Anna Ettore – The little time man

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It had not been that easy to come to terms with it: too often his days would end too quickly. In the beginning, it didn’t even seem that this was the real problem.  Time, as is it known, marches on, and yet, despite this, a restless feeling kept coming over him. One day, however, Diego realized that something was wrong in his life. His belief that the time was running out tormented him and prEvanted him from making plans, from enjoying life. So, one fine morning, he began his day with a very clear idea in mind: he had to control everything, every hour, every moment, in order to avoid any distraction.

He went to the bank, as always. He had already managed not to linger in bed or while making breakfast. He walked quickly to catch the bus and then to the office. Like every day, only this time with a different focus. In the late morning, unfortunately, he happened to loose his focus for a moment and immediately, the next second, he became painfully aware that all his good intentions had vanished into the daily grind.
As usual, as it had been for a long time, something was wrong.
Little by little, the idea that dwelt in a hidden corner of his mind took a more distinct shape. “Weird, how is this possible? Yet, it can’t be otherwise.”, he thought.
He had the impression that he was being incessantly robbed, as if, in some dark place of his existence, a thief was lurking. Of course, this idea was insane, but at least it was a starting point on which to build, Evan if he couldn’t talk to anybody about it.
He had tried before with his wife, in a desperate attempt to confide in someone.
«Eva», he said one evening, «I can’t stand it any longer».
«What are you talking about, Diego?», she asked, surprised.
«My life is a disaster».
«What’s the matter?».
«Everything I try to do escapes from my grasp. Time scares me, it runs so fast, I can’t stop it».
He hesitated a moment, then continued: «I know time can’t stand still, but there’s something more. I have the impression that someone is stealing it from me».
He remained silent in the echo of his own words, realizing how strange his words were.
Eva scrutinized him, frowning. Then she approached him gently and smiled, stroking his hair.
«Don’t worry, you’re just tired. Things will change. When you’ll be less busy, everything will look different to you».
She hugged him for a while, then carried on with the household chores, and considered the incident closed. But for him it was not.

That night he tried to devise a plan. The only thing he could try, was to better organize each moment of the day: that was what tortured him in the main, and that was where he had to begin.
The next day he bought a precision watch, a kind of stopwatch, and a new notebook exclusively to record everything. In order to plan things in the best way, in addition to the hours he would also measure the minutes and the seconds which so insidiously escaped his control. At the end of his experiment, in black and white, he would finally know how he was wasting his day.
So the first few days passed, annotating tasks and figures on the white pages and checking his watch almost all the time. Slowly, he managed to outline a typical day: a 17-minute trip on average, 22 minutes in case of rain; 3 minutes and 45 seconds for a coffee at the bar; 50 seconds, 60 at the most, to get to the office. From then on,  until 18.30, he was at leisure to do what he wanted. He could even allow himself to waste some time, at least as long as he was inside. Then, once outside…
At first it was really tiring, but after a while, he had the satisfaction of piecing everything together, as if in a perfect mosaic. One day he went so far as to save a sort of time credit and he decided to spend his profit on a nice improvised, relaxing walk. His life was beginning to follow the right path.
One morning, however, while crossing an intersection at a brisk pace, one of the gloves he was pulling out of his pocket fell to the ground. He stopped abruptly and, as he bent down to pick it up, his eyes fell involuntarily on a little man who was walking behind him. Small in height, his hat pulled down over his forehead, he looked so ordinary as to appear singular. For a moment, their eyes met. The little man immediately averted his gaze and kept walking. Diego continued along his way, worried only about being late.
He forgot the little man for the next two days, but on the third day while he was looking at his reflection in a shop window, he had the impression that he was behind him.  Then and there he didn’t really care. However, over the next few days he realized that he kept crossing paths with that little man.  On the road, of course, but also in shops, restaurants, cinemas. He realized that the little man was everywhere he was. A discreet presence, hard to notice at first glance, and yet, now that his eyes were accustomed to his figure, he could immediately find him out, Evan in the most unlikely places: sitting on a bench in the shade of the park, hidden behind a shelf in a library, or in line at the supermarket, pressed up against customers. Always far away, always behind him. He didn’t seem to have a menacing air. He kept observing him carefully, as if to keep an eye on him.
For a while, Diego believed he was living in a hallucination: he saw that curious figure in front of his eyes, harmless but unreal. And sometimes, when he blinked for a better look, he couldn’t find him anymore. Yet, he knew that he was always with him. It was this certainty that began to make him uneasy.
He happened to see him also at home, down the hall, passing from room to room. What could he want from him? And why didn’t he approach him, why didn’t he try to talk to him?
As the days went by, these questions made him forget his previous problem: now that he had stopped paying attention to it, time had begun to pass as before, at a frightening speed; he was losing control of his life again. But now, what mattered most to him was to be able to talk to that man. For some mysterious reason, however, he didn’t come cross him again. At least, not right away. It seemed to him that the man had figured out what his intentions were.
One night, while he was out on the balcony for a cigarette, he managed to catch sight of him as he appeared, curious and hesitant, from the corner of the building down the street. Diego almost shuddered with joy. He looked into his eyes since the other man was watching him, or so it seemed, and then went back into the house knowing that if kept staring at the little man he would be gone. But he felt that the man needed him, and that he would be back.
In fact, two days later, while he was walking to a friend’s house, he saw him again: distant, a little way back, with his air of indifference.
Diego turned around quickly and ran towards him. The little man was taken by surprise and hesitated a moment.  But as soon as he realized what was happening, he turned and ran away.
«Stop!» he cried. «I want to talk to you!».
No good: the little man ran like a maniac, not wanting to be caught. Diego continued to chase him and when he despaired of being able to catch him, the little man turned down a side street and was stuck in a dead end. His back was to the wall.
«Now you cannot escape anymore», said Diego approaching him. «Tell me who you are».
The other man was silent.
«Why are you following me? What do you want from me?», he added in a threatening tone.
The repeated silence exasperated him. «Speak, damn you!», he ordered, raising his fist as if to hit him.
The little man was unimpressed: he seemed to have no fear. He replied in a barely audible, soft little voice «Do you want to attack me?», and fixed his glassy eyes on Diego’s face, who didn’t lower his arm. Then he added, resigned: «Seeing as you asked, I’m your Time man. I have been following you for quite a while. It’s you who never noticed my presence before».
Diego didn’t understand. «But why are you following me?».
«I feed myself with the time you waste. I live on what you’ve always thrown away».
Diego looked at him puzzled, without knowing what to say.
«I’ve always taken quite a bit of your time», he went on. «You never realized all the time you were wasting and, until you started to value it, you didn’t noticed my presence. I don’t know what happened next».
Diego listened without speaking.
«Something changed. I could only take very little of your time. I couldn’t feed myself because you were always on your guard. You began to realize that your time was missing and you thought about it being stolen».
«But this cannot be» he stammered, stunned.
«You think I’m the only one?» asked the little man, serious and quiet. «That there are no others like me?  Have you ever looked around you?».
At that moment Diego undertood. He saw the frantic rush of life, the dramatic breathlessness of every human being. He began to ask another question but the moment he looked up, the man had already disappeared down the street.
He retraced his steps while his mind was still pondering what he had just discovered. So, what he had guessed was true! It was not time which was running so fast: the problem was the thief who ate it!  But if it was this way for him, was it the same for the others?
He decided to go home. The little man, as far as he knew, could be anywhere or nowhere. He came back and shut himself in his study to reflect, before his wife came back. He also had to consider that she would think him a madman if he told her everything word for word, or at best, she would joke about it, making him feel Evan worse.
When Eva came home, Diego tried not to show any signs of his disturbing discovery. Better to know something more about it first. He behaved as usual, but watched his wife as if he wanted to study her: she must have had her little man, or perhaps, a little Time woman? Probably she never noticed her.
He approached her while she was in the kitchen, busy with the dinner. «How was your day?», he asked with a casual air.
«As usual», she said immersed in her thoughts. «And yours?».
They chatted for a while and then he said casually: «I’m thinking a lot these days. Did you ever think that time was running by too quickly? I mean, have you ever had the impression that each second is charged double,  at twice the price?».
His wife gave him a questioning look. She stared at him for a moment, trying to focus on his words; maybe she was making some small sense of his words. Then she smiled, as if she was trying to dismiss a thought, and continued cooking.
That night Diego couldn’t get to sleep. He kept tossing and turning in bed, distressed and furious. «Damn thief! You’re stealing my life. You’re killing me!», he repeated half-asleep.
It was a never-ending torment. But then he had an epiphany.
The next morning he got up as usual. He left the house and warned his office that he wouldn’t be going in. He lay in wait around the corner of the building until Eva came out. The door opened and she stepped out onto the foot path, heading quickly towards her workplace.
«Here we go», thought Diego. And began to follow her.
At first he didn’t notice anything strange. Eva got to work, spoke with her colleagues, went out for lunch and walked around until the evening came.
It was not easy to find out something, because he didn’t know exactly what he was expecting to see. On the other hand, his little man was gone again.
Many similar days went by, made up of waiting, stalking and anxious glances.
One afternoon, at last, he saw a woman sitting on a bench in the garden in front of Eva’s office. Her face was nondescript but he noticed her because she  sat there stubbornly, although the day was rather cool. And also because of the impassive and focused way with which she stared incessantly at the door of the building where his wife worked. She was a very small creature, with a child-like body; a kind of miniature woman wrapped up in a pale coat. It would have been difficult to notice her walking in the crowd.
When Eva came out, she stood up too. Diego was sure she was just the woman he was looking for. Luckily, she didn’t notice him. And, if she was anything like his little man, her eyes would be fixed only on the person she was following.
Afterwards, he sat behind her a certain distance away and then began to follow her. That way he could observe her from a completely different viewpoint: from there, he could see all the creature’s expressions, behaviour and choices. He noticed that she stood still every time Eva stopped on the street or in a store. Sometimes she trudged along panting, other times she seemed to move more calmly. In certain situations, she appeared to have an expression that could be construed as happiness.
When Eva stood on the foot path below the house, the woman stopped quite suddenly and stood in the shadows watching her as she stepped through the front door.
Diego was behind her and remained there to observe her for a while but when he saw her fixed in her position, he left and went back home too.
That evening he didn’t say anything to his wife. He mulled over what he had just discovered in order to find a solution.
The following day he resumed the chase. He wanted to gather as much information as possible on that little woman. The first difference he noticed between her and his little man was that the woman had to stop in front of many more obstacles. In fact, Diego would see his little man at home, in the office, anywhere. On the contrary, when his wife was at home or busy doing something, the little woman had to remain outside. She could not show herself.
He went into a bar from where he could check the situation and waited.  In the evening, Eva came out of work and the little creature came out from the shadows of the street and quickly started trotting behind her.
He left the bar and began to walk too. «So what he said to me was true! But what do they want from us?» wondered Diego, scanning the faces in the crowd to see if he could recognize others.
«Will they all be small and nondescript?».
«Were they born and do they grow old with us? Where do they come from?».
Diego’s questions, however, had no answer.
Eva arrived home again, opened the door and entered. The little woman stood outside in the shadows of the same building. Diego decided he would continue to watch her in that position too. He understood that during the day the creature waited for Eva, to follow her: she was able to remain still and focused for hours, but when she walked behind her she really seemed happy, like someone who could finally take a deep breath after holding it for a long time. She almost seemed to be increasing in size.
Time was passing by and they both stood in their own hiding places.
After nearly two hours of waiting, a moon beam crossed the shadow in front of him and Diego could see the woman’s face. Her eyes were vacant, her expression concentrated and her whole body seemed completed tensed. At that stage, it was time for him to return home  – he could no longer bear the cold – yet he stood there still staring at her. He saw that she was changing: her facial features were becoming less defined, her body was becoming slight and, shortly thereafter, the little woman disappeared. She had literally dissolved into thin air.
«That’s what happens!» cried Diego.
When he finally returned home, he found the apartment filled with a strange tranquillity.
«But where did Eva go?», he wondered.
He saw her sitting in the living room deep in thought. She barely noticed him. Diego also looked at her briefly, then went to his room and went to sleep. Or rather, to reflect.

The next morning he was ready to start the hunt again: stake-out, stalking and night observation. He realized he had been spending too much time in that way only when he received a letter of dismissal from his office. “So much the better”, he thought. “When I solve this matter, I’ll find another job, I can’t think of this too!”.
After a few days, Diego began to see the little man again. He was struck, like something he had long been waiting for.
It happened on the street, like most things at that time.
It was morning, and as usual he was following the two women, when he caught sight of the neutral profile of his little friend on the other side of the street. He always looked the same. A little further on, however, he was swallowed up by the crowd and lost sight of him again. But he was back, and this filled him with a strange joy.
That afternoon, he noticed something peculiar. As he was sitting in the same garden, where he could keep the situation under control, he saw him entering through the gate and sit on a bench far away, next to a stranger.
“Strange”, thought Diego observing his little man, who seemed to act as if he was not there, “he’s ignoring me”.
Shortly after, he noticed the little man had turned to the person sitting next to him and had begun to talk to him, or rather, to enjoy a nice chat with him. And the man was replying to him.
It was the first time he saw him talking to someone else. Astonished, he began to study the situation, but as soon as he saw his wife leaving the office, he went after her.
As the days passed, he met the man more and more often as in the past, but now there was something new: the man didn’t chase him anymore, he was almost always in front of him, or walked on his own, in the places where they met. He spoke with others, gesticulating, laughing. He acted like a normal person. “It ‘s really strange”, reflected Diego each time. But he could not linger on that thought as he was busy following his wife.
Eva had become much more detached with him. Every time he came home, she appeared less and less interested, indeed, she didn’t seem to notice him anymore. He didn’t want to make a fuss, also because he didn’t have the time, and he resolved to clarify everything once he had settled that matter.
One afternoon, he happened to pass, by accident, in front of his old office. He had arrived there because he was following the little woman who was following Eva who had decided to visit a store nearby.
As usual, Diego waited in the street to avoid being seen and, focusing on the familiar windows of his old workplace, there he saw the face of the little well-known man talking to his colleagues.
He threw down the cigarette he was smoking, more irritated than upset. «You again», he said to himself. «What the hell! But you’ll see, one day it’ll all be over!».
He turned away and went back to staring at the door of the store where his wife was shopping.
“Winter is over”, he mused a few nights later, while standing on guard outside the house. “Now it’s no longer so cold when I have to wait outdoors”. He thought this with a kind of relief.  In that season it became dark later and he could stay outside for longer. When he decided to return home, it was nine o’clock.
He entered and said hello to his wife from the entrance hall. He got no answer. Yet, he was able to hear a slight rustling in the other room. He looked into the room and froze. Eva was sitting on the couch. He, the little man, was sitting in the chair in front of her, smiling and chatting with her. As if that was his home.
The mirror of his mind broke and he suddenly understood.
He shouted his wife’s name. He called her, in desperation. But neither of them in there could hear him.

THE END

Translation by Matteo Ciucci (edited by Ester Tossi)