A Flock of Clockwork Birds

Nothing deep this week – just a simple story, which happens to be true…

‘Flock of singing bird mechanisms, job lot’ said the advert.  And it had me – a bird in the hand…

I called the vendor, who – it transpired – lived less than a mile from my cottage.

“Yes,” he said. “Brass and steel.  Clockwork.  They have tiny bellows and a little brass whistle.  When you wind the key, the bird warbles and twists around.  My father had them, long ago.  Mother found them when she was turning out – asked me to find a home for them.  The sort of thing popular with Victorians, in little gilt cages, you know?  Could you use them?”

“Yes,” I said, not daring to pause for breath.

“How?” I wondered.

I could afford the price.  It seemed most reasonable for such treasures.  Real clockwork mechanisms – they are disappearing from our world like smoke.  No batteries.  No USB connectors.  Just brass and steel, cog and cam, key and spring.  I have loved clockwork, automatons and all such things ever since, as a toddler, I ripped my cardboard musical box apart to find where the sounds came from, and sat entranced as I watched the shining beauty of its mechanical perfection.

With no plan in mind, I simply knew I had to have the flock.  Perhaps the birds would sing to me and tell me how to bring them back to life.

At three o’clock I was led to the vendor’s garage.  A faded, mouse-gnawed, cardboard box was pulled out for my inspection.  Twelve little packages, each wrapped in yellowing tissue paper lay there.  He unwrapped one and placed the dainty mechanism in the palm of my hand.  Springs and cams glinted slightly in the dim light.

“Needs a key,” he said.  A second box was brought out, filled with hundreds of tiny folded waxed paper envelopes.  Why did he have that many?  He pulled one open.  I glimpsed fragments of wire and brass and plastic inside, and a shining brass key.

“Turns this way,” he said. “Counter-clockwise.  Left-handed.”

Like me.

He screwed the key into the mechanism and turned.  Nothing.  He twisted the device around, searching his memory, muttering to himself, “Must need oiling.  Not been touched in years.  How do they start?”

Then his hand knocked the fly wheel.  It began to turn.  A few slow revolutions, then it spun as smoothly as it ever had.  The bellows moved up and down like some tiny creature’s beating heart, and the warbling began.   On and on it trilled and I watched and listened, thanking the inexplicable impulse that had nudged me into answering his advert.

Next a box of birds (“All hand painted, you know.”) was passed to me for inspection.  Two hundred?  Maybe three?  Some in shades of blue, some gold.  I must have gasped at the quantity.

“Oh, you’ll be amazed when you see how many you’ve got here,” he told me.

Sure enough, as he lifted box after box, I saw an endless mass of the clockwork devices.  Enough for every key and every bird.

“No idea why my father had them,” he said.  “Obviously he was planning to do something with them and they got forgotten.  Just been stuck in an attic ever since.  You sure you can find a use for them?”

“Definitely,” I said, wondering how and when and what.

I’d happily have paid his price for the original twelve, but here I am with dirty, dusty box after dirty, dusty box of the tiny wonders, now stashed in my coal-store and waiting, waiting not so much longer now, maybe, to be released – to sing and twirl and entertain as they always intended to.

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Feeling the Music

These are my main headphones that have been wi...

Mother and son.  They got on the bus just after me.  He was somewhere between 18 and 25, I’d guess, wearing headphones and holding the tiniest MP3 player I’d ever seen.

She was anxious.

They’d been deep in conversation – negotiation, by the sound of it.
“Fine,” she was saying, “But don’t wave your arms about and no making faces.”
“Making faces!” he exclaimed, in the way sons talk to over-anxious mums the world over.  “As if I’d make faces!”

Having got his way, the young man sat at the front of the bus, while his mother perched a few seats back.

I love people-watching.  I enjoy trying to fill in the background to the gestures and snatches of conversation around me.  High-functioning autistic lad, I surmised.  Mother’s worried that if he doesn’t sit with her he’ll behave in ways that will make others stare – or worse.  She’s on a knife-edge between wanting to give him some independence and wanting to protect him from hurtful comments.  He just wants to lose himself in his music.

I watched him.  I couldn’t help it.  It felt good to see someone that happy – freely, openly, ecstatically happy and absorbed in his pleasure.  Yes, he swayed about, waved his hands from time to time, and the rapturous expressions that chased one another across his face could be classed as ‘making faces’.  He looked the way any of us might look if we were listening to music at home, alone and unobserved or at a festival, where it’s fine to dispense with inhibitions.

We – the rest of us – the neuro-typicals – have learned, from our mothers perhaps, that normally we should mask our feelings in public.  We stare straight ahead or bury our head in a book on public transport.  Showing our emotions is not acceptable.

What a dull, grey world we create.

I had enormous sympathy and respect for the boy’s mother.  I could imagine what a struggle her life was and how hard she was trying to help her child.  But regardless of that, I felt privileged to have shared that journey with him, remembering how it felt to be uninhibited and free to feel the music.