Time and Peter Joyce

Copyright © 2003 Ceres Wunderkind


This tale is the latest in an ongoing sequence of stories set in the years after the end of The Amber Spyglass. Those stories follow the fortunes of Will Parry and Lyra Belacqua, together with those of a number of other characters from our world, Lyra's world and the world of Cittagazze. Among those characters is Peter Joyce who, when he first appeared in The Clockmaker's Boy, was fifteen years old and an apprentice at the firm of James and James, makers of clocks and instruments in Lyra's Oxford. Peter met Lyra, who was in her mid-forties at the time, and was taken on by her as a student of alethiometry. However, Lyra died only two years later, possibly as a result of the horrific nightmares visited upon her by her half-sister Elizabeth Boreal. Elizabeth herself was found dead, presumed drowned, off the west coast of Eire two or three months afterwards. Now read on...

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin. Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lust and luxuries. Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience, He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.
Thomas Stearns Eliot - Whispers of Immortality

I Return to Oxford

'You all right there, son?'

I looked up. 'Yes, thank you Goodsir.'

'You were in dreamland.' My questioner was a middle-aged man, wearing a brown suit and bowler hat. He could have been a farmer, or a country doctor.

'Pull the flapper down, won't you, son. They're ringing the bell.'

I'd completely missed hearing it, preoccupied as I was with the news I had received that morning. Hanging down by the side of the window was a green cord with a brass handle attached to its end. I reached up with my right hand, tugged hard on the handle and with a creak the orange flapper flag which was fixed to the outside of the railway carriage was pulled down into its socket, indicating to the guard who was standing on the platform that all the passengers in our compartment were safely aboard; luggage, children, daemons and all.

'Thanks, son.' My travelling companion settled back in his seat, opened his briefcase and extracted from it a squishy packet of what I assumed to be sandwiches, and a copy of the West Bromwich Gazette. There were just two of us in the compartment, which had six seats.

'Hungry?' The man pointed to the packet.

'Thank you, Goodsir, but I had lunch before I left.'

'Just as you like.' He opened the newssheet and his osprey-daemon settled on the cushion of the seat next to him. My own Viola snuggled herself in my lap. With a repeated shout of 'All Clear!' from the platform and furious whistle-blowing from the locomotive at the head of the train we pulled slowly out of Brummagen New Street station. I was going back to Oxford.

Back home in a way; although home – where my parents lived and where I was brought up – was by the Grand Junction canal in the small town of Tring. But Oxford, where I came when I was thirteen, with Viola only just settled, was the place where I felt most at home now. It was, after all, the place where I had grown up.

What I mean is this: I came to Oxford as a boy, thinking I knew everything and, in reality, filled with the most profound ignorance. Only four years later, standing by the Professor's grave in the Botanic Garden by Magdalen Bridge, I had changed beyond anything I would have thought possible. Changed by experience; by sorrow, excitement and joy. I had seen so much, done so much, that was very far beyond the realm of what we call everyday life…

The train was gathering speed now. The rhythmic click-clack of the wheels on the joints in the track, the fields and houses streaking past the windows, the gentle sway of the carriage as the line curved to the left or the right, all served to lull me into a doze. I should be careful, I knew, or I would fall asleep and wake up when we had passed my destination by many long miles.

'Remember, Peter,' said Viola. 'It's good to remember.' And as the steam and smoke streamed over the top of our rushing carriage, occasionally dipping to brush against the window and temporarily obscure the view, I remembered…

I remembered the first time I walked up the hill from Oxford station, feeling lost and anxious, holding tightly onto my kitbag, which my mother had packed for me the night before and firmly warned me never to let go of (I had wrapped my hand around its straps in the train). I had stopped halfway up Park End Street and tugged at the sleeve of a passing pedestrian – of course he was in a hurry, these were city folk – and asked him how I could get to Shoe Lane. The man had looked impatient and annoyed at first, but his face had softened when he saw how close I was to crying, and he had taken my free hand and led me up the street to the Cornmarket, and thence to Shoe Lane. 'Thank you Goodsir,' I'd said, remembering my manners, and he had saluted me, wished me Godspeed, and returned to his business, leaving me standing at the junction of the Cornmarket and Shoe Lane, outside the Talbot Inn.

'You'll find it down there, young sir,' he had said. I never knew the name of my guide, or that of his raven-daemon, but he was the first kindly stranger I had met, out all-alone as I was, and I resolved that I would try to pass his kindness on to others if I could.

That was where I'd had to go – down Shoe Lane, past the dressmaker's and the bookbinder's and the haberdasher's and the locksmith's and the potter's and the ironmonger's; looking for the sign of the hourglass and the place where I was to begin my apprenticeship and start the never-ending job of making a place for Viola and myself in this busy world of ours.

I'd set off down the narrow street, peering into the windows of the shops, one after another, looking for the place I sought. I'd passed shop after shop and was beginning to wonder if I'd missed it when there had been the painted hourglass, and there the double-fronted shop with its new plate-glass windows and gilt-lettered inscription over the door – James and James, Fine Clocks and Instruments. I'd pushed open the door – the bell fixed above it jingling merrily – and stood at the counter.

'Yes?' the sallow-faced man behind the counter had said, looking down at me out of the side of his face as if I were a very small and insignificant object which, indeed, I felt myself to be.

'Please, sir, are you Master James?'

'Who wants to know?'

'Me, sir. Peter Joyce and Viola.'

'And who might you be, Peter Joyce and Viola?' The man's rabbit-daemon sat on the counter, sniffling and playing with her paws.

'Please, sir, I'm the new apprentice.'

'Oh, are you?'

'So are you Master James?' I sincerely hoped that he was not. I had taken an instant dislike to this pale thin young man, with his high shoulders and slantwise way of looking at me.

'No. I'm Elias Cholmondley. That's Mister Cholmondley to you, boy. Wait here, and don't touch anything. Anything goes missing or gets broken, you're for the high jump.'

Mister Cholmondley had turned and pushed through a door at the back of the shop. I stood absolutely still, afraid to move in case I damaged any of the clocks, watches and barometers which flashed and gleamed in the cabinets which stood, splendid in polished mahogany and glass, against the walls.

The back door had opened again, and a mild-faced man in early middle age had emerged from the mysterious darkness beyond, taking off his pince-nez and wiping his forehead with a white cotton handkerchief, for the weather was warm that day.

'Peter, I'm pleased to meet you. I am Master James, and this is Amanda.'

I'd bowed. 'Good afternoon, Master. Greetings, Amanda. This is Viola.' Viola and ocelot-formed Amanda had regarded one another briefly, each taking the measure of the other.

'Come along then. Duck under the counter, there you go.' I'd got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the counter, pulling my kitbag behind me and followed Master James into the room on the other side of the door, which was his workshop and a place of endless wonder and fascination to me from that day on.

I've told the story before of my life as an apprentice at James and James. I wrote it all down, called it The Tale of the Clockmaker's Boy, and my friend Jim read it through for me in his usual sceptical, inquiring manner. He didn't believe half of it, and he didn't think much of the style in which I wrote it, but he helped me with it just the same. I looked at it often, even now when it was several years later, and I was no longer a mere apprentice in Oxford but a full-made journeyman-craftsman working at Moore's in Brummagem.

How strange a time that was! Magical, you might say. Magical indeed, I would insist, for things happened to me then that could only be magic, or something that could not be distinguished from magic. Often it did not seem real, and it was only the fact that I'd written it all down; all about Arthur Shire and the Maggie, and the Boreal Foundation and the Gobblers, and the Professor, that made me sure that those things had happened in reality, and were not merely fantasies I had dreamed up in an idle moment. Oh yes, the dreams. I still remembered the dreams and even now – now that I knew that they had been sent to me as a form of torture and revenge – I could not shake off their effect completely. For did not my dreams reflect the image of my soul? I could not look at my beautiful Viola and believe that to be true – the nightmares had been so hideous – but I knew that they would not have been sent to me, or resonated so strongly with my spirit, if they did not recognise and exploit the dark side of my innermost nature. They were a form of education, I knew, but the lessons they taught me were bitter, and hard to swallow.

Those were the burdens I carried from that time (but I would have it no other way). One other thing I had, a legacy from those times when I was growing up. It was a gift beyond my power to receive, so I held it as a trust against the time when I, or another, would be able to use it as it was meant to be used. It was an object infinitely precious to me; not only for its intrinsic value – which could not be measured in pounds, shillings and pence – but also for the memories it awoke in me whenever I took it out and examined it. It was with me now, as the train hissed and grated its way into Oxford station and I roused myself, gathered up Viola and pulled my ancient battered kitbag down from the rack above my head.

What would he have thought, that stolid respectable man who sat reading his 'sheet opposite me, as I got out of the carriage and stood on the platform of Oxford station, if he had known what an extraordinary thing I had in my pocket? I caught sight of him as I pulled down the flapper flag (it had gone up automatically when I opened the carriage door) – he was still engrossed in his newssheet. I raised a hand in farewell, and he politely nodded back to me.

I will never know what he would have thought; although I can guess that he would have been astonished and perhaps slightly outraged that I could walk so apparently casually down the platform towards the ticket barrier as if there were no such thing as a thief in all the world (but I knew a thief, and he was a good man). In my jacket pocket, wrapped in its velvet pouch of dark blue, lay the greatest treasure in all the world, so far as I was concerned. It was the Professor's – Lyra's – alethiometer, and its cool weight bumped reassuringly against my thigh as I walked, as I had done all those years before, up Park End Street towards the Cornmarket, and Shoe Lane, and James and James. What, I wondered, would I find there?

Author's Note

It's been nearly a year since I wrote, in A Gift of Love (also posted on FF.NET), that I didn't know what would happen to Peter Joyce or his girlfriend Jane, or to Lyra's alethiometer. I've looked back at that story, and The Clockmaker's Boy, a few times since and decided that I'm still rather fond of Peter – plain, ordinary, straightforward, optimistic Peter – and that it would be pleasant (for me at least) to find out a little bit more about his story, if I could. There were a number of loose ends left behind which, although I don't think they need to be tied up, could be used as a way into further adventures for Peter and Viola.

I realise that this is hard on new readers who may not know all the background to this tale and so I'll do what I can to fill in the gaps as I go along.