Art Pact 277 - In the rush

In the rush to close up shop - to lock doors and set alarms and ensure that those electrical implements that were to be turned off were turned off and those that were to be turned on were turned on, that all the windows were closed except for the one in the staff toilets of the first floor - the mechanical counting machine was forgotten. It was obvious that it would be, from the moment that it had been placed on the floor to the right of the counter. People came and went there, and so the machine was nudged further and further under the counter until it was at the back and Rebecca's tote bag had fallen across it. The counting machine had sat there all day, under the soft beige canvas, slowly counting off the seconds since it had been left. When the doors were closed behind the last customer it had got to nineteen thousand six hundred and three, when the lights went off twenty-one thousand and seventy-four, and when the door clanked shut behind the last employee - Brian, who had been given the job of opening and closing that week as part of preparing him for a promotion to shift manager - twenty-one thousand, two hundred and twenty-eight. The counting machine stopped there, reset itself carefully, and began to count again. There was no point measuring how long it had been since Reardon dropped it off - that time had passed now, and the machine knew in its circuits that Reardon would not be coming back, that Claire would not find it by some miracle. It was here in the shop now - possibly forever, because if it had been overlooked in the rush to get out of the door, it seemed just as unlikely that it would be spotted in the hustle and bustle of selling. Perhaps, it thought, when the shop itself was sold there would be refurbishments. The counter would be torn out and replaced, and as that happened some workman would find the counting machine there, covered in dust. Perhaps counting the number of sledgehammer blows it took to removed the partition wall that separated the shop floor from the changing rooms.

It listened carefully, looked at what it could see, straining for some scrap of inspiration about what it should count next. There was its pulse, of course, the constant hum of electrical impulses coming from the clock deep in the centre of its main board. 1028.5 Hz exactly, so that every time one thousand and twenty-eight and a half of those buzzes had passed, it could count a second - although in secret the machine had to admit that it cheated, that it really waited two thousand and fifty-nine buzzes and counted two seconds. No-one would know. It was a counting machine, anyway, not a stop-watch. What business did it have with individual seconds? Seconds were boring. Seconds were a way of measure distance between past joy and current misery. No, it decided, it would eschew seconds.

At first, the best prospect appeared to be the semi-regular ticking and creaking that came from all corners of the shop as it cooled down. The lights that sat over the display racks were blinding and hot, the ones in the changing rooms dimmer and cooler. Mr. Pockets' idea, that the shoppers would see themselves as starkly as possible when they were in their own clothes, but more favourably when they were getting changed into shop wares. Mr. Pockets thought highly of his understanding of psychology, although there was little evidence that his lighting choices had any effect other than making the inside of the shop broil during summer days and causing light-induced headaches that increased the rate of staff turnover. Mr. Pockets didn't care - if sales went up, it was due to his innovations. If they went down it was the lazy staff.

Freed from the constant grilling they received at the hands of the spotlights, the clothes racks began to contract slightly, causing tiny slips against the hangers that were suspended from them. Stresses built up - tiny earthquakes, measurable only in micro-richters, that made themselves known to the counting machine as pings and clicks that issued half-randomly half-regularly from the shop floor. The machine had been safe from the lights, tucked under the bag in the darkness at the back of the counter, but it could still feel the warmth of the air, and the way that each of the pings sounded something like a sigh of relief, that the bars and struts around him were in their own way relaxing after a hard day at work.

The noises were countable, but not interesting - that was the only problem. The counting machine was used to the challenges that Claire set it: low numbers, but unusual events. The pings and tings and clicks and clacks were the opposite: high numbers, and all too frequent. He had reached seven hundred and seven clicks when the first mouse ran along the skirting board - right in front of the counting machine - and at that instant it reset its counter to one and knew what it would be measuring that night.

Mice are clever. Mice are fast, and they are cautious, and it is well-known that if you are lucky or unlucky enough to see one mouse (the exact magnitude and direction of the luck depends on whether you are out and about or at home), there are ten more unseen within a short distance of you. Mice allow themselves to be seen - or rather, put themselves in hazardous situations in which they might be seen - only when the population reaches such a critical density that to remain unseen is to go hungry.

That, of course, only applies if you are a human - or another creature large enough to strike a mouse as a plausible threat. Mice are scared of cats, of rats, of dogs, and of people. But they show no particular fear of small machines, even when those small machines are novelties, and in the sort of places (corners next to walls) where human-made devices inimical to murine life are normally deposited. The mice that inhabited (I think inhabited is an apt enough term, although Mr. Pockets would no doubt have suggested "infested" if he thought he was not likely to be quoted in a local paper or referred immediately to the public health department of the local council) the shop were not afraid of the counting machine in the same way that the people who inhabited it were not afraid of public call boxes. They had no idea what they were for, but they seemed harmless enough and they didn't move around or make loud noises so could be safely ignored. Within the first half hour after the initial mouse appeared, the counting machine counted seven more mice. That was enough to be interesting, but not so many that it began to seem commonplace.

After the eighth mouse, though, the counting machine began to feel slightly uncomfortable. Was it simple counting the same mouse over and over, or were those eight separate mice? There were definitely more than one - it was sure of that, because one of the mice had been bigger than the others. But could it be just two of them? How could it tell them apart? Was it counting the number of mice inaccurately, or the total appearances of the mice accurately but in error (since it had said to itself that it would count actual mice). The thought was worrying.

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