The faint scratching on the outside door woke Takeshi. It was dark; the fire had almost gone out and the Watchmaker was nodding off in his armchair. He sprang into action upon hearing the noise though, almost running to the shop door.
He was opening it! What was out there? A flash of lightning illuminated a landscape with more sky than there ought to be, a small white animal streaked into the shop and the Watchmaker swiftly closed the door. There was the rattle of keys and sliding of now well-oiled bolts. The animal – a dog? – stood miserably, dripping dirty water on the carpet until he closed the inner glass door and returned.
Bundling the creature up in a blanket, he disappeared from Takeshi’s view towards the door marked ‘Staff Only’, behind the counter. Takeshi heard it open and close, considered following them. The room was chilly and his bed warm.
Instead he fell to daydreaming about becoming a pilot. He saw himself receiving his winged badge before a huge cheering crowd.
“…and then my father will build me a special plane in his factory. I’ll be a hero like the Red Baron!”
He dozed off flying beside his fairytale idol, whose life he had just saved in an epic battle.
The heat awoke him later. Peeping out from his nest of heavy blankets, he saw that the Watchmaker had built up the fire to a lively blaze. The animal, its white coat now clean and fluffed out from a bath, sprawled across the fireside rug. Its sharp ears and bushy tail revealed it to be a fox. The Watchmaker had moved his chair closer to the fireplace. His feet were propped on the fender and he puffed slowly on a long pipe. Tendrils of aromatic smoke teased Takeshi’s nostrils.
Neither of them were looking towards him. Good. People didn’t seem to like him being awake when he was not supposed to be. He was glad to be able to shuffle off the heaviest blanket discreetly.
There was another of the muffled booming noises outside; the door rattled. Man and fox both glanced at it sharply, but nothing else happened. The Watchmaker sighed.
“I don’t think he’s coming,” he said, apparently to himself. The fox whined, rolling over to a couchant position, gazing intently into the flames.
“We’ll have to hope he had the sense to go back the other way,” the old man continued, but he did not sound hopeful and a deep gloom seemed to settle on the strange pair.
Takeshi wondered if it was his father they were talking about. Was everything really burnt up like the dream city? Surely not, or the shop would be burned too? Were his model aeroplanes safe? What about the new fighter plane waiting to be unwrapped if he behaved well at the ceremony?
Oh but! He hadn’t behaved well! He’d got lost and now no-one knew where he was! Leitha was going to run away, she wouldn’t take him home. Suppose the Watchmaker kept him prisoner? He said he needed an apprentice!
Takeshi began to cry into his pillow. A cold wet nose touched his cheek and a warm tongue licked his face.
“Hey, get off!” Takeshi shouted, hastily sitting up among the tangled blankets. The fox jumped up to join him; her fur was soft and Takeshi began to stroke it.
“Ah, our young warrior is awake!” the Watchmaker remarked. “Would you like some cocoa? We still have some time before the auxilliary drive powers up. It would be pleasant to tell more stories if I had an audience.”
Takeshi was not sure if he had quite understood all this speech, but cocoa and stories had definitely featured.
“Yes please,” he replied, hoping this was the right answer. It worked for the cocoa; the fox moved away slightly, wary of the hot liquid.
The Watchmaker pushed another log onto the fire and moved his armchair to face them. He consulted his pocketwatch; Takeshi noticed that he had changed his clothes. The same velvet waistcoat now covered a blue smock of rough weave. Dark blue baggy trousers, embroidered with a sprinkling of silver stars, replaced the formal black of before. He still wore the pink fluffy slippers and the smoking cap though.
“If you left a seven day marker…” he mused, gazing at the watch, “we don’t need to wait for full power.”
His voice sounded strange, as if it was coming from under water. The fox barked and whined.
“I don’t know what conditions will be like. Can only hope they’re more stable and we can go on charging.”
The fox whined in a curiously modulated way. Takeshi could almost hear words in it.
“Then we’re in trouble,” the Watchmaker said seriously.
“Story?” hinted Takeshi, worried lest they become gloomy again. The old man replaced the watch in his pocket.
“I had not forgotten,” he said in his normal voice. “It was important to see how much time there was before choosing the correct story. Now, let me consider….”
He stared into space, absently stroking his beard. The fire crackled, making them all jump. Another explosion, further away than before, came from outside.
“Ah yes. The story of Baron von Richthofen and the Wolf.”
Takeshi listened, intent but a little confused.
“I don’t think the Red Baron could turn into a wolf,” he objected after a while.
“This is a different Baron,” said the Watchmaker. “Yours can fly, this one turns into a wolf. Very odd family if you ask me.”
This Baron was embroiled in an exciting battle with creatures called Ice Wraiths. He had to rescue a fair maiden, with the aid of his sidekick Coyote Joe, who was funny and always got things wrong. The fair maiden turned out to be quite tough herself; between them, they soundly defeated the Wraiths and flew back to the baronial castle in a balloon. Takeshi suspected the Watchmaker had just made the last bit up to please him, but it was a good story, and he was sorry when it was finished.
He scraped the last of the delicious chocolate from the cup, setting it down on the fireplace. The Watchmaker drew the large gold timepiece from his waistcoat pocket again and studied it carefully.
“Time to move,” he announced eventually. “At least we can use the garden soon. The watertank won’t last forever. Suppose you two go and explore the back rooms. Toys, mice, that sort of thing?”
The fox pricked up her ears at the word ‘mice’. She jumped up eagerly, like a dog scenting a walk. Takeshi also stood. He was keen to see beyond the staff door. The Watchmaker opened it for them, pushing a doorstop into place. He handed Takeshi a bunch of keys and an electric torch.
“I expect there’s a few lights working,” he advised, “but they could go out anytime, so keep this with you. Find the boy a bag to put his things in,” he called after the fox, who was already halfway down the corridor, “and don’t leave a mess!”
The old man watched the torchlight bobbing down to the end of the corridor, where there was clearly a debate about which way to go. Boy and fox finally disappeared to the left. He hung up the ornate key, and wandered around the counter into the shop.
He was still there some time later when the pair returned. The fox’s clean coat was streaked with dusty cobwebs. Takeshi wore a rucksack and carried a large flat box; they were both in excellent moods.
“Mr Watchmaker, please can I make this model?” Takeshi called, pushing the box onto the counter. The Watchmaker put down the clock he had been working on, took off his lenses and came over to see what they had found.
“Search and Rescue plane,” he read, “Easy construction. No glue required. I expect it is within your capabilities.”
Takeshi looked puzzled.
“Ah. Yes, of course you can start on it now. I’ll clear a lower table for you; that counter is too high. Help me put some of these clocks away.”
There was a pile of them ready to go into boxes; Takeshi wrapped them as the Watchmaker stacked the boxes in a cupboard..
“Why they have all stopped ticking?” he asked.
“Because I unwound the springs.” the old man replied.
“Why did you unwind the springs?”
“So they would stop ticking.”
This line of enquiry was getting nowhere, so Takeshi abandoned it. The Watchmaker brought the model over and the boy unpacked it with excitement.
“Ah. Instructions.” The old man peered at a sheet of paper covered with diagrams, numbers and arrows. Takeshi carefully laid out all the pieces on the table and the two of them set to work.
It was the quiet which woke Leitha. Darkness had gone, but there was no noise, no coughing, no restless sleepers turning, no crackle of radio from the matrons’ cabin. She opened her eyes in a sudden panic, fearing she’d slept in long after everyone else had left the dormitory.
She was on the settee in the Watchmaker’s living room. The fire had collapsed into a pile of gently smoking ashes. She was alone.
Leitha jumped out of her makeshift bed. It was quite cool without the fire; she found her shoes and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. Going into the shop, she found Takeshi carefully applying stickers to a toy aeroplane.
“Ohoyo, kid,” she called, “Where’s the Watchmaker?”
“In garden. Blue door. He has a fox!”
“Nice plane,” Leitha commented, scanning the shop for a blue door. It was the one previously blocked by a table, but was now ajar. The faint sound of conversation reached her ears, but when she went in, the Watchmaker was on his own.
Leitha gazed around, amazed. She was in a walled garden with a clouded glass roof through which a diffuse light poured. Curved paths laid with a mosaic of many coloured cobblestones separated flourishing beds of vegetables and bright flower patches. The path she stood on opened into a circular paved area containing a white wrought iron table and matching chairs. A double swinging garden seat with an elaborate canopy was off to one side of these. The Watchmaker sat facing her; there was a pot of tea on the table. A butterfly landed on Leitha’s arm, tested her skin with its tongue and flickered off again.
“Do come in,” the old man invited. “Have some green tea; I’m afraid it’s a little cold by now.”
He sounded tired, and was wearing blue pyjamas. Leitha wondered what had been going on while she slept, but accepted his offer. The tea was indeed cold, but refreshing. She sipped it and gazed around her.
“This must be as big as the whole shop,” she thought. “The old guy has to be well rich!”
The Avenue end of the garden ended in a brick wall with a red door. She still couldn’t remember what shop had been there. Perhaps there wasn’t one. The plants were organised into rows at that end, while the other boundary was almost obscured by exuberent bushes – even small trees! She could make out a pair of double doors set in a stone arch, flanked by windows. The far window was partly hidden by a square structure of the same stone. This extended nearly halfway into the garden. ‘Well House’ was carved in the solid grey lintel, and the door was studded with iron bolts.
The Watchmaker was leaning back with his eyes closed.
“He looks done in,” thought Leitha. She sipped her tea, gazing past him into the wilder area, where she assumed the fox was lurking. She’d never seen a real live one; she felt it was an odd creature to have as a pet.
There was a movement on the swinging settee. What she had taken for a white furry cushion uncurled into a fox! The animal yawned, stretched, then leapt down gracefully and padded over to Leitha.
“My neighbour’s dog,” said the Watchmaker, without opening his eyes.
“Takeshi says it’s a fox.”
The old man peered closely at the creature, who grinned back and waved her tail.
“Fox, dog, whatever. It’s a long time since we were neighbours as well.”
Leitha knelt to stroke the soft white fur.
“Does she have a name?”
“Why of course. Can’t quite remember it though. Never needed it. Both know who we are.”
The fox yipped twice, the second sound being subtly different from the first. Leitha tried to imitate it. The fox cast a resigned glance at her, before turning to the Watchmaker.
“The girl will never get the hang of it,” it said.
Before Leitha could be properly amazed at the fox speaking, Takeshi squirmed in between them and began to fiercely cuddle the animal.
“Nine Tails” he said firmly.
“But that’s silly, Takeshi, she only has one.”
The fox’s grin widened. For a fraction of an instant, a fan of feathery white tails spread out on the cobbles. Leitha blinked in surprise and there was only one again.
“Nine Tails it is, I suppose.”
Takeshi investigated the teapot, found it empty and pushed it over to Leitha.
“Get lost,” she responded . Takeshi seized the teapot and marched off towards the kitchen.
“I do it.”
“You’re not tall enough to reach the kettle properly,” Leitha called, standing up to go after him. She hesitated, turning to the Watchmaker.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, but you’ve got a million credit garden and a talking fox, so you’ve got to be someone. I don’t want to go back to Home, I want to be somewhere else and try to find my mother, can you help me?”
“I am helping you,” said the old man, closing his eyes again. There was a clatter of falling pans from the kitchen. The fox looked reproachfully at the Watchmaker and trotted after the children.
Leitha was mopping up the spilt sauce; Takeshi had returned to his comics with an air of quiet triumph.