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A short story by Stephen Loveless.
Harry is eighty, a widower and a man without loneliness. For him his memories are gold and good company. The future looks after itself and the present is always life, full of surprises and priceless moments.
Harry collects moments. He is a serious collector and the only one he knows. Nevertheless he has rules. A simple collectors’ creed. Find, observe, clarify, experience, seize the moment and leave.
Today he is standing on the verge of the A45. He found the moment yesterday and observed. Today he must test, experience and enjoy.
He waits by the roadside for the precise second to come that will authenticate it as a true collectable moment.
Three people have stopped in the last ten minutes to offer him a lift. He declined each without explanation and smiled them a goodbye.
They did not affect his timing of the approaching moment.
Harry does not like the stench or noise of the traffic, but he tolerates the discomfort because road moments are the rarest. He knows it will all be worth it. It is important to him to use the time, the discovered moment, for himself, to play and to enjoy. He has decided that today he would dance.
Harry has collected moments for two years. He believes it is the perfect hobby. You do not have to join a club and mix with people you do not want to meet. It is inexpensive, gets him into the world and offers exercise and the use of his mind. All he needs is a good watch and patience. Harry has both.
Harry knows his hobby is really collecting phenomena and in its own way is a study of Time and Space. He has read Hawking and wondered at John M.E. McTaggart. But he keeps it all simple. Harry is happy for these moments to remain hazy gaps in the rush of the world.
Harry had come across his first moment quite by chance, in the Coffee Lounge Café in the town where he lived. Like much of the town the café was dull in decor, the browns and yellows that had seemed so modern in the late fifties and early sixties. Nevertheless, the staff were cheery and their prices right.
It was normally a busy place through the morning. Yet one morning, Harry changed the routine that always led him there for a mug of tea for one. He was only minutes earlier. But instead of entering a busy, peopled, public place, he found emptiness. No customers and no staff.
The door behind the counter, that led to the kitchen was closed, without a sound coming from beyond it. Harry sat at a table and waited patiently to be served. After a few minutes had passed he began to cough loudly in the hope it would draw attention to his presence, then he scraped the legs of his chair on the floor, rattled the back of the empty chair next to him against the edge of the table. No one came out of the kitchen, nor did any customers come in, which surprised Harry. It was mid-morning and the café was a popular watering hole for young mums with their toddlers and retired people like himself.
Harry went through the full range of accepted noise making to attract attention and service. Loud finger rapping on the table top, the clicking together of salt cellar and pepper pot and the tuneless whistle. All to no avail. Finally reducing Harry to silence and the resigned patience of the elderly.
After a five minute wait, a waitress appeared, coming through the door behind the counter. She was unhurried, smiling and polite acting as if Harry had only just come in and sat down. As if on cue to her entrance, customers began to arrive. To Harry’s life of routine and long periods of boring time-filling, he suddenly realised he had found an unusual event in the mundane world. For a week he tested what would become his first ‘Collected Moment’. Without fail between two minutes to eleven and three minutes past, except for the weekend, the place would be empty.
Harry did not trouble himself with wondering why there were never any customers or staff at that time in the morning. Instead he suddenly realised that there were vacant moments in the day that nobody used.
Moments that should be occupied and busy. Moments that defied the bustle of modern life. Silent, peopleless sanctuaries in Time. Harry started collecting moments.
Harry of course realised that the world was full of almost perpetually unpeopled places and moments. In cellars and lofts, in deserts and jungles, on mountain tops and out under the sea. Yet in the crowded, well-used places of Man the vacant moment was rare. Undiscovered and precious. Too precious to work in or fill with mundane constructiveness.
They were moments to play, or be pleasantly still.
Harry confined his collecting to week days between 8am and 6pm. During these times at busy places the true vacant moment could be found.
Harry stood on the verge of the A45, head bowed, his eyes studying the sweeping second hand of his pocket watch. If his observations had been correct, then a ‘Moment’ would soon begin.
As he waited his mind searched for a dancing tune, for he was going to dance the moment away.
At other places, on other collected moments, he had sung the moment, recited a poem aloud in an empty Menswear shop or, as in his corner store, sat, unhindered, thinking happy thoughts for two minutes on the counter. Uncluttered time was a joy for the self.
There were but seconds left before the A45 moment appeared. Yet the traffic in both lanes was still heavy, leaving gaps between the vehicles only ghosts could hope to pass through. Regardless, Harry was sure the moment would come.
Seconds passed and the volume of traffic began to ease in both lanes. Then, as if by magic, it all vanished but for the smell of drifting exhaust fumes and the fading sound of vehicles. At that instant the strains of an obscure, but pleasant melody from his youth swept through his mind. The title forgotten, that didn’t matter to him. It was the music in his head that was important. He held on to its every key.
At exactly 9.19 am, Harry, still looking down at his watch, stepped out onto the carriageway. Once on the road he walked to its centre; on reaching the middle he stopped and looked up. Both lanes were deserted, silent and without a trace of exhaust fumes. The highway was free, not even the speck of a car in the distance. The moment was real. Harry put his watch away and danced to the nameless tune in his head. It was little more than a half-minute jig, yet it left him breathless and allowed him the joy of standing still in the middle of his region’s busiest highway, with an empty mile of road in both directions.
At 9.21 am, he began to whistle the tune in his head and slowly walk back to the verge. On reaching the edge, he stepped back on the verge, the sound of an engine breaking the silence. When he turned around, a lorry roared past. The A45 once again belonged to the needy speed of people.
Tomorrow he would search out another moment to collect.
© Stephen Loveless 1998
Formerly in occupations as varied as archaeology and social work, Stephen Loveless is now a scriptwriter. His first screenplay, Washing Strangers, was broadcast on Central TV recently.