The annual handover party was already in full swing when Twenty-Twenty’s cab pulled up in front of the city hall. He paid the cabby and gave him a generous tip.
“Thanks, guv. Have a good New Year’s eve party, and happy new year.”
“And to you.”
Happy. Yes, Twenty-Twenty supposed he could be happy.
The doors of the hall were open and a jumble of laughter and twinkling lights spilt out onto the pavement. He stepped into the hall and let the sounds and smells of the party envelop him. At least four different songs were playing simultaneously over the speakers, and in one corner a band was playing a jazzy tune. A few dozen people were dancing, alone or in pairs. More sat at little tables all along the walls. The decorations were eclectic: a criss-cross of fairy lights on the ceiling, potted palms in the corners, framed newspaper articles on the walls. He surveyed the crowd. Many of the faces were familiar from the briefings.
A passing waitress stopped in front of him. “You’re him, aren’t you? Twenty-Twenty?”
“Correct.” He took the drink she handed him. “And you must be, let me see, Monday?”
She laughed and stared ruefully at her plain black outfit, her sensible shoes. “That obvious, huh?”
“I’ve read your file. I figured you’d be one of the few working.”
“Someone has to.”
They turned to watch a couple who were swaying on the dance floor with their eyes closed, lost in the music. One wore dramatic eye make-up in primary colours, the other had elaborately styled hair that was just beginning to droop.
“Friday and Saturday,” Monday said. “And by now, probably a quarter bottle of tequila.”
“They sound a riot.”
“They’re sweet, really. Saturday goes running in the mornings and then volunteers at the animal shelter. And Friday helps out at the soup kitchen after work.”
“I read something about that. Do you have time to show me around?”
“Not really.” Monday dived into the crowd and returned a moment later with a middle-aged man in a waistcoat. “This is Tuesday. Tuesday, meet Twenty-Twenty.”
“Hi,” said Twenty-Twenty.
“Good to meet you.” Tuesday’s glasses slipped down his nose. He pushed them back up with a knuckle.
Monday pressed the last drink on her tray into Tuesday’s hand. “I’ve got to run. Take him to Twenty-Nineteen, will you?”
And she disappeared into the crowd.
“This way,” said Tuesday. He led Twenty-Twenty to a large table by one of the potted plants. A short, grey-haired woman jumped up as they approached. Twenty-Twenty had read all the files he could get his hands on, about the days of the week, the months, the seasons, the dates, the holidays, the times of day, even the solstices and equinoxes. He knew June liked to wear flower crowns and Sunday was probably dozing somewhere with a cup of tea and a book. But this woman was a mystery to him. She was mentioned in a thousand newspaper articles, but there was no file on Twenty-Nineteen herself. She looked nothing like he had expected, and yet he could not picture her any other way.
“I’m so glad you could make it early!” she said, grinning from ear to ear. She grabbed his hand in both of hers and shook it vigorously. “I’ve only got a few more hours, and there’s so much to tell you.”
He sat down beside her, and she introduced the others at her table. “That’s December, that’s New Year’s Eve, this here is Evening, and the girl lurking in the shadows over there is Midnight. Winter has just gone to the bar to get some more ice. He’ll be back. Ah, and I see you’ve met Tuesday.”
Tuesday had put his untouched drink down on the table and was doing his best to slink away.
“Don’t you dare leave early!” Twenty-Nineteen said.
“I won’t.” He sat down, crossed his arms and stared at his shoes.
“I won’t,” said Twenty-Nineteen in a whiny, mocking tone. She turned back to Twenty-Twenty. “Ugh, I’ll be glad to see the back of him.”
“His file said he’s a steady worker.”
“Steady? He’s boring! Tedious, dull, soul-destroying, vapid, insipid, bland, dreary, just mind-shatteringly boring! Darling, grey is more exciting than him. He’s like the colour beige.”
Twenty-Twenty glanced at Tuesday. He was dressed in various shades of beige.
“What about the others? I met Monday already.”
Twenty-Nineteen threw her hands up. “What do you want to know for? You said you read Tuesday’s file. Did you read all of them? You did, didn’t you? You’re keen, I’ll give you that. Me, I couldn’t be bothered. They had a hangar full of paperwork, on actual real old-fashioned paper. And they expected me to read every single word. Hell, they wanted me to memorise it. What for? What was the point?”
“I imagine it is to prepare us for the job,” Twenty-Twenty said.
Twenty-Nineteen snorted. “There’s no way to prepare for this job, darling. Half of it is surprises, which you won’t find anything about in your fancy files, and the other half is routine, which you really don’t need files on because everyone knows what they’re doing. Some of them have been doing this for millennia. They know themselves and each other, all right? They can handle all the mundane day-to-day stuff without you hovering behind them like some micromanaging parent checking their kid’s homework. Every week, Wednesday will clock off when Midnight toddles along, and then Thursday will take over. Every single bloody week. You don’t need to control all that.”
“So you would suggest a hands-off managerial style?” Twenty-Twenty took a sip of his drink. He wasn’t sure whether he liked it, so he set it down and hoped it would blend in with the little succulents that dotted the table. Winter came by, with a gust of cold air and a bucket of ice cubes. Twenty-Nineteen added a few to her glass and stirred with her little finger.
“A good Negroni should be ice cold, don’t you think?” she said. “But no, darling, I wouldn’t dare make any suggestions. You do what you think is best. After all, it’s your job. At least it will be in, oh -” She glanced sideways.
“Three hours,” supplied Evening.
Twenty-Nineteen smiled and patted Twenty-Twenty’s hand. “But go easy on the files, all right? You don’t need to read about how Wednesday enjoys slacking off and Thursday is a procrastinating little shit. You’ll learn that stuff as you go along, when it actually matters.”
“And when is that?”
“Let’s take a walk, I’ll show you!”
Twenty-Nineteen rose and entwined Twenty-Twenty’s arm with hers. Evening followed as they strolled around the room. A few of the party-goers stopped to have a chat. September and the Spring Equinox both shed a tear as they reminisced about all the fun they’d had. A grey-eyed February looked Twenty-Twenty up and down and snorted in disgust before turning away. Easter told him she was sure they’d be friends and that she looked forward to working with him.
“Yes, thank you,” said Twenty-Nineteen, shooing her away. She pulled Twenty-Twenty towards the wall and indicated the framed newspaper articles. “This here, this is the important stuff. Everything that happens in the world.”
Twenty-Twenty scanned the headlines. There were forest fires, floods, armed conflicts, deaths and disease, but also new medical procedures, art exhibitions, children learning to read.
“It’s possible to nudge all of this in the right direction,” Twenty-Nineteen explained. “You can get Noon to come a little bit early, for example. Force people to take an early lunch break.”
“How does that help?”
“You’d be surprised how many arguments are resolved by people having a bite to eat. I’m fairly sure I’ve avoided World Wars three, four and five by an early lunch, a late sunrise, a meeting taking place on Thursday rather than Wednesday… And some of this year’s finest art was created when I asked Saturday to be a bit boring, so people couldn’t be bothered to go out clubbing.”
They were interrupted by a series of shouts and a commotion that started near the door and moved steadily towards them.
“Over here!” she shouted.
A tall man with a great mass of dark curls emerged from the crowd. “Problem, boss!”
“August, darling, what is it?”
“Gatecrasher,” he said. A crowd had formed. Two of the seasons, six of the months and a few dozen dates were watching eagerly. Then the Spring Equinox squeezed between June and August, dragging a man by the wrist. He wore a tailored suit with the jacket slung casually over one shoulder and his tie slightly undone. His hair was slicked back, not a strand out of place.
“Urgh,” said Evening. “Not you again.”
The gatecrasher turned to Twenty-Twenty with a smile as slick as his hair. “You must be the new guy. I used to run this thing. I’m Twenty-Sixteen.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Twenty-Nineteen. “We know who you are. What are you doing here, you smug little git? You’re not invited.”
“Just doing my civic duty,” he said.
“Oh please. You’re here to set something on fire, aren’t you?”
“I’m hurt that you would think that of me!” He clutched his heart and his face twisted into a pretence of grief. Then he stuck two fingers into his mouth and whistled. “Oy, Leap Day!”
There was a slight pause, and then a surly young woman with purple streaks in her hair emerged from the crowd. “Yeah?”
Twenty-Sixteen clapped her on the shoulder. “Everyone, this is Leap Day. Last time she worked was with me, so I thought I’d come and drop her off in person.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Twenty-Twenty. “Hi, Leap Day. Nice to meet you.”
She rolled her eyes at him.
Twenty-Nineteen leaned close to August. “Get that bastard out of here. And lock the doors.”
August and the Spring Equinox each grabbed one of Twenty-Sixteen’s elbows and marched him towards the door. Sensing that the show was over, the crowd dispersed.
“Never liked him,” said Evening. “Still, I suppose we should be glad he didn’t bring Eighteen-Forty-Eight along. She shows up every couple of years.”
“Don’t jinx it,” Twenty-Nineteen said.
“Always banging on about revolutions,” Evening continued. “I enjoy a good political discussion every now and then, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and the handover is definitely not it. I mean, I’m sure the world could do with some political reform in the near future, but you can’t force that sort of thing, it never ends well.”
“Come on,” muttered Twenty-Nineteen, grabbing Twenty-Twenty by the arm and steering him back into the crowd. They danced their way around Saturday, sauntered past Autumn who was snoozing in a corner, and tip-toed past New Year’s Day, who was sitting alone at a table with a bottle of scotch, wondering why no one liked him. New Year’s Eve was nearby, shouting to a small crowd about his fire eating skills as he held up a dozen lit sparklers.
Finally, Twenty-Nineteen stopped at a stretch of wall that was almost bare.
“So many things happen that don’t make it into the papers,” she said. “Sometimes the world is one big, tangled mess. There are refugees crammed together in forgotten corners of the world. Species that we didn’t know existed are dying out. The world is burning. The seas are boiling and choking. Children are rejected by their parents. People are lonely.”
The nearest framed newspaper article was about melting glaciers. Underneath were ads, for weekend trips to far-flung destinations, for cheap clothing, for the newest electronic gadgets.
Twenty-Nineteen dabbed at the corner of her eye with her sleeve. “I’ve tried to fix things, darling, I really have, but perhaps not hard enough. Maybe you’ll do better.”
“Saturday and Monday together could do a lot of good.”
“That might work. Oh, listen to me! You’d think it was all doom and gloom! You’re going to have some great moments, too.”
“I’m sure of it.”
“There’ll be Mars rovers and the Olympics and so many books and movies! And maybe it will rain in the places where they need rain, and the sun will shine where they need sunshine, and maybe strangers will be kind to each other, and perhaps the humans will remember that they are all human and that they all live on the same tiny little fragile dot of a planet.”
She smiled, a crooked thing that went all the way up to her eyes, making their corners crinkle with a spiderweb of fine lines. “I had hoped to see a supernova. Maybe you’ll be lucky.”
“It might not be for centuries.”
“It might be tomorrow.”
Midnight had come up behind them. She cleared her throat. “It’s time.”
The band stopped playing and the speaker system fell silent. Everyone turned to face Twenty-Nineteen and Twenty-Twenty. They stood together, the old year and the new.
“I don’t do long speeches,” said Twenty-Nineteen. There was a ripple of laughter from the crowd. She acknowledged it with a wave of her hand. “Not tonight, anyway. Tonight I just want to say thank you to you all. I could not have asked for better colleagues. Do your best for your new boss, like you have done for me.”
Twenty-Nineteen shook Twenty-Twenty’s hand. “Good luck, darling.”
“We won’t meet again, will we?”
“No, that’s not how this works.”
She turned and walked out of the door.