Harry Scatterling was the most punctual man in Bent Pine, Ontario. He kept a clock in every room in his house.
An alarm clock by his bed, to wake him up in the morning. An electric clock-radio in the bathroom, to serenade him while he washed and shaved. A clock with a timer on the kitchen stove, to signal that his meals were ready. In the dining room stood an immense grandfather clock that ran eight days without winding.
Harry wore a watch at all times. And all his clocks marked the same time as the watch, to the very second. Every clock in his possession had marched in step ever since the remote boyhood day when Harry first buckled that same watch, his father's gift, onto his wrist.
HARRY'S GOOD TIME SHOP AND WATCH REPAIR stood on the town's main boulevard. Six mornings a week he opened wide the door at nine a.m. sharp, and the chorus of his hundreds of clocks chiming nine times together made a sunny music all up and down the street. It was like an incantation, a white magic spell. People passing smiled and set their watches by the sound, for Harry's clocks were never wrong.
He had been known to telephone the local radio station to tell them, as a public service, that the one o'clock time signal had been half a second early, or a quarter-second late.
His jokes, though never very funny, were exquisitely timed. He had never married because he was afraid no wife would allow him to keep all his clocks, or consent to be ruled by them as he was.
Harry was a happy man. Forty years had carried him gently into contented middle age. He recognized the value of each hour. Although he never said so, he believed his watch was set to the time of that celestial clock on which the morning and the evening are two loud ticks. His belief filled his face with a shining serenity.
It was in the year of Harry's forty-first birthday that his world fell and broke.
A bearded gentleman from the university struck the first blow. SPACE-TIME AND SPACE TRAVEL: A SPECULATIVE LECTURE, announced the poster tacked to the telephone pole outside Harry's shop. The second word caught his eye and innocently, that golden June evening, he walked into the public library and took a seat in the front row of the auditorium.
He sat for an hour in polite but baffled silence. Finally he was forced to stand up and defend reason.
"How can you say time in itself has no value? What do you mean, it's relative? What's a continuum anyway?" His neighbors pulled on his jacket and hissed at him to sit down and stop making a fool of himself, but he soldiered on.
"And this rubbish about the law of the propagation of light, and time stretching out -- dammit, it makes no sense!"
The bearded gentleman, who thought he had already outrageously oversimplified the topic, thanked Harry for his comments and picked up his lecture where he'd left off. Harry sat through the next half hour with his mind a whirl of anger and shock. The lecture over, he walked blindly out into the darkness.
Next morning the passersby missed the chorus of chimes from Harry's shop. He had walked into the path of a truck two minutes after leaving the library, and been taken to hospital.
He opened his eyes twelve days after the accident.
"What time is it?" he asked drowsily.
"Awake at last!" Nurse Ida Martin smiled, then checked the neat little timepiece on her wrist. She knew Harry.
After setting his watch, Harry began to recover. He went home two days later.
He closed the front door behind him and stood in the hall, listening. At first he thought the house was vacant, that someone had come while he was sick and taken away all the rugs and furniture and appliances.
No. All the solid things were in place.
But the air was empty. The clocks had stopped. The eight-day grandfather clock stood silent as a pharaoh's coffin.
Harry remembered the electric clock-radio in the bathroom. He took the stairs two at a time. The clock was still humming smugly to itself, but the time it showed was two twenty-five, while Harry's watch said four thirty-seven.
As he stared from one set of numbers to the other, the first real thrill of fear shook him from head to toes.Then he ran downstairs and across the lawn to the neighbor's house. He pounded on the side door until Charlie came and stared at him through the screen. Harry blurted his question.
"Storm? We sure did," Charlie said. "We had a real doozie last week. Power was off for an hour or more."
"How long, Charlie? Exactly how long?"
"Well... Could've been an hour and thirty-five, maybe forty minutes. Can't get any nearer than that."
Harry walked home in despair.
His watch was no longer reliable, because he had set it by nurse Martin's watch, and that, accurate though it might be, could not be right to the last millisecond. Not like his watch. He distrusted the radio time signal for the same reason.
Certainty was what Harry craved, and it was just what he couldn't get. He wasted many hours trying to calculate the length of time between the impact of the truck and the time he'd awoken in hospital. The time he'd been out. Out where? he wondered.
That span of darkness fascinated him. Somewhere in there, the misplaced minutes were falling and falling like gold coins down a bottomless well. In nightmares he saw them stretch and contract like demented mainsprings. He dreamed that he was falling too, and woke knowing he was lost.
He changed. From a cheerful, confident man he grew unsure of himself and hesitant in all he did. When the alarm clock woke him up in the morning, he lay in bed five or ten minutes longer, drowsing, too blue to get up. His four-and-a half-minute egg had always been just the way he liked it: now it was either too hard or too runny. He still wore his watch, but as the weeks went on he glanced at it less and less often. Finally he stopped winding it. There seemed no point.
Harry no longer had the heart to let the sound of his clocks ring down the boulevard: for nine a.m., once sharp, had grown blurred. The clocks were all out of step with each other and their chimes were ragged.
He painted out the words GOOD TIME on his sign and put CLOCK in their place. Harry was never one to make a false claim.
Summer cooled. Leaves colored and fell. Snow fell, then melted, and the sun drew up the grass again. Harry guessed these changes accounted for the passing of a year.
He guessed, but he wasn't sure. His face in the mirror looked no older. The calendars named a new year, but Harry had lost his faith in calendars, as in clocks.
Perhaps, he speculated, time had simply turned on its axis, like a merry-go-round, and set him down in the middle of last June.
One day he made a decision. He sold his shop and his house (furnished, clocks included) and realized an old dream by going to live in Greenwich, England. Each day he left his rented cottage to visit the Observatory, study the exhibits and place his foot on the Prime Meridian Line. Here, if anywhere, surely he would find time proven, marked and measured with all the exactitude that was humanly possible.
But no inward grace came to Harry through these visible outward signs. For all he knew, those beautiful instruments in the Observatory drew nothing but scrawls of gibberish on rolls of waste paper. The dials were maps of imaginary countries, and the pointers pointed into emptiness.
He searched further. He rifled museums and libraries to discover how earlier people had measured time. To see if there was a pattern.
In the end he came to this conclusion: Different people have measured time differently, and who's to say who was right or wrong?
Soon after this, while crossing a bridge over the Thames, he unbuckled his watch and dropped it into the river.
A second year seemed to pass, and Harry was no happier. He realized another dream when he rode a jet plane around the world to catch a day. He caught the day, so the clocks and the flight attendants said, but to Harry it was only air. He knew he ought to feel the weight of twenty-four new-minted hours on his hands, like treasure. But his hands were empty.
His pockets were empty too, and that was the end of Harry's search for time in foreign parts. He went home to Bent Pine.
"How's the old place?" he asked the ticket agent in the bus terminal.
"Same as ever. Never changes."
"You're new here, aren't you?"
"Me? No, sir. I've been at this same window for the last seven years."
Harry left his bags at the terminal and walked up the street. It looked almost the same as when he'd left it. Unaccountably, some of the trees were smaller and looked younger. He assumed they'd been replaced.
HARRY'S CLOCK SHOP was now MCGRATH'S HARDWARE. Harry knew McGrath. He looked for him through the window, but the man at the cash register looked like a relative. Harry decided not to go in.
He walked on, and came to his old house. It was occupied again. A young boy ran out of the front door, darted across the lawn and tripped over the root of a tree. Harry stepped forward as the boy sat up, smudged and sniffling.
"Are you hurt?"
"No... But my watch -- it's broken." The boy lifted his arm.
"My dad gave it to me today, for my birthday. And now look, it's busted."
He unfastened the watch and nursed it in his hands. Harry stared down curiously at the boy's tilted face.
"Never mind," somebody wheezed. "All things mend in time." An ancient man eased himself down on the grass beside the young boy.
"Not my watch," said the boy.
"Some day it will all make sense."
"I notice you don't wear a watch," Harry said.
The old man sniffed. "I go by the sun." He poked the boy on the arm. "So, today's your birthday. How old are you?"
"I... " The boy blinked.
Three pairs of eyes pondered the question.
"Excuse me," Harry said. He reached down and gently took the broken watch from the boy's hand. It certainly did look familiar. He began to ask if he might buy it, but a sudden change caught his eye and he looked, and the boy and the old man were gone.
Harry stayed in town. He got a job in McGrath's hardware. It wasn't much of a living, but he seemed happy. At the age of fifty he astonished everybody by marrying nurse Ida Martin.
Ida tried to keep him up to the mark, but he was known ever after as the late Mr. Scatterling, because he refused to wear a watch and he was never on time. That bothered a lot of people, but it never seemed to bother Harry.