Set in Scotland in the mid 1880s, the story follows clockmaker Alfie Peters as he struggles with his complicated domestic life while attempting to build the most spectacular clock of the day. The extract sees Alfie visiting a young girl in a mental hospital.
"Mr. Peters, how are you?" the warden asked, stepping aside to allow Alfie in.
"Fine," Alfie answered, choking on the carbolic in the air. "And how is Dotty?"
"Much the same, sir. Much the same. If I could ask you to empty your pockets before you visit her."
"Why? You know who I am. I haven't had to do this before."
"No sir, but there has been an incident," the warden lowered his voice.
"An incident? With one of the patients?"
"Lady Amelia, sir. Her husband had her confined here because she wouldn't let him touch her. Well, a man likes more than just a look, especially after he's bought the goods, if you know what I mean." The warden swept the sleeve of his filthy tunic across his nose and sniffed. As he did, Alfie spotted a pistol jutting out from his belt. He was used to the wardens carrying wooden batons, but a firearm seemed excessive. "Dr. Lutheral diagnosed a blockage and instigated a course of massage treatment to the feminine organs ," the warden continued. "In here please, sir and take your hat and shoes off, if you don't mind."
Alfie took off his hat and lowered his head to enter the small chamber. There was a table in the centre and he laid his hat on it before emptying his jacket pockets: a handkerchief, a railway timetable, his wallet, watch and the bag of toffee. He then removed his shoes, lining them up side by side.
"Much appreciated sir. Where was I?"
"Massaging the feminine organs."
"Lady Amelia objected at first, but after two or three sessions it seemed to be doing the trick and she lay still while Dr Lutheral applied the lubricant. That's when he got sloppy, didn't think it necessary to tie her hands to the bed frame."
"She had a visit from her maid that morning, but we thought nothing of it. The doctor was about to begin-I was holding the petticoats- when she sat up, seized a vial from beneath the mattress, opened it and tossed half the contents over Doctor Lutheral's face and the rest where a lady shouldn't."
"That doesn't sound like the behaviour of a lady."
"Indeed not, sir. The doctor was screaming in agony. Acid it was. Strong stuff. I did well to get my fingers away. The police were called and the maid was arrested, but she swears she had no idea what her mistress wanted the acid for." The warden was searching the lining of Alfie's shoes. Satisfied there was nothing concealed, he handed them back.
"That's hard to believe," Alfie said.
"Foreign girl," the warden answered. "French or Russian . What's in the parcel?"
"Toffee, the same as usual."
"Of course, but I'll have to check." The man pulled open the carefully wrapped package and poked a dirty finger round the sweets. He lifted one and popped it in his mouth. "Pretty good toffee it is too," he said through stuck teeth. He used his thumb to dislodge a slither of candy from his molar.
"If that will be all," Alfie re-wrapped the parcel and tied the bow. He replaced his personal items in his pocket, put on his shoes, lifted his hat and walked to the door.
"There's a new doctor now, Dr Matthews. He'd like to see you after your visit. Nurse Horton will escort you to the room."
Nurse Horton was a dour-faced woman with cropped hair and a stained apron. She took wide strides down the corridor and Alfie struggled to keep up. He paused for breath under the broken clock on the wall, half way along the corridor. The clock ticked, but the hands forever jerked on their spots at five minutes to twelve. He was tempted to offer to fix it, but everything else was broken about the place, why should the clock be any different? The nurse had reached the room, unlocked the door and was standing with her hand on the handle. Alfie hurried to catch up, puffing for breath.
"If you could be finished before two," Nurse Horton said, "The patients have their physical exercise in the yard then. We don't like their routines upset."
The nurse opened the door and Alfie entered the dimly lit room. There was an unmade bed against the side wall with a plain nightshirt strewn across it. A nursery bookcase was against the wall at his side, with a few tattered volumes of children's books. Dotty was sitting on a chair by the window, looking out. He sat on the chair opposite her, but didn't speak. Her hair was brushed back and plaited. She was wearing a navy hospital dress with a shawl over her shoulders. Alfie was relieved there was no need for the straight jacket.