Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Chapter 30: The Club

Neith had shaken off the nettle thing.  Opposition to her presence wasn’t news. She knew the school visitation rights vote hadn’t been in her favour, with only an eighth or so of the school-kids willing to stay.  Looking at it that way, she was surprised she wasn’t receiving more malicious notes and garlands. 

Neith fixed on that eighth; the burbling excitement of After School Club.  Talk around her had once again turned to Longest Day – fast approaching, she understood – and she found their rapture with all the occasion promised sounded to her like a far off dream.  Nonetheless, she looked forward to it too.  And dreaded it.  After Longest Day, she would tell Elle about concealing the fact she was transmitting reports.  She would also share suspicions that any Phase 2 with MinSci was still dangerous.  She didn’t trust Prescott.  MinSci hadn’t told Neith everything, and she had no idea how much more there was to tell.  Although it pained her every day to know she was maintaining a cover, it pained her more to imagine spoiling Nydia’s biggest holiday, what with the resulting inevitable council meetings, and her ah…possible deportation?  What were consequences for bad behaviour in Nydia?  Would they shackle her to a tree? 

Ruthie and Nola were now teasing about some water clock – something Neith had never heard of.  She could only assume Mr Flynn was their target, since they would occasionally nudge each other and flit their eyes in his direction.  He was over on the other side of the room, laying a table of props for tomorrow; doing his best to appear busy.  “It has gears, and water wheels, and gates…”  Ruthie was listing details.

“Papa’s obsessed with it.”  Nola.  Eye flit.  Nudge.  Miles raised his head but didn’t speak.

“He is.  We keep a calendar, so we know when Longest Day is coming…”

“…Also known as Summer Solstice.”

“Summer Solstice.”  Nola seemed to appreciate Ruth’s addendum, rather than being bothered by it.  “Yes, it’s that too.  We know from the calendar it usually falls in late December, and crossing off days is pretty straight-forward.  But Papa thinks,” eye flit, “the clock is ceremonial and…what else Papa?”

“Time-honoured.”  He shot across the room, proving he was most certainly listening. 

“Yes, that.  He is always checking it and going on about how the Swedes used it.”

Miles pretended to still be paying tomorrow’s planning more attention for a brief pause.  Nola held her mouth open, looking his way, knowing her bait was too much.

The Greeks, Nola!  The Greeks.” He was all Mr Flynn, now – assuming the educator’s mantle.  He clenched both of his fists in exhortation, bringing them up by his shoulders as he crossed the room towards the Club’s nook.  “I know you know it’s the Greeks, and you’re just winding me up – forgive the pun,” he shook his head to himself, “but I can’t bear the thought of Davey or Jimmy storing that misinformation.  It’s a beautiful time piece.”  He looked around the group he’d now joined.  “Devices like it proved accurate for millennia.”

Nola folded her arms, undeniably chuffed.  She rolled her eyes.

Neith reminded herself to swallow. She was getting in too deep here.  And not with her fascination with water clocks.  “I’d like to see it.”  The words were out before she could fully consider them. 

Nola face-palmed.  Ruthie mouthed a soundless Ooooo.  Davey was building something on the floor with small rods and holed blocks, but he looked up now.  “Not again!”

“I’m gonna go home.”  Ulysses announced, getting up from the ratty couch.  “Six days to go!”

“So you’re excited about Longest Day, but not the ceremonial clock?”  Neith asked.

“Am I excited about a day with no work?  You bet!”  Ulysses shrugged into his backpack and made his way for the door.  “That clock?  Sorry Mr F – you’re great, but the clock?  It’s not for me.”

Jimmy nudged Davey, “Let’s go.”  Davey scooped the toy pieces back into a basket and returned it to the bottom shelf of the bookcase.  Jimmy waited, poised to leave. 

Ruthie grabbed Nola by the wrist and tugged.  “Nola, if we’re finishing Club early, you should come over.”  Neith heard the tone.  The we-best-leave-these-two-alone tone.

“Oh yeah, La, please!  You could finish reading The Lorax!  Neith loved hearing her pint-sized suitor use his baby name for his cousin.  She also loved that he still pled for story-time.  Nola looked for approval from Miles.  His nod of permission sent her off with the exiting troupe.

Miles let out a sigh.  “I guess it’s just us then?”  The smile melt was back.  It didn’t seem complicated when he was doing that.  She wasn’t sure any drawing could capture it.  How would she caption it, if it could?  It was more than A Smile.  She had it: A Smile Melt, or Smelt, if you will.  Yes, a smelt.  Miles Flynn smelted instead of smiled.

Oh, Miles was on the move.  Neith followed him through the room behind the classroom.  What had Elle said was back here?  The boiler, that was it.  Neith saw now what a boiler looked like.  Miles carried on and out the back door beyond it, across a short stretch of grass to a small structure behind the schoolhouse. Neith would have assumed it housed a generator or sports supplies.  Miles unlatched the door and went in before Neith.  Her eyes adjusted to the natural light admitted through apertures near the roof, like the outhouse.  She saw the space was about the size of Elle’s lounge-come-dining room, but with a beautiful machine at its centre.  Neith was practically drooling.  Her fingers ached to touch each shiny mechanism, to experiment with adjusting settings to see how it affected the rest of its intricate design.  Her old lab and The Green had once resounded notes of refuge within her.  This fenced-in automata brainchild out in the woods resonated with the same.  An elaborate diversion – serving another, and his need for problems and solutions he had power over.  She understood.  He had things to forget.  She admired him and his creation all the more for empathising with his motives. 

He was looking at her.  She reined some of the awe in.  He had no idea she dealt with mechanics, design, and…robotics.  She searched for a way to explain to him how fully she appreciated his endeavours and interests. 

He looked nervous, expectant.

“It’s beautiful, Miles.” 

His anxiety visibly departed.  He let out a short laugh with a smelt.  “I was worried you were trying to find a tactful way to ask how I found the time to make this monstrous, obsolete thing.”  He reached for a small gear that was making a sound, rubbing his thumb across it.  “It’s not much compared to the phones you all carry in your pockets back in the City…but it’s ours.  It was my final project when I finished at this school myself – back when my dad was teaching.  I wanted to do something with my hands, instead of write an essay, you know?”

“I know exactly what you mean.  And it’s not.  Obsolete, I mean.  Because new things serve the same function doesn’t make the former technology obsolete.  The new things aren’t as beautiful, for a start.”  Neith was studying it as she said this, thinking – considering where Miles had sourced each part and how he’d affixed it.  There were two deep bowls – large enough for Ruth to hide in during a round of hide and seek, when empty.  But they weren’t – both had a volume of water inside.  One bowl sat on a raised platform above and behind the other.  A complicated ladder of curious machinery was mounted between them.  If the large vessels were translucent, it would have resembled a giant’s hour glass – a symbol Neith knew from times she’d waited for her italic submission on the Intra to be approved for display.  She thought of the Intra then; surely they wouldn’t have banned history on water clocks – there was no possible gain for fertility and mass control in that.  These were questions she might even have asked a tutor without being redirected.  She could maybe even access detailed diagrams, descriptions and break-downs for this type of machine. 

Miles didn’t have that access.  And he built this.

He explained its working to her – how water moved through a small gate at the base of the top vessel into the tween-sized bowl below; how linear measurements within the lower bowl told him how much water had passed through from the top vessel.  How it was keeping time; he was keeping time.  Eyes alight, he elucidated compensations he had to make for some of the essential water evaporating in higher temperatures and how he calibrated it all with a sundial.  When he alluded to the sun dial, Miles drew her towards the mounted thing outside, his hand cupping her elbow.  This awoke an abdominal tropical storm – with heat of pleasure and cold anxiety cyclonically whipping through her middle region.  This created significant interference for Neith’s comprehension.  Was this what the close-ups in movies were trying to capture?  They’d failed.  Miles released her arm with no sign of knowing the effect he’d had – so caught up in the lesson.  Free from his touch, she could again think clearly.  She honed in on her earlier thoughts of the hour glass.  They moved back into the device’s shelter.  Water moved fairly quickly; why not create a smaller escapement?  She then began a study of the gears.  She was circling it, tucking her hair behind her ears, decoding the parts of the impressive sum.  

Miles watched, wringing his hands in front of his chest.  Folded his arms, wrung his hands again.  He followed a step or two behind her, or watched her through spaces in the fanciful parts. 

Neith may have registered his study of her, but was too engaged now with the stimulus to allow it to derail her thinking a second time.  She had followed each piece through in sequence and didn’t want to lose her place. 

“You said something about evaporation?  Or temperature?  Affecting the accuracy?” 

“I did.  More specifically, viscosity – which is kind of like…”                   

“…tackiness?”  Neith knew the term from lubricating Ands.

“I was going to say gumminess, but I think tackiness sounds better.”  He was looking at her. 

She was looking back.  She felt a stirring inside where the storm had laid siege.  She looked back to the water clock. 

“I don’t keep this thing running year-round.  I start filling the top vessel in early December.  As the weeks pass, less and less water is left …until Longest Day – when the water empties, and the sun is still up.  It took me years to get the volume just right.  I know when Longest Day is from the calendar, of course, but the confirmation – when the water’s course confirms what I already know – it has this singular, resounding feeling of triumph to it.”

“This whole thing reminds me of something I read on the Intra, back home.”

“The clock?”

“The ceremony.  Before the borders closed, nations came together for games and sport – flying across the world to play – can you believe?”

“Barely.”  Miles was still watching her the way she had the clock.  She kept her eyes on the clock.  The people she might let in took this man’s wife. 

“Before the games began, they carried a torch – with an actual flame – and passed it from hand to hand.  Didn’t they?”

“I know the ceremony you mean.  And they did.  They passed the flame along until they reached a giant torch they lit to signal the official opening of the games.”  Miles tore his eyes away from his study to look at the machine he knew plenty well.

“That sounds kind of magical.”


“So, do you heft this thing out onto a field somewhere?  Everyone in Nydia comes together on Longest Day Eve, watches the last droplet of water fall through here,” she pointed to a hole in the top vessel, “and then trumpets announce, ‘Let Longest Day, begin?’”

“Not quite.  It’s more of a pet project.”  She could see she had made him smile.  He added quietly, “A distraction.”  He confirmed it. 

A change of subject, quickly. “I’m amazed you put all of this together.  My first thought, if I’m honest, was that I wanted to search the Intra archives for tutorials on the history of something like this.  You must’ve used books?  And your own thinker.”  She tapped her temple and caught his reactive smelt at her left through a tunnel of water clock gears. 

“A lot of books.  So…the Intra?  It has stuff on things like this?”

Neith spoke her earlier thoughts aloud.  “I don’t see why not.  It’s not something I can imagine them flagging.”

They both realised at the same time how many words had been uttered and neither wished to expend more.  They hadn’t talked this much since that night she’d come on his invitation to the schoolhouse.  She remembered how that night ended.  She wasn’t going to be the one to talk too much.  Miles didn’t seem to want to say anything more either.  She’d wrap up.

“Thank you.  Thank you for showing me this.  I always love learning about…things around Nydia.” You.  She meant you. “But this?  This was something else.”  She looked at him briefly before demonstrating in her posture she intended to leave.

“You too.  Only the City – I love learning about it.  That stuff isn’t in my books.”

“Right.”  She gulped.  Slow the swallow, Neith. Do you want the hiccups?  “I better go.”

“See you soon.”

Neith went back the way she had come so she could collect her drawings and notes from inside the schoolhouse. 

All air left her when she almost ran into Ihaka, inside.  “Neith!”  The white smile.  The bun.

“Ihaka.  Good to see you.”

“Miles?  Is he…?”

“He was just showing me the water clock.  I’ll be going now.”

Neith collected her things and scuttled out.

Not his wife.   Not his wife.  Then why did she feel caught, weak and exposed?

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