The Department of Lost Hours

A short story about time.

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       A blank screen. It begins with a logo – a stylised clock face embraced by the letters MoT. Then the voiceover kicks in, the words flashing up on the screen as they are spoken, bright and bold:

Reclaim Your Lost Hours!

       The Ministry of Time is here to make your life more efficient! Utilising the breakthrough technology of renowned inventor, Gilbert Postlethwaite…

A shot of Gilbert Postlethwaite, bespectacled geek, standing in front of what looks like an oversized shed in a suburban back garden. He stares awkwardly at the camera.

…we can employ the benefits of time regression to make the UK a happier and more productive place! Do you have wasted hours that could have been better spent?

We’re treated to a scene of a pretty young woman sitting in a restaurant, stifling a yawn as her boring date prattles tirelessly on. Then a harassed businessman in an expensive car, drumming his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel as he sits in the midst of a vast traffic jam.

Then be sure to visit your nearest Ministry of Time office without delay! Our friendly and highly trained staff are here to help you make the most of your time by reclaiming those wasted hours…

A smart, cheerful clerk seated at a desk is seen chatting earnestly, first to the pretty girl and then to the businessman. He hands each of them a form which he stamps with a purposeful flourish.

The action cuts to a gleaming laboratory, all polished surfaces, dials and buttons. A scientist in a white lab coat thoughtfully guides the pretty girl and the businessman in turn into an upright box in the centre of the lab. There is a whirring sound, a flash of lights and then…

The pretty young woman is standing in front of the restaurant as her hopeless date eagerly approaches. With a knowing look she gives a distinct shake of her head, turns on her heel and heads off in search of some better entertainment.   The businessman is once more at the wheel of his car as he spots a stationary line of traffic up ahead. With an astute smile he makes a sharp turn down a side road to skirt around the jam.

We finish on the logo highlighted upon a black screen.

The Ministry of Time can help you to make the most of what life has to offer. So don’t delay, claim today!

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The advert was playing over in Bob’s head as he stood in front of a large Victorian office building, the Ministry of Time logo hanging proudly above the doorway. He looked down uncertainly at the train ticket he held in his hand, hesitated for a few moments, and then strode determinedly into the building.

The heavy double doors opened onto a broad, high-ceilinged entrance hall. Bob’s footsteps echoed on the polished floor as he crossed the empty space in front of the solitary desk. The clock on the wall behind the desk showed eleven o’clock. The blank, expressionless receptionist reluctantly raised her eyes from a magazine at his approach.

“I’d like to reclaim some lost hours please,” announced Bob.

“You’ll need the Department of Lost Hours,” stated the receptionist briskly. “Through the door to your right.”

Following her directions, Bob found himself in a large, open plan office. Ahead of him were several rows of numbered cubicles, each of them occupied by a clerk. Each clerk radiated an air of busy efficiency, typing away on a computer keyboard or talking earnestly to a client. Before the desks lay a waiting area – a collection of odd chairs strung around a low table scattered with magazines. A sign politely informed him that he must take a ticket from the machine in the waiting area and wait for his number to be called. Bob pressed the button and received ticket number 115.

He selected a chair and sat down. The various claimants dotted around the seats were all fixed into their own routines for whiling away the minutes – reading, dozing, tapping away listlessly on i-phones and mobiles. Suddenly an electronic voice broke into the air, stirring everyone from their stupor.

“Number 89 to Enquiry Desk 3.”

A young man with slicked down hair eagerly picked up a briefcase and darted off in the direction of the desks, as though fearful someone might lay claim to his number if he dared to linger. Bob glanced wistfully down at his own ticket. Picking up a magazine from the table with a sigh, he settled himself in for the wait…

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Bob was wearily glancing over yet another set of photos in yet another outdated issue of yet another celebrity magazine, a pile of discarded periodicals scattered all around him, when the Tannoy finally called forth:

“Number 115 to Enquiry Desk 6.”

He quickly discarded his magazine and hurried over to the desk in question, where he found himself facing a smart young woman with a scrubbed complexion. She looked up from her computer keyboard as he sat down and fixed him with a bright smile.

“Good morning sir, my name is Sharon, Customer Claim Official Grade One,” she recited cheerfully. “How can I help you today?”

“I’d like to reclaim some lost hours please,” requested Bob.

“Certainly sir. How many hours did you wish to claim?”

“Three.”

Sharon assiduously jotted the details on a notepad. “And what is the reason for your claim?”

“Well,” began Bob, “I went to the station this morning to catch the 7.40 train to London. I waited there three hours, listening to endless apologies for the delay, before the station finally admitted that the train had been cancelled. And, well, I hoped I might be able to get back those three hours I wasted in waiting for it.”

“Absolutely sir, I understand,” replied Sharon, still jotting upon her notepad. “And should your claim be approved, what would be your alternative plan of action?”

“I’m sorry. My, er, what?” floundered Bob.

Sharon looked up sharply. “Your alternative plan of action sir,” she repeated firmly. “The Department of Lost Hours is a government funded agency dedicated to making Britain a happier and more efficient place to live. In order to approve your claim the Department must be satisfied that you would use the restored hours in a more productive way.”

“Oh right, of course,” responded Bob, mildly taken aback. “Well, I suppose I could always get the bus.”

Sharon considered her jottings for a moment and then nodded approvingly. Reaching into her desk drawer, she pulled out a form which she handed over to Bob. “You’ll need to fill out your details on this form and take it along to the Transport Section,” she instructed briskly. “Down the corridor, third on the right.”

Bob looked at the form uncertainly. “And they’ll be able to give me back my three hours, will they?” he asked.

“They will proceed with your claim for you,” advised Sharon confidently. “Thank-you for your time sir.”

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Stepping through the third door on the right along the corridor into the Transport Section Bob found himself confronted by a set-up pretty much identical to the one he had just left. There were the same cubicles manned by busy, eager officials, the same tidy waiting area, the same electronic Tannoy voice periodically calling out numbers. He took a ticket from the machine and settled down for another wait.

By the time his number was called Bob’s form had been folded and unfolded until the creases stood out like scars. He jumped to his feet and hurried over to the desk directed, doing his best to smooth out his form along the way. The slightly portly clerk with curly hair seated at the desk to which he had been called greeted him with a familiar smile.

“Good afternoon sir, my name is James, Customer Claim Official Grade Two. How can I help you?”

“I’d like to reclaim some lost hours please,” advised Bob, promptly handing over his form.

James made a hasty survey of the contents of the form before looking up with a regretful shake of his head. “I’m sorry sir, I can’t help you with this,” he said with a rueful smile. “You’re in the wrong section.”

“But I was told to come to the transport office,” responded Bob.

“Yes sir, but this is the Roads & Highways Division,” explained James patiently. “Yours is a rail issue.”

James pointed back across the office. As he turned round Bob noticed for the first time that this particular office was arranged on a symmetrical plan. On the other side of the door through which Bob had entered was another row of desks, served by its own waiting area. “Railway claims are on the West side of the office,” advised James, holding out Bob’s form to him.

“But I’ve been waiting for ages,” Bob protested meekly.

“I’m sorry sir but the Railway Division will be happy to process your claim,” James returned politely but firmly. “Thank-you for your time sir.”

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Bob collected a fresh ticket from the machine on the opposite side of the office and endured another weary wait before his number was called. A slender woman with a boyish crop launched into her spiel almost before Bob had sat down at her desk.

“Good afternoon sir, my name is Helen, Customer Claim Official Grade Two. How can I help you?”

Bob offered up his crumpled form. “I’d like to reclaim some lost hours please.”

Helen carefully checked through the details before looking up with an encouraging smile. “Well, everything appears to be in order sir – I’ll just need to recap a few details.”

“Recap?” echoed a dismayed Bob.

“So it was 7.40 this morning that the incident began?” clarified Helen.

Bob nodded wearily.

“And you have indicated that your alternative course of action will be to take the bus.”

“It’s all there in the form,” pointed out Bob.

Helen looked up with a resolute smile. “I appreciate that sir but I do need to check these things. And you’re saying you waited the full three hours for the train to arrive?”

“Well I waited three hours but the train never arrived,” Bob explained, a touch huffily. “It was cancelled.”

Helen’s smiled instantly slipped. “Oh,” she said. “Oh dear. That could be a problem. You see, we have a statute for delayed trains but the protocols don’t account for cancelled ones.”

“What difference does it make whether it was delayed or cancelled?” retorted Bob. “It’s still a waste of time.”

“It’s a question of appropriate time management,” advised Helen. “If your train is delayed it’s understandable for you to wait for it but where a train is cancelled you would be expected to take alternative action straight away.”

“But I wasn’t told it was cancelled until after I’d waited for three hours,” complained Bob rather testily.

“Yes, I do understand sir,” replied Helen soothingly. “It is a bit of a tricky one.” She considered the form for a little longer with a puzzled air before suddenly pushing back her chair. “Let me have a word with my supervisor, I’m sure she’ll be able to suggest something.”

Bob opened his mouth to protest but before he could utter a word Helen had marched smartly off to a large desk at the end of the row. There sat a stocky middle-aged woman with a strong jaw line and just the hint of a moustache. Bob could only watch helplessly from a distance as Helen showed Bob’s form to her supervisor and they conferred for a few minutes in low voices. The supervisor toyed distractedly with her pen for some time before finally offering up some instructions. Helen returned to her desk with a satisfied smile and held out Bob’s form to him.

“Not to worry sir,” she said cheerfully. “Although unfortunately we are unable to process your claim here in the Transportation Section, my supervisor informs me that they will be able to effect an authorisation in the Miscellaneous Claims Section. Just down the corridor, second on the left.”

“You want me to go and wait somewhere else?” responded Bob, displaying more than a hint of incredulity.

“I’m sorry sir but they are the only people who can authorise your claim,” responded Helen firmly.

“But I’ve already been here for hours,” protested Bob. “How much longer is this likely to take?”

“I couldn’t say sir,” replied Helen, taking a mild offence at the question. “But once the claim is approved all your lost hours will be restored,” she reassured him.

Bob sat and glared for a moment. Eventually, with an exasperated sigh, he took back his form and got up from his seat without another word.

“Thank-you for your time sir,” called out Helen as he turned to go.

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The Miscellaneous Claims Section was housed in a slightly smaller office and Bob was careful to check that there was only a single waiting area in the room before taking a ticket and selecting a seat. Resigning himself to another lengthy wait, he leaned forward and picked up a magazine at random from the table in front of him only to find that it was the very same issue he had scoured from cover to cover in the first waiting area. He threw it back down on the table in disgust and slumped back in his seat.

He was finally called forward to be greeted by a tanned young man with a slick hairstyle that could be said to constitute something very close to a quiff. “Good afternoon sir, My name is Mike, Customer Claim Official Grade Three,” the clerk spouted smoothly. “How can I help?”

Bob passed over his by now rather tattered form. “I’d like to reclaim some lost hours please.”

Mike glanced down at the form. Almost immediately he tutted and shook his head. “I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place sir. This is a travel claim, you need to be in the Transport Section.” Mike pushed the form back across the desk to Bob with a sympathetic smile.

Bob pushed it right back. “I’ve just come from the Transport Section,” he told him, maintaining a firm, even tone. “They said that as my train was cancelled and not delayed they couldn’t authorise the claim. But they said that you could.”

Mike tutted again loudly and gave Bob another rueful smile. “Honestly, Transport Section want their heads looking into,” he said in a confidential tone. “I don’t know what they were thinking, sending you here. We can’t do anything. If it’s a cancellation and not a postponement they just need to add a B5 form to the original claim and it can be processed quick as you like.”

“A B5 form?” echoed Bob uncertainly.

“That’s right sir,” confirmed Mike, gently pushing Bob’s form back across to him once more. “If you just go back to Transport Section and tell them that you need a B5 form they’ll be able to process your claim right away.”

“But I’ve been here for hours,” protested Bob wearily. “Can’t you do it?”

“Afraid not sir,” returned Mike with a sad shake of his head. “We have absolutely no jurisdiction over transport-related matters at all.”

Bob sighed and reluctantly picked up the form.

“Thank-you for your time sir.”

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There were still a few familiar faces in the waiting area when Bob returned to Transport Section, Railway Division. One or two peered across at him with a momentary curiosity before drifting back to their own thoughts as he took his ticket and settled back down into the seat he had some time ago vacated.

He had fallen into a gentle doze, his form slipping silently from his hand onto the floor by his feet, when he was jolted awake by the electronic voice on the Tannoy calling forth his number. Scrambling to gather up his crumpled form, he hurried across to the desks and found himself sitting down once more before Helen. She was typing busily at her computer as he sat down and launched automatically into her spiel before looking up.

“Good afternoon, My name is Helen, I’m a… Oh hello sir,” she interrupted herself as she recognised Bob’s face. “What can I do for you? Did you have trouble locating Miscellaneous Claims?”

“No, I found them alright,” returned Bob, slapping his form down onto the desk with perhaps just a little more force than was strictly necessary. “But they couldn’t help me. Apparently you just need to add a B5 form to my claim and you can authorise it yourself.”

Helen looked down at the form with a puzzled frown. “I’m afraid that can’t be right sir. B5 forms were made obsolete several months ago. Are you sure they said B5?”

“Yes,” insisted Bob. “They said B5.”

Helen looked up and shook her head lightly. “I’m afraid they must have made some kind of mistake. If you just go back and tell them that the B5 form…”

“I’m not going back anywhere,” Bob quickly interrupted. “I’ve already been shifted from pillar to post God knows how many times.”

“Well I’m sorry sir but we really can’t help you with your claim here,” returned Helen, her face taking on a momentary look of concern before it settled once more into an expression of implacable politeness.

Bob took a deep breath. “Look, I really think I need to speak to someone in authority here. This is getting ridiculous.”

Helen regarded him defiantly. “If you have an issue with the service you’ve received sir you’ll need to take it up with the Complaints Office. They’re located on the first floor.”

In exasperation Bob reached into his pocket and emptied a small pile of crumpled tickets onto the desk before him. “Look, I’ve been taking a ticket and patiently waiting my turn since eleven o’clock this morning. This is just ridiculous. If you think I’m going off to wait somewhere else you’re out of your mind,” he insisted, folding his arms in determination.

“Ah but the Complaints Office doesn’t have a ticketed waiting area sir,” responded Helen with just a hint of triumph. “If you visit their department you’ll be seen straight away.”

Bob sat and stared for a few moments longer. But his long gestating outrage was firmly and patiently countered at every turn by Helen’s determined smile. The battle of wills in fact lasted barely a minute before Bob snatched up his crumpled tickets and his tattered form from the desk and turned on his heel.

As he marched back through the waiting area he was left with Helen’s cheery cry of, “Thank-you for your time sir,” ringing in his ears.

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Bob located the Complaints Office halfway down a lonely corridor on the first floor. It was small and plain, with a row of desks lined up directly opposite the entrance. Only one of them was occupied, a young, dark-haired clerk leaning back in his chair and staring with a fixed expression at his computer screen. He jumped eagerly to attention as Bob tentatively approached.

“Good afternoon sir, my name is Tom, Customer Complaints Official Grade One. How can I help you?”

“Well, I’d like to make a complaint please,” said Bob.

Tom indicated for Bob to take the chair opposite. “Certainly sir. I’ll just need to take a few details.”

Bob hesitated for just a moment and then with a reluctant nod sat down. At which point Tom began to direct him through the complaints procedure. It turned out, somewhat unsurprisingly, to be a rather long and laborious procedure. The vast majority of the interview was taken up by Tom’s extensive jargon-filled explanations of each step of the process. Bob’s role was confined to occasionally being allowed to interject with a brief description of the stages by which he had been brought to his complaint. These were carefully typed into his computer by Tom in a somewhat disproportionate ratio – the briefer the comment from Bob, the longer it took to input into Tom’s electronic record.

Finally Tom settled back slightly and regarded his computer screen with a slight shake of the head. “This does indeed appear to be a most unfortunate chain of events,” he said sympathetically. “What exactly can we do to help sir?”

“Well you could authorise my claim and give me back my lost hours for a start,” retorted Bob.

“Absolutely sir, that would appear to be the best solution,” Tom quickly agreed. Bob gazed at him disbelievingly. “Of course I’m unable to authorise the return of your lost hours personally sir,” continued Tom with a mildly apologetic air, “but if you’ll allow me to get my manager I’m sure she’ll be happy to help.”

Before Bob could recover sufficiently to offer any kind of objection Tom rose quickly from his seat, turned around and disappeared through a doorway at the back of the office. Bob stared helplessly after him for a moment and then slumped back into his chair.

It was a few minutes before the door at the back of the office reopened and Tom returned in the company of a large, full-bosomed lady who wore a resolutely cheerful expression. She gave Bob a fulsome smile.

“Good afternoon sir, my name is Eva, Customer Complaint Manager Grade One. Tom is just filling me in with the details of your complaint.”

Having resumed his seat, Tom pointed sternly to his computer screen. “As you can see, it’s all on record here.”

Eva peered over Tom’s shoulder, carefully noting the details onscreen with a succession of ‘Hmmm’s’ and ‘Ah’s’. Bob could only look on with an expression of mild disbelief.

“Right, yes, I see,” Eva finally said, turning directly to Tom. “And just how do we intend to resolve this situation?”

“Well, basically, the gentleman would like his hours back,” explained Tom.

“I see,” said Eva. “Well, in the circumstances that sounds quite reasonable.”

Bob stared from one to the other, scarcely daring to hope. Eva walked to the desk at the end of the row, opened a drawer and took out a form. “If we put you through on an emergency C29 form sir,” said Eva, rapidly filling in details on the form as she spoke, “then you can proceed directly to the time reversal unit and all your lost hours will be restored.” She looked up at Bob. “What was the starting time of your misadventure this morning?”

“7.40,” replied Bob eagerly. “That’s when I was supposed to get the train that never turned up.”

Eva began to automatically jot this down onto the form before she stopped abruptly. She looked across at the clock that hung on the wall with a worried frown. “Oh dear, 5.45 now,” she said. “That’s going to make it just over ten hours to re-claim.”

“Oh dear,” said Tom.

Bob looked from Eva to Tom and then back again with a distinct sense of dread.

“You see, anything over ten hours will require the authorisation of a department head to process,” Eva explained ruefully. “It’s drawing very close to the limits of the technology, I’m afraid, and therefore can only be done under special circumstances…” She looked up and caught sight of the expression of pure devastation on Bob’s face. “But don’t you worry sir, if it can be done, it will. It’s just a question of locating a department head…” Eva turned to Tom. “Do you know if Mr Wilson is in his office?”

“I’m pretty sure he finishes at five,” replied Tom. “Mrs Carter is usually the late duty officer.”

Eva immediately shook her head. “No, she’s on leave this week. You might have to run over to the Department of Efficiency and see if they have an official who can authorise this.” Eva glanced across to Bob again with a reassuring smile. “If you could just bear with us a short while sir I’m sure we can get this sorted for you.”

“If you’re quick I think you might still catch the duty manager at Efficiency,” Eva instructed Tom. “If not try the Security Office, there’s usually someone hanging around there.” She held out the C29 form to him.

But this time Bob was too quick for them. He leapt up from his chair and hastily snatched the form out of Tom’s grasp. “No, wait, don’t go.”

Tom looked down at his empty hands in disbelief.  Eva looked across at Bob in astonishment.

“Look, I tell you what,” said Bob, making a supreme effort to speak calmly. “Forget about the three hours I spent waiting for the train. We’ll just chalk those down to experience. I really don’t want to spend any more time in this place so if you could just return me to eleven o’clock when I first came in here, then that’ll do me just fine.”

Eva regarded him with a puzzled expression. “Are you absolutely sure sir? It won’t take a jiffy.”

“No, really,” insisted Bob. “Thank-you but no. I’d just like to get out of here please.”

There was a brief pause whilst Eva and Tom exchanged an uncertain glance.

“Well, if that’s really what you want sir.” With a sigh Eva gently took the form back from Bob, amended the time details and then signed it with a flourish. “Just take that along to the Time Reversal Unit on the second floor,” she told Bob, handing it back to him, “and they will complete your claim for you.”

Bob grasped the proffered form with an immense sigh of relief. He carefully scanned the information upon it before clutching it tightly to his chest. “Thank-you.”

“Thank-you for your time sir,” sang Tom and Eva in unison as he bounded hopefully out of the office.

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The corridor on the second floor was long and desolate. Bob passed countless unmarked doors before he finally came face to face with a plain black door upon which the words ‘Time Reversal Unit’ were written in white letters. Bob took a deep breath and pushed open the door.

He found himself standing on the cusp of a laboratory, gleaming and monochrome, just like in the advertisement. In the centre stood a large shiny box, looking not unlike an upright coffin. Alongside was a console protected by a sheet of Perspex, behind which sat an engineer. He wore a navy blue boiler suit and was leaning back with his feet up on the desk, reading a newspaper. He looked up in surprise as Bob hesitantly entered, gazing wondrously at the shiny box in the centre of the room.

“Yeah? What do you want?” said the engineer sharply, coming out from behind his console and eyeing Bob with a mixture of suspicion and disdain.

“I’m to be sent back in time,” replied Bob, his eyes still gripped by the large box in the centre of the room. He automatically held out the form he had been given by Eva.

The engineer scoured the form with a furrowed brow for some time but, having finally convinced himself there was nothing on there to which he might conceivably object, he waved Bob forward. “Alright then, in you go,” he said, casually tossing the form aside and walking back to his console. He flicked a switch and the front of the box slid open with a loud swish.

“What do I do?” asked Bob nervously.

The engineer was already intently pushing buttons on his desk. “Just face the front and keep your arms down by your sides,” he replied without looking up. “The machine’ll do the rest.”

Taking a deep breath Bob stepped forward into the machine and turned around. The door slid shut before him with another swish. The insides of the box were perfectly smooth and bright. Aware of the sound of his own heartbeat drumming within his chest, Bob concentrated on breathing slowly and deeply. For a few seconds nothing happened. Then slowly Bob became aware of a gentle whirring sound that seemed to start from somewhere around his feet.

The noise rose and grew louder, as though the sound were gradually expanding into the air all around him. The smooth white sides surrounding him had not changed but now Bob began to imagine he could see vivid flashes of colour bursting forth before his eyes. The sound was growing thicker and denser, pushing in upon his eardrums, and the colours began to flash brighter and brighter around his head. Bob held his arms rigidly by his side and, tensing his knuckles into tight fists, he closed his eyes. Suddenly there was a loud crack and a bright flash of light…

When Bob opened his eyes he was standing in front of a large Victorian office building with the Ministry of Time logo hanging over the doorway. He gave his head a little shake to dispel the thick fog that seemed to have gathered within it and struggled to recall what he was doing there. Then he realised he was holding something in his hand. He glanced down and saw it was a train ticket for the 7.40 to London.

Suddenly, it came back to him.

Bob strode determinedly through the heavy double doors of the building into a broad high-ceilinged entrance hall. His footsteps echoed on the polished floor as he crossed the empty space in front of the solitary desk. The clock on the wall behind the desk showed eleven o’clock. The blank, expressionless receptionist reluctantly raised her eyes from a magazine at his approach.

“I’d like to reclaim some lost hours please,” announced Bob.

THE END

(OR IS IT THE BEGINNING?)

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