Abraham Jones opened his eyes.
His grandson, Ollie, was gone and the curtains had been closed across the windows. He was feeling dry. Parched, and as rough as he could ever remember. The tubing directed up his nostrils annoyed him and he lifted it up over his nose. Something pulled painfully at his hand. He looked at the dressing and the plastic contraption sticking out of it. The dressing had a patch of dark dried blood, almost brown in colour. He tried to lift his legs to swing them out of the bed, but only succeeded in sending his newspaper sliding to the floor. Oh well. He’d lost interest in it anyway.
“I wouldn’t try to get out, mate.” came a voice. “They’ve got you all hooked up there. Top, middle and bottom.” The voice laughed. “Lie down and I’ll pick your paper up.”
Abe looked down the side of his bed to where his grandson had been sitting.
Abe looked again – harder this time – and saw a face. It had silvery stubble and a mop of unruly silver hair. Below, it wore a burgundy dressing gown and striped pyjama trousers. Abe looked to the other side of the bed. No one.
“I’m Charlie.” offered the voice again. “No need for second names in here. No names, no pack-drill and all that. The nurses call me Mr. Roberts. Makes me nervous. I tell ‘em: Call me Charlie. But they don’t. Must be some kinda rule. Or maybe they don’t like to get too close to us before we die.”
Charlie placed the newspaper back on the bed and sat down on the grey plastic seat. “Seen it before. I was in Korea, you see. Bad business, that. Shelled by the Chinese and bombed by the Yanks. Bloody marvellous. I lost some good mates there. Right alongside me. The ones I went out with. In the end, you stopped getting too close to them – the new lads, like. It just got too hard. I suppose it’s the same with them.” he said, jerking his thumb towards the nurses’ station outside the door.
Abe coughed. A wheezing, ineffectual cough, and reached for his sputum pot. “I hate them things.” said Charlie, evenly. “Won’t use ‘em.”
Abe spat an evil-tasting mass into the pot and put it back down on the sheet. He gestured towards the water jug on the locker-top. Charlie stood up and brought it to him, helping to hold the beaker as he filled it, then steadying it to Abe’s mouth as he sipped gratefully at the coloured water. Abe handed it back to Charlie with a slight nod of the head, a cough, then “Thanks.”
“That’s alright, mate… Abraham.” he said, squinting his eyes to read the label at the top of the bed.
“Abe.” said Abe.
“That’s alright, Abe.” said Charlie. “We missed a lovely sunset. Can’t see it properly from here ‘cos it disappears behind that bloody building. It was a lovely view two floors up on Ward 42. I miss that. They brought me down here this morning. Third bloody move since I came in a week ago. I think they just like buggering us about. Like the bloody Army. Jesus.”
Abe closed his eyes.
“Shame about the sunset, though.” Charlie reflected, more to himself.
Abe coughed. “ I saw it.” he wheezed.
“You were asleep. Anyway, you can’t see it for the building over the way.”
“I saw it.” Abe repeated.
“Well, if you say so. Can’t see how, though.”
Abe sighed. “I used to see them from my window. Looking out over the sea. I can close my eyes and see them now. Beautiful. Red and orange flickering through the trees, getting bigger and setting the sky alight, turning the back wall of the sitting room flame red, then flattening against the sea. Oh, I saw it alright.”
“Blimey, Abe. That’s a nice place you’ve got there.”
“It’s not particularly grand or special. Well, I suppose it’s special.” He stopped for a moment, as though lost in thought. Charlie looked, disinterestedly, at the notes at the foot of the bed. “I won’t see it again.” Abe said quietly.
“I’m sorry, Abe.” said Charlie. “I got some bad news myself.” He looked towards the ward corridor, where the staff were giggling at a joke shared amongst themselves. “Just old age. Wear and tear. I understand, but it’s a bit hard on the missus and kids. That’s the hardest bit.”
Charlie turned the conversation back to Korea. “Were you there?”
“No.” replied Abe. “I never got out of the country. Did all my Service here. Scotland was the furthest I got. Bloody cold and wet.”
“It wasn’t too warm by the Imjin River, I’ll tell you.” retorted Charlie, who embarked on a review of his campaign through 1950 and 1951, the hardships, reversals of fortune and ensuing stalemate. Abe felt himself drifting, thinking of Sheila and wondering whether she was on her own. Charlie ploughed on, like the war itself, and not really in the ward anymore.
Presently, Abe came to again. It took a while to focus and remember where he was. He was reminded by Charlie’s voice, still complaining bitterly about enemy and allies alike. He had no idea how long he had been asleep and was quietly impressed with Charlie’s stamina for a sick man. He had the bit still firmly between his teeth: “The trouble with the Yanks is you just can’t rely on ‘em. One minute you’re fighting side-by-side with ‘em on your flank and the next minute they’re gone. I’ve got nothing against ‘em individually. Bloody nice blokes.”
“Charlie. Stop, please.” Abe mustered his strength to try to bring himself some peace. Then his voice deserted him and for a while he coughed a rattling, wheezing cough that seized his body in convulsions until eventually more vile sputum filled his mouth. He gagged.
Charlie watched with evident concern. He saw Abe look around for his pot and leapt to the side of the bed, recovering it and offering to the stricken man. As Charlie held the pot under Abe’s chin, the latter gave an apologetic look and gratefully spat out the grey-green mess. Charlie replaced the lid and put the pot down on the locker-top.
“You alright, sport?”
“Yes. Thanks, Charlie. Better now. Can you pass me my drink?” Abe’s voice was weak.
Charlie reached the beaker from the table and refilled it from the jug. He placed it carefully into Abe’s shaking hand.
“You sure you’re alright?”
Abe nodded and sipped from the beaker. Slow, small sips at first, before emptying the lot in two goes.
“I reckon you were thirsty. Want some more?”
“No thanks.” replied Abe, shaking his head and raising his bandaged hand in a gesture of defence and friendly acknowledgement. “Did you see my grandson leave?”
“Yes.” Charlie replied, as he returned the jug. “When you’d been asleep for a while, he asked a nurse whether you were likely to wake up again tonight.”
Abe nodded and smiled, blowing a small sigh through his nose.
Charlie sat down. “Was I going on, old mate? It just all comes flooding back. The old times – sixty years like it was yesterday. You spend all them years getting on with life and forgetting about it. All them years. Where did they go, Abe?” There was a note of loss and desperation in his voice now.
“Time, Charlie. This strange thing called time. I think I finally understand it.”
Charlie looked up, smiling. “Money!” “Time’s money!” “That’s what my first boss in Civvy Street used to say. Time’s money Charlie. Don’t be lozzacking when there’s work to be done. Bloody cheek!”
“No Charlie. Something else. I think I was dreaming, but it wasn’t a dream. Everything so clear. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before.”
Abe closed his eyes again. Charlie noticed that he was breathing with his whole body, and could see the rapid pulse under the haphazardly shaved skin of his neck. Abe began speaking with his eyes still closed. His voice soft, but measured and even. Charlie moved his chair closer.
“Time is a slippery thing, Charlie. It compresses and it stretches out and sometimes seems to stop. But what is it? The passing of years? Time wasted? The fastest man over 100 metres? Time to relax? Something we’re always short of.” Charlie nodded.
“I feel like I’ve seen things in a cold, hard light Charlie. So many years of reading and thinking. Always thinking. Do you know what I think time is?” A rhetorical question. “I think it’s all in the head. That’s what I think right now. That’s what I think I just dreamed. Are you with me?” Charlie shook his head slowly. Abe continued anyway.
“It’s all in the head because people are the only things that use time. Nothing else does. We need it to make sense of things and to organise ourselves. It’s handy for that – not much point in two blokes meeting up on two completely different days in the same pub, I suppose. Sheila bought me a great book, a few years ago, about the problem of longitude - how to know where you are when navigating east to west or west to east around the world’s oceans. John Harrison built clocks for the Navy so they could do it. They couldn’t rely on the sun and stars, you see. Not like going up and down north to south. You needed to know how much distance you had covered to fix your position. Harrison gave them an accurate way to measure how long they had been travelling at a given speed so that they could. In that context, time really makes sense. Speed x Time (elapsed) = Distance, which gives you your position from the last place you took it.”
“So, say I’m on an island and a volcano erupts. I need a ship to come and get me off but it has to get there before the larva reaches the port. I would want to know how quickly it could come. That’s time isn’t it?”
Abe thought for a while. “You’d be comparing two events and the rate at which state changes. Time is just a tool for conceptualising it and predicting an outcome. Even if they predict that the larva will get to you first, human nature is such that every ship in the area would try and maybe get there ‘in time’, beating the prediction on the outcome of the two changes of state.”
“But doesn’t it also boil down to how much of my life I want to spend doing certain things?” asked Charlie. “Like waiting for buses, or sitting at work when I could be at home? And my mechanic charges me by the hour for the same reason. Why would he want to lay under my car when he could be at home watching the telly?”
“Yes. Good point. Time is great for measuring these things, human activities, and prioritising them, and for working out a fair reward. But it’s an invention. A construct. It helps us to organise what we do.”
Charlie pursued the challenge doggedly. “Ok, Abe. What about one a bit closer to home? When my doctor told me yesterday afternoon that there is no hope, what do you think I asked him first?”
“How long have I got?”
“Yep. And he said he couldn’t say with any certainty. Maybe a month. Maybe three. Maybe even less than that. He couldn’t say. How much time, Abe. Are you telling me that’s just all in the mind. Not real?”
“Can you pass me a drink? I’m sorry.”
Abe laid back and closed his eyes momentarily as Charlie poured another drink of water and handed it to him.
“Thanks. I wish you hadn’t used that example, Charlie. But it’s the same thing, really. Will the state of my living body change before I can do other things? Like sort out affairs, see people, sky-dive, whatever. I’m sorry, Charlie, that sounds callous and it isn’t meant to. Do you see what I mean, though? It’s an assessment of whether your body will take you to do these things before death takes over your body.”
This time Charlie was quiet for a while. “I might as well be on that sodding island. Except no boat can save me. It’s funny, though, how time slowed right down. Practically stopped when he told me that. Still feels like it now to be honest. Sort of numb and time just hanging. And then you have all the years that just seem to have vanished. Where the hell did they go? Like I was just saying about Korea. Marriage. Work. Kids being born and growing up. Going out to dance halls. Where did them years go?”
“It’s perception and memory, Charlie – a very personal thing.”
Charlie sat looking at Abe, who had become animated again. He listened.
“Everything is changing, Charlie, it’s all dynamic. Do you know much about astronomy and the cosmos? How it is all meant to have come about? Birth, life and death – constant change. I used to love reading all those books. And just watching it out in the night sky. It’s amazing. They talk about time as another dimension, like up, down, along. You know what I mean? No one really knows where it all came from or where it’s going. You and me are just a part of it, Charlie – a twinkle in your mother’s eye or a pain in her belly and now look at you.” Charlie looked at his hands. Arthritic, shiny and blotched. He nodded.
"If the universe was static, there wouldn’t be such a thing as time. No need for it. We’re all changing state. The solar system’s changing state, but the bigger scale stuff more slowly. We’re all revolving around the sun, giving us years, the seasons, days as the planet rotates. That’s just stuff going on – years, seasons, days. We use John Harrison’s clocks to split the day up. Sunrise, sunset, the one we just missed. It’s all just going on. With or without us. We just count it and measure it. The big giveaway is when we talk about things out in the cosmos, beyond our solar system happening over often billions of years. Do you think the cosmos cares about years? Do you think it measures itself by the rotation of an invisible speck somewhere out on the edge of one of millions of spiral galaxies?”
“It can’t all be in our heads, though.”
“It’s a concept, Charlie. It has to be in our heads. The events are out there, but the perception is in our heads. Think about how time seems to have passed slowly or quickly depending on what you are thinking about. Now there’s a thing. I reckon that if you could remember every single thing that happened to you in every single day of those sixty years, it might seem an awful long time to you now. But you only remember bits. That’s your time, Charlie. That’s the sixty years in your head. Gone in the blink of an eye if you’ve got a memory like mine. Time is a human thing – a construct . We made it. The stuff going on around us and even our own bodies changing is just events. A change of state.”
“Bloody hell, Abe. You’re making my head ache. So are you saying only we understand time? What about animals? My dog always knows when it’s getting close to feeding time or bedtime.”
“I don’t know for certain, Charlie, but I reckon it just feels hungry and it’s learned your habits. But I couldn’t swear. Does it wear a watch?”
Charlie chuckled. He refilled Abe’s beaker. “It’s had nearly everything else, the little bugger. What about history, though?”
Abe drank and thought for a while. “It’s just a record of events, really, I suppose. Oral originally, then written down. The Old Testament is largely a history. I suppose with so many of us on the planet there’s always an overlap of generations – billions of individual overlaps – to hand things down. Early historians used generations and the reigns of kings and queens as reference points. Calendars appeared to track significant religious dates such as Easter. It was early Christian monks – Dionysius Exiguus and the Venerable Bede – who introduced the idea of the eras B.C. and A.D. into their ecclesiastical histories. I think there’s something like C.E. for Common Era or Current Era now to cater for current sensitivities. It’s just another measure. Just a human thing.”
“I’m a bit lost now Abe. What is time, then, in a nutshell?”
“Just our way of making sense of events and changing state, relative to other events and ourselves. We can use it when we want to be somewhere the same time as someone else, we agree a time and go there. I fell into the trap a bit there. The same time means we take a reference from something – it could be the moon’s cycle, the high-water point of the tide, but we probably break it down to a point in the day measured by a clock. We then check off the measurement on that clock and get a move on to meet up. To work out where we are relative to past events we usually count years – just the repetition of a cyclical solar system or seasonal event. But it’s an abstract set of numbers and our perception of it is notoriously inconsistent, because it’s personal and based on memory. Current time can slow down when we suddenly have a lot to think about. Or speed up. It’s entirely personal.”
A voice suddenly broke in from behind the curtains surrounding the next bed.
“You’re kidding, man. There’s so much more to time than that.” “Open these curtains, will you?”
Charlie pulled his way around the curtain until he found the end and dragged it back around the bed in a series of short tugs. A stocky, tired-looking nurse wandered into the ward bay just as he finished and began pulling out notes from bed ends, checking her watch and writing down observations. She fixed a thoughtful look on Charlie. Charlie stood stock still, looking guilty as charged before the charge was even read. She flicked her eyes towards the dishevelled man in the newly exposed bed, lying in a hospital gown, with straggly greying hair and beard, then at Abe, now lying quietly watching the scene.
“Sorry nurse.” began Charlie. “This chap wanted his curtains opened. Seemed reasonable.”
“I’m sure it’s perfectly reasonable.” she replied. “Mr. Fink, you will be transferring to Ward 42 tomorrow.”
“It’s Mark.” said Mr. Fink. “Just Mark.”
“We were just chatting.” said Charlie, unable to mask his guilt.
“Well chat away, you’ve got plenty of time.”
At which point Abe erupted in a coughing fit that caused the nurse to walk briskly to his bedside. She repositioned the oxygen pipe into his nostrils and checked the bag of fluid suspended above him. She then picked up the control for the bed and raised his upper half a few degrees. As his cough abated, she offered the sputum pot. Abe declined it with a wave of his hand. He recovered himself and looked balefully at her.
“I was laughing.” he wheezed. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard since I’ve been in here. I nearly died laughing.” He coughed again and Charlie thought he caught a look of confusion on the nurse’s face. She pulled out Abe’s notes, checked her watch and made a few scribbles before dropping them back in their holder.
“You shouldn’t tire yourselves. Especially you, Mr. Jones.” she admonished. “Ward lights will be going down in half an hour.” She replaced the sputum pot and, taking a brief look at the catheter bag and its dark amber fluid, she walked briskly out of the room and into the next bay.
“Stand by your beds!” muttered Charlie. “It’s nice to meet you Mark. Bloody hell, she’s a one.”
“Yeah, same, man.” replied Mark. “Nice meeting you.” He looked over to Abe, who raised his bandaged hand and managed a smile.
“What a bloody state. What do you have to do to get a drink and a cig around here? I’m not going up to Ward 42. I’m discharging myself tomorrow. I can’t stand this.”
Charlie gave Mark a concerned look. “Are you sure, mate? You don’t look too good.”
“I’ll be out of here.” said Mark. “You watch. I’ve got a knackered liver. They can’t do anything and they won’t give me a transplant.”
“Why not?” asked Charlie.
“Because I’m a bloody alcoholic. Have been for years. Drink, smoke, drugs in the past. What can you do? Doctors say I’ve had my chances. Painted myself into a corner.”
Abe attempted to speak and was forced to clear his throat. “I’m sorry Mark.” he said.
“Oh, don’t be. I’ve got no complaints. It’s the cost of my lifestyle, that’s all. If the booze didn’t get me the cigs would. I survived heroin. A lot didn’t. Don’t be sorry. I don’t think I could stand it.”
Abe looked at Charlie, who simply shrugged.
“What you were just saying about time.” Mark began, “It’s too mechanical. Too mechanistic and cold. Like a machine. It’s just nuts and bolts. There’s more to life than that. I’ve been fighting time, filling time and doing time all my life. And now it looks like I’ve run out of it. Time and life. They’re practically the same thing. You have to hurl yourself into them. Take ‘em by the bollocks or just watch ‘em slip away. I’ve squeezed the juice out of it man. Fuck all has slipped away. Not even when I was doing bird.”
“I think Abe’s got a good point, though.” said Charlie, not just from loyalty. “I mean, I’m no expert on these things, like you two, but I get what he means. Time is something that we use, isn’t it? To organise things: ‘Synchronise watches!’.” He let out a chuckle.
“I think it’s just two views of the same thing.” wheezed Abe. “I’m taking the point of a neutral observer, Mark’s speaking from right there in the middle of it. The eye of the storm.”
“Neutral observer? That’s a strange place to be, man.” answered Mark. “How can you not be in the middle of it? I mean, you are. I am. My time can only mean anything to me, as yours can to you. It’s just an anecdote to anyone else. They can talk about my time, my years, but they can’t know it as I do. It’s about what I do with it and once it’s up, that’s it, boy. No more fucking time. But time is real.”
“Your existence is real. Your awareness of it is real. Your ability to fill it all with whatever you want to do is real. But what I am saying is only someone with a consciousness can conceive of all this, can see it all as time. Only they can view their own time relative to everything before it and everything after. Time cannot stand alone without a human observer. If human life ended, but we had placed a clock measuring milliseconds into the universe and set it counting, it could count forever and it would have no meaning without a human to experience it.”
“It’s time I was out of here.” sighed Mark from his bed. “Anyone got any fags?”
They sat or laid in silence for a few minutes. Abe’s breathing became rhythmic and harsh again. He was sleeping. Charlie picked up the newspaper and wandered over to the toilet. Mark closed his eyes and laid back on the pillow, but he wasn’t sleeping. Sleep didn’t come easily to him. His skin itched and he scratched it intensely, making himself bleed – his only comfort. The lights suddenly dimmed.
Charlie emerged into the near-darkness and dropped his newspaper, which scattered across the floor.
“The way I told it is the way it is to me.” Mark spoke into the gloom.