Greenwich Mean Time Plus
by RJ Astruc
“It’s 8am GMT-10 and we’ve never met before,” says the punk, between mouthfuls of curry rice. His plastic chopsticks clack together like the ticking of a clock. “Every second from here on, we’re going to be playing catch up.”
Val rubs his eyes and tries to focus, but his brain’s gone fuzzy and soft like it always does when he hasn’t slept for a long time. He feels dislocated and out of sync. Out of habit he checks his watch but the time’s wrong; the digital display is seriously vomiting out numbers, any numbers, like it’s playing some kind of time lotto and hoping that it’ll make the jackpot. Val feels a strange empathy for the watch and its overworked little electronic brain, disrupted and disorientated by those invisible meridians, swinging around the earth like a kid’s jump rope.
Above his head the hut’s roof rustles, the dried ferns whispering with the sea wind. Val shakes himself and reaches for his coffee. The punk keeps talking. The punk is one of those people who doesn’t care if he’s got an audience or not; there’s a touch of the street preacher about him. Ignore the tattoos and the gelled pink hair and Val can imagine him standing on a street corner, a sign clutched in one skinny white hand.
The end is nigh.
“You got to understand that time is a construct,” the punk says. “More than that, it’s a form of bondage. People don’t question it because they’ve been taught to accept from childhood that time is linear. That time is straight.” The punk sneers at Val, curls up one side of his lip like he’s smelt something dirty or obscene. “You of all people should appreciate the implications of that.”
“Fuck post-modern. It’s totally temporal, baby.” The punk sucks in his lower lip like he’s savoring the idea itself. The punk’s face is all soft lines and big doe-eyes and Val watches his hands, small and nimble and thin, as they guide the chopsticks in and out of the cardboard curry-box.
“Everything’s temporal,” says Val. “Just because you don’t like the way people choose to measure it doesn’t mean that your doctor…”
But he can’t finish that sentence and the punk leers at him and says, “What? Doesn’t mean that my doctor what?” prodding and poking and smirking until Val sighs and looks away. Beyond their hut the sea stretches green and blue to the horizon, and the beach’s sand is so pale it’s practically white. Further out, the land curls in around the bay, verdant with ferns and papaya and taro, the uneven peaks of the hills half-lost in low hanging mist. They’re in Baro Baro, Tahiti, French Polynesia. Val’s seen it before on postcards, the water so clear you can see the bottom, the sky so blue it makes his contact lenses hurt. The whole island looks like a dream and maybe it is; his brain is so fogged from lag and meridian love it’s hard to tell.
Not far from their hut sits a shiny green airship that shines in the sunlight like a well-sucked lime lolly. It’s a flashy new model from Japan, hot off the conveyer belt, with a short snub nose that’s so kawaii and perfectly square windows with jutting rubber sills. Splashes of black mud cover its undercarriage and there’s a long scar across the bodywork of its right side.
The electronic keys to the airship are in the pocket of Val’s jeans and he touches them instinctively, thinking of mileage and Greenwich time and the earth’s meridians, sharp and precise as the cuts of a knife. The punk talks a lot of shit but he’s right about this: there’s nothing organic about time zones, nothing natural, nothing real. EST, GMT, daylight savings-time’s a fucking joke, when you think about it.
It’s 8am GMT-10 in French Polynesia, and they’re meeting for the first time.
He looks back at the punk. “My friend’s a doctor.”
“Fuck your friend.”
Val picks up his coffee and walks off. The sun’s warm and delicious and the wind comes in cool and sweet over the water. Sunburned honeymooners roll and giggle on beach towels. Children play in the shade. A seagull croaks at Val from the shallows, its beak a bright slash of orange against the blue. Val kicks off his sandals and walks back to his airship, enjoying the sensation of sand against his toes. 8am GMT-10, the punk had said. A nice, solid, timely time. The sort of time, he thinks, that feels like a beginning.
He remembers Josie saying, There’s just no helping some people. Like independence was an ugly thing.
“You can’t run away from me,” the punk shouts after him, and he’s laughing as he shouts. His stiff pink hair is shaking rather than blowing in the wind. “I told you that everything’s temporal, baby. In a few hours I’m going to take you to the best party of your life, and after that I’m going to fuck you. You better be ready.”
They’re sharing a joint at a party in Sao Paulo, Brasil.
They’re tangled up on a tattered purple couch on the balcony of an outer city loft. Sixteen floors below them the streets of So-Paul-that’s what they’re calling the city these days, the punk explains, a sort of hip, slang shorthand-are crammed with a sprawling street market. It’s too far to make out faces but Val can see the flapping of gaily painted stalls and bouncing castles and the occasional laser flash of a light-show. Now and then he feels the pulse of techno music thrumming the foundations of the skyscraper, but no sound, just its aftereffects like ripples after a rainstorm.
Behind them is the loft itself and the party Val and the punk have crashed. Inside the walls are painted red and gold; everything smells like weed and coffee; the lights are dim, the fraying lace curtains drawn against the bright summer sun outside. A kid in a patterned woolen beanie is playing experimental jazz on turntables in the kitchen. There’s maybe thirty people cramped into the loft right now, mainly twenty-somethings and teenagers, their faces unlined and young and beautifully unhurried. Like they’ve got entire millennia to make sense of life, to find their place, to really get it.
Val, who turns twenty-two next August and whose existence revolves around work and career and family and investments and healthy eating and BBC1, feels a hundred years older than them.
“I know the crew who hang out here,” says the punk, unfazed, taking the joint and tucking it in the corner of his mouth. The punk smokes joints like Val smokes cigarettes, with a sort of casual hunger-he doesn’t savour the high. “Me and them, we’ve got a bond, we’ve got an understanding. They’re transhumanists. They’re into the same crazy shit I am.”
“Anarchy. Not that adolescent shove-it-to-the-man bullshit but true anarchy, psychological anarchy. Like we don’t just say, fuck rules. We say fuck gender. Fuck sexuality. Fuck race. Fuck family. Fuck morality. Fuck mortality. Fuck religion. Fuck all and any social constructions that divide us and separate us and categorise us. Fuck-”
“Time,” Val repeats.
“Shit, man,” says the punk, taking a long hit off the joint. “Have we met before?”
They sit in silence for a while. Idly Val sniffs his fingers; they smell like the punk, the punk and punk sex. He wipes them on his jeans. It’s 2pm, which means that it’s probably tomorrow in New Zealand. He wonders if he should give his friends Josie and Aubrey a call-mates from college, they’ll probably be worrying about him by now. Either that or they’ll be busy fighting with each other, twitchy, conservative Josie and loud-mouthed Aubrey, who just never knows when to shut up.
“Do you have a phone?” he asks the punk, or tries to, but just at that moment a door behind them opens and conversation rolls out, all those big round Portuguese vowels tumbling through the gap. A few seconds later a girl comes out to lean beside their couch, one arm on the back and the other resting on the balcony railing. Her mouth is sloppy with smudged lipstick. There’s something about her jawline that’s too hard, her teeth too square, and Val’s dick twitches involuntarily, both confused and excited.
“What are you?” says a girl, half-watching them while she lights a cigarette. Her English is good; much better than Val’s Portuguese.
“What are we?” Val asks.
The girl rolls her eyes. “You know. What are you? Queer? Straight? Bi-curious? Vanilla? Kinky? Post-human? Cyborg? Augmented? Cisgendered? Transsexual? Transvestite?”
“I’m British,” says Val.
She rolls her eyes again. “Cute.”
“I’m transtemporal,” the punk offers-like that means what he thinks it does. Val hides a public-school-educated smirk. In Latin the prefix trans means beyond, or across; it describes the breaking of boundaries. It’s a historic term, wound up with issues of freedom and personal liberty, and Val finds it ridiculous that the punk has decided to use it for something as trivial as crossing time zones.
“What?” says the girl.
“I like to fuck people before I meet them,” says the punk. “That gives me a buzz.”
The girl is doubtful. “Isn’t that just, you know, that GMT shit? It’s not like you’re really time traveling.”
Something goes dark in the punk’s face. “So you wrote the rules on what’s really real, baby?” the punk scowls. “All power to you.”
“If you’re going to insult me-”
“You’re naïve if you think that only some lines can be broken. Governments shift and rearrange time, all the time, because it’s convenient to them. They push time over meridians; they make us wind our clocks forward and back; they use time as a wall that separates their country from the next, an indicator of difference. There’s places you can see the sun set twice in one day. In China the sun can be highest in the sky at three o’clock. Time is all about fucking control.”
He frowns into the distance, at the street lights refracted and double-exposed in the windows of the apartment blocks directly opposite their balcony. The girl huffs cigarette smoke into the sky.
“I don’t see your point,” she says. “I’m all for sticking it to the man, but why don’t you like, sign a petition or something.”
“Because this way,” says the punk, “it makes me feel alive.”
He gets off the couch and pulls Val with him, one swift yank bringing them chest-to-chest, like they’re about to break into a tango. Val is taller but feels smaller. The punk’s shirt is black and damp with sweat and spilled beer. Behind him the glassy towers of So-Paul rise up, steely as mirrors in the sunlight; and in the kitchen the child-DJ slows his turntables to a mellow one-beat-per-second. Regular as a pulse. Val counts his own heartbeats and imagines time the way the punk does-fluid, subjective, anarchic.
“What do you think?” the punk whispers. “Isn’t this the best party you’ve ever been to?”
“I saw your ship,” says the girl. She’s still there, still watching them with a disaffected air. “Pretty flash. I heard those Japanese jobs can go almost as fast as light. How did a pair of wankers like you get your hands on a ship like that?”
“Come on, mate,” says the punk, suddenly edgy. He tosses the embers of the joint over the balcony railing. “Let’s get out of here. I could murder a bloody curry.”
Love happens in Gabon. Love-making, that is. They’d have stopped in South Africa only it seemed easier to drop into this cheap white hotel in Libreville. Outside discos are coughing up all-night-clubbers from their brightly painted doors; shoppers and tourists move slowly beneath the sun. It’s afternoon-probably exactly midday, although Val’s worried that his clock isn’t keeping up, is getting stuck on the meridians the way a thorn will catch on a woolen jumper. Time’s dragging-Val feels it as physically as jetlag. Time’s stuck. Time’s unbalanced. The punk is unbalanced and cries on the end of the bed, wearing only his underwear.
“What is it?” Val asks.
“The ship,” says the punk.
“What about the ship?”
“I’ve never stolen anything before,” says the punk.
Some guys get moody before sex and some guys get moody after sex and Val doesn’t know, using punk-logic, whether this is a before time or an after time. He can’t think of much to do except pat the punk’s back and make comforting noises. What would Josie do in a situation like this? he wonders. Kind, clever Josie, who’s learnt that old Doctor’s trick of appearing both professionally distant and compassionate.
When the punk stops crying they have sex again. It’s just like the first time, only sadder, and afterwards the punk puts three pills into his mouth and washes them down with a baby bottle of hotel-fridge bourbon.
“I just fucked you and I’ve never met you,” he says.
“No,” says Val. “That’s what happened half an hour ago.”
There’s a plastic powder-blue alarm clock sitting on the bedside table, and the punk grabs it suddenly and violently in both hands and slams it against the wall. He does it again, and again, but nothing breaks. There’s not enough force behind each blow-the punk is skin and bones, fragile as a child. Carefully, kindly, Val takes the alarm clock out of the punk’s shaking white hands and crushes it into the headboard. Blue chips and metal springs spill out between his fingers and onto the pillows.
“I don’t believe in time,” says the punk. “I don’t believe in it.”
Val sits up to put on his clothes, and the punk is behind him, his skinny fingers winding in Val’s hair. His whole body is bowed like an apology, like he knows he’s the one who’s dragged Val all this way across the globe, not the other way around. Like he knows he’s using Val’s pity against him the same way Aubrey uses Val’s pride.
“I want to get lost, baby,” he whispers. “I want to get lost somewhere, anywhere. Anywhere except back there.”
Where do you take someone who has nothing-no expectations or needs beyond the desire to get out?
Well, anywhere you want, really.
They’re sailing away over mountains, the Pacific rising like a screen above the green. Val spins the airship’s navigation globe and his finger lands on Singapore. Nice beaches, brilliant nightlife. Val remembers spending a balmy summer there with Aubrey during their gap year. Getting drunk and getting laid. Aubrey daring and double-daring and double-dog daring Val to screw his way through the local population. Forget catharsis-he has to admit that it’s always been a pride thing. He flushes at the memory and looks over at the punk, who’s buckling himself into the scoop-shaped passenger seat.
“You ever been to Asia, kid?”
“Naw. Just New Zealand and the Americas. Got friends in So-Paul.”
Val plots co-ordinates. “Maybe we can drop in on them later.”
He dicks the landing-he’s aimed them at a stretch of flat, freshly reclaimed land, but they come in too fast and he scrapes up the airship’s right side on a fence. The mark it leaves in the paintwork looks like a thin, silver arrow. Val grumps, rubbing his thumb over the spot in the hope it’ll magically smooth over. The punk grins. The earth is puddled and muddy from a recent rainstorm and the punk splashes back and forth, his boots slicked with exported dirt. Val watches him and starts laughing, helplessly. With warm hands the punk drags him through the field toward the city in the distance, sparkling and elegant in the morning sun.
Half an hour later they’re in a crowded restaurant in Singapore City, one of the few remaining family-owned places that boasts a menu of local cuisine. The place smells like nasi goreng and noodles and people and foreign culture. Kids squabble on the floor over an electronic game; parents laugh and shout and eat. Music plays over the restaurant’s speakers: trashy asian pop. The punk’s got a handful of free tourist postcards fanned out on their table: Merlion statues, the old customs house, a view of Clarke Quay and a street guide.
“It says the map’s always growing,” he says. “Why’s that?”
“They reclaim land. They’re building a bigger country. A new continent, if they could find the room. They export pieces of other places-soil, dirt, sand.” Val shakes his watch: it tells him they’re in GMT+8. GMT+8, at 2pm. The airship’s got a mighty powerful engine, he thinks, if they can arrive well before they left.
“A fake country,” says the punk, seemingly delighted with the idea. “I’ve never been to a fake country before. I’ve never even heard of one. It’s luck we met, don’t you think?”
“Fortuitous,” Val agrees. “But I don’t think the Singaporeans would like to hear you calling their country a fake.”
The punk tilts his head to one side and eyes up Val real slow. “You’re a queer, right?” he asks. There’s a childish glee about him. Like this is all a big game. “I didn’t think so at first, on account of you being such a big guy. But you are. I can see it in you. You don’t fit like I don’t fit. You’re like, trans.”
“I got this theory about time. Don’t laugh. But I think-I think you got to stop caring about it. I think you got to make it, like, vanish.” The punk makes a gesture like a conjurer’s flourish. “I mean, what if no one’s got time? What if no one’s got dates and limits and schedules? Fuck, just think about it, man. Every fucking day can be your birthday.”
“What do you have?” Val asks. “Is it catching?”
“Could be,” says the punk, winking. “Maybe I’ll fuck you and you can find out.”
Cute. Here Val is trying to play the white knight and all the little git wants to do is screw. Unnerved, Val pours himself a glass of overpriced, exported wine. As he does so there’s a beeping sound at his waist, audible even over the chatter from nearby tables. It’s a text message from Aubrey: OMG I DON’T BELIEVE U!!!
“Tell me about that time thing again?” Val says, turning his phone off.
“It’s about freedom,” says the punk. There’s a religious light in his eyes now, like he’s picturing his own timeless utopia. “The freedom to do anything, even if we don’t want to do it. To love anyone and everyone. To build cities in a day. To deal with our shit on our own bloody time. Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
“You didn’t have to come, guys,” says Josie, as the three of them-Josie, Aubrey and Val-walk through the grounds of the hospice. “I mean I love that you did but, well, it’s nice here, the view, the people, but it’s not really your scene, and I expect the trip must have been terribly long-”
“Hardly,” Aubrey cuts him off. “Val’s rich granddaddy bought him a new airship. Flash little Asian number, not exactly faster-than-light but bloody close. Took us an hour and a half to get here. And that includes the time it took us to nab some cheap take-away in Czech.”
“We’re sort of on our way somewhere else, anyway,” Val admits. “We’ve booked a week in a hotel just outside of Christchurch. Skiing holiday with some of the guys from my third year robotics class. We figured we’d drop by and see how your internship was going.”
“Not bad,” says Josie. “Not too bad.”
They’re crossing a wide, flagstone patio bounded by a green railing that’s covered in ivy. Beyond this the hospice’s gardens roll out down a slight slope, landscaped and just neat enough to feel sterile. Bright summer flowers are contained within a reef of white stone. A dozen patients wander the grounds, their expressions still faintly shell-shocked, as if the news of their terminal diagnosis still hasn’t sunk in. Nurses move among them, some pushing wheelchairs, others carrying trays of water and bandages and the occasional syringe. It’s all very peaceful in the way death isn’t meant to be, and Val thinks of the poem that begins, Do not go gentle into that good night and shudders.
“Depressing,” says Aubrey, echoing Val’s private thoughts. “I hate being around death. Don’t know how you stand it, Josie.”
“I don’t just stand it,” says Josie, fingering his stethoscope like it’s a rosary. “I fight it. I fight it every bloody day.”
“Doctor Josie Cooper, patron of lost causes.”
“You don’t have a terminal illness,” says Josie. “You don’t understand.”
“Fuck you,” says Aubrey, and lights a cigarette, even though there’s signs all over the hospice that say smoking isn’t allowed. “We’re all fucking terminal.”
Josie leads them on through a small gate and around to the front of the hospice. There’s the carpark, there’s Val’s shiny new Japanese airship, and there’s a thin white guy trying to break into it using what looks like a rusted door hinge. A punk. Leather jacket, ripped jeans, a black vest with a band slogan on it-LIVE OR DIE. His hair is stiff and pink and he scrabbles madly at the airship’s lock like a dumb animal scratching at wire of its cage. He looks up briefly as Val-and-Co enter the carpark, alerted by the sound of crunching gravel; then he snorts and goes back to what he’s doing. Like getting caught attempting to steal an airship is par for the course.
“Classy,” Aubrey says. “Is he one of yours, Doctor Cooper?”
“A junky.” Josie looks disgusted. “There’s just no helping some people.”
Val says, scratching his head, “I’m not really sure what the protocol is here. Do I hit him, or do I call the police?”
“Not bad looking for a criminal, though. Bet you can’t roll him,” says Aubrey, who is suddenly behind Val, who is suddenly wrapping an arm around his shoulders and whispering, like a devil, into his ear. “Roll, as in slang, as in fuck, fondle, grope, molest, bugger-“
“Straight,” says Josie dismissively. “Has to be.”
But Val sees something in the set of the punk’s skinny hips-it’s not gaydar or anything so trite, he just gets the sense of possibility, like this guy has reached that stage in his life when he’s up for anything. He shakes Aubrey off and checks his reflection in the glass frontage of the hospice. Unshaven, scruffy-haired, but at least his face is clean and he’s always been rather dashing in his own way-he’s tall and brown and fat in the way that looks solid with the right clothes.
“See you,” he says to his friends. “Might be back. Might have to hitch your own ride to the hotel, Aubrey.”
He walks off while Aubrey titters behind him and Josie huffs through his nose in that way that’s like, I’m very disappointed in you, Val. He gets up close to the punk and stands there with his hands behind his back. It’s really immature, the whole fuckfondlegropeetc thing, but Aubrey and he have always behaved like callous, small-minded sex-addicts when they’re on holiday-it’s like a cathartic thing, to play the bastard after being good for the duration of the college semester. And Aubrey’s right, the punk isn’t bad, and if things work out right Val will have a notch in his bed-head before they even get to the slopes.
“Nice ship, isn’t it,” he says to the punk.
The punk looks up, startled, shy, guilty, and Val sees that despite the bluster and the leather jacket and the torn jeans, he’s only a kid, really, probably only just out of high school. Some silly wannabe gangster in a big man’s clothes. “Is it yours?” the punk asks.
“No,” Val lies.
He stands there and the punk stands there and together they look at the ugly, sweaty marks the punk’s hands have made on the airship’s smooth green carapace. Val wants to think about fucking but the whole sex idea has died now, the punk has killed it.
“I need to do this,” says the punk.
“I need-I need this ship. I need to go. It’s time, see. I ain’t got enough. I need to go back. Because every second from here on, I’m losing ground.”
“I don’t understand.”
But the guy is scattered, scared, his fingers jumping spastically against his thighs. And Val realizes he knows that look-he’s seen it in the faces of the hospice’s patients. Not desperation, not depression, but-he finally recognizes-desire. All those skinny terminal bodies aching not for painkillers or companionship or Josie’s mild-mannered attentions, but for time, more time, because that’s how doctors diagnose these days, not in probabilities and possibilities but in measurements of life. Five weeks. Three months. Days, maybe hours.
“Oh,” says Val, and the thought occurs to him that it might be more cathartic to be a hero than a bastard.
He goes to the airship’s door and pretends to short-circuit the electronics with a credit card. The punk’s eyes go wide and then a slow grin spreads across his face. He looks at Val like Val is the patron saint of salvation, emancipation, and liberation all rolled into one. He looks at Val like Val can save him, and there’s a little bit of Val that wishes he could.
Val checks his watch. It’s 4pm in Christchurch, New Zealand. “C’mon, kid,” he says. “Let’s go for a ride.”