Copyright 2016 P.J. Leonard
Published by P.J. Leonard at Shakespir
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Nobody would have expected the bell of Big Ben to freeze one second before midnight on December 31st. Least of all me: after all, I’m the mechanic who maintains the thing.
But that wasn’t even the most shocking thing. No, it was the fact that everybody else in the world had frozen with it.
I sat there on the sofa, an unexploded party popper in my hands and a half-drunk can of beer squeezed between my knees. My wife like a statue beside me, halfway through launching into the air, her glass of champagne spilling out but frozen in place as though it were ice. My sister and her boyfriend were on the chair nearby, eyes wide and fixed on the TV, showing the unmoving face of Big Ben.
But I could move. First I tested my neck, rolling it back and forth. Then I tried the party popper. BANG! The streams of paper flew across the room and draped themselves across my sister’s face. I moved my legs, and my beer dropped to the floor, sloshing across the carpet. All my body parts were working well so far.
Was this some kind of joke? I stood up, waving a hand in front of my wife’s face. Nothing. I turned, throwing a fist at my sister’s boyfriend but stopping just short of actually hitting him. He didn’t even blink. Was this real?
I picked up the remote. Flicking through the channels, I saw the news reports and TV shows all frozen in place too. I pulled aside the curtains and looked out the window. Some fireworks that had been launched a little bit too early hung in the night sky, half exploded. I opened the window. Utter silence flowed in. Not even a breeze whistled by. For some reason I couldn’t tell, I just knew that the world had been frozen still. Except me.
But why me? Why did the whole world stop one second before the new year, except for me? Frowning, I picked up the remote again and turned the TV back to the picture of Big Ben, that face I knew so well, the hands frozen a whisker away from twelve. Is that why? Do I need to go to Big Ben and fix it? Will that make the whole world move again?
It seemed crazy, ridiculous. But I couldn’t think of any other possible reason why the only person left moving on the Earth was the chief mechanic of Big Ben. I’d known it to be a big responsibility when I took the job, maintaining the most famous clock tower in the world, but I wouldn’t have guessed it controlled time itself!
I rushed upstairs and changed into my sturdy work overalls. I grabbed my toolbag and car keys and headed out into the cold night. The car didn’t even make a whining noise as I tried to get it started. So even machines were affected too? Sighing, I grabbed my toolbag from the passenger seat, stepped out of the car and looked around. I lived in London, but far from Westminster. If cars were out, then buses and trains would definitely be out too. I’d have to walk it.
I puffed out my cheeks and watched the steam rise before me. It was nice to see something moving. I swung my toolbag over my shoulder and started walking down the street. If I had to walk, then so be it. Besides, I had all the time in the world…
To say I had to fight through the New Year’s Eve crowds around Westminster makes it sound like I really had to force my way through the masses of people gathered to see the fireworks. But they didn’t put up any fight. In fact it was a lot like pushing my way through the world’s biggest mannequin factory.
Although they were all facing different directions, from the face of Big Ben itself to the skies in anticipation of the fireworks, they were all pulling the same face, their lips pursed in an ‘oooh’ as if they were all starting to say the word ‘one’ – which is exactly what they were doing when time stopped.
I found a clear patch of tarmac on Westminster Bridge and took a moment to just stand there and take it all in. I’d never seen any part of London so still, so silent, let alone this bridge. I would’ve found it beautiful if it wasn’t so creepy. I turned to look up at Big Ben. That was the strangest of all for me, seeing those clock faces that I worked with everyday, the hands moving at a sure and steady pace around those Roman numerals. Only three times had it stopped in the last 150 years, all of them planned stoppages for maintenance reasons. And this didn’t look like a plan.
I pushed my way through the silent crowds until I arrived at the edge of the Houses of Parliament. Pulling out a huge ring of keys from my overalls, I unlocked the iron gate. I nearly jumped at the sound of the metal squeaking as the gate swung open. I hoisted up my bag, descended the stone steps and rounded the corner of the foot of Big Ben to the maintenance door: a rather unremarkable steel door with rust at the edges. With another flourish of my keys I was inside the cool dark of Big Ben.
I took a long, deep breath. This, at least, felt normal. It was quiet and dark in here all the time, even when the outside world was bustling. But after I finished my long breath and silence fell, my hands started to shake again. It was meant to be quiet here, but never silent. The reassuring clicks and clunks and ticks and tocks of the cogs and wheels of Big Ben’s insides were not to be heard.
I cracked a knuckle to break the silence. Enough of this. Whatever was the cause of this frozen time lay in the control room at the top of the tower, that I was sure about.
I turned and made for the lift – then immediately stopped. The doors were already open, revealing the dark insides. Power out. That didn’t surprise me – my car had been out as well – but inside, taped to the back wall of the lift, was a note. The paper looked as though it had been scrunched and smoothed out several times, but the writing on it was as clear as though it had just been printed. One word, four letters:
Crash. I nearly jumped out of my skin at the noise of metal hitting concrete. I turned to see that I’d dropped my bag on the floor. Heart pounding, I held my breath until the echoes faded away. So. Somebody was behind this, after all. But who? Who held the power to stop not just Big Ben, but the whole world?
With a shaking hand I picked up my bag and made my way slowly up the stairs. They zigzagged their way up through the tower, wrapping around an odd mix of architecture: the stairs themselves were a functional steel, passing through sweeping gothic arches and plain pillars of concrete. As I reached the higher flights of stairs and my legs began to ache, I spotted the cogs, poles, weights and counterweights gleaming a dark bronze through the darkness. It felt weird, seeing it all so still. It made me dizzy, in a way, like walking up an escalator when it had stopped.
FInally, the staircase leveled off onto a boardwalk leading up to a heavy wooden door. I knew that door as well as anyone who worked in an office knew their own entrance. The number of times I’d unlocked that door and walked into the main hall containing the bell of Big Ben itself without even thinking about it…not even on my first day on the job had I been as nervous as now. I had no idea what lay beyond that door. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole bell had disappeared.
I puffed out my cheeks and shivered as I reached for my keys one more time, crossed the boardwalk and opened the door before I could think twice about it. With a great heave I pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The bell room would’ve been a vast hall had it not been for the bell that hung from the belfry above, a huge grey shape the size of a house, surrounded on all four sides by the clock faces. Only a little light managed to push weakly through the clock faces, dimly lighting the bell room. It all seemed so…normal. I walked across the floorboards, knowing exactly where to step to avoid the creaky ones. I placed my bag down by the workbench propped against the wall and flexed my aching shoulder as I gazed through the tiny gap in the nearby clock face to the bridge far below. Still full of people, as still as ice.
“You took your time.”
I turned around so fast I staggered, and I reached out for something to steady myself on. Standing beside the door was a figure, as black as a coal stain, leaning against the wall. I unzipped my bag and pulled out my biggest wrench. But when I looked up again, the figure was gone.
“Oh, come now, there’s no need for that.” came the voice, now much closer, almost whispering in my ear.
I swung the wrench around and staggered again as it sliced through empty air.
“Put that thing down, please.” said the voice, now behind me, “I wish only to talk.”
I turned, but I didn’t swing the wrench this time. The figure stood right before me, barely an arm’s length away. How had he moved so fast? It was definitely the same person who’d been by the door only a couple of seconds ago.
“Who…who are you?” I managed to say.
The figure sighed, steam rising over its head. “Look, I’m trying my best to not come across as something to be feared here. Am I doing a bad job? I’m not well versed in human interaction. Come, turn the light on and let’s talk.”
I reached across the workbench, grasping for the desk lamp. My fingers closed around it’s neck, and I followed it down to the base and flicked the switch. I blinked in the bright light, and shielded my eyes to catch a glimpse of the figure.
Except he was gone. Again. Had that been in my mind?
“Sorry,” the figure chuckled, his voice echoing from afar. I turned to see him standing in the most distant corner of the bell room. “I can’t help myself. The look on the face of a human when I do that…it’s timeless.”
“Who are you?” I said, more firmly this time, gripping the wrench tighter.
He walked across the room in long strides, his long black coat billowing and curly hair bouncing. He looked…not old, but not young, either. There weren’t any telling features to this man’s face that gave a hint to his age.
“Time,” he said.
I frowned. “Are…is this some kind of joke?” I said, looking at the surrounding clock faces all pointing to midnight.
“No, I mean…I am Time,” he said, “And Time is me. I do not have a name, not really, but if I were to have one, yes, you would call me Time.”
The wrench slipped through the sweat slicking my hands and clanged at my feet. As if to prove a point, the figure called Time seemed walk to faster towards me, then slower – not changing his pace, though, but as though time itself were speeding up then slowing down. The corners of his coat seemed to float behind him. I stepped backwards until I met the wall, and Time advanced on me until he stood over me. He was a good head taller than me, and up close I could make out his eyes: narrow and deep like wells.
“You’re tongue-tied, I see,” Time grinned, “Well, I can promise you that that is not my fault.”
I blinked, and swallowed back the dryness in my throat. “So…this is you? The reason why everything has stopped?”
Time nodded, his eyes flicking to the hole in the window.
“But…why?” It was one of a hundred questions popping in my head, but it was the only one I could put into words right now.
Time turned to look up at the great bell overhead. “Have you ever heard the expression ‘time waits for no man?’ Mankind has a habit of simplifying the incomprehensible, but that one is true: I do not stop. I cannot. I am Time. I work at a steady pace, keeping everyone and everything moving. So it has been for everything that was, so it is now, and so it will be forever more. I am the most consistent thing in the universe. I pride myself on that.”
Time turned on his heel and looked back at me. “But despite all that, I do get tired. Don’t we all? Mother Nature has a lot on her plate these days, but a lot of her work tends to run itself. They say even God himself rested on the seventh day. But me?” Time smirked and pointed at his head, “I have to be constantly switched on. Never stopping. Until now.”
I rubbed my forehead. Either I was furiously lightheaded from the climb up the stairs, or this was all some huge practical joke, a dream…this could not be real. But I felt as awake as I had ever been in my life, and this Time guy…there was something about the way he looked, the way he spoke that didn’t seem quite right. Not normal. Not human. And he was the only other person I’d seen moving. And he’d somehow managed to find away into Big Ben without any keys. Was he really Time? Time itself? I couldn’t be sure yet, but at the very least he had something to do with all this. I needed to play along.
“You haven’t answered my question,” I said, fighting to keep my voice from quivering, “Why did you stop…yourself? Why now, one second to midnight on New Year’s Eve?”
Time looked down at his shoes, chuckling, “You know, I find it funny. On any other day of the year, you humans find the passage of me to be something scary, a dark fact of life. And yet on this one day, when you all become the most aware of me passing, you all come out to cheer me on. You count down my seconds together. It’s the one day when I feel like a hero, not a villain. Couples hug and kiss, friends party, families come together to celebrate…me.
“So, at this very moment, I stopped. I’m going to take a holiday. My New Year’s Resolution, I suppose. With time frozen, I can take this time to travel around, see mankind celebrating me in this moment. Like it’s all one big museum dedicated to me. Egotistical? Perhaps, but I feel I’ve earned it. Besides, when I’m done and I go back to work, the clocks will tick again and nobody will have noticed a thing.”
“But I will!” I said, “I’m still moving around. I’m going to notice everything. If you go on this trip you could be months, years! What am I supposed to do? Why did you keep me moving?”
Time opened his arms out wide.
“It’s no coincidence that Time has come to a stop right here, in the greatest icon dedicated to me in the world. You see, stopping Time isn’t as easy as me just deciding to stand still. No. You understand the concept of momentum?”
In spite of myself I raised an eyebrow. “As the chief mechanic of Big Ben? Yeah, I know a thing or two.”
Time waved a hand. “Well, it’s nothing like momentum, really. But picture it like that. Like a car traveling at high speed needs a lot of space to come to a stop, so do I. But I don’t need space, I need…well, me. A place rich with the concept of time. And so Big Ben, one second before the New Year, gave me just what I needed. And, well…here I am.
Time stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Now, here’s the catch. As long as I stay here inside Big Ben, the time freeze will hold. But the moment I step out of here, time will be begin to move again. In this material plane, only in a place like this can something as outrageous as time stopping be possible. This is where you come in.”
Time removed his hands from his pockets, and I couldn’t help but let out a gasp. They glowed. Light streamed from his fingers like ribbons. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Yes, still there.
“I can place my power within the mechanisms of this great clock, create a bubble if you will,” Time went on, waving a hand around the room and leaving a stream of white-gold behind him, “So when I walk out of here, Time remains here and nowhere else. But you must maintain it. Keep it busy. You’re the best person for the job. Just do what you always do. If you neglect it, Time itself will collapse. Without me to control it, all other dimensions will collapse in on themselves. Reality as you know it fold away to nothing.”
I let out a strange noise that sounded somewhere between a laugh and a cough. “Sounds…stressful,” I said, stepping away from the wall at last, “And I’d have to keep maintaining it for as long as you’re gone?”
“Correct,” said Time cheerfully, as though he were handing me a late Christmas present.
“That’s insane,” I said flatly, “You’re insane. You want me to take the fate of the world in my hands and look after it while you go on holiday. Why should I? I’m going to be stuck in this world of frozen people until you get back! What do I get out of all of this?”
“I cannot tell you yet,” said Time, hold me with those narrow eyes, “But I promise you that I make it worth your while.”
I scoffed. “You can’t be serious. You’re asking me to trust a stranger I only met a few minutes ago who calls himself Time to look after the fabric of reality while he takes a break that will last for goodness knows how long. That’s a big ask if there ever was one. Why should I trust you?”
It was the first Time I’d seen time look…not happy. His face fell and his eyes shrunk even narrower as through honing in on me. A strange chill overcame me as Time took a step forward.
“I am Time,” he said. His voice had become incredibly deep. It sounded heavy somehow, ancient, a voice full of the weight of the world. “I am no stranger to you. I will be there until you reach your end. When all else in this universe fails and falls to decay I will be the last thing to die. I am the beginning, the now, the end. There is no promise you can find that is as binding as a promise from Time. And I say it again: this will be worth your while.”
Goosebumps rippled up my limbs, and pins and needles prickled through my scalp and down my neck. Any doubt I had left that this man, this person who called himself Time, was some kind of trickster, was banished from me as though pulled away on a blast of wind. Yes, this man was Time. And he would keep his promise. I closed my eyes and let them rest for a moment. When I opened them again I looked straight at Time.
“What do I have to do?”
Time’s smile returned.
When all was said and done, maintaining the bubble of time within Big Ben was easy. In many ways, it was easier than my normal job. Parts of the bodywork of the tower and the bell itself didn’t break or need fixing, because they weren’t technically getting older. I only had to spend a couple of hours up the tower each day to manually crank the clockwork and reset the weights. It all glowed with that golden sheen that Time had unleashed from his hands, lighting the whole room as though warm floodlights had been installed. The Great Bell of Big Ben no longer looked old and grey, but shimmered a gold as immaculate as a painting.
It wasn’t always easy, though. While it was fun roaming around London with everything and everyone frozen still, the novelty wore off after several months. I longed for someone to speak to. To chat with friends over a pint. To watch TV. To see the sun. To kiss my wife.
I borrowed a bicycle to get around. I could never travel far from Big Ben, but I was able to get out of the city and into the countryside now and then. True, the woods were creepy at night, but at least I knew that nothing bad could happen to me with time frozen.
All the while, the words that Time left me with echoed endlessly in my mind:
“You will not age during this. I have ensured it. Believe me, your deed isn’t just appreciated, it’s important as well: I am tired. I need to rest. You are doing more good than you can possibly imagine.”
I clung to those words. I had to, to keep my sanity as I maintained Time in Big Ben for three years.
Then, Time came back.
He stood in the middle of the bell room as I opened the doors to begin maintenance that day, directly under bell. He turned to face me.
“It’s about time!” He said with a grin.
At first, I thought I’d drop to my knees. Instead, my feet carried me forward to Time until I could throw my hands around him in a hug.
“So…how was your trip?” I asked, my voice dry and dusty. When had I last spoke?
Time had been running his hands across the mechanisms of Big Ben, the golden light disappearing under his fingers as though he were erasing it. He turned to look at me, his eyes glazed over with dreamy relish.
“Exactly what I needed,” he said, “I didn’t stray far from this time zone, because I wanted to see your kind as they counted in the new year. But that still gave me plenty of see, from the frigid norths to the balmy south. You…you have done me an amazing service, my friend. And, as promised, you will be repaid.”
Time wiped the last of the gold light from the rim of Big Ben. His hands burned with light once more. He looked from one palm to the other, his eyes dancing.
“I missed doing my work!” Time laughed, “I suppose I am ready to move again.”
With a flick of his hands the light snuffed out, and he held out an open one to me.
I took his hand and shook it.
There was the crack of a whip and a blast of wind. I winced, looked back – Time was gone. My hand still outstretched, I looked around. Was that it?
I rushed to the hole in the clockface. Still still, still silent. I felt my stomach twist. No…no, it can’t be…
I spun around, looking wildly around the room. Nothing. The bell room was dark and lonely again. Time had gone, but it was no longer moving. And what about his promise?
I felt a cold sweat forming on my forehead as I ran around the room. Nothing. Had I missed something? Was there one thing I had to do? Had…Time lied to me?
I raced down the stairs, metal clattering through the empty tower. Perhaps I needed to leave Big Ben for time to move again. Yes, that had to be it. As I arrived at the metal door, I laid my hand on the handle, took a deep breath and stepped out into the New Year’s Eve night.
Nothing. The crowd on Westminster Bridge, whose faces I had memorized over the years, were as still as ever.
I yelled to the night. How? How could I have Been so stupid to believe in that traitor? Whoever he was, he was a liar, a cheat, whose words were as empty and meaningless as this frozen world…
I furiously rubbed my watering eyes and slammed them to my sides. And that’s when I felt it. A weight in pocket, one that hadn’t been there before. My racing heart slowed to a crawl. I slipped my hand into my pocket and wrapped my fingers around something cold and metal. I pulled it out and looked down.
A pocket watch. I ran my thumb over the detail engraved on the lid – an endless shower of clocks of all shapes and sizes. I had no idea about these kind of things, but I sensed that this pocket watch was priceless. But that wasn’t what caught my eye. No, it was the fact that it glowed a familiar, shimmering gold…
Fingers trembling, I pressed the button on the side and the lid flipped open. The clock face looked precisely like a miniature version of a Big Ben clock face, and it too had its hands a whisker away from midnight.
Somehow, I knew what to do. As though it were a touch screen, I tapped the glass of the watch.
And nearly dropped it as the world exploded around me. The Great Bell of Big Ben rang out loud and clear above me, and the people on the bridge erupted into cheer. The night sky filled with fireworks, a million sparks and stars brightening the world almost as much as the sun.
Then it stopped again. I frowned and looked at the poker watch. Without realizing it I had tapped the screen once more. Had that been me? Had I stopped time? I taped it, and sure enough the world burst into life again.
I looked at the fingers on the face of the pocket watch. I wonder…I tapped the minute hand and dragged my finger anti-clockwise. Sure enough the world around me seemed to rewind like a videotape: fireworks zipped back into the ground and the crowd lowered their arms.
I ran my hands through my hair. This pocket watch…Time hadn’t lied. He had kept his word after all, and kept it well.
I fast-forwarded time back to one minute before midnight. I locked up the maintenance door to Big Ben and headed out onto the bridge to join in the celebrations.
From P.J. Leonard, author of 'Tick', 'Kami' and 'Sarah Sues Santa' comes a story that will make time itself stand still... "Nobody would have expected the bell of Big Ben to freeze one second before midnight on December 31st. Least of all me: after all, I’m the mechanic who maintains the thing. But that wasn’t even the most shocking thing. No, it was the fact that everybody else in the world had frozen with it. Except me..." Follow the chief machanic of Big Ben as he unravels the mystery of the frozen time. Why has it happened? Why one second before the New Year? The answers are out there...