This was supposed to be straight-forward. Find a café to shelter from the rain, leave the umbrella at the door, enjoy a hot drink while the shower abates, pay, grab the umbrella and go out. No need for compromising sharing of information. The Time Continuum Department had assured Jan that the hefty headphones discouraged other customers from engaging conversation. They were bulky. The accountant didn’t enjoy their hearing being cut off, but it was worth it if they escaped small talk.
Now Jan found themselves at the door, staring into the empty rack, where their time-wise umbrella should have been, and was not.
“Anything the matter, dear?” The bartender’s call was mostly lost through the layers of sound-proof material, but Jan turned anyway and found themselves face-to-face with the curly, ponytailed, plaid-shirted owner of the place. They lowered their headphones, letting the low trickle of acoustic music reach them.
“I… My umbrella…”
“Someone must have taken it by mistake, I’m sorry.”
Jan tried very hard not to gawk at the low level of security in the establishment. How trusting were these people exactly? Their confusion must have shown on their face.
“Don’t worry, people usually bring back items that don’t belong to them. It may take a few days, though. Let me lend you an umbrella in the meantime. Are you staying in the neighbourhood?” The bartender kept speaking while rummaging behind the counter and coming back with a sorry excuse for an umbrella.
“I’m Twenty, by the way. That’s my name, not my age.”
“Jan. And no. I wasn’t supposed to stay in the… area. But now I guess I’m stuck.”
“Is it very precious, this umbrella? A family heirloom maybe?”
“Something like that.”
Jan raked their brains for something to add to their curt statement. Twenty was obviously a courteous individual. Too bad Jan had skipped 21st-century social skills.
“Thank you,” was all they could think of.
“Don’t mention it. Do you have a number I can reach you at whenever your umbrella turns up?” Twenty had taken out a shiny rectangle from a back pocket and was tapping lightly on the screen. Jan stared.
“No, sorry. I’m an old school kind of person.”
“Well, then, the only solution is for you to pop by now and then and check if it’s been returned. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” Twenty smiled. The flash of teeth made Jan’s insides go warm and soft.
“See you tomorrow.” Jan tried a sketch of a smile in return. Twenty nodded and reached forward to open the door for them. Jan caught a whiff of something spicy. They went out in the rain and walked aimlessly, forgetting to open the borrowed umbrella.
The next day was sunny. Jan remembered something about the absence of weather-holding technology back in the day. Back in the day was now, they corrected themselves. And it may be now for a little while if they couldn’t find their umbrella again.
They stood outside the café in the small hours of the morning. Everything was still closed. Jan fished their glasses from the bottom of a pocket, put them on and blinked the pattern to activate them. They initiated a full scan of the neighbourhood. A green haze spread over the surfaces, leaking into the doors and windows, highlighting every source of energy whether organic or technological. A rectangle on the side of Jan’s vision starting filling up ever-so-slowly. On other missions, it had flared full in a matter of seconds. As Jan waited for the gauge to reach half of its capacity, the sun crawled to their feet and climbed their thighs. Only a few people went about their business, walking purposefully along the street. Jan watched them create ripples in the green haze.
They spotted a familiar silhouette and shrank away from view. Jan didn’t want people to notice them, and standing by the café seemingly waiting for the opening hour was slightly too conspicuous. They watched the owner open the door, roll down the awning and turn the sign from “sorry, try again later” to “welcome!”. They counted silently to one hundred, and stepped forward, switching the scan off.
“What did you say your job was, again?” Twenty asked across the empty café room while getting Jan’s drink ready.
“I didn’t s- I’m an accountant.”
“A travelling one? I thought accountants were mostly sedentary.”
“I… work for a big company that… checks on other big companies.” Jan was starting to sweat under their three-piece suit. Navigating 21st-century language while keeping as vague as possible about their work had been easier in the simulator. How was one supposed to do without a restart button?
“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.” Twenty laid Jan’s drink on the table. “Sorry if the question was intrusive.”
“No, no, it’s just that I’m not supposed to give details about my work. It’s a bit sensitive, let’s say. But what about you? How long have you been working here?”
“I’ve worked here a few years ago, then went away for a while, doing odd jobs as I travelled, but I had an accident and travelling wasn’t viable any more, so I’ve been back for something like a year, now. The place haven’t changed that much. Some of the regulars from my first time are still here. You hear the same stories over and over again. But there’s comfort in that, I think. What about you? Do you find comfort in numbers?”
“Well, not yet, exactly, but I hope one day I will. It’s my very first mission.”
Twenty beamed, warming Jan from somewhere deep inside to the tip of their fingers more quickly than their hot drink.
“Congratulations! I say we drink to that.” Twenty fetched another cup and sat in front of Jan.
“There’s not much to drink to – I’ve managed to lose my umbrella,” Jan chuckled nervously. “But I’ll drink to your first year back.”
They raised their cups and took a sip. The door chimed.
“Duty calls,” said Twenty. Jan watched the bartender go back to the counter, noticing a stiffness and a clicking noise they hadn’t paid attention to before.
They watched Twenty welcome customers one by one, serve regulars without waiting for their orders, smile, smile and smile again. Jan blinked the screens of their glasses to life. They checked the boxes that deserved checking, letting general observations to be filled in later.
Someone burst with laughter. Jan started ever so slightly. They made sure they hadn’t been gazing fixedly at anyone and, to give them countenance, blew on their fast-cooling cup. The remaining tendrils of steam fogged the glasses. Jan took them off, waved them and put them back on. As their eyes focused, they noticed Twenty looking in their direction. The owner had started the day’s playlist, a steady flow of low-key jazz. Jan started blink-typing Twenty’s name in the data search, but couldn’t bring themselves to discover what Time had in store for the bartender.
They took off the glasses and, this time, put them away. Back in the day was now. Jan suddenly wished their umbrella remained lost. Would it be so bad to experience history in its agonizing day-to-day unfolding, not being able to remember events smaller than world-level? Jan shuddered at the thought of a calendar going forward into the unknown, rather than unrolling its steady trickle of archived facts. The past had always been a cold thing they’d been trained to explore and account for. No one had told them about the interstices between the events recorded in the timelines. About the people the chronologies had forgotten, about the doors opening and closing a hundred times a day, about the steam blown over and over by thirsty mouths, and about the curly, ponytailed, plaid-shirted bartender.
Jan drank the last of their cup and walked to the counter for a refill.
This story was written thanks to Susan Dennard’s “Story a Month challenge”. On the first day of each month, Susan sends her subscribers an email with three prompts: a textual one, a visual one, and a sound. Have a look at her website to find out more (click here) . “The Time-wise Umbrella” was written thanks to the January prompt.
Photo credit: Atharva Tulsi via Unsplash.