Ant Smith
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Suddenly, if not unexpectedly, the clock chimed and he lit his cigarette. Electric bells. Whereas the original may have been a feat of precision Swiss engineering, this particular model was a circa 1970 cheap mock-up; made from a cheap tin alloy, with a cheap plastic moulded face and a cheap battery powered mechanism. It was a small heap of sordid pretension, sat under a grimy plastic dome that had an irritatingly unnecessary loud false tick. Batteries don't tick. Some chip. Some tick-chip. Tick-Tock chip. Electronic flip-flop. A weekend invention of some Cambridge physicist, perhaps. Keeping suprisingly accurate time. One.

The clock chimed and he took a long toke on the cigarette in the corner of his mouth whilst scartching another tally line with the stub of an HB pencil on the back of an old envelope that once held a letter from somebody he could no longer remember. Two.

The clock chimed and he exhaled the smoke that would linger in the room longer than he cared it to. He hadn't removed it from his mouth in the process. He didn't care to. He would only have to put it back. It hung loosely between his cracked lips, and it would stay there either until it went out or became too hot to handle. In either case, he would spit it into the pail eventually. Which also stank. Three.

Another chime, and another mark; another stroke, another moment. Four so far. And counting. He didn't keep count of the cigarettes that he smoked. He didn't care to. He smoked them until they were dead, and he would do so until he was dead. And he would stop only then because of the impracticalities of the situation. In the bed next to his in the hospital there had been a man of ninety who would smoke two cigarettes at the same time; because he could, because he was recovering from a tracheotomy, because he had had some kind of cancer of the throat. You can get cancers anywhere it seemed, even in the butt.

He was ready for the next chime, it was one of his favourites. He crossed the previous four marks with a long bold diagonal cross bar, and then shuffled slightly in his chair; gently rearranging all of his relationships so that he felt presented with a fresh clean area of the envelope on which to continue. He felt momentarily refreshed and put memories of his stay in the hospital behind him once more.

But he was a little too eager, and consequently the next stroke - by virtue of having started too soon - was slightly longer and more pronounced than those in the previous group. He allowed a slight frown because it hadn't meant to be so. But, not all the moments were the same, when he took them one at a time.

At the seventh stroke he had regained the rhythm and executed his task perfectly. An all too uncommon event of late. But he wouldn't allow his mind to wander. Sometimes it seemed as if the last few would come faster. Sometimes it seemed as if time had sped up a little bit, but that he had remained stationary. Unable to even consider trying to catch up. He could see the days run off ahead, and leaving him sitting at his desk with ash falling into his lap from the loosely hanging cigarette in the corner of his mouth. His father had been able to blow smoke out of his ears.

Eight. Sometimes he would count along. Sometimes he would count up at the end. Sometimes he just scratched the marks, one after the other in a long line so that the day hardly seemed to have been measured out at all. But those would be the blacker days and today the sun had shone continually. People had died in the heat in Athens on a day like this his he had heard.

Chime. Stroke. Nine. A stitch in time saves. What did people mean by that? Jesus saves, they say. A stitch in time. It was possible. It was possible somebody was patching it all up. That would explain all the peculiarities. The opportunities you never even knew had been missed. The being caught in unusual traffic the very moment that a loved one dies in a stuffy room just around the corner. With nobody to close the curtains and all the double-decker buses filling past the window taking shoppers into the town, or out to the mall.

His next bar went from top left to bottom right, in opposition to the fifth. Creating a vague chevron pointing to the top of the envelope or beyond to where his morning cup of tea had scorched a white ring into the varnish of the desk top. It would be almost impossible to remove. Whichever of his children decided to inherit that particular stick of furniture would certainly be cursing him for his slovenly habits. But he didn't feel quite as tired as that just yet.

Five and ten. Good times. There were bad times as well. Seven and one. But now, he was inbetween times and he somewhat haphazardly made the eleventh stroke too far to the right. Perhaps he would put the next on the far left. Or perhaps he wouldn't. Perhaps he would let it stand. Stand out.

But he did. Twelve, on the left. A balanced day all in all.

He put the date at the top of the envelope and let it rest on the desk. If he had been a richer man he could have employed somebody else to do this. But there had been many 'ifs' along the way. He settled back and awaited the death of his cigarette. Afterwards he might take a short nap. He would still have a little time left, he reasoned.