It happened again.
I was heading out for lunch like I usually do. I know it was lunch time, because I passed Chris with his Pret bag. I checked my phone before I put my headphones in and it said 12:58. I went down the stairs. That’s 3 fights max. When I got to the foyer the security guard gave me a startled smile. ‘You’re here late.’ he said. At first I thought he was trying to make a joke. But the clock behind him said 18:03. I look at the window and it’s pitch black outside.
5 hours this time. 5 whole hours.
I need to see you. I need to know if it’s happening to you too. Please please contact me.
My hands were shaking as I typed the message. I was still in the foyer, telling the security guard that my tears were due to hay fever.
A month ago something had happened. It was mid summer, the office was quiet. I had spent much of the morning shopping. At about 3 o’clock the lift chimed. I checked the calendar, like I would usually, but it had been empty for weeks. No visitors expected. I assumed then, that this is was a member of staff coming in from a late lunch and went back to my browsing. But when the lift opened, someone stepped out that I did not recognise. He was immaculately dressed. Slicked back dark hair, a full beard, at least 6’3. He looked like he was in his late 50s with pallid grey eyes deeply set in the shadow of his dark brows. A memorable face. The kind you’d use the word striking to describe.
He walked out of the lifts and headed towards me. He smiled but didn’t say anything. For some reason, that I cannot recall, I didn’t say anything either. I couldn’t. My mind was blank. I just remember feeling suddenly very uneasy, and I could not take my eyes off his. Under the table, in reception, there is a panic button. I’ve never used it. I’ve joked about it, but I’ve never needed to. At that moment, though, my hand was edging towards it. Of its own accord.
Then the phone rang, bringing me back into the room. I apologised and picked up the handset, but the line went dead when I answered it. Then following exchange occurred. I’ve been replaying it over and over in my head, trying to find something I missed but time doesn’t give it any more coherence. Here it is:
Me: Good afternoon, how can I-
me: – can I help you?
There’s a pause. His interruption throws me off. I wait a while to see if he has anything else to add. He says nothing. Just as I’m about to say something, he cuts me off again.
Him: I am looking for someone.
Another pause. At this point I think he might be a cold caller in the flesh, trying to get me to reveal some information to him. I smile.
Me: Do you-
Him: Chaim Woodbine.
Me: I’m sorry?
Him: Chaim Woodbine. I’m looking for him.
me: And he works here?
The name means nothing to me.
I pull up the switchboard and type the first three letters of the surname, as I would usually do. Nothing comes up.
Me: Do you know what department he works for?
Him: The top.
This is what he said. It sounds wrong. At the time, it sounded wrong but I don’t say anything. I thought maybe the man might have been unwell. Dementia or something. I type in the first 3 letters of his first name. I get a bunch of Charlies.
Me: I can’t find-
When I look up, the man’s looming over my computer, fixed smile, unwavering gaze.
Him: Bethan Hardy
He pronounces every word slowly, deliberately. It is unnerving.
Him: She works here.
I’ve never met a Chaim Woodbine or a Bethan Hardy, but I’ve been working here for a year. I type her in. Again, nothing comes up. Only now, I’m too embarassed to say so.
Before the pause can go from awkward to tense, one of post room assistants, a guy by the name of Ward, comes out of the main office. We’re friendly, in a ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ kind of way, and I know he’s worked for the company much longer than me. He smiles as he walks past, notices the man leaning in intensely and stops.
Ward: (To the man) Good afternoon.
The man turns to him, but says nothing. Still smiling the same smile. Ward walks over to my side of the desk.
Ward: (To Me) You alright?
Me: Yeah, yeah. I’m having a bit of trouble finding someone. I typed them into Openscape, maybe you recognise them: Bethan Hardy?
Him: Bethan Hardy.
Ward shakes his head.
Ward: and she works here?
Him: To my knowledge.
Ward: When was the last time you saw her?
The man is silent, studying Ward’s face.
Him: Chaim Woodbine. Are you familiar?
Ward thinks for a second.
Ward: Um…actually, yeah. yeah. he worked in accounts a couple of years back. He left not long after I started. Tall, kinda slim. Thinning hair?
The man takes a step back. Looks at Ward, looks at me.
Him: I see. Thank you for your time.
Me: What did you need them for? If you don’t mind me asking. It’s just that, maybe I could direct you to someone else who can-
Him: I don’t. Not anymore.
He presses the button for the lift. It comes immediately, which is highly uncommon in our building. He gets in.
Him: Thank you for your service.
The doors close. The lift slips down and he’s gone.
Ward and I don’t speak until the display says 0, indicating the lift is on the ground floor. Then we turn to each other. This is the second part of the exchange. You’ll understand later why I have separated the two.
Ward: What the fuck was that?
Me: I think that might be the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me out here.
Ward: Did he tell you his name?
Ward: So so weird. who were the people he was looking for again?
Me: Chaim Woodbine, Bethan Hardy.
Ward takes the mouse of my computer and opens our company’s HR software.
Ward: You know on MyHR, there’s a list of all the employess. Leavers and new starters too.
He begins to log in and then stops.
Ward: Wait, what?
Ward: Is this computer broken?
Me: No, I’ve been using it all day.
He looks at his wristwatch.
Ward: Wait. Seriously, what the fuck?
He takes a step away from me.
Me: What is it? Say something.
Ward: It’s six o’clock.
I check the time on my computer. It says 6:11. I check my phone. It says 6:11.
Me: That’s not possible.
I get up and check the time on the TV. I feel like I’m going to throw up. A member of staff comes out of the main office, carrying her bag, her jacket. She says goodnight and heads out. Ward and I stand in disbelief as another and another comes out, bags, coats wishing us a good evening.
That’s how it started. The jumps, as I’ve been calling it. 3 hours of the day had gone. disappeared. There is no way my entire exchange with that man took 3 hours. There is no way that my exchange with Ward afterwards took three hours. There is no way this exchange could have happened after 3. Ward does the post everyday at 4 o’clock. He goes home straight after he drops the post bag downstairs. I finish at half five. always on the dot, because that’s how long I’m paid until. I know it was three when he came in. I know, Ward knows. So what happened to three hours of my life?
The weirdest thing is that, technically, the time is accounted for. When I checked the switchboard history, it said that I had received 27 calls during the hours of 3 and 6, of varying durations, which means I took the calls. Or someone did under my login, at my terminal, without me seeing them come or go, as I never left my desk, except to look at the TV which was about a foot away. When Ward went back into the post room, there was no post.When he checked the trays, everything had been collected, the franking machine had been switched on, and the post bag was sitting downstairs when we went down to see. He was on his own that day, so it had to be him. The franking machine was switched on using his passcode. We had, in all the ways that counted, been working for those 3 hours. We just both have no recollection of it.
That’s how it started. And if we’d left it alone, maybe that’s all it would gave been.