspaper. “Look, Mum. They’ve declared war!”

She looked at him in mute terror. No, not Jonathon. Not her boy!

“Listen, Mum.” He held the newspaper out in front of him and read out loud. “Great Britain is in a state of war with Germany. It was officially stated at the Foreign Office last night that Great Britain declared war against Germany at 7pm. The British Ambassador in Berlin has been handed his passport.” He put the paper down on the table and beamed at her, his eyes sparkling with delight.

She made weak protests, saying it was all nonsense, that it wasn’t their war. Why should they care about Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Why should young English men have to go to war over the assassination of someone nobody had ever heard of before in a country nobody had ever even visited?

But he was full of the excitement of it all. Full of wild visions of death and glory. The little house in Seaton, the haberdasher’s shop, even his beloved Nettie paled into insignificance beside the prospect of war. There was nothing she could do.

It all happened so quickly after that. The government issued a call for an extra 100,000 soldiers and Jonathon was one of the first to enlist. She had wept when she had seen him in his uniform, the golden curls, which had darkened to bronze as he grew older, now cut short.

“Don’t worry, Mum,” he said, bending down and giving her a hug. “It’ll all be over by Christmas.”

It didn’t matter now. The war could go on forever for all she cared. The worst had already happened. Heavily, she sat down at the table and tore open the envelope.


It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has this day been received from the War Office notifying the death onSep 14th(Rank) Private (Name) J. H. Whitfield (Regiment) R Field Arty which at occurred at on service on the 14 of September ’14 and I am to express to you the sympathy and regret of the Army Council at your loss. The cause of death was Killed in action.

Any application you may wish to make regarding the late soldier’s death …

Agnes let the paper fall from her fingers, then placing both hands on the table, she hauled herself out of her chair and began to scream.

“God, oh please God. Don’t let it be true. Please God, not my boy. Not Jonathon. Please God let it be a mistake. Please, if there’s anyone out there, please listen. Please help me. Help…”

She tailed off. There was somebody standing at the other end of the room, in the shadows near the stove. Somebody tall and thin, wearing a robe or a cloak. Someone whose very shape filled her with dread. She wanted to ask who he was, what he was doing in her kitchen, but the muscles in her face refused to work and she just stood, frozen in mid-scream, half-bent over the kitchen table.

“Why do you call upon your God? He will not help you. He is an ancient creature, a monster who still demands blood sacrifice. At this very moment thousands of young men are dying in the trenches of the battlefields of Europe. They squirm in the mud like rats, waiting to die. And He rejoices.”

The voice was beautiful, melodious and hypnotic. She wanted to listen even though it was saying such dreadful things.

The figure came out of the shadows and began to walk towards her. She had expected… she did not know what she had expected… but not this beautiful young man.

“But I will help you,” he said. And she looked into his eyes and was trapped in their gaze. “Tell me what you want to happen.”

The eyes were green with gold flecks and the flecks seemed to be moving in slow circles, like ripples on the surface of a pool.

When she spoke it was in a hoarse whisper. “I want my son back. I want him back alive and well. I want it never to have happened. I want to turn the clock back. I don’t care what I have to do in exchange. You can have my soul if you want it. Just give me back my son.”

The young man threw back his head and laughed, the hood falling back upon his shoulders revealing long golden curls, not unlike those of Jonathon as a child. “I do not want anything,” he said. “What would I want with your soul? It is He who collects souls, not I.

Then he looked her full in the face and said, “It is done.”

Agnes looked around wildly. Nothing had changed. The telegram still lay on the table where it had fallen. There was no sign of Jonathon.

A white hand slid out from under the cloak and rose slowly, the forefinger pointing. Agnes looked up, her eyes following the pointing finger to the clock on the mantelpiece.

At first she could see nothing out of the ordinary and then she realised the hands were moving. Slowly at first, then picking up speed, going faster and faster… backwards. The light in the room began to change, light then dark, light then dark, going faster and faster until it was just a rapid flicker - the hands on the clock just a blur.

She felt herself falling…

“Mummy, are you all right?”

Jonathon was bending over her, his little face full of concern, the golden curls falling forward and shading his eyes. Agnes struggled into a sitting position. What on earth was she doing on the kitchen floor? She couldn’t imagine how she had got there.

“I’m all right, Treasure,” she said, pulling Jonathon towards her and hugging him so fiercely he wriggled slightly with discomfort. For some reason she felt an enormous sense of gratitude and relief. She had the strangest feeling of tragedy narrowly averted. A nightmare, perhaps. She held her son close and looked across the room as if the answer might be there. But there was nothing except the shadows by the stove.

Over the years every so often she got the feeling again. Disaster narrowly averted. And quite frequently she had the feeling that something had happened before. She had lived this very same moment before. It didn’t have to be a special event. They might be sitting at the table eating their dinner, or by the fire in the evening – Frank reading the paper and smoking his pipe, she knitting, Jonathon on the floor playing with his blocks – and she would think,I have seen this before with the light falling just this way, Frank holding his paper in exactly that position, my own hands holding the needles, this same colour wool – everything exactly the same.

She told Frank and he laughed. “Everyone gets that from time to time,” he said. “It’s called déja vu.”

But she shook her head. It felt more important than that. It felt… portentous. That feeling of disaster narrowly averted. She shuddered and crossed herself. And somewhere deep in her memory she thought she heard a voice saying, “He will not help you.”

The day war was declared Jonathon came bounding into the kitchen, flushed with excitement, waving a newspaper. “Look, Mum. They’ve declared war!” And Agnes was struck with a terror so powerful she could not speak. This is it, she thought. This is where I must change it. I must stop him. But all her protests seemed weak and ineffectual. She wept and stormed and he just laughed at her. And what could she say? I have a premonition. I know you will not return?Young men did not listen to such things. Nothing she said would dissuade him.

On the 12th August she and Frank stood on the quay, little Nettie beside them, weeping into her shawl, and they watched the soldiers march past. Eager new recruits in their immaculate new uniforms, fresh-faced and glowing with the excitement of promised glory. Agnes groaned as they marched by, her heart heavy with all the sorrow in the world, watching the young men of Seaton go by, marching to their death. Deep in her memory a voice said, “Blood sacrifice.”

She scanned the ranks anxiously, looking for Jonathon. There! There he was. Towards the end of the line, on the near side where he would pass by her so closely she would almost be able to touch him. He was looking straight ahead, following orders, doing his duty as he had always done his duty, jaw set determinedly. But under his serious expression she could see the wild joy.

Coming closer now and then …all of a sudden …everything seemed to slow down. Even the sound of the town band spiralled down into a low booming drone. The soldiers marched at a snail’s pace. And as she watched, they began to change, other images superimposed over the young men she could see. Men with bandages on their heads, painfully moving forward on crutches, men with their arms in slings, men with empty sleeves where their arms should be.
Slowly, she dragged her eyes to where Jonathon marched, not so far away now, still whole, thank God, not crippled like the others. He came closer, one step at a time, still looking straight ahead.

Then a voice rapped out a harsh command. “Eyes left!”

Jonathon turned and looked at her, a smile of recognition on his face. The smile went on happening, the flesh slowly peeling back from his lips, the skin on his face shrinking and blackening until it fell away completely, leaving nothing but a grinning skull.

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