The Time Ball
Nora McDonald, tea tray gripped in her hands and calling good morning, bustled round the door like a boxer at the bell. She stomped across the swirling Axminster, then edged the tray onto the desk with the delicacy of a hummingbird.
She threw open the curtains, then crossed to the mantelpiece and turned off the gas lamps on either side. The professor’s reading lamp was left overwhelmed by January light.
“Now, there’s your breakfast and the first post, sir,” she said briskly. “There’s a few letters – oh, and a postcard – from Miss Margaret, with a pretty picture of Brighton, I think it is.”
The housekeeper set a new fire, humming all the while, and in a trice smoke was rising. Then reminding him she was visiting her sister in Musselburgh that afternoon, she wished him a good day and left.
Professor Mungo Lyon was sixty-three. Aside from Mrs McDonald, he lived alone. Their mother hadn’t survived Margaret’s birth, and their father had passed soon after. There was no longer even a cook – not since Margaret moved to Eastbourne, on account of her Emphysema.
He lifted the postcard with a smile. ‘… and I hope you found time to read your Christmas present.’ It lay beside him – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
He turned to the letters. There was a copy of the Minutes of the Marine Society’s December meeting. There were invoices from the coal merchant and Margaret’s physician. There was a notice from the University Senate.
There was a letter from Jamaica.
Its mottled brown envelope bore a crust of sea salt, and the handwriting was fine. He turned it several times, his curiosity wakened, opened it and read it. Then he laid it to one side.
He chewed his breakfast with a frown. Then he sipped his tea and gazed at the mantelpiece. There was a bust of Vasco Da Gama for which, in a moment of youthful abandon, he’d paid three guineas at Buchanan’s auction rooms. His eyes then travelled to a copy of Mercator’s map of the known world. He could still remember unwrapping it – a fourteenth birthday present from his father. His father: who named him for Mungo Park, Scotland’s famous explorer. They’d passed countless joyous evenings together reading Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa.
He snapped from his reverie and peered at his watch. The new term began today and he’d a lecture to give at eleven.
It was a bracing walk from Morningside to Old College. With every stride his breath met the crisp air, swirled, then condensed on the tip of his nose. The rheumatism in his left leg lifted a little, and by the time he turned through the College archway he felt vital. Fresh faced students thronged the doors to the lecture hall, then followed at his back in a great scrum.
“Gentlemen,” he began, and their chatter faded. Silence fell. “What do we mean by the Tropics? Well, to begin our studies, let us first consider the Equator. Now, the World is fierce hot in places, but nowhere hotter than in those arid places we call the great deserts. Around the midriff of the World, however, there is more than just desert sands. There are great expanses of Ocean too, looked down upon by the relentless Sun. In those waters lie many wonderful islands with congenial climates. Let’s consider a few of them. Travelling East, we encounter the Seychelles, then Mauritius in the waters of India. Then Madagascar, then the thousand islands of Indonesia, pride of the Dutch. Then we have New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Tahiti – and then there are the Pitcairns, home to the Breadfruit, and colonised by the crew of the Bounty. Turning West, gentlemen, we have the Caribbean’s fifteen hundred documented islands, with hundreds or even thousands yet uncharted.”
A hundred pairs of eyes transfixed him at his podium: the engineers, commercial traders and financiers of the coming age.
“These islands, gentlemen, enjoy the pleasantness of location between the Tropic of Cancer to the North of the Equator, and that of Capricorn at an equidistance to the South.”
As Professor Lyon warmed to his science, he pictured in his mind’s eye the golden sands and swelling surf of those exotic locations. The pillars of the hall became wound with jungle creepers, palm fronds and coconuts. His eager students were natives, peering from the undergrowth at this new arrival from a northern shore. A salt tang filled his nostrils and he could feel grains of sand between his toes as the surf surged round his calves. He could feel the equatorial sunshine warm his back all the way through his shirt, waistcoat and jacket. A sea breeze seemed to stir the folds of his gown. Turtles darted through blue water and he thought of pirates, Zanzibar, and gold moidores; and when he closed his eyes for a moment in mid speech he saw red, not black, as in boyhood summers stretched out on the sands at Portobello.
“The Tropics are named from the Greek ‘Tropicos’, meaning ‘turn’…” and as he spoke he recognised his own voice but as if from far, far away.
When the lecture finished his chattering students streamed out into the noonday sunshine. The professor carefully re-arranged his papers and placed them back in his satchel. Then donning once more his gloves, scarf and hat, he walked to the Post Office to place his regular money order for Margaret. The errand complete, he called at his club where he read the papers and took some soup. Then he started back across the North Bridge, the smoke from the trains curling up over the parapets. About half way across, he stopped and drew out his watch. He was just in time to see one o’clock come round – but rather than looking to the Castle and the sound of the gun, he looked to the Time Ball on the Calton Hill. Every day at one, the Time Ball dropped twelve feet down the pole above Nelson’s Monument. This was the signal to captains sailing from Leith to re-set their marine chronometers. He waited, watch in hand. The Time Ball fell. The report of the gun followed a split second later. Here was enterprise, he thought: here was innovation. But the exercise, he noted, revealed his own watch was now twelve seconds slow.
The professor passed the rest of the afternoon on his latest paper, ‘On the influence of Iodine in the North Atlantic waters’. He worked until seven, then rose from his labours and donned his outdoor things. A sea of darkness awaited him – but studded with gas pearls to light his way home.
He called good night to Mrs McDonald and closed his study door. A new fire blazed, and velvet curtains held out the night. The clock ticked, the lamps glowed. The alabaster bust stared out with calm resolution, and he imagined for the thousandth time the exotic beauty of India’s Malabar Coast. He tried to picture it as first seen through the eyes of the Portuguese adventurer, with the sun setting in a purple sky and the waves crashing on golden sands. But then he felt a twinge of pain in his left leg and moved closer to the flames.
He returned to his desk, lit his pipe, and once again took up the letter from Jamaica.
Forgive the brevity of this note, my friend, but good news! We received word from the Royal Society and the committee, at long last, has agreed to extend our funding. With the money we can broaden our researches beyond the coastal shelf and, already, I have in mind a dozen new schemes. There is as yet much to see and learn and, if you were willing to undertake the passage, we would be honoured to have you with us for however long you could manage. The climate here is pleasant, and our quarters in the grounds of Government House most congenial. The Frenchman La Patrie joined our little group in September and speaks highly, as we all do, of your theories on the cycle of the Atlantic’s waters. He says he will stay a year, such is his interest in what might be achieved. I will continue to keep you fully updated on all our findings – but write, once again, to extend to you a warm and ready welcome. I must go now, for tonight we dine with the Governor. Write soon, my friend, and I trust dear Margaret is well.
The tick of the clock filled the room. He set the letter down, then stared into the fire, watching its flames slowly settle to glowing embers. There’s life there yet, he thought, and reached for his pen.
Stephen O’Rourke, 2012