Caroline Taylor, 8/10/2015
Current occupation: writer and editor
Former occupation: publications director, speechwriter, and magazine editor
Contact Information: Caroline Taylor's short stories have appeared several times in Work Literary Magazine (2012, 2013, 2015) and in other online and print magazines. She is the author of two mystery novels and one nonfiction book. Visit her at www.carolinestories.com
THE DAY BEFORE TIME BEGAN
Once upon a time, Winston Atherton IV had been relatively happy—as happy as one can be, that is, after a long marriage with its predictable ups and downs. But then Moira had died, and, no longer aware of the passage of hours or even days, he found himself wondering if it was possible to get stuck in some kind of time warp where grief held infinite, unrelenting sway.
“This, too, shall pass,” he kept telling himself. But it didn’t. In fact, the sense of time suspended seemed to spill over into all but one precious corner of his life, affecting even Winston’s job. He’d always liked it. Now he dreaded having to get up in the morning and go through the ritual of transforming ordinary Winston into the person of substance that people expected to see in a diplomat. What did it matter with Moira gone? Who cared anyway?
Where once Winston relished the intrigue and the chance to match wits with colleagues only slightly less brilliant than he, lately he’d noticed in himself a tendency to avoid conflict, to compromise when it wasn’t absolutely necessary, and, worse, at times to surrender a chip or two in the Department’s endless bureaucratic struggles for the sake of a transitory, illusory peace.
The future looked dismal, even for one as prescient as Winston. He knew he wouldn’t be promoted this year. He knew further—with a tiny tinge of relief—that he would never make ambassador. Beyond that, he knew he could not resign from the Foreign Service without losing a big hunk of the pension that awaited if he could just hang on for another five years.
What tricks time plays! To be perfectly honest, Winston was ready to retire now—had been ready for years—but the wretched rules that intervened to protect those his age who wanted to plow ahead till they dropped in their traces offered him no choice.
Not that he had another career lined up. No, just a vaguely formed notion of lying on a beach somewhere, never again having to wear a suit and tie, and perhaps seeing Antarctica, thereby managing finally to set foot on every continent. Of course, he’d have to actually pay for the Antarctica trip, but the upside was no corresponding expectation that he smile and charm disagreeable foreigners, who, more often than not, gave Winston a crick in the neck and sometimes pains in a more strategic location.
Unable to change the events of the present and no longer willing to influence the course of the future, Winston, for the first time in ages, felt powerless and passive—adrift, not on the tides of change, but in a pool of stagnant status quo. An inner voice commanded: You will go to work every day. You will accept another overseas assignment. You will try to do a good job.
But he seemed to have no will.
Winston labored under the burden of a past a bit too “colorful” to suit the stuffed-shirt senior officials who culled ambassadors from among the great unwashed beneath them. Not that he regretted a moment of it. In fact, every time he had held fast in his convictions that certain policy decisions were, well, just plain nuts, he’d been proved right in the end. Of course, some colleagues didn’t understand or appreciate that. And a smaller number of them went so far as to suggest that Winston’s actions showed that he couldn’t be relied upon to Do The Right Thing.
So, yes, he had enemies. But he also had friends, one of whom was Porter Beekman, a classmate who kept him up to date on all the scurrilous rumors and bureaucratic in-fighting that pervaded the halls of State. Rumors or not, Beekman would surely have the answers that Winston needes to reassure himself that time hadn’t altogether stopped.
Over lunch one day, after describing in great detail the latest machinations of a human resources system gone awry, Beekman concluded that he had no choice but to extend another year in his present position as assistant to the director general.
Winston was filled with gloom. Not that he wanted Beekman’s job, but a job in the DG’s office used to carry with it a virtual guarantee of ongoing assignment to a post of one’s choice. How had things become so complicated? If the system was now impervious to the manipulations of a wizard like Beekman, what could Winston accomplish? Surely they wouldn’t think of sending him to Dhaka or Harare. Hadn’t he already paid his dues at hardship posts in the ’Stans and South Asia? The idea of acquiescing meekly to the first suggestion spit out by a computer that had been fed the wrong information made his stomach churn. Having some pimply-faced junior officer determine his future made his head ache. His only alternative, it seemed, was to marshal what support remained for him at the higher levels of the Service and once more wage war with the system. His heart sank.
“How do you know time travels in a circle?” Winston demanded of his eight-year-old daughter as they headed up the stairs to her bedroom that evening.
“Because it’s infinite, father. If something is infinite, it travels in a circle. Otherwise, there’d be a beginning and an end and then it wouldn’t be infinite.”
Winston’s heart swelled at the realization that, at least in terms of brainpower, Nancy was, indeed, her father’s daughter. “I happen to know that time does not travel in a circle,” he said.
“No. Really. Remember, I’m from the planet Exeter. But, because I love you, I’ll try to enlighten you in the hope that this primitive culture might advance a little and thereby become more comfortable for intergalactic immigrants like me.”
With delighted giggles, Nancy fell onto the bed, propping her chin up on two round elbows. “Okay. Enlighten me.”
“That’s better. Now, as I was saying, time is not infinite. You Earthlings are wrong about that, as you are about many things. But you’ll discover the truth soon—in another million years or so, I would guess.”
More giggles. “Proceed.”
“Time has a beginning and an end.”
“How do you know, Father? Have you been around since time began?”
A look of exaggerated exasperation crossed Winston’s face. “I know. That’s how. But let me put it into words that you, a primitive Earthling—”
“I must be at least half Exeterian, Father!”
“Of course,” he smiled. “But even that is moronic by Exeterian standards.” He paused for a moment to pull the covers up to Nancy’s chin. “Where was I? Oh yes. So that you, a mere Earthling can understand, I will explain it this way: Time travels in a straight line. If you took all the time that ever existed and fed it into a giant computer and searched back through the past, beyond when the Earth was created, beyond the birth of the solar system, before the galaxies resolved themselves from energy into matter—way, way back, eventually the computer would print out the last digit of the moment time began.”
“But if that’s the moment time started, father, what was before then?”
“The day before time began.”
“The day? Why not the minute? The hour? The week?”
“Because I’m telling you. What existed before is the day before time began.”
“You’re silly,” she said as Winston bent down to kiss first one rosy cheek and then the other.
“That’s a typical Earthling response.” He crossed the room to shut off the lights.
“Wait!” Nancy pleaded. “If there was a beginning to time, there must be an end. So, what comes after time ends?”
“That’s for tomorrow—and only if you go to sleep now.”
Wouldn’t it be great to go back to the day before time began? At that point, by definition, you’d be both omnipotent and omniscient, which meant you could tinker with the future. Like a motion picture run backwards, the car that struck Moira could be slowed down and stopped just in the nick of time. And, of course, while you were at it, you could make sure that Nancy remained smart and pretty and healthy and happy throughout a long and interesting life.
Had he only imagined happy times with his wife and daughter, that smug satisfaction with his work? Or had he once merely enjoyed his life because time does not reveal its alternatives? Winston wondered if he had become bitter as the passing years gradually revealed how cruel fate can be in snatching away a loved one in the prime of her life. Even after time became meaningless, he’d held on to the lifeline of his career, only just recently beginning to realize that it, too, was finite.
On the question of Moira, Winston wavered. Face it, there had been a smidgen of wife avoidance in the Saturdays devoted to “busy work” or just being there in case someone higher up wanted to talk to him. Certainly, the endless receptions and after-hour “debriefings” with higher ups had spared him many a stultifying session home with his wife where the topic had seemed inevitably to start out with Nancy’s latest doings but would eventually degenerate into meaningless chatter, requiring only the occasional grunt or nod on his part. Then Moira had died, and time stopped.
Before that, though, Winston had reveled in his work, feeling a sense of power and control as he poured suggestions into the ears of ambassadors and assistant secretaries and watched the words tumble out later in their public utterances like so much candy from a vending machine. It was heady stuff, a power trip, to be sure. And he had paid for it through long, grinding hours in the office and midnight telephone calls dragging him from his bed and down to the Department or to the embassy to craft an artful blend of truth and diplomacy in answering an urgent telegram or to discuss with the ambassador how best to handle the latest emergency. Beyond the personal satisfaction of seeing his work prevail came the knowledge that what he had said was good for the nation and compatible with its long-range interests.
So where—or, more precisely, when—had cynicism crept into the room?
Things were certainly different from the days when even lowly junior officers had exercised a certain influence, not only on policy decisions, but also on the nature and character of their expression. Well, some of them—mostly the political and economic officers—did, anyway. One had to discount, to a certain extent, the influence of consular and administrative officers although, oddly enough, it did seem that the administrative types these days were the glue holding together embassies under constant threat, like in Kabul and Tripoli. And it did seem that concerns about terrorists infiltrating the so-called Homeland had given consular officers the real power in today’s scary new world. But, still. One had to have standards.
These days, nothing seemed to matter but public opinion polls, so-called pundits, and a dying press on the verge of ceding real clout to an amorphous and totally unaccountable Internet. When Winston examined his purpose as a political officer, he could no longer see any real reason why he should exist in the world of modern diplomacy. He was extinct—a dinosaur. He found himself sympathizing with oxcart drivers, Pony Express riders, chimney sweeps, switchboard operators—all those people who suddenly found themselves forced into oblivion by the march of time. They had all done valuable work, hadn’t they? Who needed them now?
He looked at his watch as the minute hand crept down toward two-thirty a.m. If time traveled in a circle, then eventually it would double back on itself. At that point, the world might conceivably have need once again for such prehistoric time travelers as he. The thought gave bitter comfort.
“I’m getting old,” he said, absently running his hand over the spot on top of his head where his hair was thinning out. “Old and unable to sleep. Useless and refusing to admit it. And too damn young to retire.”
With soft steps, he crossed the hall into his daughter’s room and stood in the darkness at the foot of her bed. As much as he might long to return to the day before time began, the idea was silly, to borrow his daughter’s favorite word. Time passed even when it stood still. Why, Nancy had already grown another inch since Moira’s passing. It seemed there was much to learn from his precious daughter, who was already being swept up in the currents that would carry her inexorably forward—far too slowly for her, he would bet—into a future full of wonder and surprise.