The Horologist

Extract from Klokkemakeren (The Horologist) by Gert Nygårdshaug 1.

Later it would occur to him that he had felt no vibration of any sort, no commotion, no tremor of the earth, no ominous rumbling that evening or that night, only the soft whisper of the wind around the corners of the house; a house in which, as always, peace and harmony reigned; other than the wind the only sound to be heard was the comfortable, rhythmic ticking of all the wall clocks; in the bathroom Mr Mussenden conducted, meticulously and with exaggerated slowness, the Friday ablutions which constituted the prelude to a ritual of which he was by now thoroughly fed up, but which his wife, with a touch of imperative weight cloaked in blandishments, charged him to perform once the duck had been eaten and the half bottle of wine drunk; the same routine every Friday evening, week after week, month after month, year after year; he heard the big Glimmstech clock give eleven mighty chimes, and close behind it the smaller clocks, not all at once, no, the diverse measuring instruments of Time should never be completely synchronised, that Mr Mussenden, first name Melkior, Melk to his friends, knew; minutes after the clocks had fallen silent he was still standing there quietly, smiling to himself, nodding at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, then he continued the cleansing process: his genitals were soaped and rinsed, dried and scented, the skin of his arms, stomach, chest and thighs rubbed with a sweet-smelling cream; it was not the evening’s skin treatment

he was averse to, not at all; it was what followed.

He span it out; in recent weeks, every Friday evening he had extended his time in the bathroom by another few minutes, unwittingly at first, but eventually more deliberately; on this particular evening he stayed in the bathroom for so long that he fully expected to hear his wife Mathilde, by many called Mathy, impatiently calling him to bed, to her pink bedroom, but she did not call him, so he went on standing there, smiling at himself in the mirror while letting the warm breath of the hair-drier play over his pubic curls, then higher up, through his sparse head of hair, still dark, with no hint of grey, but grown considerably thinner with the years; then he trimmed his moustache, wound and waxed it, although he knew this was totally unnecessary, since he would soon be turning in for the night. Later he would go over every minute and hour of that evening and night in detail, searching for signs he ought to have seen, sounds he might have heard, but of which at this moment, just before he was due to repeat and reaffirm his conjugal duties, he could, of course, know nothing. Melkior Mussenden unplugged the hair-drier and put it back in the cupboard, then he cleared his throat loudly, marched resolutely out of the bathroom and opened the door of his wife’s, Mathilde’s room, where she – having carried her warm-up almost to the point of climax, received him into her ample lap.

The tremors which, for the next five minutes – for it lasted no longer than that – visited the bedroom on the house’s first floor were pretty violent, so strong that they could well have drowned out the sound of the forty-nine wall clocks ticking and tocking away the passage of Time in the rooms on the ground floor of the house, but not loud enough, he would think later, to drown out any other, extraneous sounds. He rose from the bed and pecked his wife lightly on the forehead, her eyes were already closed and the sated, gratified smile on her rosy cheeks spread all the way down to the folds of her triple chin; within minutes she would be snoring very loudly, he knew, and he crept off to his own blue bedroom shaking his head a little at the memory of this Friday night’s, every Friday night’s standard ritual: a few logs on the fire at one end of the little parlour, candles on the table, Mathilde’s perfect roast duck with plum sauce washed down by a couple of glasses of wine, a cosy chat about this and that, followed by the bathroom, his ablutions, then her bed and finally his own, which he

was now about to climb into, but did not, thus breaking a long-established routine. Instead he remained standing next to the bed, listening. What made

him stop and listen? he asked himself later. Why, that evening, as the time was approaching midnight, had he stood there straining his ears? Because there were no sounds to be heard, no hint of disturbance, only the familiar, reassuring ticking of the wall clocks in the rooms downstairs, and yet Mr Mussenden went on standing there, naked, next to his bed, yawning, with his John Thomas dangling limply, still glistening moistly, between his thighs: he was yawning not from tiredness or boredom, but in the way of a dog uncertain of its owner’s commands; he did not switch on the light above his bedside table, just stood there, and then, without really knowing what made him do it, he set his jaw and tiptoed out of the room, switched on a stair light, listened for a moment to his wife’s loud snores, then went down the stairs to the front room.


The Mussendens’ house was an old one, very old, hundreds of years old, but it was still as solid as ever, well looked after by several generations of Mussendens; its walls were of wattle and brick, but with a beautiful covering of ivy, climbing hydrangea and hop that wreathed the windows on both the ground and first floors. It was a spacious house with two rooms downstairs – one large and one slightly smaller – together with a kitchen and a study which served as Mr Mussenden’s workshop; from the large front room a broad staircase led to the floor above where there were four bedrooms as well as a big bathroom; Melkior Mussenden now made his way down the stairs to the front room in which most of the wall space was taken up by thirty-six of the in all forty-nine wall clocks of different sizes and ages. He was the fifth in a line of clockmakers specialising mainly in wall clocks, but also in pocket watches; and indeed, hanging from their chains, among all the wall clocks, were

countless pocket watches whose owners had long since returned to dust and ashes; it was the middle of the night and he had no idea what impulse had prompted him to come down the stairs from his bedroom, stark naked; again he stood and listened, but the cosy, familiar sounds of the clocks were not covering up anything that could have alarmed him: because, and later, looking back on it, he could not deny this, at the foot of the stairs he had felt a quiver of excitement, no fear, no dread, just a vague feeling of suspense, though what gave rise to it he did not know; he took a few steps into the room, past the Chippendale drawing-room suite, glanced, out of habit, at the hands of two clocks which, to his satisfaction, were not showing exactly the

same time, proceeded into the little parlour where the embers of the fire were still glowing, seated himself in his usual armchair, reached for the bottle containing the last of the evening’s wine, poured himself a glass and sat there gazing into the soft gloom; there was nothing out of the ordinary, except the fact that he was sitting there stark naked at a time when he would normally be sound asleep.

The stroke of twelve. Midnight. The clocks began to sound their twelve chimes: first, as always, the big Glimmstech clock, followed at irregular intervals by all the others, and the clockmaker gave a nod of satisfaction: the difference between the first clock and the last was a good three minutes and more, just as it should be, but why was he sitting here? could it have something to do with Mathilde? he wondered. Because it was a fact that over the past year, the past months, at the prospect of those carefully planned Friday-night couplings he had been unable to evince the same enthusiasm and eager anticipation with which he had once been able to gratify his wife, who took such trouble over the preliminaries to these trysts: the duck, the wine, a roaring fire, a nice, intimate tête-á-tête, exactly as she had always done. Stop it! he told himself, gripping the wine glass more tightly; you love your wife, but she’s plumped out something awful over the past year and that’s a fact – and there’s your explanation: you’ve never been one for fat women and it can’t go on like this, your sojourns in the bathroom will just drag out longer and longer and soon she’s going to realise that something is wrong; so there and then, sitting in that armchair, with a drop of wine in his glass, beside a fire that had almost died out, he decided that he would have to take this up with Mathilde,

and the solution to the problem could be very simple: she would have to lose weight, that was all there was to it. He was sure she would not take this suggestion amiss. But did he feel easier in his mind? Now that he had thought this through and made an important decision? No, he still felt keyed-up; he blinked, opened and shut his eyes several times: could he not discern a faint, bluish glow in the room? He half rose from his chair, but was unable to determine whether there really was a different sort of light in the room; you’re tired, he told himself, go to bed, but he sat on, his eyes now fixed on the bureau next to the door between the two rooms, the bottom drawer, and he felt his heart rate increase considerably.

In that drawer was a letter, a very peculiar letter which had come into his hands in a most unusual fashion. Normally, without exception, their mail

was dropped into the blue mailbox by the front gate, but he had found this letter pushed under the door one morning when he was taking a break from the workshop and Mathilde was at school; he had been all set to throw it away, crumpling it up after glancing at it – the contents were incomprehensible – but instead he had put it in the bottom drawer of the bureau and there it had lain ever since; that had been over a week ago and he had forgotten all about it, until now. A childish prank? Kids? he had wondered and asked himself the same thing now. But what about the handwriting? It was neat and elegant, he recalled, clear and distinct, could any kid have written like that? What on earth made him think about that letter now? His mind did not feel any easier, and while still unsure as to whether there actually was a faint bluish glow in the room he got up and padded slowly over to the bureau, pausing first, though – as if attempting to fall back into his normal pattern – to inspect the hands of a Swiss Globenholtzer clock from the eighteenth century with an exquisitely carved walnut casing; he moved the long hand back a quarter of a centimetre, nodded and opened the bureau drawer.

There was the letter, on top of a pile of Mathilde’s freshly ironed damask tablecloths; it lay exactly where he had left it just over a week ago: an elegant envelope, beige, very unusual paper, coarse, yet soft, no inscription on the front, no address, no stamp or postmark; he carried the

envelope back to his chair, pulled out the sheet of paper, which was of the same quality and sort as the envelope, and read the queer words, the wording, again, more closely this time:

Whatyouknowab out TimeMrMussendenistruenev erthelessthere ismuchoutwit hthatdoesno tfititis gonewiththecornfieldsan dsoyoumu stmakea wallclockgiv ingtherigh tTimeon ewillco meto youyo urssincer elyone

He screwed up his eyes and peered at the words and gradually he began to discern a pattern, banal in all its simplicity. He fetched a pen and underlined recognisable words, and what emerged was the following, correctly punctuated text, which he scribbled down underneath the original:

What you know about Time, Mr Mussenden, is true, nevertheless there is much outwith that does not fit, it is gone with the cornfields, and so you must make a wall clock giving the right Time, one will come to you, yours

sincerely, one.

He sat there, puzzling over this, fingering his moustache; it was very odd, the spelling of whoever had written this note was perfect, but why had the words been written like this? Lot of silly nonsense, Mr Mussenden thought to himself, rising grumpily from his chair. He paced up and down the floor a couple of times holding the sheet of paper, lifted it to his nose, sniffed it, no scent, studied the script: black, almost shimmering; he rubbed the writing with his finger, but the ink did not come off; was ‘one’ coming to see him to ask him to make a wall clock. Melkior Mussenden snorted with annoyance, everybody in the village knew that he no longer did any clockmaking, he had given that

up years ago. Thanks to a nice little nest egg he had been able to retire very happily from his work as a clockmaker and devote all of his time to his own clocks, treasures which he restored and adjusted in accordance with his own personal philosophy and aesthetic. Each year he bought a new timepiece, preferably a wall clock, and always some rare item that he had spotted at an auction or a reputable antique dealer, one fine piece each year, until he now had forty-nine of them, exactly the number of years he had lived. He carried on pacing up and down for some time: some practical joker had been at work here; eventually he tossed the letter back into the drawer. ‘gone with the cornfields’? Yes, well the cornfields were gone, but why would the practical joker see fit to mention that?

He yawned, this time from genuine tiredness, but he wanted to wait until the half-hour, the first chime of the day, zero-thirty hours, before at long last going to bed; he stood in the half-light, staring hard at the Glimmstech clock, grand and authoritative, noble almost; it should be the first to strike, but suddenly there came a reedy peal from a smaller clock in a corner of the room; Mr Mussenden started and looked round: what was that? How dared the little Amadeus? This was all wrong, the Amadeus clock from St Petersburg and the Winter Palace was supposed to be one of the last to strike; baffled, Mr Mussenden put his hands to his head and peered at the hands of the little clock, they were showing the right time and could not be adjusted. Soon the other clocks began to strike the half-hour; only one remained utterly silent, the Glimmstech, it did not strike! He rushed over to it and stared at the long hand, it was pointing several minutes past the six, but it had not struck. This had never happened before, Mr Mussenden’s upturned, perfectly curled moustache drooped considerably and quivered

gently; he wondered whether there was anything he could do right then, but shaken as he was he could see no immediate solution to the problem, it would have to wait until the morning; he went to the stairs, up to the bedrooms and across the hall to the bathroom for the second time in a couple of hours, stood for a moment looking at himself in the mirror, at the calligraphy of his lips forming soundless words, then from the very back of the bathroom cabinet he took Mathilde’s bottle of sleeping pills and placed two of the green tablets on

his tongue, tablets which, on those rare occasions when his wife was faced with seemingly insoluble logarithmic problems, she took for fear of taking said problems into her sleep; now two of these lay on Mr Mussenden’s tongue for a second before he swallowed them with a great gulp of water from the tap, then he found his way to the blue room and his bed, where he fell asleep almost instantly.


Over the days that followed, the events of that night – of which, as yet, no one knew a thing – were to have an effect on the activities of the villagers, including, of course, the day-to-day life of Mathilde and Melkior Mussenden. It was not a big village, it numbered just a little over four hundred inhabitants give or take a few, and lay somewhat off the beaten track, in the midst of rolling countryside which had until some years earlier been covered by rippling cornfields owned and managed by the local corn collective, but now those fields were gone, all the arable land had been leased to outside concerns involved in large-scale sheep and cattle farming. So now the village was surrounded by peaceful herds of grazing animals that appeared to thrive on the green and extremely lush meadows, which were also dotted with shady clumps of trees to which the animals could resort in the summer when the sun was at its hottest; the villagers were quite pleased by this change – the cornfields had for some time had the unfortunate side-effect that they attracted masses of crows and pigeons which lighted on roofs and window-sills, covering these in droppings – but also a little annoyed, because in conjunction with the change in the use of the fields a network of electric fences had been erected, to keep the different flocks and various breeds separate; this had proved a particular problem for the village vicar, since the church lay a few hundred metres outside of the village on a small hill and consequently was now hemmed in by electric fences which ran all the way up to the church’s wrought-iron gate – not that

they were connected to them, of course, but for

some strange reason, which the village’s four electricians could not explain, every now and again an electro-magnetic surge would occur, with the result that the vicar had on several occasions been knocked flat as he went to open the gate for the Sunday morning service, which had had, therefore, to be cancelled seven times in the past year. Moving the fences back ten or twenty metres had made no difference, the surges would occur when least expected and the current running through the church’s wrought-iron gate was much more powerful than in the wires of the fences themselves, which administered only a slight and relatively harmless shock, nothing like the charge to which the vicar was repeatedly subjected; this too was a mystery to the electricians, they were now talking about replacing the wrought-iron gate with a wooden one, but this was still only at the planning stage.

The only house which lay outside of the village, among the fields, was Mr and Mrs Mussenden’s, which was situated a few hundred metres beyond the church. A country lane lined by hawthorn, wild roses and thick hedges wound its way past the church gate and up to Mussenden’s home, right up to his mailbox and front gate, both of these made of wood, so the house’s residents had suffered no harm, so far, from any electrical surge. As previously mentioned it was an old house, all that was left of a sixteenth- century manor house which had fallen badly into disrepair and been pulled down at the beginning of the nineteenth century; admittedly the house had been no more than a worker’s cottage, but it had been beautifully restored and lovingly cared for by several generations of Mussenden clockmakers; this house, too, was encircled, of course, by electric fences, but not too closely, because Melkior Mussenden held the deeds to a fair-sized piece of land on which Mathilde had established a herb garden, vegetable plots and an orchard, all neatly tended. It really was quite an idyllic spot, there was no denying it, what with the village and the lush meadows and the animals peacefully grazing – and this the local people never neglected to point out to strangers who visited the place, as they often did, since the area was known for the strange stone structures to be found in the countryside round about, relics of a bygone age, from a period which made it of particular attraction to the country’s archaeologists, although none of these could provide any

definite answers regarding the age, origins or significance of these stone structures. Not that such things were of any great interest to the villagers, anyway. Now, however, it was night-time and the clockmaker slept soundly

and dreamlessly thanks to two of his wife’s green pills.


For some reason he woke up earlier than usual, in spite of the sleeping pills; he sat up abruptly in bed and listened to the clocks in the front room striking six; he was pleased to hear that the Glimmstech clock was the first to strike the hour; outside it was still dark, but the clockmaker felt wide-awake and the first thing he thought of was the decision he had made the night before, one which was sure to put an end to his growing aversion to intimate games in Mathilde’s bed. He got up and dressed, no time like the present, he told himself, and there would never be a better opportunity; he spent the next half-hour in the kitchen preparing a simple, but nourishing breakfast for his wife: fresh juice, coffee, a slice of wholemeal bread with roast beef and an apple, this he carried up to Mathilde’s bedroom on a suitable tray just as the first light of dawn was bathing the fields in a rosy glow. “Wakey-wakey, Mother,” he said on reaching her bedside. “I’ve made you some breakfast.” “Oh, how nice,” she said, “but why so early? I don’t have to go to school today, it’s Saturday.” “I couldn’t sleep any longer,” he said. “It’s a very light breakfast,” she said, smiling. “No sausages or bacon or cheese or eggs.” “That’s how it’s got to be,” he smiled back. “You need to lose weight, Mathilde.” “You think I’m too fat?” she asked. “Yes, you’ve put on a lot of weight over the past year, so much that it’s starting to put me off.” “Put you off?” “Yes, haven’t you noticed how long I spend in the bathroom before coming to your room?” “Do you spend a long time in there?” she asked. “Longer and longer,” he nodded, “because I’m not comfortable with fat bodies. That’s why I spin out my time in the bathroom.” “That’s funny,” she said. “To me you always seem to be ready in no time.” “I

do?” he said: this was not the answer he had expected. “Yes, I’ve no sooner got into bed than you’re all over me.” “That’s odd,” he said and stood for a while without saying anything. He was thinking about Time; Time that was never the same, not even between him and Mathilde, he realised; but Time was not the issue right now. “Well anyway, you’re far too fat and it will do you no harm to lose a little weight,” he went on, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “Oh, alright, if you say so,” she said, smiled and munched her apple. “Good,” he said, stroking her hair; they sat for a while chatting and then he got up and went downstairs to the living-room. Well, that was simple enough, he thought. That should sort itself out now. Because if there

was one thing Melkior Mussenden was sure of, it was that he loved his wife.

When the sun sent its first beams shining through the east window he made his rounds of the clocks, as he did every morning; he checked the hands on every face, tugged on weights and adjusted pendulums, but when seven o’clock struck, the same thing happened again: the little Amadeus was the first to sound with its faint chime, to be followed by a number of others in an order that was totally new to him, and the Glimmstech clock remained utterly silent. Then Mr Mussenden knew that something was not as it should be.


That time plays a central part in every clockmaker’s life is not something that should require further explanation, but in Melkior Mussenden’s case some may, nonetheless, be in order. Because the fact is that as far as he was concerned Time was not a word to be written with a small ‘t’, not something that could be adjusted or determined by looking at a clock, a round face with two hands: the term exact time did not exist in Mr Mussenden’s vocabulary – on the contrary, Time was, for him, a very relative concept, a fact which had merely been confirmed by his little bedside chat with Mathilde

that morning. Time was an intangible phenomenon which had to be respected and understood on its own terms; every clock could be said to have its own Time, independent of springs, cogs, weights and other precision instruments, hence the reason that none of the forty-nine wall clocks and countless pocket watches in the Mussenden home were in exact synchrony; nonetheless, a certain order did prevail, an order that had evolved naturally out of the fact that every single clock’s character and causality was regarded as unique and sacrosanct, and this sacred and singular order could not be breached, no matter how often Mr Mussenden shifted the hands; minor adjustments did, of course, have to be made, but these were insignificant and of purely cosmetic value and did not, therefore, interfere with Time itself.

Just after he had set up in business as a clockmaker Mr Mussenden had been struck by a severe fit of depression, a state induced by his purchase – out of curiosity and a desire to find perfection, absoluteness, accuracy – of an atomic clock. It was not nice to look at, this clock; made of glass and metal, it was completely sterile, with no aesthetic quality whatsoever, but it was

reputed to possess the inherent capacity always to show the exact Time, accurate to a hundred-thousandth of a second. The acquisition of this clock had totally destroyed his delight in the craft of clockmaking, because it defined Time as an unassailable constant against which everything should be regulated, like a truth which did not allow for the possibility or scope of discussion or variation; the atomic clock represented a dogma which caused those who believed in its perfection to stagnate. When he eventually realised what was causing his depression he got rid of the atomic clock; it was an expensive piece, but he did not sell it, nor did he give it away, no, he smashed it to smithereens and scattered the remains – the dust, the atoms, the caesium core – to the winds; that hideous instrument was gone and no such object ever entered his home again; his depression lifted instantly and ever since that day he had treated Time, as it manifested itself in all the various styles and sizes of clocks which came into his hands – that Time whose laws were encapsulated within the nature and attributes of every single clock – with reverence and the greatest humility. Now, however, one of his most trusted and reliable pieces had let him down: the Glimmstech clock was silent, although its

hands were still moving, and the other clocks seemed to be deviating drastically from the norm, going almost crazy, Mr Mussenden might have said, and did.

He was still standing looking at some of the wall clocks, shaking his head slightly and twirling his moustache, when Mathilde came down the stairs, freshly showered and smiling; she went over to the window facing south, overlooking the church and the village and stood there, stretching voluptuously; she blinked in the bright morning light, then her hand flew to her mouth and she drew back a pace or two. “What …,” she began, then broke off, blinked hard, approached the window again and stared out at the fields onto which some investor had recently released a herd of Charolais cattle eventually destined to become prime beef; they grazed peacefully not far from the front gate. “Melk, have you seen this? What’s happened to the church?” “The church?” he asked, crossing to the window. “I can’t see the tower, can you?” She pointed and looked at him in alarm. “What on

earth …,” Mr Mussenden also broke off, but then went on: “Good Lord, what’s this? The tower’s gone completely. Do you think the church has collapsed?” And true enough: normally the church tower, and indeed the whole upper half of the church was clearly visible from the Mussenden’s house, nestling behind some hills and clumps of trees, but now the land

stretching from there to the church and the village beyond looked somehow different, although at that moment, staring out of the front-room window, neither of them could have said in what way. One thing was for sure, though: they could see nothing resembling a church. “We’ve never been able to see those buildings over there before,” Mathilde said, pointing. “No, Mother, we haven’t,” he replied. “Those must be the storehouses at the old mill on the outskirts of the village, where that new pub opened not long ago, but now all we can see is the mill.” “I’ve got a feeling something really terrible has happened, Melk,” Mathilde said. “Me too, Mother,” he said. “I think maybe we should put on our shoes and coats and take a walk down there to see what’s what.”

So at just past seven o’clock on that Saturday morning, a lovely summery morning in the middle of May, Mr and Mrs Mussenden walked down the garden path to their own green front gate,

both with a growing lump of unease in their chests; they did not see anyone else abroad this early, nor had they expected to; they walked on down the lane for a while, listening to the morning bustle of the little birds in the hawthorn until Melkior pointed to a small hill on the right side of the road. “Why don’t we walk up to the top of that,” he said. “We’ll have a good view of the village from there and we’ll be able to see the whole of the church hill, it’s less than a hundred metres away.” They did as he suggested, carefully negotiating the electric fences, and a few minutes later they were at the top of the hill, where a flock of Cheviot sheep were quietly chewing the cud under some oak trees. This they both took as a sign that nothing too bad could have happened, although that remained to be seen. And when they came to a halt and finally did see, Mathilde grabbed her husband’s hand and squeezed it so tightly that it ought to have hurt, but it did not, because the sight that met their eyes blocked out all other feelings.


The hole was exactly 83.7 metres in diameter, completely and perfectly circular with an edge so clean and sharply defined that it might have been made by a huge bulb drill extracting a great plug of soil that had then been disposed of elsewhere. These very specific and precise details were gleaned by the villagers and by the Mussendens much later; at this particular moment the couple simply stood there staring at something which seemed unreal, and not merely unreal, but downright terrifying: an enormous hole, a

terrible gaping void in the earth, inside which they could see a dark wall of soil, clay and rock plunging into apparently boundless depths; the old mill was still where it had always been, but the church was gone and the wires of the electric fences were severed right at the edge of the hole; this they could see, but neither the clockmaker nor Mathilde said a word, what could they say, they were absolutely speechless. After a while they noticed some people from the

village warily venturing towards the hole from the other side: first three men, then a group of women and children, then more people flocking to the spot, all stopping well back from the hole and standing there in silence.

“Let’s walk round,” Mr Mussenden at long last managed to say. “We’d better hear what the others have to say to this.” Mathilde did not reply, but she kept a firm grip on her husband’s hand as they walked away from their viewpoint and down to the road, which they followed in the direction of the village, giving the hole a wide berth; they paused for a moment at the junction with the path leading up to the church, noting that it ran out, had been chopped off, not far from the spot where the church’s wrought-iron gate had been. They carried on, treading carefully, as if at any moment the earth under their feet might disappear, but there was no movement in the ground over which they walked, no quaking or shaking. They reached the others; quite a large crowd had gathered by now, they huddled, talking in whispers, at a safe distance from the edge of the crater; within the hour just about everyone in the village had gathered there, out in the fields, on what, otherwise, seemed like a perfectly normal morning, every bit as uneventful as any other morning – apart from the fact that there was now a great hole in the ground where the new church had been, a gaping void, a chasm, its depth as yet unknown since no one dared venture close to the edge, for fear that more of the earth might give way.

“We need a long rope.” This, suddenly, from a boy known for all sorts of daredevil escapades over the years: among other things he had tried to ride the wild bulls that grazed in the surrounding fields, breaking his collar-bone in the process. “We need a long rope. I’ll tie it round my chest, you lot hold the other end and I’ll crawl up to the edge,” he went on. There was some loud muttering in the crowd, but at last the young daredevil’s suggestion was accepted, they had to know how deep this hole was and discover what had become of the church; a rope was fetched and with four strong men holding onto the end of it the boy crawled the well over thirty metres to the

rim of the hole, slowly, cautiously, wriggling along on his stomach, while the onlookers held their breath, afraid that

the ground might give way underneath him. But nothing happened, he reached the rim and looked down; for a few moments he lay like that, then he turned and scuttled back as fast as he could. He got to his feet, his face white as a sheet: “It’s black,” he gasped. “Totally black down there, no bottom, nothing but dark sides as far down as I could see, it’s really spooky, I’m telling you.” “No bottom?” harrumphed the police chief, who had now taken command of his fellow citizens. “No, no bottom, just an endless drop, I’m not going back there, not for anything, the boy said, drawing well back into the crowd, and safety. At first the police chief was not at all sure how to tackle this situation, questions were flying thick and fast, and he could not answer a single one of them, but he finally reached a decision which seemed a wise one and which found favour with just about everyone; the village’s four electricians were ordered to connect up the loose ends of the electric fence wires to form a solid new fence all the way round the hole, at least thirty metres from the edge – as it was now, there was a risk of both people and cattle falling into it. The work got under way and was completed over the next hour, still with the majority of the villagers looking on and shaking their heads in bewilderment. Gradually, though, many of them began to drift back to the village and the business of the day. There was not much they could do here, the damage was done, the new church was gone, although fortunately the graveyard was not: it lay on the other side of the village, next to the ruins of the old church, which had been struck by lightning thirty-six times in the last hundred years, hence the reason a new church had been built on a safer spot, not far from the grain mill.

Mr Mussenden had run into three of his cronies from the Pigeon Shooting Club and Mathilda was chatting to some of her fellow teachers from the school. “I’ll just pop down to the pub,” Melkior said as he passed his wife. “The landlord’s already opened the doors, there’re a few of us who could do with a tot or two of gin.” “You do that,” Mathilde replied. “I’m going to ask some of my friends home for a cup of tea.” And that was what they did. In due course, the clockmaker, the chemist, the fire chief and one of the electricians were all settled around the Pigeon Shooting Club’s regular table at the local pub, the Golden Axis, which was very soon crammed with people spouting questions and airing all sorts of theories and long-winded speculations. “Funny thing that, with the animals,” the

fire chief said. “They don’t seem to have been scared or upset. “D’you think any of them could have fallen into it?” the electrician wondered. “I doubt it,” Mr Mussenden replied, draining his first glass of gin in one gulp. “I’m pretty familiar with the herds in the pastures around us and they all seemed to be where they usually are when I came by them early this morning. “I’ve heard of such things happening before,” the chemist said with a cough. “Where there’s been an underground hole and the earth on top of it has caved in.” “But this isn’t the same,” the fire chief objected. “That hole is perfectly circular and the edge looks like it was cut with a knife. “Could it be something from outer space,” the electrician ventured. “Like a black hole or something.” “A black hole’s a possibility,” Mr Mussenden said, nodding. “Well, it must have happened very quietly,” the chemist muttered. “Nobody I’ve spoken to heard a thing last night. What about you, Melk, you live closest to the hole?” “I don’t remember hearing anything, no, and I was up until almost one o’clock.” “But somebody must have seen or heard something, the ground doesn’t just disappear like that without a sound?” the fire chief said incredulously. “It’s good to see that the old mill’s still there,” the chemist said. “But what about our church?” the fire chief continued, as he ordered his second drink. “Well, well,” the chemist shrugged. “It’s the animals I’m thinking about,” said the clockmaker, not ready to drop this subject. “They ought to have been terrified, but they weren’t, not as far as I could see.” “No, it must all have happened very quietly,” the electrician nodded, and so the conversation continued at the Golden Axis that forenoon, at Mr Mussenden’s table and at the other tables round about; no one could come up with a viable explanation and no one theory caught on. As the Time was going on for one o’clock Melkior took his leave and set off on the short walk home to Mathilde and his own house.


When Mr Mussenden was halfway home – he walked slowly, hesitantly, shooting continual apprehensive glances at the hole – almost at the crossroads where the road ran up to where the church had been, he heard a growing rumble behind him. He looked round and rolling along the road, and also across the fields, he saw a whole string of vehicles laden with men clad in green and burgundy, with guns over their shoulders: soldiers, he could tell. So they had called in the troops, what could they do? He stood and watched as the villagers were ordered to leave, shooed away. This done, the troops fell into line, formed ranks; commands were given and sixty-odd

helmet-clad soldiers were swiftly and efficiently deployed at wide intervals in a big circle around the hole, two paces from the electric fence, and there they stood, facing the rim of the crater with rifles at the ready, all pointing at something which clearly might emerge out of the depths at any minute. What was the meaning of this, the clockmaker wondered. Did they know what had happened? Was there some military explanation for the hole? And was some horrible monster likely to appear? They way the soldiers were acting it certainly seemed so, but from long experience he also knew that in certain situations the army could behave very oddly, not to say irrationally, and were inclined to overdo things; he gave a little shake of his head, but stayed where he was for a while, hoping that something dramatic would occur, but nothing did; after a while some of the soldiers got tired, lowered their rifles, rested the butts on the ground, spat and restlessly kicked up tufts of grass while the major sat in a turret-like vehicle with a view of the whole area, talking on a phone. Three women came up the road towards Mussenden: teachers, Mathilde’s colleagues, on their way home from tea, he realised, and said hello. They stayed to chat for a moment, but not even the teaching profession had anything sensible to say about this phenomenon which had so abruptly swallowed a church. “Well, now the soldiers are guarding it, so at least we can feel safe,” one of the teachers said. “Oh, that’ll be right,” another retorted. “Soldiers are soldiers,” Mr Mussenden remarked enigmatically, bowed and said goodbye. On the way back to the house he stopped once or twice and reached a hand over the wire fence, patted some of the cattle, which were looking for salt, as they were in the habit of doing when

he came by, but on this occasion he had no salt to offer. As he was walking up the garden path and opening the front door the first helicopter appeared.


Having gone round the two ground-floor rooms and checked the clocks which, to his great satisfaction appeared to be acting normally, he sat down to the lunch which Mathilde had prepared, mutton ragout and rhubarb compote. “Don’t you want some more,” he asked, pointing to her modest helping. “I’m on a diet,” she said, looking a mite peeved. “Now, now,” he went on. “No need to be so touchy.” “And anyway, I’m not hungry.” “Is it the hole?” “Maybe – it’s frightening.” “Get stuck in to some logarithmic equations,” he said. “They’ll take your mind off that stupid hole.” “I’ve no exponents for the power that’s bothering me,” she answered, picking at her

food. Whether there was some deeper significance to this statement Mr Mussenden was unable to ascertain just then, but if there was one thing for which he had respect it was his wife’s dazzling mathematical gifts – not for nothing had her fellow teachers nicknamed her Mathy. “And those helicopters make such a terrible racket,” she added. “Yes, but they’ll be gone soon, I’m sure, once they’ve seen all they need to see.” “I hope so. You take the washing-up, I have to call Melvin, he ought to be told about this.” “You do that, Mother,” he replied.

The Mussendens had one son, their only child; Melvin was thirty-seven and worked as a datographer in the capital, but he had also inherited his father’s and his forefathers’ way with timepieces and he had promised his parents that one day he would come home and take up clockmaking; till then he would make the most out of what he was learning in the city. Melvin Mussenden was a clever young man, they both knew, but they saw him far too seldom, only a couple of times a year. Mathilde called him and talked for a long time before handing the phone to her

husband, who kept it short – the telephone was not his preferred means of communication. When he was done talking to his son, who had told him he was sure the hole was just a harmless natural phenomenon, the clockmaker sat down in his usual chair by the fire, and eventually even the racket of the helicopters faded away.

As the Time drew towards six that evening he began to keep a careful eye on the movements of the wall clocks and he gave a start when the rather wistfully melodious chimes of the Pazzini clock opened the proceedings, followed by the French Montesquieu replica; Mr Mussenden got up from his chair and stood in the middle of the room, looking from one wall to the other. To his horror he could both hear and see that each and every clock had forsaken its own fixed Time, they were striking totally at random, stopping then striking again, not just six times, but eight or ten times in a row, which made no sense at all. Initially, the Pazzini struck five times and then, after a long pause, another five, and so it went on. Mr Mussenden tugged at his moustache and stared at the clockfaces on which, amazingly, all the hands were showing exactly the right time, unlike the chimes which were all sounding too early or too late; he dashed into the kitchen, where Mathilde was hanging new curtains. “This is absolutely crazy, Mother,” he said. “I know, we’d better watch the news.” “The news?” “Yes, maybe we’ll get some explanation for the hole.” She climbed onto a chair to hook up a

curtain. “I’m not talking about the hole, it’s the clocks.” “What’s wrong with the clocks?” she asked. “Didn’t you hear they way they were striking? They went absolutely haywire.” “Oh, you know I never really notice those clocks any more, I’m so used to them that I hardly hear them. Well, you’ll have to reset them, I suppose.” “Reset them?” Mr Mussenden squeaked. “It’s not just one of them, it’s all of them.” Having met with no understanding from his wife regarding this, in his eyes, shocking turn of events, he dropped into his armchair by the fireside again and slumped there, shooting occasional mistrustful glances at the clocks on the walls, which were now quietly and peacefully ticking the Time away. And so it went on; for the rest of that evening Mr Mussenden’s wall clocks behaved impeccably – not that their owner felt particularly reassured by this.

The small television in the corner of the parlour was plugged in and switched on and the Mussendens sat down expectantly to watch the evening news, on which the hole was bound to be mentioned and discussed. And who knew, maybe there was some perfectly natural explanation staring them in the face, Mathilde thought to herself, but oddly enough not a word was said on the news about their little village and the sinister hole. How could that be? they both wondered. It wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence in this country for such a hole to appear, and for an entire church to vanish into the ground. The clockmaker shook his head: “Someone’s trying to hush it up,” he said darkly. “That’s not a good sign.” “I bet you it’s the army, the military, that’s been up to its tricks,” Mathilde responded. “You mean like some new weapon that’s got out of control and bored down into the earth?” “Could be,” she nodded. “No, I don’t think so,” he went on. “Because in that case the soldiers wouldn’t have acted the way did.” “How did they act?” “They positioned themselves with their rifles aimed at the hole, as if they were afraid that something was going to climb out of it,” he explained. “Did they really?” “It’s all very strange, Mother,” he said, glancing up at the wall clocks. “Oh, well, no doubt all will be explained tomorrow,” she said and got up to prepare a supper tray for them. Mathilde confined herself to half a chopped pineapple and a lean slice of ham, while Melkior tucked into thick slices of cheese, bread, olives and a couple of glasses of port, after which they went to bed, she in the pink room, he in the blue. But no sooner had Mr Mussenden slid under the duvet than he got up again and shuffled across to Mathilde’s room. “Can I come in beside you for a little while?” “Are you alright?” she asked. “Just a little unsettled, I think,” he answered, snuggling up to her. “That’s not like you,” she smiled roguishly. “It’s not just the

hole,” he said. “It’s the wall clocks too.” “Oh, you and your old clocks,” she said. For an hour they lay there talking about this and that and then he went back to his own room, where he fell asleep right away.


Again the next morning he woke very early, before the sun was up; it was Sunday, he put on his outdoor things and went out, taking with him a bowl of coarse salt; he stopped at the fence of the field where the Charolais cattle were kept, whistled softly and the animals loomed out of the twilight like silent shadows; he patted them and doled out the salt, then he stood for a while looking west, at where the church hill should have been, and as the morning sunlight spread across the fields, making the dewdrops glitter and gleam. Mr Mussenden nodded quietly to himself: it wasn’t just the hole, he saw that now, there were other small changes in the surrounding terrain – some trees which were not where they used to be, one hill that was flatter, while others had grown in height; very minor changes, barely noticeable to anyone who did not know these fields well, but he had been roaming this countryside since he was a lad and he knew every tree, every rock and every hill. There was a difference, it wasn’t great, but it was there, that he could tell as he patted the cattle, getting a slight electric shock when he accidentally touched the top wire on the fence. He walked up to the hilltop where he and Mathilde had stood the previous morning, the Cheviots lay chewing the cud as usual, and there was the hole: black, vast and unreal, but the soldiers were no longer ranged in a circle round about it, he saw just one lone sentry, the rest were probably tucked up in the tents that had been erected around the army trucks, of which there were now a considerable number; again Mr Mussenden shook his head, then he strolled back to the house, sat down in the front room and waited for the clocks to strike seven, which they did exactly as they were supposed to do.

The Time was almost nine o’clock, and Melkior and Mathilde had just had a light breakfast when they heard feet come tramping up the garden path; seconds later there was an unusually loud knock on the door. “Now who can that be, so early on a Sunday morning?” Mathilde wondered. “Green jackets,” the clockmaker announced after a quick peek out of the window. He went to open the door, and into the room, without being asked, barged four men, all army officers and all wearing big boots and guns on their backs or in their belts. “Do you live here?” the major asked, unsmiling. “I and my wife, yes, but could I please ask you to take off your boots, you’re bringing

in the dirt,” the clockmaker said, regarding their muddy army boots with hostility. In the background Mathilde

followed all this with startled eyes. “Nothing’s going to be taken off here,” the major replied. “We have come to conduct an inspection.” “An inspection?” “Yes, an inspection, of this whole house. What’s that noise?” The major looked round and saw all of the wall clocks, which at that very moment started striking nine o’clock with – Mr Mussenden was relieved to hear – the Glimmstech clock leading the way. “Can’t you see for yourself?” he snapped. “What’s all this in aid of?” the major roared, trying to make himself heard above the clocks. “In aid of?” “Don’t you realise, man, that this is most irregular. What is the purpose of all these clocks?” the major demanded, narrowing his eyes. “I, sir, am a clockmaker and you have no business in this house.” The clockmaker pointed to the door. “How dare you. Do you know who you’re talking to?” “No.” “I am the commander-in- chief of this county, empowered by the Minister of Defence to do whatever is necessary, and I am about to carry out an inspection of this house.” “And why, may I ask, should that be necessary?” Mr Mussenden drew himself up and twirled his moustached slowly and with dignity. “Never you mind. Get on with it, lads. You two take the upstairs, and you count all of those suspicious looking wall clocks,” the major ordered the other three men, who proceeded to tramp all over the house, while he stayed with the householder and his wife. “There are forty-nine suspicious clocks,“ Mr Mussenden advised him, not without a touch of sarcasm. “A clockmaker, eh?” the major grunted. “So all these are here for repair?” “No.” “No? How do you mean?” “These are my own personal property.” “Forty-nine personally owned wall clocks, do you expect me to believe that?” “You can believe whatever you like.” Mr Mussenden was growing rather nettled. “I will,” the major replied, “and I think that could carry a lot of weight. Have you been near that hole?” “I have,” Mussenden answered. “And what dealings have you had with that hole?” “Dealings? Can one have dealings with a huge hole in the ground?” “I’m asking the questions, you just answer them,” the major said, bristling. “Right-oh,” rejoined the clockmaker, who was beginning to see the funny side of this conversation. “Are you smiling?” The major demonstrated his authority by raising his finger. “No, not at all,” Mr Mussenden smiled. “Now then,” the major continued, taking a couple of hesitant steps backwards, “do you, by any chance have any other weird set-ups in the house?” “Exactly what

do you mean by ‘weird set-ups’?” The major did not reply; the three other

soldiers returned from their inspection of the house and presented their report to their senior officer, who grunted something incomprehensible, then all four made for the door. The major was the last to leave, he turned to Mr Mussenden: “Do you have any links with our neighbouring country?” “I have a half- uncle who moved there seventeen years ago.” And what does this half-uncle of yours do for a living?” “He’s a dentist.” “A dentist, I see. Well, that’s all for now, we may well be back.” “Wearing clean shoes, I hope,” the clockmaker shouted after them and slammed the door.

He and Mathilde spent the next hour cleaning clumps of brown earth off the floors in the front room and parlour, the kitchen, the workshop, the stairs and the bedrooms, neither of them able to think of any logical reason for this early-morning visit. “They’re probably checking every single house in the village,” he said. “Searching for anything suspicious that might have some connection with that hole, but I simply can’t imagine what that might be.” “Nor can I,” his wife said. “As if we or anyone else in the village would have a machine that could make a hole like that.” “I’ll take a walk down to the Golden Axis, maybe I’ll be able to pick up some news.” “You do that,” Mathilde answered. “Anyway, I have to take the chemist a wall clock I repaired for him.” “I didn’t think you did that sort of thing any more.” “Just for friends.” He collected the clock from the workshop and tucked it under his arm. On the way down to the village he could not help smiling at what the major had said about his wall clocks: that they were suspicious. He was well aware that army officers could take all sorts of funny ideas into their heads, but that major took the biscuit.


As he drew closer to the hole he saw that the soldiers were busy keeping people back from it; fresh hordes of curious onlookers had shown up – from nearby villages, but also from the capital he noted, going by the cars parked along the verge – journalists, news reporters, television and radio teams. Cameras had been set up, photographs were being taken, there was a lot of talking and note-taking, but why hadn’t there been anything on the news yesterday? The locals were happy to be interviewed now, but what did they have to tell? Very little, thought Mr Mussenden who, today, had no intention of going anywhere near the hole, he could see it perfectly well from where he stood; again he had to blink at the actual sight of it, he saw the layers of soil disappearing into the wide semi-circle on the other side: a marbling of grey, brown and black, he could trace the layers down to the rock, the

bedrock, which had been sliced through like butter, what device could have done such a thing? Without a sound? And how deep was the hole? He ran an eye over the fields, the hills, the clumps of trees beyond, beside and around the hole, making the same observation now as he had done early that morning: the landscape did look different, not greatly so, but enough for someone like him, who knew the area like the back of his hand, to notice. Should he inform the authorities about this? For a while he hovered there, scuffing at the dirt indecisively, but eventually he dismissed the idea, he had no desire for another encounter with that pompous major. Before walking on he also noted that a number of soldiers were in the process of erecting a very tall fence outside of the electric one, at least fifty metres from the edge of the hole, he reckoned.

Just as he was about to carry on down to the pub he heard yet another helicopter approaching, and now something occurred which did not merely cause him to stay where he was: his curiosity aroused, he put down the clock he carried under his arm and climbed up an old oak tree by the side of the road; he found a good solid branch near the top from which he had an excellent view, he could see even farther down into the hole, right down to the darkness. The helicopter, emblazoned with military markings, swooped round the site a couple of times then hung, whirring, almost right above the turret-like vehicle, inside which Mussenden could see the major waving his arms about before picking up a telephone: he was in contact with the helicopter, Mussenden

realised; moments later the helicopter banked and wheeled away, to come to a halt more or less directly above the hole; then, very slowly, with searchlights blazing, it began to descend. Inch by inch it dropped to ground level; Mr Mussenden gripped the branch tightly, was it really going down there? He saw the rotor blades whipping small clumps of earth and dust off the sides of the hole with no great harm done; little by little the helicopter sank down into the hole, the clockmaker craned his neck, and then it was lost to view. For some time he could still hear the roar of its engine, then that too grew fainter and fainter. What will they find? he wondered, but his thoughts were suddenly disrupted by sharp voices at the foot of the tree. “What are you doing up there?” It was one of the soldiers, a corporal, who only this morning had searched his house. “Watching, what does it look like?” “Come down here this instant.” “I’ll stay up here as long as I feel like it.” Once more Mr Mussenden felt a growing irritation at these confounded soldiers who seemed to be able to order everybody about. “Come down this

minute or I’ll shoot you in the foot.” The clockmaker could hardly believe what he was hearing: shoot? But when he saw a pistol being aimed at him he realised that the world had changed a great deal in the past twenty-four hours, and he decided, therefore, to climb down.

He planted himself in front of the corporal who had counted his wall clocks earlier that day. “What gives you the right to threaten innocent citizens with a loaded gun?” he demanded. “I’m not sure you are all that innocent,” the corporal replied, pointing to the chemist’s clock which lay by the side of the road. “Oh, is that so.” “Well, what are you doing with that?” “Taking it back to its owner.” “I think I’ll have to confiscate that article.” “Just you try.” Mr Mussenden was not sure where this was going to end, but when he saw another three soldiers approaching he realised there was not much he could do. Their discussion was cut short, however, by an ear-splitting din as the helicopter shot out of the hole, heeled over and crashed to the ground alongside the army trucks. While the corporal and his men covered their ears and gaped, the clockmaker seized his chance to grab the clock and head off as fast as he could towards the village, where he vanished into the alleys around the old grain stores.

Rather shaken and a little out of breath, Mr Mussenden walked into the Golden Axis, happily still with the chemist’s clock under his arm. The pub was jam-packed, but he quickly spotted some familiar faces at the Pigeon Shooting Club’s regular table – the fire chief, the electrician and the schoolmaster were all there – and he had only just sat down when the clock’s owner, the chemist himself, appeared. Mr Mussenden described plainly and simply what he had seen and experienced on his way over; the others listened in astonishment. “Did he really aim a loaded gun at you?” The electrician goggled in disbelief. “And they were going to take my clock?” The chemist shook his head and gently patted the old treasure which now rested on his lap. “Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but it’s the truth, and that’s not all.” And they all hunched over the table to listen as Mr Mussenden told them about the visit to his home earlier that morning, about the major and the house inspection. This news, put together with the incident in and by the oak tree – one which had also involved a loaded gun – left them all so staggered that they sat in silence for a while, sipping their gin. “I think,” Mussenden said at long last, “that you had better take that clock home right away, just in case we should have unexpected visitors here at the pub. “Yes, you do that,” the fire chief agreed. The chemist nodded gravely; he promptly rose and left the pub with the clock, promising before

he went to come back as soon as he could.

As aforesaid, on this Sunday morning, as on the day before, the pub was chock-a-block, and not only with the village’s own residents and the pub’s regulars; there were quite a few strange faces among the crowd, curious visitors who had heard about the mysterious hole – well, naturally such a remarkable and uncommon occurrence could not be kept secret for very long, even if there had still not been a single word about it on the national television news broadcasts; the rumour spread fast, phone calls were made to far and near, the local papers had given it massive coverage in the day’s special edition and bigger, nationwide newspapers had also been alerted. So, on this Sunday in the Golden Axis pub, in what had until only recently been a very quiet village deep in the country, surrounded by lush pastures that had once been cornfields, one found not only a handful of reporters who were doing all they could to come up with a new and sensational angle on this story,

but also an elderly man with a goatee beard and round, wire-rimmed spectacles who sat in a corner, surrounded by these same reporters; he was talking animatedly, with much waving of arms, while the reporters took notes. “What do you suppose he’s saying?” the fire chief muttered, treating himself to his third glass of gin. “I know,” the schoolmaster said. “I was here when he arrived, he’s talking about black holes.” “Black holes?” echoed the clockmaker, who had just been recounting the incident with the helicopter. “Could it be a black hole, like we said yesterday?” “Read this,” the schoolmaster replied and placed a fresh special edition of the local newspaper on the table. The others leaned over it and read:

A black hole?

Many people now fear that the Earth has been struck by a black hole. And that fear is not unfounded, since there seems to be no other explanation for this hole. It is perfectly round, with a clean-cut edge. If a black hole has struck the Earth then this will now be lying at its centre, slowly but surely eating up our world from within …

And so this doom-laden article continued. Mr Mussenden felt a chill run down his spine, he twirled his moustache nervously: “This is awful,” he said. “It’ll scare the living daylights out of people,” the schoolmaster agreed. “So that’s why the vicar has called everyone in the village to a prayer

meeting in the big machine shop,” the fire chief said with a perturbed nod. “This could throw the whole country – the whole world – into a state of panic,” the schoolmaster went on, “but that’s where that bloke in the corner comes in.” “How do you mean?” the clockmaker asked. “He says there’s no way it can be a black hole, and he should know, because he’s a professor of something that has to do with

black holes.” “Is he certain?” The fire chief was not the least bit reassured. “Well, what he told me sounded pretty convincing. I only hope the reporters will put that in their papers, so folk won’t go around worrying that the world’s about to end,” the schoolmaster concluded, but suddenly Mr Mussenden smiled from ear to ear and hunched over the table again, motioning to the others; they put their heads together: “It’s not a black hole,” he whispered. “Not that I know anything about such things, but I doubt if a black hole would cause the ground to bulge in some places and hills to flatten in others, or put trees where no trees had been before.” “What are you talking about, Melk?” the electrician asked. “I’m talking about the fact that the land around the hole looks different from the way it looked before the hole appeared. The changes may not be big, but they’re very clear to me.” “And you’re sure about this?” “As sure as my glass is empty,” he said, and his cronies from the Pigeon Shooting Club nodded as one.

Just after the chemist returned, something very unusual happened at the pub: the landlord, dripping with sweat from serving so many customers, clapped his hands for silence and pointed to the professor, who made his way over to the dais reserved for the local musicians who occasionally entertained the pub’s patrons on a Saturday night; he stepped up onto it and faced the assembled gathering, and for the next fifteen minutes he gave a speech peppered with strange, incomprehensible words, the gist of which was, however, so clear and to the point that never again did any of those present venture to suggest that the yawning void which had appeared outside the village might have been made by a sinister celestial body known as a black hole. He was enthusiastically applauded, and relieved smiles broke out around the pub tables; that doomsday might have been cancelled was good news. But these tidings made no impact on a smaller gathering being held around the same time in a building farther along the street known as the Temple of Light, home to the doomsday sect, The Word of the Light. This group had unsuccessfully predicted the end of the world and the coming of Christ as many as fourteen times in the past twenty years, but they were not one whit daunted, some day they would get it right. The clockmaker rose

from the table

and said his goodbyes, they all agreed to meet at the same time the next day to exchange news; that this was an exciting time, none of them could deny, just how exciting, remained to be seen.

Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland