Hourglass, Figured

by Eley Williams

I watched the girl become a pageboy. She loosened her cuffs a little and pulled the clasp on her belt tighter. She caught my eye—my staring—and my head snapped back to my computer screen.

For a long time, to use a computer was to hate the sight of an hourglass.

I worked in the ticket booth at a large stately home. It was in the leafy middle of leafy nowhere and open to the public on bank holidays. Today was supposed to be one of our busiest—a jousting tournament was scheduled to take place in the grounds after lunch courtesy of a re-enactment group, as well as a falconry display and a talk about armour from a world-renowned historian. It was a full-day affair: the joust would be followed by a ghost tour in the evening and then a picnic concert with fireworks in the garden. Small bits of fish on small dabs of soft cheese on small, perfectly round pancakes would be served to visitors who paid the full ticket price.

The morning after these events, it was my job to pick up all the champagne corks that stray-meteored into the herbaceous borders. When not rootling through manicured japonica or cursing the thorns of prizewinning roses, I worked at the reception desk in my neatly pressed, fitted shirt. I had a lanyard and was separated from the public by a plate of glass.

Before I fixed my gaze on my computer, I noticed the girl had short bobbed hair.

The hourglass on my screen has six black pixels in its top bulb and ten in the lower. Perhaps you remember this hourglass, too. It was from the days where a ‘paperclip’ icon meant attach, ‘floppy disk’: save. ‘Hourglass’ meant wait and it tumbled in silent, monochrome acrobatics, smaller than a fingernail and familiar as a paper cut. Every morning, as my ancient machine grunted into action, my reaction to that hourglass was the same: with each of its rotations, a sense of unease ratcheted up a notch or bloomed new petals or did whatever anxiety does with its horrible metaphors. The pinch-waisted graphic popped up in the centre of my desktop, cartwheeling, and with it, that same sick feeling. If you know the hourglass I mean, maybe you’ll recall that a pair of pixels sat suspended on either side of the graphic’s waist to imply that sand was falling—as one watched the screen, the hourglass swivelled on its axis, tracing regular oscillations as if tipped and re-tipped by unseen fingers.

The girl had rings on her fingers. Their metal caught the modern strip lighting of the entrance hall.

There has been a house on this site since the sixteenth century. A gamut of ghosts for the evening tour. The computer in my booth was last updated in the 1990s, its ghosts since turning the hourglass as the screen loads, or fails to load. A troupe of actors had bussed in this morning from the local amateur dramatic society, all carrying their costumes in modern wheeled, hard-shell luggage. Hired for the Open Day, they would be playing the roles of various figures throughout history that had visited the house. I cast them in my mind as they rolled past—he’d be a passable Henry VIII, perhaps this time she’ll be playing housekeeper, and with that chin and forehead, perhaps he’ll be playing hermit-priest. In character, these volunteers would spend the day explaining to visitors about the restored embroidery in the bedchambers, and how the spits in the kitchen and icehouses in the grounds were used. These actors’ bags and cases banged against the polished wood of the heavy front door as they entered, and continued to bang as they made their way up the stairs. I watched our Visitor Experience team wince as they passed my kiosk and ushered the actors to their designated changing rooms on the upper floors.

I had assumed the girl was with the group of actors. She had come through the door five minutes later. She was wearing a fitted t-shirt and a skirt; what I assumed to be her costume was bundled under her arm.

‘They’re upstairs,’ I said from my desk. I was paid to be helpful, after all, even if the onslaught of paying punters was not due for another hour.

She looked at me blankly and then began to remove her shoes. The hourglass on my computer made half a revolution.

I had once looked up the correct name for the pixelated hourglass in an idle moment. To pass the time—looked it up on my phone, of course, since there’s no way the computer could keep up with my speed of thought. I found this sentence: ‘A throbber is an animated graphical control element used to show that a computer program is performing an action in the background. In contrast to a progress bar, a throbber does not convey how much of the action has been completed.’ Poetry itself. Because all technology is so old at the house, when the operating system is too busy to accept input from the keyboard or mouse, I’m often stuck for minutes until the machine comes to terms with itself, spinning hourglass unwanted company for the duration.

I’m sure that I’m not alone in my sense of dread at this hourglass’s appearance—having worked alongside the arrow and manicule forms, it is always a shock to have the cursor suddenly transform into a tool dedicated to some other project, not only apparently out of one’s control, but also one that takes priority.

The girl was taking her socks off.

‘Excuse me—’ I said, raising my voice so she could hear me through the glass.

She looked up and smiled, hopping a little.

Perhaps the Loading… image of an hourglass, this throbber, causes so much anxiety because as a graphic it offers no hint of eventual relief. The constant trickling of sand from one obconical end to the other gives no indication that any specific amount of time is being counted down. I mean, really, it is the perfect icon for frustrated flux rather than a sense of progress—an image of a fixed, inescapable ‘presentness’ that cannot promise any future. A clock face devoid of hands and yet still ticking would have the same uncanny effect, perhaps.

‘We don’t have visitors until nine,’ I said. And found I was lowering my voice, without quite knowing why, as if conspiratorial.

Of course, the hourglass is not the only symbol that accompanies hapless computer users in their periods of waiting. At least for a while, Apple products featured that gyrating orb known affectionately as the ‘Spinning Beach Ball of Death’ or the ‘Marble of Doom’.

‘You’re not a visitor,’ I said, slowly. The girl looks at me, nods, lifts her shirt over her head.

‘I’m just changing,’ she says, as her shoulders straighten. She looks very cold in the stone-flagged entrance hallway. She looks very soft. She smooths the blue fabric of her costume against her torso and smiles at me again, giving me a thumbs-up. I have been trained too well in customer service and return her smile immediately.

As well as implying stasis, the iconography of the hourglass also hints at a particular progression—that all natural things tend towards death. This is not good for office morale. Waiting for the computer-screen hourglass to empty and refill and empty again engenders a feeling not just of futility, but also mortality. It’s a favoured prop whenever ‘Father Time’ or ‘Death’ are figured as personae in Western culture. If Disney’s Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit had been depicted crying, ‘I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!’ while clutching an hourglass rather than a pocket watch, he would have been a far more morbid entity. Jostling for room with skulls, burning candles and rotten fruit, hourglasses are also one of the recurring tropes of vanitas pieces, those works of art that illustrate the physical world’s transience. Trading upon this saturnine thrill of memento mori set pieces, pirate ships of the 17th and 18th century bore hourglasses upon their flags alongside the notorious skull insignias. Hourglass iconography also appears on a number of gravestones in the churchyard local to this stately home. These hourglasses are often supplemented with mottoes such as Tempus Fugit [‘Time Flies’] or Ruit Hora [‘The Hour is Rushing Away’].

Last week, I had to face a languid  revolution of the hourglass while checking the words obconical and saturnine on my phone.

The girl was buttoning the front of her tunic and reaching for her breeches among the clothes muddled on the flagstones.

‘You’re not with the actors are you?’ I asked, from behind my glass screen. The hourglass spun.

‘I’m not with the actors,’ said the girl.

‘And you’re not a visitor,’ I said.

‘Or a ghost,’ she said. Her bare feet looked unbearably alive in the huge wood and stone-flagged entrance hallway. I looked back at my computer.

My laptop at home is far newer than this ridiculous machine. There, bereft of the hourglass, my waiting is accompanied by its replacement or its inheritor: a glowing ring, a tiny green ouroboros eating its own tail forever. The same irritation exists, of course, the feeling of being trapped in a state of suspension rather than that any progress is being made. With cultural implications less to do with pirates and Father Time and more HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the KITT vehicle’s dashboard in Knight Rider, that glowing circle seems more alien. Armed with the iconography of vanitas, maybe future operating systems will adopt symbols of futility such as skulls or rotting flowers. Perhaps a tiny, pixelated Sisyphus could be forced to clamber up my scrollbar. As it stands, the charm of the hourglass does not exist on my home laptop or my phone. Tempus won’t stop fugit, sure, but at least we once had the chance to watch it play out in style.

The girl is dressed head to toe in blue serge, her modern clothes and shoes folded in her arms. It is my imagination, but she seems to be standing a touch taller.

Hourglass imagery is not always coincident with a sense of hopelessness. In fact, sometimes it will act as a symbol for a certain need to seize the hour: perhaps for this reason, hourglasses feature on many heraldic crests. I’ve looked that up, too, in my many phone-idling moments on this job. I check again now as this girl changes in the entrance hall: a sixteenth-century Bishop of Lincoln, the Anderton family of Lancaster and the Shadforths of Northumberland all feature hourglasses. Thomas Biddlecome’s coat of arms bears an hourglass fluttering above the shield with a pair feathered of wings: time flies, indeed. To celebrate four years since the independence of Pakistan, a postage stamp was made that featured a large hourglass alongside an aircraft and the traditional crescent moon and star. The hourglass fulfils a commemorative role, maybe, to remind us of what went before.

The pageboy came two steps closer to the kiosk window and I inched back on my office chair.

‘You don’t mind, do you?’ the pageboy said. They had put on a small hat, angled slightly over one eye. ‘I do it every year, I just pass through. It’s no bother.’

I looked at the pageboy’s old clothes, their chrysalis, in their hands. The hourglass on my screen flipped again.

Modern companies sometimes present hourglasses as objects of desire. In the fourteenth incarnation of Nintendo’s The Legends of Zelda game franchise, the hero Link seeks a ‘Phantom Hourglass’ to help him with his quest. In 2008, General Mills added yellow and orange, hourglass-shaped marshmallows to its Lucky Charms cereal with the tagline ‘The Hourglass Charm has the Power to Stop Time, Speed Up Time, Reverse Time’. I tried Lucky Charms once. The marshmallows taste like happy nothing.

The hourglass on my screen froze.

‘I could still sell you a ticket,’ I said, and mimed sudden professionalism. I coughed and began typing meaningless letters out on my keyboard. ‘I mean, officially they’re all out, busy day, but—’

‘Don’t worry,’ the pageboy said. ‘Every year I do this, and no one asks. I just get to walk around as part of it all. They look,’ the pageboy said, studying my face as they pulled on a pair of perfect, blue gloves then slid rings over the gloves, before placing their fingers neatly on the shelf on their side of the screen. ‘They look, but they never ask. They’ve never asked.’

Vaguely, beyond the thick wooden door, I heard the horses for the joust being sworn at by a Visitor Experience team member. The pageboy and I flinched. My hourglass didn’t move.

The final grains of sand escaping the necks of cheap plastic hourglasses during games of Pictionary or Charades will often unite families in baying, unfestive horror. Hourglasses of this size are also called egg timers. Egg timer lacks the poetry of the other possible synonym, clepsammia. The lexicographer Noah Webster listed this word in his 1828 dictionary. Its etymological roots are the Greek words for sand and theft, the idea being that as each grain slips through the hourglass’s waist another moment is being taken away.

The pageboy gently rapped on the ticket window.

‘You won’t tell on me?’

Clepsammia certainly has a pleasing sibilance to it, and evokes a slick trickling of the contents from bulb to bulb as well as the flipping over of the body. Unlike Webster, Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary has always overlooked the word clepsammia. It does provide the word hour-glass as a hyphenated noun. With its symmetry and little dashed isthmus, ‘hour-glass’ on the page looks somewhat like the object itself, lying on its side or balanced mid spin, throbbing on my screen.

I pulled my ID card from my lanyard and slid it under the glass screen towards the pageboy.

‘You can hide in the canteen until the doors open, if you want,’ I said.

The pageboy approached. A gloved hand took my card and withdrew and at that very moment the hourglass disappeared as the page loaded properly. Removing their hat, the pageboy repeated the name printed on my card and performed a long, elaborate bow. As my computer clunked into action, they disappeared through the door and out into the garden to greet the visitors and the ghosts and the time passing at its own pace, leaving me in the still cool of the stone-flagged entrance hall, behind my glass screen.


Hourglass, Figured is taken from Somesuch Stories #3, which is currently available online and in stores.

Eley Williams' debut short story collection Attrib. was published in 2017 to much deserved acclaim, made about every single newspaper and magazine's Best of... list, and we recommend you get it via Influx Press.


Illustration by Creative Commons

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