When Time Changeth the Man
When Time Changeth the Man
A Short Story By Mark Cantrell,
Copyright ? May 1998
MY nightmare begins with the birth of each day, when it drags me from
the security of sleep.
Today is no different; my eyelids open, still heavy with the burden of
the coming day, to find the sun pallid through the shabby curtains.
There is nothing welcoming about the light. The few weak rays possess a
lifeless, opaque quality that seems quite alien. All the same, I crawl
from the pit I call a bed and shake myself free of the bedclothes and
Once dressed I throw back the curtains and squint at the sudden glare.
Even that pale light manages to hurt my eyes, dazzling my mind with
memories of pleasant summer days long since past.
Turning back to the gloom, the mirror catches my sight and I meet my
own stare as if it belongs to a stranger. All I perceive is a near
shadow with indistinct features, but I know what this inversion of
myself wears. What it has worn for days beyond count: the crisp, white
shirt; the suit, as grey as the overcast sky; the tie, dreadful in its
gratuitous lack of taste.
With a despondent sigh, I wonder what happened to me, at what point did
my world turn grey and monochrome - like an old black and white movie
but without the charm? The answer is lost, forgotten somewhere in the
vault that we call memory.
Reluctantly I walk out of my home. The cold air instantly mists my
breath into dancing ghosts of long-dead joys. The day has only just
begun, yet already it weighs heavily on my shoulders. As it does with
those who shuffle through the streets around me, as if fearing the
world might somehow notice them and disturb their grey solitude.
They resemble my own hunched up self so completely, that it almost
seems I have undergone some kind of fission, to produce a world of
Eventually my place of work towers above me. The building reflects the
sky from its brooding fa?ade, as though to remind me that that it forms
the centre of my life; the source of mundanity where my mind is crushed
in the day to day grind of providing it with sustenance. I know that I
have worked here too long, and I sigh at the prospect of yet another
day within its grim walls. Then my clones and I shuffle through its
doors, gulped down in one greedy swallow.
Inside, a clock fills the foyer with an ominous tick like the heartbeat
of the universe. With each swing of its pendulum I feel more of my life
transferred into the company's dusty vaults. I turn away from its
frowning face and make my way to my assigned place, the desk where I
must perform the same tasks day after day. Here I am like the hamster
running endlessly in its wheel, except I am aware of the dynamo that
turns my activity into corporate power.
My tasks fill the minutes that slowly turn into hours. Life passes by
without noticing, while my work progresses to the symphony of time: the
ticking of the company clocks, the watch at my wrist, the beating of my
own heart. My life is ebbing away, its own tic-toc subtly out of sync
with the rhythm of man-made time.
Mechanically, I carry out my chores until the boredom strikes. Right on
time, I notice from looking at my watch. With remarkable derring-do, I
take an unscheduled pause to look around at the rows of desks. At each
one sits another clone of myself, feverishly slavering over equally
mind-numbing tasks. I know they are bored, that dreams and thoughts of
colourful days turn the greyness of their lives into a living torment.
The thought strikes me, that - here - even boredom faithfully follows
the company's schedule.
A slamming door startles me back to work. A supervisor, perhaps? I have
no idea; my furrowed brow is suddenly concentrating anew on the forms
and papers on my desk. In that way the day drags on. Yet the body
provides reminders of its humanity, thereby distracting me from
My stomach rumbles, even though it is not yet lunchtime. My body
disregards all externally applied schedules, knowing only its own
needs. My mind has little choice but to follow these timetables, shaped
as it is by them, and so I must ignore the anarchist demands of my body
- if I am to fulfil its needs at all.
As I try to ignore my stomach's demand for attention, I also try to
ignore the fatigue that transforms my eyelids from flesh to lead. I rub
them, but they remain eager to look into that place where my mind can
wander free of company shackles.
Nervously I leave my desk. I am afraid that the supervisor will notice
my unscheduled toilet-break. It is a risk I must take, for I need to
splash my face with water in the hope that it will shock me into
wakefulness. Fear is a white-hot knife in my stomach, all the same, as
I scurry furtively towards the toilets.
In the disinfectant-smelling confines of that tiny cell, my fear turns
into a thrill of excitement.
I am the dissident, acting to subvert the company's schedule and take
back some of the precious time that I have sacrificed on the altar of
Profit. The cold water revives me somewhat and I rub my face, massaging
a little life into the grey skin and the tired muscles beneath.
When I reach for the towel I notice something strange above my temples,
just within the hairline. I pause to stare into the mirror and I am
shocked at the obscenely throbbing bumps. My fingers probe the fleshy
protrusions, feel the heat of the pulsating blood within. Then there is
no more time to ponder as a wave of dizziness threatens to throw me to
the floor. I steady myself on the washbasin, suddenly aware that I have
broken out in a cold sweat. My skin itches all over, my suit rejected
to cause extreme discomfort.
I stagger out of the toilet and the harsh banging of the door adds to
my alarm. It is a small relief that the noise brings no management
wrath, and my colleagues ignore the noise. For all they know I am the
omnipresent supervisor, forever casting a watchful eye.
At my desk I slump back into obscurity and rest my face in my hands.
The dizziness spins the room counter-clockwise to my gyrating guts. A
groan escapes my throat, horrifyingly loud to my ears. I look around,
fearful that I might draw attention to myself. What I see makes me
groan once more. This time in fear.
My colleagues are ignorant of my distress. They continue with their
tasks just as before. But now they are different in their uniformity.
Chitinous heads with twitching mandibles look down at desks through
bulbous eyes framed between dangling antennae. Barbed, multi-jointed
limbs emerge from segmented bodies still draped in tattered
One of them finally looks up in an act of daring nonconformity. In
those eyes I witness distress, but also I see that these eyes are twin
clocks staring at me, just as the clock on the wall stares.
Never have I known such fear. I know that I must escape, but lunch is
still an hour away and even in my terror, I cannot rip myself away from
the precious schedule. Somehow I automatically process my tasks.
It is a Hell I have seldom known. Each minute stretches to impossible
dimensions and dawdles through the present, until lunch finally -
mercifully - arrives. With unseemly haste I rush from my desk and flee
into the outside world. All around me are the chittering bodies of my
colleagues. It is madness that surrounds me and I scurry home,
desperate to hide myself from things I cannot comprehend, to shut the
world out of sight behind my bedclothes.
Home at last. I struggle with the door, only to find my hands will not
co-ordinate. With a whimper of frustration I finally manage to open the
door and slam it shut behind me.
Secure from the horrors of my day, I lean against the door and pant
heavily. I try to close my eyes but for some reason they wish to remain
open; a far cry from work where they wished to stay closed.
I stagger to the bathroom in search of the painkillers I know are in
the cabinet. And then my nightmare reaches its conclusion. Two bulbous
eyes stare back at me from the mirror, and a shocked chitter escapes my
mouthparts. With a clawed appendage, I reach up to stroke my
The terror evaporates. The nightmare is over and I wonder at what I
have been afraid. I realise then, the madness was not outside, it
existed within me. And that is now cured. The grey days are over for I
have found myself once more. My body is no longer out of sync with the
world; my heart beats in time to the clock.
Bradford, 18 May 1998
Copyright ? May 1998