On Time

A Short Story About Changing the Clocks, by Rowan Collins. © 2010, all rights reserved.

Jonas's stomach grumbled; it felt like hours since the hurried bowl of oats that had made him miss the 8 o'clock train. He looked at the clock on the office wall - it hadn't even reached 10. He sighed, and tried to concentrate on his work, but his mind kept wandering.

Glancing around to make sure no-one was coming his way, he opened the drawer of his desk, and made a show of leafing through some paperwork. At the back of the drawer, nestled beside a stack of old business cards, was the watch he'd found in his Gran's cupboard. Unfashionable, and with a broken strap, it had never been converted, so it sat there reliably ticking away Old Time. Real Time, he corrected himself, grumpily. The watch read 12:30 - no wonder he was hungry already!

After what seemed an eternity, the office clock ticked to 12 o'clock, and Jonas almost leapt out of his seat to find lunch. His colleagues would tease him for clock-watching, but he was so hungry he thought he might faint, and hadn't achieved anything useful for what seemed like hours. Truth was, he'd leave the job in an instant if he thought there was something better, but it wasn't the work itself that got him down, it was the hours - and they'd be the same wherever he went. He hurried down the high street, cursing the "experts" in charge of this mess - were they so wrapped up in their statistics that they'd forgotten that each dot on their graphs represented a unique human being with unique needs and preferences?

The woman behind the counter in the café looked startled when he arrived; he suspected she'd long since got everything ready for the lunch-time rush, and had been napping behind the counter.

"Long morning." he said, blandly - it was best not to be specific, but grumbling about the time was as commonplace as grumbling about the weather these days.

"Well, at least it means the afternoon will go quickly!" she replied, cheerily. But something in her eyes suggested she was as fed up as he was. It probably didn't help having so little sleep - he reckoned that some nights recently there'd only been 2 hours of Real Time between midnight and 6AM, which surely wasn't good for anyone's health!

He realised that they were both standing there, trying to read each other's expressions. How long had they been staring like that? Depends who's in charge of the clock, he thought; he chuckled at the absurdity, then panicked, embarrassed at how rude it must have sounded.

"When do you finish?" he stammered, unsure why the question had occurred to him.

"We shut at 5," she replied, "but I'm usually here till 6, clearing everything up. I see you heading home, in the dark, and wonder what it would be like to be home all evening, to spend it with someone..." She stopped. "I mean ... um ..."

The afternoon did indeed go quickly, but he still couldn't concentrate. He kept thinking about the woman in the café - Christ, he didn't even know her name! - and trying to convince himself he was reading too much into their conversation. But maybe, just maybe, this was the chance he'd been hoping for - someone he could talk to, something to free him from the machinery of routine...

That night, he slowed down as he reached the café, and paused in front of the door. What did he have to lose? Nervously, he knocked.

"We're closed!" she called out, but then she saw it was him, and her scowl melted into a tired smile as she invited him in.

"Do you ever get fed up, working so late?" he asked, looking out at the moonlit street.

"It's not even 6 o'clock yet," she answered, not looking up.

He raised an eyebrow. "Officially..."

She wrung out her cloth, pulled down two chairs, and slumped into one of them.

"I try not to think about it," she admitted, "how late do you think it is, Really?"

"About five minutes to nine." And before she could ask the obvious question, he produced his secret watch, and put it silently on the table between them.

"I've never really got used to it." he admitted, "It was alright when I was younger - they only changed the clocks 4 times a year, with the seasons, so you had a chance to adjust each time."

"My mum says it used to be just twice a year, originally, because people had to change all the clocks by hand every time. Now They seem to change it every day - not that They tell us, in case it spoils Their illusion! All for our own good, or so They say..."

He'd never heard anyone talk about it as frankly as this. He found himself staring into her eyes, as she stared back at his - it was as though they were challenging each other, but somehow their courage grew as it passed between them. Slowly, the words formed:

"What if They're wrong?"

"I'm pretty sure They are."

"Then somebody should do something about it..."

"Not somebody. Us."

He reached out, and took her hand, and they both smiled.

The Official Time was 6 o'clock, but Jonas's watch showed 9. It was time for a revolution.