This story was originally posted at walkingshell.wordpress.com.
In Search of Lost Time
On a crisp February morning, Sir James Chesterfield left his London townhouse in a hurry. His alarm clock had been malfunctioning lately, and today he could not afford to be late. Today was the annual Royal Society Conference. Britain’s greatest scientists from far and wide would soon congregate to discuss the scientific problems and, hopefully, solutions. Sir James was to deliver a keynote address to the society, a great honor by any scientist’s standards.
Rounding the corner swiftly, he stopped a plump, old gentlemen in a topcoat.
“Excuse me, good sir,” Sir James said. “Do you happen to have the time?” The old gentlemen gazed perplexedly at Sir James before proceeding to check every one of his many pockets in a manner of hurried confusion.
“No. No, I’m sorry. It seems I don’t,” the gentleman said.
“No matter, thank you for your time nonetheless.” Sir James took leave of the old gentlemen, whose face subsequently took on a strange, disoriented expression.
Sir James kept walking in long, brisk strides down the cobblestone road, thinking anxiously of the address he would soon deliver. Down the road, he spotted a group of local construction workers sitting on the curb, enjoying their morning break.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, do any of you happen to have the time?” he asked.
“No, do you?” one of the workers replied. The other workers chuckled among themselves.
“What? No, I don’t have the time. Why would I ask you otherwise?” Sir James answered, annoyed.
“Yeah, well if I did I sure as hell wouldn’t give it to you!” the worker answered. His co-workers roared with laughter. Sir James was taken aback by the workers unexplained effrontery.
“Impudent brutes!” he snapped at them, and stormed off down the road. Their laughter echoed behind him.
The young generation has absolutely no respect nowadays! Sir James thought. Restless and irritated, he continued walking hastily. Rounding another corner, he noticed a frail old woman coming towards him. Almost having given up on his seemingly trivial task of finding the time, he stopped the smiling geriatric.
“Excuse me, Miss. Do you happen to have the time?” he asked, almost pleading. The near-centenarian blankly looked at Sir James, before bursting into hysterical laughter. Her small body heaved and puffed, barely able to contain the cackling demon that grabbed hold of her. Sir James looked in awe at her, hardly believing the sight before his eyes.
“Has everyone in this city gone bloody mad?” he shouted. Looking before him, he realized that if he continued one block further, he would be able to spot the Clock Tower of Westminster Palace. He would no longer need to trouble himself with the Sisyphean task of asking local lunatics for the time.
“Never mind, it seems only at the Clock Tower will I find the bloody time in this mad city!” Sir James shouted back at the hysterical woman. The old lady gained control of herself and looked incredulously at Sir James.
“What?” she inquired with disbelief. Her jaw dropped and her worn-out eyes began to widen. “The Clock Tower?” Sir James turned back to look at her, her entire body was fixated upon him in a sort of trance.
“Yes, the Clock Tower, it has only been there for forty years or so,” he said sarcastically and continued walking. Hearing footsteps behind him, Sir James turned around. To his astonishment, he saw the frail, old lady running as fast as her short legs could take her towards him.
“The Time! The Time! I’ve found the Time!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. “The Time, I’ve finally found it” she screamed.
Bewildered, Sir James watched her rush past him in the direction of the Clock Tower, yelling and flailing her weak arms over her head. Her commotion began to draw people out of the nearby shops and buildings.
“The Time! It’s at the Clock Tower, at Westminster. I’ve found the Time!” she continued yelling. People began to catch on.
“The Time? At Westminster?” one said.
“They’ve found it?” said another.
They began spilling out of every building and crevice on the street, droves of people, all sprinting towards the Clock Tower, all in pursuit of the Time.
“My mother is severely ill, she doesn’t have much Time left!”
“I’ve always wanted to become a painter but I’ve never had the Time!”
“I was forced to work as a child, I deserve that Time back!”
“I want to start over! I must have more Time!”
The modern London street turned into a frenzied battleground. People were screaming, kicking and clawing at one another, all for a chance to recover a bit of lost Time. Sir James stood completely inert, not understanding or fully believing the madness around him. He saw the old lady trampled underfoot in the distance by the charging crowd. No one tried to help her up or even noticed she’d fallen. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the rude construction workers running in the direction of the herd. A few minutes ago they were the best of pals, heartily laughing side-by-side, bound together in mutual contempt for him. Now they were nothing but savage competitors vying for Time. They grappled, brawled, and assaulted one another without a tinge of conscience.
Turning around, Sir James saw a familiar figure racing towards him with the direction of the throng. She was tall and slender with long auburn hair. It was his wife, Anne. He sprinted towards her and grabbed ahold of her by the arms. He could barely make her out, in between his tears.
“Anne! Anne, what are you doing? What is going on? Everyone’s gone mad!”
“Haven’t you heard? They’ve found the Time! It’s at the Clock Tower, at Westminster!” she replied, struggling to escape his hold on her. Her eyes had a disturbed twinkle in them, born of newfound hope.
“Anne, this is preposterous, people have lost their minds. Don’t you see the insanity?”
Ignoring his plea she responded, “Just think, James, if we could recover a bit of Time we could bring little Bessie back to life. I simply must reach the Clock Tower, I owe it to her!”
“Anne, this is deranged. Please, be reasonable!” Before he could finish his sentence she freed herself from his hold and rushed onward with the mass.
“What have I done?” Chesterfield whispered to himself.
“Order, Order in the court!” the judge shouted, pounding his gavel violently. The courtroom was full. At the end of a long trial, the crowd eagerly came to see what punishment the heartless, cruel scientist would receive. They were anxious, restless, thirsty for revenge. The judge continued. “Sir James Chesterfield deliberately used his status as a man of science, an expert on all matters concerning space and time, to trick London’s good citizens as to the location of the Time. He cultivated false hope in their hearts for the sake of his own sadism. His heinous actions have cost two people their lives, caused twelve other serious injuries, and brought about costly damages to city infrastructure. The court finds Sir James Chesterfield guilty!” The audience thundered with approval. “The court sentences Sir James Chesterfield to his untimely death, by hanging.” The cheers from the courtroom could be heard a mile away.
On a sunny afternoon, Sir James Chesterfield was hanged in front of a large audience. Upon lowering his body, the gathered crowd rushed to his corpse, hoping to salvage any unused Time that might spill out of him, like sand from a broken hourglass.
Ben Shenhar was born and bred in the United States and grew up in the NY area until the age of 13, when he moved to Israel. He’s currently in the IDF, and will soon be finished with his mandatory three-year service. As almost all recently ex-soldiers do in Israel, he plans on traveling the Far East for six months once he is released and then studying physics and perhaps also philosophy. You can find him at walkingshell.wordpress.com.
Image: flickr / Hernán Piñera