'Almost forty years!' Lu-Tze glanced at the shutters. Forty years looked about right, but surely-? 'How much?' he said. 'Forty! I'm sorry! There's nothing to take it up!'
'No problem! Steal it! Shed load! We can always pull it back later! Dump it!'
'Find a big patch of sea!' The sweeper pointed to a crude map of the world painted on the wall. 'Do you know how to- Can you see how to give it the right spin and direction?' Once again, there was the blueness in the air. 'Yes! I think so!'
'Yes, I imagine you do! In your own time, then!' Lu-Tze shook his head. Forty years? He was worried about forty years? Forty years was nothing! Apprentice drivers had dumped fifty thousand years before now. That was the thing
about the sea. It just stayed big and wet. It always had been big and wet, it always would be big and wet. Oh, maybe fishermen would start to dredge up strange whiskery fish that they'd only ever seen before as fossils, but who cared what happened to a bunch of codfish? The sound changed. 'What are you doing?'
'I've found space on number 422! It can take another forty years! No sense in wasting time! I'm pulling it back now!' There was another change of tone. 'Got it! I'm sure I've got it!' Some of the bigger cylinders were already slowing to a halt. Lobsang was moving pegs around the board now faster than the bewildered Lu-Tze could follow. And, overhead, the shutters were slamming back, one after another, showing age-blackened wood instead of colour. No one could be that accurate, could they? 'You're down to months now, lad, months!' he shouted. 'Keep it up! No, blimey, you're down to days... days! Keep an eye on me!' The sweeper ran towards the end of the hall, to where the Procrastinators were smaller. Time was fine-tuned here, on cylinders of chalk and wood and other short-lived materials. To his amazement, some of them were already slowing. He raced down an aisle of oak columns a few feet high. But even the Procrastinators that could wind time in hours and minutes were falling silent. There was a squeaking noise. Beside him, one final little chalk cylinder at the end of a row rattled around on its bearing like a spinning-top. Lu-Tze crept towards it, staring at it intently, one hand raised. The squeaking was the only sound now, apart from the occasional clink of cooling bearings. 'Nearly there,' he called out. 'Slowing down now... wait for it, wait... for... it...' The chalk Procrastinator, no bigger than a reel of cotton, slowed, spun... stopped. On the racks, the last two shutters closed. Lu-Tze's hand fell. 'Now! Kill the board! No one touch a thing!'
For a moment there was dead silence in the hall. The monks watched, holding their breath. This was a timeless moment, of perfect balance. Tick And in that timeless moment the ghost of Mr Shoblang, to whom the scene was hazy and fuzzy as though seen through a gauze, said, 'This is just impossible! Did you see that?' SEE WHAT? said a dark figure behind him. Shoblang turned. 'Oh,' he said, and added with sudden certainty, 'You're Death, right?' YES. I AM SORRY I AM LATE. The spirit formerly known as Shoblang looked down at the pile of dust that represented his worldly habitation for the previous six hundred years. 'So am I,' he said. He nudged Death in the ribs. EXCUSE ME? 'I said, “I'm sorry I'm late.” Boom, boom.' I BEG YOUR PARDON? 'Er, you know... Sorry I'm late. Like... dead?' Death nodded. OH, I SEE. IT WAS THE 'BOOM BOOM' I DID NOT UNDERSTAND. 'Er, that was to show it was a joke,' said Shoblang. AH, YES. I CAN SEE HOW THAT WOULD BE NECESSARY. IN FACT, MR SHOBLANG, WHILE YOU ARE LATE, YOU ARE ALSO EARLY. BOOM, BOOM. 'Pardon?' YOU HAVE DIED BEFORE YOUR TIME. 'Well, yes, I should think so!' DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHY? IT'S VERY UNUSUAL. 'All I know is that the spinners went wild and I must've copped a load when one of 'em went overspeed,' said Shoblang. 'But, hey, what about that kid, eh? Look at the way he's making the buggers dance! I wish I'd had him training under me! What am I saying? He could give me a few tips!' Death looked around. TO WHOM DO YOU REFER?
'That boy up on the podium, see him?' NO, I'M AFRAID I SEE NO ONE THERE. 'What? Look, he's right there! Plain as the nose on your fa- Well, obviously not on your face...' I SEE THE COLOURED PEGS MOVING... 'Well, who do you think is moving them? I mean, you are Death, right? I thought you could see everyone!' Death stared at the dancing bobbins. EVERYONE... THAT I SHOULD SEE, he said. He continued to stare. 'Ahem,' said Shoblang. OH, YES. WHERE WERE WE? 'Look, if I'm, er, too early, then can't you-' EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS STAYS HAPPENED. 'What kind of philosophy is that?' THE ONLY ONE THAT WORKS. Death took out an hourglass and consulted it. I SEE THAT BECAUSE OF THIS PROBLEM YOU ARE NOT DUE TO REINCARNATE FOR SEVENTY-NINE YEARS. DO YOU HAVE ANYWHERE TO STAY? 'Stay? I'm dead. It's not like locking yourself out of your own house!' said Shoblang, who was beginning to fade. PERHAPS YOU COULD BE BUMPED UP TO AN EARLIER BIRTH? Shoblang vanished. In the timeless moment Death turned back to stare at the hall of spinners... Tick The chalk cylinder started to spin again, squeaking gently. One by one, the oak Procrastinators began to revolve, picking up the rising load. This time there was no scream of bearings. They twirled slowly, like old ballerinas, this way and that, gradually taking up the strain as millions of humans in the world outside bent time around themselves. The creaking sounded like a teaclipper rounding Cape Wrath on a gentle breeze. Then the big stone cylinders groaned as they picked up the time their smaller brethren couldn't handle. A rumbling underlay the creaking now, but it was still gentle, controlled...
Lu-Tze lowered his hand gently and straightened up. 'A nice clean pick-up,' he said. 'Well done, everyone.' He turned to the astonished, panting monks and beckoned the most senior towards him. Lu-Tze pulled a ragged cigarette end out of its lodging behind his ear and said, 'Well now, Rambut Handisides, what d'you think happened just now, eh?'
'Er, well, there was a surge which blew out-'
'Nah, nah, after that,' said Lu-Tze, striking a match on the sole of his sandal. 'See, what I don't think happened was that you boys ran around like a lot of headless chickens and a novice got up on the platform and did the sweetest, smoothest bit of rebalancing that I've ever seen. That couldn't have happened, because that sort of thing does not happen. Am I right?' The monks of the Procrastinator floor were not among the temple's great political thinkers. Their job was to tend and grease and strip down and rebuild and follow the directions of the man on the platform. Rambut Handisides' brow wrinkled. Lu-Tze sighed. 'See, what I think happened,' he said helpfully, 'was that you lads rose to the occasion, right, and left myself and the young man there aghast at the practical skills you all showed. The abbot will be impressed and blow happy bubbles. You could be looking at some extra momos in your thugpa come dinner-time, if you get my drift?' Handisides ran this up his mental flagpole and it did indeed send prayers to heaven. He began to smile. 'However,' said Lu-Tze, stepping closer and lowering his voice, 'I'll probably be around again soon, this place looks as though it could do with a good sweeping, and if I don't find you boys pinsharp and prodding buttock inside a week you and I will have a... talk.' The smile vanished. 'Yes, Sweeper.'
'You've got to test them all and see to those bearings.'