To read / 22 December 2016

Into the Heart of Time

A Short Story

The clock at the Westminster Bridge streetcar stop said 3:10 p.m. when Martial Bourdin, after a quick glance over his shoulder, boarded the tram carrying a package. He found an unoccupied window seat, sat down, and thrust the package under his overcoat. He wanted it to be warm, near his heart. After all, he was bringing a gift to the heart of time. 

            Martial Bourdin was a young man intoxicated by the future who was trying to live in the present. Above all, he considered himself a free young man. Nobody could pull the wool over his eyes, the old promises of salvation were past and gone, and any thinking person had to regard the existing order of things as a scandal. High culture could offer hope for the refinement of the uneducated and of morals to those who sat in the temples of art so they could elevate themselves above others.

            Certainly, science was capable of accomplishing astounding things, but as long as it was under the yoke of the ruling class and industry, it was a stooge, or so far removed from actual problems that no one could even begin to understand it. Just last night they had been sitting together in the Autonomy Club, drinking red wine and arguing about Henry and the revolutionary potential of English workers, when Mark stood up and left the club with the words “One must do something.”

One must, Martial Bourdin had thought aloud to himself on his way home, one must at least set an example. If it was feasible, one could kill a king or a queen. It was so absurd that such things still existed. But if there were no revolution, the next man or woman in the succession would ascend the throne. It was so absurd that the succession still existed. One was shorter by a head, the new one ruled more harshly or more benignly, and the throne itself had been shaken only slightly. Besides, one had only one head. This one head had eyes that still wanted to see so many things, especially things never seen, things not considered possible. It had ears that still wanted to hear so many things, especially things as yet unheard. “I love you,” naturally. But also: “Times have changed.” “Human beings are free. Are becoming free. The conditions under which they were demeaned, subjugated, abandoned, and disdained beings are no more. We have abolished them.” The head had a mouth that still wanted to say so much and especially to kiss. It had a nose that still wanted to breathe so much, especially fresh air and freedom. He was twenty-six years old. 

            “Yessir, but really,” Lucille had said, linking her arm with his. They had been laughing, joking around, forcing each other into doorways every few steps so they could kiss. “We only live once.” “Other people only live once too,” he had said, “which is why they don’t want anything to change.” “Smart ass,” Lucille had whispered in his ear and patted his behind, “my smart little tailor, tailor mine.” Martial loved Lucille, but he also wanted to be with others. Love? For him it was something different, something much more powerful. It had nothing to do with possession. Love and passion were two different things. Love was nothing without passion, but passion without love could be heavenly. You treated each other well, enjoyed life, and you could make time stand still. Lucille understood that, but was against it. Did he want her to sleep with other people? Would he be happy with the idea of her making time stand still with another man? Martial said yes, but he felt the opposite. “Or are men and women suddenly no longer equal when it comes to this issue?” Lucille had grabbed him by the nose. 

            A week ago, Émile Henry had been at the club. A week ago they had talked to him about Russia. Naturally, it was not too bad about the Tsar. On the contrary. But now there was a new person who was no better than the old one. It had nothing to do with the person, it had to do with the office, the system. As always, Martial listened. He understood the arguments in favor of the assassination, and he understood the arguments against its consequences. Martial had spent two months in prison in Paris because he had tried to organize a demonstration. He did not talk about these two months, not even with Lucille. All he knew was that he never wanted to go back to prison. He also knew that everything pointed to him ending up in one again. 

            Three days ago the news had arrived, first as a rumor and then in black and white in every newspaper: Émile Henry had thrown a bomb in a café in Paris. One person had died and Henry had been arrested. He had wanted to kill for the sake of freedom. The propaganda of the deed. And for that, they had asked him, an innocent person had to die? The bourgeois, Henry had answered, is never innocent. They had argued about that in the Autonomy Club. How to wake up the English working class. Whether Émile Henry was a hero or a saboteur of the revolution. Yesterday Martial had opened his mouth. He did not talk very often, which is why people listened to him carefully when he did speak. It was idiotic to kill anybody at all. A king, a tsar, a queen—you could talk about how they have so much blood on their hands that it could fill a new ocean. That had led Martial to a thought that had never occurred to him before: Every moment was open. In any given moment, all of the people in the world were living at the cutting edge of time. A single event could change everything. 

Martial Bourdin looked out the window. The city was moving past him. Their city, he could have thought, their monuments, their architectural marvels, their churches, their museums, their factories, their banks, their stock exchange. It was his city too. It was everybody’s city, everybody’s who lived there. Whether they were French, German, Russian, English, Spanish, or American, it made no difference. It made no difference even to think about it. 

            “Do you have a stomachache, young man?” A lady of about seventy on the seat across from him was looking at him. 

            “Why do you ask?”

            “Because you’re pressing your stomach with your hand like that.”

            No, I’ve assembled a bomb. I’m holding on to it so there isn’t an unfortunate accident. Of course, he didn’t say this. How absurd the truth was. How true the absurdity was. The world they were living in was absurd. He had no clue what the lady across from him was thinking. Maybe she was yearning for the good old days, which had never existed. They had never existed, at least for the majority of people. 

            “I have a fragile gift.”

            “For your sweetheart?”

            “For my sweetheart as well.”

            “Where are you from, young man, if you don’t mind my asking?”

            From everywhere. He didn’t say that either. From nowhere. He had no homeland. The people who talked about a homeland were trying to keep the oppressed in line. The homeland and the nation. Maybe God as well. But always on their side, always to reinforce the existing order. He had more in common with a poor carpenter in the Balkans than with a banker in Paris—or with a factory owner from Tours, if you wanted to mention the place where he grew up. The oppressed had no homeland. That’s why anywhere could become a homeland. A homeland that had never existed. One you heard about in fairy tales and myths. Maybe the children of the wealthy had something like a homeland. After all, the world belonged to their parents. The poor had no homeland. The earth was supposed to be a homeland for everybody. 

            “From Nigeria.”

            “You’re pulling my leg.”

            “Not everybody in Nigeria is black.”

            Which would then mean that he would have to be the child of a high official, of a military man, or of a big industrialist, in short, the child of a colonialist. A British one, to be sure, and he sounded —

            “What’s it like there?”

            A few people had a lot, and most people had nothing. A few had power, and most had none. A few lived high off the hog, and most lived hand to mouth. A few didn’t know what to do with their wealth, and most didn’t know what to do about their poverty. Most worked for the few, and the few had the many beaten if they didn’t work themselves to death. And if the many tried to free themselves, the few simply arranged for them to be shot.  

            “It’s totally different. But then again it isn’t. The fruit tastes better, and the produce is bigger, and there’s fog only at sunrise if at all, a kind of delicate film that dissipates again right away. There’s no need for heating in the winter.”

            “You are charming, young man. Quite different from the young people nowadays.” The old lady took a pocket watch out of her vest, glanced at it, glanced out the window, and reached for her bag. “I wish you a good day. Now I’ve almost missed my stop.”

            Martial Bourdin looked out the window. He didn’t know this area. It suddenly looked very different.

            “Are you getting off at Greenwich Park too?”

            “Too? Now you’re really pulling my leg. We’re way past Greenwich Park. This here is East Greenwich.” 

            He had gone off course. He had actually ridden too far. Martial Bourdin got up without a word, pressed the package against his body, and looked around. He was the biggest idiot, the most ridiculous revolutionary, the least reliable conspirator the world had ever seen. People were crowding toward the exit, and he was trying not to brush against them. That wasn’t easy. And he couldn’t stand the way they were running around. In their costumes, their roles, their isolation. The bomb on his stomach felt like a living creature. He had to handle it gently, it would not tolerate rough treatment. When he got off, he looked at the clock in the train station. It was 4:19 p.m. 

Around noon he had been at his brother’s, who had no work for him. Martial didn’t want any work at all. He had sewn, tailored, and altered enough. As an apprentice in Tours, for fine ladies in Paris, for regular people in New York and Chicago, and for his brother’s lady customers in London. He had wanted to see him one more time. What was the matter with him, his brother had wanted to know, after Martial had given him a vigorous hug. Did he have something on his mind? Not in the slightest, he had said. On the street in front of the shop he had heard footsteps. It was just something he needed sometimes. “Time is leaning in our direction,” Martial had mumbled while walking away. “You’ll see.”

            At the International Restaurant in Bennett Street, a stone’s throw away from his lodgings, which he wouldn’t enter again for some time, he had happened to meet some comrades at about 2 p.m. He couldn’t tell either his brother or Lucille anything. They shared his convictions, but they loved him. They would have been worried and tried to hold him back or to get involved themselves. Since Henry’s attack, the club was under constant police surveillance. Martial didn’t want to suspect anyone, but it reeked of betrayal. He didn’t even want to think of the names, but it was more than likely that there was a spy drinking, discussing, singing with them. 

            He had eaten a bowl of soup and had a beer, and the pastrami sandwich had tasted heavenly. What was in the package, Mark had wanted to know. Presumably something precious, he had answered; at least the errand was well compensated. Oh, but then he’d had to dash. 

            He had cast his eyes one more time over the tables, the chairs, the plump red-haired waitress, over the greasy menus, the smoke, the counter, and the bar with its enticements. He was looking forward to seeing it all again, whenever that might be. Maybe it would already be in the new, better times. Mark had accompanied him for a few steps before Martial had pried himself loose. When he was getting on the tram, he briefly felt like someone was following him. But there hadn’t been anyone in sight. 

One hour and nine minutes. He had been standing on the platform for two minutes. Four and half hours since he and his brother had parted. The old lady had turned around again and waved to him. He quickly thought that this was good. Anyway, it was better than getting angry about his stupidity. Two and a half hours since lunch. None of this meant anything on normal days. On February 15, 1894, it seemed to him like half a lifetime.

Martial Bourdin saw a conductor. It was important to stay calm, to maintain control, to be inconspicuous. He placed his left hand on his stomach and walked up to him. 

“Pardon me, what’s the quickest way for me to get to Greenwich Park?”

The conductor had a massive belly and wore a cap and a mustache. He looked like a train conductor. Martial looked like an honest young tradesman. Maybe even like a student with liberal ideas. Maybe the conductor was in a radical trade union. Maybe it was just an illusion that they both looked like they thought the world they were living in was just fine the way it was. 

“The next train leaves in forty minutes. Track three.”

“Forty – “

“Are you in a hurry?”

“I have to get to the observatory before it closes.”

“Then it would be better for you to walk. If you follow the signs, you can’t go wrong. This direction.”

“How long does it take?”

“Forty minutes. That’s how long it takes me. You’ll need thirty.” The conductor laughed before he indicated Martial’s coat. “We do have lockers.”

“This is a little delivery for the observatory. Precision instruments. After that I was going to—never mind. Anyway, thank you, but I must be going.”

He nodded to the conductor, the conductor raised his right hand to the visor of his cap, and Martial Bourdin hurried off in the indicated direction. 

Now everything was different, but then again it wasn’t. He had only lost a quarter of an hour. He had to think. He had to stay calm. He had to lay out the new plan inside his mind. Let the three quarters of an hour be missing later, for now they might work in his favor. The observatory would be closing soon, which meant fewer people, fewer problems, fewer cautionary measures. In no case could Martial Bourdin arrive too late. Once in the park, he knew which path to take. He did not dare to run, for the exciting living creature under his coat required peace and quiet. So did he. 

He followed the signs, concentrating on his steps and breathing evenly, inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth. When something crackled in his coat pocket, he remembered the two tickets to the masquerade ball. He had intended to sell them in order to support comrades in need. If no one had bought them, he would have gone to the ball with Lucille. Those in disguise come in disguise. That was a nice idea too. He could have given the conductor the tickets. The conductor would have put two and two together, and maybe. There was no maybe now. He would give the tickets away. Afterward. Maybe to a pretty girl. 

            One had to set an example, that much was clear. One had to do something. But doing something was something different from saying “One has to do something.” “One” was always other people. More than ten years ago, it wasn’t “one,” it was “someone” who murdered the Tsar. When he was three, it wasn’t “one,” it was progressive Paris that proclaimed the Commune. “One” was alone. Martial Bourdin was not alone. In the British Library, where he had copied instructions for building a bomb, Karl Marx had sat for years. Alone, but then again not so, if one considered how many had been waiting for what he would say and write when he left the library. He was doing it for his brother, for his poor parents, for his six other siblings, for Lucille, for the comrades from the Autonomy Club, for the comrades from the “Needle” of Tours, where he had found words for those feelings that he had been unable to name for so long. He was doing it for all the oppressed people, and he was doing it for himself. Perhaps the time was not yet ripe. All that was solid was melting into air.  But it was still solid. What was melting into air was the steam from the locomotives, whose furnaces were being stoked with coal by impoverished men. The steam was coming from the factories that animalized brutalized the workers. The steam was coming from the smokestacks of the steamers that transported living and dead goods across the oceans. On the other hand, the time was always ripe. He lived within it. It’s true, Lucille, we have no other time. 

            Time was in Greenwich. Absolute, generalized, global time. Greenwich Mean Time. In the Club they sometimes joked about the word “mean.” It was a mean time that was tolling for the British Empire, and which bound Bombay to London, the Falkland Islands to Leeds. Time was there in order to monitor production, to unify it, to synchronize it. Time existed in order to make people bend under it. The revolution was bringing a new time. It had done that after the storming of the Bastille, and the Commune had tried it. He was three when it was proclaimed. He was three when it was struck down. Twenty years were but a single breath of history. Twenty years were a lot in one short life. 

            At the Royal Observatory this life was given its time signature. The time of factories, the time of barracks, the time of prisons, the time of authorities, and closing time. The time of the railway, the ruling classes said. It was a mean time. It was pregnant with another time.

            When Martial Bourdin hurried through the entry gate into the park at 4:46 p.m., out of the corner of his eye he saw a gardener cutting branches from a tree. On the highest point of the hill stood the Royal Observatory, a stately building of red brick. On its tower there was a mast on which, each day at five minutes to one p.m., the time ball was hoisted up in order to be let back down at noon on the dot so that the ships could orient themselves by it. At first Martial had wanted to blow up the tower and then the clock at Shepherd’s Gate. The clock at the entrance to the observatory was the first one that displayed Greenwich Mean Time to the public. But it was not a slave he wanted to blow sky-high, it was the master. 

In the days and weeks during which Martial Bourdin had been occupied with time, he was amazed at how blunt the language of the rulers was. The clock at Shepherd’s Gate as well as the time ball were called “slave clocks.” They received their impetus from the “master clock” in the observatory, which a certain Mister Shepherd had constructed. It used to be that noon was when the sun stood at the highest. “It used to be” was not so long ago. Oxford had been five minutes behind Greenwich, Leeds a minute behind Oxford, and Dover half an hour before Penzance. To say nothing of Bombay or the Falkland Islands. Now it was noon if it was noon in Greenwich. At least all minute hands pointed to zero when Greenwich struck the full hour. All around the world, slave clocks were supposed to follow the Royal Master Clock. Let slaves follow slave time so they can produce for masters. In the meantime, Mister Shepherd had traveled to India in order to bend the hands of the clocks to his will. 

            It was cold and dusky when Martial Bourdin set off on the winding path to the observatory. The gas lanterns flickered. He sped up his pace. For the second time he felt someone’s gaze from behind. He turned around; no one to be seen. He was alone. He was not alone. He and time. Slave versus master time. The many versus the few. Martial saw a few isolated people coming down on the zig-zagging path. The fewer there were, the simpler it was. He had thought everything through. Again and again. Again he felt he was being watched from behind. He was breathing rapidly. He took a deep breath. 

            Martial Bourdin was almost at the top. With his left hand he held his gift to the world against his stomach. He was observing himself from outside. He saw a short, slight young man with blond hair parted in the middle and combed back. Saw his blue eyes, which according to Lucille sparkled wonderfully when he was excited or happy. Saw his mustache and his bright face as it would soon be handed out on small cards to revolutionaries and sympathizers. He saw Shepherd’s clock. Black and white. He saw the big clock face with the big Roman numerals. From I to XXIII. Above them, small Arabic numerals, five at a time. He saw the big hands. He knew that there was a small face over the mid-point of the big one. 0. 10. 20. 30. 40. 50. The words “Galvano-Magnetic-Clock.” “Shepherd Patentee” in the middle. Beneath that, “53 Leadenhill St London.” He observed himself from outside walking toward the clock. He was nearly at the heart of time. He could take out his gift. He was observing himself from outside, because someone —

            He turned his head. It was 4:51 p.m. and Martial Bourdin was a good forty yards away from Shepherd’s Clock when he stumbled. 

            All of a sudden it was still. The clock was hanging at the entrance, and the Royal Observatory was standing there as it always had. The time ball was waiting for noon the next day. A few ravens had flown up with their beaks open. Martial Bourdin did not hear a thing. When he picked himself up, he noticed that his left hand was missing. His wrist joint was gone, and sinews of varying lengths were sticking out of his forearm. Like charred wires after a short circuit. He could hardly get up. His legs would not carry him. He propped himself up on the ground with his right hand. He had to get going. He had to go to New York. From there he planned to go to Chicago. First he had to get out of the park. His coat was shredded, blood was dripping onto the gravel, and blood was flowing onto the ground. Behind some shrubs he collapsed.

            When he opened his eyes, there were some boys standing in front of him with school satchels. They seemed to be afraid of him. One of them vomited in the grass. 

            “You boys, call a taxi.”

            The boys ran away and he dragged himself on down the hill. He hoped the money wasn’t torn to bits; he had to get to the United States. He saw the blue-turquoise white of the sea over which Rochefort had fled from Caledonia in a rowboat after he had been sentenced to hard labor because of his role in the Commune. Manet, it now occurred to him, someone named Manet had painted it. Two park guards were hurrying toward him. When they saw him, they stopped as if rooted to the spot. Here and there, light reflected off the gentle waves. The sky must have been overcast. 

            “Take me home.”

            First he wanted to go home and then to New York. First to see his brother, to see Lucille. One of the men ran off, and the other bent down over him. His mouth was moving, his pupils were dilated, he took Martial’s coat off him. In Martial’s belly there was a crater with blood welling from it. The man pressed the coat onto it. 

            Then another man was bending over him. Under his black overcoat he was wearing a white smock. He lifted Martial’s back up a little and put a flask to his mouth. The liquid burned down his throat. He drank greedily. It smelled like the International Restaurant. Something rose from the bottom upward, warming his head. Things were fine again, he was feeling better; like Rochefort he would escape. They lifted him up, supported him. There was a horse and cart. Finally he could lie down. He tried to smile at the park guard. The good man had kept his word. 

            Back home, they laid him on the bed. He had caught a glimpse of the clock that must have been installed in the meantime. It had been 5:15 p.m. His brother was not yet there, which was no surprise, since he toiled away every day until nine. Lucille was on her shift. She would arrive soon. His parents were probably already on their way, but that might take some time. But there were other people there instead; gradually he recognized them. Some were from the Autonomy Club, and the others were from the “Needle.” They had put a long way behind them. They had probably been deported. Maybe they had forestalled the deportation. Maybe they were all going to stay, now that there were more and more of them. In the capital of capitalism, in the capital city of radical exile. The old anarchist with the white smock was from Tours. Martial had learned the trade from him. With his right hand he asked for the bottle. Monsieur Laclos handed it to him. He almost didn’t recognize him. The brandy wasn’t brandy but cognac. It warmed his head, but not —

“I’m cold,” he said. 

The slave clock at Shepherd’s Gate read 5:40 p.m. when Martial Bourdin closed his eyes. 

Originally published in culture supplement of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, December 6, 7 & 8, 2014. Translated from the German by Geoffrey C. Howes


Clemens Berger

born 1979 in southern Burgenland, Austria, studied philosophy at the University of Vienna. He’s a writer, essayist and playwright. Recent publications: „Und hieb ihm das rechte Ohr ab“ (2009), „Das Streichelinstitut“ (2010), „Ein Versprechen von Gegenwart“ (2013), „Im Jahr des Panda“ (2016),