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Getting Away From Time [Aug 2000]
On September 17, 2002
Getting Away From Time
Suffering from severe watch fatigue, Watchbore heads for a land where time no longer exists, is taken hostage to time, escapes a nasty fate and eats a goat.
Watchbore’s last link with civilization, as he reclined with his knees around his ears in the legless-dwarf section of the Air France airliner to Tananarive, Madagascar, was the story he was reading in the Wall Street Journal about fast-food times. It told of keen competition between burger chains in the United States for the fastest drive-thru from “hicanitakeyeroderplease” to “havaniceday”. The average time between customer arrival and departure in these popular feeding stations is 203.6 seconds, said the paper. And that’s far too long, say the time-and-efficiency gurus — every 15 seconds you can shave boosts sales by 2%. The goal is to get the drive-thru time down to 120 seconds.
Twenty-four hours after going to sleep over this riveting bit of information, Watchbore had travelled back 50 years, and nothing mattered less than time.
Time has indeed forgotten the settlement of Maintirano (pop. 12,000) on the otherwise almost uninhabited west coast of Madagascar (lat. 18 S), near where Watchbore landed quite unexpectedly in a field after experiencing the triumph of hope (in the flying qualities of a grossly overloaded Twin Otter aircraft) over experience (it was so bad that the pilot was sober).
Maintirano is a tropical backwater that has been cut off from the rest of the world for more than a generation. The town was built by the French in the 1930s around a central avenue leading to the government bungalows. When the colonial administrators left in the sixties, the telephone lines were stolen, bridges collapsed, the port silted up, buildings fell apart and the clock stopped.
The inhabitants don’t need them. The sea is thick with fish. Mangoes, citrus, papaya, coconuts and bananas etc. fall off the trees. Wild pig, duck and green pigeon abound in the surrounding forests. The mangroves swarm with crabs and prawns. Herds of fat zebu cattle graze among the paddy fields, and hemp flourishes amidst the sugar-cane. By June 2000 the people of Maintirano were basking in the luxury of blissful squalor.
The economy is simple. Money, derived mainly from supplying sea slugs to Chinese gastronomes whose amourous ambitions exceed their physical capabilities, is immediately spent on rum, girls and beer. The girls spend it on clothes. Rum, beer and clothes are controlled by a cartel of Indian traders.
There were 10 foreign visitors to Maintirano last year, (most of them arriving there by mistake) so despite his efforts to adopt a low profile by entering the town on a rickshaw followed by a line of porters carrying his collapsible canoe, cleft sticks, patented lighting conductor and other necessities, Watchbore almost immediately became the focus of local attention. For some unaccountable reason, word quickly spread among the superstitious inhabitants that Watchbore possessed certain magical powers. Soon a mass of citizenry besieged his shack, demanding that he perform such miracles as fixing the water-pump of a 1947 Hotchkiss jeep, curing malaria, replacing a dislocated shoulder, bringing to life a dead chainsaw, and healing festering wounds. Nor could Watchbore venture into the byways of Maintirano without clusters of the smaller population hanging onto each finger, being followed by a jostling mob and preceded by young ladies running away with loud shrieks to disguise their line of escape.
Now those readers with the stamina to stay awake while Watchbore labours towards the point of his story, will know that in times of acute crisis, his proven strategy is to select a victim and stun him into catatonic disbelief with an eyeglazing monologue about watches. This has never failed to persuade the people in Watchbore’s immediate surroundings that they have something better to do.
It took some time for Watchbore to find a victim — someone among his growing entourage actually wearing a watch. Eventually he espied a mass of yellow metal on the wrist of a young gentleman with attitude.
“Nice watch,” said Watchbore in pigin French as he admired the fake chronograph buttons and the black dial with fake registers and hands printed on.
The young gentleman thrust the watch under Watchbore’s nose. “You tell time,” he demanded, shaking his dreadlocks menacingly.
An expectant hush fell.
“It says half-past five” said Watchbore, squinting at the watch in the noonday sun.
There was a thud of dropping jaws. Cries of amazement rent the air. Children sped off to spread the news.
This time-telling exploit spread the fame of Watchbore’s miraculous powers even wider. Before long, the entire watch-owning population of Maintirano — some nine people — had formed an inner circle, following him about with outstretched left arms begging an utterance of the magic numbers on the dial.
At this point Watchbore, at the risk of his reputation, must reveal that he suffers from a shameful malady, a disease that brands him as an outcast from horological society — severe and chronic watch-fatigue. The symptoms reach their peak shortly after the Basel Show. It is then that Watchbore leaves behind his watch and heads for a corner of the globe where time doesn’t matter, to indulge a passion for marine biology.
But in Maintirano, Watchbore was defeated. A bleak future as the town’s talking clock yawned before him. His efforts to escape time had made him a hostage to time.
Fortunately destiny intervened to bring this lamentable story to its close. Early one morning, Watchbore was abducted by a crowd of drunken Vezo tribesmen and taken in great peril to their secret island where only the Southern Cross swinging slowly above Watchbore’s hammock told the time.
Post script: Before he left, Watchbore was presented with an amiable but ageing billy goat to take home as a souvenir. Mindful that Mrs. Watchbore is not over-enthusiastic about goats, he decided to give a lunch. Drive-thru time from dying bleat to roast goat — about three hours.