by John M. Joyce (April 2011)
You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by;
but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.6
What follows is the full text of a short disquisition given to the Symposium held by NER in the Year of the Occluded Cesspit by Doctor N.E. Mesis, B. Horlog. M. Chr. Ph.D., Permanent (Permanent) Secretary of the Department of Time. It is not often that NER gets to publish such wonderful material from such an illustrious and respected person and we should all be grateful that the good Doctor spared us the time to explain some of the inner workings of his Department. Remember as you listen to him that the Departmental motto is Ab aeterno, ad litteram.
Ladies, Gentlemen and others of a lesser kind. It is not often that I get a chance to address directly the consumers of my Department’s primary product – the careful and safe administration of Time – and I feel that I must thank New English Review for so generously allowing me the space in which to do so this year. You are all, each and every one of you without exception, users of the services which I and my staff provide and we always try to live up to the motto of our illustrious and ancient Department: A posse ad esse (from possibility to actuality) and I would like to illustrate the workings of my Department by sharing with you one or two humorous anecdotes about working therein.
Naturally, throughout the aeons my Department has spawned many divisions and sub-divisions, each dedicated to one or other of the complications of managing Time and allocating it to you in an orderly fashion. For example, the divisions responsible for the Kinetic Apportionment of Loxotic Entropy and Nychthemeral Delenda Services – KALENDS for short – have multiplied exponentially, and (you’ll laugh at this) even I, the Permanent (Permanent) Secretary, don’t know exactly how many KALENDS divisions there actually are.
[Tinkle of laughter.] Thank-you for your chuckles. Much appreciated.
Even funnier, however, is the recent emergence and growth of divisions dedicated to controlling Paleotemporal Affairs, Results, And Deductions on Xenotemporality – PARADOX for ease of reference – and their remarkable proliferation throughout all the currently occupied universes within just one short epoch. I had to, as I am sure you do now, laugh at the speed and efficiency with which the PARADOX divisions went about their tasks (whatever they may be).
Yes indeed, funny things do happen in the Department of Time; it isn’t all hard work and drudgery, you know. On occasions, would you believe, we can even be at the cutting edge of science. Why, just the other millennium we found ourselves at the forefront of the exciting science of Cryptozoology!
It came about in this way. We had the need to check some of our earliest records and when we pulled them from the filing system we found that they had been denuded of all temporality – they were impossible to read since reading depends upon time’s arrow running straight and true through a document right to the very end. Without their time the documents had simply disintegrated into a series of disconnected meanings which, luckily, were held in place by the overarching sentence structure. Because of that we were able to recover most of the records by passing them through our special DURATION (Document Use, Recovery And Tidily In Order Nescientometer) equipment.
Of course, and notwithstanding that we could recover the damaged documents, we still had to know what was responsible for stripping the temporality from them, so, naturally, I called in the best Physicists and Chemists in creation (literally). However, after ages (420,000 millennia, to be exact) spent studying the problem they confessed themselves baffled, and, what was even worse, we had discovered during that time that many more of our records had become unreadable due to temporal stripping.
We were saved from complete disaster by the obscure workings of fate (not to be confused with FATE – Future Amendes for Terminal Easements – which are payments collected by my Department for processing requests for the early removal of time allocations) by the person of an amateur cryptozoologist and author1 who happened to be visiting one of our Public Access Facilities in connexion with a complaint he had made to us about a third party wasting of his personal time allocation. His original complaint was one of the documents which had been stripped and therefore it had remained unprocessed.
Ah, I remember the day well. My staff ushered the almost apoplectic chap into my office (I do like to keep in touch with the public – it’s not very sanitary but it gives one a feel for the job, don’t you know) where I explained the problem to him. He stopped remonstrating with me about having to submit his form again for the seventeenth time (his allegation, I couldn’t possibly comment) and simply stared at me.
“Rattus egregious temporalis,” he said.
“What?” I remember mouthing with a blank look on my face.
“The common chronovole,” he explained, “I’ve never actually seen one but their existence has been speculated about since G-d was a baby.”
“Yes, but what exactly is a chronovole and what does it do?” I asked.
“Well, in theory it’s a tiny furry creature akin to a small rat or a vole or shrew which eats captive time that’s become very dense, such as that trapped in documents, letters, books, supermarkets and shopping malls. Oh, and mosques,” he kindly enlightened me.
“Mosques?” I queried.
“Well, the early Mosques, obviously. You’ve only got to look at a modern Koran to see that the originals must have been ravaged by chronovoles – it’s devoid of overall meaning and made up of unconnected, rather odd and, in most places, not very nice phrases,” he explained.
“Yes, I see. So you think that we’ve got an infestation of these chronovoles?” I asked.
“Undoubtedly! Will we go into records and catch one or two just to make certain?” he suggested.
“I think we shall. You do know how to catch them?” I had to ask for I needed to be sure.
“Yes, but I warn you, the bait for the traps is very expensive,” he told me.
“Why? What is it?” I remember asking in some small alarm.
“Each trap, once built and placed, must be baited with a complete Encyclopaedia Britannica along with the full twenty-nine volumes of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians,” he informed me.
Well, as you might imagine, I was somewhat perturbed by the revelation that the traps would be so expensive but I decided that there was nothing for it but to confirm, or otherwise, the presence of chronovoles in our archives. Regrettably, it turned out that we were positively infested by the pretty little beasts.
Although we tried to keep the whole thing quiet – the correct thing to do to avoid panic amongst the general populace, as I’m sure you will all agree – somehow or other the infestation came to the attention of OffBrush2, the independent regulator of our Departmental role as the law maker for, and supervisor of, all those who work in time, such as seers, time lords, spiritualists, divinators, astral travellers and so on, as well as the simple users of time such as you good people gathered here.
OffBrush issued an Enforcement Order which allowed just twenty-one days for us to eliminate the dratted, but beautiful, chronovoles. Due to an oversight on their part they failed to stipulate just which twenty-one days so, naturally, I advised my staff to select twenty-one days each of which were separated from any other chosen day by at least a milliard of perfectly ordinary other days as measured by ethnic Pldsfgwqytmds on their home planet (days on Antigropelos last for 4,900 Earth hours). Our Departmental legal team, Messrs. Shrow, Dinger and Khatt, informed OffBrush of our choice of days but we heard nothing further from them which seems to indicate that OffBrush officials can only think inside the box.
[Ripple of applause.] Thank-you, thank-you. The idea was quite simple really. Too kind, too kind.
Obviously that manoeuvre gained us enough time (approximately seven billion years) to bring the infestation under control and I can assure you that our records are now perfectly safe and although many of them still need to be passed through our DURATION equipment these things cannot be hurried due to the overwhelming need for accuracy rather than speed, which is the hallmark of good government, as I’m sure you’ll all agree.
Life is never dull working for the Department of Time, I can assure you. The Department is currently facing thousands of re-incarnation applications from Muslims who did not use all of their Life’s Time allocation but preferred, instead, to use themselves as a suicide weapon. They are claiming that their suicide was an involuntary and necessary act of war against an enemy but the rules, as laid down in the Handbook issued by the Division of Endings And Terminal Horology (DEATH), clearly state that suicide used as a weapon to kill others is always to be viewed as a voluntary termination of contract and that it will not qualify the user for inclusion in the VITAL (Vitative Immission into a Terrestrial Alternative Life) Programme.
As far as most of us in the Department are concerned the final word rests with the Division of Unfortunate Concatenations and Kismet (DUCK) which has judged in every case appealed to it so far that the rules as given by DEATH in its Handbook are final and irrevocable in these cases. I am sure that you will all be pleased by this judgement for it means that you will not face a sudden influx of revivified mad Muslim bombers that we’ve had to let out of HELL (Home Enjoined for Lower Lifeforms).
At this point I should remind you of the difference between my Department’s various Divisions of Endings And Terminal Horology (DEATHs) and the similarly acronymed Department of Exterminations, Apocalypses and Terrifying Horses run by my good friend Colonel (Retired – King’s Own Dragon Guards3) Phillip R.O. de’Ath. As you might imagine, Phil and I often meet and swap yarns about the goings on in our Departments. Occasionally we’re joined by his Personal Assistants, you may have heard of them for they are reasonably famous, I think – Mrs. Patricia E. St. Ilence, Miss C. Odette-Norma Flict and Mr. Ryland De ‘arth (no relation to his boss: the name is actually spelled slightly differently). Oh, the hi-jinks we get up to, you’ve no idea what great senses of humour they have.
Anyway, one can easily tell the difference between my Divisions and Phil’s Department because his outfit is regulated by OffPop4 and he has three charming assistants and mine, as I said earlier, is regulated by OffBrush and I do most of the work myself.
[Polite laughter.] Thank-you, too kind. Just a little jest of mine. Thank-you, thank-you.
Of course, Time does not run smoothly and many are the hiccoughs that have to be sorted out by my staff and me. I'm sure you will all have noticed, for example, that on occasions Time can be quite heavy – it can hang heavily – yet at others moments it can whizz past like a love-sick, demented sloth on speed. You will all have experienced quiet Time – and you most certainly have lost Time, or wasted Time (or had your Time wasted) at some points in your lives.
For those, and many other reasons, my Department is always busy, for such things give rise to myriads of complaints from people who feel that some restitution is due to them. Usually what people want is some extra Life Time added on at the end in order to compensate them for what they feel is Time that has been unfairly removed in one way or another. Naturally, we investigate all complaints fully and often we do make additional awards – a moment here or there, a minute or two for the sake of fairness, but most people have actually been in full control of their own lives when the Time they perceive as having been wrongfully removed from them has gone missing; there is, I’m afraid, nothing we can do about missing Time in such circumstances.
That brings me to the part of this little talk that I am sure many of you will find very interesting indeed: namely, how to complain. Well, there is, as you will probably be delighted to discover, a formal procedure. All you have to do is fill in one of the glowing, pale-golden forms which you will find at the back of your ‘Handbook for Life’ which was issued to you at the moment of your birth. (In some cultures the moment of conception will have been substituted for the moment of birth in which case the title of your volume will be ‘Handbook for Gestation and Life’. Please note that for ethnic Pldsfgwqytmds, whom I mentioned earlier, the title will be ‘Jldfbxzxzcqwptkmnbv Gjkdvzqwqwtphff’.)
This form, when properly filled out, enables my Department to ensure that we allocate any award of additional Time to the correct Life Time Distribution Mechanism (LTDM) and it is also the authority for us to deduct the appropriate fee (to cover administration costs, you understand) from your bank account or credit/debit card. A booklet containing the tables of various fees payable for my Department’s services is available from the Primary Division for External Fees and Control Of Noegenesis (DEFCON 1) by contacting them at Millennium House, Century Way, Nineveh, Year of the Fastidious Gnome (859BC), Tel/Fax 01000-555-000000000. I’m sure that at this juncture it is totally unnecessary for me to remind you that your original allocation of Life Time was completely free.
I cannot stress too highly that it is imperative that you fill in all forms for my Department strictly in accordance with Appendix 6.66 (repeating) to your Handbook for Life. After having filled in the form you must take it to the office of the Chief Horological Officer Supervising Mulctuaries of the Division Of Ordinary Measurement (CHASM of DOOM) who will register your fee and process its deduction and then stamp each of the 186,282 pages of your form with the appropriate mark or marks and arrange for it to be forwarded to the Department’s Head Office. You can find the CHASM of DOOM very easily for he is relatively close: he is located in Afar Street, Beyond, well, to be strictly accurate, in the back of Beyond, and, since that is only in next year – the Year of the Sanitised Bagel – you should have no difficulty in getting to his office.
[Loud mutterings and discontented rumblings.] What’s that? What are you asking?
Oh, no need to worry about that. If you’ve misplaced you Handbook for Life it really doesn’t matter. For your convenience my Department placed all of the forms in the Handbook in the public domain. As is traditional for my Department, on every inhabited planet they are incised into the rock just below the summit of its highest mountain. We find that that is most secure and obvious – at any rate no one has ever complained about it. Working on the irrefutably correct principle that any given writing system will gradually develop massive differences from its original state as it moves through the populations of a planet across time, but that the earliest form of the writing system will always be revered and understood, here on Earth we have carved the forms in Archaic Sumerian – to be precise the Archaic Sumerian used in the Year of the Sanguine Dandelion (3441BC), so you should have absolutely no trouble in understanding the questions.
So you see it’s just a small matter to copy any form onto paper and fill it in, and you don’t even need to fill it in in Archaic Sumerian – any language will do. There we have it. You should encounter no problems at all should you wish to contact the Department.
In closing may I draw your attention to our Special Commemorative Limited Edition of Fine Hand-Crafted Golden Moments. We are sure that these delightful Special Edition Golden Moments will suit any decor and will give any home its finishing touch. We at the Department of Time feel sure that you will agree with us when we tell you that for a mere £200,000,000,000 (US$285,000,000,000) plus postage and packing this is an offer that you cannot afford to miss.
You may be interested in our Easy Payment Scheme: just deposit 25 shekels of silver into the Department’s account at the Bank of Tyre in 1000BC (Year of the Scandalised Protozoan) and compound interest on that sum will do the rest (assuming you are a standard rate taxpayer).
Our Special Commemorative Limited Edition Fine Hand-Crafted Golden Moments are available by contacting the Department of Time Merchandising Division at Unit 0, Limbo Industrial Estate, Pending, Everness-shire, Year of the Successful Breakfast AD2349. (No more than two Special Edition Golden Moments per household in any one millennium.)
Thank-you for listening – I’m sure it’s been a pleasure – and, as we jokingly say in the Department, don’t let the sands of time get in your lunch!5
[Scattered muted slowish handclaps and some desultory applause.] Thank-you. Thank-you.
1) I believe he was one of the authors listed here, but I cannot be more precise because the documents recording his name have been temporarily withdrawn due to unforeseen vermin activity.
2) OffBrush – Working for a Cleaner Continuum. Motto is Aut munditia, aut nihil. It was set up in the Year of the Flying Pig and currently works out of rather grand offices at the top of Great Ziggurat Avenue, Ur of the Chaldees, Year of the Sorry Wombat (2341BC), because it can.
3) The King’s Own Dragon Guards is a regiment originally put together by the very first king ever, King Alulim the Great of Eridu, in 3400BC (Year of the Mistaken Zombie) and it fought bravely defending the royal Dragon in numerous engagements all across Southern Sumeria. Eventually a very tall tower known as the Babel Tower (named in honour of the Architect, Gigglebert Babel7) was built in Eridu and the Court Dragon made its home at the top with the Guards living in the lower storeys. This persisted until the Year of the Risible Courgette (600BC) when the royal Dragon moved to England where, naturally, it has remained ever since.
4) OffPop – Striving for Happier Endings. Motto is Non omnis moriar. Regulatory office overseeing DEATH (the Department). Founded in the Year of The Happy Sarcophagus (Year Dot). Complaint forms can be obtained from its office at 2nd. Floor, 333 Styx Buildings, Ferry Road, Demise, Everness-shire or you can freephone 0800-pi or telex 0800-pi2 (the call back is ‘Shuffle off’).
6) James M. Barrie, 1860-1937 (Year of the Constipated Samovar to Year of the Uncertain Garderobe), British Playwright.
7) Gigglebert Souffle Babel, 3389BC-3307BC (Year of the Pulchritudinous Cutlery to Year of the Mellow Handkerchief), was the first in a long line of successful Sumerian and Akkadian architects who, over the millennia, gradually perfected the ziggurat form. Unfortunately a less than talented descendant, Titterweed Masticate Babel, 651BC-590BC (Year of the Astounded Saucepan to Year of the Iridescent Slave), was commissioned to build the first public park in Babylon and erected The Swinging Gardens. The motion of the Gardens made users somewhat seasick and they were soon demolished and replaced by a more conventional ziggurat design of Hanging Gardens built by Titterweed’s nephew, Francoburp Lozenge Babel III, 629BC-564BC (Year of the Percolated Octopus to Year of the Astounded Marshmallow), whose works inspire architects to this day.
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