A short story for Valentine's Day...
There was once a man who loved a woman very much. This is all you need to know about him. His name and his age and the place he lived and whether or not he liked boiled beetroot and vodka or reading the newspaper are all irrelevant. All you need to know is that he loved a woman with all his heart.
Except the woman did not love him. She knew him, and she knew that he did not like boiled beeetroot or vodka, and that he did like reading the newspaper, but she did not know he loved her. And even if she had, she would not love him in return. All the knowledge in the world could not make her love him.
But sadly the man only learned this on the only day he abandoned his newspaper and asked her to be his wife.
"No," she said. "I will not marry you. I love another. I love his eyes and the way he shaves and I love every step he takes towards me. You are not him. You never could be."
The man could not bear this. He cried tears without end. There was a pain in his head and his chest. His love of food and words left him like steam from a hot bowl. There was heat in his heart, but it was not the kind that comes with a summer's day or which fills you at the first sight of a beautiful woman. It was a dry, indiscriminate heat. And it was his twin. It woke with him, choked back boiled beetroot with him. It did not read the newspaper just as he no longer did. And when he eventually returned to his bed it sat on his heart and made every beat agony.
"Oh why must I live with this pain! My heart aches so! I wish I had the strength to rip it from my body and toss it into the frozen river!" the man cried night after night. No one except the stray dogs heard him, but they were too busy wolfing down the uneaten beetroot.
Then one day a clock-maker heard the man's cries and ventured to his door.
"I can help you sir," the clock-maker said. "You wish to remove the pain that dwells in your heart?"
"Yes, yes!" said the man, "it is too much for me to bear. I would gladly be rid of it even if it should mean dragging my heart with it!"
"This can be done sir," the clock-maker said. "I can take your heart and replace it with clockwork. Then you will be free from the pain of which you speak. For whilst flesh may hold memory and pain, how can wood and tightly-wound metal?"
"Why, they can feel no more pain than a lamp post!" the man said. "Please kind stranger, take my pain! Give me no more tears to shed!"
"Gladly," the clock-maker said, "but first let me tell you this: if a lamp post can no more feel pain than a clockwork heart, then nor can it feel love."
"Of course! What of it? Please, take away my pain sir before I am forced to rid myself of it by my own hands!"
"Very well," said the clock-maker.
And he was true to his word. The clock-maker took away the man's heart and replaced it with cold clockwork. For the first time in a long while the man felt free of the heat that was forged from the loss of the woman he had loved. He no longer felt any heat in his chest. It was cold. Cold as the river he had wished to toss his heart into.
"Ha! I pity all those people who must suffer as I did. Walking around with so much pain, why do it? It is much easier to be rid of it."
The man read his newspaper again. He ate steak every day, sometimes with boiled beetroot, which he no longer seemed to mind. He even developed a taste for vodka. He felt no pain or heat or loss. He felt nothing. The memory of the woman he had loved was still there, but it no longer made him cry. She was as distant to him as the stray dogs. He watched them forage and die in the streets and then went back to eating his steak and reading his newspaper and drinking his vodka. Occasionally he would see a pair of young lovers walk hand in hand and he would throw open his window and shout down at them, sometimes with a moutful of steak. "Ha! Beware you two! You will only break each other's hearts. One of you will become bored or find another love or die and then it will all end in tears! Best to be rid of your heart my friends. No pain to suffer. No more tears to shed!"This was how he lived. Every day. For two hundred years. His body wore thin, his organs dried up and his blood turned to dust but still his clockwork heart ticked with unending regularity. Nothing made it tick faster or slower and nothing made it skip a tock.
At last, after two hundred years and one day, when the last howl had ceased and the streets were quiet, the man looked at the date on the newspaper and for the first time realised how old he was. He looked around his cold room at the graveyard of newspapers. Rising from his chair he clicked across the floorboards. His bone hands began to pluck papers from their piles and through marble eyes he looked at the headlines. War, famine, plague; the cruel acts of Men and Gods, the wheel of birth and death. He had read it all before but only as black and white.
"Oh what a cruel life I have led!" he moaned and scratched at his ribs. "I have lived so long and yet felt nothing! No pain or loss or love or joy! I have only sat and read and not even the words have moved me!"
Had he been able to remember the feeling of heat in his chest he would have expected it to appear now. But it did not, just as it hadn't for two hundred years. There was only clockwork.
He looked outside his window and saw an old couple tottering along, leaning on one another for support as they traversed the icy street.
"Hey! You two!" he shouted, his voice hoarse, "You are married?"
"For forty-eight years," the old man returned.
"But how? Have you not known loss and pain? Has love not scarred your heart?"
"But of course."
"Then how is it you are married? How have you found love?"
"It is simple," the old man said, "neither of us abandoned our hearts!"
And the old couple laughed mockingly at the clockwork man.
The man staggered back from the window and rattled into his chair. He looked around the room, empty but for the newspapers and a few spent vodka bottles. Only the dependable click of metal kept him company. He tried to cry but only dust fell from his eyes and into the palms of his hands. He stared at it. His clockwork heart continued to move.
"No more tears to shed..." he murmured.
No more tears to shed. No one to shed them for. And with nothing else to do, the man who had once - and only once - loved a woman, wiped the pointless dust from his eyes, and did the only thing he could do. He leaned back in his chair with his glass of vodka and continued to read his newspaper. And that is all you need to know about him, because for the rest of his singular existence that is all he ever did. And he did it like clockwork.