Some people don’t speak much but when they do, you listen. At home, I fill in my father’s silences with the details of my day, until he decides to tell a story. He always says that every machine tells a story; if you ask me, I’ll say my father is a storyteller. 

While my father is a mechanic by day, he cares far more for his clocks. He says clocks are machines through and through. He maintains them, polishing until they shine. They all keep accurate time except for one. 

The grandfather clock in our house gleams, though the delicate carvings have been rounded down over years of careful cleaning. I was raised by the steadiness of its reliably constant ticking. It stands tall in the living room, even towering over me when I was younger. I thought of it as a kind of guardian, keeping me safe. For as long as I can remember, it kept perfect time. 

Memory is a strange thing, with occurrences that refuse to make themselves explainable. Once, I noticed that the time on the clock didn’t quite match up. It had become fifteen minutes slow. My father didn’t fix it when I pointed it out. No matter how many times I asked, he refused. Fifteen minutes too slow it remained, syncopated compared to the rest.

The streets are crowded tonight. I catch passing glimpses of teenagers with their headphones around their necks, laughing and chatting. A couple alights from a horse-drawn carriage, the man keeping his partner from tripping over her layered skirts. Children race down the streets, waving sparklers in their hands. The festive cheer illuminates the island, long since outlawed firecrackers go off in the distance, although I suppose the law wouldn’t apply then. I’ve learnt not to stare too long.

Kade stares, taking in the lively scene or at least what he sees of it. People head home from overtime, people like us roaming under the endless night sky, parents pointing out the red lanterns that have been strung up around the city to their young children. Content silence fills the air between us, something very few can share without feeling uncomfortable.

We fall into a familiar rhythm as time marches on, the night slipping away. Kade fills in the comfortable space with his carefree words until we reach the bus stop. Before he can turn away, I reach out. For a moment, his hand stays within my grasp, his watch wrapped around his wrist in an almost protective way, the seconds ticking against my skin. In the night, all colors wash away, fading to grey. 


“Of course,” he says with a wry smile, tugging his hand free. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” As I turn towards the MRT station, I catch a glimpse of him with his hands in his pockets, trying to blend into the shadows; the quiet one. 

It would be in upper primary that Kade stopped coming over. Perhaps the pain of seeing me with my father was too much when his was gone. There’s nothing I can do, he had said when it began to hurt a little less. Dad always said that fate controls our lives, and fate ended his. It’s time to move on. 

  I have always been inexplicably drawn towards the clock. It pulled me in and kept me close. Once, my father caught me attempting to fix it. That was the only time he had forbidden me from doing something. I will never forget the fear that washed over the hard lines of his face, some conscience compelling me to obey his every word. The clock continued to bother me, but I never dared mess with it again.

When I was little and Kade wasn’t over, I would sit at my father’s workshop, so he started telling me stories as he worked. There were faraway travelers that came to rid a foreign land of a great evil, or adventurers with their swords. My favorite story was the one that was about us. It was the only one he only told once.   

“Pa!” I called out, my school bag banging against my hip. He looked up from his current project, a smile tugging against the hard lines of his face. 

Hai zi1,” he returned steadily. No other words would be traded until he sat me down and walked me through my homework, a mess of numbers and letters and equations.

Never once did he smile when I got something right but when we were done, he ruffled my hair and said, “Let me tell you a story.”

“What story?” I blurted out, childish curiosity lighting up my eyes.

He hoisted himself up onto the counter. “This one, not so much of a story as a secret. Ren zhen ting, ah2.” He leaned forward conspiratorially, something glimmering in his eyes. “You know the grandfather clock? My father – your ah gong – gave it to me and it was from his father and his father before and on and on and on.”

“So what?” I interrupted. This, unlike the rest of my father’s stories, was boring. It was too real. 

“Have some patience lah. This is a magic clock. It’s special,” My father, who was never one for too much physical contact put a hand on my shoulder, “like you. But you can’t tell anyone, not your best friend, not Kade, okay? You have to swear.”

“I swear.”

My father took a breath, steeling himself before speaking again. “The clock can turn time backwards. That’s our secret.”

  “You’re lying.”

Still, my father persisted, forcing me to look him in the eyes. “You must take care of this, ke yi ma3?”

I never believed my father; that day became nothing more than a story and a faint memory.

Another night, the same familiar rhythm. Kade laughs easily, basking under the orange glow of the streetlamps, as we roam the streets like we own them. My whole life falls into a comforting pattern; as a child, my father’s stories and then venturing out with Kade now. I can’t imagine some other reality where this didn’t happen.

“By the way, can you help me fix my watch?” Kade asks, just as I swerve to avoid a carriage. He may not see them but they’re solid enough to me. The horse flicks an ear, perhaps towards me, its warm breath brushing my skin. Kade takes his watch off, passing it to me.

“Told you liao, I’m not good enough to fix your stuff,” I say. Nonetheless, I take the watch from his hand, something about it’s off-beat ticking strangely reminiscent of the broken clock back home. “There’s a clock at home Pa won’t let me fix; The day he finally agrees, I’ll help you.” Something inside me knows exactly how to fix this watch, maybe after all those years of watching my father, but I told myself that I’d never fix anything until I fixed that clock.

“So, make that day come faster.” He swings himself around the traffic light and across the road. Cars roar by and I hesitate, a moment too long, before crossing. Something nags at the back of my mind, the too-slow clock and my caution when crossing the road. Kade has long since outgrown looking right-left-and-right-again, instead just giving a quick glance before crossing. “Ask again. It’s like your rite of passage, like a story! After you fix it, you’ll be unstoppable.”

Someone was telling me to do all I had ever wanted to do for so long, a perfect reason to try again, but my instinct told me otherwise. There had to be a reason why I wasn’t allowed to; if my father thought that I wasn’t skilled enough, he would have simply fixed it himself. Yet, the heart speaks louder than the little tingling feeling at the nape of your neck.


I fiddle with a screwdriver in my hands, contemplating the clock that still stands so proudly in the living room.  Today would be the day I fix it, if Pa says yes. But I know he’ll say no. Maybe I would be better off doing it without asking.“For once in your life, just leave the clock alone!” Pa shouts, startling me as he snatches the screwdriver from my hands. It manages to sting more than a slap.

“At least tell me why!” I yell back. If I could not fix it, the least would be for me to know the reason, lest its 15-minute late chimes haunt me for the rest of my life.

Cold fury washes over, his voice hardens. “Fine, fix it. You die, then you die lor.”

Never had he said so many words outside a story. It pierces through me, chilling every bone. Why is he being so unreasonable?

“All my work- wasted!” Pa’s hands tremble, holding out the snatch screwdriver. “Your ma was right, can’t cheat fate forever.” Something softens in his eyes, my ever-reliable father now helpless.

The wind shifts, like all of history is holding its breath. In these 15 minutes, time stands still, waiting.

“I turned it back… to save you. But if you want to go, go.”

I watch, numb, as my hands take the screwdriver, brushing the complexity that rewinds the web of time itself. It comes in a trickle, before the memory comes, rushing at me all at once: an evening road, illuminated by streetlights. Childish giggles, the lights reflect puddles on the ground. Running, the wind blowing all worries away. The growl of wheels, like a beast coming for me. An ungodly sound fills the air as my body crumples, slammed into the air, then falling to the tarmac.

The scene rewinds, then plays forwards again but this time, the impact never comes. A hand reaches out desperately, yanking me back to the pavement, all the breath knocked out of me but still my chest rises.

The screwdriver falls, each thud a resounding second.

Time resumes.

Pa watches me, fumbling for words with sad, understanding eyes. “I know what you’re going to say: how could I? Ni shi wo wei yi de hai zi4, I couldn’t just stand back and watch.”

When my voice returns, it’s a bare whisper. “How…”

“The clock. Turned back time, pulled you back.”

The second time, that hand. It really was him, which meant he had-

“You didn’t lie.” Everything falls into place, all the jumbled pieces starting to line up. “I-It was true. That clock, it really-“

Pa smiles, though his eyes remain sad but hopeful. “Dui. Never knew how to tell you.”

“So, all those things I see, stuff that happened in the past…” I don’t have to finish my question to know the answer; it’s just a consequence of messing with fate. Pa’s face falls. “It’s okay.”

Ni bu sheng qi ma?5 You’re crying.”

 I throw myself into his arms, into a hug that is so long overdue. He wraps his arms around me, just holding for me. All the things that we didn’t know how to say finally shared, hanging in the comfortable silence around us.

1 Hai zi or 孩子 (Chinese): Child

2 Ren zhen ting, ah or 认真听啊 (Chinese): listen carefully 

3 Ke yi ma? or 可以吗?(Chinese): Okay?

4 Ni shi wo wei yi de hai zi or 你是我惟一的孩子 (Chinese): You are my only child

5 Ni bu sheng qi ma? or 你不生气吗? (Chinese): You’re not angry?

Netanya Faith Tham (Class of 2024) enjoys writing about urban fantasy, found family and exploring omniscient third-person narration in writing. School assignments tend to be more restricted, so this is mainly done through personal projects.