On the first working day in January, Norman Chester sat in the driver’s seat of his bought-used-only-two-careful-owners Ford Escort. As he did almost every morning, he drummed the wheel impatiently and cursed under his breath. He was not, by his own admission, a patient man, but that was not his fault. If his alarm clock had gone off, if he had filled his tank with petrol yesterday instead of waiting until this morning, if there weren’t so many damn idiots driving on his stretch of road, he wouldn’t be late for work. Again. He diverted his attention from the Metro he had been tailing for the last few minutes to the clock on the dashboard.
Damn, it would take a bloody miracle to get him there on time now!
Seven minutes later, Norman was juggling his lunch tin and his flask and trying to lock he doors to his car. He hadn’t yet heard the bell go off, but he knew, by God, he knew it must be only seconds away. Pushing his keys into his jacket pocket, he strode towards the factory, surprised when he turned the corner and saw some of his fellow workers still gathered outside smoking cigarettes and chatting among themselves. He eyed them suspiciously as he approached.
“Aye, Norm!” Jim was the first man to greet him, those with him nodding and mumbling their morning hellos as he stepped past them and headed for the clock. For a moment, he stood and looked at the clock face in front of him. The voice he heard in his mind was his mother’s: “When the big hand points to the eleven, Norman, it means it’s five-to…”
“You all right, mate?” He spun around on hearing Jim’s voice.
“You were staring at that thing like it fell from space!”
“Hmp, just thought it was later than that, s’all.” He thought he sounded stupid, so he quickly returned his card before stepping around his workmate, heading for the staffroom to get a coffee before work started.
On the way, he turned over the thought in his mind, trying to make sense of it. When he got out of the car, it should have been, by his judgment, 6.59, yet when he walked into the factory, it had only been five-to. He checked his watch again, and it confirmed that the clock machine by the door was indeed right. He must have read it wrong in his rush to get in – it was the only explanation. As he pushed the button on the vending machine to select a strong, sweet coffee, he shook his head and chuckled at his stupidity.
“Must be getting old,” he said to himself, and he sipped at his drink as he headed for his workstation.
The next morning, Norman pulled into his parking space at, he thought, 6.57am. The drive in this morning hadn’t been so stressful, and Norman was, for a change, in a relatively good mood, for one who was not naturally a morning creature. Ahead of him, some of his team-mates were already clocking their cards, and he nodded his greeting to the ones who were still lingering outside before joining them at the clock machine. He joined the unorganised line of people and clocked his card when he reached the machine.
As he was about to replace it in the holder, he thought about what had happened yesterday morning. He looked at the time printed on his card. It should have said 6.58, maybe 6.59 by now, but it didn’t. His stomach lurched as he read it in amazement: 6.55am. Now this was too strange, surely he couldn’t have got it wrong twice! He stared for a moment at the clock ahead of him, which also read 6.55. He replaced the card, and raised his left arm to view his wristwatch. “When the big hand points to the eleven…”
When he looked around, his workmates were all heading for their machines, sipping coffee, leaving him alone and bewildered. He turned and marched through the entrance, back to the parking lot, where his car stood. He didn’t need to open the door to see the clock on the dash. “When the big hand points to the eleven…”
Confused, Norman wandered back into the factory and to his machine to start working. What the hell was going on here? Time doesn’t just…stop, or move backwards. Time couldn’t just change without anybody noticing. And yet, that was just what appeared to have happened, not just once, but twice!
As lunchtime approached, Norman couldn’t get what was happening out of his head. When his workmates began to abandon their stations and head for the washrooms to clean up for lunch, he followed.
Jim was already soaping up when he got in there.
“Alright Norm?” He said, watching Norman’s reflection in the mirror.
Jim yawned. “Sure is a long day today.”
Norman looked at him through the glass as he began to scrub his own hands. “What you mean?”
“Feels like this day is dragging on. Just tired, I guess.”
Norman turned to look at him directly. “You sure that’s all it is? What time you get here this morning?”
Jim looked confused at his question. “Ten-to, same as always.”
“And what time you clock in at?”
“Five-to. You sure you’re alright Norm?” Now he was shaking water off his hands, facing Norman with a frown across his face.
“I’m fine, forget I said anything,” he said, and looked away from his workmate’s gaze.
Jim regarded him a moment longer, then patted him on the back before tuning to leave.
“Right, see you later then mate.”
When everyone had left the washroom, Norman remained, and tried to make sense of things. Seemingly then, apart from himself, no-one was aware of this ‘time-shift’. Somewhere between him driving to work and walking into the factory, time was actually stopping. But why? Was it him? Was he influencing it somehow? Was time actually stopping to wait for him? An idea began to take shape. Tomorrow, he would know for sure.
The following morning, Norman was awoken by the somewhat crackly sound of his radio alarm clock. It was 5.30am. He cut short the tinny wailing with one swift punch, and swung his legs over the edge of the mattress. Today was the day he would find out if what he imagined was real. The idea that it might be both excited and scared him. He showered and dressed before going downstairs to make his usual breakfast of coffee, toast and cornflakes, and then he opened his mail, which turned out to be all bills and flyers for services he had no interest in. At 6.35am, he left the house, and began his journey to work. The routine was the same as ever, but this morning was very different for Norman. Today, he thought, today could theoretically change…everything! He tried not to think too much about the consequences as he drove. After all, he might be wrong. He might have imagined the whole thing.
At 6.53am, just before he should have made the turn right into the car park of the factory, he pulled into the bus stop and halted. He put the car into neutral, and pulled on the handbrake, leaving the engine idling. And he waited.
The clock checked off the seconds, the minutes, and he sat and listened to the engine’s soft hum until almost two minutes had passed.
6.54am. And the second hand was creeping steadily and evenly towards the twelve. Fifty-seven. Fifty-eight. Fifty-nine.
And there it stopped.
Frowning, Norman reached out and gave the clock on the dashboard a sharp tap, to check that the second hand hadn’t stuck. Then, he brought his left arm up to look at his watch. It read five-to, and the second hand rested on fifty-nine seconds. He opened the car door and stepped out onto the concrete, looking up and down the road as he slammed the door shut. If time had stopped here, then it must have stopped everywhere. And if time had stopped everywhere, then other people must be affected.
He moved to the back of the car, and watched a BMW pass him, followed by a lorry with the words ‘DMH Transport’ stenciled on the side going in the opposite direction. He turned his back on the road, and walked over the grass until the factory where he worked was in view. Looking down the bank, he could see the car park, and beyond that the entrance to the building, where the men and women that he spent nine hours every day with were getting ready to start their working day. He guessed most of them had clocked in by now, but there were still a couple of men standing in the entrance finishing their cigarettes before they went inside. He watched them for a few minutes, until they too went inside the factory. Neither of them checked the time, but through habit, Norman looked at his watch. The big hand still pointed to five, and the second hand remained dead. He got back into the car and drove into the car park. And smiled.
When Norman had clocked into work the day before, it should have been five-past seven. Of course, that was just a guess on his own part – he had no way of knowing exactly how long he had stood and watched the traffic and the factory from the bus stop, but he estimated it had been about ten minutes or so. Before leaving for work, he removed a stopwatch from the kitchen drawer and tucked it into his coat pocket. It seemed that as long as Norman was off factory grounds, time waited for him. The moment he had pulled into his usual parking space, the second hand on his watch, and on his clock, has started to count the seconds once again. Of course, he had no way of determining how long time would stop and wait for him, or if it would apply to other appointments he might have. Perhaps in future he might be able to delay dental appointments, dinner with his mother, and countless other undesirable things he would rather not rush himself for.
But for now, on this Thursday morning in January, Norman was sitting on a park bench with the paper he had bought at 6.46am, waiting. It was still too dark to read, so as he sat, he glanced every few minutes at the watch he had removed from his wrist and placed beside him, along with his stopwatch.
The second hand rested a fraction before the 12, and at the same moment, Norman started the clock. From now, he was keeping his own time. He folded his unread paper neatly and set it down on the bench, placing his hands on his lap and looking at his surroundings. This early in the morning, the park was deserted, and his only company was the birds that he could hear chattering all around him. He’d never really had the time to appreciate it before, but this was truly a wonderful time of day. The ground was still white with frost, the air so cold and new, life just getting ready to awaken.
By the time he had watched the day grow lighter and read his paper, he felt too cold to sit any longer, so he got up and ambled back to his car, where he sat and thought for another few minutes before starting the engine and making his way to the factory. The stopwatch had been running for 1 hour and 17 minutes when he at last parked in his usual space outside the factory and strode over to greet the few men who were still stubbing out their cigarettes before clocking in.
“Aye Norm, nice morning.”
Norman smiled as he passed them by. “That it is, mate, that it is.”
It was nearing April when Norman began to worry about the consequences of his actions. He had so far been able to ease his conscience by telling himself that this must be some kind of gift which he alone had been granted. Why else was it that he had discovered this loophole in time, and no-one else had? Yes, he decided. He had been given this gift for a reason and should take full advantage of it.
On the last Monday in March, however, there was a definite change in the mood of some of Norman’s workmates, which when he thought about it had been creeping up for some time. So when he clocked in that morning, after awakening half an hour late, eating a hearty breakfast, and drinking a long cup of coffee out in the conservatory, it came as somewhat of a shock when he noticed just how grouchy and haggard the men he worked with had become.
“Morning, Jim.” He offered as he moved into the building.
Jim, normally eager to share his talk, merely grunted as Norman passed by. Moving further through the factory, he noticed this was a pretty standard response, and none of his usually rowdy colleagues seemed to want to speak to him, or each other, at all. When he stopped to look at them more closely, he noted that they all seemed to look and move very differently, too. They had taken on a tired, hunched posture, their complexion looked grey and weathered, most of them seemed to have aged somewhat. He sat for a moment by his machine and observed their behaviour as they began to set up their workstations, the sound of industry growing steadily louder around him. Each of the men in the room went through his daily routine, as if he were the only one there. No-one looked at anyone else, no-one spoke; there was no banter, friendly or otherwise, no cheerful whistling to be heard. Just men, doing what they had to do to make it through the day.
He got up and walked over to the mangers office and knocked on the door before entering, the hum of the machines cut off as he closed the door behind him.
“Got a minute, George?” he asked as he approached the desk.
The works manager glanced at him briefly, and then went back to shuffling the papers strewn over the surface of his desk. Strange, thought Norman, George was usually so organised.
“George?” he repeated.
“Not now Norm, ‘ay? I can’t find the bloody dispatch notes for Layburn’s anywhere, they’re swearing blind we didn’t send the whole order last week.”
“We didn’t. You said to hold the final ten thousand until they paid their bill. You phoned them and told them so.”
George stopped shuffling and sat down, observing Norman with a look of amusement on his face.
“Huh. Well fancy that.”
“Don’t you remember?” asked Norman.
George leaned back in his leather executives chair and ruffled his hair. “Oh, I don’t know Norm. I’m just so damn tired lately. Can’t seem to focus on anything. Working too hard, I guess. The days just seem to drag on and on.”
His heart beating just a little bit faster, Norman regarded his boss for a moment.
“How long you been feeling like this?” he asked.
“Agh, since about the New Year, I s’pose. Post Christmas blues, the wife calls it.”
“Or maybe there’s more to it,” said Norman. “I get the feeling them lot out there are feeling just the same way.”
“Perhaps we all just need a few more hours in the day, hey?” quipped George, folding his arms across the desk and smiling at him.
“Actually, I think that’s about the last thing we need,” said Norman as he headed back out of the door, leaving his boss wondering what on earth he could have meant.
Norman spent the rest of his working day observing his workmates and wondering how he could make things right. While he had been spending his ‘extra’ time over the past few months catching up on his rest and enjoying a bit of extra relaxation, the rest of the world, oblivious to the change in time patterns, had been burning themselves out. How could this dreadful process be reversed? He wasn’t at all sure that it could be, but he would have to try. Today, the clock seemed to be moving too slowly even for him, and by the time the end of the working day arrived, he had decided what he must do.
When he arrived home, he dumped his bag on the kitchen floor and then removed the clock from the wall, altering the time so that it was 15 minutes ahead. Then he walked around the rest of the house, turning each clock forward by a quarter of an hour, finishing with the alarm clock by his bed. He removed his wristwatch, and changed that too. This, he told himself, would ensure that he would never be late again. In fact, he would now be early, and essentially be giving time back. All he had to do was make sure of that, and everything, he hoped, would be ok.
According to the clock on the dashboard, it was 6.43, and Norman checked his watch before getting out of the car, which told him the same. He opened the door and placed one foot on the concrete while he arranged his flask under his arm and picked up his bag from the passenger seat, then he stood and slammed the door shut, making sure it was locked before walking around the corner, where Jim and a few others stood with plastic cups full of hot coffee.
“Aye, here comes the early bird!” Jim had delighted in taunting Norman for his sudden eagerness to get into work on time over the past few weeks.
“Aye, that’s me!” he replied, greeting the men as he made his way into the factory, leaving them to their friendly banter. As he passed through the machinery, it made him smile to see his colleagues chatting amongst themselves, laughing and singing as they set up for another days work. He knocked the door of the office before letting himself in, to find George on the phone. He sat opposite and waited for him to finish, looking around the room, which was now once again tidy and well organised, as was George himself, he noted. In fact, all of his colleagues had now taken on the lively, animated appearance they had had before.
“Norm, how’s life?” said George, putting the phone down.
“Fine mate, thanks. So what did you want to see me about?”
George pulled down a file from a shelf behind him, and opened it up on the desk, showing Norman an order form.
“Layburn’s placed this new order with us last night. Double the number of standard parts they had last month, and two-thousand of a new part they’re trying out. We impress them, we get the contract. You up for some overtime?”
Norman leaned forward and took a closer look at the order. “How much overtime are we talking about?”
George regarded the question for a moment. “Well, if you can get your team on it, I reckon we could be looking at an extra 5 or 6 hours per week, for at least the next couple of months. Double pay, of course.”
“My team? What do you mean, my team?” he asked.
“Ah, that was the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Old Al’s thinking of retiring in a few months time. Wants to take things a bit easier. Recommended that you take his place as Team Leader.”
Norman leaned back in his seat, taking in the new information. “In that case, I guess I’d better accept. Both offers.”
“Good man.” George reached out and shook his hand. “I’ll get the ball rolling.”
“Thanks, George,” said Norman, standing up to leave.
George smiled. “Thank you. I know you won’t let me down. Just a shame we can’t create a few extra hours, eh?”
Letting the door close behind him, Norman made his way back to his machine, those last words still ringing in his ears. Maybe we can, George. Maybe we can.
x x x
That’s right. I’m not changing the British spellings. What? You think I have nothing else to do? With all the stories from UK authors this year, I’d be changing spellings all day. No. Not me. I’m too busy bemoaning the lack of responses on the BBS. How about some? - GM