The Lost Property Office at Central Railway is a cavernous, gloomy place filled to the ceiling with the forgotten debris of the transport system. Lost handbags, suitcases, keys, golf clubs, clothes, wallets, even a set of false teeth and a wooden leg, occupy the shelves and storage racks. Surfboards, briefcases, watches, jewelry, books and records linger in mute testimony to the forgetfulness of the travelling public.
And umbrellas, of course, hundreds of umbrellas in unclaimed stacks, forgotten like bad memories of rainy days. Leach had a theory about the umbrellas. He reckoned passengers left them behind as offerings to the gods for good weather on the weekends.
But then. Leach had a theory about many things, especially lost property. It was all Freudian. People left things behind because they wanted to be rid of them. Nothing was accidental, people only left books they weren’t enjoying, keys to places they didn’t want to enter, wallets because they were tired of being themselves, golf clubs because they didn’t want to play anymore.
And umbrellas of course, as offerings to the rain gods.
Leach had other theories too. Theories as to why he, an old-time railwayman, had only risen to the position of lost property clerk after 30 years of service, man and boy. The theories involved convoluted conspiracies against him by his superiors, jealousy among his workmates and especially the unstated but vitriolic hatred of assistant stationmaster, Jeff Purvis. These were the prime reasons for Leach’s failure to rise in the ranks.
Or so Leach figured, and anyone knowing the prissy, thin-faced Purvis would find it easy to agree. Certainly Judy Bingham had become convinced that Leach was involved in a silent, secret war against unfair odds. But then Judy found everything Leach believed to be fairly consistent with the truth.
People who knew the pair of them said that Judy was the best thing to happen to Leach since his wife died eight years previously. Before the fateful day they met in the staff canteen he had been well on his way to becoming soured, irascible, brooding on the injustice of his lot. Since romance had entered his life he was a changed man, lighter of step and cheerful of mien. Judy worked at the ticket counter across the concourse from the lost property office, and every day they had lunch together. Lately Leach had started to wait for her when she finished work and they went home together. Although she was ten years his junior, those in the know sniffed marriage in the wind. But if love had made Leach a happier man, it in no way diminished the intensity of the warfare between him and the assistant stationmaster.
Purvis continued to bombard him with spiteful memos demanding more rigorous stocktaking and a smarter appearance among the staff of the lost property office. Leach fumed and schemed and sought desperately to find some way of getting at Purvis. But Purvis was a mean-spirited man seemingly without vices or weaknesses, and try as he might Leach could not find anything to use against him.
That is until the day the stopwatch was handed in at the lost property office. It was found on the 6.15 am from the South Coast and when Leach came to enter it in the records he was immediately struck by its unusual design. Being a railway man of the old school he had an affinity with watches, especially big pocket watches like this one. But it was unlike any timepiece he had seen before. To start with, there were no numerals on the face, only two strange symbols at the top and bottom. There was a small lever at the side and a single hand that swung between the two symbols when the lever was moved to and fro. Leach sat and puzzled over it, examining the solid gold casing that was covered with intricate designs. In the centre, in elegant script, were the words;
Like as the waves make to the shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end.
He frowned at the inscription. It seemed to contain an extra, hidden meaning. He looked away, out the window onto the platform where passengers were alighting from the Melbourne train. Without thinking he depressed the lever on the side of the watch. Instantly the busy bustling scene outside came to a mindsnapping halt. Hundreds of people in the middle of normal life suddenly stopped, frozen in absolute immobility. They stood like statues, fixed in rigid stillness without a sign of life. Leach couldn’t believe his eyes. He gaped in astonishment and involuntarily dropped the watch.
Immediately it all sprang back to life again, with people bustling, shouting, smiling their greetings as if nothing had happened. Leach rubbed his eyes and got up to press his face against the window. Everything was normal. He turned to stare at the watch lying on his desk with a growing sense of horror.
Cautiously he picked it up again and staring hard at the busy platform scene outside the window deliberately pushed down on the lever. Again the world came to a dead stop.
A man running for his train froze in mid-stride, his tie flying behind him as stiff as a board. A couple in fond embrace stayed locked in motionless farewell. A woman hauled a heavy suitcase in laborious struggle, her eyes straining yet fixed like a statue. A child stared in fixed dismay at a dropped ice cream that hung suspended just above the ground.
Leach made a lunge for the door of his office then, halted in stunned amazement. He stared back at his body standing rigid beside the window. Panic-stricken he grabbed at himself, finding he was as solid as ever. Fighting the fluttering madness that threatened to overwhelm him, he gingerly reached out to touch the apparition that was himself. His hand was caught as if by a powerful suction and again he found himself standing by the window, watch in hand. He released the lever. Instantly the world outside returned to normal.
He sat down at his desk and stayed there for a while staring intently at the watch. Coming to a decision he deliberately depressed the watch lever and watched as again the world outside came to a halt. He slowly rose from the chair, took a careful step away and looked down at himself, or at least his body, which remained sitting in position. Carefully he scrutinised the form he now possessed. Apart from a feeling of lightness, of weightlessness, he was the same as the inanimate figure in the chair.
Leach left the office with mounting excitement and went on to the main concourse. It was as if everyone had turned to stone. Even a seagull swooping from the arched roof hung motionless in mid-air. He walked between the frozen bodies, the only living being in a world devoid of movement. He searched for signs of life, staring into people’s eyes, tugging at their sleeves, trying to push them but without effect.
He headed across the platform, his initial astonishment giving way to gleeful delight. He was like a child let loose in a sweetshop, cavorting and dancing in front of the lifeless forms. At the entrance to the administrative building he found the general manager caught in the act of berating a subordinate. Leach pushed between them and stuck his tongue out at the angry-looking statue. With a grin he passed through the offices, eyes gleaming with the prospect of revenge.
He found the hated Purvis’ office and walked through the empty reception area. He barely stopped himself in time from knocking on the door of the inner private office. Instead he grinned and walked straight in. On a couch the assistant-station manager was wrapped in a passionate embrace with his secretary, their clothes in disarray, his trousers around his ankles.
Leach slowly approached the pair and stood grinning down at the hapless Purvis. “Who would have thought, the dirty old devil,” he muttered. A clear case of sexual harassment if the pained expression on the secretary’s face was anything to go by. Leach knew Mrs. Purvis, a formidable woman who publicly terrorised her husband. At last he had Purvis where he wanted him.
Leaving the guilty pair he made his way back out and across the platform to the booking office. Judy stood behind the counter, looking, to Leach, as beautiful as ever. He planted a kiss on her frozen lips, ignoring the queue of customers. Wouldn’t she be amazed when he told her? He could hardly wait. It was like kissing a waxworks dummy but he enjoyed it anyway.
By the time he got back to his office he was calm and content. He approached the figure sitting in the chair, felt himself drawn into his body at the first touch and then he was sitting at his desk as if he’d never left. With a sense of anticipation he released the watch lever and watched the scene outside come back to life again. He settled in his chair, enjoying the prospect of the changes the watch would make in his life.
He was still sitting there daydreaming some time later when one of his staff poked his head around the door and announced there was an old cove outside kicking up a racket. Leach went out to the counter and found himself confronting an old white-haired man in a black hat and cloak.
“He’s looking for a watch he lost but it isn’t one we’ve got on the books,” said the clerk.
Leach knew straight away which watch the old man meant and just as quickly decided he wasn’t going to get it. “If it’s not on the books then it hasn’t been handed in,” he said with all the authority he could muster.
The old man started at the tone in Leach’s voice and stared at him with narrowed eyes. Leach stared right back. He knew the other could see right through the lie but he was damned if he would weaken now. The old man slowly nodded in acknowledgement, a tight smile quirking his lips.
“Perhaps it’s just as well,” he said. He motioned Leach to the far end of the counter out of earshot. “Be careful, my friend. There is more to being a timemaster than playing games. The price is high, very high. You hold too many lives in your hand to be happy. Now that it has passed to you I’m glad to be free of the responsibility that I’ve carried for so long. You have time in your hands, I hope it serves you well.”
He gave Leach an ironic salute and walked away.
For the rest of the afternoon Leach played time games. He walked around freezing people in ludicrous positions, having a little chuckle to himself at the general folly of mankind. He kept an eye on Purvis, subjecting him to a series of little indignities. At one stage he took a stroll in the city, marveling at the sense of freedom that came from being the only living person on the crowded streets.
Four o’clock found him standing outside his office, waiting for Judy to finish work, enjoying switching on and off the rush hour crowds. High above in the vaulting arch of the station, a team of workers struggled with a large section of heavy roofing. He brought his gaze back to ground level as Judy came out of the booking office. She waved to where he was standing waiting on the far side of the platform and started across towards him. She was directly under the maintenance crew when the steel girder slipped and fell.
Leach cried out a warning and instinctively depressed the stopwatch lever. The world froze and he ran across to where Judy was caught in mid-step, her face set in a happy smile. Horrified, he stared up at the huge piece of metal suspended in the air directly above her head. He tried to pull her out of the way of certain death but she was as immovable as if she was part of the marble floor. No amount of pushing or straining could move her, no amount of shouting could make her hear. He sank to the ground exhausted, staring up at the instrument of death suspended over the only person he cared about.
Slowly he turned his head and caught sight of himself standing on the far side of the platform, too far away to be of help.
The timemaster’s watch shone golden in his hand.
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