Clockwork by Terri Jane Dow


for Gill and Patrick

It had started in the bar, the conversation. “If you had a robot heart,” she’d said, “it couldn’t get hurt.” She’d left a few days later, and he trawled over their conversations, desperate for clues, some hint of forewarning that he’d missed. She’d been right. A robot heart couldn’t get hurt. He, however, was not in possession of one. His human heart hurt very much.

The idea nagged at him as the days wore on. He pondered the viability of it. He had had some mechanical training as a boy in his uncle’s garage, but he’d been hopeless. Motorbikes held no interest for him, and engineering was not a talent that ran in the family, it seemed. He visited the library, where he spent hours consulting manuals on car parts, engines, watches. Slowly, he began to understand how the parts went together, how cogs and screws and bolts created life. He read anything he could find that sounded like it might be vaguely android-themed; sci-fi comics and novels, and computer science books with plausible explanations of creating artificial intelligence. Library books were kept under the strict supervisory gaze of a rotund, elderly woman with round, metal framed glasses. She seemed especially suspicious of his interest in mechanics, and so he began taking the books home. He would meticulously copy the diagrams into a sketchbook, labelling his pencil drawings with arrows and annotations. The drawings grew in detail, and his sketchbook became a Frankenstein’s monster, with scraps of notes inserted, parts torn out and turned upside down, and scribbles graffitied over every blank space. He watched medical documentary shows, fascinated by the advances continually being made, and the possibilities of exchanging old, worn parts, for shiny new ones. He filled another sketchbook, and another.

His friends started to worry that his focus was turning into an obsession. They’d been glad when he’d found something to do with himself, that he wasn’t spending all of his time worrying where she was, or what she was doing, or who she was doing it with. But now, they visited him and the walls were covered in pinned-up drawings of anatomy or engines, or strange inventions made of cogs and spokes. He spoke only of Asimov’s laws, or a surgery documentary he’d seen where they’d replaced a man’s heart with one that belonged to a pig. They had nothing to contribute to his conversations, and he seemed happier to have them alone.

As the months passed, his sitting room became a kind of workshop. He installed a bench along one wall, and visited the hardware store on weekends to buy various tools. He practised cutting pieces of wood with his new circular saw, and then sanded them into perfect spheres. He used a jigsaw to cut wheels and cogs, and the pieces he created progressively became smaller and smaller. He bought old watches at junk shops and took them apart, studying the way the pieces fit together. He bought solder and an iron and began repairing them, making new metal parts where the old ones had worn away. His wooden practice sculptures piled up on the tall shelves he’d replaced the couch with. The watch parts became intricate and tiny, with cogs like snowflakes.  He studied watchmaking mechanics, learning about mainsprings and ball bearings, and he put together beautiful watches that would never stop working. Sketchbooks and notebooks crowded his shelf space, and the drawings of engine parts and clockworks adorned the walls, bright thread running across the walls linking one drawing to another. He hunched over the worktop, drawing or building, and images of surgical procedures flickered across the TV long into the night.

He woke up one morning, disoriented. Struggling to place himself, he sat up, and bumped his head on the low ceiling. Groggily, he realised that he had been sleeping under the workbench, loathe to leave his creations for the night. The ticking had soothed him to sleep. He stood, stretched, and immediately sat back down on his trestle chair. The piece on the bench before him gleamed. It was a solid, metallic sphere, sanded to a flawless sheen, with a curved seam running around it like a tennis ball. He picked it up, and felt it tick in his hand, a soft, shallow beat. In the centre of the ball, next to the seam was a tiny button, and a tiny LED, flashing slowly in time with the ticking. He pressed the button, and the sphere opened. Inside, a whirring collection of tiny cogs turned, tipping ball bearings back and forth. He smiled and got back to work. It was almost ready.

He lost track of the time. Adrenaline surged through his veins, keeping him awake, focused. He toyed with the sphere, taking cogs out and replacing them with ones that were slightly bigger or smaller, slightly more or less patterned. He replaced ball bearings with those that were different sizes, listened to the sounds the differences made. He checked over the hinges, and changed the LED to different colours. Finally he was satisfied. The ball sat, glinting, on the worktop.

His immersion in the documentaries, combined with his reading of medical journals and anatomy textbooks, had done its job. He was unafraid. He visited different pharmacists in the town, buying different supplies from each. He did not trust online stores. He wanted to see what he was buying, make sure that it was right. He bought tourniquets and pincers, a bottle of iodine, a needle and thread. He managed to source a tiny vacuum hose from a dentistry supplier. He purchased a tiny hacksaw from the hardware store, and disinfectant. He bought a set of scalpels from an art shop, intended for lino-cutting. He bought a bottle of whiskey.

A couple of weeks later, he saw her in town. She was wearing a dress that had been one of his favourites, and she looked beautiful, and happy. She smiled at him. He nodded back, and kept walking. He felt nothing. She paused, certain for a moment that she had seen a tiny light flash on his chest.


Neal Fowler


Terri Jane Dow is a writer and editor from the UK. She writes mostly about gender and feminism, and graduated from the University of Edinburgh last year. In her spare time, she edits Severine Literary Journal, and reads too much speculative fiction. You can follow her on twitter@terrijane.


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(Picture by Neal Fowler)