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7 August 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 5:07pm

“Gnomon“: a short story from Jeanette Winterson

A tale of lived versus mechanical time.

By Jeanette Winterson

The inscription says: The Servant of the Sun. The plate is the height of a man. Made of slate, it has been set in the wall of the guildhall for generations of men. The hours are carved a thumb-top deep into the thick green slab that was polished and honed by men and is weathered by time. But the gnomon is missing.


The Abbey had a clocca that rang the bell to call the monks to their offices of singing and prayer. The bell could be heard in the town and out into the fields, and it was enough to know that it was Matins, or Lauds, or Prime, or Vespers.

The clocca was a water-clock. It had no face, no hands. It was wheels and iron and weights and water. Stephen, because he was the best blacksmith, repaired the clock and sometimes he liked to try and improve it. The Abbot encouraged him, and finding him one morning fitting a new wheel, he showed him a drawing a traveller had given the Abbey of a clock with a round face, like the sun, and a hand that pointed at the hour with no need of the sun.

Could you, Stephen, make a clock that tells time better than a tolling bell? Better than a sandglass graining the hour? Not a candle notched and burning. Could you show me time as it passes?

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Stephen said: Time is irregular. One hour is not the same length as another. The equinox is but two days in the year. Two days when the dark time and the light time is the same time. On that day Matins is a sandglass and a half sooner than it is at midwinter and two sandglasses and a half delayed than at midsummer.

The Abbot replied: We parcel out our fields with hedgerows. We survey and mark the land. We draw maps. We number our days. We navigate by the stars that move across the heavens. The seasons we observe. Benedictines divide the 24 hours of one complete day and night into eight passages of time – ringing the bell for seven of these passages of time, for Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nonce, Vespers, Compline. But if we could measure every hour and divide it, measure it again into minutes and divide it – using a base of 60 as the Arabs do – then we would know God. For God is eternity and Time is what He has given us.

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Stephen went home, took a half-burned stick from the fire and drew a circle on the wall. He divided it and subdivided it so that it looked like the spokes of a wheel. The drawing pleased him. Suppose it moved? What had the Abbot said about God the Primum Mobile? God is the First Mover. Everything moves around God. The planets and stars are moving round God in slow sweeps of Time.

Laura came in with bread and cheese and beer and a rabbit cooked in apples. Stephen smiled. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t known her. She looked at his drawing. He tried to explain.

And later in the soft dark she lay on his chest: Stephen, what’s the need, of taking a God-given hour and splitting it into halves, into quarters, into minutes, into seconds, into ticks, into tocks, into counters and counting, into beats that defeat the heart? Give me your hand, Stephen, here, give it here, flat against my breast on the left side.

And here’s my hand on your chest, where I lay my head listening to the steady pace of you moving through the night towards morning, another day. We wake alive, we go to work, we make a fire, we cook, we rest, you pull off your nightshirt when you want me and your heart beats so fast that we both outrun Time and leave him to come after us while we sleep.

I married you for as long as we both shall live. That is time enough.


But Stephen started work on the clock, and it soon became the talk of the town. And the rich men and the merchants understood that if time could be counted, time could be sold.

Don’t be afraid, Stephen, said the Abbot. The earth is but an outpost of Time.

But Stephen is afraid. There are murmurings. The people in the town don’t want the clock. They know that one hour is not the same as another, that the variety of the day cannot be cut into equal pieces. They know that when you are tired or ill or broken in spirit, the hour is long indeed. They know that love speeds the plough and that a man in the fields will set his body against Time for time with the woman whose face is like the sun to him.

They like the tolling bells that chime the passing of the day, and the poignancy of that, and the eagerness of that, and the simple fact that time passes. But to chime the hours and the half-hours and the quarter-hours? To count 60 in every hour? Sixty in every minute? Monstrous. Madness. Mechanical time.

So they came for Stephen.

The pulley wheel was swung out ready from the grain floor of the guildhall. They fastened Stephen closely. He did not struggle.

Haul him. Steady! Steady. Haul him!

Stephen felt the rope tighten under his arms as six men, three either side, pulled hand over fist, biceps straining, their thighs tensed under the increasing weight as Stephen’s body was raised up the south wall of the guildhall. He was dizzy and frightened. They had given him beer to drink first but no food and he felt light-headed. He wanted to urinate.

Swing him in now!

A wooden scaffold reached upwards of twenty feet off the ground. The two men waiting on the platform at the top caught Stephen as he swung level with them. They hooked him in, positioning his feet on the broad metal pegs mortared deep into the wall. Deep into the wall at the base of the sundial.

Illustration: Eleanor Taylor

Two big metal D-rings, the span of a man in between them, had been anchored either side of the fiery face of the sun that decorated the centre of the sundial. Stephen was pushed in the space in between the D-rings, then the chain was locked across his waist and fastened again to a hook behind him, about the height of his head.

All this time Stephen was conscious of the men’s bodies and bad breath as they manoeuvred him into position. They were about done. One of the men, a brewer called Robert, well known to Stephen, took a rag out of his tunic and stuffed it into ­Stephen’s hand so that he could wipe his face. Then Robert gave him a drink from a leather bottle.

The men stood back. Stephen was held tight and upright. Then the other one, Stephen didn’t know him, released the top chain. Stephen’s body plunged forward. Stephen screamed, his hands grabbing at the air. But the chain pulled him up short, tightening under his weight. Its length done, he hung perpendicular to the plate of the sundial like he was the figure on the prow of a ship troughing out to sea. And he felt like he was at sea, no solid ground, only the pitch of his body in the sway of the air.

His body cast a shadow that told the crowd gathered on the ground that it was not yet noon.

The men climbed carefully down the scaffold and wheeled it away on its iron wheels. It was used for repairs to the church, to the guildhall, to the market hall, to roofs and chimneys, and to the sundial that marked the hours.

Where do you want this? said the man called Robert. They had removed the ­gnomon. The simple iron metal bar and stay had served well enough as the shadow of the sun. Stephen had made it himself twenty years ago. But now Stephen was the gnomon, suspended in time, till time had done with him.


Stephen travels on the 7.17 every morning. He arrives at work between 8.10 and 8.30. He leaves work around 1800 hours and calls at the gym on the way back to the station. At the gym, it is Peak Time and he must only use the treadmill for 20 minutes. He runs, going nowhere, or he cycles 10K to arrive breathless and sweaty where he began, in a long line of other men and women, in a private headset world.

In the pub, it’s Happy Hour, and he can have two beers for the price of one. Is the rest of time the Unhappy Hour? He thinks it is; the long, stretching, unchanging day marked in meaningless divisions because he is always doing the same things. What does it matter if it is 9.09 or 16.32? He is at his screen. A bell that rang once in the morning and once in the evening would be enough. He eats lunch at his desk anyway.

Stephen is a specialist in time management. He helps companies become more efficient, more productive. “Every Solution Is Different,” says the website, but Stephen knows from experience that every solution is the same: fewer people work longer hours for the same pay. That makes any business more efficient. And everyone else lives inside the single stretch of the Unhappy Hour.

Stephen sends his last emails into the evening, so that someone else will have to work later than him. But already there is red flag waving in his in-box. Urgent. What is so urgent about factoring? Cash flow. Yes. Businesses depend on cash flow. An ambulance is flashing in the street outside the window, forcing the rush-hour traffic on to the pavement. Someone is running out of time.

A man drops his car window. His face is angry and defeated. As the ambulance revs past him, he jerks the wheel to get behind it, shoving up the queue a few more cars till somebody cuts in and gives him the finger.

Stephen walks past them all at four miles an hour. Just like it used to be when people walked everywhere. Or the long, slow canals and their long, slow barges phutting through a band of brown water. Perhaps everything reverts to the mean.

Stephen makes his way along his allotted body-size of pavement. It will take him 14.7 minutes to reach the gym and nine minutes to change. He’s glad to get out of the crowd.

Rush hour. When does that stop, 9pm, maybe? Unless it’s Friday and people are leaving for the country like pilgrims looking for enlightenment that never comes. When he first met Laura he took her to the Yorkshire Dales. Showed her the massy crags of his childhood. Monumental slabs of time. Ice Age imaginings. The earth dreams in stone. And he thought of the earth, turning on her axis round the sun, solar year by year. Vast patience of time. Meteorites. Galaxies. The universe is rushing away from us. Who can blame the universe for that?

Against the slowness is the speed of light, thought Stephen, fantastical, impossible, Einstein riding a light-beam and realising that, in theory, time is reversible.

But it’s not, thought Stephen. When it’s gone it’s gone. My life is a closing-down sale. Everything must go.

He looked at his phone as he waited for the lift. People were always standing around looking at their phones. Then they rushed to the next landing stage, where they would stop again and look at their phones.

Morning: shit, shower, shave. Check phone. Walk to station. Catch train. Check phone. Walk to work. Sit in front of screen checking phone. Lunchtime. Chew and check. Oh hi love, fine, you? Yeah, me too, I know, we’ll talk about it later.

But we never do.

I am so tired when I get home. If I am late, Laura has eaten, and I find her with her back to me as I come in, on the computer, online shopping. Best time, she says.

Best time. In time. Some time.

But there’s the URGENT red flag again. Cash flow. The river of time and me with it, nearly out at sea now. Evening and morning. Another Day.


Stephen, says the Abbot, observe the heavens. The wheels of God. This is celestial motion. In the Book of Ecclesiastes it says: To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven – a time to be born and a time to die, a time to reap and a time to sow, a time for laughter and a time to refrain from laughter. A time of war and a time of peace.

Timepiece, Stephen says.


Laura asks Stephen what he would like to do on his birthday. She’ll take the day off. We could have brunch at that place in town. We could go and choose you a present. We can have a look at that new photography exhibition. We can meet Carl and Amy for drinks when they finish work. We can see a show, go dancing, anything you like – make the most of it.

The day is so full in the planning, Stephen is exhausted. He wonders how much of the present people spend on planning the future?

Any idea what you want for a present? Don’t say socks. (Stephen has never asked for socks in his entire life.) Men are so hard to buy for. And it is your birthday, after all.

The day comes and Stephen wakes up earlier than he does for work. That’s unfair. Laura is asleep, so Stephen pads downstairs to make a cup of tea. There’s a present and card propped up by the kettle. He always makes the tea in the mornings. He smiles and opens his present. At Christmas she gave him a pedometer. Inside the box there’s a new watch. It’s a big, handsome thing with a leather strap and a black face. He needs his glasses. He finds them.

The oversize hour-hand is a miniature Stephen wearing his suit. The minute-hand is a miniature Stephen in his swimming trunks. There he is, ticking past himself.

I knew you’d love it – Laura has woken up and is rubbing herself against him like a cat.

The company’s called My Time. You can seal yourself inside an infinite variety of clocks and watches, your face grinning from the dial. Your body ticking off time.

Laura is off to have a shower to start the day. Stephen dresses quickly, doesn’t shave, takes a bottle of water and gets in the car. He doesn’t check his phone. He doesn’t want to have brunch, see a show, meet his friends, get on top of Laura and pump her for five minutes. She’s always too tired for sex but sometimes he has to do it. She understands. They never fight about it.

He gets to a place he knows. There’s a river, the ruins of an abbey. Tourists come here to look at the medieval remains. There’s a story about a man who made a clock that was destroyed. Like the Luddites destroying the mechanical looms – the *relentless rush of the machine. But you can’t turn back the clock.

Stephen sits down on a bench, drinks some water. He checks his phone. Sixteen missed calls from Laura. Up in the sky there’s a GPS that knows just where he is. There’s no escape.

He looks at himself trapped inside the watch. Is this what it means to be someone?

A van goes by with a sign on the side: You are not in traffic you are traffic. Stephen remembers this from his days as a useless philosophy student. Heidegger: You are not in time, you are time.

But if I am Time, he thinks, then why is there never enough of me? Perhaps other people were secretly using his time, like logging on to someone’s wifi? Maybe he was being daily downloaded by strangers to boost their quanta of time. Or was it like giving blood, and he needed a time transfusion?

Stephen wandered over to the abbey and read the information board. The other Stephen had died of thirst and sunstroke. Prometheus in his own fire. They hadn’t cut his body down. It had rotted, casting a daily more ragged shadow on the ground below. Time the destroyer.

“Barbaric, weren’t they?” said someone reading the board next to him.

Stephen watched himself on his watch-face, his tiny body jogging round the dial. There could be no escape. He was caught in a lifetime of time. His phone rang again. Laura. You have 17 missed calls. This message was left at 9.27.

He called her. Waited until she had what the helled her way through the first five minutes, then he said, “Can we go for a walk?” “I planned the whole day for you!” “I know.” “What’s the matter, Stephen? Is something wrong?”

But she comes to meet him. And he takes her hand. And the sadness in him is so deep she thinks she’ll drown. She wants to say something about getting back in time for . . . but she doesn’t and they walk, awkwardly at first, and then in step, and the sun goes with them, and today, at least, is theirs again.

Jeanette Winterson’s next novel, “The Gap of Time”, a retelling of “The Winter’s Tale”, will be published in October