A clock ticks. I haven’t been asleep, exactly. Just in that place between, where the dreams seem real, however unlikely. I look at the phone on the bedside table, 05.15. I take my wrist from under the pillow, then remember I stopped wearing a watch, just stopped, not sure why. Still, something is ticking. I think of that gif with the cartoon ‘BOMB’ strapped to an old fashioned alarm clock. The ticking – and it is just ticking, no yang-ish tock to the insistent tick – isn’t loud. No, it’s just there.
I have a loft apartment in the Northern Quarter, in an old industrial building. Deathwatch Beetle infestation is unlikely. It said so in the brochure. I should know, my company ordered it. Besides, I know there’s not a single original joist, beam or rafter in the damn building. When someone stays over they remark on the sleek lines of the furniture, the marbled floor and the discreet, but bright lighting. When they leave, I catch them wearing that disappointed-by-reality look people who choose properties to visit on Zoopla must have twice-a-day.
The building is mostly full. A 70-30 split: rental and owner-occupier. That took three years. Persuading the GMC that high-end rentals would boost the trendy Northern Quarter still further. And it did. Thanks to me. The building isn’t my first development. Barring an outbreak of plague it won’t be my last. Manchester is coming up. The power in the Northern Powerhouse will be wielded by me, and people like me. The same people who always wield it. I can pull strings in London from here just as easily. Broadband is the mogul’s friend. HS2 will help me get to Westminster quicker if I need to. Maybe those strings are more like wires and cables: they move the puppets, whatever.
It’s 5.30. The alarm on my I-phone is telling me that. I reach out a finger and touch “dismiss” without looking. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Last night’s guest isn’t on the other side of the bed. I offered them the spare room, afterwards, like I always do. Like always the offer was declined. I'm sure they were there when I passed out. I listen out for sounds in the bathroom. There’s no sound but the ticking. I press a button on the wall behind my head. The curtains, drapes as the Americans say, un-draw themselves to reveal a view southward into Central Manchester. It’s still dark, but there are office lights in the distance. Poles, Latvians, Ukranians and anyone who will take less than minimum for working hours that will let them take another job are cleaning soulless office cubicles, as well anyone can in the time available per room.
I get up, naked. The underfloor heating warms my cold feet. I walk over to the thermostat, put my ear to it. It’s making no noise at all. It’s not supposed to. I can still hear ticking, the only thing I know is it’s not coming from the thermostat. I lie on the marble, ear to the cold hardness. The ticking sounds as though it’s coming from overhead. But then, most sounds are overhead if you’re lying on the floor. I struggle up. The gym in the fourth bedroom cost enough, I should use it.
There is a watch in the penthouse. I do have one of those drawers. Mine is in the kitchen, full of dead batteries, paperclips and blunt scissors. I decide to go to the kitchen and see if I can find the watch, aware of the absurdity of the notion that I might be able to hear it from the other side of the flat. There’s no noise audible through the door of either of the other two bedrooms, or the gym, but I'd expect that. You get what you pay for. Is the ticking louder outside one of the bedrooms? Surely not.
The lounge is deserted. Just two half-glasses of Stoli on the low coffee table in front of the sofa designed by someone unpronounceable. In the kitchen, I eye the digital clock on the Neff. Of course, it’s not ticking, it’s digital. I pull open the drawer. The first thing my eye falls on is an old concert ticket with its accompanying back-stage pass. The Arena went boom before I could use that.
When I started the development, the surveyors gave all the original oak a clean bill of health. No beetle damage, no evidence of larvae, nothing. ‘Though we can’t guarantee…’ I stopped listening at that point and told the architect the good – for him – news that we’d be replacing it all. My Rolex has stopped, it is antique, you have to wind it. Nevertheless, I hold it up to my ear. The watch is silent, the ticking continues. Perhaps I’ll get an I-watch, I haven’t got used to not wearing one.
My mouth is dry. Too much Stoli, probably. I can remember the sex, vaguely. But not much else. I check the gym first. My guest didn’t look the type, anyway. Then I check the smaller of the two spare rooms. No-one home. My hand is on the push plate beside bedroom two’s door. The door slides open, marring the unbroken appearance of the corridor wall. There’s a zinc bucket on the floor. I don’t own any kind of bucket. There is a hook through a metal loop attached to the ceiling by means of a very sturdy looking plate. I know the ceiling, though high, is a suspended affair. Whoever put the chain up had to have made enough noise to wake the dead. A body is head down, exsanguination has been going on for a while. The bucket is not yet full of blood.
Dripping, not ticking.