Time is cruel and devious, malicious by design and triumphant by default. It likes to play with us like a child with a rattle, shaking and shaking until the toy finally snaps in its clumsy, ignorant hands.
Seconds and minutes and hours and days, neatly sectioned and divided like petals on an open flower. The moving hands of time urgently separating the then from the now.
Once the seconds have squeezed through the hourglass’s pinch, they collect in a neat little pile, worthless instants in a meaningless whole. Because used time is useless. A second spent is a second wasted.
But time is recyclable. One second becomes another becomes another. The flower of time is a germ spreading its seed and colonising the empty moments with seconds. Colonising those seconds with smaller ones. Being the bridge between this moment and that moment.
Time can be saved, time can be wasted, time can be used, it can be spent, treasured, cherished, it can slow, it can speed, it can bend and it can twist, it can be temperamental and moody and it can be stubborn and obstinate, it can heal, it can forgive and it can be forgotten. It can be kind when it chooses to be, but it has all the animal instinct of a river, it knows only to flow.
It is also rarely generous. It hoards when it should give and pours when it should trickle.
And there is always too much of it.
The alarm buzzed at eight thirty-four AM. The day had started. The seconds begun to tick.
That meant four minutes to go.
I was awake, squatting beside the squalor sweat-stained mattress. There were marks on it, round bruises of raised dirt on the soiled white. Maybe it was white, some time ago. Time had not been as kind to it as it had been to the rest of the dingy little room.
I say room, it was more like a cell.
There was a door on my left. It was always locked. I didn’t bother trying it anymore. It promised an exit – it was a big wooden block of false hope.
I shimmied over to the wall, cross-legged, and watched one of the many large cracks in the dull grey brick for a tiny hint of movement.
The alarm clock cast itself on the door, carving shining golden numbers in the wood.
And then a small flash of a feeler and a frenzy of tiny legs, and the little body skittered out of the dark hole and started a jittery patrol along the ragged, dank walls.
The locked door aflame with golden time.
He was a cockroach and he was my friend. It wasn’t exactly difficult to make friends with him, it was just the two of us after all. Alone in the tiny grey world, there was only us. Him and me.
The clock showed eight thirty-six. Two minutes left.
I could count the seconds. I could trace the movements of the insect with my eyes closed. I would know exactly where he would be on the wall at any point in time. He never trailed off, never changed. Unduly reliable. After all, why or even how would he change his path?
It would take forty seconds. Just forty brief, perfect seconds, and then he’d be gone again. I had just less than a minute of not being alone. Not much of a talker, mind you, but he was company.
He scuttled around in circles, drawing an invisible dream catcher. I wondered if he knew. If he knew what the world was. If he remembered like I did. Maybe it wasn’t the same one, maybe every time I awoke it was a different cockroach that scuttled out the gap. Or a blank slate, completely new and virgin, not a memory to him. But then he’d change his path, wouldn’t he? Surely he wouldn’t be stuck drawing the same tracks if he was brand new to the world. He could make any choice he wanted, take any path he fancied. In a brand-new life, I had to hope, he would choose something different.
I wondered if he could remember all the seconds we’d spent together. All the minutes, all the moments and everything in between. I wondered if he heard the alarm blare every time, and if he too rushed to the crack in the wall for this passing company, but then, why would he leave?
Forty seconds passed and he left, vanishing into the deep shadows.
That meant twenty seconds until eight thirty-seven. That meant one minute and twenty seconds left. A lifetime, really.
Obviously he didn’t care. He probably didn’t hear the ticking of seconds, the taking of seconds, as the clock marched forward.
It was just me now. Me and my faithful companion, the one who never left, silent and brooding and infinite. The friend I liked far less than the cockroach. Tick tock, he urged.
I waited on the edge of the mattress. There was no window. I would’ve liked a window. A view of the sea, foamy waves lapping the shore. A bird sailing lazily above the world. The clouds waving a slow and heavy goodbye as they crept across the sky. What I would have given to see a firefly. I’d never seen one before.
But I’d have nothing like that. The cell, the prisoner, the thin grey world, seconds stretching like gum. That was my reality, and I wrapped myself up in it like a child in the womb.
No firefly here, no light to dwell on but the golden glow of burning time. Seconds crystallising like precious gems in the pregnant air.
If reality could stretch and bend and curve like a road, if time were like a winding path you could see curling away from you, I wondered where it would take you. Right to the end? Would you get a peek at your final few seconds? Would it show you all the blind turns along the way?
He’d be here soon. Thirty seconds. He’d be here.
Would it let you see the cliff edges, the sharp sudden drops? It could grudgingly show you them, if it felt generous enough, but it couldn’t give you that same feeling, the same dread as you teeter on the edge of a blanket drop, the same electric thrill as you swerve wildly around a corner, all the hairs on your arms standing up. It could show you, but it couldn’t tell you.
He would be coming down the corridor. I could hear his footsteps echoing. I was less sure of him than the cockroach. It was the same beat to his steps, wasn’t it? It was impossible to tell. No matter how often I heard it, the countless times he walked down that wonderfully unknown corridor, he remained a mystery, a precious, loveable mystery I would never wish answered.
I could count the seconds, of course. It took around seven. One step a second. Then he’d be here.
It was the same every time. I took up my seat in front of the door. It swung out into the corridor, so I sat close to it, eager to catch a glimpse into the outside. Maybe catch a scent in the air. But I never did. It was always him, eclipsing my view.
How many repeats? How many of these seconds had been recycled, and how many times?
How many times had the hourglass been flipped?
The sounds of a key turning in the lock. The clicks of its curves slotting into place, and then the door opened.
Light spilled over me, bright and warm and intoxicating. It was ecstasy on my skin. It was freedom, it was brief and it was fleeting, and it was mine, and then it was gone.
That’s all we ever get, really. One stretched, perfect moment that we colonise with something, anything, before it stretches too far and inevitably snaps.
He was standing over me. An angel blackened against the holy outside, a halo of bright flame over his brow.
His expression was unreadable. His soul was heavy, like a man labouring under law. Was it choice or duty? Not that it mattered, the result was the same.
His head hung low, features cast in darkness. I often wondered what difference it would make if I knew who he was, but it wouldn’t change anything. It didn’t matter who he was, it mattered what he was here to do.
He would stand there for about a second, then he’d reach into his pocket. Once his hand was there, fat fingers pressed around the thing weighing down his jacket, there were ten seconds left.
If I could remember any time, it would be the first. I’d like to know what I’d thought. I’d like to know if it was the same, or if there were small changes I hadn’t noticed as time had passed. If, on that long winding road of reality, the scenery had changed or the path had warped, but I couldn’t remember the first time. Maybe there wasn’t one. Maybe there was no hourglass turned over and over again, maybe it really was like one treacherous road going on forever, the same bumps and turns seen again and again purely because if you travelled the same endless road for long enough, you were guaranteed to see the same things again and again.
His hand came out of his pocket. It wasn’t empty anymore.
Then his voice would come, divine. Like the sun through dark clouds. Like stars at midnight.
‘Tomorrow is another day.’
Then the gun’s muzzle pushed against my forehead. The cold barrel gripped my skin. I closed my eyes. The recycled seconds ran out, the sands drained in the hourglass, an empty cradle full of spent time.
It wasn’t cold for long. Ice turned to fire, the darkness lit up brilliantly and twisted shadows danced in tribal flashes on the old grey walls.
The heat travelled inwards and outwards, a nebula of pain flowering in my skull. It was a blissful sensation, one of those feelings you wish would last forever, as if you could capture it like a photograph and treasure it like a kiss.
Skin folded and bone shattered and a narrow tunnel of heat opened. Blissful and brief.
And then consciousness was lost, vanished, gone, another grain of sand squeezed through the neck of the hourglass, one more useless piece in the growing pile. All those seconds, all those moments, spent and lost, and saved and reused.
The alarm buzzed at eight thirty-four AM. The day had started. The seconds begun to tick.