When Lionel Liskin was born everyone gathered in the delivery room cried out in excitement ‘It’s a boy!’ and were rather disconcerted when Lionel detached himself from his mother’s breast and corrected them:
‘You mean to say he‘s a boy. ‘It’ would refer to an indeterminate, neutral gender and there seems to be consensus that I am, indeed, a boy.’
Such a developed sense of logic and reason in one so young didn’t make for a happy childhood. Unable to understand what chasing a ball around a field might accomplish (for no sooner did they get the ball than they gave it to someone else), Lionel spent his free time indoors with his best friends: a dictionary and a calculator. Neither did he exceed at his studies as in the exams he spent more time correcting the questions than he did answering them. When asked by his elders what he thought he would be when he grew up he would merely reply ‘older’ and quite fail to understand why he was punished for his insolence.
Upon leaving school, Lionel found himself work as a watchmaker’s apprentice and, for a time, he found comfort among the constant and predictable whirring and winding of cogs and bolts, far from the uncomfortable ambiguities of society; working alone in his workshop there was no one to ask him confusing questions like ‘how are you doing?'(how was he doing what?) or ‘It’s a nice day, isn’t it? (was it a question, a statement, a hypothesis to be tested?)
But though Lionel had found steady employment and independence, yet his heart was as human as any other’s and he longed for a companion. There seemed to be only one person suitable for him: Emelina Emerson, the local librarian. There was something in the way she tied back tightly her thin, brown hair into a bun, the precision with which she placed her spectacles on her nose, the diligence with which she located an index card from her meticulous filing system that filled Lionel with a confusing and irrational yet oddly stimulating sensation that anyone less literal-minded might have identified as love.
And so one evening after work, it was quite to Lionel Liskin’s surprise when he found himself taking his life savings to the jeweller and buying an expensive platinum engagement ring – diamonds were, after all, only artificially scarce, and gold had an altogether lower melting point. He proceeded to the library and approached the main desk where Miss Emerson was lost in an ecstasy of cross-referencing new entries in the library catalogue. Lionel experienced the novel sensation of his mind going completely blank. Emelina Emerson looked reluctantly up from her reverie to attend to the gentleman in the grey linen suit two sizes too small for him.
‘The fact of the matter is, I have come here today with the express purpose of establishing whether you will, with any degree of certainty, consent…to marry me!’ Lionel ejaculated, not daring look up as the bemused brown eyes behind the glasses. ‘I do not, of course, use the verb ‘will’ implying that you are in any way clairvoyant as to whether you will in the future be married to me,’ Lionel broke into a sweat and glanced up to see that the faintest flicker of a smile was breaking out on Miss Emerson’s habitually sober features, like a glimmer of sunshine on an overcast day.
‘Nonetheless,’ Lionel bravely continued, ‘I should be content beyond my capacity to express in words if…’ Choking down his nerves, he looked bravely up and met Emelina’s eyes and whispered: ‘Please marry me.’
His earnest expression, his utter helplessness and the pleading use of the word, please, produced a minor miracle: for the first time in her serious, phlegmatic life, Emelina Emerson felt an entirely novel sensation rise up from her chest, hurtle through her throat and burst out through her mouth in a fit of laughter. She shook in her chair with rhythmic hysteria and frantically brushed away the tears from her face for fear of staining her files. The echoes of her laughter followed Lionel all the way down the corridor and rang in his ears long after he stepped out into the chilly night and walked off in no particular direction at all.
Lionel walked for hours through the icy streets, more miserable than he could ever remember being. Why should he, of all humanity, be condemned to live alone? Everywhere there were the most stupid, irrational, thoughtless people who enjoyed love, company and friendship despite their faults. Was there no one in the world who might cherish a logical watchmaker?
Remembering vaguely that men in his position often found consolation in the metabolic waste products of the fermentation of sugar, Lionel stumbled down some dark steps and into a rather gloomy bar. As he pushed open the door, however, he met with an enormous man with a shaved hear and a gold ring pierced through both nostrils who sized Lionel up as though he was deciding which bone to break first.
‘Password!’ he growled.
‘That is not a question but rather a statement and one that;’ but the doorman was already bundling him into the bar and Lionel found himself standing in a dimly-lit establishment that stank of pipe tobacco. The place was quite empty except for a bar tender who wore sunglasses and a man with balding, grey hair and a walrus moustache who wore a tweed suit and sat at the end of a long table.
‘Splendid! Come and join me for a brandy!’ the old gentleman cried, pulling out a chair for Lionel, ‘We’ll be as thick as thieves in no time – if you’ll pardon the expression!’ Lionel didn’t know why he should need to pardon the expression but was too low in spirit to resist and took the offered seat. The bar tender came over with two glasses and a bottle and by the way he used his hands to locate the table, Lionel realised that the man was blind.
‘Splendid! Well, to your health! Now tell me,’ the gentleman whispered, leaning in close, ‘What’s your specialty?’
‘I have no idea what you mean,’ Lionel sighed, observing with mild concern how the burning sensation produced by the brandy was followed by a slight blurring on the senses.
‘Right you are! A man who shares his secrets will soon have no secrets left to share! Ah, splendid – the others have started to arrive! Perhaps I might gain your confidence with a few introductions, hmm? There, for instance, is the one we call the Shadow.’ Lionel followed the long, bony finger in the direction of a young man with short, black hair and a blank expression who had slipped into the bar and stood so still against the wall that he seemed to disappear.
‘Now he is an interesting one -hasn’t touched money his entire life! He picks a target in the street and follows the person home, one step behind them all the way! Walks right into their homes and remains behind them all evening. Closer to them than their own shadow. Then when they go to bed he slips out into the kitchen, takes a tiny bite of every item he finds in the cupboards, sleeps on the sofa and then walks out right behind them in the morning – robbed them and they never even knew he was there!
‘Ah, now there’s the Uncle! Haven’t seen him in a while!’ Lionel looked up to see a friendly-looking man with a bald head and big, bushy eyebrows, standing in the doorway of the bar. Despite his sad mood, a smile rise to Lionel’s lips and old feelings of warmth stirred in his heart as when reunited with an old friend.
‘We call him the Uncle because he knocks on people’s doors – and well, you can see for yourself what an impression he makes! They all assume he’s some long-lost uncle returned from abroad and, no, they can’t remember his name…or how they’re related exactly, but the important thing is that he’s back! They welcome him in and give him everything he asks for.’
Lionel’s heart still felt like a dead weight in his chest sinking in a sea of existential emptiness since his rejection earlier that evening. Yet he also felt his curiosity stoked by these improbable characters and he was about to ask his new friend what brought them all together when his heart gave a sudden jump as a young woman walked in; she wasn’t particularly beautiful – a pale girl with her hair tied back allowing the light to catch every aspect of her delicate, modest features, but her eyes were full of such an innocence and vulnerability that only the blind bartender was immune to her charm.
‘What do you think, eh?’ the old gentleman laughed, nudging Lionel in the ribs, ‘She is the Thief of Hearts. There are men in jails, lunatic asylums and cemeteries across the city on her account. She walks through the streets until she selects a victim and then she’ll stand in front of where he works, be he a lawyer or a baker, staring at him through the window for hours, days if need be, until he looks up and sees her. She’ll stand in sun, rain and snow, gazing at him with those helpless eyes of hers, refusing blankets, cups of tea and offers of help, just standing there until her victim can’t work, think or sleep, and finally falls to his knees before her, promising her all he has to give. Then she’ll look down on him, smile, and walk away to never be seen again.’
‘It would seem that each of them aims to take something that does not belong to them,’ Lionel observed, ‘And yet it is hard to see what they gain from their activities.’
‘Indeed! We are not common pickpockets or cutthroats who risk our lives for a watch,a wallet or a gold chain! We are quite another class of Thief concerned with the Art of Stealing.’
‘And what is it that you steal?’
‘I, sir, am the Philosopher! I stroll through the parks, the cafes, the bar, engaging in conversation all those I meet; I discover what the person thinks, what they believe, their very reason for living, and then, step by step, piece by piece, I take their thoughts apart! I show them that their ideas are simply illusions, their principles are just blind rules, and their beliefs are nothing but ignorant superstitions!’
But then what have you stolen?’
‘The very meaning of life! What could be more precious than that? But now, come on, fair’s fair, old chap, you still haven’t told me what your specialty is! Oh, look sharp! Here’s the Boss!’ Lionel glanced up to see a heavy man dressed in black step through the door, a great coat wrapped around powerful shoulders. He moved slowly, holding back his power like a bull standing in a field.
‘A more distinguished thief you’ll not find in the country!’ the Philosopher whispered, “He’s the kind of man that when you shake his hand you count your fingers afterwards!’
The Boss swivelled his head around the bar to take in those gathered for the reunion of thieves – some 20 odd characters by now – when his eyes fell upon Lionel with a vicious glare.
‘You! What are you doing here?’
‘As might be observed I am currently sitting down and-‘
‘How did he get in here?’ the Boss growled at the doorman who took a step back and said:
‘I asked him the password and he wouldn’t give it – that’s the sign aint it?’
‘Quite right!’ the Philosopher piped up, ‘What self-respecting thief would give something when asked for it…’ but he fell quiet again when the Boss scowled in his direction before turning his attention once again to Lionel.
‘You! You’re not one of us! You’re a spy!’
‘Then perhaps I ought to be going..’
‘Yes, indeed. But I promise you this – you’ll be leaving in separate pieces,’ the Boss said truculently, rolling up his shirt sleeves and pulling out a menacing knife from a sheath on his belt.
‘It was jolly nice meeting you!’ the Philosopher whispered as he shuffled away from Lionel, who felt the blood drain from his head as the Boss stalked forwards. On a sudden impulse he stood up and appealed to all those gathered:
‘Society of Thieves! You say I’m not one of you but what if I could prove I am the greatest Thief lf all?’ A silence followed his words that was then broken by desultory sniggers from the benches.
‘Oh,’ the Boss smiled, ‘And what is it that you steal?’
‘We might agree, I hope, that to waste something belonging to someone else is the same as stealing it?’
‘What if it is?’
‘Then I put it to you, o King of Thieves, that while the lovely lady over here steals hearts and my wise friend in the corner steals meaning, one can always find love again and new reasons for living. But what is the thing that we all value the most and yet can never replace?’
‘By Jove!’ the Philosopher cried, ‘He’s talking about Time!’
Lionel smiled at him gratefully and then faced the Boss again, ‘Then by coming here today, interrupting your meeting and talking for so long – have I not wasted your Time?’
An awed hush fell. Then, in the same moment that the Boss broke into a toothy grin, a cheer went up from both sides of the bar and Lionel felt arms lifting him up in the air and hands slapping him on the back with cries of ‘Long live the Time Waster! Hurrah!’
And so Lionel Liskin finally found his place in the world as a most honoured member of the Society of Thieves among who his reputation only grew with the years as he perfected his art; wandering through the city, engaging people in quite pointless discussions, breaking down every statement to its logical parts, as he skilfully and masterfully wasted their Time.