Many of us have heard “start your story in the middle of the action, or the height of the conflict.”
David Lavender suggests “start at the height of desire.”
“You need not worry about being dull if you can present within the first few hundred words a definite character in the grip of a definite emotion.”
“But introducing a character and his motives to an audience must be done deftly and without explanation. For example, if setting up a boy-loves-girl story, Lavender says, ‘I must show the boy immediately engaged in wanting the girl. I must do it with unobtrusive little touches. I must bring it out through the way he acts and what he says, being at all times careful not to let the reader guess that he is having something explained to him.'” — Nicki Porter, August 2015 The Writer magazine
The Sound of the Whistle and Time Itself
Jack Tomlinson stretched an arm out from beneath the covers and stabbed the button on his alarm clock. He lay quite still for a moment, pondering what lay ahead, what tomorrow would bring after today. Would he still set his alarm to wake him at 4 A.M.? What would be the point, he thought. But, he resigned himself, there was still today, and the men would be counting on him. Last evening he had laid out a new shirt for the occasion, and chosen his favorite blue tie with the anchor pattern. He would dress extra smartly because today was going to be his last working day. Sixty years were given over to the docks, and never once late. Much had changed in his lifetime, but not what he did. It had been the same job since his first ‘clock-in.’ Jack, of course, would be missed. Not just in the docks where he began at sixteen years of age, working as the tea boy but all over town. His face was familiar and loved. Jack looked at himself in the mirror, checked his tie, pinching just a little tighter, then donning his great overcoat, his slender, bony fingers fiddling with the buttons. The coat was a blessing on such a morning, and his cap, almost as old as he, he wore with a slight askew.
At 5.A.M., snow was lightly falling, a virgin powdery film. He had set off a little earlier, conscious that walking would be trickier, shambling along his bent and buckled frame and using a stick for support. He was glad he’d wrapped the woolen scarf a couple of times around his neck. To outsiders, he might look like a lonely figure, steadily placing his feet, wearing his strong dock-man boots. But Jack is not lonely.
He’d never married, never had a girlfriend, yet Jack could not walk the streets without women, young and old, asking after him, touching his shoulder and smiling. He had a great many friends, but tonight he would go to his bed wondering what his future holds.
Jack was raised in an orphanage till he was sixteen. On that birthday, he was given a sum of money and told to go find work. There was no home for him that night. He wasn’t the brightest flame, suffering mild learning difficulties, but Jack had grown into a happy man for all his tribulations and was well liked by all who knew him. He’d found his place among brawny, hardworking, hard talking, no nonsense kind of men.
The route he’d trod over sixty years had changed several times. A new housing estate took the place of the oak wood he’d loved, and another time, some years on, where the railway once meandered, a highway now roared. It is Jack’s responsibility to sound the ‘whistle’ at 6. A.M. for the start of work, then again at ten, so the men can break for tea, another blast at 1 P.M. for lunch, then 3.30 P.M. for another break, and lastly 5. P.M., not his favorite whistle, to signal the end of the day. Today the sound of that whistle would signal the end of Jack’s working career. A very important position, he was told. Strangely, there were no bullies in that environment, no braggarts; just do your job and you’ll be okay kind of men. Jack had long earned the respect of his workmates by his unswerving reliability and diligence.
The snow fell a little harder. Jack’s steps a little closer, his stick more faithful. He had to make one stop on his way to the dockyard gates. It was a stop he’d made on every single working day. He would check his watch against the old grandfather clock that stood at the back of Simpsons, the town’s watchmaker. Founded by the present owner’s father, Reginald Arthur Simpson. He’d died twenty years past and now his son, Reginald Francis Simpson ran the shop. Jack remembered seeing that clock hauled into the shop on his first day of work. It took four men to lift it into position. He gamely offered his strength to assist.
He stood at the window, oblivious to the snow’s weight, and looked at the clock for a long spell. Reginald Arthur told Jack that it was the finest Grandfather timepiece in all the country. He asked if Jack knew what the time was? Jack, of course, replied that he had never owned a watch. Before the boy had continued his way to that first day at the docks, Reginald Arthur had given Jack a silver pocket timepiece. “You’ll be needing a watch, lad, if you’re going to do such a responsible job.” Reginald Arthur then showed him how to wind it and set it while looking at the Grandfather timepiece, now stood proudly in the corner, over-lording the store.
Since the very day that Grandfather clock had taken its place at the back of the shop, Jack had checked his watch against it. Perfect. The old grandfather clock had never failed him. Kept perfect time. Jack slipped off one mitten and again fumbled his wiry fingers over the buttons on his coat. From his waistcoat, he pulled out a silver timepiece linked to a chain. He flipped open the lid, the white face of the watch shining a private moonlight. It indicated to the minute the same time as the splendid Grandfather clock.
Jack folded his fingers over the lid and slipped it back into his waistcoat pocket. With greater deliberateness, feeling the pinch of cold, he locked the buttons on his overcoat.
“Hello, Jack.” It was a voice Jack knew well.
“Hello young Mr. Simpson, you’re opening early this morning,” he responded.
“Young…? I like that,” replied Reginald Francis. “I wish. Yes, early is good. I have a special delivery to make this afternoon, and I want to be sure that everything is perfect.”
“Must be special indeed to bring you out on a winter’s morning. I’m standing here admiring the old grandfather clock in the back of the shop.” He paused momentarily, “do you know, young Simpson, lad, I’ve been passing this shop since the day your father opened, but a lad you were, wearing short trousers. It was my first day at my job, the tea-maker, and whistle-blower, and every weekday since, I look in, and I set the watch your father gave me in accordance with that magnificent face. Never blown that whistle a second late, do you know that?” Jack stated, leaning his stick against the window and pulling his mitten back on.
“Is that so, Jack?” Arthur Francis responded and laughed wildly. “Wait, you’ve set your watch by the old Grandfather clock for sixty years, then gone to blow the whistle?”
“That’s right, lad. Never been late, ever.”
Arthur Francis’ laughter roared again; it echoed down the snow-hushed street.
“Jack, let me tell you something about my father. When I was old enough, I would come to help him. At six every morning, he’d stand by the Grandfather clock, waiting for the whistle at the docks to sound so that he could check its accuracy. He told me how that the dock’s whistle was never a second early or a second late. Since dad died, I have done exactly the same thing!”
Both men chuckled. Arthur Francis gave the old man a hug. Jack muddled off along the Christmas dressed street toward the dockyard gates.
Arthur Francis was still smiling in the afternoon as he drove his old truck through the tall wrought iron gates that led to the docks. The Grandfather clock, at the request of the Harbor Authority’s Board, had been removed from the shop. Arthur Francis had agreed to sell knowing that his father would have wanted the Grandfather clock to find its rightful home.
Time, in the end, is only what we all agree it should be.
mcullen Post author
Awwww. . . Kelly, you’ve gone and done it again. . . lovely story, brilliantly told. I enjoy how you weave your narrative, inviting the reader to journey along with your characters, making discoveries as we go. I love the entire piece and especially like the phrases, “He wasn’t the brightest flame,” and “looked at the clock for a long spell” . . . also giving the reader a chance to pause and ponder. I also like, ” over-lording the store.” And “feeling the pinch of cold, he locked the buttons on his overcoat.” Kelly, you have a unique way of presenting details . . . inviting the reader to see a new world through fresh eyes. You cleverly set the scene with references to the cold, so many fabulous details, including, “the snow-hushed street.” I also enjoy, “muddled off along the Christmas dressed street.” I enjoy your style of writing with such flair. . . so much more than “this happened and then that happened.” You gently guide the reader along the narrator’s journey with pitch-perfect dialogue and pleasant personalities. It is a joy to enter the fictional worlds you create.
I absolutely agree with Marlene, Kelly. I was captured by your story, at first, because I wanted to find out about what this man was doing to get him up at 4 AM…and I loved the way you referred to various clocks, the alarm clock, “clock in,” the large Grandfather Clock. The old song, “My Grandfather’s Clock was too big for the shelf, so it stood 90 years on the floor…” That song, a favorite, has always run through my mind when clocks were involved….and your detail about “folded his fingers over the lid…” The way you set up the, forgive me, laugh out loud, moment at the end of the story. Brilliant! Enchanting, and fun. I too enjoy your style.
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