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‘The Tick-Tock Mystery’, by Nicola Millward

Short stories
Belmont House, Kent

My alarm clock had been reliably inaccurate for the past few days; deciding to sound off at random hours during the small hours or not sparking into life at all.  The consequence of its failure to activate today meant that I was already running late for an interview at Belmont House in Kent.

Approaching the pathway to the main door, in haste and heart racing, I was able to steady my nerves in the knowledge that I had become accustomed to the House through earlier visits and its growing familiarity was never to breed contempt….

A further affection had grown in the knowledge that my 3 times great-grandfather, a certain Frederick Bates, had been butler to the Harris family in the mid-1850s. That said, every family search for one’s ancient loved-ones would reveal a skeleton or two, and he was probably it; vacating a variety of service positions around the country followed by a blackish cloud, due in no small part to an ill-advised affair with one lordship’s daughter and the suspicion of his involvement in the unsolved theft of various items of family silverware, was a marked factor in a dubious employment record.  He had somehow charmed himself into the employ of the 3rd Lord Harris where he remained loyal for an encouraging period of years.

In the fullness of time, however, nature took its course so to speak and an unsettling incident of a missing priceless timepiece unfolded; every member of the servant household was rigorously scrutinised by the local constabulary and his lordship, but all to no satisfactory avail.  It cast an unfortunate cloud over the Harris’pile, which did with time dispel, but never completely.  In subsequent months a keen young local detective eager for promotion took up the case as a valuable fob watch went missing from his lordship’s collection and this time the finger of suspicion was pointed directly at Frederick as he had the greatest opportunity as a valet to procure the aforementioned.

…however, as I surged further along the path, a growing unease swept over me; what had on previous visits seemed the friendly and welcoming exterior of the neo-classical Georgian frontage, was now taking on a distinctly more hostile vision; perhaps it was the emotional strain of the impending interview, but something more, that I could not define; sweaty palms and a sense of foreboding engulfed me.

Suddenly there loomed a figure who beckoned me in through the small entrance hall.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the welcoming committee of the lion and tiger, who as trophies from the Harris’ exploits in India, seemed to take on a sinister stance as if unhappy at this intrusion; their piercing feline gazes menacing my every move. What was happening to me…..?!!

The greeter guided me in and I followed dutifully through the beautiful and airy Drawing Room, well-stocked Library and the elegant Dining Room where I had for so long been fascinated by the 5th Lord Harris’ clock collection and the fine silverwork of British and Indian origin; I began to focus and regain some self-composure and my interlocutor took on a more friendly human appearance.

“Tell me about yourself!” began the assessor; my well-rehearsed monologue went well and my interviewer was making convincing notes as I spoke.

A further “Is there any particular reason for your interest in Belmont House?” which elicited from me an enthusiastic response and a nod of approval. Perhaps, I should have stopped there…. but in the heat of the moment I blurted out that a certain fore-bearer had been in the employ of Lord Harris during the Victorian era, hoping that this announcement would seal the deal on successful employment here.

Once more, the atmosphere darkened and the human figure opposite me morphed into its earlier form and uttered the words “I know this place inside out, warts and all,  the unsavoury comings and goings of your unscrupulous ancestor, who in my opinion was responsible for the disappearance of many of his Lordships’ collections of silverware and a priceless timepiece, never recovered”. Fire and venom now flowed from the mouth of this creature and I felt the room spinning as I tried a hasty escape from this onslaught.  My blood ran cold and I felt nauseous to the core…

In the distance I could hear a kind of clanking noise which gradually resounded as a tick-tock noise and started to feel the sheer terror gradually diminish.  As my eyes opened I found myself lying on my own bed in grateful surroundings.  Oh my God, it must have all been a dream; a reassuring, if somewhat trite thing to say.  Trying to ground myself in some sort of here and now reality, I glanced over to my alarm clock which had again failed to do the one job it had been set to do this morning; my watch was a more reliable companion but was still telling me that it had gone 9 am.

Recollection of my interview that was due to take place at 9.30 am had meant that I did not have a cat-in-hells chance of making it on time and the rest as they say would be history….  But undeterred, I rang to try to redeem myself and the phone was answered promptly by a lady, whose voice seemed vaguely familiar but friendly. “Oh my dear did not you get my message from earlier?  We have had to cancel our meeting as somehow the alarm system was deactivated last night and thieves got away with a vast amount of silverware and in particular a priceless timepiece; the place is swarming with police and so”… her voice trailed off in my mind in disbelief.

All I could say after I had replaced the receiver was a big sorry to Frederick for ever doubting his integrity and hoping that during my rescheduled interview his positive spirit would live on…

Belmont House, Kent

Belmont House

Belmont Park, Throwley, Faversham, Kent, ME13 0HH