No Present Like the Time

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I was standing in the shadows that night, in the canyon of the skyscrapers, waiting to catch the bus back home.

I saw a man walking by, and he saw me, and he crossed the empty road, his hand held high in greeting. I tensed. The bus was late. He asked me if I had a cigarette. I smiled and shook my head.

Sorry, my friend, I said, I don’t smoke. Then he asked if I had the time. There was a big old clock in the square, its face glowing like the moon.

But the quest to know the hour is a quest for a human connection, a sharing of the moment that is with us now and will soon be gone. I looked at my watch.

I felt a stinging slap on my hand, and then a clasping and a sliding, and when I looked again, my wrist was bare. “Hey!” I shouted uselessly into the night.

I thought about giving chase, but he was fleet of foot and my heart was already beating too fast. My beautiful Bulova Accutron Spaceview, gone, at 9.22pm.

It was the same model of wristwatch that was worn by astronauts on the Mercury space programme, and it had a clear dial that allowed you to see the electronic innards.

There was a tuning fork, powered by a transistor with two tiny orange coils, and when you held the watch to your ear, you would hear it not ticking, but humming, at a high and steady pitch of 360 hertz. That sound was music to me.

I would watch the orange second-hand sweeping gracefully in orbit, and then I would listen, and in those oscillations I thought I could hear the resonance of the Big Bang itself, the aftershock of time being born.

We live in a universe of malleable dimensions. We can shift and adjust the height and width of things, we can bridge or broaden distance, we can dig deeper or fill in the holes.

But the one dimension that lies beyond our grasp, is time. We cannot seize it, reverse or accelerate it, pin it down or seal it in a jar. But the good thing is, we can wear it.

To dress your wrist with a watch is to show the world that you carry time, that you hold it to your pulse, that you raise your fist to its relentless march.

I grew up in a house marked by time. Within its walls were whispers and ticks and cuckoo-calls and chimes, and the groaning of keys turning in the engines of grandfather clocks.

My father was a schoolteacher by profession, but his pastime was watchmaking. I would wander into his workshop to see the skeletons of timepieces, the tiny flywheels and lugs and jewels, the hairsprings coiled as tightly as millipedes.

There were tools too, screwdrivers that turned with surgical precision, monocular eyepieces that you clamped in place with a wink, a metallic beast that shot out its limbs to grip and un-twist the face of a watch.

As a small boy I came to see time as a physical thing, a thing you could break and fix and wind-up and make whole again.

I learned to love the sounds of time, the syncopation of its rhythms, the multitude of faces and personalities it wore. Time is character.

I’ve always liked the hour of 10 o’clock, with the jaunty mid-morning spring in its step; I’ve never liked the hours of 11 and 3, which always seem to be dragging their heels.

And when I catch the time at 2.05pm, I still feel a little lift in my heart, because that was when the school-bell rang at the close of day.

One year, on my birthday, my father gave me the gift of a Bulova Accutron Spaceview. It was the most seductive, most exhilarating machine I have ever owned, more so than any car or computer.

With its transparent dome and Lilliputian circuitry, it was time, stripped down, stripped naked, a living butterfly encased in glass. I would hear it, in the quiet of night, humming on the bedside table, and I would pick it up and watch the radioactive green numerals swimming into focus.

My father told me the Bulova was guaranteed to be accurate to within 99.9977 percent. So when someone asked me the time, I could tell them with sub-atomic certainty, down to the very second.

Seconds count, and their too-fleeting fractions even more so: just ask Oscar Pistorius. We are creatures of flesh and blood, but the thing that really shapes and moulds us, is time.

We like to think of it as a currency, a commodity we can save or spend or waste, but that is just human vanity, because time, in the end, spends us.

Time is a thief, stealing discrete slices from our day, leaving us only with its by-product, which is memory.

On the axis of time, between then and then again, between the ticking of the clock and the chiming of the hour, the only thing we have for certain is now. Keep a watch on it. Look after it. And wear it well.

*This piece originally appeared in the South African edition of Men’s Health 

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