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Adult category Highly Commended About Time by James McNally

Stepping out onto the balcony, Joseph surveyed the landscape before him. Down below, an immense graveyard stretched out for half a kilometre, its hundreds of white slabs reflecting the early morning light, and its various altars, plinths, and figures casting shadows, eerie sundials charting the slow birth of the new day. Just beyond the graveyard, a runway, a great sharp and straight scission of asphalt cutting the vista in two, as if imposing itself —a symbol of momentum, ascending heights and vast energies — against the burial ground, with its quiet, restful depths. Beyond the runway stood an airport; beyond the airport, a city. Beyond the city, still, rolling hills, dotted with cream and ochre structures, little villages trailing up and down the grassy mounds. Finally, peaking beyond the hills the distant, yet looming presence of a mountain range.

“Good morning,” said Sarah, entering the kitchen, as Joseph returned inside from his survey of the expanse below. “Good morning,” he echoed back.

“What time is it?” She asked.

“I think around eight thirty.”

“Another day,” she sighed. “Actually, what day is it? I’ve been losing track.”

“Me too. I think it’s Wednesday. I have a conference call in about an hour if I remember right. I’m just waiting around for it. I haven’t much work to do before then.”

“Would you like a coffee?” Sarah asked. “It’ll make time go a little faster.”

“Will it make my meeting shorter?”

“I can’t guarantee that,” she smiled.

Sarah set about making coffee for the both of them, and they both stepped outside, each with a mug in hand.

“Is that true, by the way?” Joseph asked, “that thing you said about coffee.”

“Well it’s not that time moves faster, but our perception of it.” She replied. “I was reading about it yesterday. Something to do with pulses in the brain and clocks in the body. Caffeine speeds everything up; all those electrical signals in the brain increase in frequency and the circadian rhythm — you know, your heartbeat and other biological processes — it all speeds up. And your sense of time with it.”

“Really?”

“Apparently. Think of it like this.” Sarah began to slowly tap her fingernails on the railing of the balcony. “If your body clock is like this, things seem relaxed. Nothing’s happening. But if I start going like this—“ Sarah tapped the balcony faster and faster, “ —now suddenly it feels like everything’s moving quicker. Your body’s locked into the rhythm. It can be the rhythm of a heartbeat, a song, or anything really.” Then Sarah rapped both her hands against the balcony rail so quickly that it became difficult to differentiate each clanging reverberation from the next. “But if the rhythm speeds up too much,” she said, raising her voice above clattering din, “the sense of time disappears entirely. You don’t know where — when you are!" Joseph laughed at this frenetic display.

“You liked that, huh?.” Sarah removed her hands from the balcony and resumed sipping her coffee. Both returned their gaze to the variegated view in front of them. A flock of gulls hovered above the cemetery, squawking intermittently and gliding effortlessly on the breeze.

“What about them? What time is it for Mr Seagull?”

“Actually, | think the smaller animals see things a lot slower than we do. Time moves differently for them. The smaller, the slower.”

“I can’t imagine time moving any more slowly than this!”

“Ha. But then again they can be trained to count seconds, like we do. Rats, for example — they can learn to know when thirty or sixty have passed.”

“Maybe we’re not so different.” Joseph pondered. “In terms of training I mean."

"Hm?

"Imagine life without watches or town clocks. Would we experience time differently if we hadn’t spent our lives becoming accustomed to the ticking away of hours and days?” “Maybe.” Sarah replied. “Speaking of which, how long has it been now, since this all started?”

“I don’t know. I’ve lost track. A few weeks —months— maybe?”

“Well perhaps there’s your answer. With nothing to mark the passing of time except the sun rising and setting, the occasional trip to the shops, and so on, your sense of it melts into an indistinguishable stream. Heck— imagine what it must have been like before we were ruled by clocks and calendars. All that mattered wasn’t if your meeting was on Monday or Tuesday but the seasons — times of warmth and times of cold; the time to sow seeds and the time to harvest, or the time to stockpile wood to keep fires burning so you didn’t freeze.” Sarah sighed wistfully. “Did time move faster, then, or did it move slower?”

‘I couldn’t tell you. All | know is that you only ever really notice time when you’ve a deadline
to meet, or when you’re bored.”
“Or both, in your case... speaking of which, what’s it now?”

“About ten past nine. I’d better get ready.”

“Really? Time really does fly.” She laughed, “maybe it was the coffee.”

“Or maybe it does with you.” Sarah kissed Joseph softly on the cheek and returned to her morning routine. Joseph once again paused to look out over the balcony. He thought of the mountains — the aeons of earthly movements their crests and valleys silently, sublimely expressed. He thought of the village-speckled hills and the multitude of flora and fauna contained within, each dancing along life’s course to its own tempo. He thought of the city and the airport, of the intertwining of time, space, and place. He thought of the graveyard — its solemn monuments etched with so many names and dates, some grand, some lowly, some crumbling away, and others bright and new, each marking one thing: the ultimate transience of all earthly things. Here his gaze remained for a few moments as an old poem about time came to mind. “In my beginning is my end,” he muttered to himself, “but soon
enough, a new beginning.”

Judge Charles Durante’s comments:

“Augustine of Hippo, much given to abstract thinking, admitted he was nonplussed when asked to define time. James has written a profound meditation on the concept of time, but he has cleverly avoided abstruse thinking by casting his exploration in the form of a dialogue between lovers. The story starts by setting the scene: early morning, a man and woman standing in a balcony, viewing the cemetery with its graves bathed in the early morning light, the shadows creating the effect of many sundials, the first reference to a primitive form of clock and quaint method of telling and recording time. Waiting for a conference in about an hour’s time, makes Joseph ask if having a coffee will make time go faster. It turns out his partner, Sarah, has a gift for metaphysical thinking and she launches into a disquisition on how our perception of time varies with our bodily rhythm and brain function. A good teacher, Sarah uses her finger tapping to convey her understanding of the way we perceive time as moving faster or more slowly. The story asks important questions about time in a very natural way: what would be our awareness of time if we had no instruments to measure it; would time flow indiscriminately if we had no time pieces; is there such a thing as absolute time if there were no human beings to experience it; are we time-bound? The story returns to the peace and quiet of the beginning: the cemetery where time seems to have stood still, where the transience of life has its ultimate resting place. With a glance at T S Eliot’s East Coker, ‘In my beginning is my end’, this very bold attempt to understand time comes to a wonderful close. James must be congratulated on this subtle, mature and philosophically challenging piece of writing.”

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