Tanner sat alone at the table. The addictive hook of the Gerry Rafferty song revolved continuously at 33⅓ rpm in his head. Stealing time. The words looped and repeated in his brain.
Forget about everything and ease my mind.
Why not? What did he have to lose? Well, everything really, he supposed.
He sat slumped in the hard chair, eyes closed, his aching head reeling. Why hadn’t he…? What if he’d …? If only ..
Now I know it’s time to cross that line.
Maybe. Maybe it had been time, after all. Desperate times require desperate measures. May you live in interesting times. Time and tide wait for …
The image of the shop came into focus behind his closed eyes. He remembered the first time he had gone there, not really believing the story. It was his old school friend Nigel, a lecturer in astrophysics at Christchurch, who had told him about it. He had shared his desperate situation with Nigel in the pub: the missed deadlines, the neglected reports. All his own fault. Procrastination is the thief of time. His job was on the line, and time was running out. It was then that Nigel reluctantly shared the secret of the shop with him, and he still hadn’t believed it. Nigel’s explanation of modern thinking about the space-time continuum, the existence of multiple universes, and the unreality of time as a fixed constant mostly went over his head. But a time shop? Surely that was just science fiction? Until Nigel led him there.
The shop was not easy to find, tucked away in the cobbled lanes of the antique dealers’ quarter of the town. The shabby facade looked out of place. The window display contained old-fashioned typewriters and a bulky early model IBM desktop computer. Bargain-hunting tourists walked by without a second glance, and even the curious would have been deterred by the ‘closed’ sign in the dusty windowpane of the wooden door. His scepticism was already at a high level, when Nigel ignored the sign and knocked firmly on the door. There was no perceptible delay before the door was opened by an elderly man, who shook Nigel’s hand as they entered the shop. He looked unhappy at the presence of a second visitor.
“Who’s this? You know I don’t like …”
Nigel had interrupted him, resting his hand reassuringly on the old man’s arm. He made the introduction and explained his friend’s predicament. If Tanner could not deliver the report on time, the consequences for the company would be unthinkable. And that would be the end of Tanner’s career, and almost certainly his marriage. He was already on his final warnings from both his employer and his wife. A long-standing procrastinator, he had only himself to blame for the multiple infringements.
As Nigel spoke, the old man closed and locked the door and pulled down the roller blind over the glass pane. He moved behind the wooden counter and turned to face his visitors. Tanner took in the curious scene. The shop barely had room for the three men. The owner was short and stooped, dressed in a white shirt and neatly knotted dark tie, beneath a warehouseman’s brown lab coat. His shock of startling white hair and luxuriant moustache reminded Tanner of someone famous, but he couldn’t quite place the name. Behind him the walls were lined with tall shelves packed with a jumble of metal boxes and unidentifiable electronic components. At the far end of the tiny shop there was a grey painted metal door with a combination lock.
The old man shook his head and tutted at Nigel’s account.
“You know I don’t do trivial things. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s people who waste time.” He glared at Tanner as he spoke. “Time is precious, young man, don’t you know?”
Feeling overawed by the strange situation, and cowed by the old man’s accusing stare, Tanner was unable to speak, and looked down at his feet awkwardly.
Nigel spoke again. “Look, Albert. I know you’ve done me plenty favours before, and I would never abuse your skills. But Tanner here is my oldest friend, and if it wasn’t for things he’s done for me in the past I wouldn’t be where I am now. I’d do anything to help him. He just needs to buy a bit of time to get him out of a hole. Can’t you help him just this once?”
The old man looked at Tanner and gave a sigh. “How much do you need? I told you already – time is precious, remember. You can’t go squandering it. How much?”
Tanner felt confused, his brain awash with conflicting thoughts. Was this really happening? Am I in a dream, or dead, or what? His dry tongue made it hard to swallow. He cleared his throat, and croaked a stammering reply.
“Two days? Maybe?….”
The old man opened his eyes wide. “Two days? You must be joking! Do you know how much that will cost you? Time is money you know. Didn’t Nigel tell you?”
Tanner shook his head. “I… I’ve got money. I’m sure I can pay. I, I…..”
“Okay, okay. Let’s get on with it. Two days! Come on then. ” The old man tutted again, shaking his head as he opened the steel door, and led Tanner into a space barely larger than a telephone box, walls, floor and ceiling lined throughout with a fine mesh of gleaming copper wire. On a metal stand was a matte black tube the size of a microwave, with a small keyboard and a row of glowing LEDs. The man typed on the keyboard with gnarled, arthritic fingers, then paused.
“Name? And when you need the time to start?” Tanner responded and the man typed again.
“Right. Put your hand flat on here and keep it very still.”
Tanner placed his hand, palm down, on a metal pad at the side of the machine and the owner pressed a key. Tanner felt no sensation in his hand, but as the LED lights blinked at first slowly and then in a rapid flicker, something changed in his head. He would later try to define the feeling, but could only describe it as a new calm, replacing the panic in his mind at that point. He could not say how long the process took.
“Okay, young man. All done. You’d better get back to work. The clock is ticking. Come on.”
The man led the way back to the counter, closing the steel door behind him. “Credit card please – and we don’t take American Express, okay?” The payment was concluded, and Tanner and Nigel thanked the owner.
The man looked at Tanner with narrowed eyes and pointed a finger at him. “Well now you know where I am, I just have this feeling this will not be the last time I see you. I know your type, and leopards rarely change their spots. Ah well,” he sighed, “everyone has to make a living. Time is money, time is money! Goodbye – until the next time.” And he showed them out of the shop, checking that the hanging signs still said ‘closed’.
Of course, the vital report was finished on time. And of course, it was not his last visit to the shop. The old man had been right: ‘leopards don’t change their spots’, and old habits die hard. It wasn’t long before Tanner was knocking on the door again to buy more time. Each time, Albert shook his head and looked at Tanner with a mixture of resignation and contempt, and each time Tanner paid for his procrastination with plastic. After a few visits, Albert was relaxed enough to satisfy Tanner’s curiosity about the working of the machine, how it was possible to ‘bend’ time for an individual, how the controls could be set for the start and the duration of the timewarp, and the pitfalls and essential precautions involved in winding back time.
But the money was running out, and that was when the fatal thought began to implant itself in Tanner’s mind. What if I had my own Time Machine? That was when the words of Gerry Rafferty’s song first started to infect him like a brain worm. Stealing time, only stealing time. Forget about everything and ease my mind. What if…? How difficult could it be? He’s an old man, and he’s shown me how to work the machine. The song again – now I know it’s time to cross that line. Was now the time? There’s no time like the present. Tanner forced himself to laugh at the cliché. But, all the same, what if ….?
The door of the small room opened abruptly and closed again with clang, and the song in his mind evaporated. The detective sergeant sat down in the seat opposite Tanner, and spread photographs across the table. Suddenly his mind swarmed only with images of the opened steel door in the shop, the automatic steel barrier which had dropped down across the main entrance, and Albert, stretched on the floor, blood seeping through his white hair. And the only sound in his mind now was the deafening intruder alarm, reverberating through the small shop.
“I think it’s time to talk, Mr Tanner,” said the policeman.