The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a novel about time and timelessness, a subject of endless fascination to me, kick-started, I suspect, as so many lifelong interests are, by the circumstances of my childhood. When I was eight-years-old, my mother began working part-time for an antique dealer, going on to open her own shop in the front room of our house on Tamborine Mountain, in the bend of Long Road nearest the roundabout. I remember vividly the first significant sale at Memory Lane Antiques – a cedar wardrobe – and the ensuing excitement, which featured a rare and exciting impromptu family dinner at the local French restaurant.
My mum, Didee, has an artist’s eye. She studied fine arts at night school and her Girls’ Own annuals on the bookcase in my grandmother’s spare room had margins filled with a dreamy teenager’s cross-hatched ink sketches; my mum sees patterns and possibilities everywhere and has a storyteller’s gift for narrative. And so: the items in her shop were never simply displayed, they were arranged like props on a stage set, as if awaiting their former owners to materialise and take up residence.
I used to love drifting through the ‘rooms’ that made up Memory Lane when Mum took a break and left me in charge, particularly on wet weekends when the world outside was dark and stormy and subtropical rain pelted on our tin roof. I would pause at a dressing table to turn over hairbrushes and picture frames and lace collars, and lift the delicate silver lid from a tiny crystal bonbonnière, wondering at the cherished items that had once been kept inside, wondering at what had caused the dent in the fine metal rim. At times, Mum had a gramophone in stock and a rickety old tune would quiver up the bell-shaped horn, voices and sound broadcasting from another time and place. There is little as transporting as music.
I spent countless dawn mornings at flea markets, weaving between rows of parked vans and canvas tents, on school ovals and in the tarmac parking lots of shopping centres, seeking pre-loved treasures for which I could exchange the sweaty coins held tight within my fist. During the summer school holidays Mum would take us with her to scour the dark and dusty second-hand shops dotted around the southern hem of Brisbane, and I can still remember their identical smell, of dust and mould and age and secrets, and the back corner of each one where books with old cardboard bindings and the names of other children inside were stacked. Sometimes we were invited into a stranger’s house to view an unwanted object that they’d advertised for sale, or to deliver a chest-of-drawers or a desk or a velvet armchair. I was always curious about these brief sojourns into other worlds. Incursions through the back of the wardrobe.
Sometimes the journey to the shadow world lasted longer. On two occasions that I can remember, responsibility fell to my mother for the complete disposal of a deceased person’s estate. Philip Larkin writes that a home is a sad thing that “stays as it was left” when its owners shut the door. Pity then the house whose owner has left it for good, whose rooms still heave with the possessions of a lifetime, some precious, others perfunctory. In my garden shed, alongside the boxes of university research papers and old school photos, there is a vintage Arnott’s biscuit tin containing letters from a bedside table drawer in a house at North Tamborine, that once belonged to a woman I had never met. I kept them when I was a teenager: not to read, but because they had been singled out and saved, and although they were no longer wanted or needed I couldn’t bear to consign them to the rubbish heap with the half-finished pots of lavender talcum powder and expired medications. I have moved house many times over the decades, and spring-cleaned and divested, but those letters are with me still because it seems I made a promise all those years ago that I would be their new protector.
There was a house in Brisbane I particularly remember: a grander, more beautiful house, its internal walls inlaid with polished wooden panels, its rooms filled with large pieces of furniture that loomed in the half-light where thick curtains had been drawn against the beating sun. There was an enormous wardrobe in the master bedroom, with fancy scallops along the top, in which vintage dresses hung deathly still and behind them, in the dark, fox coats lurked. I remember the surprising coldness of the fur, the satin lining of the sleeve against my skin when I slipped one arm inside. What an affecting experience it was, checking through the limp pockets, preparing each item for sale, rescuing pen lids and ticket stubs and buttons that had come loose; collating the effects of a single human life, now ended. I can still recall the smell of that wardrobe – always the same smell in those houses: of abandonment, I think, and sadness.
So then: I cannot remember a period in my life when I was not vividly aware of the passage of time; the temporariness of each human’s life, the fleeting nature of experience and the profound melancholy inherent in the accumulation of personal possessions. Even aside from my mum’s collecting I was simply that way inclined. I remember visiting my grandmother’s post-war house on the slopes of Stafford during the swelter of the summer holidays, when time lost any pretence of shape and the days blended one into the next; I would sit hot and cross-legged on the cold concrete floor of the outdoor laundry, wondering at the mysterious mangle and the old-fashioned tubs, watching the light sift and fall between the wooden slats of the tropical outhouse, peering through to Under-the-House where were stacked the mountain of possessions that had once belonged to my mother’s father – never ‘my grandfather’, for Hughie had died young, when my mum was just a girl, and I didn’t think of him as old or as mine. He was hers, and her stories of him shifted in my mind, as they still do now, when I sat on my nana’s laundry floor: his pride in my mum for studying her senior certificate at night school; his anger the day he opened the fridge door and saw that one of his daughters had stripped his prized crab claws of meat; his patience in the evenings when they brushed and tried to plait his hair.
I thought, too, with deep solemnity, of the other story Mum had told. About the last camping trip her dad took, an annual family holiday to Kingscliffe that she’d missed that year because she was sixteen and had recently left school to start work. It was a Wednesday and her boss at the Brisbane City Council had lumbered over to the side of her desk in a cloud of smoke and told her that there’d been a telephone call from her grandmother and she was to leave the office and go home to her at once. Mum had stayed with her grandmother the night before, because word had come from Kingscliffe that her dad had taken a turn. There was no need to worry, though – her mother’s voice had reassured her down the phone line – he was expected to be fine. Mum did not speak often of that day, and yet I could picture the scene with perfect clarity: the way she’d known even as the instruction was handed down that the hinge of her life had come loose; the way she’d grabbed her handbag and skittered along the street towards the bus-stop – thin teenage legs, new work shoes – as untethered as the fallen autumn leaves that rushed down Ann Street to overtake her; the way she’d arrived at her nana’s brick unit block in New Farm and run up the stairs two at a time to find the door open and her aunt waiting, tears falling, arms out wide, to wrap her in a smothering embrace and tell her what she already knew: that her father was not fine at all.
These imprints from another time, events that had happened to the people I knew now, but long before I knew them, fascinated me. They trailed invisible threads that tied me to the past and a grandfather I would never meet, but who lived vividly within scenes inside my head. Now I am a grown up, my mind filled with decades of memories, and I have three beautiful boys of my own who beg for stories from when I was their age. And I can see it in their faces when I spin the tale, yet again, of my great bike accident: the one where I disobeyed my mother, wore no shoes or helmet, and flew down the steepest hill until I got the speed wobbles and came over the handlebars and broke my teeth; or of the long summer days we spent at the local pool, playing underwater until our eyes stung and our hair was stiff with chlorine; or of the creek deep in the rainforest behind our house where we would sneak away on hot days and swim in our underwear and fish for tadpoles to sell by the roadside; that they, too, are time-travelling. As am I, for enough time has passed that when I tell these stories I smell the red volcanic soil and feel the vicious subtropical sun on my face and hear the echo of whip birds in the towering canopy, and I feel a swirling homesickness that will not settle. Homesickness, not for a place, but for a time that can never be revisited, except in memory.
My middle boy, now ten-years-old and one of my keenest story-demanders, looks a lot like my mum’s dad. We don’t have many photographs of Hughie, but there’s one in black-and-white, taken by a Brisbane studio photographer in the 1950s who had set up on the street and pointed his camera at likely subjects as they strolled unknowingly towards him. Hughie is wearing a smart suit and a trilby hat, and the image catches him mid-smile so that he carries with him the effortless air of a film actor. My son has dark hair and dark eyes, too, and a deep-dimpled chin and a hot temper balanced by a kind-hearted charm that draws people to him like honey. Hughie also had a temper, I remember now, for there was another family story, about the time when, as a boy, incensed by a sibling disagreement, he threw scissors at his sister and incurred the startled wrath of his parents. I think of the times that I have had to soothe the fury of my own red-cheeked, black-eyed child, who although not a thrower-of-scissors is ruled by such vivid passions – joy and delight and empathy and indignation and righteousness – that I envy him his undiluted experience of the world.
And so, time passes and gathers and concertinas and repeats. It loops back upon itself so that people from long ago appear in the dreams of people now; they lurk dormant in one set of genes after another only to stage a reappearance down the line. We are all time-travellers, carrying with us from the past the experiences that shaped us. Decades ago, my sisters and I – and my husband, too, who joined our family when I was eighteen and might as well therefore be one of us – all agreed that my mum’s particular strain of girlishness, her high spirits and naughtiness and willingness to weep with laughter over silly things, her sensitivity to a child’s hurt and propensity when we were kids to suffer personally the slings and slights of the schoolyard that we reported each afternoon, were all traits due to having lost her dad so young. It was as if the trauma of that day in 1967, a grief so deep and shocking, had arrested part of her in time, locking the essence of her sixteen-year-old self in amber so that no matter how many years went by she remained, in some essential way, that teenage girl being blown along Ann Street that Wednesday morning towards her aunt’s embrace.
Didee had a spinning wheel when I was very small, back in the seventies when people made their own clothing from scratch and natural fibres, and I regarded it then, as I still do now, an object of strange enchantment. It was built of dark-stained wood and sat in the corner of the loft, where a high-set window cast a spotlight that lifted it from shadow once a day. I liked the rhythm that it made as the foot pedal was pumped and the great wheel turned, and can remember watching as a mass of wool was refined into a skein of long thread, wound into a ball for future use.
It seems to me that there is an old spinning wheel inside each of us, an industrious woman at its helm who takes the raw wool of experience and spins it blindly into strands of thread. At least, that’s what I imagine. Some of the threads are smooth, while others remain knotty no matter how many times they’re worked over; some gleam, some don’t. My childhood on Tamborine Mountain, my family and their stories, the houses where I’ve lived: these are my threads, and they knit together to make up the tapestry of my life; but it is from my mother, I think, my first example in so many things, that most of my early influences were drawn. She modelled optimism—not in a simplistic Pollyanna sense, but as a daily choice to see light in the dark, and an inherent economy—a thrill almost—in rescuing discarded items, of never throwing anything away if a use could be found, giving each object a new lease of life.
I remember going with her to the local dump, that place on the edge of the mountain, a clearing in the rainforest, where people backed up their trailers on weekend afternoons and tossed unwanted items (a form of environmental vandalism that now seems alien), and hunting through the piles of broken furniture for things that could be saved. These were habits learned from her own mother before her, a child of the Depression who made and mended and never discarded a scrap of food. I am yet to meet a person of greater industry or creativity than my mum: she launched a grocery delivery service for holidaymakers on the Gold Coast long before Amazon Prime; her restoration of a dilapidated church led to an extraordinary wedding business; she painted and gardened and renovated and sewed and made things of beauty from nothing and never waited for permission to get started; time and again, she demonstrated that ‘good luck’ is often the result of brave choices and hard work.
It was from Didee that I caught my enduring love of books and words and stories. She taught me how to read, lifting the veil on the miraculous alchemical process by which black marks transformed in combination to create meaning and magic; she took us to the public library at Eagle Heights each week and demonstrated the sort of unrestrained, insatiable appetite for books that all true readers recognise as the real point of life, and it was she who gave me my first edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, The Enchanted Wood, Alice in Wonderland, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and, perhaps most cherished, The Secret Garden in its deep-blue hardcover binding, with a ribbon for a bookmark and illustrated plates and her inscription in the front so that even now I can run my fingertips along the impressions made by her pen and read, ‘To Katy on her seventh birthday, Love Mummy and Daddy, 1983’.
My mother also gave me the best piece of writing advice that I have ever received: it wasn’t conferred beneath the banner of ‘Advice’, because that’s not the kind of person she is. Though clever and wise – for of course they are different things – she is modest, too. What she told me was simply a musing shared between booklovers, a snippet from a conversation like many others that took place in the blue kitchen of our house on Tamborine. We were discussing evoking sense of place through description, and Mum was arguing for the power of a single specific detail over pages of generalities. She said: show me the fly trapped beneath the plastic wrap on a tray of sandwiches within a glass counter, and you’ve shown me the whole cafeteria. And although I could never be accused of writing lean, spare novels where nary a word is wasted, that conversation in the kitchen at Yooroona threaded its way into my memory and I think often of that fly, because Mum was right: at its mere mention, I can see and hear and smell the entire restaurant it called home.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter is not about my mother. I wrote it whilst living on the other side of the world, and we rarely discussed it as a work in progress; but it is dedicated to Didee because I see now that she is a part of its weave just as surely as she is a part of mine. Truth, beauty, light in the dark, time, family, home: these are the threads that she gave me to work with, both as a person and as a writer of books. I am an antique dealer’s daughter, I am Didee’s daughter, and I know without doubt that this book would not exist without her.