Time is of the Essence

Posted: August 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

This story first appeared in enRAged, the journal of Revolutionary Action, in mid 2002. Thanks to Mike Donaldson for his contribution.

Throughout my life various things have been stolen from me. I don’t know when I first realised they were going missing, I just knew I was being robbed. It was small things at first. I would turn around and they were gone. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure what was missing. I do remember, that when I was very young, I had this watch which my mum had given me, so I could learn to tell the time. However, wearing the watch made my wrist itch and it was very irritating. Still, I used to have fun winding the time forward and back. I had my favourite times of the day and would pinch the little knob on the side of my watch and turn the hands around and around until it was the time I wanted. I only had my watch for a few weeks and then one day it was gone. “How could you have lost it?” My mum wanted to know. “It was stolen Mum”, I told her. I remembered having it that morning, as I walked to church. I went to a church school, where every day we had to walk through the graveyard for a morning service. I distinctly remembered fiddling with my watch as we filed past the grave stones and I checked my watch against the church clock.

Mum wouldn’t get me another watch. So, for the next few years, I had to be told what time it was, or look up at the school clock. In fact the school clock was my chief suspect for the watch theft. I started getting suspicious when I noticed time was going missing while I was in class. Some days I would stare at the clock, waiting for lunch time, waiting for home time, waiting to play. Occasionally, I would take my eyes off the clock and when I looked back it would be exactly the same time as when I looked away. I knew some time had passed since I last looked, yet those minutes had vanished. Sometimes, if I couldn’t see the clock, I would count the passing seconds, “one thousand, two thousand, three thousand”, and add up the minutes until the school bell would ring. That bell was always minutes late. Where had those minutes gone? The bell’s complicity made it another suspect in the thefts, and its suspicious behaviour didn’t end there. When I was in the playground having fun with my friends the bell always seemed to ring early. I would ask the teachers on patrol if they were sure it was time to stop playing. “Didn’t you hear the bell?” They would say. Sometimes my mates and I would keep playing after the bell. “What’s the time Mr Wolf?” They shouted as they stole up behind me. As I turned around the teacher caught me by the arm. “You heard the bell! Tomorrow, lunchtime, detention!”

It was while doing my detentions that I realised hours were now going missing. At the end of some days I felt like I had jet-lag. I would count back the moments of the day to try and find out where the missing hours had gone, but there was no trace. I asked my teacher if she had witnessed anyone with a lot of time. “Well, you seem to have too much time on your hands,” she said. I looked closely, I dusted for prints, I couldn’t find the time on my hands anywhere. On one occasion Ms. Smith tried to explain time to the class. “Time is tangible, concrete and passing. The twenty four hour day is the interval between dawn and the next one. Our waking, sleeping, digestion and metabolism are patterned by internal biological clocks attuned to this alteration. The fairly uniform circadian rhythm governs every person’s body temperature and affects the universal and private experience of other rhythms of the body, such as the beat of the heart, inhalation and exhalation, the menstrual cycle and the recurrence of hunger”. Time and again I thought about this.

It was when puberty hit that it struck me. What had happened to my childhood? I looked around, but it was gone. No-one seemed to realise it was missing. I spent many years searching for it, but the more time passed the more elusive it seemed. Eventually, I decided there must be a connection between these thefts and going to school. So as much as possible I avoided going there. Sadly days spent in Timezone didn’t seem to help. At first it was minutes going missing, then hours, now years. My life was being stolen! This was a terrifying thought. I was scared, anxious, I felt violated. I called the police. They laughed, “we haven’t got time for this shit”, they said.

I decided it was time for a change, time for action, time to make a getaway! I took up long distance running and tried to beat the clock. In my first competitive event, the other runners jostled me out of contention and I was the last runner over the line. According to those who saw the race, I was robbed. Sick of being a victim, I began going into shops and stealing watches, clocks, calendars, and diaries. I especially liked one old grandfather clock I stole. It reminded me of both of my granddads, after they had been sent off to fight in the Second World War and laboured hard in the ‘land fit for heroes’. Battered and worn, its face sad and dulled, this clock’s internal mechanisms had rusted, it sat in the corner silently, until it fell apart. I also thieved as many time saving devices as I could. My home was soon full of machines saving time. Yet where they put it I have no clue. Sadly the store detectives soon caught up with me. They beat me senseless, and funnily enough now the cops found they had the time; to arrest me. As they picked me up off the floor of the shopping centre, one of the cops looked into my dazed eyes. “Do you even know what time it is?” he asked me. “Mac time?” I replied.

The cops took me to the hospital and the doctors scanned my brain. A psychologist asked me some questions. They told me I would have to stay in hospital for a while. They said I was like a time bomb waiting to go off. Yet, according to them, they could steal into my brain and stop the clock. Some timely intervention and no more worries about my life being stolen. That night everyone was turning their clocks back for daylight saving. So, in the hour between 3am and 2am, I did a runner. By the time the nurses had noticed I was missing, I was long gone. Sometime later, I got a letter saying the courts had given me 200 hours of community service. I wasn’t sure if they thought this was some kind of recompense. I received 200 hours of mowing lawns at the local soccer oval. Every weekend I would cut the grass and count the minutes until they said I’d done my time. Every now and then, I would look behind me and see the grass growing again.

From that time on, I was sure the police were watching me. I would see them on the corner of my street, killing time. My friends thought I was too paranoid. I wondered if they could spare some time. They gave what they could, but every week they seemed to have less and less to spare. So, instead, I decided I had to buy some time.  But where from and how much did it cost? I obviously needed cash, so I got a job. Of course it wasn’t long before I discovered the harder I worked the less time I had. That fucking school clock had followed me to work! What was worse I found that even when I wasn’t at work my mind was on the work clock. That clock was ticking inside me, its face was the bosses face and it kept calling me “machine”! I started to have a recurring nightmare where I was in prison doing a life sentence. In my dream world the same things would happen day after day. I spent  my dream time searching for a hole in the prison walls. Before I could ever finish my search I would be woken by my alarm clock. Time for work.

When I started my job I was doing a thirty five hour week. Pretty soon it was forty two hours. Then it was forty five, sometimes weekends, extra work at night, early starts, working through lunch, phone calls and emails at home. So I rang my union and asked about a shorter hours campaign. They said they were “too busy”. “What about my work/life balance?” I asked. They sent me a form to record the hours I worked. I spent days trying to work out when I was working and when I wasn’t.  With this work to do, on top of my other ever increasing work, it all became a blur.  To try and clarify what was work time and what was life time, I began to study the history of time. I discovered that since the dawn of capitalism and the widespread introduction of the mechanical clock and watch, the bits of time that are measured and regarded as valuable have kept on shrinking. The first clocks had no dials at all and simply sounded an hourly bell. By the sixteenth century one handed clocks were chiming the quarter hour and in the middle of the following century the minute hand was introduced. The measurement of seconds by an additional hand on the clock face did not occur until the early 1700s. Now we have digital timepieces on which each second signals its presence and disappearance. The computer on which I work measures time in nanoseconds – billionths of a second.

One day at work I had the radio up really loud and was dancing around the room, trying to keep time to the beat, when the boss walked through the door. “Are you having a good time?” he barked. “I’m having the time of my life”, I replied. The boss tersely explained we had a deadline to meet. After checking my computer, he pointed out that I had wasted billions of nanoseconds. “We’re running out of time”, he declared. “It’s not possible”, I countered. “I have been running as fast as I possibly can and have never got close”. “Look”, he said, “don’t you understand. Time is money!” “But you have plenty of money”, I replied.  The boss appeared totally confused and could only manage “look I don’t have the time to spend on this!” Later in the day he caught me dancing again. In his most sarcastic voice he exclaimed “why don’t you just take your time?” So I did, and he never saw me again.

Since that day, I have tried to take my time as much as possible. Sometimes it’s just a minute, I slow down, stop and think, daydream for a while. Sometimes it’s an hour, late for work/uni, long lunch, leaving early. While the computers may be able to measure a nanosecond, they also seem to inexplicably crash. Apparently someone has hacked into them and can wind the internal clock backwards and forwards to whatever time they want. It may seem like I’m slaving away, but often it’s just pretence. I might really be writing a story on time, a love poem, surfing the net, sending an email to a friend, listening to music, chatting, day dreaming, playing. Sometimes I take a day. “Couldn’t make it, sick, family tragedy . . . “. And the more I practice the better I get. What do I do with all this time? Well I try to share it with other people. And often they try to share their time with me. While increasingly the world seems to be running out of time, we try to make time for each other.

I eventually found the watch I lost when I was a little boy. It hadn’t been stolen at all. I must have misplaced it. It sat gathering dust for years. I gave it to my daughter and she lost it again. But she didn’t tell me because she thought I’d get angry. It wasn’t until I asked her what time it was and she said she didn’t have the time, that I realised how serious things had become. So, now I try not to count the minutes. But I still keep a lookout for thieves trying to steal my life. Often I feel like I’m a timepiece – a clock that pulsates with the multiple tempos of life on earth. When I ignore the ticking of the church clock, the school clock, the work clock, and the machine clock, I measure my existence by my relationships with others. When my heart beats with theirs I really am having the time of my life.

So, don’t ask me how much of my time has been stolen. I can’t say. Have I been able to retrieve weeks, months or even years? Now, I don’t really know. How much of my life has been stolen? Time won’t tell.

Nick Southall

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