Something to consider when reading/listening: How do you know your past isn’t simply a series of implanted memories? And would it make any difference if it were?
I can remember the keys digging into my palm, as though I hoped my skin might swallow them up.There was a man standing by the front door. As I approached, I assumed it was one of my colleagues who couldn’t bear the suspense. But no. He was tall and bald, with a silver mustache, wearing a navy tie decorated with golden timepieces. “Tough day ahead?” he said. “You could say that.” “Redundancies, is it?” This was none of his business. But for whatever reason I did proceed to tell him, yes, I would be spending the day letting half my staff go while being unable to give the other half anything beyond the faintest of hopes they might last the week. These were good people who’d worked hard for me for years and who’d expected me to look after them and now… I was even getting rid of Hattie. Lovely Hattie. Ray of sunshine. The woman who held this place together. I was going to have to look into her happy green eyes and tell her… “Would you like to skip it?” said the man with the silver mustache. I loosened my grip on the keys, grimaced politely and went to open the door. “I have the power,” he said. “I can click my fingers and it’ll be twelve hours hence. You’ll be leaving the office, your grim duty complete. What do you say?” “Be my guest.” That’s what I said. “Sign me up. Click away.” And he did. He clicked his long, bony fingers and the snap seemed to reverberate around the carpark. And, you know, it made me smile, as I went inside and up to my desk and awaited the arrival of my colleagues. The day was hellish. Twenty-nine individual meetings with each of the people I was letting go. Twenty-nine. The worst part wasn’t delivering the news or my feeble attempt to console them; it was the fact I had to hurry them along so I could get the next one in. And they each knew their fate before they sat down, but you could see hope in their eyes that maybe they’d misjudged the situation — maybe, for them, I’d make an exception. Every one of them was unfailingly polite. Most asked me if I was ok. Hattie, wearing a flowery dress and green tights, gave me a big hug before going to Kimberley’s to get us both a freshly-made prawn, mayonnaise and lettuce sandwich. Then she waited in the office to comfort the rest of her colleagues. I let her go at 11 AM and she was still there seven hours later. I had to get her to leave so I could address the survivors as a group. They were more disappointed with me than any of the ones I’d dismissed. They wanted positivity, optimism, hope. And I wanted to tell them those things had just left the building, wearing a flowery dress and green tights. Once everyone had gone home, I cried. I’m not ashamed to say that. I took the lid off a bottle of whiskey I’d been saving for a special occasion, but something told me to put it back. I never drank again, as it goes. It can’t have been pitch black as I left the building, not at that time of year, but that’s how it felt. Either way, he made me leap in the air when he touched me on my shoulder with his long, bony fingers.
I’d entirely forgotten our conversation that morning.“Well, there we are,” he said, “at least it’s over.” I took a step back to take him in. The pristine suit. The shiny, bald head. The navy tie embroidered with golden clocks and watches. “Have you been standing here all day?” I said. “Oh no,” he said, “we skipped it, didn’t we? We jumped forward. A second ago it was 7 AM.” “Look,” I said, “this might be one of the final times I ever have the privilege of locking this building. I don’t want you hanging around here. I… I’m sorry, it’s been a very long day.” “Not really,” he said, “you skipped it, mate. You jumped forward twelve hours.” I can’t remember what I said in reply to that, but I suspect it wasn’t polite. “Don’t let the memories fool you,” he said, “of course you’ve still got the memories of the day. It would cause a right palaver if you couldn’t remember what you’d done. Nah, when you skip forward in time, see, you still have all the memories of what’s happened. It’s just you didn’t have to do it.” I chuckled at the idea. “So everything that happened today. Twenty-nine meetings. Saying goodbye to Hattie. The crying alone in my office.” “They’re just memories,” he said. “You weren’t really there. You skipped the whole thing.” “And what are you?” I said. “Some sort of time traveler?” “A time skipper,” he said. “It’s very different. Can’t go back in time, but I can take you to any point in your own future.” “Is that right?” “Any requests?” He ran his fingers down his tie. “Yeah, as it goes.” I started walking towards the car. “Retirement. Take me to the day I retire because this, all of this responsibility, all of this pressure; it’s doing my head in. I’ve put nine years of my life into this business, and look where it’s got me. So if you can skip through the rest, then please do it. Why not?” “Are you sure?” he said. “You want me to skip all that time?” “Wouldn’t it be lovely? To finally relax. To have no responsibilities. To be free.” “I will do it, see, but you might wanna think about it first.” “Do it,” I said, “do it, click your fingers, have your way with my life, skip me forward to the day when I can finally rest.” “You’re sure?” “I’m certain.” And he clicked his long bony fingers, and although I was, by this point, about twenty feet away from him, it sounded like he’d done it right in my ear.
I retired this morning. Same building, only bigger. Big enough to accommodate three hundred and twelve staff. That Black Wednesday thirty-one years ago remains the lowest point in my career. If only I’d known then how it would work out. Eleven of the twenty-nine I let go ended up coming back to work for me. Hattie was one of the ones who didn’t, but she did end up becoming my wife. Married twenty-eight years and a month. Two girls. The oldest, Samantha, she’s taking over the company.Sam was with us on Black Wednesday, though we didn’t know it at the time. I thought Hattie had thrown up because of the redundancy; she blamed the prawns in her sandwich, but it was in fact the future CEO making her presence felt even then. They got me an enormous card. And a watch. And a bottle of whiskey, forty years old, the same age as the company we’d built. Even though I’m sure they all knew I don’t drink. They sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and made me walk through a guard of honor. In the lift down to ground floor, I cried. I’m not ashamed to say that. The truth is I wanted to do another ten years. I’m retiring because Hattie needs me. I’m getting her the best care money can buy, but I want to be there with her. I want to eke out every last moment. When someone seems so kind from the outside, you think once you get to know them you’ll discover this hidden layer of stone. But no, with Hattie it’s kindness all the way down. As I leave the building, I hand Samantha the keys. It’s symbolic; we’ve both got spares. And she hugs me and tells me how proud she is. And I watch her go back inside and I turn around and… And there’s a man standing there. Tall and bald, with a silver mustache, wearing a navy tie decorated with golden timepieces. Has he aged at all in thirty-one years? “Well, here we are,” he says, “One minute you’re on the brink of going under, the next you’re handing over a secure, successful company.” “Yes,” I say, grimacing politely, “and I lived every moment.” “Don’t let the memories fool you,” he says. “Yes, ok, thank you,” I say. And I jump in my car and speed away. I… whatever he has to say… I don’t want to hear it… Thirty-one years, a joke he’d spread over thirty-one years.
I get in and explain to Hattie where I’ve been.“The business?” she says. “Of course, should I not be there right now? I do appreciate you taking me on, you know. A daughter? I’ve not got a daughter, Mr. Pomeroy.” She’s not always this bad. Sometimes, she does remember the girls and the fact we’re married. But often, she sees me only as her boss, when she’s been mine for the best part of a lifetime. I don’t think the man with the silver mustache realizes how cruel he’s being with his joke. His long-winded, thirty-one-year joke. He must do this to lots of people. He keeps a notebook, I suppose, with dates and times of when he has to pop back and see his targets and he ticks them off as he goes. He’d have seen mine was coming up and he’d have had to remind himself who I was and… It would be easily done for a good note-taker. Still an awful lot of effort to go to. I’ve half a mind to go back there and… but he’ll be gone of course. And if not, what would I say? It’s a silly old trick he’s playing, and not a particularly pleasant one, but… How do I know for certain? How could I possibly prove that I haven’t jumped forward, skipped thirty-one years of my life? “Don’t let the memories fool you.” That’s what he said. Whether I experienced every minute of the past thirty-one years or I didn’t… either way, the memories would be exactly the same. When we’re about to die, and our whole life flashes before our eyes, we will have no way of knowing for certain that the whole thing wasn’t simply this single flash.
[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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