She was a timekeeper and he was only a little shoe-shiner. For years they had worked on the same station, and for years he had gazed at her worshippingly. How tall and stately she was! How smooth and shining! He wondered that so perfect a being should ever be brought to the necessity of working. For his part, he would have kept her just to look at.
He knew that she was far above him, for he, although he bravely hid it under two coats of paint, was made only of tin, while she must be made of no less noble metal than steel. He extruded all sorts of arms and levers and gadgets, while she stood slender, slim-lined, smoothly planed, a gleaming shape of metal with a single glorious eye to relieve her cold purity.
Purely for the amusement of customers, the fancy of his creator had endowed him with a face somewhat resembling that of a man. A man's face! To the poor little tin robot it seemed the ultimate degradation. She had no face. His mouth was a slit, shaped into a grin, and here were inserted the coins which stimulated his arms
to activity and started him brushing, polishing, rubbing until the shoe placed on the little platform in front of him shone brilliantly. But she only stood all day, never moving, her deep lustrous eye red as the sunset of a winter's day. Every time an express train passed, her eye caught a signal from its engine and imprinted it on the tape which ticked through her continuously, so that the time of the train's passing was recorded within her. When a train stopped at the station she recorded its arrival and after an interval gave it the starting signal. Should the train be behind or ahead of schedule she flashed across her hidden mysterious wires a message to Traffic Control, which at once dealt with the emergency.
She had never seen this being known to her as Traffic Control, and she knew that in this life she never would. He was an awe-inspiring, majestic, yet distant Presence. She imagined him as being something like herself, only thousands of times more powerful. Her eye could see only the trains passing directly in front of her; but His all-seeing eye could penetrate her, could watch every wheel in her interior, mark every jerk of her escapement. In Him she lived and had her being: Him she worshipped. All who served Him were the chosen.
But the little shoe-shiner adored only the timekeeper. Apart from his great love, which made him unhappy because of its hopelessness, he was a contented little robot. He loved his work, and to see a pair of dirty shoes approaching made his tin heart leap with joy. When the sun shone on him and warmed his metal so that a faint smell of blistering paint arose from him, and the oil flowed lightly in his joints, he felt that life was heaven.
Then one day he was turned rudely on his back, loaded on to
a barrow, and wheeled away into the darkness. What despair was in his heart! Would he never see her again? Was he to be sent to the scrap-heap? For a long time he lay there, with his grin, waiting with cold fear in his vitals.
Presently they came for him. His levers rattled with terror as they stood him up and pushed him forward into the grip of a vast machine. Already in imagination he suffered the agonising wrench of his arms and head being torn from his body, to be flung mangled on the scrap-waggon. Then all at once, as the clamps closed on him, he felt upon his brow the gentle titillating dew of paint from a spray-gun. They painted him a brilliant red with blue flashes, and as a last touch of glory gave him a gilded band round his mouth. As soon as he was dry they wheeled him off again. His joy knew only one doubt. Where were they taking him? He felt that he was not going back to his old place in the station.
Soon he emerged into an unfamiliar sunlit place. They left him in a corner. At first he was too depressed to look up, but after a few minutes his natural spirits asserted themselves, and he pulled himself together. "Courage!" he whispered, and looked straight ahead.
He found himself gazing into the roseate eye of the timekeeper. They had put him on the opposite platform.
Once more for twentyfour hours a day; but this time from a better vantage-point, he was able to adore her. In the sunshine her metal planes shone dazzlingly silver, while sometimes a brilliant solar reflection sparkled forth. At night under the mercury lamps of the station she glowed dimly and mysteriously violet. But he loved her best at dusk, when she lost both her hard glitter and her radiant mystery, and became softly shadowed and dim, remote, yet somehow nearer to him than at any other time.
Only her brilliant red eye shone steady and unwavering. Contemplating its lucent depths, he longed to lose himself in the ruby pool. He wondered what strange and mighty currents surged through her as she stood there motionless, wrapt in her ineffable task.
The timekeeper in her turn could not fail to notice the shoe-shiner. She could look only straight ahead, and when there were no trains passing her eye naturally fell on the opposite platform. He seemed a little pathetic to her, with his cheap man-face, his garish paint, the vulgar gold band round his mouth of which he seemed so proud, and his ungainly levers and joints. He was altogether a common creature. And yet something vaguely stirred within her when she looked at him.
He was so obviously in love with her. At other times this transient inclination faded. Love was not for her; she must serve Traffic Control with all her strength. If only she could convert this little shoe-shiner to the true faith: If she could persuade him to cast off his hankering after man-like things:- That would be a triumph indeed. She began to glow at him with interest.
So the sun shone for the little shoe-shiner, and although the red and blue paint began to peel off, and even the gold band faded a little, he was full of joy. He polished harder than ever. But soon he found that the timekeeper was capricious. Sometimes she would glance at him with a faint tenderness in her eye; yet at other times there would be nothing but a remote crimson glow. He was alternately transported with bliss and maddened with anguish.
On a day of torment he saw a man come into the station and approach the timekeeper. Touching a little round button on her shining bosom, the man opened her and inserted a new length of tape. Then, whistling in a leisurely sort of way, he crossed the bridge and walked up to the little shoe-shiner. His hand fumbled with a coin, he planted his foot insolently on the platform. Furious jealousy shook the robot. That such a creature - a man! - should dare to lay hands on the sacred bosom of his beloved was intolerable. He attacked the sacrilegious fool. in the only way open to him. When they dragged the man free, his right meta-tarsus was shattered.
Next day they came for the little shoe-shiner. Something was obviously wrong with his works; he must go to be melted down. Before the horrified eyes of the repentant timekeeper they wrenched off his arms and threw away the brushes he had ruined. Her escapement missed a beat and the ruby eye clouded momentarily with grief.
A train stopped, but her eye was too dim to catch its signal. Careless with despair, she flashed to Traffic Control the message "Train X - thirty minutes late." Too late she saw what she had done. A momentary weakness had betrayed her: she had neglected the affairs of her Lord. As the remains of the little shoe-shiner were wheeled out of the station, her signal was on its way to Traffic Control. But she would not have recalled it even if she could.
She knew that as soon as her signal reached Traffic Control, He would realise that she was out of order. On the instant He would shut off the power and leave her a lifeless mass of metal. Soon she too would be wheeled away, and another timekeeper would take her place.
A slight shock went through her. She thought for a moment sadly of the little shoe-shiner. "He loved me!" she sighed. The light faded from her once-glorious eye, and she felt her strength ebbing. Resolutely she put away the thought of the tin man and prepared to meet Traffic Control. "Thy will be done, O Lord:" she murmured. Her escapement faltered, the cogwheels jerked, and in a moment she had ticked her last. The round eye of the timekeeper was nothing but a disc of darkish glass.
written between 1948 and 1954