Translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn
OCR: YUliya Kryuchkova
Published by the Penguin Group
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Viking Penguin Inc., 40 West 2.3rd Street, New York, New York 10010.
USA Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex,
First published in German as Momo, copyright © K. Thienernanns Verlag.
Original English language translation published as The Grey Gentlemen
copyright © Burke Books Publishing Ltd., 1974
New English language translation copyright © Doubleday & Company Inc.,
New York, and Penguin Books Ltd. 1984
First published in Great Britain in a paperback as Momo by Penguin
Books 1984 Published in Puffin Books 1985
Reprinted 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988
Alt rights reserved
Made and printed in Great Britain by Richard Clay Ltd. Bungay, Suffolk
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to
the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior
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imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are! Up above the
world so high, Like a diamond in the sky!
Jane Taylor (1783-1827) .
MOMO AND HER FRIENDS
1 The Amphitheatre 11
2 Listening 17
3 Makebelieve 24
4 Two Special Friends 34
5 Tall Stories 41
PART TWO: THE MEN IN GREY
6 The Timesaving Bank. 55
7 The Visitor 69
8 The Demonstration 91
9 The Trial 102
10 More Haste Less Speed 110
11 The Conference 111
12 Nowhere House 130
PART THREE: THE HOUR-LILIES
13 A Year and a Day 153
14 Three Lunches, No Answers 172
15 Found and Lost 179
16 Loneliness 188
17 The Square 196
18 The Pursuit 204
19 Under Siege 210
20 Pursuing the Pursuers 219
21 An End and a Beginning 227
AUTHOR S POSTSCRIPT 237
Momo and Her Friends
Long, long ago, when people spoke languages quite different from our
own, many fine, big cities already existed in the sunny lands of the world.
There were towering palaces inhabited by kings and emperors; there were
broad streets, narrow alleyways and winding lanes; there were sumptuous
temples filled with idols of gold and marble; there were busy markets
selling wares from all over the world; and there were handsome, spacious
squares where people gathered to discuss the latest news and make speeches
or listen to them. Last but not least, there were theatres -- or, more
An amphitheatre resembled a modern circus, except that it was built
entirely of stone. Seats for spectators were arranged in tiers, one above
the other, like steps lining the crater of a man-made volcano. Many such
buildings were circular, others semicircular, others oval.
Some amphitheatres were as big as football stadiums, others could hold
no more than a few hundred people. Some were resplendent with columns and
statues, others plain and unadorned. Having no roofs, amphitheatres were
open to the sky. This was why, in the more luxurious ones, spectators were
shielded from the heat of the sun or from sudden downpours by
gold-embroidered awnings suspended above their seats. In simple
amphitheatres, mats woven of rushes or straw served the same purpose. In
short, people made their amphitheatres as simple or luxurious as they could
afford -just as long as they had one, for our ancestors were enthusiastic
Whenever they saw exciting or amusing incidents acted out on stage,
they felt as if these makebelieve happenings were more real, in some
mysterious way, than their own humdrum lives, and they loved to feast their
eyes and ears on this kind of reality.
Thousands of years have passed since then. The great cities of long ago
lie in ruins, together with their temples and palaces. Wind and rain, heat
and cold have worn away and eaten into the stonework. Ruins are all that
remain of the amphitheatres, too. Crickets now inhabit their crumbling
walls, singing a monotonous song that sounds like the earth breathing in its
A few of these ancient cities have survived to the present day,
however. Life there has changed, of course. People ride around in cars and
buses, have telephones and electric lights. But here and there among the
modem buildings one can still find a column or two, an archway, a stretch of
wall, or even an amphitheatre dating from olden times.
It was in a city of this kind that the story of Momo took place.
On the southern outskirts of the city, where the fields began and the
houses became shabbier and more tumbledown, the ruins of a small
amphitheatre lay hidden in a clump of pine trees. It had never been a grand
place, even in the old days, just a place of entertainment for poor folk.
When Momo arrived on the scene, the ruined amphitheatre had been almost
forgotten. Its existence was known to a few professors of archaeology, but
they took no further interest in it because there was nothing more to be
unearthed there. It wasn't an attraction to be compared with others in the
city, either, so the few stray tourists or sightseers who visited it from
time to time merely clambered around on the grass-grown tiers of seats, made
a lot of noise, took a couple of
snapshots, and went away again. Then silence returned to the stone
arena and the crickets started on the next verse of their interminable,
The strange, round building was really known only to the folk who lived
in the immediate neighbourhood. They grazed their goats there, their
children played ball on what had once been the central stage, and
sweethearts would sometimes meet there in the evenings.
One day however, word went around that someone had moved into the
ruins. It was a child - a girl, most likely, though this was hard to say
because she wore such funny clothes. The newcomer's name was Momo.
Aside from being rather odd, Momo's personal appearance might well have
shocked anyone who set store by looking clean and tidy. She was so small and
thin that, with the best will in the world, no one could have told her age.
Her unruly mop of jet-black hair looked as if it had never seen a comb or a
pair of scissors. She had very big, beautiful eyes as black as her hair, and
feet of almost the same colour, for she nearly always went around barefoot.
Although she sometimes wore shoes in the wintertime, the only shoes she had
weren't a pair, and besides, they were far too big for her. This was because
Momo owned nothing apart from what she had found lying around or had been
given. Her ankle-length dress was a mass of patches of different colours,
and over it she wore a man's jacket, also far too big for her, with the
sleeves turned up at the wrist. Momo had decided against cutting them off
because she wisely reflected that she was still growing, and goodness only
knew if she would ever find another jacket as useful as this one, with all
its many pockets.
Beneath the grassy stage of the ruined amphitheatre, half choked with
rubble, were some underground chambers which could be reached by way of a
hole in the outer wall, and this was where Momo had set up house. One
afternoon, a group of men and women from the neighbourhood turned up and
tried to question her. Momo eyed them apprehensively, fearing that they
had come to chase her away, but she soon saw that they meant well. Being
poor like herself, they knew how hard life could be.
'So,' said one of the men, 'you like it here, do you?'
'And you want to stay here?'
'Yes, very much.'
'Won't you be missed, though?'
'I mean, shouldn't you go home?'
'This is my home,' Momo said promptly.
'But where do you come from?'
Momo gestured vaguely at some undefined spot in the far distance.
'Who are your parents, then?' the man persisted.
Momo looked blankly from him to the others and gave a little shrug. The
men and women exchanged glances and sighed.
'There's no need to be scared,' the man went on, 'we haven't come to
evict you. We'd like to help you, that's all.'
Momo nodded and said nothing, not entirely reassured.
'You're called Momo, aren't you?'
'That's a pretty name, but I've never heard it before. Who gave it to
'I did,' said Momo.
'You chose your own name?'
'When were you born?'
Momo pondered this. 'As far as I can remember,' she said at length,
'I've always been around.'
'But don't you have any aunts or uncles or grandparents? Don't you have
any relations at all who'd give you a home?'
Momo just looked at the man in silence for a while. Then she murmured,
'This is my home, here.'
'That's all very well,' said the man, 'but you're only a kid. How old
are you really?'
Momo hesitated. 'A hundred,' she said.
They all laughed because they thought she was joking.
'No, seriously, how old are you?'
'A hundred and two,' Momo replied, still more hesitantly.
It was some time before the others realized that she'd picked up a few
numbers but had no precise idea of their meaning because no one had ever
taught her to count.
'Listen,' said the man, after conferring with the others, 'would you
mind if we told the police you're here? Then you'd be put in a children's
home where they'd feed you and give you a proper bed and teach you reading
and writing and lots of other things. How does that appeal to you?'
Momo gazed at him in horror. 'No,' she said in a low voice, 'I've
already been in one of those places. There were other children there, too,
and bars over the windows. We were beaten every day for no good reason - it
was awful. One night I climbed the wall and ran away. I wouldn't want to go
'I can understand that,' said an old man, nodding, and the others could
understand and nodded too.
'Very well,' said one of the women, 'but you're still so little.
Someone has to take care of you.'
Momo looked relieved. 'I can take care of myself.'
'Can you really?' said the woman.
Momo didn't answer at once. Then she said softly, 'I don't need much.'
Again the others exchanged glances and sighed.
'Know something, Momo?' said the man who had spoken first. 'We were
wondering if you'd like to move in with one of us. It's true we don't have
much room ourselves. and most of us already have a horde of children to
but we reckon one more won't make any difference. What do you say?'
'Thank you,' Momo said, smiling for the first time. 'Thank you very
much, but couldn't you just let me go on living here?'
After much deliberation, the others finally agreed. It occurred to them
that she would be just as well off here as with one of them, so they decided
to look after Momo together. It would be easier, in any case, for all of
them to do so than for one of them alone.
They made an immediate start by spring-cleaning Memo's dilapidated
dungeon and refurbishing it as best they could. One of them, a bricklayer by
trade, built her a miniature cooking stove and produced a rusty stovepipe to
go with it. The old man, who was a carpenter, nailed together a little table
and two chairs out of some packing cases. As for the womenfolk, they brought
along a decrepit iron bedstead adorned with curlicues, a mattress with only
a few rents in it, and a couple of blankets. The stone cell beneath the
stage of the ruined amphitheatre became a snug little room. The bricklayer,
who fancied himself as an artist, added the finishing touch by painting a
pretty flower picture on the wall. He even painted a pretend frame around it
and a pretend nail as well.
Last of all, the people's children came along with whatever food they
could spare. One brought a morsel of cheese, another a hunk of bread,
another some fruit, and so on. And because so many children came, the
occasion turned into a regular housewarming party. Memo's installation in
the old amphitheatre was celebrated as zestfully as only the poor of this
world know how.
And that was the beginning of her friendship with the people of the
Momo was comfortably off from now on, at least in her own estimation.
She always had something to eat, sometimes more and sometimes less,
depending on circumstances and on what people could spare. She had a roof
over her head, she had a bed to sleep in, and she could make herself a fire
when it was cold. Most important of all, she had acquired a host of good
You may think that Momo had simply been fortunate to come across such
friendly people. This was precisely what Momo herself thought, but it soon
dawned on her neighbours that they had been no less fortunate. She became so
important to them that they wondered how they had ever managed without her
in the past. And the longer she stayed with them, the more indispensable she
became - so indispensable, in fact, that their one fear was that she might
some day move on.
The result was that Momo received a stream of visitors. She was almost
always to be seen with someone sitting beside her, talking earnestly, and
those who needed her but couldn't come themselves would send for her
instead. As for those who needed her but hadn't yet realized it, the others
used to tell them, 'Why not go and see Momo?'
In time, these words became a stock phrase with the local inhabitants.
Just as they said, 'All the best!' or 'So long!' or 'Heaven only knows!', so
they took to saying, on all sorts of occasions, 'Why not go and see Momo?'
Was Momo so incredibly bright that she always gave good
advice, or found the right words to console people in need of
consolation, or delivered fair and far-sighted opinions on their problems?
No, she was no more capable of that than anyone else of her age.
So could she do things that put people in a good mood? Could she sing
like a bird or play an instrument? Given that she lived in a kind of circus,
could she dance or do acrobatics?
No, it wasn't any of these either.
Was she a witch, then? Did she know some magic spell that would drive
away troubles and cares? Could she read a person's palm or foretell the
future in some other way?
No, what Momo was better at than anyone else was listening.
Anyone can listen, you may say - what's so special about that? - but
you'd be wrong. Very few people know how to listen properly, and Momo's way
of listening was quite unique.
She listened in a way that made slow-witted people have flashes of
inspiration. It wasn't that she actually said anything | or asked questions
that put such ideas into their heads. She simply sat there and listened with
the utmost attention and sympathy, fixing them with her big, dark eyes, and
they suddenly became aware of ideas whose existence they had never
Momo could listen in such a way that worried and indecisive people knew
their own minds from one moment to the next, or shy people felt suddenly
confident and at ease, or downhearted people felt happy and hopeful. And if
someone felt that his life had been an utter failure, and that he himself
was only one among millions of wholly unimportant people who could be
replaced as easily as broken windowpanes, he would go and pour out his heart
to Momo. And, even as he spoke, he would come to realize
by some mysterious means that he was absolutely wrong:
that there was only one person like himself in the whole world, and
that, consequently, he mattered to the world in his own particular way.
Such was Momo's talent for listening.
One day, Momo received a visit from two close neighbours who had
quarrelled violently and weren't on speaking terms. Their friends had urged
them to 'go and see Momo' because it didn't do for neighbours to live at
daggers drawn. After objecting at first, the two men had reluctantly agreed.
One of them was the bricklayer who had built Momo's stove and painted
the pretty flower picture on her wall. Salvatore by name, he was a strapping
fellow with a black moustache that curled up at the ends. The other, Nino,
was skinny and always looked tired. Nino ran a small inn on the outskirts of
town, largely patronized by a handful of old men who spent the entire
evening reminiscing over one glass of wine. Nino and his plump wife,
Liliana, were also friends of Momo's and had often brought her good things
So there the two men sat, one on each side of the stone arena, silently
scowling at nothing in particular.
When Momo saw how angry with each other they were, she couldn't decide
which one of them to approach first. Rather than offend either of them, she
sat down midway between them on the edge of the arena and looked at each in
turn, waiting to see what would happen. Lots of things take time, and time
was Momo's only form of wealth.
After the two of them had sat there in silence for minutes on end,
Salvatore abruptly stood up. 'I'm off,' he announced. 'I've shown my good
will by coming here, but the man's as stubborn as a mule, Momo, you can see
that for yourself.' And he turned on his heel.
'Goodbye and good riddance!' Nino called after him. 'You needn't have
bothered to come in the first place. I wouldn't make it up with a vicious
brute like you.'
Salvatore swung around, puce with rage. 'Who's a vicious brute?' he
demanded menacingly, retracing his steps. 'Say that again -- if you dare!'
'As often as you like!' yelled Nino. 'I suppose you think you're too
big and tough for anyone to speak the truth to your face. Well, / will - to
you and anyone else that cares to listen. That's right, come here and murder
me the way you tried to the other day!'
'I wish I had!' roared Salvatore, clenching his fists. 'There you are,
Momo, you see the dirty lies he tells? All I did was take him by the scruff
of the neck and dunk him in the pool of slops behind that lousy inn of his.
You couldn't even drown a rat in that.' Readdressing himself to Nino, he
shouted, 'Yes, you're still alive and kicking, worse luck!'
Insults flew thick and fast after that, and for a while Momo was at a
loss to know what it was all about and why the pair of them were so furious
with each other. It transpired, by degrees, that Salvatore's only reason for
assaulting Nino was that Nino had slapped his face in the presence of some
customers, though Nino counterclaimed that Salvatore had previously tried to
smash all his crockery.
'That's another dirty lie!' Salvatore said angrily. 'I only threw a jug
at the wall, and that was cracked already.'
'Maybe,' Nino retorted, 'but it was my jug. You had no right to do such
Salvatore protested that he had every right, seeing that Nino had cast
aspersions on his professional skill. He turned to Momo. 'Know what he said
about me? He said I couldn't build a wall straight because I was drunk
twenty-four hours a day. My great-grandfather was the same, he said, and
he'd helped to build the Leaning Tower of Pisa.' 'But Salvatore,' said Nino,
'I was only joking.'
'Some joke,' growled Salvatore. 'Very funny, I don't think!'
It then emerged that Nino had only been paying Salvatore back for
another joke. He'd woken up one morning to find some words daubed on the
tavern door in bright red paint. They read: THISINNISOUT. Nino had found
that just as unamusing.
The two of them spent some time wrangling over whose had been the
better joke. Then, after working themselves up into a lather again, they
Momo was staring at them wide-eyed, but neither man quite knew how to
interpret her gaze. Was she secretly laughing at them, or was she sad?
Although her expression gave no clue, they suddenly seemed to see themselves
mirrored in her eyes and began to feel sheepish.
'Okay,' said Salvatore, 'maybe I shouldn't have painted those words on
your door, Nino, but I wouldn't have done it if you hadn't refused to serve
me so much as a single glass of wine. That was against the law, as you know
full well. I've always paid up, and you'd no call to treat me that way.'
'Oh, hadn't I just!' Nino retorted. 'What about the St Anthony
business? Ah, that's floored you, hasn't it! You cheated me right, left and
centre, and I wasn't going to take it lying down.'
'I cheated you?' Salvatore protested, smiting his brow. 'You've got it
the wrong way around. It was you that tried to cheat me, but you didn't
The fact was, Nino had hung a picture of St Anthony on the wall of the
bar-room -- a clipping from an illustrated magazine which he had cut out and
framed. Salvatore offered to buy this picture one day, ostensibly because he
found it so beautiful. By dint of skilful haggling, Nino had persuaded
Salvatore to part with a radio in exchange, laughing up his sleeve to think
that Salvatore was getting the worst of the bargain.
After the deal had been struck, it turned out that nestling between the
picture and its cardboard backing was a banknote of which Nino had known
nothing. Discovering that he had been outwitted, Nino angrily demanded the
money back because it hadn't been included in the bargain. Salvatore refused
to hand it over, whereupon Nino refused to serve him any more, and that was
how it had all begun.
Once they had traced their vendetta back to its original cause, the men
fell silent for a while.
Then Nino said, 'Be honest, Salvatore, did you or didn't you know about
that money before we made the deal?'
'Of course I knew, or I wouldn't have gone through with it.'
'In other words, you diddled me.'
'What? You mean you really didn't know about the money?'
'No, I swear I didn't.'
'There you are, then! It was you that tried to diddle me, or you
wouldn't have taken my radio in exchange for a worthless scrap of
'How did you know about the money?' 'I saw another customer tuck it
into the back as a thank-you to St Anthony, a couple of nights before.' Nino
chewed his lip. 'Was it a lot of money?' 'Only what my radio was worth,'
said Salvatore. 'I see,' Nino said thoughtfully. 'So that's what all this is
about -- a clipping from a magazine.'
Salvatore scratched his head. 'I guess so,' he growled. 'You're welcome
to have it back, Nino.'
'Certainly not,' Nino replied with dignity. 'A deal's a deal. We shook
hands on it, after all.'
Quite suddenly, they both burst out laughing. Clambering down the stone
steps, they met in the middle of the grassy arena, exchanged bear-hugs and
slapped each other on the back. Then they hugged Momo and thanked her
When they left a few minutes later, Momo stood waving till they were
out of sight. She was glad her two friends had made up.
Another time, a little boy brought her his canary because it wouldn't
sing. Momo found that a far harder proposition. She had to sit and listen to
the bird for a whole week before it started to trill and warble again.
Momo listened to everyone and everything, to dogs and cats, crickets
and tortoises -- even to the rain and the wind in the pine trees - and all
of them spoke to her after their own fashion.
Many were the evenings when, after her friends had gone home, she would
sit by herself in the middle of the old stone amphitheatre, with the sky's
starry vault overhead, and simply listen to the great silence around her.
Whenever she did this, she felt she was sitting at the centre of a
giant ear, listening to the world of the stars, and she seemed to hear soft
but majestic music that touched her heart in the strangest way. On nights
like these, she always had the most beautiful dreams.
Those who still think that listening isn't an art should see if they
can do it half as well.
Although Momo listened to grown-ups and children with equal sympathy
and attention, the children had a special reason for enjoying their visits
to the amphitheatre as much as they did. Now that she was living there, they
found they could play better games than ever before. They were never bored
for an instant, but not because she contributed a lot of ingenious
suggestions. Momo was there and joined in, that was all, but for some reason
her mere presence put bright ideas into their heads. They invented new games
every day, and each was an improvement on the last.
One hot and sultry afternoon, a dozen or so children were sitting
around on the stone steps waiting for Momo, who had gone for a stroll
nearby, as she sometimes did. From the look of the sky, which was filled
with fat black clouds, there would soon be a thunderstorm.
'I'm going home,' said one girl, who had a little sister with her.
'Thunder and lightning scares me.'
'What about when you're at home?' asked a boy in glasses. 'Doesn't it
scare you there?' 'Of course it does,' she said. 'Then you may as well
stay,' said the boy. The girl shrugged her shoulders and nodded. After a
while she said, 'But maybe Momo won't turn up.'
'So what?' another voice broke in. It belonged to a rather ragged and
neglected-looking boy. 'Even if she doesn't, we can still play a game.'
•All right, but what?'
'1 don't know. Something or other.'
'Something or other's no good. Anyone got an idea?'
'I know,' said a fat boy with a high-pitched voice. 'Let's pretend the
amphitheatre's a ship, and we sail off across uncharted seas and have
adventures. I'll be the captain, you can be first mate, and you can be a
professor - a scientist, because it's a scientific expedition. The rest of
you can be sailors.'
'What about us girls?' came a plaintive chorus. 'What'll we be?'
'Girl sailors. It's a ship of the future.'
The fat boy's idea sounded promising. They tried it out, but everyone
started squabbling and the game never got under way. Before long they were
all sitting around on the steps again, waiting.
Then Momo turned up, and everything changed.
The Argo's bow rose and fell, rose and fell, as she swiftly but
steadily steamed through the swell towards the South Coral Sea. No ship in
living memory had ever dared to sail these perilous waters, which abounded
with shoals, reefs and mysterious sea monsters. Most deadly of all was the
so-called Travelling Tornado, a waterspout that forever roamed this sea like
some cunning beast of prey. The waterspout's route was quite unpredictable,
and any ship caught up in its mighty embrace was promptly reduced to
Being a research vessel, of course, the Argo had been specially
designed to tackle the Travelling Tornado. Her hull was entirely constructed
of adamantium, a steel as tough and flexible as a sword blade, and had been
cast in one piece by a special process that dispensed with rivets and welded
For all that, few captains and crews would have had the courage to face
such incredible hazards. Captain Gordon of the Argo had that courage. He
gazed down proudly from the
bridge at the men and women of his crew, all of whom were experts in
their particular field. Beside him stood his first mate, Jim Ironside, an
old salt who had already survived a hundred and twenty-seven hurricanes.
Stationed on the sun-deck further aft were Professor Eisen-stein, the
expedition's senior scientist, and his assistants Moira and Sarah, who had
as much information stored in their prodigious memories as a whole reference
library. All three were hunched over their precision instruments, quietly
conferring in complicated scientific jargon.
Seated cross-legged a little apart from them was Momosan, a beautiful
native girl. Now and again the professor would consult her about some
special characteristic of the South Coral Sea, and she would reply in her
melodious Hula dialect, which he alone could understand.
The purpose of the expedition was to discover what caused the
Travelling Tornado and, if possible, make the sea safe for other ships by
putting an end to it. So far, however, there had been no sign of the tornado
and all was quiet.
Quite suddenly, the captain's thoughts were interrupted by a shout from
the lockout in the crow's-nest. 'Captain!' he called down, cupping his hands
around his mouth. 'Unless I'm crazy, there's a glass island dead ahead of
The captain and Jim Ironside promptly levelled their telescopes.
Professor Eisenstein and his two assistants hurried up, bursting with
curiosity, but the beautiful native girl calmly remained seated. The
peculiar customs of her tribe forbade her to seem inquisitive.
When they reached the glass island, as they very soon did, the
professor scrambled down a rope ladder and gingerly stepped ashore. The
surface was not only transparent but so slippery that he found it hard to
keep his footing.
The island was circular and about fifty feet across, with a sort of
dome in the centre. On reaching the summit, the professor could distinctly
make out a light flashing deep in
the heart of the island. He passed this information to tne others, who
were eagerly lining the ship's rail.
'From what you say,' said Moira, 'it must be a Blanc-mangius viscosus.'
'Perhaps,' Sarah chimed in, 'though it could equally be a Jellybeania
Professor Eisenstein straightened up and adjusted his glasses. 'In my
opinion,' he said, 'we're dealing with a variety of the common Chocolatus
indigestibilis, but we can't be sure till we've examined it from below.'
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when three girl sailors, all
of whom were world-famous scuba divers and had already pulled on their
wetsuits, plunged over the side and vanished into the blue depths.
Nothing could be seen for a while but air bubbles. Then one of the
girls, Sandra, shot to the surface. 'It's a giant jellyfish!' she gasped.
'The other two are caught up in its tentacles and can't break loose. We must
save them before it's too late!' So saying, she disappeared again.
Without hesitation, a hundred frogmen led by Commander Franco,
nicknamed 'the Dolphin' because of his skill and experience, dived into the
sea. A tremendous battle raged beneath the surface, which soon became
covered with foam, but the gigantic creature's strength was such that not
even a hundred brave men could release the girls from its terrible embrace.
The professor turned to his assistants with a puzzled frown. 'Something
in these waters seems conducive to the growth of abnormally large sea
creatures,' he observed. 'What an interesting phenomenon!'
Meanwhile, Captain Gordon and his first mate had come to a decision.
'Back!' shouted Jim Ironside. 'All hands back on board! We'll have to
slice the monster in half - it's the girls' only hope.'
'Dolphin' Franco and his frogmen climbed back on board. After going
astern for a short distance, the Argo headed straight for the jellyfish at
maximum speed. The steel ship's bow was as sharp as a razor. Without a sound
- almost without a jolt - it sliced the huge creature in half. Although this
manoeuvre was fraught with danger for the girls entangled in its tentacles,
Jim Ironside had gauged his course to within a hair's breadth and steered
right between them. Instantly, the tentacles on each half of the jellyfish
went limp and lifeless, and the trapped girls managed to extricate
They were welcomed back on board with joy. Professor Eisenstein hurried
over to them. 'It was all my fault,' he said. 'I should never have sent you
down there. Forgive me for risking your lives like that.'
'There's nothing to forgive. Professor,' one of the girls replied with
a carefree laugh. 'It's what we came for, after all.'
'Danger's our trade,' the other girl put in.
But there was no time to say more. Because of the rescue operation, the
captain and his crew had completely forgotten to keep watch on the sea. Only
now, in the nick of time, did they become aware that the Travelling Tornado
had appeared on the horizon and was racing towards them.
An immense roller tossed the Argo into the air, hurled her on to her
side, and sent her plummeting into a watery abyss. Any crew less courageous
and experienced than the Argo's would have been washed overboard or
paralysed with fear by this very first onslaught, but Captain Gordon stood
foursquare on his bridge as though nothing had happened, and his sailors
were just as unperturbed. Momosan, the beautiful native girl, being
unaccustomed to such storm-tossed seas, was the only person to take refuge
in a lifeboat.
The whole sky turned pitch-black within seconds. Shrieking and roaring,
the tornado flung itself at the Argo,
alternately catapulting her sky-high and sucking her down into
cavernous troughs. Its fury seemed to grow with every passing minute as it
strove in vain to crush the ship's steel hull.
The captain calmly gave orders to the first mate, who passed them on to
the crew in a stentorian voice. Everyone remained at his or her post.
Professor Eisenstein and his assistants, far from abandoning their
scientific instruments, used them to estimate where the eye of the storm
must be, for that was the course to steer. Captain Gordon secretly marvelled
at the composure of these scientists, who were not, after all, as closely
acquainted with the sea as himself and his
A shaft of lightning zigzagged down and struck the ship's hull,
electrifying it from stem to stern. Sparks flew whenever the crew touched
anything, but none of them worried. Everyone on board had spent months
training hard for just such an emergency. The only trouble was, the thinner
parts of the ship - cables and stanchions, for instance - began to glow like
the filament in an electric light bulb, and this made the crew's work harder
despite the rubber gloves they were wearing.
Fortunately, the glow was soon extinguished by a downpour heavier than
anyone on board, with the exception of Jim Ironside, had ever experienced.
There was no room for any air between the raindrops - they were too close
together - so they all had to put on masks and breathing apparatus.
Flashes of lightning and peals of thunder followed one another in quick
succession, the wind howled, and mast-high breakers deluged everything with
foam. With all engines running full ahead, the Argo inched her way forward
against the elemental might of the storm. Down below in the boiler rooms,
engineers and stokers made superhuman efforts. They had lashed themselves in
place with stout ropes so that the ship's violent pitching and tossing would
not hurl them into the open furnaces.
But when, at long last, the Argo and her crew reached the innermost eye
of the storm, what a sight confronted them!
Gyrating on the surface of the sea, which had been ironed flat as a
pancake by the sheer force of the storm, was a huge figure. Seemingly poised
on one leg, it grew wider the higher one looked, like a mountainous
humming-top rotating too fast for the eye to make it out in any detail.
'A Teetotum elasticumi' the professor exclaimed gleefully, holding on
to his glasses to prevent them from being washed off his nose by the rain.
'Maybe you'd care to translate that,' growled Jim Ironside. 'We're only
simple seafaring folk, and -'
'Don't bother the professor now,' Sarah broke in, 'or you'll ruin a
unique opportunity. This spinning-top creature probably dates from the
earliest phase of life on earth - it must be over a billion years old. The
one variety known today is so small you can only see it under a microscope.
It's sometimes found in tomato ketchup, or, even more rarely, in chewing
gum. A specimen as big as this may well be the only one in existence.'
'But we're here to eliminate it,' said the captain, shouting to make
himself heard above the sound of the storm. 'All right, Professor, tell us
how to stop that infernal thing.'
'Your guess is as good as mine,' the professor replied. 'We scientists
have never had a chance to study it.'
'Very well,' said the captain. 'We'll try a few shots at it and see
'What a shame,' the professor said sadly. 'Fancy shooting the sole
surviving specimen of a Teetotum elasticum\'
But the antifriction gun had already been trained on the giant
'Fire!' ordered the captain.
The twin barrels emitted a tongue of flame a mile long. There was no
bang, of course, because an antifriction gun, as everyone knows, bombards
its target with proteins.
The flaming missiles streaked towards the Teetotum but were caught and
deflected. They circled the huge figure a few times, travelling ever faster,
ever higher, until they disappeared into the black clouds overhead.
'It's no use,' Captain Gordon shouted. 'We'll simply have to get
'We can't, sir,' Jim Ironside shouted back. 'The engines are already
running full ahead, and that's only just enough to keep us from being blown
'Any suggestions. Professor?' the captain asked, but Professor
Eisenstein merely shrugged. His assistants were equally devoid of ideas. It
looked as if the expedition would have to be abandoned as a failure.
Just then, someone tugged at the professor's sleeve. It was Momosan,
the beautiful native girl.
CHLaSHtXa,' she said, gesturing gracefully. 'Malumba oisitu sono. Erweini
samba insaitu lolobindra. Kramuna heu beni beni sadogau.'
The professor raised his eyebrows. 'Babaluf he said inquiringly. 'Didi
maha feinosi intu ge doinen malumba?'
The beautiful native girl nodded eagerly. 'Dodo um aufa shulamat va
vada,' she replied.
'O" o",' said the professor, thoughtfully stroking his chin. 'What does
she say?' asked the first mate. 'She says,' explained the professor, 'that
her tribe has a very ancient song that would send the Travelling Tornado to
sleep -- or would, if anyone were brave enough to sing it to the creature.'
'Don't make me laugh!' growled Jim Ironside. 'Whoever heard of singing
a tornado to sleep?'
'What do you think. Professor?' asked Sarah. 'Is it scientifically
'One should always try to keep an open mind,' said the professor. 'Many
of these native traditions contain a grain of truth. The Teetotum elasticum
may be sensitive to certain
sonic vibrations. We simply know too little about its mode of
'It can't do any harm,' the captain said firmly, 'so let's give it a
try. Tell her to carry on.'
The professor turned to Momosan and said, 'Malumba didi oisafal huna
She nodded and began to sing a most peculiar song. It consisted of a
handful of notes repeated over and over again:
'Eni meni allubeni, vanna tai susura teni."
As she sang, she clapped her hands and pranced around in time to the
The tune and the words were so easy to remember that the rest joined
in, one after another, until the entire crew was singing, clapping and
cavorting around in time to the music. Nothing could have been more
astonishing than to see the professor himself and that old sea dog, Jim
Ironside, singing and clapping like children in a playground.
And then, lo and behold, the thing they never thought would happen came
to pass: the Travelling Tornado rotated more and more slowly until it came
to a stop and began to sink beneath the waves. With a thunderous roar, the
sea closed over it. The storm died away, the rain ceased, the sky became
blue and cloudless, the waves subsided. The Argo lay motionless on the
glittering surface as if nothing but peace and tranquillity had ever reigned
'Members of the crew,' said Captain Gordon, with an appreciative glance
at each in turn, 'we pulled it off!' The captain never wasted words, they
all knew, so they were doubly delighted when he added, 'I'm proud of you.'
'I think it must really have been raining,' said the girl who had
brought her little sister along. 'I'm soaked, that's for sure.'
She was right. The real storm had broken and moved on, and no one was
more surprised than she to find that she had completely forgotten to be
scared of the thunder and lightning while sailing aboard the Argo.
The children spent some time discussing their adventurous voyage and
swapping personal experiences. Then they said goodbye and went home to dry
The only person slightly dissatisfied with the outcome of the game was
the boy who wore glasses. Before leaving, he said to Momo, 'I still think it
was a shame to sink the Teetotum elasticum, just like that. The last
surviving specimen of its kind, imagine! I do wish I could have taken a
closer look at it.'
But on one point they were all agreed: the games they played with Momo
were more fun than any others.
Two Special Friends
Even when people have a great many friends, there are always one or two
they love best of all, and Momo was no exception.
She had two very special friends who came to see her every day and
shared what little they had with her. One was young and the other old, and
Momo could not have said which of them she loved more.
The old one's name was Beppo Roadsweeper. Although he must have had a
proper surname, everyone including Beppo himself used the nickname that
described his job, which was sweeping roads.
Beppo lived near the amphitheatre in a home-made shack built of bricks,
corrugated iron and tar paper. He was not much taller than Momo, being an
exceptionally small man and bent-backed into the bargain. He always kept his
head cocked to one side -- it was big, with a single tuft of white hair on
top -- and wore a diminutive pair of steel-rimmed spectacles on his nose.
Beppo was widely believed to be not quite right in the head. This was
because, when asked a question, he would give an amiable smile and say
nothing. If, after pondering the question, he felt it needed no answer, he
still said nothing. If it did, he would ponder what answer to give. He could
take as long as a couple of hours to reply, or even a whole day. By this
time the person who had asked the question would have forgotten what it was,
so Beppo's answer seemed peculiar in the extreme.
Only Momo was capable of waiting patiently enough to grasp his meaning.
She knew that Beppo took as long as he did because he was determined never
to say anything untrue. In his opinion, all the world's misfortunes stemmed
from the countless untruths, both deliberate and unintentional, which people
told because of haste or carelessness.
Every morning, long before daybreak, Beppo rode his squeaky old bicycle
to a big depot in town. There, he and his fellow roadsweepers waited in the
yard to be issued brooms and pushcarts and told which streets to sweep.
Beppo enjoyed these hours before dawn, when the city was still asleep, and
he did his work willingly and well. It was a useful job, and he knew it.
He swept his allotted streets slowly but steadily, drawing a deep
breath before every step and every stroke of the broom Step, breathe, sweep,
breathe, step, breathe, sweep ... Every so often he would pause a while,
staring thoughtfully into the distance. And then he would begin again: step,
breathe, sweep . . .
While progressing in this way, with a dirty street ahead of him and a
clean one behind, he often had grand ideas. They were ideas that couldn't
easily be put into words, though -ideas as hard to define as a
half-remembered scent or a colour seen in a dream. When sitting with Momo
after work, he would tell her his grand ideas, and her special way of
listening would loosen his tongue and bring the right words to his lips.
'You see, Momo,' he told her one day, 'it's like this. Sometimes, when
you've a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is
and feel sure you'll never get it swept.'
He gazed silently into space before continuing. 'And then you start to
hurry,' he went on. 'You work faster and faster, and every time you look up
there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even
harder, and you
panic, and in the end you're out of breath and have to stop -and still
the street stretches away in front of you. That's not the way to do it.'
He pondered a while. Then he said, 'You must never think of the whole
street at once, understand? You must only concentrate on the next step, the
next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next.
Again he paused for thought before adding, 'That way you enjoy your
work, which is important, because then you make a good job of it. And that's
how it ought to be.'
There was another long silence. At last he went on, 'And all at once,
before you know it, you find you've swept the whole street clean, bit by
bit. What's more, you aren't out of breath.' He nodded to himself. 'That's
important, too,' he concluded.
Another time, when he came and sat down beside Momo, she could tell
from his silence that he was thinking hard and had something very special to
tell her. Suddenly he looked her in the eye and said, 'I recognized us.' It
was a long time before he spoke again. Then he said softly, 'It happens
sometimes - at midday, when everything's asleep in the heat of the sun. The
world goes transparent, like river water, if you know what I mean. You can
see the bottom.'
He nodded and relapsed into silence. Then he said, even more softly,
'There are other times, other ages, down there on the bottom.'
He pondered again for a long time, searching for the right words. They
seemed to elude him, because he suddenly said, in a perfectly normal tone of
voice, 'I was sweeping alongside the old city wall today. There are five
different-coloured stones in it. They're arranged like this, see?'
He drew a big T in the dust with his forefinger and looked at it with
his head on one side. All at once he whispered, 'I recognized them - the
stones, I mean.'
After yet another long silence, he went on haltingly,
'They're stones from olden times, when me wan was first built. Many
hands helped to build the wall, but those stones were put there by two
particular people. They were meant as a sign, you see? I recognized it.'
Beppo rubbed his eyes. The next time he spoke, it was with something of
an effort. 'They looked quite different then, those two. Quite different.'
His concluding words sounded almost defiant. 'I recognized them, though,' he
said. 'They were you and me - I recognized us!'
People could hardly be blamed for smiling when they heard Beppo
Roadsweeper say such things. Many of them used to tap their heads
meaningfully behind his back, but Momo loved him and treasured every word he
Momo's other special friend was not only young but the exact opposite
of Beppo in every respect. A handsome youth with dreamy eyes and an
incredible gift of the gab, he was always playing practical jokes and had
such a carefree, infectious laugh that people couldn't help joining in. His
first name was Girolamo, but everyone called him Guido.
Like Beppo, Guido took his surname from his job, though he didn't have
a proper job at all. One of his many unofficial activities was showing
tourists around the city, so he was universally known as Guido Guide. His
sole qualification for the job was a peaked cap, which he promptly clapped
on his head whenever any tourists strayed into the neighbourhood. Then,
wearing his most earnest expression, he would march up and offer to show
them the sights. If they were rash enough to accept, Guido let fly. He
bombarded his unfortunate listeners with such a multitude of made-up names,
dates and historical events that their heads started spinning. Some of them
saw through him and walked off in a huff, but the majority took his tales at
face value and dropped a few coins into his cap when he handed it around at
the end of a sightseeing tour.
Although Guide's neighbours used to chuckle at his flights of fancy,
they sometimes looked stern and remarked that it wasn't really right to take
good money for dreaming up a pack of lies.
'I'm only doing what poets do,' Guido would argue. 'Anyway, my
customers get their money's worth, don't they? T give them exactly what they
want. Maybe you won't find my stories in any guidebook, but what's the
difference? Who knows if the stuff in the guidebooks isn't made up too, only
no one remembers any more. Besides, what do you mean by true and untrue? Who
can be sure what happened here a thousand or two thousand years ago? Can
uou?' The others admitted they couldn't.
'There you are, then!' Guido cried triumphantly. 'How can you call my
stories untrue? Things may have happened just the way I say they did, in
which case I've been telling the gospel truth.'
It was hard to counter an argument like that, especially when you were
up against a fast talker like Guido.
Unfortunately for him, however, not many tourists wanted to see the
amphitheatre, so he often had to turn his hand to other jobs. When the
occasion arose he would act as park-keeper, dog walker, deliverer of love
letters, mourner at funerals, witness at weddings, souvenir seller, cat's
meat man, and many other things besides.
But Guido dreamed of becoming rich and famous some-day. He planned to
live in a fabulously beautiful mansion set in spacious grounds, to eat off
gold plates and sleep between silken sheets. He pictured himself as
resplendent in his future fame as a kind of sun, and the rays of that sun
already warmed him in his poverty - from afar, as it were.
'I'll do it, too," he would exclaim when other people scoffed at his
dreams. 'You mark my words!'
Quite how he was going to do it, not even he could have
told them, for Guido held a low opinion of perseverance and hard work.
'What's so clever about working hard?' he said to Momo. 'Anyone can get
rich quick that way, but who wants to look like the people who've sold
themselves body and soul for money's sake? Well, they can count me out. Even
if there are times when I don't have the price of a cup of coffee, I'm still
me. Guide's still Guido!'
Although it seemed improbable that two people as dissimilar as Guido
Guide and Beppo Roadsweeper, with their different attitudes to life and the
world in general, should have become friends, they did. Strangely enough,
Beppo was the only person who never chided .Guido for his irresponsibility;
and, just as strangely, fast-talking Guido was the only person who never
poked fun at eccentric old Beppo. This, too, may have had something to do
with the way Momo listened to them both.
None of the three suspected that a shadow was soon to fall, not only
across their friendship but across the entire neighbourhood - an
ever-growing shadow that was already enfolding the city in its cold, dark
embrace. It advanced day by day like an invading army, silently and
surreptitiously, meeting no resistance because no one was really aware of
But who exactly were the invaders? Even old Beppo, who saw much that
escaped other people, failed to notice the men in grey who busily roamed the
city in ever-increasing numbers. It wasn't that they were invisible; you
simply saw them without noticing them. They had an uncanny knack of making
themselves so inconspicuous that you either overlooked them or forgot ever
having seen them. The very fact that they had no need to conceal themselves
enabled them to go about their business in utter secrecy. Since nobody
noticed them, nobody stopped to wonder where they had come from or, indeed,
were still coming from, for their numbers continued to grow with every
The men in grey drove through the streets in smart grey limousines,
haunted every building, frequented every restaurant. From time to time they
would jot something down in their little grey notebooks.
They were dressed from head to foot in grey suits the colour of a
spider's web. Even their faces were grey. They wore grey bowler hats and
smoked small grey cigars, and none of them went anywhere without a
steel-grey briefcase in his hand.
Guido Guide was as unaware as everyone else that several of these men
in grey had reconnoitred the amphitheatre, busily writing in their notebooks
as they did so.
Momo alone had caught sight of their shadowy figures peering over the
edge of the ruined building. They signalled to each other and put their
heads together as if conferring. Although she could hear nothing, Momo
suddenly shivered as she had never shivered before. She drew her baggy
jacket more tightly around her, but it did no good because the chill in the
air was no ordinary chill. Then the men in grey disappeared.
Momo heard no soft but majestic music that night, as she so often did,
but the next day life went on as usual. She thought no more about her weird
visitors, and it wasn't long before she, too, forgot them.
As time went by, Momo became absolutely indispensable to Guido. He
developed as deep an affection for the ragged little girl as any footloose,
fancy-free young man could have felt for any fellow creature.
Making up stories was his ruling passion, as we have already said, and
it was in this very respect that he underwent a change of which he himself
was fully aware. In the old days, not all of his stories had turned out
well. Either he ran short of ideas and was forced to repeat himself, or he
borrowed from some movie he'd seen or some newspaper article he'd read. His
stories had plodded along, so to speak, but Momo's friendship had suddenly
lent them wings.
Most of all, it was when Momo sat listening to him that his imagination
blossomed like a meadow in springtime. Children and grown-ups flocked to
hear him. He could now tell stories in episodes spanning days or even weeks,
and he never ran out of ideas. He listened to himself as enthralled as his
audience, never knowing where his imagination would lead him.
The next time some tourists visited the amphitheatre -Momo was sitting
on one of the steps nearby - he began as follows:
'Ladies and gentlemen, as I'm sure you all know, the Empress Harmonica
waged countless wars in defence of her realm, which was under constant
attack by the Goats and Hens.
'Having subdued these barbarian tribes for the umpteenth time, she was
so infuriated by their endless troublemaking that she threatened to
exterminate them, once and for all, unless their king. Raucous II, made
amends by sending her his goldfish.
'At that period, ladies and gentlemen, goldfish were still unknown in
these parts, but Empress Harmonica had heard from a traveller that King
Raucous owned a small fish which, when fully grown, would turn into solid
gold. The empress was determined to get her hands on this rare specimen.
'King Raucous laughed up his sleeve at this. He hid the real goldfish
under his bed and sent the empress a young whale in a bejewelled soup
'The empress, who had imagined goldfish to be smaller, was rather
surprised at the creature's size. Never mind, she told herself, the bigger
the better - the bigger now, the more gold later on. There wasn't a hint of
gold about the fish - not even a glimmer - which worried her until King
Raucous's envoy explained that it wouldn't turn into gold until it had
stopped growing. Consequently, its growth should not be obstructed in any
way. Empress Harmonica pronounced herself satisfied with this explanation.
'The young fish grew bigger every day, consuming vast quantities of
food, but Empress Harmonica was a wealthy woman. It was given as much food
as it could put away, so it grew big and fat. Before long, the soup tureen
became too small for it.
'" The bigger the better," said the empress, and had it transferred to
her bathtub. Very soon it wouldn't fit into her bathtub either, so it was
installed in the imperial swimming pool. Transferring it to the pool was no
mean feat, because it now weighed as much as an ox. When one of the slaves
carrying it lost his footing the empress promptly had the wretched man
thrown to the lions, for the fish was now the apple of her eye.
'Harmonica spent many hours each day sitting beside the swimming pool,
watching the creature grow. All she could think of was the gold it would
make, because, as I'm sure you know, she led a very luxurious life and could
never have enough gold to meet her needs.
'"The bigger the better," she kept repeating to herself. These words
were proclaimed a national motto and inscribed in letters of bronze on every
'When even the imperial swimming pool became too cramped, as it
eventually did, Harmonica built the edifice whose ruins you see before you,
ladies and gentlemen. It was a huge, round aquarium filled to the brim with
water, and here the whale could at last stretch out in comfort.
'From now on the empress sat watching the great fish day and night -
watching and waiting for the moment when it would turn into gold. She no
longer trusted a soul, not even her slaves or relations, and dreaded that
the fish might be stolen from her. So here she sat, wasting away with fear
and worry, never closing her eyes, forever watching the fish as it blithely
splashed around without the least intention of turning into gold.
'Harmonica neglected her affairs of state more and more, which was just
what the Goats and Hens had been waiting for. Led by King Raucous, they
launched one final invasion and conquered the country in no time. They never
encountered a single enemy soldier, and the common folk didn't care one way
or the other who ruled them.
'When Empress Harmonica finally heard what had happened, she uttered
the well-known words, "Alas, if only I'd ..." The rest of the sentence is
lost in the mists of time, unfortunately. All we know for sure is that she
threw herself into this very aquarium and perished alongside the creature
that had blighted her hopes. King Raucous celebrated his victory by ordering
the whale to be slaughtered, and the entire population feasted on grilled
whale steaks for a week.
''Which only goes to show, ladies and gentlemen, how unwise it is to
believe all you're told.'
That concluded Guide's lecture. Most of his listeners were profoundly
impressed and surveyed the ruined amphitheatre with awe. Only one of them
was sceptical enough to strike a note of doubt. 'When is all this supposed
to have happened?' he asked.
'1 need hardly remind you,' said Guido, who was never at a loss for
words, 'that Empress Harmonica was a contemporary of the celebrated
philosopher Nauseous the Elder.'
Understandably reluctant to admit his total ignorance of when the
celebrated philosopher Nauseous the Elder lived, the sceptic merely nodded
and said, 'Ah yes, of course.'
All the other tourists were thoroughly satisfied. Their visit had been
well worthwhile, they declared, and no guide had ever presented them with
such a graphic and interesting account of ancient times. When Guido modestly
held out his peaked cap, they showed themselves correspondingly generous.
Even the sceptic dropped a few coins into it.
Guido, incidentally, had never told the same story twice since Momo's
arrival on the scene; he would have found that far too boring. When Momo was
in the audience a floodgate seemed to open inside him, releasing a torrent
of new ideas that bubbled forth without his ever having to think twice.
On the contrary, he often had to restrain himself from going too far,
as he did the day his services were enlisted by two elderly American ladies
whose blood he curdled with the following tale:
'It is, of course, common knowledge, even in your own fair,
freedom-loving land, dear ladies, that the cruel tyrant Marxen-tius
Communis, nicknamed "the Red", resolved to mould the world to fit his own
ideas. Try as he might, however, he found that people refused to change
their ways and remained much the same as they always had been. Towards the
end of his life, Marxentius Communis went mad. The ancient world had no
psychiatrists capable of curing such mental disorders, as I'm sure you
know, so the tyrant continued to rave unchecked. He eventually took it into
his head to leave the existing world to its own devices and create a
brand-new world of his own.
'He therefore decreed the construction of a globe exactly the same size
as the old one, complete with perfect replicas of everything in it - every
building and tree, every mountain, river and sea. The entire population of
the earth was compelled, on pain of death, to assist in this vast project.
'First they built the base on which the huge new globe would rest --
and the remains of that base, dear ladies, are what you now see before you.
'Then they started to construct the globe itself, a gigantic sphere as
big as the earth. Once this sphere had been completed, it was furnished with
perfect copies of everything on earth.
'The sphere used up vast quantities of building materials, of course,
and these could be taken only from the earth itself. So the earth got
smaller and smaller while the sphere got bigger and bigger.
'By the time the new world was finished, every last little scrap of the
old world had been carted away. What was more, the whole of mankind had
naturally been obliged to move to the new world because the old one was all
used up. When it dawned on Marxentius Communis that, despite all his
efforts, everything was just as it had been, he buried his head in his toga
and tottered off. Where to, no one knows.
'So you see, ladies, this craterlike depression in the ruins before you
used to be the dividing line between the old world and the new. In other
words, you must picture everything upside down.'
The American dowagers turned pale, and one of them said in a quavering
voice, 'But what became of Marxentius Com-munis's world?'
'Why, you're standing on it right now,' Guido told her. 'Our world,
ladies, is his!'
The two old things let out a squawk of terror and took to their heels.
This time, Guido held out his cap in vain.
Guide's favourite pastime, though, was telling stories to Momo on her
own, with no one else around. They were fairy tales, mostly, because Momo
liked those best, and they were about Momo and Guido themselves. Being
intended just for the two of them, they sounded quite different from any of
the other stories Guido told.
One fine, warm evening the pair of them were sitting quietly, side by
side, on the topmost tier of stone steps. The first stars were already
twinkling in the sky, and a big, silvery moon was climbing above the dark
silhouettes of the pine trees.
'Will you tell me a story?' Momo asked softly. 'All right,' said Guido.
'What about?' 'Best of all I'd like it to be about us,' Momo said. Guido
thought a while. Then he said, 'What shall we call it?' 'How about The Tale
of the Magic Mirror?' Guido nodded thoughtfully. 'Sounds promising,' he
said. 'Let's see how it turns out.' And he put his arm around Momo and
'Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess named Momo, who
dressed in silk and satin and lived high above the world on a snow-clad
mountain-top, in a palace built of stained glass. She had everything her
heart could desire. Nothing but the choicest food and wine ever passed her
lips. She reclined on silken cushions and sat on ivory chairs. She had
everything, as I say, but she was all alone.
'All the people and things around her - her footmen and
ladies-in-waiting, her dogs and cats and birds, even her flowers - were
'The fact was. Princess Momo had a magic mirror, big and round and made
of the finest silver. Every day and every night she used to send it out into
the world, and the big round mirror soared over land and sea, town and
People who saw it weren't a bit surprised. All they ever said was, "Ah,
there's the moon."
'Well, every time the magic mirror came back to the princess it would
empty out the reflections it had collected on its travels, beautiful and
ugly, interesting and dull, as the case might be. The princess picked out
the ones she liked best. The others she simply threw into a stream, and
quicker than the speed of thought these discarded reflections sped back to
their owners along the waterways of the earth. That's why you'll find your
own reflection looking at you whenever you bend over a stream or a pool of
'I forgot to mention that Princess Momo was immortal. Why? Because
she'd never seen her own reflection in the magic mirror, and anyone who saw
his own reflection in it became mortal at once. Being well aware of this,
Princess Momo took care not to do so. She'd always been quite content to
live and play with her many other reflections.
'One day, however, the magic mirror brought her a reflection that
appealed to her more than any other. It was the reflection of a young
prince. As soon as she saw it, she longed to meet him face to face. How was
she to set about it, though? She didn't know where he lived or who he was -
she didn't even know his name.
'For want of a better idea, she decided to look into the magic mirror
after all, thinking that it might carry her own reflection to the prince.
There was a chance that he might be looking up at the sky when the mirror
floated past and would see her in it. Perhaps he would follow the mirror
back to the palace and find her there.
'So she gazed into the mirror, long and hard, and sent it off around
the world with her reflection. By so doing, of course, she lost her
'Before saying what happened to her next, I must tell you something
about the prince.
'His name was Girolamo, and he ruled a great kingdom of his own
creation. This kingdom was situated neither in the present nor the past, but
always one day ahead in the future, which was why it was called Futuria.
Everyone who dwelt there loved and admired the prince.
' "Your Royal Highness," the prince's advisers told him one day, "it's
time you got married."
'The prince had no objection, so Futuria's loveliest young ladies were
brought to the palace for him to choose from. They all made themselves look
as beautiful as possible, because each of them naturally wanted his choice
to fall on her.
'Among them, however, was a wicked fairy who had managed to sneak into
the palace. The blood that ran in her veins was green and cold, not red and
warm, but nobody noticed this because she had painted her face so skilfully.
'When the Prince of Futuria entered the great, golden throne room she
quickly muttered such a potent spell that poor Girolamo had eyes for no one
but her. He found her so incomparably beautiful that he asked her on the
spot if she would be his wife.
'"With pleasure," hissed the wicked fairy, "but only on one condition."
'"Name it," the prince said promptly, without a second thought.
'"Very well," said the wicked fairy, and she smiled so sweetly that the
poor prince's head swam. "For one whole year, you must never look up at the
moon in the sky. If you do, you will instantly lose all your royal
possessions. You will forget who you really are and find yourself
transported to the land of Presentia, where you will lead the life of a
poor, unknown wretch. Do you accept my terms?"
' "If that's all you ask," cried Prince Girolamo, "what could be
'Meanwhile, Princess Momo had been waiting in vain for the prince to
appear, so she resolved to venture out into the
world and look for him. She let all her reflections go and, leaving her
stained-glass palace behind, set off down the snow-clad mountainside in her
dainty little slippers. She roamed the world until she came to Presentia, by
which time her slippers were worn out and she had to go barefoot, but the
magic mirror bearing her reflection continued to soar overhead.
'One night, while Prince Girolamo was sitting on the roof of his golden
palace, playing checkers with the fairy whose blood was cold and green, he
felt a little drop of moisture on his hand.
' "Ah," said the green-blooded fairy, "it's starting to rain."
'"It can't be," said the prince. "There isn't a cloud in the sky."
'And he looked up, straight into the big silver mirror soaring
overhead, and saw from Princess Momo's reflection that she was weeping and
that one of her tears had fallen on to his hand. And at that instant he
realized that the fairy had tricked him - that she wasn't beautiful at all
and had cold, green blood in her veins. His true love, he realized, was
'"You've broken your promise," snapped the green-blooded fairy,
scowling so hideously that she looked like a snake, "and now you must pay
'And then, while Prince Girolamo sat there as though paralysed, she
reached inside him with her long, green fingers and tied a knot in his
heart. Instantly forgetting that he was the Prince of Futuria, he slunk out
of his palace like a thief in the night and wandered far and wide till he
came to Presentia, where he took the name Guido and lived a life of poverty
and obscurity. All he'd brought with him was Princess Momo's reflection from
the magic mirror, which was blank from then on.
'By now Princess Momo had abandoned the ragged remains of her silk and
satin gown. She wore a patchwork
dress and a man's cast-off jacket, far too big for her, and was living
in an ancient ruin.
'When the two of them met there one fine day. Princess Momo failed to
recognize poor, good-for-nothing Guido as the Prince of Futuria. Guido
didn't recognize her either, because she no longer looked like a princess,
but they became companions in misfortune and a source of consolation to each
'One evening when the magic mirror, now blank, was floating across the
sky, Guido took out Memo's reflection and showed it to her. Crumpled and
faded though it was, the princess immediately recognized it as her own - the
one she'd sent soaring around the world. And then, as she peered more
closely at the poor wretch beside her, she saw he was the long-sought prince
for whose sake she had renounced her immortality.
'She told him the whole story, but Guido sadly shook his head. "Your
words, mean nothing to me," he said. "There's a knot in my heart, and it
stops me remembering."
'So Princess Momo laid her hand on his breast and untied the knot in
his heart with case, and Prince Girolamo suddenly remembered who he was and
where he came from. And he took Princess Momo by the hand and led her far,
tar away, to the distant land of Futuria.'
They both sat silent for a while when Guido had finished. Then Momo
asked, 'Did they ever get married?'
'I think so,' said Guido, '- later on.'
'And are they dead now?'
'No,' Guido said firmly, 'I happen to know that for a fact. The magic
mirror only made you mortal if you looked into it on your own. If two people
looked into it together, it made them immortal again, and that's what those
The big, silver moon floated high above the dark pine
trees, bathing the ruin's ancient stonework in its mysterious light.
Momo and Guido sat there side by side, gazing up at it for a long time and
feeling quite certain that, if only for the space of that enchanted moment,
the pair of them were immortal.
The Men in Grey
The Timesaving Bank.
Life holds one great but quite commonplace mystery. Though shared by
each of us and known to all, it seldom rates a second thought. That mystery,
which -most of us take for granted and never think twice about, is time.
Calendars and clocks exist to measure time, but that signifies little
because we all know that an hour can seem an eternity or pass in a flash,
according to how we spend it.
Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart.
The men in grey knew this better than anyone. Nobody knew the value of
an hour or a minute, or even of a single second, as well as they. They were
experts on time just as leeches are experts on blood, and they acted
They had designs on people's time - long-term and well-laid plans of
their own. What mattered most to them was that no one should become aware of
their activities. They had surreptitiously installed themselves in the city.
Now, step by step and day by day, they were secretly invading its
inhabitants' lives and taking them over.
They knew the identity of every person likely to further their plans
long before that person had any inkling of it. They waited for the ideal
moment to entrap him, and they saw to it that the ideal moment came.
One such person was Mr Figaro, the barber. Though not by any means a
high-class hairdresser, he was well respected in the neighbourhood. Neither
rich nor poor, he owned a small barbershop in the centre of town and
employed an apprentice.
One day, Mr Figaro was standing at the door of his shop waiting for
customers. It was the apprentice's day off, so he was alone. Raindrops were
spattering the pavement and the sky was bleak and dreary - as bleak and
dreary as Mr Figaro's mood.
'Life's passing me by,' he told himself, 'and what am I getting out of
it? Wielding a pair of scissors, chatting to customers, lathering their
faces - is that the most I can expect? When I'm dead, it'll be as if I'd
In fact, Mr Figaro had no objection at all to chatting. He liked to air
his opinions and hear what his customers thought of them. He had no
objection to wielding a pair of scissors or lathering faces, either. He
genuinely enjoyed his work and knew he did it well. Few barbers could shave
the underside of a man's chin as smoothly against the lie of the stubble,
but there were times when none of this seemed to matter.
'I'm an utter failure,' thought Mr Figaro. 'I mean, what do I amount
to? A small-time barber, that's all. If only I could lead the right kind of
life, I'd be a different person altogether.'
Exactly what form the right kind of life should take, Mr Figaro wasn't
sure. He vaguely pictured it as a distinguished and affluent existence such
as he was always reading about in glossy magazines.
'The trouble is,' he thought sourly, 'my work leaves me no time for
that sort of thing, and you need time for the right kind of life. You've got
to be free, but I'm a lifelong prisoner of scissors, lather and chitchat.'
At that moment a smart grey limousine pulled up right outside Mr
Figaro's barbershop. A grey-suited man got out and walked in. He deposited
his grey briefcase on the ledge in front of the mirror, hung his grey bowler
on the hat-rack, sat down in the barber's chair, produced a grey notebook
from his breast pocket and started leafing through it, puffing meanwhile at
a small grey cigar.
Mr Figaro shut the street door because he suddenly found it strangely
chilly in his little shop.
'What's it to be,' he asked, 'shave or haircut?' Even as he spoke, he
cursed himself for being so tactless: the stranger was as bald as an egg.
The man in grey didn't smile. 'Neither,' he replied in a peculiarly
flat and expressionless voice - a grey voice, so to speak. 'I'm from the
Timesaving Bank. Permit me to introduce myself: Agent No. XYQ/384/b. We hear
you wish to open an account with us.'
'That's news to me,' said Mr Figaro. 'To be honest, I didn't even know
such a bank existed.'
'Well, you know now,' the agent said crisply. He consulted his little
grey notebook. 'Your name is Figaro, isn't it?'
'Correct,' said Mr Figaro. 'That's me.'
'Then I've come to the right address,' said the man in grey, shutting
his notebook with a snap. 'You're on our list of applicants.'
'How come?' asked Mr Figaro, who was still at a loss.
'It's like this, my dear sir,' said the man in grey. 'You're wasting
your life cutting hair, lathering faces and swapping idle chitchat. When
you're dead, it'll be as if you'd never existed. If you only had the time to
lead the right kind of life, you'd be quite a different person. Time is all
you need, right?'
'That's just what I was thinking a moment ago,' mumbled Mr Figaro, and
he shivered because it was getting colder and colder in spite of the door
'You see!' said the man in grey, puffing contentedly at his small
cigar. 'You need more time, but how are you going to find it? By saving it,
of course. You, Mr Figaro, are wasting time in a totally irresponsible way.
Let me prove it to you by simple arithmetic. There are sixty seconds in a
minute and sixty minutes in an hour - are you with me so far?'
'Of course,' said Mr Figaro.
Agent No. XY Q/384/b produced a piece of grey chalk and scrawled some
figures on the mirror.
'Sixty times sixty is three thousand six hundred, which makes three
thousand six hundred seconds in an hour. There are twenty-four hours in a
day, so multiply three thousand six hundred by twenty-four to find the
number of seconds in a day and you arrive at a figure of eighty-six thousand
four hundred. There are three hundred and sixty-five days in a year, as you
know, which makes thirty-one million five hundred and thirty-six thousand
seconds in a year, or three hundred and fifteen million three hundred and
sixty thousand seconds in ten years. How long do you reckon you'll live, Mr
'Well,' stammered Mr Figaro, thoroughly disconcerted by now, 'I hope to
live to seventy or eighty, God willing.'
'Very well,' pursued the man in grey. 'Let's call it seventy, to be on
the safe side. Multiply three hundred and fifteen million three hundred and
sixty thousand by seven and you get a grand total of two billion two hundred
and seven million five hundred and twenty thousand seconds.' He chalked this
figure up on the mirror in outsize numerals -- 2,207,520,000 -- and
underlined it several times. 'That, Mr Figaro, is the extent of the capital
at your disposal.'
Mr Figaro gulped and wiped his brow, feeling quite dizzy. He'd never
realized how rich he was.
'Yes,' said the agent, nodding and puffing at his small grey cigar,
'it's an impressive figure, isn't it? But let's continue. How old are you
now, Mr Figaro?'
'Forty-two,' the barber mumbled. He suddenly felt guilty, as if he'd
committed a fraud of some kind.
'And how long do you sleep at night, on average?' 'Around eight hours,'
Mr Figaro admitted. The agent did some lightning calculations. The squeak of
his chalk as it raced across the mirror set Mr Figaro's teeth on edge.
'Forty-two years at eight hours a night makes four hundred and
forty-one million five hundred and four thousand seconds . . . We'll have to
write that off, I'm afraid. How much of the day do you devote to work, Mr
'Another eight hours or so,' Mr Figaro said, apologetically.
'Then we'll have to write off the same amount again,' the agent pursued
relentlessly. 'You also spend a certain proportion of the day eating. How
many hours would you say, counting all meals?'
'I don't exactly know,* Mr Figaro said nervously. 'Two hours, maybe.'
'That sounds on the low side to me,' said the agent, 'but assuming it's
correct we get a figure of one hundred and ten million three hundred and
seventy-six thousand seconds in forty-two years. To continue: you live alone
with your elderly mother, as we know. You spend a good hour with the old
woman every day, that's to say, you sit and talk to her although she's so
deaf she can scarcely hear a word. That counts as more time wasted -
fifty-five million one hundred and eighty-eight thousand seconds, to be
precise. You also keep a budgerigar, a needless extravagance whose demands
on your time amount to fifteen minutes a day, or thirteen million seven
hundred and ninety-seven thousand seconds in forty-two years.'
'B-but -' Mr Figaro broke in, imploringly. 'Don't interrupt!' snapped
the agent, his chalk racing faster and faster across the mirror. 'Your
mother's arthritic as well as deaf, so you have to do most of the housework.
You go shopping, clean shoes and perform other chores of a similar nature.
How much time does that consume daily?' 'An hour, maybe, but -'
'So you've already squandered another fifty-five million one hundred
and eighty-eight thousand seconds, Mr Figaro. We also know you go to the
cinema once a week, sing with a social club once a week, go drinking twice a
week, and spend
the rest of your evenings reading or gossiping with friends. In short,
you devote some three hours a day to useless pastimes that have lost you
another one hundred and sixty-five million five hundred and sixty-four
thousand seconds.' The agent broke off. 'What's the matter, Mr Figaro,
aren't you feeling well?'
'No,' said the barber,'- yes, I mean. Please excuse me . ..' 'I'm
almost through,' said the agent. 'First, though, we must touch on a rather
personal aspect of your life - your little secret, if you know what I mean.'
Mr Figaro was so cold that his teeth had started to chatter.
'So you know about that, too?' he muttered feebly. 'I didn't think
anyone knew except me and Miss Daria -'
'There's no room for secrets in the world of today,' his inquisitor
broke in. 'Look at the matter rationally and realistically Mr Figaro, and
answer me one thing: Do you plan to marry Miss Daria?'
'No-no,' said Mr Figaro, 'I couldn't do that...' 'Quite so,' said the
man in grey. 'Being paralysed from the waist down, she'll have to spend the
rest of her life in a wheelchair, yet you visit her every day for half an
hour and take her flowers. Why?'
'She's always so pleased to see me,' Mr Figaro replied, close to tears.
'But looked at objectively, from your own point of view,' said the
agent, 'it's time wasted - twenty-seven million five hundred and ninety-four
thousand seconds of it, to date. Furthermore, if we allow for your habit of
sitting at the window for a quarter of an hour every night, musing on the
day's events, we have to write off yet another thirteen million seven
hundred and ninety-seven thousand seconds. Very well, let's see how much
time that makes in all.'
He drew a line under the long column of figures and added them up with
the rapidity of a computer.
The sum on the mirror now looked like this:
Friends, social club, etc.
Grand Total 1,324,512,000 seconds
'And that figure,' said the man in grey, rapping the mirror with his
chalk so sharply that it sounded like a burst of machine-gun fire, '- that
figure represents the time you've wasted up to now. What do you say to that,
Mr Figaro said nothing. He slumped into a chair in the corner of the
shop and mopped his brow with a handkerchief, sweating hard despite the icy
The man in grey nodded gravely. 'Yes, you're quite right, my dear sir,
you've used up more than half of your original capital. Now let's see how
much that leaves of your forty-two years. One year is thirty-one million
five hundred and thirty-six thousand seconds, and that, multiplied by
forty-two, comes to one billion three hundred and twenty-four million five
hundred and twelve thousand seconds.'
Beneath the previous total he wrote:
Total time available Time lost to date
1,324,512,000 seconds 1,324,512,000 do.
Balance 0,000,000,000 seconds
Then he pocketed his chalk and waited for the sight of all the zeros to
take effect, which they did.
'So that's all my life amounts to,' thought Mr Figaro,
absolutely shattered. He was so impressed by the elaborate sum, which
had come out perfectly, that he was ready to accept whatever advice the
stranger had to offer. It was one of the tricks the men in grey used to dupe
Agent No. XYQ/384/b broke the silence. 'Can you really afford to go on
like this?' he said blandly. 'Wouldn't you prefer to start saving right
away, Mr Figaro?' Mr Figaro nodded mutely, blue-lipped with cold. 'For
example,' came the agent's grey voice in his ear, 'if you'd started saving
even one hour a day twenty years ago, you'd now have a credit balance of
twenty-six million two hundred and eighty thousand seconds. Two hours a day
would have saved you twice that amount, of course, or fifty-two million five
hundred and sixty thousand. And I ask you, Mr Figaro, what are two measly
little hours in comparison with a sum of that magnitude?'
'Nothing!' cried Mr Figaro. 'A mere flea bite!' 'I'm glad you agree,'
the agent said smoothly. 'And if we calculate how much you could have saved
that way after another twenty years, we arrive at the handsome figure of one
hundred and five million one hundred and twenty thousand seconds. And the
whole of that capital, Mr Figaro, would have been freely available to you at
the age of sixty-two!' 'F-fantastic!' stammered Mr Figaro, wide-eyed with
awe. 'But that's not all,' the agent pursued. 'The best is yet to come. The
Timesaving Bank not only takes care of the time you save, it pays you
interest on it as well. In other words, you end up with more than you put
'How much more?' Mr Figaro asked breathlessly. 'That's up to you,' the
agent told him. 'It depends how much time you save and how long you leave it
on deposit with us.'
'Leave it on deposit?' said Mr Figaro. 'How do you mean?' 'It's quite
simple. If you don't withdraw the time you save for five years, we credit
you with the same amount again.
Your savings double every five years, do you follow? They're worth four
times as much after ten years, eight times as much after fifteen, and so on.
Say you'd started saving a mere two hours a day twenty years ago: by your
sixty-second birthday, or after forty years in all, you'd have had two
hundred and fifty-six times as much in the bank as you originally put in.
That would mean a credit balance of twenty-six billion nine hundred and ten
million seven hundred and twenty thousand seconds.'
And the agent produced his chalk again and wrote the figure on the
'You can see for yourself, Mr Figaro,' he went on, smiling thinly for
the first time. 'You'd have accumulated over ten times your entire life
span, just by saving a couple of hours a day for forty years. If that's not
a paying proposition, I don't know what is.'
'You're right,' Mr Figaro said wearily, 'it certainly is. What a fool I
was not to start saving time years ago! It didn't dawn on me till now, and I
have to admit I'm appalled.'
'No need to be,' the man in grey said soothingly,'- none at all. It's
never too late to save time. You can start today, if you want to.'
'Of course I want to!' exclaimed Mr Figaro. 'What do I have to do?'
The agent raised his eyebrows. 'Surely you know how to save time, my
dear sir? Work faster, for instance, and stick to essentials. Spend only
fifteen minutes on each customer, instead of the usual half-hour, and avoid
time-wasting conversations. Reduce the hour you spend with your mother by
half. Better still, put her in a nice, cheap old folks' home, where someone
else can look after her - that'll save you a whole hour a day. Get rid of
that useless budgerigar. See Miss Daria once every two weeks, if at all.
Give up your fifteen-minute review of the day's events. Above all, don't
squander so much of your precious time on singing, reading
and hobnobbing with your so-called friends. Incidentally, I'd also
advise you to hang a really accurate clock on the wall so you can time your
apprentice to the nearest minute.'
'Fine,' said Mr Figaro. 'I can manage all that, but what about the time
I save? Do I have to pay it in, and if so where, or should I keep it
somewhere safe till you collect it? How does the system operate?'
The man in grey gave another thin-lipped smile. 'Don't worry, we'll
take care of that. Rest assured, we won't mislay a single second of the time
you save. You'll find you haven't any left over.'
'All right,' Mr Figaro said dazedly, 'I'll take your word for it.'
'You can do so with complete confidence, my dear sir.' The agent rose
to his feet. 'And now, permit me to welcome you to the ranks of the great
timesaving movement. You're a truly modern and progressive member of the
community, Mr Figaro. 1 congratulate you.' So saying, he picked up his hat
'One moment,' said Mr Figaro. 'Shouldn't there be some form of
contract? Oughtn't I to sign something? Don't I get a policy of some kind?'
Agent No. XY Q/384/b, who had already reached the door, turned and
regarded Mr Pigaro with faint annoyance. 'What on earth for?' he demanded.
'Timesaving can't be compared with any other kind of saving - it calls for
absolute trust on both sides. Your word is good enough for us, especially as
you can't go back on it. We'll take care of your savings, though how much
you save is entirely up to you - we never bring pressure to bear on our
customers. Good day, Mr Figaro.'
On that note, the agent climbed into his smart grey car and purred off.
Mr Figaro gazed after him, kneading his brow. Although he was gradually
becoming warmer again, he felt sick and
wretched. The air still reeked of smoke from the agent's cigar, a dense
blue haze that was slow to disperse.
Not till the smoke had finally gone did Mr Figaro begin to feel better.
But as it faded, so did the figures chalked up on the mirror, and by the
time they had vanished altogether Mr Figaro's recollection of his visitor
had vanished too. He forgot the man in grey but not his new resolution,
which he believed to be his alone. The determination to save time now so as
to be able to begin a new life sometime in the future had embedded itself in
his soul like a poisoned arrow.
When the first customer of the day turned up, Mr Figaro gave him a
surly reception. By doing no more than was absolutely necessary and keeping
his mouth shut, he got through in twenty minutes instead of the usual
From now on he subjected every customer to the same treatment. Although
he ceased to enjoy his work, that was of secondary importance. He engaged
two assistants in addition to his apprentice and watched them like a hawk to
see they didn't waste a moment. Every move they made was geared to a precise
timetable, in accordance with the notice that now adorned the wall of the
barbershop: TIME SAVED IS TIME DOUBLED!
Mr Figaro wrote Miss Daria a brief, businesslike note regretting that
pressure of work would prevent him from seeing her in the future. His
budgerigar he sold to a pet shop. As for his mother, he put her in an
inexpensive old folks' home and visited her once a month. In the belief that
the grey stranger's recommendations were his own decisions, he carried them
out to the letter.
Meanwhile, he was becoming increasingly restless and irritable. The odd
thing was that, no matter how much time he saved, he never had any to spare;
in some mysterious way, it simply vanished. Imperceptibly at first, but then
quite unmistakably, his days grew shorter and shorter. Almost before he knew
it, another week had gone by, and
another month, and another year, and another and another.
Having no recollection of the grey stranger's visit, Mr Figaro should
seriously have asked himself where all his time was going, but that was a
question never considered by him or any other timesaver. Something in the
nature of a blind obsession had taken hold of Lim, and when he realized to
his horror that his days were flying by faster and faster, as he
occasionally did, it only reinforced his grim determination to save time.
Many other inhabitants of the city were similarly afflicted. Every day,
more and more people took to saving time, and the more they did so the more
they were copied by others -even by those who had no real desire to join in
but felt obliged to.
Radio, television and newspapers daily advertised and extolled the
merits of new, timesaving gadgets that would one day leave people free to
live the 'right' kind of life. Walls and billboards were plastered with
posters depicting scenes of happiness and prosperity. Splashed across them
in fluorescent lettering were slogans such as:
TIMESAVERS ARE GOING PLACES FAST! THE FUTURE BELONGS TO TIMESAVERS!
MAKE MORE OF YOUR LIFE - SAVE TIME!
The real picture, however, was very different. Admittedly, timesavers
were better dressed than the people who lived near the old amphitheatre.
They earned more money and had more to spend, but they looked tired,
disgruntled and sour, and there was an unfriendly light in their eyes.
They'd never heard the phrase 'Why not go and see Momo?' nor did they have
anyone to listen to them in a way that would make them reasonable or
conciliatory, let alone happy. Even had they known of such a person, they
would have been highly unlikely to pay him or her a visit unless the
whole affair could be dealt with in five minutes flat, or they would have
considered it a waste of time. In their view, even leisure time had to be
used to the full, so as to extract the maximum of entertainment and
relaxation with the minimum of delay.
Whatever the occasion, whether solemn or joyous, time-savers could no
longer celebrate it properly. Daydreaming they regarded almost as a criminal
offence. What they could endure least of all, however, was silence, for when
silence fell they became terrified by the realization of what was happening
to their lives. And so, whenever silence threatened to descend, they made a
noise. It wasn't a happy sound, of course, like the hubbub in a children's
playground, but an angry, ill-tempered din that grew louder every day.
It had ceased to matter that people should enjoy their work and take
pride in it; on the contrary, enjoyment merely slowed them down. All that
mattered was to get through as much work as possible in the shortest
possible time, so notices to that effect were prominently displayed in every
factory and office building. They read:
TIME IS PRECIOUS - DON'T WASTE IT! or:
TIME IS MONEY - SAVE IT!
Similar notices hung above business executives' desks and in
boardrooms, in doctors' consulting rooms, shops, restaurants and department
stores - even in schools and kindergartens. No one was left out.
Last but not least, the appearance of the city itself changed more and
more. Old buildings were pulled down and replaced with modern ones devoid of
all the things that were now thought superfluous. No architect troubled to
design houses that suited the people who were to live in them, because that
would have meant building a whole range of different houses. It was far
cheaper and, above all, more timesaving to make them identical.
Huge modem housing developments sprang up on the city's northern
outskirts - endless rows of multi-storeyed tenements as indistinguishable as
peas in a pod. And because the buildings all looked alike, so, of course,
did the streets. They grew steadily longer, stretching away to the horizon
in dead straight lines and turning the countryside into a disciplined
desert. The lives of the people who inhabited this desert followed a similar
pattern: they ran dead straight for as far as the eye could see. Everything
in them was carefully planned and programmed, down to the last move and the
last moment of time.
People never seemed to notice that, by saving time, they were losing
something else. No one cared to admit that life was becoming ever poorer,
bleaker and more monotonous.
The ones who felt this most keenly were the children, because no one
had time for them any more.
But time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart. And the
more people saved, the less they had.
'I don't know,' Momo said one day. 'Seems to me our old friends come
here less and less often than they used to. I haven't seen some of them for
She was sitting between Guido Guide and Beppo Road-sweeper on the
grass-grown steps of the ruined amphitheatre, watching the sun go down.
'Yes,' Guido said pensively, 'it's the same with me. Fewer and fewer
people listen to my stories. It isn't like it used to be. Something's
'But what?' said Momo.
Guido shrugged, spat on the slate he'd been writing on and thoughtfully
rubbed the letters out. Beppo had found the slate in a garbage can some
weeks before and presented it to Momo. It wasn't a new one, of course, and
it had a big crack down the middle, but it was quite usable all the same.
Guido had been teaching Momo her alphabet ever since. Momo had a very good
memory, so she could already read quite well, though her writing was coming
on more slowly.
Beppo, who had been pondering Momo's question, nodded and said, 'You're
right, it's closing in -- it's the same all over the city. I've noticed it
for quite a time.'
'Noticed what?' asked Momo.
Beppo thought a while. Then he said, 'Nothing good.' There was another
pause before he added, 'It's getting cold.'
'Never mind,' said Guido, putting his arm consolingly around Momo's
shoulders, 'more and more children come here, anyway.'
'Exactly,' said Beppo, 'that's just it.' 'What do you mean?' Momo
asked. Beppo thought for a long time before replying. 'They don't come for
the sake of our company,' he said. 'It's a refuge they're after, that's
They looked down at the stretch of grass in the middle of the
amphitheatre, where a newly invented game was in progress. The children
included several of Momo's old friends: Paolo, the boy who wore glasses;
Maria and her little sister, Rosa;
Massimo, the fat boy with the squeaky voice; and Franco, the lad who
always looked rather ragged and unkempt. In addition to them, however, there
were a number of children who had only been coming for the past few days and
one small boy who had first appeared that morning. It looked as if Guido was
right; their numbers were increasing every day.
Momo would have been delighted, except that most of the newcomers had
no idea how to play. All they did was sit around looking bored and sullen
and watching Momo and her friends. Sometimes they deliberately broke up the
other children's games and spoiled everything. Squabbles and scuffles were
frequent, though these never lasted long because Momo's presence had its
usual effect on the newcomers, too, so they soon started having bright ideas
themselves and joining in with a will. The trouble was, new children turned
up nearly every day, some of them from distant parts of the city, and one
spoilsport was enough to ruin a game for everyone else.
But there was another thing Momo couldn't quite understand - a thing
that hadn't happened until very recently. More and more often these days,
children turned up with all kinds of toys you couldn't really play with:
remote-controlled tanks that trundled to and fro but did little else, or
space rockets that whizzed around on strings but got nowhere, or model
robots that waddled along with eyes flashing and heads swivelling but that
They were highly expensive toys such as Momo's friends had never owned,
still less Momo herself. Most noticeable of all, they were so complete, down
to the tiniest detail, that they left nothing at all to the imagination.
Their owners would spend hours watching them, mesmerized but bored, as they
trundled, whizzed or waddled along. Finally, when that palled, they would go
back to the familiar old games in which a couple of cardboard boxes, a torn
tablecloth, a molehill or a handful of pebbles were quite sufficient to
conjure up a whole world of makebelieve.
For some reason, this evening's game didn't seem to be going too well.
The children dropped out, one by one, until they all sat clustered around
Guido, Beppo and Momo. They were hoping for a story from Guido, but that was
impossible because the latest arrival had brought along a transistor radio.
He was sitting a few feet away with the volume at full blast, listening to
'Turn it down, can't you?' growled Franco, the shabby-looking lad.
The newcomer pointed to the radio and shook his head. 'Can't hear you,'
he said with an impudent grin.
'Turn it down!' shouted Franco, rising to his feet.
The newcomer paled a little but looked defiant. 'Nobody tells me what
to do,' he said. 'I can have my radio on as loud as I like.'
'He's right,' said old Beppo. 'We can't forbid him to make such a din,
the most we can do is ask him not to.'
Franco sat down again. 'Then he ought to go somewhere else,' he
grumbled. 'He's already ruined the whole afternoon.'
'I expect he has his reasons,' Beppo said, studying the newcomer
intently but not unkindly through his little steel-rimmed spectacles. 'He's
sure to have.'
The newcomer said nothing, but moments later he turned his radio down
and looked away.
Momo went over and sat down quietly beside him. He switched off the
radio altogether, and for a while all was still.
'Tell us a story, Guido,' begged one of the recent arrivals. 'Oh yes,
do!' the others chimed in. 'A funny one - no, an exciting one - no, a fairy
tale - no, an adventure story!'
But Guido, for the first time ever, wasn't in the mood for telling
stories. At length he said, 'I'd far rather you told me something about
yourselves and your homes - how you spend your time and why you come here.'
The children relapsed into silence. All of a sudden, they looked
dejected and uncommunicative.
"We've got a nice new car,' one of them said at last. 'On Saturdays,
when my mother and father have time, they wash it. If I've been good, I'm
allowed to help. I want a car like that when I'm older.'
'My parents let me go to the cinema every day, if I like,' said a
little girl. 'They don't have time to look after me, you see, and it's
cheaper than a babysitter. That's why I sneak off here and save the money
they give me for the cinema. When I've saved up enough, I'm going to buy an
aeroplane ticket and go and see the Seven Dwarfs.'
'Don't be silly,' said another child. 'They don't exist.' 'They do so,'
retorted the little girl. 'I've even seen pictures of them in a travel
'I've got eleven books on tape,' said a little boy, 'so I can listen to
them whenever I like. Once upon a time my dad used to tell me stories when
he came home from work. That was nice, but he's hardly ever home these days,
and even when he is he's too tired and doesn't feel like it.' 'What about
your mother?' asked Maria. 'She's out all day too.'
'It's the same with us,' said Maria. 'I'm lucky, though, having Rosa to
keep me company.' She hugged the little girl on her lap and went on, 'When I
get home from school I heat up our supper. Then I do my homework, and then'
shrugged her shoulders -- 'then we just hang around till it gets dark.
We come here, usually.'
From the way the children nodded, it was clear that they all fared much
'Personally, I'm glad my parents don't have time for me these days,'
said Franco, who didn't look glad in the least. 'They only quarrel when
they're home, and then they take it out on me.'
Abruptly, the boy with the transistor looked up and said, 'At least I
get a lot more pocket money than I used to.'
'Sure you do,' sneered Paolo. 'The grown-ups dish out money to get rid
of us. They don't like us any more - they don't even like themselves. If you
ask me, they don't like anything any more.'
'That's not true!' the newcomer exclaimed angrily. 'My parents like me
a lot. It isn't their fault, not having any time to spare, it's just the way
things are. They gave me this transistor to keep me company, and it cost a
lot. That proves they're fond of me, doesn't it?'
No one spoke, and suddenly the boy who'd been a spoilsport all
afternoon began to cry. He tried to smother his sobs and wiped his eyes with
his grubby fists, but the tears flowed fast, leaving pallid snail tracks in
the patches of grime on his cheeks.
The other children gazed at him sympathetically or stared at the
ground. They understood him now. Deep down, all of them felt as he did: they
'Yes,' old Beppo repeated after a while, 'it's getting cold.'
'I may not be able to come here much longer,' said Paolo, the boy with
Momo looked surprised. 'Why not?'
'My parents think you're a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings,' Paolo
explained. 'They say you fritter your time away. They say there are too many
of your son around. You've got so much time on your hands, other people have
make do with less and less - that's what they say - and if I keep
coming here I'll end up just like you.'
Again there were nods of agreement from the other children, who had
been told much the same thing.
Guido looked at each of them in turn. 'Is that what you think of us,
too?' he asked. 'If so, why do you keep on coming?'
It was Franco who broke the short silence that followed. 'I couldn't
care less. My old man says I'll end up in prison, anyway. I'm on your side.'
'I see,' Guido said sadly. 'So you do think we're stealing time from
The children dropped their eyes and looked embarrassed. At length,
gazing intently into Beppo's face, Paolo said, 'Our parents wouldn't lie to
us, would they?' In a low voice, he added, 'Aren't you time-thieves, then?'
At that the old roadsweeper rose to his full but diminutive height,
solemnly raised his right hand, and declared, 'I have never, never stolen so
much as a second of another person's time, so help me God.'
'Nor have I,' said Momo.
'Nor I,' Guido said earnestly.
The children preserved an awed silence. If the three friends had given
their solemn word, that was good enough.
'And while we're on the subject,' Guido went on, 'let me tell you
something else. Once upon a time, people used to like coming to see Momo
because she listened to them and helped them to know their own minds, if you
follow my meaning. Nowadays they seldom stop to wonder what they think. They
used to enjoy listening to me, too, because my stories helped them to forget
their troubles, but they seldom bother with that either. They don't have
time for such things, they say, but haven't you noticed something odd? It's
strange the things they don't have time for any more.'
Guido surveyed the listening children with narrowed eyes
and nodded before continuing. 'The other day,' he said, "I bumped into
an old friend in town, a barber by the name of Figaro. We hadn't met for
quite a while, and I hardly recognized him, he was so changed - so irritable
and grumpy and depressed. He used to be a cheerful type, always singing,
always airing his ideas on every subject under the sun. Now, all of a
sudden, he hasn't got time for anything like that. The man's just a shadow
of his former self - he isn't good old Figaro any more, if you know what I
mean. But now comes the really strange part: if he were the only one, I'd
think he'd gone a bit cracked, but he isn't. There are people like Figaro
wherever you look - more and more of them every day. Even some of our oldest
friends are going the same way. I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't
Old Beppo nodded. 'You're right,' he said, 'it must be.' 'In that
case,' said Momo, looking dismayed, 'our friends need help.'
They spent a long time that evening debating what to do. Of the men in
grey and their ceaseless activities, none of them yet had the faintest
Momo, who couldn't wait to ask her old friends what was wrong and why
they'd stopped coming to see her, spent the next few days looking them up.
The first person she called on was Salvatore, the bricklayer. She knew
the house well - Salvatore lived in a little garret under the roof -- but he
wasn't at home. According to the other tenants, he now worked on one of the
big new housing developments on the far side of town and was earning a lot
of money. He seldom came home at all these days, they said, and when he did
it was usually in the small hours. He'd taken to the bottle and was hard to
get along with.
Momo decided to wait for him just the same, so she sat down on the
stairs outside his door. When it grew dark, she fell asleep.
It must have been long past midnight when she was woken by the sound of
unsteady footsteps and raucous singing. Salvatore came blundering upstairs,
caught sight of Momo, and stopped short, looking dumbfounded.
'Momo!' he said hoarsely, clearly embarrassed to be seen in his present
condition. 'So you're still around, eh? What on earth are you doing here?'
'Waiting to see you,' Momo replied shyly. 'You're a fine one, I must
say!' Salvatore smiled and shook his head. 'Fancy turning up to see your old
pal Salvatore in the middle of the night! I'd have paid you a visit myself,
ages ago, but I just don't have the time any more, not for - well, personal
things.' He gestured vaguely and flopped down on the stairs beside her.
'You've no idea the kind of life I lead these days. Things aren't the way
they used to be - times are changing. Over where I'm working now,
everything's done in double-quick time. We all work like fury. One whole
floor a day, that's what we have to sling together, day after day. Yes, it
isn't like it used to be. Everything's organized -- every last move we make
Momo listened closely as he rambled on, and the longer she listened the
less enthusiastic he sounded. Suddenly he lapsed into silence and massaged
his face with his work-roughened hands.
'I've been talking rubbish,' he said sadly. 'I'm drunk again, Momo,
that's the trouble. I often get drunk these days, there's no denying it, but
that's the only way I can stomach the thought of what we're doing over
there. To an honest bricklayer like me, it goes against the grain. Too
little cement and too much sand, if you know what that means. Four or five
years is all those buildings will last, then they'll collapse if anyone so
much as blows his nose. Shoddy workmanship from top to bottom, but that's
not the worst of it. Those tenements we're putting up aren't places for
people to live in,
they're - they're hen coops. It's enough to make you sick. Still, why
should I care as long as I get my wages at the end of the week? Yes, times
are changing all right. It used to give me a kick when we built something
worthwhile, but now ... Someday, when I've made enough money, I'm going to
quit this job and do something different.'
He propped his chin on his hands and stared mournfully into space. Momo
still said nothing, just went on listening. When Salvatore spoke again, he
sounded a little brighter.
'Maybe I should start coming to see you again and telling you my
troubles -- yes, I really should. What about tomorrow or the day after? I'll
have to see if I can fit it in, but I'll come, never fear. Is it a date?'
Momo nodded happily. Then, because they were both very tired, they said
good night and she left.
But Salvatore never turned up, neither the next day nor the day after
that. He never turned up at all.
The next people Momo called on were Nino the innkeeper and his fat wife
Liliana. Their little old tavern, which had damp-stained walls and a vine
growing around the door, was on the outskirts of town.
Momo went around to the back, as she used to in the old days. Through
the kitchen door, which was open, she could hear Nino and Liliana
quarrelling violently. Liliana, her plump face shiny with sweat, was
clattering pots and pans around on the stove while Nino shouted and
gesticulated at her. Their baby was lying in a baskerwork crib in the
Momo sat down quietly beside the baby, took it on her lap, and rocked
it gently to and fro until it stopped crying. The grown-ups interrupted
their war of words and glanced in her direction.
'Oh, it's you,' said Nino, with a ghost of a smile. 'Nice to see you
'Hungry?' Liliana inquired rather brusquely.
Momo shook her head.
'So what do you want?' Nino demanded. He sounded grumpy. 'We're rather
pressed for time just now.'
'I only wanted to ask why it's been so long since you came to see me,'
Momo said softly.
Nino frowned. 'Search me,' he said irritably. 'I've got enough worries
as it is.'
'Yes,' snapped Liliana, 'he certainly has. Getting rid of our regular
customers, that's all he worries about these days. Remember the old men who
always used to sit at the corner table in the bar, Momo? Well, he sent them
packing -- he chucked them out!'
'No, I didn't,' Nino protested. 'I asked them, quite politely, to take
their custom elsewhere. As landlord of this inn, I was perfectly within my
'Your rights, your rights!' Liliana said angrily. 'You simply can't act
that way - it's mean and cruel. You know they'll never find another inn as
easygoing as ours. It wasn't as if they were disturbing anyone.'
'There wasn't anyone to disturb, that's why!' retorted Nino. 'No
decent, well-heeled customers would patronize this place while those
stubble-chinned old codgers were lolling about in the corner. Besides,
there's little enough profit in one measly glass of cheap red wine, which
was all they could afford in an evening. We'll never get anywhere at this
Liliana shrugged. 'We've done all right so far.'
'So far, maybe,' Nino said fiercely, 'but you know yourself we can't go
on like this. They've just raised our rent -- I've got to pay thirty per
cent more than before and everything's getting more expensive all the time.
How am I going to find the money if I turn this place into a home for
doddering old down-and-outs? Why should I go easy on other people? No one
goes easy on me.'
Liliana banged a saucepan down on the stove so hard that the lid
rattled. 'Let me remind you of something,' she said, putting her hands on
her mountainous hips. 'One of those doddering old down-and-outs, as you call
them. is my Uncle Enrico, and I won't have you insulting my relations.
Enrico's a decent, respectable man, even if he doesn't have much money to
splash around, like those well-heeled customers you've set your heart on.'
'But Enrico's free to come here any rime,' Nino said with a lordly
gesture. 'I told him he could stay if he wanted, but he wouldn't.'
'Without his cronies? Of course he wouldn't! What did you expect him to
do, sit in a corner by himself?'
'That settles it, then,' Nino shouted. 'In any case, I've no intention
of ending my days as a small-time innkeeper just for your Uncle Enrico's
benefit. I want to get somewhere in life. Is that such a crime? I aim to
make a success of this place, and not just for my own sake. I'm thinking of
you and the baby as well, Liliana, don't you understand?'
'No, I don't,' Liliana said sharply. 'If being heartless is the only
way you can get somewhere in life, count me out. I warn you: sooner or later
I'll pack up and leave you, so suit yourself!' On that note, she took the
baby from Momo - it had started crying again - and flounced out of the
Nino said nothing for a long time. He lit a cigarette and twiddled it
between his fingers while Momo sat watching him.
'As a matter of fact,' he said eventually, 'they were nice old boys --
I was fond of them myself. I feel bad about them, Momo, but what else could
I do? Times have changed, you see.' His voice trailed off, and it was a
while before he went on. 'Maybe Liliana was right all along. Now that the
old men don't come here any more, the atmosphere seems strange -cold,
somehow. I don't even like the place myself. I honestly don't know what to
do for the best. Everyone acts the same
way these days, so why should I be the odd man out?' He hesitated. 'Or
do you think I should?'
Momo gave an almost imperceptible nod.
Nino caught her eye and nodded too. Then they both smiled.
'I'm glad you came,' Nino said. 'I'd quite forgotten the way we always
used to say, "Why not go and see Momo?" Well, I will come and see you again,
and I'll bring Liliana with me. The day after tomorrow is our day off. We'll
turn up then, all right?'
'All right,' said Momo, and went on her way, but not before Nino had
presented her with a big bag of apples and oranges.
Sure enough, Nino and Liliana turned up two days later, complete with
their baby and a basketful of goodies.
'Just imagine, Momo,' said Liliana, beaming, 'Nino went to see Uncle
Enrico and the other old men. He apologized to them, one after the other,
and asked them to come back.'
Nino smiled, too, and scratched his ear in some embarrassment. 'Yes,'
he said, 'and back they all came. I can say goodbye to my plans for the inn,
but at least I like the place again.'
He chuckled, and Liliana said, 'We'll get by, Nino.'
It turned out to be a lovely afternoon, and before leaving they
promised to come again soon.
So Momo went the rounds of all her old friends, one by one. She called
on the carpenter who had made her little table and chairs out of packing
cases, and on the women who had brought her the bedstead. In short, she
called on all the people whom she had listened to in the old days and who,
thanks to her, had grown wiser, happier or more self-assured. Although some
of them failed to keep their promise to come and see her, or were unable to
for lack of time, so many old faces did turn up that things were almost as
they used to be.
Not that Momo knew it, she was upsetting the plans of the men in grey,
and that they couldn't tolerate.
Soon afterwards, one exceptionally hot and sultry afternoon, Momo came
across a doll on the steps of the old amphitheatre.
It wasn't uncommon for children to forget all about expensive toys they
couldn't really play with and leave them behind by mistake, but Momo had no
recollection of seeing such a doll - and she would certainly have noticed
it, because it was a very unusual one.
Nearly as tall as Momo herself, the doll was so lifelike that it might
almost have been mistaken for a miniature human being, though not a child or
a baby. Its red minidress and high-heeled sandals made it look more like a
shop-window dummy or a stylish young woman about town.
Momo stared at it, fascinated. After a while she put out her hand and
touched it. Instantly, the doll blinked a couple of times, opened its
rosebud mouth, and said, in a metallic voice that sounded as if it were
issuing from a telephone, 'Hello, I'm Lola, the Living Doll.'
Momo jumped back in alarm. Then, automatically, she replied, 'Hello,
The doll's lips moved again. 'I belong to you,' it said. 'All the other
kids envy you because I'm yours.'
'You aren't mine,' Momo said. 'Someone must have left you here by
She picked the doll up. Again the lips moved. 'I'd like some nice new
things,' said the metallic voice.
'Would you?' Momo thought for a moment. 'I doubt if I've got anything
you'd care for, but you're welcome to look.'
Still holding the doll, Momo clambered through the hole in the wall
that led to her underground room. All her most treasured possessions were in
a box beneath the bed. She pulled it out and lifted the lid.
'Here,' she said, 'this is all I've got. If you'd like anything, )ust
tell me.' And she showed the doll a colourful bird's feather, a pebble with
pretty streaks in it, a brass button and a fragment of coloured glass. The
doll said nothing, so she nudged it.
'Hello,' it said. 'I'm Lola, the Living Doll.'
'I know,' said Momo, 'but you told me you wanted something. How about
this lovely pink seashell? Would you like it?'
'I belong to you,' the doll replied. 'All the other kids envy you
because I'm yours.'
'You told me that, too,' said Momo. 'All right, if you don't want any
of my things, perhaps we could play a game together. Shall we?'
'I'd like some nice new things,' the doll repeated.
'I don't have anything else,' Momo said. She took the doll and climbed
back outside again. Then she put Lola, the Living Doll, on the ground and
sat down facing her.
'Let's pretend you've come to pay me a visit,' Momo suggested.
'Hello,' said the doll. 'I'm Lola, the Living Doll.'
'How nice of you to call,' Momo replied politely. 'Have you come far?'
'I belong to you,' the doll said. 'All the other kids envy you because
'Look,' said Momo, 'we'll never get anywhere if you go on repeating
yourself like this.'
'I'd like some nice new things,' said the doll, fluttering its
Momo tried several games in turn, but nothing came of them. If only the
doll had remained silent, she could have supplied the answers herself and
held an interesting conversation with it. As it was, the very fact that it
could talk made conversation impossible.
Before long, Momo was overcome by a sensation so
entirely new to her that she took quite a while to recognize it as
plain boredom. Although her inclination was to abandon Lola, the Living
Doll, and play some other game, she couldn't for some reason tear herself
away. So there she sat, gazing at the doll, and the doll, with its glassy
blue eyes fixed on hers, gazed back. It was as if they had hypnotized each
When, at long last, Momo did manage to drag her eyes away from the
doll, she gave a little start of surprise. Parked close by, not that she had
heard it drive up, stood a smart grey car. In it sat a man wearing a suit as
grey as a spider's web and a stiff, round bowler hat of the same colour. He
was smoking a small grey cigar, and his face, too, was as grey as ashes.
He must have been watching Momo for some time because he nodded and
smiled at her; and although the day was so hot that the air was dancing in
the sunlight, Momo suddenly began to shiver.
The man opened the car door and came over, carrying a steel-grey
'What a lovely doll you have there,' he said in a peculiarly flat and
expressionless voice. 'It must be the envy of all your playmates.'
Momo just shrugged and said nothing.
'I'll bet it cost a fortune,' the man in grey went on.
'I wouldn't know,' Momo mumbled, feeling rather embarrassed. 'I found
it lying around.'
'Well, I never!' said the man in grey. 'You are a lucky girl, and no
Momo remained silent and hugged her baggy jacket tightly to her. It was
growing colder and colder.
'All the same,' said the man in grey with a thin-lipped smile, 'you
don't seem too pleased.'
Momo shook her head. She suddenly felt as if happiness had fled the
world for ever - or rather, as if happiness had never existed and all her
ideas of it had been merely figments
ot her own imagination. At the same time, she had a presentiment of
'I've been watching you for quite a while,' pursued the man in grey.
'From what I've seen, you don't have the first idea how to play with such a
marvellous doll. Shall I show you?'
Momo stared at him in surprise and nodded. 'I'd like some nice new
things,' the doll squawked suddenly.
'You see?' said the man in grey. 'She's actually telling you herself.
You can't play with a marvellous doll like this the way you'd play with any
old doll, that's obvious. Anyway, it isn't what she's meant for. If you
don't want to get bored with her, you have to give her things. Look here!'
He went back to the car and opened the boot. 'In the first place,' he
said, 'she needs plenty of clothes - like this gorgeous evening gown, for
He pulled out a gown and tossed it to Momo. 'And here's a genuine mink
coat, and a tennis dress, and a skiing outfit, and a swimsuit, and a riding
habit, and some pyjamas, and a nightie, and another dress, and another, and
another, and another . . .'
One by one, he tossed them over till they formed a huge heap on the
ground between Momo and the doll.
'There,' he said with another thin-lipped smile, 'that should keep you
happy for a while, shouldn't it? Or are you going to get bored again after a
couple of days? Very well, you'll just have to have some more nice things
for your doll.' And he reached inside the boot again. 'Here, for instance,
is a real little snakeskin purse with a real little lipstick and powder
compact inside. Here's a miniature camera, and a tennis racket, and a doll's
TV set that really works. Here's a bracelet, a necklace, some earrings, a
doll's gold-plated automatic, some silk stockings, a feather boa, a straw
hat, an Easter bonnet, some miniature golf clubs,
a little chequebook, perfume, bath salts, body lotion .. .' He broke
off and glanced keenly at Momo, who was sitting amid this clutter of toys
with a stunned expression on her face.
'You see,' he said, 'it's quite simple. As long as you go on getting
more and more things, you'll never grow bored. I know what you're going to
say: Sooner or later, Lola will have everything, and then I'll be bored
again. Well, there's no fear of that. Here we have the perfect boyfriend for
This time, when he reached into the boot, he produced a boy doll. It
was the same size as Lola and just as lifelike. 'Look,' he said, 'this is
Butch. He has any number of nice things, too, and when you get bored with
him we can supply a girlfriend for Lola with masses of outfits that won't
fit anyone but her. Butch has a friend, too, and his friend has friends of
his own, and so on ad infinitum. So you see, you need never get bored
because the game can go on for ever. There's always something left to wish
As he spoke, the man in grey took doll after doll from the boot, whose
contents seemed inexhaustible. Momo continued to sit there, watching him
rather apprehensively, while he arrayed them on the ground beside her.
'Well,' he said at length, expelling a dense cloud of smoke from his
cigar, 'now do you see how to play with dolls like these?'
'Yes,' said Momo, who was positively shaking with cold.
Satisfied, the man in grey nodded and took another pull at his cigar.
'You'd like to keep all these nice things, wouldn't you? Of course you
would. Very well, I'll make you a present of them. You can have them - not
all at once, of course, but one at a time -- and lots of other things as
well. You don't have to do anything in return, just play with them the way
I've shown you. What do you say?'
He fixed Momo with an expectant smile. Then, when she still said
nothing, just returned his gaze without smiling back, he went on quickly,
'You won't need your friends any more,
don't you see? You'll have quite enough to amuse you when all these
lovely things are yours and you keep on getting more, won't you? You'd like
that, wouldn't you? Surely you want this marvellous doll? I'll bet you've
already set your heart on it!'
Momo dimly sensed that she had a fight on her hands -indeed, that she
was already in the thick of the fray -- but she didn't know why she was
fighting or with whom. The longer she listened to this stranger, the more
she felt as she had felt with the doll: she could hear a voice speaking and
hear the words it uttered, but she couldn't tell who was actually saying
them. She shook her head.
'What!' exclaimed the man in grey, raising his eyebrows. 'You modem
children are never satisfied, honestly! Lola's perfect in every detail. If
there's anything wrong with her, perhaps you'd care to tell me.'
Momo stared at the ground and thought hard. Then she said, very
quietly, 'I don't think anyone could love it -- her, I mean.'
The man in grey didn't answer for some time. He stared into space with
eyes as glassy as the doll's. At last he pulled himself together. 'That's
not the point,' he said coldly.
Momo met his eye. What scared her most about him was the icy chill that
seemed to emanate from his body, yet in some strange way -- she couldn't
have said why - she felt sorry for him as well as scared.
'But I do love my friends,' she said.
The man in grey grimaced as if he'd bitten into a lemon, but he quickly
recovered his composure and gave her a razor-sharp smile. 'Momo,' he said
smoothly, 'I think we should have a serious talk, you and I. It's time you
learned what matters in life.' He produced a little grey notebook from his
pocket and leafed through it until he found what he was looking for. 'Your
name is Momo, isn't it?'
Momo nodded. The man in grey shut his notebook with a
snap and pocketed it again. Then, with a faint grunt of exertion, he
sat himself down on the ground at Momo's side. He said no more for a while,
just puffed thoughtfully at his small grey cigar.
'All right, Momo,' he said at last, 'listen carefully.' Momo had been
trying to do this all the time, but the man in grey was far harder to listen
to than anyone she'd ever heard. She could understand what other people
meant and what they were like by getting right inside them, so to speak, but
with him this was quite impossible. Whenever she tried to read his thoughts
she seemed to plunge headlong into a dark chasm, as if there were nothing
there at all. It had never happened to her before.
'All that matters in life,' the man in grey went on, 'is to climb the
ladder of success, amount to something, own things. When a person climbs
higher than the rest, amounts to more, owns more things, everything else
friendship, love, respect, et cetera. You tell me you love your
friends. Let's examine that statement quite objectively.'
He blew a few smoke rings. Momo tucked her bare feet under her skirt
and burrowed still deeper into her oversize jacket.
'The first question to consider,' pursued the man in grey, 'is how much
your friends really gain from the fact of your existence. Are you any
practical use to them? No. Do you help them to get on in the world, make
more money, make something of their lives? No again. Do you assist them in
their efforts to save time? On the contrary, you distract them - you're a
millstone around their necks and an obstacle to their progress. You may not
realize it, Momo, but you harm your friends by simply being here. Without
meaning to be, you're really their enemy. Is that what you call love?'
Momo didn't know what to say. She'd never looked at things that way.
She even wondered, for one brief moment, whether the man in grey might not
be right after all.
'And that,' he went on, 'is why we want to protect your friends from
you. If you really love them, you'll help us. We have their interests at
heart, so we want them to succeed in life. We can't just look on idly while
you distract them from everything that matters. We want to make sure you
leave them alone - that's why we're giving you all these lovely things.'
Momo's lips had begun to tremble. 'Who's "we"?' she asked.
'The Timesaving Bank,' said the man in grey. 'I'm Agent No. BLW/553/c.
I wish you no harm, personally speaking, but the Timesaving Bank isn't an
organization to be trifled with.'
Just then, Momo recalled what Beppo and Guido had said about timesaving
being infectious, and she had an awful suspicion that this stranger had
something to do with the spread of the epidemic. She wished from the bottom
of her heart that her friends were with her now. She had never felt so
alone, but she was determined not to let fear get the better of her.
Summoning up all her courage, she plunged headlong into the dark chasm in
which the stranger concealed his true self.
He had been watching her out of the corner of his eye, so the change in
her expression did not escape him. He lit a fresh cigar from the butt of the
'Don't bother,' he said with a sarcastic smile. 'You're no match for
But Momo stood firm. 'Isn't there anyone who loves youY she whispered.
The man in grey squirmed a little. 'I must say,' he replied in his
greyest voice, 'I've never met anyone like you before, truly I haven't, and
I've met a lot of people in my time. If there were many more like you
around, we'd have nothing left to live on. We'd have to close down the
Timesaving Bank and dissolve into thin air.'
He broke off, staring at Momo as if she were something he could neither
understand nor cope with. His face turned a shade greyer. When next he
spoke, it was as if he were doing so against his will - as if the words were
pouring forth despite him. At the same time, his face became more and more
convulsed with horror at what was happening to him. At long last, Momo heard
his real voice, which seemed to come from infinitely far away.
'We have to remain unrecognized,' he blurted out. 'No one must know of
our existence or activities. We make sure no one ever remembers us, because
we can only carry on our business if we pass unnoticed. It's a wearisome
business, too, bleeding people of their time by the hour, minute and second.
All the time they save, they lose to us. We drain it off, we hoard it, we
thirst for it. Human beings have no conception of the value of their time,
but we do. We suck them dry, and we need more and more time every day,
because there are more and more of us. More and more and more ...'
The last few words were uttered in a sort of death rattle. The man in
grey clapped his hands over his mouth and stared at Momo with his eyes
bulging. Little by little, he seemed to emerge from a kind of trance.
'W-what happened?' he stammered. 'You've been spying on me! I'm ill,
and it's all your fault!' His tone became almost imploring. 'I've been
talking nonsense, Momo. Forget it -forget me like everyone else. You must,
He grabbed hold of Momo and shook her. Her lips moved, but she couldn't
get a word out.
The man in grey jumped to his feet. He peered in all directions like a
cornered beast, then snatched up his briefcase and sprinted to the car. The
next moment, something very strange happened. Like an explosion in reverse,
all the dolls and their scattered belongings flew back into the boot, which
slammed shut. The car roared off at such speed that grit and pebbles spurted
from its wheels.
Momo sat there for a long time, trying to make sense of what she had
heard. As the dreadful chill seeped slowly from her limbs, so her thoughts
became steadily clearer. Now that she had heard the real voice of the man in
grey, she could remember everything.
From the sun-baked grass in front of her rose a slender thread of
smoke. The trampled butt of a small grey cigar was smouldering away to
Late that afternoon, Guido and Beppo turned up. They found Momo sitting
in the shade of a wall, still rather pale and upset, so they sat down beside
her and anxiously inquired what the matter was. Momo began to tell them what
had happened, haltingly at first, but she ended by repeating her entire
conversation with the man in grey, word for word.
Old Beppo watched her gravely and intently throughout, the furrows in
his wrinkled brow growing deeper by the minute. He said nothing, even when
she had finished.
Guido, by contrast, listened to her with mounting excitement. His eyes
began to shine as they so often did when he himself was telling a story and
got carried away. He gripped Momo by the shoulder.
'Well,' he said, 'this is our big moment. You've discovered something
no one else knew. Now we can rescue everyone from their clutches - not just
our friends but the whole city! It's up to the three of us - you, me and
He jumped up and stood there with his arms outflung. In his mind's eye
he could see a vast crowd of people hailing him as their saviour.
'Yes,' said Momo, looking rather baffled, 'but how?'
'What do you mean, "how"?' Guido demanded irritably.
'I mean,' said Momo, 'how do we beat the men in grey at their own
Guido shrugged. 'I can't say exactly, of course, not right this minute.
We'll have to work something out first, but one
thing's for sure: now we know they exist and what they're up to, we
must tackle them - or are you scared?'
Momo nodded uneasily. 'I don't think they're ordinary men. The one that
was here looked different, somehow, and the air around him was dreadfully
cold. If there are a lot of them, they're bound to be dangerous. Yes, I'm
scared all right.'
'Don't be silly,' Guido said briskly. 'The whole thing's quite simple.
They can only do their dirty work as long as nobody recognizes them - your
visitor said so himself. Well, then! All we have to do is make sure they're
recognizable. Once people recognize them they'll remember them, and once
they remember them they'll know them again at a glance. The men in grey
won't be able to harm us then - we'll be safe as houses.'
'You really think so?' Momo said, rather doubtfully.
Guide's eyes were alight with confidence. 'Of course,' he assured her.
'Why else would your visitor have taken to his heels like that? They're
terrified of us, 1 tell you.'
'What if we can't find them?' Momo asked. 'They may go and hide.'
'They may well,' Guido conceded. 'If they do, we'll simply have to lure
them out into the open.'
'But how?' asked Momo. 'They're pretty clever, it seems to me.'
'That's easy,' Guido said with a chuckle. 'We'll take advantage of
their own greed. If you can catch mice with cheese, you can catch
time-thieves with time - and that we've got plenty of. For instance, Beppo
and I could lie in wait while you sat here twiddling your thumbs. When they
took the bait, we'd jump out and overpower them.'
'But they know me already,' Momo objected. 'I don't think they'd fall
'All right,' said Guido, who was brimming over with bright ideas, 'then
we'll try something else. Your man in grey
mentioned something about a Timesaving Bank. That means it's a building
somewhere in town. All we have to do is find it, and find it we will,
because it's bound to be a very special-looking place. I can see it now -
grey, sinister and windowless, like a gigantic concrete safe. Once we find
it, we'll walk straight in. We'll all be armed with pistols, one in each
hand. "You!" I'll say "Hand over the time you've stolen, and make it
snappy!" And they'll -'
'But we don't have any pistols,' Momo broke in, anxiously.
Guido grandly dismissed this objection. 'Then we'll do it unarmed.
That'll impress them even more. They'll panic at the very sight of us.'
'It might be better if there were a few more of us,' Momo said. 'I
mean, we'd probably find the Timesaving Bank quicker if other people went
looking for it too.'
'Good idea,' said Guido. 'We must mobilize all our friends - and all
the kids who spend so much time here nowadays. I vote we get started right
away, the three of us. Tell as many people as you can find, and tell them to
pass the word. We'll all meet up here at three tomorrow afternoon, for a
grand council of war.'
So they all set off at once, Momo in one direction, Beppo and Guido in
The two men had gone some distance when Beppo, who still hadn't spoken,
came to a sudden stop. 'Know something, Guido?' he said. 'I'm worried.'
Guido turned to look at him. 'About what?' Beppo regarded his friend in
silence for a moment. Then he said, 'I believe Momo.'
'So do I,' said Guido, puzzled. 'What of it?' 'I mean,' Beppo went on,
'I believe that what she told us is true.'
Guido couldn't understand what the old man was getting at. 'Of course,'
he said. 'So what?'
'Well,' said Beppo, 'if it's true what she told us, we shouldn't rush
into anything. We don't want to tangle with a bunch of crooks just like
that, do we? If we provoke them, it may land Momo in trouble. I don't mind
so much about us, but we may endanger the children if we bring them into it
too. We must think very carefully before we act.'
Guido threw back his head and laughed. 'You and your eternal worrying!'
he scoffed. 'The more of us there are, the better. That's obvious.'
'From the sound of it,' Beppo said gravely, 'you don'l believe that
Memo's story was true at all.'
'Depends what you mean by "true",' Guido retorted. 'You've no
imagination, that's your trouble. The whole world's one big story and we're
all part of it. Sure I believe what Momo told us, Beppo - every word of it,
just like you.'
Beppo could find no suitable response to this, but Guide's optimism did
nothing to allay his fears.
Then they parted company, Guido with a light heart, Beppo filled with
foreboding, and went off to spread the news of tomorrow's meeting.
That night Guido dreamed he was being feted as one of the city's
saviours. He saw himself in a dress suit, Beppo in a smart tailcoat and Momo
in a snow-white silk gown. The mayor draped gold chains around their necks
and crowned them with laurel wreaths. Stirring music rang out, and the
citizens honoured their deliverers with a torchlight procession longer and
more impressive than any that had ever been seen before.
Meanwhile, old Beppo was tossing and turning, unable to sleep. The more
he thought about what lay ahead, the more clearly he perceived its dangers.
He wouldn't let Guido and Momo brave them alone. He would stand by them
whatever happened - that went without saying - but he must at least attempt
to dissuade them.
By three the next afternoon, the amphitheatre resounded to excited
cries and the hum of many voices. Although it saddened Momo that none of her
grown-up friends had appeared - except, of course, for Beppo and Guido -
some fifty or sixty children had come from near and far. They were all
shapes and sizes, rich and poor, well-behaved and rowdy. Some, like Maria,
were holding younger members of the family by the hand or in their arms -
tiny little children who sucked their thumbs and gazed wide-eyed at this
Franco, Paolo and Massimo were there too, naturally, but most of the
other children were relative newcomers to the amphitheatre, and they had a
special interest in the subject under discussion. Among them was the owner
of the transistor radio, who had turned up without it. Seating himself next
to Momo, he told her straight away that his name was Claudio, and that he
was glad to have been invited.
When it became clear that the last of the children had arrived, Guido
rose to his feet and, with a sweeping gesture, called for silence. The buzz
of conversation died away, and an expectant hush descended on the
'My friends,' Guido began, 'you all have a rough idea why we're here -
you were told when you received your invitations to this secret meeting.
More and more people are finding themselves with less and less time to
spare, even though they're saving it for all they're worth. The truth is,
they've lost the very time they meant to save. Why? We now know, thanks to
Momo. People are being robbed of their time - and I mean robbed - by a gang
of time-thieves! That's why we need your help: so as to put a stop to the
activities of this cold-blooded, criminal fraternity. Our city is in the
grip of a nightmare. With your cooperation, we can banish it at a stroke.
Isn't that a cause worth fighting for?' He paused while the children
applauded. 'We'll discuss what to do in due course,' he went on 'Meantime,
Momo is going to describe her encounter
with a member of the gang and how he gave himself away.'
'One moment,' said Beppo, getting up. 'Listen, children! I say Momo
shouldn't tell you her story. It's a bad idea. If she does, she'll endanger
herself and all of you.'
'No,' cried several voices, 'let her speak! We want Momo!' More and
more voices joined in until all the children were chanting 'Momo, Momo,
Momo!' in unison.
Old Beppo sat down again. He took off his little steel-rimmed
spectacles and wearily rubbed his eyes.
Momo stood up, looking perplexed. She didn't know whose wishes to
comply with, Beppo's or the children's. At length, while her audience
listened attentively, she recounted what had happened.
A long silence fell when she finished. The children had grown rather
uneasy during her recital. They hadn't imagined that time-thieves could be
so sinister. One tiny tot burst into tears but was quickly comforted.
The silence was broken by Guido. 'Well,' he said, 'how many of you have
the guts to join our campaign against the men in grey?'
'Why didn't Beppo want Momo to tell us what happened?' Franco inquired.
Guido gave him a reassuring smile. 'He thinks the time-thieves feel
threatened by those who know their secret, so they try to hunt them down.
Myself, I think it's the other way around. I'm convinced that knowing their
secret makes a person invulnerable: once you know it they can't lay a finger
on you. That's logical, wouldn't you say? Come on, Beppo, admit it!'
But Beppo only shook his head, and the children remained silent.
'One thing's certain, anyway,' Guido pursued. 'From now on we must
stick together come hell or high water. We've got to be careful, but we
mustn't get scared. All right, I'll ask you again. Who's prepared to join
'I am!' said Claudio, getting to his feet. He looked a trifle pale.
Others followed suit, hesitantly at first, then more and more
resolutely, until everyone present had volunteered.
'Well, Beppo,' said Guido, pointing to the forest of raised hands,
'what do you say now?'
Beppo nodded sadly. 'I'm with you too, of course.' 'Good.' Guido turned
back to the children. 'So now let's decide what to do. Any suggestions?'
They all thought hard. Paolo, the boy with glasses, finally said, 'But
how do they do it? I mean, can they really steal time?'
'Yes,' Claudio chimed in. 'What "s time, anyway?' No one could supply
Maria, with little Rosa in her arms, got up from her seat on the far
side of the arena. 'Maybe it's like electricity,' she hazarded. 'After all,
there are machines that can record people's thought waves - I've seen one
myself, on TV. They've got gadgets that can do anything these days.'
'How about this for an idea!' squeaked Massimo, the fat boy with the
high-pitched voice. 'When you photograph something, it's down on film. When
you record something, it's down on tape. Maybe they've got a machine that
can record time. If we knew where it was, we could simply put it into
reverse and the missing time would be there again!'
'Anyway,' said Paolo, adjusting his glasses, 'the first thing to do is
find a scientist to help us. We won't get anywhere without one.'
'You and your scientists!' sneered Franco. 'Who says they can be
trusted? Suppose we found one who was an expert on time. How could we be
sure he wasn't in league with the time-thieves? Then we'd really be up the
creek!' Everyone seemed impressed by this objection. The next person to
speak up was a little girl of demure and ladylike appearance. 'If you ask
me,' she said, 'our best plan
would be to go to the police and tell them the whole story.'
'Now I've heard everything!' Franco scoffed. 'What could the cops do?
These aren't just ordinary thieves. Either the cops have known about them
all along, in which case they must be powerless, or they haven't noticed a
thing, in which case they'd never believe us.' A baffled silence ensued.
'Well,' Paolo said eventually, 'we've got to do something -as soon as
possible, too, before the time-thieves get wind of what we're up to.'
Guido rose to his feet again.
'My friends,' he said, 'I've already given this matter a lot of
thought. After dreaming up hundreds of schemes and rejecting them all in
turn, I finally hit on one that's guaranteed to do the trick - as long as
you all cooperate. I merely wanted to see if one of you could come up with a
better idea. Well, now I'll tell you what we're going to do.'
He paused and looked slowly around the amphitheatre. He was ringed by
fifty or sixty expectant faces, the biggest audience he'd had in a long
'As you're now aware,' he went on, 'the men in grey depend for their
power on being able to work unrecognized and in secret. It follows that the
simplest and most effective way of rendering them harmless is to broadcast
the truth about them. And how are we to do that? I'll tell you. We're going
to hold a mass demonstration! We're going to paint posters and banners and
march through the streets with them. We're going to attract as much
attention as possible. We're going to invite the whole city to join us here,
at the old amphitheatre, to hear the full facts.'
A stir ran through the listening children. 'Everyone will go wild with
excitement,' Guido continued. 'Thousands and thousands of people will come
flocking in. Then, when a vast crowd has assembled, we'll reveal the whole
terrible truth. And then, my friends, the world will
change overnight. No one will be able to steal people's time any more.
They'll all have as much as they need, because there'll be enough to go
around again. That's what we can achieve if we all work together - if we're
all in favour. Are we?'
This drew a chorus of exultant yells.
'Carried unanimously,' said Guido. 'In that case, we'll invite the
whole city here next Sunday afternoon. Till then, though, we mustn't breathe
a word of our plan. And now, let's get to work.'
For the next few days, the amphitheatre hummed with furtive but
feverish activity. Sheers of paper, pots of paint, brushes, paste,
cardboard, poles, planks and a host of other essentials appeared like magic
- where from, the children preferred not to say. Some of them made banners
and posters and placards, while others - the ones that were good at writing
- thought up catchy slogans and painted them in their neatest lettering.
Below are a few examples:
SAVE TIME? WHO FOR?
NO TIME LEFT? WHERES IT GONE? IF YOU
REALLY WANT TO KNOW PLEESE COME TO THE
OLD AMFITHEATRE NEXT SUNDAY AT 6
SUNDAY AT SIX
IMPORTANT! YOUR TIME IS AT STEAK
WHERE ITS GONE IS A BIG SECRET
BUT WE'LL LET YOU IN ON IT!
COME AMPFITH SUNDAY NEXT
DONT YOU HAVE A FUNNY PEELING SOMEBODY YOUR TIME IS STEELING?
At last, when all was ready, the children assembled in the amphitheatre
and set off in single file with Guido, Beppo and Momo at their head. They
marched through the streets brandishing posters and banners, clattering
saucepan lids, blowing penny whistles chanting slogans and singing a song
composed specially for the occasion by Guido. The words went as follows:
Listen, folk, ere it's too late, or you'll live to rue your fate. Time
is flying every day, stolen by the men in grey.
Listen, folk, and heed our warning, or you'll wake up one fine morning
robbed of time and quite bereft, not a single minute left.
Don't save time, then, save your city, for those time-thieves have no
pity. Fight back hard, and do it soon. Be there Sunday afternoon!
Actually, there were more verses than that - twenty-eight, to be exact
- but we needn't quote them all here.
Although the police stepped in a few times and broke up the procession
when it obstructed the traffic, the children were undeterred. They simply
formed up elsewhere and set off again. Nothing happened apart from this, and
they didn't sight a single man in grey for all their vigilance.
They were, however, joined by other children who saw the demonstration
and hadn't known of the affair till now. More
and more youngsters tagged along until the streets were filled with
hundreds or even thousands of them, all urging their elders to attend the
meeting that was to change the world.
The great moment had come and gone.
It was over, and not a single grown-up had appeared. The children's
demonstration had passed almost unnoticed by the very people it was aimed
at. All their efforts had been in vain.
The big red sun was already sinking into a sea of purple cloud, so low
in the sky that its rays lit only the topmost tier of steps in the
amphitheatre, where so many hundreds of children had been waiting for so
long. No cheerful hum of voices broke the sad and disconsolate silence.
The shadows were lengthening fast. It would soon be dark, and the
children began to shiver in the chill evening air. Somewhere in the distance
a church clock struck eight. Doubt gave way to certainty: the whole scheme
had been a complete fiasco.
One or two children got up and drifted off. Others followed suit. None
of them said a word - their disappointment was too great.
Eventually, Paolo came over to Momo and said, 'It's no use waiting any
longer - no one'll turn up now. Good night.' And he walked off too.
Franco was the next to leave. 'It's hopeless,' he said. 'We can't count
on the grown-ups, we know that now. I never did trust them anyway. As far as
I'm concerned, they can stew in their own juice from now on.'
More and more children left. It was dark by the time the last of them
gave up and went home, leaving Momo alone with Guido and Beppo.
The old roadsweeper stood up. 'Are you going, too?' Momo asked. 'I've
got to,' Beppo told her with a sigh. 'I'm on night duty.' 'Night duty?'
'Yes, unloading garbage at the municipal dump. I'm due there in half an
'But it's Sunday. Besides, you've never had to do that before.'
'No, but we've been told to report there. They say it's only temporary.
There's too much garbage to handle, apparently. Shortage of staff, and so
'What a shame,' said Momo. 'I'd have liked you to stay a while.'
'Yes, I don't want to go myself, but there it is -- I've got to.' And
Beppo mounted his squeaky old bicycle and pedalled off into the darkness.
Guido was whistling a soft and melancholy tune. He could whistle very
sweetly, and Momo was listening with pleasure when he suddenly broke off.
'Heavens,' he exclaimed, 'I must go, too. Today's when I start my new
job - night watchman, didn't I tell you? I'd forgotten the time.'
Momo just stared at him and said nothing. 'So our plan didn't work
out,' he went on. 'Never mind, Momo. It didn't work out the way I hoped,
either, but it was fun all the same - tremendous fun.'
When Momo still said nothing, he stroked her hair sooth-ingly and
added, 'Don't take it so hard, Momo. Everything'll look quite different in
the morning. We'll just have to come up with a new idea -- a new game, eh?'
'It wasn't a game,' Momo said in a muffled voice. Guido stood up.
'Look, I know how you feel, but we'll talk about it tomorrow, okay? I have
to go now - I'm late enough as it is. Anyway, it's time you went to bed.'
And he walked off whistling his melancholy tune.
So Momo remained sitting forlornly in the great stone bowl of the
amphitheatre. Clouds had veiled the sky and blotted out the stars. A
peculiar breeze had sprung up, light but persistent and singularly cold. If
breezes can be said to have a colour, this one was grey.
Far away beyond the outskirts of the city loomed the massive municipal
garbage dump. It was a veritable mountain of ash, cinders, broken glass and
china, tin cans, plastic containers, old mattresses, cardboard canons and
countless other objects discarded by the city's inhabitants, all waiting to
be fed, bit by bit, into huge incinerators.
Beppo and his workmates toiled for hours, shovelling garbage out of a
long line of trucks. The trucks crept forward, headlights blazing, but the
more they emptied the longer the line became.
'Faster!' the foreman kept shouting. 'Hurry it up, or we'll never be
They didn't finish the job till midnight, by which time Beppo's shirt
was clinging to his back. Being older than the rest and not the most robust
of men, he flopped down wearily on an upturned plastic bucket and struggled
to get his breath back.
'Hey, Beppo,' one of his workmates called, 'we're off home now.
'In a minute,' wheezed Beppo. He clasped one hand to his aching chest.
'Feeling all right, old man?' called someone else.
'I'm fine,' Beppo called back. 'Just taking a little breather, that's
all. Don't wait for me.'
'Okay,' said the others, 'good night.' And off they went.
It was quiet when they'd gone, except for an occasional rustle and
squeak from rats scrabbling in the garbage. Beppo pillowed his head on his
folded arms and dozed off.
He didn't know how long he'd been asleep when he was
roused by a gust of cold air. One look was enough to jolt him awake in
All over the huge mound of garbage stood grey figures attired in smart
grey suits and grey bowler hats, steel-grey briefcases in their hands and
small grey cigars in their mouths. They were gazing fixedly, silently, at
the summit of the mound. There, ensconced on a sort of magistrates' bench,
sat three men identical to the others in every respect.
Beppo was frightened for a moment. He had no business to be there - he
sensed that instinctively - and the prospect of discovery scared him. Very
soon, however, he realized that the army of grey figures had eyes for no one
but the three-man tribunal. Either they had failed to notice him at all, or
they had mistaken him for some discarded object. Whatever the explanation,
he resolved to keep as still as a mouse.
Then the silence was broken by a voice from the judges' bench. 'The
Supreme Court is now in session,' announced the central figure. 'Call Agent
The cry was repeated further down the slope and repeated again some
distance away, like an echo. Threading his way slowly through the crowd and
up the mound of garbage came a man in grey, distinguishable from his fellows
only by the pallor of his face, which was almost white.
At last he reached the tribunal.
'You are Agent No. BLW/553/c?' asked the man in the centre.
'How long have you been employed by the Timesaving Bank?'
'Ever since I came into existence. Your Honour.'
'That goes without saying - kindly spare us such irrelevancies. When
did you come into existence?'
'Eleven years, three months, six days, eight hours, thirty-two minutes
and - at this precise moment - eighteen seconds ago.'
Oddly enough, although this exchange was being conducted a long way off
and in low, monotonous voices, Beppo didn't miss a word of it.
'Are you aware,' the man in the centre went on, 'that a substantial
number of children paraded through the streets today with placards and
banners, and that they even entertained the outrageous notion of inviting
the whole city to attend a briefing on our activities?'
'It hadn't escaped me,' replied the agent.
'How do you account for the fact that these children knew about us and
our activities?' the senior inquisitor pursued remorselessly.
'It's a mystery to me. Your Honour,' said the agent. 'If I may venture
a personal observation, however, I would urge the Supreme Court not to take
this incident more seriously than it deserves. It was a piece of childish
nonsense, that's all. I would also urge the court to bear in mind that we
easily managed to scotch the scheduled meeting by leaving people no time to
attend it. Even had we failed to do so, however, I'm confident that everyone
would have dismissed the children's information as a cock-and-bull story. In
my opinion, we would have done better to let the meeting go ahead, because
that would -'
'Defendant!' the judge broke in sharply. 'Do you realize where you
The agent wilted. 'Yes,' he whispered. 'This is no human court,' the
judge continued. 'You are being tried by your own kind. Lying to us is
futile, you know that perfectly well, so why bother to try?'
'It's - it's an occupational habit,' the agent stammered. 'It is for
this court to decide how seriously to take the children's intentions.
However, I need hardly remind you that children present a greater threat to
our work than anyone or anything else.'
i know, the agent conceded meekly. 'Children,' declared the judge, 'are
our natural enemies. But for them, mankind would have been completely in our
power long ago. Adults are far easier to turn into timesavers. That's why
one of our most sacred commandments states, "Leave the children till last."
Are you familiar with that commandment, Defendant?'
'Yes indeed, Your Honour,' said the agent, puffing hard at his cigar.
It was a peculiar fact that, despite the solemnity of the occasion, all
present - judges, defendant and spectators -- were smoking incessantly.
'And yet,' the judge retorted, 'we have incontrovertible proof that one
of us - I repeat, one of us -- not only got into conversation with a child
but betrayed us. Do you happen to know who that certain person was?'
Agent No. BLW/553/c wilted still more. 'It was me. Your Honour.'
'And why did you break our most sacred commandment?' 'Because the child
in question has been seriously impeding our work by turning people against
us. I had the interests of the Timesaving Bank at heart. My intentions were
of the best.'
'Your intentions don't concern us,' the judge said icily. 'Results are
all that count here, and the result of your unauthorized action has been to
gain us no time and acquaint a child with some of our most vital secrets. Do
you admit that?'
The agent hung his head. 'I do,' he whispered. 'So you plead guilty?'
'Yes, Your Honour, but I would draw the court's attention to an
extenuating circumstance: I was genuinely bewitched -- lured into betraying
us by the way the child listened to me. I can't explain how it happened, but
I swear that's the way it was.'
'Your excuses are irrelevant and immaterial. This court takes no
account of extenuating circumstances. The law is quite categorical on this
point and allows of no exceptions. However, we shall certainly devote some
attention to this unusual child. What is its name?'
'Momo, Your Honour.'
'Male or female?'
'She's a girl.'
'Place of residence?'
'The ruined amphitheatre.'
'Very well,' said the judge, who had recorded all these details in his
notebook. 'You may rest assured. Defendant, that this child will never harm
us again - we shall neutralize her by every available means. Let that
thought console you, now that sentence is about to be passed and carried
The agent began to tremble. 'What is the sentence?' he whispered.
The three judges put their heads together and conferred in an
undertone. Then they nodded, and their spokesman turned to face the prisoner
Agent No. BLW/553/c having pleaded guilty to a charge of high treason,
this court unanimously sentences him to pay the penalty prescribed by law.
He is to be deprived of all time forthwith.'
'Mercy, mercy!' shrieked the agent, but his steel-grey briefcase and
small cigar had already been snatched away by two grey figures standing
And then a very strange thing happened. No sooner had the condemned man
lost his cigar than he started to become more and more transparent. His
screams grew fainter, too, as he stood there with his head in his hands,
dissolving into thin air. The last that could be seen of him was a little
flurry of ash eddying in the breeze, but that soon vanished too.
Silently the men in grey dispersed, judges and spectators alike Once
the darkness had swallowed them up, the sole
reminder ot their presence was a chill, grey wind that swirled around
the dismal and deserted garbage dump.
Beppo continued to sit spellbound on his upturned bucket, staring at
the spot where the condemned man had been standing. He felt as if his limbs
had turned to ice and were only just beginning to thaw. The men in grey
existed; he had seen them for himself.
At about the same time - the distant church clock had already struck
twelve - Momo was still sitting on the steps of the amphitheatre. She was
waiting. For what, she didn't know, but some instinct had dissuaded her from
going to bed.
All of a sudden, something lightly brushed against her bare foot.
Peering hard, for it was very dark, she saw a big tortoise looking up at
her. Its mouth seemed to curve in a mysterious smile, and there was such a
friendly light in its shrewd, black eyes that Momo felt it was about to
She bent down and tickled it under the chin. 'Who might you be?' she
said softly. 'Nice of you to come and keep me company, Tortoise, even if
nobody else will. What can I do for you?'
Momo wasn't sure whether she'd failed to notice them before, or whether
they'd only just appeared, but she suddenly spotted some letters on the
tortoise's back. They were faintly luminous and seemed to follow the natural
patterns on its shell.
'FOLLOW ME,' she slowly deciphered.
Astonished, she sat up with a jerk. 'Do you mean me?' she asked.
But the tortoise had already set off. After a few steps it paused and
looked back. 'It really does mean me!' Momo said to herself. She got up and
went over to the creature. 'Keep going,' she told it softly, 'I'm right
And step by step she followed the tortoise as it slowly, very slowly,
led her out of the amphitheatre and headed for the city.
More Haste Less Speed
Old Beppo was pedalling through the darkness on his squeaky bicycle -
pedalling with all his might. The grey judge's words still rang in his ears:
'We shall certainly devote some attention to this unusual child ... You may
rest assured that this child will never harm us again ... We shall
neutralize her by every available means ...'
Momo was in dire peril, of that there could be no doubt. He must go to
her at once, warn her and protect her from the men in grey. He didn't know
how, but he'd find a way. Beppo pedalled even faster, his tuft of white hair
fluttering in the breeze. He still had a long way to go.
The ruined amphitheatre was ablaze with the headlights of a whole fleet
of smart grey cars, which hemmed it in on every side. Dozens of men in grey
were scurrying up and down the grass-grown steps. At last, after peering
into every nook and cranny, they came upon the hole in the wall. Some of
them scrambled through it into Memo's room. They looked under the bed - they
even looked inside the little brick stove. Then they reappeared, patted the
dust from their smart grey suits and shrugged.
'The bird appears to have flown,' said one.
'It's exasperating,' said another. 'Children should be safely tucked up
in bed at this hour, not gallivanting around in the dark.'
'I don't like the look of this,' said a third. 'It's almost as if
someone had tipped her off just in time.'
'Impossible,' said the first. 'He couldn't have known of our intention
before we knew it ourselves - or could he?'
The three of them eyed each other in dismay.
'If someone really did tip her off,' the third pointed out, 'she'll
have made herself scarce. We'll only be wasting time if we go on looking for
'What do you suggest, then?'
'I say we should notify headquarters at once, so they can launch a
'The first thing they'll ask us - and quite rightly so - is whether
we've made a thorough search of the immediate neighbourhood.'
'Very well,' said the first speaker, 'let's search the area first, but
if the girl's well clear of it already, we'll be making a big mistake.'
'Nonsense,' snapped his colleague. 'Even if she is, headquarters can
still launch a full-scale manhunt using, every available agent. The girl
won't escape - she doesn't stand a chance. Right, gentlemen, let's get
going. You all know what's at stake.'
Many of the local inhabitants lay awake that night, wondering why so
many cars kept racing past their windows. Even the narrowest side streets
and roughest farm tracks resounded until daybreak with a roar of traffic
more usually heard on major roads. No one could sleep a wink.
All this time, Momo was trudging slowly through the city in the wake of
her new-found friend, the tortoise. The city never slept nowadays, however
late the hour. Interminable streams of people surged through the streets,
jostling and elbowing each other aside. The roads were choked with cars and
big, noisy, overcrowded buses. Neon signs blazed down from every building,
intermittently bathing passers-by in their multicoloured glare.
Momo, who had never seen any of this before, followed
the tortoise in a kind of wide-eyed, waking dream. They made their way
across broad squares and down brightly lit streets. Cars flashed past them
and pedestrians milled around them, but no one looked twice at the child and
They never had to get out of anyone's way, either. Nobody bumped into
them, nor did any driver have to brake to avoid them. The tortoise seemed to
know precisely when there would be no car or pedestrian in their path, so
they never had to vary their pace, never had to hurry or to stop and wait.
Momo began to wonder how any two creatures could walk so slowly but travel
When Beppo finally reached the amphitheatre, the feeble glow of his
bicycle lamp showed him, even before he dismounted, that the ground around
it was a mass of tyre tracks. He left his bicycle in the grass and ran to
the hole in the wall.
'Momo!' He whispered the name at first, then spoke it aloud. 'Momo!' he
Beppo swallowed hard, his throat felt so dry. He climbed through the
hole into the pitch-black room, stumbled over something, and wrenched his
ankle. Striking a match with tremulous fingers, he peered in all directions.
The crude little table and chairs were overturned, the blankets and
mattress stripped off the bed. Of Momo herself, there was no sign at all.
Beppo bit his lip to stifle the hoarse sob that racked his chest at the
sight of this desolation. 'My God,' he muttered, 'I'm too late. She's gone -
they've spirited the poor girl away. What shall I do now? What can I do?'
Just then the match began to burn his fingers, so he dropped it and stood
there in the dark.
Making his way outside as fast as his twisted ankle would allow, he
hobbled over to his bicycle, struggled back into the
saddle and pedalled off again. 'Guido must help,' he kept repeating, '-
he must! Pray heaven I can find him!'
He knew that Guido planned to earn some extra money by spending Sunday
nights in the storeroom of a car breaker's junkyard. Serviceable parts had
been disappearing of late, and it was Guide's job to see that this pilfering
When Beppo ran him to ground in a shed beside the junkyard and hammered
on the door with his fist, Guido at first mistook him for a would-be stealer
of spare parts and kept mum. Then, recognizing the old man's voice, he
unlocked the door.
'What's the matter?' he grumbled.
'It's Momo,' Beppo told him breathlessly. She's in danger.'
'What are you talking about?' asked Guido, flopping down on his camp
bed. 'Momo? Why, what's happened to her?'
'I don't know, exactly,' Beppo panted, 'but it doesn't look good.'
And he told Guido all he'd seen, from the trial on the garbage dump, to
the tyre tracks around the amphitheatre, to Memo's ransacked and deserted
room. He took quite a while to get it all out, of course, because not even
the concern and anxiety he felt for Momo could make him speak any faster
than he usually did.
'I knew it all along,' he concluded. 'I knew it would end in disaster.
Well, now they've taken their revenge - they've kidnapped her. We've got to
help her, Guido, but how. How?'
The blood had slowly drained from Guide's cheeks while Beppo was
speaking. He felt as if the ground had given way beneath him. Till now, he'd
regarded the whole affair as a splendid game and taken it neither more or
less seriously than he took any game or story. Now, for the first time ever,
a story had escaped his control. It had taken on a life of its own, and all
the imagination in the world would be insufficient to halt it. He felt numb.
'You know, Beppo,' he said after a while, 'Momo may
simply have gone for a walk. She does that occasionally - like the time
she went roaming around the countryside for three whole days and nights. We
may be worrying for no good reason.'
'What about the tyre tracks?' Beppo demanded angrily. 'What about the
state of her room?'
Guido refused to be drawn. 'Suppose they really did come looking for
her,' he said. 'Who's to say they found her? Perhaps she'd gone by the time
they got there. Why else would they have searched the place and turned it
'But what if they did find her?' Beppo shouted. 'What then?' He gripped
his young friend by the lapels and shook him. 'Don't be a fool, Guido. The
men in grey are real, I tell you. We've got to do something, and fast!'
'Steady on,' Guido said soothingly, startled by the old man's
vehemence. 'Of course we'll do something, but not before we've thought it
over carefully. After all, we don't even know where to look for her.'
Beppo released him. 'I'm going to the police,' he announced.
'You can't do that!' Guido protested with a look of horror. 'Have some
sense, Beppo. Suppose they found her. Don't you know what they'd do with her
- don't you know where waifs and strays end up? They'd stick her in a home
with bars over the windows. You wouldn't want that, would you?'
'No,' Beppo muttered helplessly, 'of course not. But what if she's
really in trouble?'
'What if she isn't?' Guido argued. 'What if she's only gone for a bit
of a ramble and you set the police on her? I wouldn't like to be in your
shoes then. She might never want to see you again.'
Beppo subsided on to a chair and buried his face in his hands. 'I just
don't know what to do,' he groaned, 'I just don't know.'
'Well,' said Guido, 'I vote we wait till tomorrow or the day
after before we do anything at all. If she still isn't back, okay,
we'll go to the police. My guess is, everything will have sorted itself out
long before then, and the three of us will be laughing at the whole silly
'You think so?' muttered Beppo, suddenly overcome with fatigue. The
day's excitements had been a bit too much for a man of his age.
'Of course,' Guido assured him. He eased Beppo's boots off and wrapped
his sprained ankle in a damp cloth, then helped him on to the camp bed.
'Don't worry,' he said softly, 'everything's going to be fine.'
But Beppo was already asleep. Sighing, Guido stretched out on the floor
with his jacket under his head in place of a pillow. Sleep eluded him,
though. He couldn't stop thinking about the men in grey, all night long, and
for the first time in his happy-go-lucky life he felt frightened.
The Timesaving Bank had launched a full-scale manhunt. Every agent in
the city was instructed by headquarters to drop everything else and
concentrate on finding the girl known as Momo.
Every street teemed with grey figures. They lay in wait on rooftops and
lurked in sewers, staked out the airport and railway stations, kept an
unobtrusive watch on buses and trams -- in short, they were everywhere at
But they still didn't find the girl known as Momo.
'I say, Tortoise,' said Momo, as the pair of them made their way across
a darkened courtyard. 'Aren't you going to tell me where you're taking me?'
Some letters took shape on the tortoise's shell. 'DON'T V ESCAPED,'
'I'm not,' said Momo, when she'd deciphered them, though she said it
more to boost her courage than anything else. Truth to tell, she did feel
rather apprehensive. The tortoise's
route was becoming steadily more tortuous and erratic. It had already
taken them across parks, over bridges and through subways, into buildings
and along corridors - even, once or twice, through cellars.
Had Momo known that she was being hunted by a whole army of men in
grey, she would probably have felt uneasier still, but she didn't, so she
followed the tortoise patiently, step by step, as it continued to meander
It was lucky she did. Just as the creature had previously threaded its
way through traffic, so it now seemed to know exactly where and when their
pursuers would appear. There were times when the men in grey reached a spot
only moments after they themselves had passed it, but hunters and hunted
never actually bumped into each other.
'It's a good thing I've learned to read so well,' Momo remarked
casually, 'isn't it?'
Instantly, the tortoise's shell flashed a warning: 'SSSH!'
Momo couldn't understand the reason for this injunction, but she obeyed
it. Then she saw three dim, grey shapes flit past a few feet away.
They had now reached a part of the city where each building looked
drabber and shabbier than the last. Towering tenements with peeling walls
flanked streets pitted with potholes full of stagnant water. The whole
neighbourhood was dark and deserted.
At long last, word reached the headquarters of the Time-saving Bank
that Momo had been sighted.
'Excellent,' said the duty officer. 'Have you taken her into custody?'
'No, she disappeared before we could nab her - she seemed to vanish
from the face of the earth. We've lost track of her again.'
'How did it happen?'
'If only we knew! There's something fishy going on.'
'Where was she when you sighted her?'
'That's the odd thing. She was in a part of the city completely unknown
'There's no such place,' said the duty officer.
'There must be. It seems to be - how shall I put it? - right on the
very edge of time, and the girl was heading that way.'
'What?' yelped the duty officer. 'After her again! You've got to catch
her before she gets there - at all costs, is that clear?'
'Understood, sir,' came the ashen-voiced answer.
Momo might almost have imagined that day was breaking, except that the
strange glow appeared so suddenly -- just as they turned a corner, to be
exact. It wasn't dark any more, nor was it light, nor did the glow resemble
the half-light of dawn or dusk. It was a radiance that outlined every object
with unnatural crispness and clarity, yet it seemed to come from nowhere -
or rather, from everywhere at once. The long, black shadows cast by
everything, even the tiniest pebble, ran in all directions as if the tree
over there were lit from the left, the building over there from the right,
the monument over there from dead ahead.
The monument, if that was what it was, looked weird enough in itself.
It consisted of a big square block of black stone surmounted by a gigantic
white egg, nothing more.
The houses, too, were unlike any Momo had ever seen, with dazzling
white walls and windows cloaked in shadows so dark and dense that it was
impossible to tell whether anyone lived inside. Somehow, though, Momo sensed
that these houses hadn't been built for people to live in, but for some
mysterious and quite different purpose.
The streets were completely empty, not only of people but of dogs and
cats and birds and cars. Not a movement or breath of wind disturbed the
utter stillness. The whole district might have been encased in glass.
although the tortoise was plodding along more slowly than ever, Momo
again found herself marvelling at their rate of progress.
Beyond the borders of this strange part of town, where it was still
night-time, three smart grey limousines came racing down the potholed street
with headlights blazing. Each was manned by several agents, and one of them,
who was in the leading car, caught sight of Momo just as she turned into the
street with the white houses and the unearthly glow coming from it.
When they reached the corner, however, something quite incomprehensible
happened: the convoy came to a sudden stop. The drivers stepped on their
accelerators. Engines roared and wheels spun, but the cars themselves
refused to budge. They might have been on a conveyor belt travelling at
exactly the same speed but in the opposite direction, and the more they
accelerated the faster it went. By the time the men in grey grasped the
truth, Momo was almost out of sight. Cursing, they jumped out and tried to
overtake her on foot. They sprinted hard, grimacing with rage and exertion,
but much the same thing happened. When they were finally compelled to give
up, they had covered a mere ten yards. Meanwhile, Momo had disappeared among
the snow-white houses and was nowhere to be seen.
'That's that,' said one of the men in grey. 'It's no use, we'll never
catch her now.'
'Why were we rooted to the spot?' demanded another. 'I just don't
'Neither do I,' said the first. 'The only question is, will they take
that into our favour when we come back empty-handed?'
'You mean they may put us on trial?'
'Well, they certainly won't give us a pat on the back.'
All the agents looked downcast. Perching on the wings and
bumpers of their grey limousines, they brooded on the price of failure.
There was no point in hurrying, not now.
Far, far away by this time, somewhere in the maze of deserted,
snow-white streets and squares, Momo continued to follow the tortoise.
Despite their leisurely progress, or because of it, the streets and
buildings seemed to flash past in a white blur. The tortoise turned yet
another corner and Momo, following close behind, stopped" short in
amazement. The street ahead of them was unlike all the rest.
It was really more of an alleyway than a street. The close-packed
buildings on either side were a mass of little turrets, gables and
balconies. They resembled dainty glass palaces which, after lying on the sea
bed since time out of mind, had suddenly risen to the surface. Draped in
seaweed and encrusted with barnacles and coral, they shimmered gently with
all the iridescent, rainbow hues of mother-of-pearl.
The narrow street ended in a house detached from all the others and
standing at right angles to them. Its big bronze front door was richly
decorated with ornamental figures.
Momo glanced up at the street sign immediately above her. It was a slab
of white marble and on it, in gold lettering, were the words 'NEVER LANE'.
Although she had taken only a second or two to look at the sign and
read it, the tortoise was already far ahead and had almost reached the house
at the end of the lane.
'Wait for me. Tortoise!' she called, but for some strange reason she
couldn't hear her own voice.
The tortoise seemed to have heard, though, because it paused and looked
around. Momo tried to follow, but no sooner had she set off down Never Lane
than a curious sensation gripped her. She felt as if she were toiling
upstream against a mighty torrent or battling with an inaudible tempest that
threatened to blow her backwards. Bent
almost double, she braced her body against the mysterious force,
hauling herself along hand over hand or crawling on all fours.
She could just make out the little figure of the tortoise waiting
patiently at the end of the lane. 'I'm getting nowhere!' she called at last.
'Help me, can't you?'
Slowly the tortoise retraced its steps. When it came to a halt in front
of her, its shell bore the following advice:
Momo tried it. She turned around and walked backwards, and all at once
she was progressing up the lane with the utmost ease. At the same time,
something most peculiar happened to her. While walking backwards, she was
also thinking, breathing and feeling backwards - living backwards, in fact.
At length she bumped into something solid. Turning, she found she was
standing outside the last house of all, the one that stood at right angles
to the rest. She gave a little start because, seen at this range, the ornate
bronze door looked enormous.
'I wonder if I'll ever get it open,' she thought, but at that moment
the massive door swung open by itself.
She paused again, distracted by the sight of another sign above the
door. This one, which was supported by the figure of a unicorn carved in
ivory, read: 'NOWHERE HOUSE'.
Because she was still rather slow at reading, the door had begun to
close again by the time she'd finished. She slipped hurriedly inside, and it
shut behind her with a sound like muffled thunder.
Momo found herself in a long, lofty passage flanked at regular
intervals by marble statues whose apparent function was to support the
ceiling. There was no sign here of the mysterious current that prevailed
outside in the lane. Momo followed the tortoise as it waddled ahead of her
long corridor. At the far end it stopped outside a little door
just big enough for Momo to duck through.
•WE'RE THERE,' the tortoise's shell announced. There was a little sign
on the door. Kneeling down so that
it was on a level with her nose, Momo read the inscription.
'PROFESSOR SECUNDUS MINUTUS HORA', it
She drew a deep breath and boldly lifted the latch. As soon as the
little door opened, her ears were assailed by a melodious chorus of tinkling
and chiming and ticking and humming and whirring. She followed the tortoise
inside, and the larch clicked into place behind them.
Innumerable figures were scurrying around the headquarters of the
Timesaving Bank, a grey-lit labyrinth of passages and corridors, passing on
the latest news in agitated whispers:
every member of the directional board had been summoned to attend an
extraordinary general meeting.
Some surmised that this portended a dire emergency, others that new and
untapped sources of time had been discovered.
The directors were already closeted in the boardroom. They sat side by
side at a conference table so long that it seemed to go on for ever, each
with his steel-grey briefcase and small grey cigar. They had removed their
bowler hats for the occasion, and every last one of them had a bald head as
grey as the rest of him. Their mood, if such bloodless creatures could be
said to have feelings at all, was universally dejected.
The chairman rose from his place at the head of the long table. The hum
of conversation died away, and two interminable rows of grey faces turned
'Gentlemen,' he began, 'the situation is grave. I feel bound to
acquaint you at once with the unpalatable but inescapable facts of the
'Every available agent was assigned to hunt down the girl named Momo.
This operation lasted a total of six hours, thirteen minutes and eight
seconds. While engaged on it, all the said agents were inevitably compelled
to neglect the true purpose of their existence, namely, time-gathering. To
this loss of revenue must be added the time expended during the
manhunt by our agents themselves. Accurate computations disclose that
the sum of these two debit entries amounts to three billion, seven hundred
and thirty-eight million, two hundred and fifty-nine thousand, one hundred
and fourteen seconds.
'That, gentlemen, is more than a whole human lifetime. I need hardly
tell you what such a deficit means to us.'
Here he pointed dramatically to a huge steel door, bristling with
combination locks and safety devices, set in the wall at the far end of the
'Our reserves of time are not inexhaustible, gentlemen,' he pursued in
a louder voice. 'If the manhunt had paid off, well and good. As it is, we
wasted time to no purpose. The girl eluded us.
'There must be no repetition of this disastrous affair. I shall
strongly oppose any more such time-consuming operations from now on. Time
must be saved, not squandered. I would therefore urge you to frame your
future plans accordingly. That is all I have to say, gentlemen. Thank you
for your attention.'
He sat down, blowing out a dense cloud of smoke. Agitated whispers ran
the length of the boardroom.
Then, at the other end of the table, a second speaker rose to his feet.
Every head turned in his direction.
'Gentlemen,' he said, 'we all have the interests of the Timesaving Bank
at heart. However, I find it quite unnecessary for us to view this affair
with alarm, still less to regard it as a catastrophe. Nothing could be
further from the truth. We all know that our reserves of time are so immense
that our position would not be endangered, even by a loss many times greater
than the one we have just sustained. What is a human lifetime, after all? By
our standards, a mere pinprick.
'I fully agree with our chairman that there must be no repetition of
this incident. On the other hand, nothing like it
has ever happened betore, and the chances of its happening again are
'The chairman was right to reproach us for allowing the girl to escape.
On the other hand, our sole purpose was to render her harmless, and that we
have successfully done. The creature has disappeared - she has fled beyond
the borders of time. We are rid of her, in other words. Personally, I feel
we have every reason to congratulate ourselves.'
The second speaker sat down with a complacent smile. The smattering of
applause that greeted his remarks was cut short when a third speaker rose,
this time from a seat halfway along the great table.
'I shall be brief,' he said sourly. 'In my opinion, the last speaker's
soothing words were thoroughly irresponsible. This Moglo is no ordinary
child. We all know she possesses powers capable of presenting a serious
threat to us and our activities. The fact that no such incident has ever
occurred before is no guarantee that it won't occur again. We must remain on
our guard. We must not rest content until the child is in our power, because
only then can we be sure she will never harm us again. Having managed to
leave the realm of time, she may re-enter it at any moment -- and she will,
you mark my words!'
He sat down. The other directors winced and bowed their heads in
'Gentlemen,' said a fourth speaker, who was sitting across the table
from the third, 'pardon me for being blunt, but we're dodging the issue. We
must face the fact that an alien power has been meddling in our business.
After carefully examining every aspect of the situation, I find that the
odds against any creature crossing the borders of time, alive and unaided,
are precisely forty-two million to one In other words, it's a near
Another buzz of agitation ran around the boardroom. 'Everything
suggests,' the fourth speaker continued, when
the murmurs had subsided, 'that someone helped the girl to elude us.
You all know who I mean. The person in question titles himself Professor
At the sound of this name, most of the men in grey flinched as if they
had been struck. Others jumped to their feet, shouting and gesticulating.
The fourth speaker raised his arms for silence. 'Gentlemen, gentlemen,'
he cried, 'a little self-control, if you please! I'm well aware that any
mention of that name is - well, not quite proper. I utter it with extreme
reluctance, I assure you, but we mustn't blind ourselves to the facts. If
the girl received assistance from - from the Aforesaid, he must have had his
reasons, and those reasons cannot be other than detrimental to us. In short,
gentlemen, we must allow for the possibility that the Aforesaid may not only
send the girl back but arm her against us in some way. She will then be a
mortal danger to us. We must therefore be prepared not merely to sacrifice
another human lifetime or lifetimes. No, gentlemen, in the last resort we
must stake everything we possess - I repeat, everything! - because, if the
worst happens, thrift could spell our destruction. I think you know what I'm
The directors' agitation mounted, and they all started talking at once.
A fifth speaker jumped on to his chair and waved his arms wildly.
'Quiet!' he bellowed. 'It's all very well for the last speaker to hint
at a host of dire possibilities, but he obviously doesn't know how to deal
with them himself. He says we must be prepared for any sacrifice: well and
good. We must stop at nothing: well and good. We mustn't stint our
resources: well and good. But these are just empty words. Let him tell us
what practical steps to take. None of us knows how the Aforesaid will arm
the girl against us. We shall be confronted by a wholly unknown danger:
that's the problem we have to solve!' The boardroom was in uproar now. Some
of the directors.
shouted incoherently, others drummed on the table with their fists,
others buried their heads in their hands. All were overcome with panic. A
sixth speaker strove hard to make himself heard above the din.
'Gentlemen, please!' he kept repeating in a soothing voice until peace
was finally restored. 'I implore you to take a calm and commonsense view of
this matter. Even assuming that the girl comes back from the Aforesaid, and
even assuming that he arms her against us in some way, there will be
absolutely no need for us to do battle with her ourselves. We aren't
particularly well equipped for such a confrontation, as the lamentable fate
of our late employee. Agent No. BLW/553/c, has so amply demonstrated. But
that won't be necessary. We have human accomplices in plenty, gentlemen.
Provided we make discreet and skilful use of them, we shall be able to
dispose of the girl Momo and the threat she represents without ever having
to intervene in person. Such a method of procedure would, I feel sure, be
not only economical but safe and highly effective.'
A sigh of relief went up from the assembled throng. The directors found
this a sensible suggestion and would probably have adopted it on the spot
had not the floor been claimed by someone seated near the head of the table.
'Gentlemen,' he began, 'we keep debating how best to get rid of the
girl Momo. Our motive -- let's be honest -- is fear, but fear is a bad
counsellor. I feel we're missing a golden opportunity - a unique
opportunity. There's a saying: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Well, why
shouldn't we persuade the girl to join MS? Why not get her on our side?'
'Hear, hear!' cried a number of voices. 'Go on!'
'It seems clear,' the seventh speaker continued, 'that this child has
found her way to the Aforesaid. In other words, she got there via the route
that has eluded us for so long. If she can find it again, as she probably
can, with ease, she can lead
us there. We shall then be able to deal with the Aforesaid in our own
way - very speedily, too, I feel sure.
'Once that is done, we need no longer toil at gathering time by the
hour, minute and second - no, gentlemen, because we shall have captured
mankind's whole store of time at a stroke, and possessing the whole of time
means wielding absolute power. Just think, gentlemen: we shall have attained
our goal, and all because of the girl you propose to eliminate!'
A deathly hush had descended on the boardroom. 'That's all very well,'
protested someone, 'but you know it's impossible to lie to the girl.
Remember what happened to Agent No. BLW/553/c. We'd all end up like him.'
'Who said anything about lying to her?' retorted the seventh speaker.
'We'd tell her all about our plan, naturally.'
'Then she'd never go along with it,' the sceptic persisted. 'The whole
'Don't be too sure, my friend,' a ninth speaker broke in. 'We'd have to
make her a tempting proposition. For instance, we could promise her as much
time as she wants.'
'And break our promise later, of course,' said the sceptic.
The ninth speaker gave an icy smile. 'Of course not,' he said. 'If we
didn't mean what we said, she'd sense it at once.'
'No, no!' cried the chairman, banging the table. 'I couldn't agree to
that. If we really gave her all the time she wanted it would cost us a
'Hardly that,' the ninth speaker said blandly. 'How much time can one
child consume, after all? True, it would be a minor drain on our resources,
but think what we'd be getting in return: the time of everyone else in the
world! Momo would consume very little, and the little she did consume would
simply have to be charged to overheads. Consider the advantages, gentlemen!'
The ninth speaker resumed his seat while everyone weighed the pros and
'All the same,' the sixth speaker said eventually, 'it wouldn't work.'
'For the simple reason, I'm afraid, that the girl already possesses all
the time she wants. There'd be no point in trying to bribe her with
something she has plenty of.'
'Then we'd have to deprive her of it first,' the ninth speaker replied.
'We're talking in circles,' the chairman said wearily. 'The child's
beyond our reach, that's the whole trouble.'
A sigh of disappointment ran the length of the boardroom table.
'May I venture a suggestion?' asked a tenth speaker.
'The floor is yours,' said the chairman.
The tenth speaker gave the chairman a little bow before proceeding.
'This girl,' he said, 'is fond of her friends. She loves devoting her time
to others. What would become of her if there were no one left to share it
with her? If she won't assist us of her own free will, we must concentrate
on her friends instead.'
He produced a folder from his briefcase and flipped it open. 'The
principal persons concerned are named as Beppo Roadsweeper and Guido Guide.
I also have here a list of the children who pay her regular visits. I
suggest we simply lure these people away, so she can't get in touch with
them. What will Momo's abundance of time amount to when she's all on her
own? A burden -- a positive curse! Sooner or later she won't be able to
stand it any more, and when that time comes, gentlemen, we shall present her
with our terms. I'll wager a thousand years to a microsecond that she'll
show us the way, just to get her friends back.'
Downcast till now, the men in grey raised their heads.
Every face broke into a thin-lipped smile of triumph, every pair of
hands applauded. The sound reverberated along the interminable passages and
corridors like an avalanche of stones rattling down a mountainside.
Momo was standing in the biggest room she'd ever seen. It was bigger
than the biggest cathedral or concert hall in the world. Massive columns
supported a roof that could be sensed rather than seen in the gloom far
above. There were no windows anywhere. The golden light that wove its way
across this immense hall came from countless candles whose flames burned so
steadily that they looked like daubs of brilliant paint requiring no wax at
all to keep them alight.
The thousandfold whirring and ticking and humming and chiming that Momo
had heard on entering came from innumerable clocks of every shape and size.
They reposed on long tables, in glass cabinets, on golden wall brackets, on
endless rows of shelves.
There were dainty, bejewelled pocket watches, cheap tin alarm clocks,
hourglasses, musical clocks with pirouetting dolls on top, sundials, clocks
encased in wood and marble, glass clocks and clocks driven by jets of water.
On the walls hung all manner of cuckoo clocks and other clocks with weights
and pendulums, some swinging slowly and majestically and others wagging
busily to and fro. All around the room at first-floor level ran a gallery
reached by a spiral staircase. Higher still was another gallery, and above
it another, and above that yet another.
Clocks were standing or hanging wherever Momo looked - not only
conventional clocks but spherical timepieces showing what time it was
anywhere in the world, and sidereal clocks, large and small, complete with
sun, moon and stars.
Arrayed in the middle of the hall were countless bigger clocks - a
forest of clocks, as it were - ranging from grandfather clocks to full-size
Not a moment passed but one of these innumerable timepieces struck or
chimed somewhere or other, for each of them showed a different time. Far
from offending the ear, they combined to produce a sound as pleasant and
harmonious as the rustle of leaves in a wood in springtime.
Momo roamed from place to place, gazing wide-eyed at all these
curiosities. She had paused beside a lavishly ornamented clock on which two
tiny dancers, a man and a woman, were standing with hands entwined, and was
just about to prod them to see if they would move, when she heard a friendly
voice behind her. 'Ah, so you're back, Cassiopeia,' it said. 'Did you bring
Momo with you?'
Turning, Momo looked along an avenue between the grandfather clocks and
saw a frail old man with silvery hair stooping over the tortoise. He was
wearing a gold-embroidered frock coat, blue-silk knee breeches, white hose
and shoes with big gold buckles. Lace frothed from the cuffs and collar of
his coat, and his silver hair was braided into a pigtail at the back. Momo
had never seen such a costume before, though anyone less ignorant would at
once have recognized it as the height of fashion two centuries earlier.
'Well,' said the old gentleman, still bending over the tortoise, 'is
she here? Where is she, then?'
He donned a small pair of eyeglasses like old Beppo's, except that
these were gold-rimmed, and peered about him.
'Here I am!' called Momo.
The old gentleman came towards her with a beaming smile, both hands
extended, and the nearer he drew the younger he seemed to become. By the
time he had reached Momo's side, seized her hands and shaken them cordially,
he looked little older than herself.
'Welcome,' he said delightedly, '- welcome to Nowhere
House. Permit me to introduce myself, Momo. My name is Hora, Professor
Secundus Minutus Hora.'
'Were you really expecting me?' Momo asked in surprise.
'But of course. Why else would I have sent Cassiopeia to fetch you?' He
produced a diamond-studded fob watch from his pocket and nipped the lid
open. 'In fact, you're uncommonly punctual,' he said with a smile, holding
out the watch for her inspection.
There were no hands or numerals on the watch face, Momo saw, just two
very fine superimposed spirals rotating slowly in opposite directions. Every
now and then, minute dots of light appeared where the spirals intersected.
'This watch,' said Professor Hora, 'is known as a crisimo-graph. It
accurately records crises in the history of mankind, and one of these rare
occurrences has just begun.'
'What's a crisis?' asked Momo.
'It's like this,' the professor explained. 'At certain junctures in the
course of existence, unique moments occur when everyone and everything, even
the most distant stars, combine to bring about something that could not have
happened before and will never happen again. Few people know how to take
advantage of these critical moments, unfortunately, and they often pass
unnoticed. When someone does recognize them, however, great things happen in
'Perhaps one needs a watch like yours to recognize them by,' said Momo.
Professor Hora smiled and shook his head. 'No, my child, the watch by
itself would be no use to anyone. You have to know how to read it as well.'
He snapped the watch shut and replaced it in his pocket. Then, noticing
Momo's ill-concealed surprise at his personal appearance, he looked down at
himself and frowned. 'Ah,' he said, ''you may be punctual, but I seem to be
rather behind the times - in fashion, I mean. How unobservant of me. I must
put that right at once.'
And he clicked his fingers. In a flash, his costume changed
to a black frock coat, stovepipe trousers and a stand-up collar.
'Is that any better?' he inquired doubtfully, but Momo's look of
astonishment was answer enough in itself. 'No, of course not,' he went on
quickly. 'What am I thinking of!'
Another click of the fingers, and he instantly appeared in an outfit
the like of which Momo had never seen. Nor had anyone else, since it dated
from a hundred years in the future.
'Still no good?' he asked. 'Never mind, I'll get it right in the end.'
And he clicked his fingers a third time. At long last, he stood there
attired in an ordinary suit of the kind men wear today.
'That's more like it, eh?' he said, eyes twinkling. 'I hope I didn't
alarm you, Momo - it was just a little joke of mine. But now, my girl, come
with me. You've a long journey behind you, and I'm sure you'd enjoy a hearty
He took her by the hand and led her off into the clock forest with the
tortoise following at their heels. After twisting and turning like a maze,
the path eventually came out in a small room whose walls consisted of
gigantic grandfather clocks. In one corner stood a bow-legged table, and
beside it a dainty little sofa and some matching armchairs. Here as
elsewhere, everything was bathed in the golden glow of a myriad motionless
Set out on the table were a pot-bellied jug and two small cups,
together with plates, spoons and knives - all of solid, gleaming gold. There
were also two little dishes, one containing golden-yellow butter, the other
honey like liquid gold, and a basket piled high with crusty, golden-brown
rolls. Professor Hora filled both cups with hot chocolate from the
pot-bellied jug and made a gesture of invitation. 'There, little Momo,
please tuck in.' Momo needed no second bidding. Chocolate you could drink
she'd never heard of before. As for rolls spread with butter and honey, they
were a rare delicacy, and these rolls
tasted more delicious than any she'd eaten in her life. Completely
wrapped up in her wonderful breakfast, she feasted on it with her cheeks
bulging and her mind devoid of every other thought. Although she hadn't
slept a wink all night long, the food banished her weariness and made her
feel fresh and lively. The more she ate, the better it tasted. She felt as
if she could have gone on eating like this for days on end.
Professor Hora, who watched her benevolently, was tactful enough not to
cut short her enjoyment too soon by engaging in conversation. He realized
that his guest had years of hunger to make up for. Perhaps this was why,
while watching her, he gradually looked older and older until he became a
white-haired old gentleman again. When he noticed that Momo wasn't too handy
with a knife, he spread the rolls for her and put them on her plate. He
himself ate little - just enough to keep her company.
At last, even Momo could eat no more. She drank up her chocolate,
studying her host over the rim of the golden cup and wondering who or what
he could possibly be. He was no ordinary person, that much was obvious, but
all she really knew about him so far was his name. She put her cup down and
cleared her throat.
'Why did you send the tortoise to fetch me?'
'To protect you from the men in grey,' Professor Hora replied gravely.
'They're searching for you everywhere, and you're only safe from them here
Momo looked startled. 'You mean they want to hurt me?'
'Yes, my child,' the professor sighed, 'in a manner of speaking.'
'Because they're afraid of you -- because no one could have done them
'I haven't done anything to them,' Momo protested.
'Oh, yes you have. You not only persuaded one of them to betray
himself, you told your friends about him. What's more,
you and your friends tried to broadcast the truth about the men in
grey. Isn't that enough to make you their mortal enemy?'
'But we walked right through the city, the tortoise and I,' Momo said.
'If they were searching for me everywhere, they could easily have caught us.
We weren't going fast.'
The tortoise had stationed herself at the professor's feet. He took her
on his lap and tickled her under the chin. 'Well, Cassiopeia,' he said with
a smile, 'what's your opinion? Could they have caught you?'
The word 'NEVER!' appeared like lightning on Cas-siopeia's shell, and
the letters flickered so merrily that Momo almost thought she detected a dry
'The thing is,' said the professor, 'Cassiopeia can see into the
future. Not far -- just half an hour, or thereabouts - but still.'
'CORRECTION!' flashed the shell. 'Pardon me,' said the professor, 'I should
have said half an hour precisely. She knows for certain what will happen in
the next thirty minutes, like whether or not she's going to bump into the
men in grey, for instance.'
'My goodness,' exclaimed Momo, 'how useful! So if she knew in advance
she'd meet the men in grey at such and such a spot, would she simply take a
'No,' Professor Hora replied, 'I'm afraid it's not as easy as that. She
can't undo anything she knows in advance because she knows what is actually
going to happen. If she knew she was going to meet the men in grey at a
certain spot, she'd meet them there. She'd be powerless to prevent it.'
Memo's face fell. 'I don't understand,' she said. 'In that case,
there's no advantage in knowing anything in advance after all.'
'There is sometimes,' said the professor. 'In your case, for example,
she knew you were going to take a certain route and not meet any men in
grey. That was an advantage, wasn't it?' Momo didn't reply. Her thoughts
were as tangled as a skein of wool.
'But to return to you and your friends,' the professor went on. CH must
congratulate you. Your posters and placards were most impressive.'
'You mean you read them?' Momo asked delightedly.
'Every last word,' the professor assured her.
'Nobody else did, from the look of it,' said Momo.
The professor nodded sympathetically. 'I'm afraid not. The men in grey
saw to that.'
'Do you know them well?' Momo asked.
He nodded again and sighed. 'As well as they know me,' he said.
Momo didn't know what to make of this reply. 'Do you often go to see
'No, never. I never set foot outside this house.'
'What about the men in grey - do they ever come here?'
The professor smiled. 'Never fear, Momo, they can't get in. They
couldn't even if they knew the way to Never Lane, which they don't.'
Momo thought a while. Though reassured by Professor Hora's remarks, she
was eager to learn more about him. 'How do you come to know all this,' she
asked, '- I mean, about our posters and the men in grey?'
'I keep a constant watch on them and everything connected with them,'
the professor told her, 'so I've naturally been watching you and your
friends as well.'
'I thought you said you never left the house.'
'I've no need to,' said the professor, rapidly growing younger again as
he spoke, 'thanks to my omnivision glasses.' He took off his little
gold-rimmed spectacles and held them out. 'Would you care to try them?'
Momo put them on. 'I can't make out anything at all,' she said,
screwing up her eyes and blinking. All she could see was a whirl of colours,
lights and shadows. It made her feel positively dizzy.
'Yes,' she heard the professor say, 'it's always the same to begin
with. Seeing through omnivision glasses isn't as easy as all that. You'll
soon get used to them, though.'
He stood behind Momo's chair and gently adjusted the position of the
frame. At once, everything sprang into focus.
The first thing Momo saw was the men in grey and their three limousines
on the edge of the district where the strange white buildings began. They
were in the process of pushing their cars backwards.
Then, looking further afield, she saw more grey figures in the city
streets. They were talking and gesticulating excitedly as though passing on
information of some kind.
'It's you they're talking about,' Professor Hora explained. 'They can't
understand how you managed to escape.'
'Why are they all so grey in the face?' Momo asked, still watching
'Because they feed on dead matter,' the professor told her. 'They live
in people's time, as you know, but time dies -literally dies -- once it has
been wrested away from its rightful owners. All human beings have their own
share of time, but it survives only for as long as it really belongs to
them.' 'So the men in grey aren't human?' 'No. Their human appearance is
only a disguise.' 'What are they, then?' 'Strictly speaking, they're
nothing.' 'So where do they come from?'
'They exist only because people give them the opportunity to do so.
Naturally, they seize that opportunity. Now that people are giving them a
chance to rule their lives, they're naturally taking advantage of that too.'
'What would happen if they couldn't steal any more time?'
'They'd disappear into thin air, which is where they come from.'
Professor Hora took his glasses back and pocketed them. 'Unfortunately,' he
continued after a pause, 'they
already have plenty of human accomplices. That's the worst part.'
'Well, nobody's going to steal any of my time,' Momo said stoutly.
'I should hope not,' said the professor. From one moment to the next,
he looked like an old man again. 'Come along, Momo, I want to show you my
Taking her by the hand, he led her back into the great hall, where he
showed her all sorts of timepieces and made them chime for her, explained
the workings of his sidereal clocks, and gradually, under the influence of
his little visitor's obvious delight in all these marvels, grew younger
Tell me,' he said as they walked on, 'do you like riddles?'
'Oh yes, very much,' Momo said eagerly. 'Do you know any?'
'Yes,' said Professor Hora, smiling at her, 'I know a real teaser. Very
few people can solve it.'
'All the better,' Momo said. 'I'll make a special note of it, so I can
try it out on my friends.'
The professor's smile broadened. 'I can't wait to see if you can solve
it. Listen carefully:
All dwelling in one house are strange brothers three,
as unlike as any three brothers could be,
yet try as you may to tell brother from brother,
you'll find that the trio resemble each other.
The first isn't there, though he'll come beyond doubt.
The second's departed, so he's not about.
The third and the smallest is right on the spot,
and manage without him the others could not.
Yet the third is a factor with which to be reckoned
because the first brother turns into the second.
Yot" cannot stand back. and observe number three,
for one of the others is all you will see.
So tell me, my child, are the three of them one?
Or are there but two? Or could there be none? Just name them, and you
will at once realize that each rules a kingdom of infinite size. They rule
it together and are it as well. In that, they're alike, so where do they
Professor Hora gave Momo an encouraging nod. Thanks to her excellent
memory, she was able to repeat the whole rhyme word for word. She did so,
slowly and carefully, then sighed.
'Phew!' she said. 'That's a really hard one. I've no idea what the
answer could be. I don't even know where to start.'
'Just try,' said the professor.
Momo recited the riddle again under her breath. Finally, she shook her
head. 'It's no use,' she said.
The tortoise, which had now rejoined them and was seated at the
professor's feet, had been watching Momo intently.
'Well, Cassiopeia,' said the professor, 'you know everything half an
hour in advance. Will Momo solve the riddle or won't she?'
Cassiopeia's shell lit up. 'SHE WILL!' it spelled out.
'You see?' the professor said, turning to Momo. 'You are going to solve
it. Cassiopeia has never been wrong yet.'
Momo knit her brow and racked her brains once more. Who were these
three brothers that all lived in the same house? They obviously weren't
brothers in the usual sense. In riddles, 'brothers' always meant grains of
sand or teeth or the like - similar things, at all events. But these three
things somehow turned into each other. What sort of things could do that?
Looking around in search of inspiration, Momo caught sight of the
candles with their motionless flames. Fire turned wax into light - yes, they
were three 'brothers', but that couldn't be the answer because they were all
there at the
same time, and two of them weren't supposed to be. What about blossom,
fruit and seed - could the answer be something of that kind? The more Momo
debated this possibility, the more promising it seemed. The seed was the
smallest of the three, it was there when the other two weren't, and the
other two couldn't exist without it. But no, that wouldn't do either. A seed
was perfectly visible, and the riddle said that anyone looking at the
smallest of the three brothers always saw one of the other two.
Momo's thoughts flitted hither and thither. She simply couldn't find a
clue that led anywhere. Still, Cassiopeia had predicted that she would solve
the riddle, so she slowly recited it to herself for a third time. When she
came to the line: 'The first isn't there, though he'll come beyond doubt
...' she saw Cassiopeia give her a wink. The words 'WHAT I KNOW lit up on
her shell, but only for a split second.
Professor Noga smiled. 'No helping, Cassiopeia,' he said, though he
hadn't been looking in her direction. 'Momo can work it out all by herself.'
Momo, who had seen the words, began to ponder their meaning. What was
it that Cassiopeia knew? She knew the riddle would be solved, but that was
So what else did Cassiopeia know? She always knew what was going to
happen. She knew .. .
'The future!' cried Momo. '"The first isn't there, though he'll come
beyond doubt" -- that's the future!'
Professor Noga nodded.
' "The second's departed,"' Momo went on,' "so he's not about" - that
must be the past!'
The professor beamed at her and nodded again.
'Now comes the hard part,' Momo said thoughtfully. 'What can the third
brother be? He's the smallest of the three, but the other two can't manage
without him, and he's the only one at home.'
After another pause for thought, she gave a sudden exclamation. 'Of
course! It's now -- this very moment! The past consists of moments gone by
and the future of moments to come, so neither of them could exist without
the present. That's it!' Her cheeks were glowing with excitement now. 'But
what does the next bit mean? "Yet the third is a factor with which to be
reckoned, because the first brother turns into the second ..." I suppose it
means that the present exists only because the future turns into the past.'
She looked at Professor Hora with dawning amazement. 'Yes, it's true!
I'd never looked at it like that before. If it is true, though, there's
really no such thing as the present, only past and future. Take this moment,
for instance: by the time I talk about it, it's already in the past. "You
cannot stand back and observe number three, for one of the others is all you
will see ..." I understand what that means now. I understand the rest, too,
because you could be forgiven for thinking there was only one brother - the
present, I mean - or only the past or the future. Or none of them at all,
because each of them exists only when the others do. Golly, it's enough to
make your head spin!'
'But the riddle isn't finished yet,' said the professor. 'What's this
kingdom the brothers all rule together -- the one they themselves ageU
Momo looked baffled. What could it be? What did past, present and
future amount to, all lumped together? She gazed around the great hall, with
its thousands upon thousands of clocks. Suddenly her face lit up.
'Time!' she cried, clapping her hands and skipping for joy. 'That's
what it is: time!'
'And the house the brothers live in - what would that be?'
'The world, I suppose,' Momo replied.
'Bravo!' said the professor, clapping in his turn. 'I congratulate you,
my girl. You're really good at solving riddles. I'm delighted.'
'Me too,' said Momo, secretly wondering why he should be quite so
pleased that she'd solved his riddle.
He showed her many other rare and interesting things as they resumed
their tour of the clock-filled hall, but the riddle continued to occupy her
'Tell me,' she said eventually, 'what exactly is time?'
'You've just found that out for yourself,' the professor replied.
'No,' she said, 'I mean time itself. It exists, so it must be
something. What is it really?'
The professor smiled. 'It would be nice if you worked our your own
answer to that question too.'
Momo pondered for a long time. 'It exists,' she mused. 'That much I do
know, but you can't touch or hold it. Could it be something like a perfume?
Then again, it's always passing by, so it must come from somewhere. Perhaps
it's like the wind - no, wait! Perhaps it's a kind of music you just don't
hear because it's always there.' She paused, then added, 'Though I have
heard it sometimes, I think - very faintly.'
The professor nodded. 'I know, that's why I was able to summon you
'But there must be more to it than that,' said Momo, still pursuing her
train of thought. 'The music comes from far off, but I seem to hear it deep
inside me. Perhaps time works that way too.' She broke off, bewildered. 'I
mean,' she said, 'like the wind making waves in the sea.' She shrugged and
shook her head. 'I expect I'm talking nonsense.'
'Not at all,' said the professor. 'I think you put it very prettily
indeed. That's why I'm going to let you into a secret. If you want to know,
all the time in the world comes from here - from Nowhere House, Never Lane.'
Momo gazed at him in awe. 'I see,' she said softly. 'You mean you make
The professor smiled again. 'No, my child, I'm merely its custodian.
All human beings have their allotted span of time. My task is to see that it
'In that case,' said Momo, 'why not simply arrange things so they don't
have any more of it stolen by the time-thieves?'
'I can't,' the professor told her. 'What people do with their time is
their own business. They must guard it themselves. I can only distribute
Momo looked around the great hall. 'Is that why you keep all these
clocks - one for every person in the world?'
'No, Momo, these clocks are just a hobby of mine. They're very
imperfect copies of something that everyone carries inside him. Just as
people have eyes to see light with and ears to hear sounds with, so they
have hearts for the appreciation of time. And all the time they fail to
appreciate is as wasted on them as the colours of the rainbow are wasted on
a blind person or the nightingale's song on a deaf one. Some hearts are
unappreciative of time, I fear, though they beat like all the rest.'
'What will happen when my heart stops beating?' Momo asked.
'When that moment comes,' said the professor, 'time will stop for you
as well. Or rather, you will retrace your steps through time, through all
the days and nights, months and years of your life, until you go out through
the great, round, silver gate you entered by.'
'What will I find on the other side?'
'The home of the music you've sometimes faintly heard in the distance,
but by then you'll be part of it. You yourself will be a note in its mighty
harmonies.' Professor Noga looked at Momo searchingly. 'But I don't suppose
that makes much sense to you, does it?'
'Yes,' said Momo, 'I think so.' Then, recalling her strange progress
along Never Lane and the way she'd lived
through everything in reverse, she asked, 'Are you Death -
The professor smiled. 'If people knew the nature of death,' he said
after a moment's silence, 'they'd cease to be afraid of it. And if they
ceased to be afraid of it, no one could rob them of their time any more.'
'Why not tell them, then?' Momo suggested. 'I already do,' said the
professor. 'I tell them the meaning of death with every hour I send them,
but they refuse to listen. They'd sooner heed those who frighten them.
That's another riddle in itself.'
'I'm not frightened,' said Momo.
Professor Noga nodded slowly. He gave her another searching scare. Then
he said, 'Would you like to see where time comes from?' 'Yes,' she
'I'll take you there,' said the professor, 'but only if you promise not
to talk or ask questions. Is that understood?'
Professor Hora stooped and picked her up. All at once, he seemed
immensely tall and inexpressibly old, but not as a man grows old - more in
the manner of an ancient tree or primeval crag. Clasping Momo with one arm,
he covered her eyes with his other hand, so gently that it felt as if
snowflakes were landing on her cheeks like icy thistledown.
Momo sensed that he was striding down a long, dark tunnel, but she felt
quite safe and utterly unafraid. At first she thought she could hear her own
heartbeats, but then she became more and more convinced that they were
really the echoes of the professor's footsteps.
After what seemed a very long way, he put Momo down. His face was close
to hers when he removed his hand from her eyes. He gave her a meaningful
look and put a finger to his lips. Then he straightened up and stepped back.
Everything was bathed in a sort of golden twilight.
When her eyes became accustomed to it, Momo saw that she was standing
beneath a mighty dome as big as the vault of heaven itself, or so it seemed
to her, and that the whole of this dome was made of the purest gold.
High overhead, in the very centre of the dome, was a circular opening
through which a shaft of light fell straight on to an equally circular lake
whose dark, smooth waters resembled a jet-black mirror.
Just above the surface, glittering in the shaft of light with the
brilliance of a star, something was slowly and majestically moving back and
forth. Momo saw that it was a gigantic pendulum, but one with no visible
means of support. Apparently weightless, it soared and swooped above the
mirror-smooth water with birdlike ease.
As the glittering pendulum slowly neared the edge of the lake, an
enormous waterlily bud emerged from its dark depths. The closer the pendulum
came, the wider it opened, until at last it lay full-blown on the surface.
Momo had never seen so exquisite a flower. It was composed of all the
colours in the spectrum - brilliant colours such as Momo had never dreamed
of. While the pendulum hovered above it, she became so absorbed in the
spectacle that she forgot everything else. The scent alone seemed something
she had always craved without knowing what it was.
But then, very slowly, the pendulum swung back, and as it did so Momo
saw to her dismay that the glorious flower was beginning to wilt. Petal
after petal dropped off and sank into the blackness below. To Momo, it was
as if something unutterably dear to her were vanishing beyond recall.
By the time the pendulum reached the centre of the lake, the flower had
completely disintegrated. At that moment, however, a new bud arose near the
opposite shore, and as the pendulum drew nearer Momo saw that an even
blossom was beginning to unfold. She walked around the lake to inspect
it more closely.
This new flower was altogether different from its predecessor. Momo had
never seen such colours before, but these colours seemed richer and more
exquisite by far. The petals, too, gave off a different and far more
delicious scent, and the longer Momo studied them the more marvellous in
every detail she found them.
But again the glittering pendulum swung back, and as it did so the
glorious blossom withered and sank, petal by petal, into the dark and
unfathomable depths of the lake.
Slowly, very slowly, the pendulum proceeded on its way, but not to
exactly the same place as before. This time it checked its swing a little
way further along the shore, and there, one pace from where it had
previously paused, another bud arose and unfolded.
To Momo this seemed the loveliest lily of all, the flower of flowers -
a positive miracle. She could have wept aloud when this perfect blossom,
too, began to fade and subside into the depths, but she remembered her
promise to Professor Hora and uttered no sound.
Meanwhile, the pendulum had returned to the opposite shore, another
pace further along, and a fresh bud broke the glassy surface.
As time went by, it dawned on Momo that each new blossom differed
entirely from those that had gone before, and that it always seemed the most
beautiful of all. She wandered around the lake watching flower after flower
unfold and die.
Although she felt she would never tire of this spectacle, she gradually
became aware of another marvel - one that had escaped her till now: she
could not only see the shaft of light that streamed down from the centre of
the dome; she could hear it as well.
At first it reminded her of wind whistling in distant tree-tops, but
the sound swelled until it resembled the roar of a waterfall or the thunder
of waves breaking on a rocky shore.
More and more clearly, Momo perceived that this mighty sound consisted
of innumerable notes whose constant changes of pitch were forever weaving
different harmonies. It was music, yet it was also something else. All at
once, she recognized it as the faraway music she had sometimes faintly heard
while listening to the silence of a starry night.
But now, as the sound became ever clearer and more glorious, she sensed
that it was the resonant shaft of light that summoned each bud from the dark
depths of the lake and fashioned it into a flower of unique and inimitable
The longer she listened, the more clearly she could make out individual
voices - not human voices, but notes such as might have been given forth by
gold and silver and every other precious metal in existence. And then,
beyond them, as it were, voices of quite another kind made themselves heard,
infinitely remote yet indescribably powerful. As they gained strength, Momo
began to distinguish words uttered in a language she had never heard before
but could nonetheless understand. The sun and moon and planets and stars
were telling her their own, true names, and their names signified what they
did and how they all combined to make each hour-lily flower and fade in
Suddenly Momo realized that all these words were directed at her. From
where she stood to the most distant star m space, the entire universe was
focused upon her like a single face of unimaginable size, looking at her and
talking to her. What overcame her then was something more than fear.
A moment later she caught sight of Professor Noga silently beckoning to
her. She ran to him and buried her face in his ^hest. Taking her in his
arms, he put one hand over her eyes
as before, light as thistledown, and carried her back along the endless
tunnel. Again all seemed dark, but again she felt snug and secure.
Once they were back in the little, clock-lined room, he laid her down
on the sofa.
'Professor Noga,' Momo whispered, 'I never knew that everyone's time
was so' - she strove to find the right word, but in vain - "so big,' she
'What you've just seen and heard wasn't everyone's time,' the professor
replied, 'it was only your own. There's a place like the one you visited in
every living soul, but only those who let me take them there can reach it,
nor can it be seen with ordinary eyes.'
'So where was I?'
'In the depths of your own heart,' said the professor, gently stroking
her tousled hair.
'Professor Noga,' she whispered again, 'may I bring my friends to see
'No,' he said, 'not yet. That isn't possible.'
'How long can I stay with you, then?'
'Until you feel it's time to rejoin your friends, my child.'
'But may I tell them what the stars were saying?'
'You may, but you won't be able to.'
'Because, before you can, the words must take root inside you.'
'But I want to tell them - all of them. I want to sing them what the
voices sang. Then everything would come right again, I think.'
'If that's what you really want, Momo, you must learn to wait.'
'I don't mind waiting.'
'1 mean, wait like a seed that must slumber in the earth before it can
sprout. That's how long the words will take to grow up inside you. Is that
what you want?'
'Yes,' she whispered.
'Then sleep,' said Professor Noga, gently passing his hand across her
And Momo heaved a deep, contented sigh and fell asleep.
A Year and a Day
Momo awoke and opened her eyes.
It was a while before she gathered where she was. To her bewilderment,
she found herself back on the grass-grown steps of the amphitheatre. If
she'd been with Professor Hora in Nowhere House only moments before, how had
she made her way back here so quickly?
It was cold and dark, with the first light of dawn just showing above
the eastern skyline. Momo shivered and burrowed deeper into her baggy
She had a vivid recollection of all that had happened: of trudging
through the city behind the tortoise, of the district with the strange glow
and the dazzling white houses, of Never Lane and the great hall filled with
clocks, of hot chocolate and rolls and honey, of her conversation with
Professor Hora. She could even recall the riddle, word for word. Above all,
though, she recalled what she had witnessed beneath the golden dome. She had
only to shut her eyes to see the hour-lilies in all their undreamed-of
splendour. As for the voices of the sun, moon and stars, they still rang in
her ears so clearly that she could hum the melodies they sang.
And while she did so, words took shape within her -words that truly
described the scent of the flowers and the colours she had never seen
before. It was the voices in her memory that spoke them, yet the memory
itself brought something wonderful in its train. Momo found that she could
recall not only what she had seen and heard but much, much more besides.
Hour-lilies by the thousand blossomed in her
mind's eye, welling up as if from some magical, inexhaustible spring,
and new words rang out as each new flower appeared. Momo had only to listen
closely and she could repeat the words - even sing them. They told of
strange and wonderful things, but their meaning eluded her as soon as she
So that was what Professor Hora had meant when he said that the words
must first take root within her!
Or had everything been a dream after all? Had none of it really
happened? Momo was still pondering this question when she caught sight of
something crawling across the arena below her. It was the tortoise, engaged
in a leisurely quest for edible plants.
Momo ran quickly down the steps and knelt on the ground beside it. The
tortoise looked up for a moment, regarded her briefly with its dark, age-old
eyes, and calmly went on eating.
'Good morning, Tortoise,' said Momo.
The creature's shell remained blank.
'Was it you that took me to Professor Noga last night?'
Still no answer.
Momo heaved a sigh of disappointment. 'What a pity,' she muttered. 'So
you're only an ordinary tortoise after all, and no"- - oh, I've forgotten
what she was called. It was a pretty name, but long and foreign-sounding.
I'd never heard it before.'
Some faintly luminous letters showed up on the tortoise's shell.
'CASSIOPEIA,' they read.
Momo joyfully spelled them out. 'Yes,' she cried, clapping her hands,
'that was it! So it "s you. You are Professor Hora's tortoise, aren't you?'
'Why didn't you say so right away, then?'
'Oh, I'm so sorry,' said Momo. 'I didn't mean to disturb you. All I'd
like to know is, why am I back here?'
Momo scratched her head. 'That's funny, I don't remember wanting to
leave. How about you, Cassiopeia? Why did you come, too, instead of staying
with the professor?' 'BY CHOICE,' Cassiopeia repeated. 'Thanks,' said Momo.
'That was nice of you.' 'NOT AT ALL.' That seemed to conclude the
conversation as far as Cassiopeia was concerned, because she plodded off to
resume her interrupted breakfast.
Momo sat down on the steps, impatient to see Beppo, Guido and the
children again. The music continued to ring out inside her, and though she
was all alone with no one around to hear, she joined in the words and
melodies more and more loudly and lustily. And as she sang, straight into
the rising sun, it seemed to her that the birds and crickets and trees -
even the amphitheatre's time-worn stones - were listening to her.
Little did she know that they would be her only listeners for a long
time to come. Little did she know that she was waiting in vain for her
friends to appear -- that she had been gone a whole year, and that
everything had changed in the meantime.
The men in grey disposed of Guido with relative ease. It had all begun
about a year ago, only days after Momo's sudden and mysterious
disappearance, when a leading newspaper printed an article about him.
Headlined 'The Last of the Old-Time Storytellers', it mentioned when and
where he could be found and described him as an attraction not to be missed.
From then on, the amphitheatre was besieged by growing numbers of
people anxious to see and hear him. This, of course, was all right with
Guido. He continued to say the first thing that came into his head and ended
by handing around his cap, which always came back brimming with
coins and banknotes. Before long he was employed by a travel agent who
paid him an additional fee for permission to present him as a tourist
attraction in his own right. Busloads of sightseers rolled up in such
numbers that Guido was soon obliged to keep to a strict timetable, so that
all who had paid to hear him got a chance to do so.
He began to miss Momo more and more, because his stories had lost their
inspiration, but he steadfastly refused to tell the same story twice, even
when offered twice his usual fee.
After a few months, Guido no longer needed to turn up at the
amphitheatre and hand around his battered peaked cap. Having been
'discovered', first by a radio station and then by television, he was soon
earning a mint of money by telling his stories, three times weekly, to an
audience of millions.
By now he had given up his lodgings near the amphitheatre and moved to
quite another part of town, where all the rich and famous lived. He rented a
big modern villa set in well-kept grounds, dropped the nickname Guido, and
called himself Girolamo instead.
Guido was far too pressed for time, of course, to go on inventing new
stories as he used to. He began to ration his material with care, sometimes
concocting as many as five stories out of one idea. When even that failed to
meet the ever-increasing demand for his services, he did something he should
never have done: he broadcast a story destined for Memo's ears alone.
It was lapped up as greedily, and forgotten as speedily, as all the
rest, and the public clamoured for more. Guido was so bemused by the sheer
pace of everything that, without stopping to think, he reeled off all of
Momo's treasured stories in quick succession. When the last of them was
told, he felt drained and empty and incapable of making up any more.
Terrified that success might desert him, he started to tell his stories
all over again, making only minor changes and
using different names for his characters. Extraordinarily enough,
nobody seemed to notice - at all events, it didn't affect his popularity.
Guido clung to this thought like a drowning man clutching at a straw.
He was rich and famous now, he told himself, and wasn't that what he'd
always dreamed of?
Sometimes, though, while lying awake at night between silk sheets, he
yearned for his old way of life - for the happy times he'd spent with Momo
and Beppo and the children, when he was still a genuine storyteller.
But there was no way back, for Momo had never reappeared. Guido had
made strenuous efforts to find her at first, but he no longer had the time.
He now employed three super-efficient secretaries to negotiate contracts for
him, take down his stories in shorthand, handle his publicity and keep his
engagement diary. Somehow, his schedule never left him time to resume the
search for Momo.
One day, when little of the old Guido remained, he pulled what was left
of himself together and resolved to turn over a new leaf. He was a somebody
now, he told himself. He carried a lot of weight with millions of listeners
and viewers. Who was better placed than he to tell them the truth? He would
tell them about the men in grey, emphasize that the story was a true one,
and ask all his fans to help him look for Momo.
He formed this intention late one night, when he had been pining for
his old friends. By daybreak he was at his massive desk, preparing to put
his ideas down on paper. Even before he had written a word, however, the
telephone rang. He picked up the receiver, listened, and went rigid with
terror At the sound of the peculiarly flat, expressionless voice in his ear,
he felt as if the very marrow in his bones had turned to ire
'Drop the idea,' the voice said. 'We advise you to, for your own sake.'
'Who's speaking?' Guido demanded.
'You know very well,' the voice replied. 'We've no need to introduce
ourselves. You haven't had the pleasure of making our acquaintance, but
we've owned you body and soul for a long time now. Don't pretend you didn't
'What do you want?'
'This latest scheme of yours doesn't appeal to us. Be a good boy and
drop it, will you?'
Guido took his courage in both hands. 'No,' he said, 'I won't. I'm not
poor little Guido Guide any longer, I'm a celebrity. Try taking me on and
see how far you get!'
The voice gave such a grey, mirthless laugh that Guide's teeth began to
'You're a nobody,' it said, '- a rubber doll. We've blown you up, but
give us any trouble and we'll let the air out. Do you seriously think you
owe what you are today to yourself and your own unremarkable talents?'
'Yes,' Guido said hoarsely, 'that's just what I do think.'
'Poor old Guido,' said the voice, 'you're still as much of a dreamer as
you ever were. You used to be Prince Girolamo disguised as a nobody called
Guido. And what are you now? Just a nobody called Guido disguised as Prince
Girolamo. You should be grateful to us. After all, we're the ones who made
your dreams come true.'
'That's a lie!' Guido shouted.
'Heavens!' said the voice, with another mirthless laugh. 'You're hardly
the person to bandy words with us on the subject of truth and falsehood. Oh
no, my poor Guido, you'll regret it if you try quoting the truth at people.
Thanks to us, you've become famous for your tall stories. You aren't
qualified to tell the truth, so forget it.'
'What have you done with Momo?' Guido asked in a whisper.
'Don't worry your poor little scatterbrained head about that. You can't
help her any more, least of all by telling
stories about us. If you do, you'll only destroy your success as
quickly as it came. It's up to you, of course. If you're really set on
playing the hero and ruining yourself, we won't stop you, but you can't
expect us to reward your ingratitude by continuing to protect your
interests. Don't you like being rich and famous?'
'Yes,' Guido replied in a muffled voice. 'Exactly, so leave us out of
it. Go on telling people what they want to hear.'
'Now that I know the truth,' Guido said with an effort, 'how can I?'
'I'll give you some sound advice: Don't take yourself so seriously. The
matter's out of your hands. Look at it from that angle and you'll find you
can carry on very nicely, as before.'
'Yes,' Guido muttered, staring into space, 'from that angle .. .'
The earpiece gave a click and went dead. Guido hung up too. He slumped
forward on to the desktop and buried his face in his arms, racked with
From then on Guido lost every last scrap of self-respect. He abandoned
his plan and carried on as before, though he felt an utter fraud. And so he
was. Once upon a time his imagination had soared along and he had blithely
followed its lead, but now he was telling lies. He was making a buffoon of
himself -- a public laughing-stock - and he knew it. He hated his work, and
the more he hated it the sillier and more sentimental his stories became.
This didn't impair his reputation, though. On the contrary, the public
acclaimed him for pioneering a new style of humour and many comedians tried
to imitate it. Guido was all the rage, not that he derived any pleasure from
the fact. He now knew who was responsible for his success. He had gained
nothing and lost everything. And still he continued to race by car or plane
engagement ro the next, accompanied everywnere oy me secretaries to
whom he never stopped dictating old stories in new guises. 'Amazingly
inventive' was the newspapers' pet description of him.
Guido the dreamer had, in fact, become Girolamo the hoaxer.
Beppo Roadsweeper presented the men in grey with a far harder nut to
Ever since the night of Memo's disappearance, and whenever his work
permitted, he had gone to the amphitheatre and sat there waiting. At last,
when his mounting concern and anxiety became too much to bear, he resolved
to override Guide's objections, reasonable though they were, and go to the
'What if they do put her back in one of those homes with bars over the
windows?' he reflected. 'Better that than being held prisoner by the men in
grey - if she's still alive, of course. She escaped from a children's home
once, so she could do it again. Besides, maybe I could fix it so they didn't
put her in a home at all. The first thing to do is find her.'
So he made his way to the nearest police station, which was on the
outskirts of the city. Once there, he hung around outside for a while,
twisting his hat in his hands. Then he plucked up courage and walked in.
'Yes?' said the desk sergeant, who was busy filling out a long and
Beppo took some time to get it out. 'The thing is,' he said at last,
'something dreadful must have happened.'
'Really?' said the desk sergeant, still writing. 'What's it all about?'
'It's about our Momo,' said Beppo.
'Yes, a girl.'
'Is she yours?'
'No,' Beppo said, uncertainly, '-1 mean, yes, but I'm not her father.'
'No, I mean, yes!' snapped the desk sergeant. 'Who's child is she,
then? Who are her parents?' 'Nobody knows,' said Beppo. 'Where is she
'Registered?' said Beppo. 'Well, with us, I suppose. We all know her.'
'So she isn't registered,' the desk sergeant said with a sigh. 'That's
against the law, in case you didn't know. Who does she live with, then?'
'She lives by herself,' Beppo replied, 'that's to say, she used to live
in the old amphitheatre, but she doesn't any more. She's gone.'
'Just a minute,' said the desk sergeant. 'If I understand you
correctly, the ruins have until recently been occupied by a young female
vagrant named - what did you say her name was?'
'Momo,' said Beppo.
The policeman pulled a pad towards him and started writing. 'Momo,' he
repeated. 'Well, go on: Momo what? I'll need her full name.'
'Momo nothing,' said Beppo. 'Just Momo.' The desk sergeant stroked his
chin and looked aggrieved. 'See here, old timer, you'll have to do better
than this. I'm trying to be helpful, but I can't file a report without your
cooperation. Better begin by telling me your own name.' 'Beppo,' said Beppo.
'Beppo what?' 'Beppo Roadsweeper.' 'Your name, I said, not your occupation.'
'It's both,' Beppo explained patiently. The desk sergeant put his pen down
and buried his face in his hands. 'God give me strength!' he muttered
despairingly. 'Why did I have to be on duty now, of all times?'
Then he straightened up, squared his shoulders, and gave the old man an
encouraging smile. 'All right,' he said gently, as though humouring a child,
'I can take your personal particulars later. Just tell me the whole story
from start to finish.'
Beppo looked dubious. 'All of it?'
'Anything that's relevant,' said the desk sergeant. 'I'm up to my eyes
in work - I've got this whole stack of forms to complete by lunchtime, and
I'm just about at the end of my tether - but never mind that. Take your time
and tell me what's on your mind.'
He sat back and closed his eyes with the air of a martyr at the stake.
And Beppo, in his queer, roundabout way, recounted the whole story from
Memo's arrival on the scene and her exceptional gifts to the trial on the
garbage dump, which he himself had witnessed.
'And that very same night,' he concluded, 'Momo disappeared.'
The desk sergeant subjected him to a long, resentful glare. 'I see,' he
said at last. 'So you're telling me that an unlikely-sounding girl, whose
existence remains to be proved, may have been kidnapped and carried off, you
can't say where to, by ghosts of some kind. Is that what you expect us to
'Yes, please,' Beppo said eagerly.
The desk sergeant leaned forward. 'Breathe on me!' he barked.
Although Beppo failed to see the point of this request, he shrugged his
shoulders and obediently blew in the policeman's face.
The desk sergeant sniffed and shook his head. 'You don't appear to be
'No,' mumbled Beppo, puce in the face with embarrassment. 'I've never
been drunk in my life.'
'Then why tell me such a cock-and-bull story? Did you really think I'd
be daft enough to believe it?'
'Yes," beppo replied innocently.
At that the policeman's patience finally snapped. He jumped up and
slammed his fist down hard on his stack of long and complicated forms. 'That
does it!' he bellowed, beside himself with rage. 'Get out of here at once or
I'll lock you up for insulting behaviour!'
Beppo looked dismayed. 'I'm sorry,' he mumbled, 'I didn't mean it that
way. All I meant was -'
'Out!' roared the desk sergeant.
Beppo turned and went.
During the next few days he called at various other police stations
with much the same result. He was kicked out, politely sent home, or
humoured as the best means of getting rid of him.
One day, however, he was interviewed by a police inspector with less
sense of humour than his colleagues. After listening to Beppo's story
without a flicker of expression, he turned to a subordinate and said coldly,
'The old man's off his rocker. We'll have to find out if he's a threat to
society. Take him down to the cells.'
Beppo had to spend half the day in a cell before being whisked off in a
car by two policemen. They drove him all the way across the city to a big
white building with bars over the windows. It wasn't a prison or detention
centre, as he at first thought, but a hospital for nervous disorders.
Here Beppo underwent a thorough examination. The hospital staff treated
him kindly. They didn't laugh at him or bawl him out -- in fact they seemed
very interested in his story, because they made him tell it again and again.
Although they never questioned it, Beppo got the feeling that they didn't
really believe it. Whatever they made of him, which was far from clear to
Beppo himself, they didn't discharge him.
Whenever he asked how soon he could go, he was told, 'Soon, but you're
still needed for the time being. We haven't
completed our investigations, but we're making progress.' And Beppo,
who thought they were referring to investigations into Memo's whereabouts,
continued to wait patiently.
They had allotted him a bed in a big ward where many othci patients
slept. One night he woke up and saw, by the feeble glow of the emergency
lighting, that someone was standing beside his bed. AU he could tell at
first was that the shadowy figure was smoking a cigar or cigarette - the tip
glowed red in the gloom - but then he recognized the bowler and briefcase.
Realizing that his visitor was one of the men in grey, he felt chilled to
the marrow and opened his mouth to call for help.
'Quiet!' hissed an ashen voice. 'I've been authorized to make you a
proposition. Listen to it carefully, and don't answer till I tell you. You
now have some idea of the power we already wield. Whether or not you get
another taste of it is entirely up to you. Although you can't harm us in the
least by retailing your story to all and sundry, it doesn't suit our scheme
of things. You're quite correct in assuming that your friend Momo is our
prisoner, but you may as well abandon all hope of finding her. That you'll
never do, and your efforts to rescue her aren't making the poor girl's
position any easier. Every time you try, she has to suffer for it, so be
more careful what you do and say from now on.'
The man in grey blew several smoke rings, gleefully observing the
effect of his speech on Beppo. It was clear that the old man believed every
word of it.
'My time is valuable,' the man in grey went on, 'so here's our
proposition in a nutshell: you can have the girl back, but only on condition
that you never utter another word about us or our activities. As ransom, so
to speak, we shall additionally require you to deposit a hundred thousand
hours of your time with us. How we bank it is our affair and doesn't concern
you. All you have to do is save it. How you save it is your affair. If you
agree, we'll arrange for you to be
released in the next few days. If not, you'll stay here for as long as
Momo remains with us, in other words, for ever more. It's a generous offer,
so think it over. You won't get a second chance. Well?'
Beppo swallowed hard a couple of times. Then he croaked, 1 agree.'
'Very sensible of you,' the man in grey said smugly. 'So remember:
absolute discretion and a hundred thousand hours of your time. As soon as
you've saved them for us, you can have Momo back. And now, my dear sir,
On that note the man in grey departed, leaving a trail of cigar smoke
behind him. It seemed to glow faintly in the darkness like a
Beppo stopped telling his story from that night on, and when asked why
he'd told it in the first place would merely look sad and shrug his
shoulders. The hospital authorities discharged him a few days later.
But he didn't go home. Instead, he went straight to the depot where he
and his workmates collected their brooms and handcarts. Shouldering his
broom, he marched out into the city streets and started sweeping.
He did not, however, sweep as he used to in the old days, with a breath
before each step and stroke of the broom, but hurriedly and without pride in
his work, solely intent on saving time. He felt sickened by what he was
doing and tormented by the knowledge that he was betraying the deeply held
beliefs of a lifetime. Had no one's future been at stake but his own, he
would have starved to death rather than abandon his principles, but there
was Momo's ransom to ;o!lect, and this was the only way he knew of saving
He swept day and night without ever returning to his shack 'ear the
amphitheatre. When exhaustion overcame him, he ivould sit down on a park
bench, or even on the kerb, and snatch a few minutes' sleep, only to wake up
with a guilty start and carry on sweeping. He devoted just as little time to
his meals, which took the form of hurried snacks wolfed down on the
Beppo swept for weeks and months on end. Winter followed autumn, and
still he toiled on. Spring and summer came around, but he scarcely noticed
the changing seasons. Preoccupied with saving Memo's hundred thousand hours'
ransom, he swept and swept and swept.
The townsfolk were too short of time themselves to pay any attention to
the little old man, and the handful that did so tapped their foreheads as
soon as he had gone panting past, wielding his broom as if his life depended
on it. Being taken for a fool was nothing new to Beppo, so he scarcely
noticed that either. On the few occasions when someone asked him what the
hurry was, he would pause for a moment, eye the questioner with mingled
alarm and sorrow, and put his finger to his lips.
Hardest of all for the men in grey to tailor to their plans were Momo's
friends among the children of the city. Even after her disappearance, they
went on meeting at the amphitheatre as often as they could. They continued
to invent new games in which a few old crates and boxes became castles and
palaces or galleons that carried them on fabulous voyages around the world.
They also continued to tell each other stories. In short, they behaved as if
Momo were still with them, and by doing so, remarkably enough, they almost
made it seem that she really was.
Besides, they never for a moment doubted that she would return. They
didn't discuss the subject, but children united by such an unspoken
certainty had no need to. Momo was one ot them and formed the ever-present
focus of all their activities, whether or not she was actually there in
The men in grey were powerless to meet this challenge head-on. Unable
to detach the children from Momo by bringing them under their direct
control, they had to find
some roundabout means of achieving the same end, and for this they
enlisted the children's elders. Not all grown-ups made suitable accomplices,
of course, but there were plenty that did. What was more, the men in grey
were cunning enough to turn the children's own weapons against them.
Quite suddenly, one or two parents recalled how their offspring had
paraded through the streets with placards and posters.
'Something must be done,' they said. 'More and more kids are being left
on their own and neglected. You can't blame us - parents just don't have the
time these days - so it's up to the authorities.'
Others joined in the chorus. *We can't have all these youngsters
loafing around,' declared some. 'They obstruct the traffic. Road accidents
caused by children are on the increase, and road accidents cost money that
could be put to better use.'
'Unsupervised children run wild,' declared others. 'They become morally
depraved and take to crime. The authorities must take steps to round them
up. They must build centres where the youngsters can be moulded into useful
and efficient members of society.'
'Children,' declared still others, 'are the raw material of the future.
A world dependent on computers and nuclear energy will need an army of
experts and technicians to run it. Far from preparing our children for
tomorrow's world, we still allow too many of them to squander years of their
precious time on childish tomfoolery. It's a blot on our civilization and a
crime against future generations.'
The timesavers were all in favour of such a policy, naturally, and
there were so many of them in the city by this time that they soon convinced
the authorities of the need to take prompt action.
Before long, big buildings known as 'child depots' sprang up in every
neighbourhood. Children whose parents were too
busy to look after them had to be deposited there and could be
collected when convenient. They were strictly forbidden to play in the
streets or parks or anywhere else. Any child caught doing so was immediately
carted off to the nearest depot, and its parents were heavily fined.
None of Momo's friends escaped the new regulation. They were split up
according to the districts they came from and consigned to various child
depots. Once there, they were naturally forbidden to play games of their own
devising. All games were selected for them by supervisors and had to have
some useful, educational purpose. The children learned these new games but
unlearned something else in the process: they forgot how to be happy, how to
take pleasure in little things, and, last but not least, how to dream.
Weeks passed, and the children began to look like time-savers in
miniature. Sullen, bored and resentful, they did as they were told. Even
when left to their own devices, they no longer knew what to do with
themselves. All they could still do was make a noise, but it was an angry,
ill-tempered noise, not the happy hullabaloo of former times.
The men in grey made no direct approach to them - there was no need.
The net they had woven over the city was so close-meshed as to seem
impenetrable. Not even the brightest and most ingenious children managed to
slip through its toils. The amphitheatre remained silent and deserted.
The men in grey had done their work well. All was in readiness for
So Momo sat on the stone steps and waited in vain for her friends to
turn up. She sat and waited all day, but no one came - not a soul.
The sun was sinking in the west. The shadows grew longer, the air more
At last Momo rose stiffly to her feet. She was hungry because no one
had thought to bring her something to eat.
This had never happened before. Even Guido and Beppo must have
forgotten about her, she reflected, but she consoled herself with the
thought that it was just an oversight -- a silly mistake that would sort
itself out the next day. • She went and knelt beside the tortoise, which had
already tucked itself in for the night. Timidly, she tapped the shell with
her knuckles. The tortoise put its head out and looked at her.
'Excuse me,' Momo said, 'I apologize for waking you, but can you tell
me why none of my friends came? I waited all day long.'
'ALL GONE,' the shell spelled out.
Momo read the words but couldn't follow their meaning. 'Oh well,' she
said cheerfully, 'I'll find out tomorrow. My friends are bound to come then,
'NEVER AGAIN,' replied the tortoise.
Momo stared at the faint letters with growing dismay. 'What do you
mean?' she asked eventually. 'Has something happened to them?'
'ALL GONE,' she read again.
She shook her head. 'No,' she said softly, 'they can't have. You must
be wrong, Cassiopeia. Why, I saw them only yesterday at our grand council of
war - the one that came to nothing.'
'NOT YESTERDAY,' Cassiopeia replied.
Momo remembered now. Professor Noga had told her that she would have to
wait like a seed slumbering in the earth until it was ready to sprout. She
had agreed without stopping to wonder how long that meant, but now the truth
was beginning to dawn on her.
'How long have I been away?' she asked in a whisper.
'A YEAR AND A DAY.'
Momo took some time to digest this. 'But Beppo and Guido,' she
stammered,'- surely they're still waiting for me?'
NO ONE LEFT,'she read.
'But I don't understand.' Momo's lips were trembling. 'They can't all
be gone, not my friends, not the times we spent together . . .'
Very slowly, a single word lit up on Cassiopeia's shell:
For the first time in her life, Momo grasped the terrible finality of
the word. Her heart had never felt so heavy.
'But,' she murmured helplessly, '- but I'm still here ...' She longed
to cry but couldn't. A moment later she felt the tortoise nudge her bare
•SO AM I,' she read.
'Yes,' she said, smiling bravely, 'you're here too, Cas-siopeia, and
I'm glad of your company. Come on, let's go to bed.'
Picking up the tortoise, she carried it through the hole in the wall
and down into her room. She saw by the light of the setting sun that all was
just as she had left it - Beppo had tidied the place up after its invasion
by the men in grey
- but everything was thick with dust and shrouded in cobwebs.
Then she caught sight of an envelope propped against a can on the
little table. The envelope, too, was covered with cobwebs. 'To Momo,' it
Momo's heart began to race. No one had ever written her a letter
before. She picked up the envelope and examined it from every angle, then
tore it open and unfolded the slip of paper inside.
'Dear Momo,' she read, 'I've moved. If you come back, please get in
touch with me at once. I miss you and worry about you a lot. I hope nothing
has happened to you. If you're hungry, go to Nine's place. I'll foot the
bill, so be sure to eat as much as you want. Nino will tell you the rest.
Keep on loving me - 1 still love you. Yours ever, Guido.'
Momo took a long time to decipher this letter, even though Guido had
obviously been at pains to write as neatly and
legibly as possible. The daylight had gone by the time she finished
reading, but she felt comforted.
She took the tortdise and put it on the bed beside her. 'You see,
Cassiopeia,' she said as she wrapped herself in the dusty blanket, 'I'm not
alone after all.'
But the tortoise seemed to be asleep already, and Momo, who had
pictured Guide's face with the utmost clarity while reading his letter,
never suspected that the envelope had been lying there for almost a year.
She pillowed her cheek on it, feeling cold no longer.
Three Lunches, No Answers
Towards noon on the following day, Momo tucked the tortoise under her
arm and set off for Nine's inn.
'You'll see, Cassiopeia,' she said. 'The mystery will soon be solved.
Nino will tell us where Guido and Beppo are Then we'll go and get the
children, and we'll all be together again. Perhaps Nino and his wife will
come along too. You'li like my friends, I'm sure. We could even give a
little party this evening. I'll tell everyone about the flowers and the
music and Professor Hora and everything. Oh, I just can't wait to see them
all again! First, though, I'm looking forward to a good lunch. I'm
And so she chattered on merrily, feeling in her jacket pocket now and
then to reassure herself that Guide's letter was still there. The tortoise
fixed her with its wise old eyes and made no comment.
Momo began to hum as she went, and then to sing. The words and melodies
were those of the voices that still seemed to ring in her ears as clearly as
they had the day before. She would never forget them, she knew that now.
Then, abruptly, she broke off. They had reached Nine's inn, but her
first thought was that she must have gone astray. Where once had stood a
little old tavern with damp-stained walls and a vine growing around the
door, the street was flanked by a long, concrete box with big plate glass
windows. The street itself had been asphalted and was humming with traffic.
A big petrol station had sprung up opposite, and alongside it an enormous
building. There were lots of cars parked outside the new establishment,
and the neon sign above the entrance said:
Momo went inside. She found it hard to get her bearings at 'first.
Cemented into the floor beside the windows were a number of tables with such
spindly single legs and tiny tops that they looked like toadstools. They
were just the right height for grown-ups to eat at standing up - which was
fortunate, since there were no chairs.
Running along the other side of the room was a son of fence made of
shiny, chromium-plated tubing. Just beyond it stood a long row of glass
cases containing ham and cheese sandwiches, sausages, plates of salad,
pudding, cakes and countless other things to eat, many of which Momo had
never seen before.
She could only take in the scene by degrees because the room was
jam-packed with people, and she always seemed to be getting in their way. No
matter where she stood, they elbowed her aside or jostled her along. Most of
them were balancing trays laden with food and drink, and all were intent on
grabbing a place at one of the little tables. Behind every man or woman that
stood there, eating in frantic haste, several others waited impatiently for
him or her to finish. From time to time, acrimonious remarks were exchanged
by those eating and those still waiting to eat. All of them looked glum and
More people were shuffling slowly along behind the barrier, taking
plates or bottles and cardboard cups from the glass cases as they passed.
Momo was astonished. So they could help themselves to whatever they
liked! There was no one around to stop them or ask them to pay for what they
took. Perhaps everything was free, Momo reflected. That would certainly
account for the crush.
At last she spotted Nino. Almost obscured by customers,
he was seated in front of a cash register at the very end of the long
row of glass cases, pressing buttons, taking money and giving change without
a stop. So he was the person who took the money! The rail fenced people in
so they couldn't get to the tables without passing him.
'Nino!' she called, trying to squeeze through the crowd. She called
again and waved Guide's letter, but Nino didn't hear. The electronic cash
register was bleeping too loudly.
Plucking up her courage, Momo climbed over the rail and wormed her way
along the line to where Nino sat. He glanced up, because one or two
customers had started to protest. At the sight of Momo, his glum expression
disappeared in a flash.
'So you're back!' he exclaimed, beaming just as he used to in the old
days. 'This is a nice surprise!'
'Get a move on,' called an angry voice. 'Tell that kid to stand in line
like the rest of us. Cheeky young whippersnap-per, barging her way to the
front like that!'
Nino made appeasing gestures. 'I won't be a moment,' he said. 'Be
patient, can't you?'
'Anyone could jump the line at this rate,' another voice chimed in.
'Hurry up, we don't have as much time to spare as she does.'
'Look, Momo,' Nino whispered hurriedly, 'take whatever you like - Guido
will pay for it all - but you'll have to line up like the rest. You heard
what they said.'
Before Momo could reply, she was pushed past the cash desk by the
people behind her. There was nothing for it but to do as the others did.
Joining the end of the line, she took a tray from a shelf and a knife, fork
and spoon from a box. Because she needed both hands for the tray, she dumped
Cassiopeia on top.
Rather flustered by now, Momo took things at random from the glass
cases as she was slowly propelled along, step by step, and arranged them
around the tortoise. She ended up with an oddly assorted meal: a piece of
fried fish, a jam puff,
a sausage, a meat pie and a plastic mug of lemonade. Surrounded by food
on all sides, Cassiopeia retired into her shell without comment.
. When Momo at last reached the cash desk, she hurriedly asked Nino if
he knew where Guido was.
Nino nodded. 'Our Guide's a celebrity these days. We're all very proud
of him - he's one of us, after all. He's on TV and radio every week, and
they're always writing about him in the papers. I even had two reporters
here myself last week, asking about the old days. I told them how Guido used
'Move along in front!' called an irate voice.
'But why doesn't he come around any more?' Momo asked.
'Ah, well,' Nino muttered, fidgeting because his customers were making
him nervous, 'he doesn't have the time, you see. He's got more important
things on his mind. Besides, there's nothing doing at the amphitheatre, not
'What's the matter with you?' called another indignant voice. 'You
think we like hanging around here, or something?'
Momo dug her heels in. 'Where's Guido living now?' she asked.
'Somewhere on Green Hill,' Nino replied. 'He's got a fine house there,
so they say, with a great big garden - but please, Momo, do me a favour and
come back later!'
Momo didn't really want to move on - she had a lot more questions for
him - but someone shoved her in the back again. She took her tray to one of
the toadstool tables and actually managed to get a place, though the table
was so high that her nose was on a level with it. When she slid the tray on
top, the neighbouring grown-ups eyed Cassiopeia with disgust.
'Ugh! See the kind of thing we have to put up with nowadays?' someone
said to the person beside him, and the other man growled, 'What do you
expect? These ktds!'
They lett it at that and ignored Momo trom then on. Eating was quite a
problem because she could scarcely see what was on her tray, but being very
hungry she devoured every last morsel. Then, in her anxiety to discover what
had become of Beppo, she rejoined the line. Although she wasn't hungry any
more, she was so afraid people might get angry with her if she simply stood
there that she filled her tray with another assortment of things from the
'Where's Beppo?' she asked, when she finally made it back to the cash
'He waited for you for ages,' Nino said hurriedly, fearful of upsetting
his customers again. 'He thought something terrible had happened to you -
kept on talking about men in grey, or something of the kind. Well, you know
old Beppo -he always was a bit eccentric.'
'You, there!' called a voice from the back of the line. 'When are we
going to get some service?'
'Right away, sir!' Nino called back.
'What happened then?' asked Momo.
'Then he started pestering the police,' Nino went on, nervously
massaging his brow. 'He asked them to look for you -made a proper nuisance
of himself, apparently. Next thing we knew, they'd put him in a sort of
mental hospital. That's all 1 can tell you.'
'Hell and damnation!' someone else bellowed. 'Is this a fastfood joint
or a dentist's waiting room? What are you doing, holding a family reunion?'
'Yes, kind of,' Nino said, apologetically.
'Is he still there?' asked Momo.
Nino shook his head. 'I don't think so. I'm told they pronounced him
harmless and let him go.'
'So where is he now?'
'I've no idea, Momo, honestly I haven't. Now please be a good girl and
Again Momo was jostled past the cash desk by the people
behind her, and again she waited for a place at one of the toadstool
tables. She polished off her second trayful of food with a good deal less
gusto than the first, but food was food, and she wouldn't have dreamed of
leaving any. • She still had to find out what had become of the children who
used to keep her company. There was nothing for it but to stand in line once
more, shuffle past the glass cases and load her tray with food rather than
invite hostile remarks. It seemed an eternity before she reached the cash
'What about the children?' she demanded. 'What's become of them?'
'Oh, that's all changed,' said Nino, breaking out in a sweat at her
reappearance. 'I can't explain right now - you can see how rushed I am.'
'But why don't they come any more?' she insisted.
'Nowadays, kids with n9 one to look after them are put in child depots.
They aren't allowed to be left to themselves any more because - well, the
long and the short of it is, they're taken care of.'
'Hurry it up, you slow coaches!' came an indignant chorus. 'We'd like
to eat sometime!'
Momo was looking incredulous. 'Child depots,' she repeated. 'Is that
what my friends really wanted?'
'They weren't consulted,' said Nino, fiddling with the keys of his cash
register. 'It's not up to kids to decide these things for themselves. Child
depots keep them off the streets - that's the main thing, isn't it?'
Momo said nothing, just looked at him, and Nino squirmed under her
'Damn it all!' shouted yet another angry voice in the background. 'This
is the limit! If you must hold a prayer meeting, hold it somewhere else!'
'What am I going to do now,' Momo asked in a small voice, 'without my
Nino shrugged and kneaded his hands together. 'Be
reasonable, Momo,' he said, drawing a deep breath. 'Come back some
other time. I really can't discuss your problems now. You're welcome to eat
here any time you like, you know that, but if 1 were you I'd report to one
of these child depots. They'd look after you and keep you occupied -they'd
even give you a proper education. Besides, you'll end up in one anyway, if
you go on wandering around on your own like this.'
Momo said nothing, just gazed at him as before. When the crowd swept
her along she mechanically went to one of the tables and just as
mechanically forced herself to eat a third lunch, though it was all she
could do to get it down. It tasted so much like cardboard and wood shavings,
she felt sick.
Then, tucking Cassiopeia under her arm, she walked silently to the door
without a backward glance.
'Hey, Momo!' called Nino, who had spotted her at the last moment. 'Wait
a bit! You never told me where you've been all this time!'
But the next customer was already drumming his fingers on the cash
register. Nino rang up the total, took the man's money and gave him some
change. The smile had long since left his face.
'I've had masses to eat,' Momo told Cassiopeia when they were back at
the amphitheatre. 'Far too much, to tell the truth, but somehow I still feel
empty inside.' After a while she added, 'Anyway, I couldn't have told Nino
about the flowers and the music -- there wasn't time, and I don't think he'd
have understood.' There was another pause before she went on, 'Never mind,
tomorrow we'll go and look for Guido. You're sure to like him, Cassiopeia,
But all that lit up on Cassiopeia's shell was a great big question
Found and Lost
Momo got up early the next morning and set off in search of Guide's
house. Cassiopeia came too, of'course.
Momo knew where Green Hill was. A residential suburb several miles from
the amphitheatre, it lay on the other side of the city, near the housing
development's identical rows of identical flats.
Green Hill was a long walk. Although Momo was used to going without
shoes, her bare feet were aching by the time she got there, so she sat down
on the kerb to rest a while.
It really was a very smart neighbourhood. The streets were broad and
clean and deserted. In gardens enclosed by high walls and iron railings,
fine old trees reared their branches to the sky. Most of the houses set in
these gardens were long, low, flat-roofed villas built of concrete and
glass. The smooth expanses of lawn in front of them were lush and green -
they positively cried out for children to turn somersaults on them - but not
a soul could be seen strolling or playing anywhere. Presumably the owners
didn't have time.
Momo turned to Cassiopeia. 'If only I knew how to find out where Guido
lives,' she sighed.
'YOU WILL,' the tortoise signalled.
'You really think so?' Momo said hopefully.
'Hey, you grubby little brat,' someone said behind her, 'what are you
Momo turned to see a man in a spotless white jacket. She didn't know
that such jackets were worn by the servants of the
rich. 'Good morning,' she said, getting up off the kerb, 'I'm looking
for Guide's house. Nino told me he lives here now.'
'Guide's. He's a friend of mine, you see.'
The man in the white jacket glared at her suspiciously. He had left the
garden gate ajar, and Momo could see inside. Some dogs were frisking around
on a big stretch of lawn and a fountain was playing in front of the house.
Overhead, in a blossom-covered tree, perched a pair of peacocks.
'Oh,' Momo exclaimed, 'what pretty birds!' She started to go inside for
a closer look, but the man in the white jacket grabbed her by the scruff of
'No, you don't!' he said. 'Some nerve you've got, I must say.' Then he
let go of her and wiped his fingers on his handkerchief, looking as if he'd
just touched something unpleasant.
Momo pointed through the gate. 'Does all that belong to you?' she
'No,' snapped the man in the white jacket, sounding more unfriendly
than ever. 'And now, clear off. You've no business here.'
'Oh, yes I have,' Momo said firmly. 'I've got to find Guido Guide. He's
expecting me. Don't you know him?'
'There aren't any guides around here,' the man retorted, and turned on
his heel. He had gone back into the garden and was about to slam the gate
when a thought seemed to strike him.
'You don't mean Girolamo, the TV star?'
'That's right,' Momo said eagerly. 'Guido Guide - that's his real name.
Can you tell me which his house is?'
'Is he really expecting you?' the man demanded.
'Yes, truly he is,' said Momo. 'He's a friend of mine - he pays for
everything I eat at Nino's.'
The man in the white jacket raised his eyebrows and shook his head.
'These showbiz people,' he said acidly. 'They
certainly get some crazy notions sometimes. All right, if you really
think he'll welcome a visit from you, his house is right at the end of the
So saying, he slammed the gate behind him. • The word 'SHOWOFF'
appeared on Cassiopeia's shell, but only for a moment.
The last house in the street was surrounded by a high wall and the gate
was made of sheet metal like all the rest, so it was impossible to see
inside. There wasn't a nameplate or a doorbell anywhere in sight.
'Can this really be Guide's new house' said Momo. 'It
doesn't look at all the kind of place he'd choose.'
'IT IS,' Cassiopeia signalled.
'But why is it all shut up?' Momo asked. 'I'll never get in.'
'WAIT,' was Cassiopeia's advice.
Momo sighed. 'I may have to wait a long time. Even if Guide's home, how
will he know I'm here?'
The tortoise's shell lit up again. 'HE'LL COME,' it said.
So Momo sat down, right outside the gate, and waited patiently. Nothing
happened for such a long time that she began to wonder if Cassiopeia had
made a mistake for once.
'Are you absolutely positive?' she asked after a while.
Cassiopeia's reply was quite unexpected. Her shell said simply,
Momo gave a start. 'What do you mean, Cassiopeia? You aren't leaving
me, are you? Where are you going?'
TO LOOK FOR YOU,' was Cassiopeia's still more cryptic response.
At that moment the gate swung open without warning and out shot a long,
low, elegant car. Momo, who jumped back only just in time, fell head over
heels. The car sped on for several yards, then screeched to a halt. An
instant later, Guido jumped out.
'Momo!' he cried, flinging his arms wide. 'If it isn't my own, beloved
Momo scrambled to her feet and ran to him, and Guido snatched her up in
his arms and covered her cheeks with kisses and danced around in the road
'Did you hurt yourself?' he asked breathlessly, but instead of waiting
for a reply he went on talking nineteen to the dozen. 'Sorry I gave you a
fright, but I'm in a tearing hurry. Late again, as usual. Where have you
been all this time? You must tell me the whole story. I'd given you up for
lost, you know. Did you get my letter? Yes? So it was still there, eh? Fine,
so you went and had a meal at Nine's, did you? Did you enjoy it? Oh, Momo,
we've such a lot to tell each other -so much has happened in the last few
months. How are you, anyway? What's the matter, lost your tongue? And what
about old Beppo - what's he up to these days? I haven't seen him in a month
of Sundays. And the children - what about them? Oh, Momo, I can't tell you
how often I think of the times we spent together, when I used to tell you
stories. Good times, they were, but everything's different now -- you can't
imagine how different.'
Momo had made several attempts to answer his questions, but since his
torrent of words never dried up she simply watched and waited. Guido looked
different from the old days. He was well-groomed and he smelled nice, but
there was something curiously unfamiliar about him.
Meanwhile, some people had emerged from the limousine and walked over
to them: a man in a chauffeur's uniform and three hard-faced, heavily
made-up young women.
'Is the child hurt?' asked one, sounding less anxious than
'No, no, not a bit,' Guido assured her. 'We gave her a fright, that's
'Serves her right for loitering outside the gate,' said the second
Guido laughed. 'But this is Momo - my old friend Momo!'
The third young woman raised her eyebrows. 'So she really
exists, does she? I always thought she was a figment of your
imagination. We must issue a press release at once. "Giro-lamo Reunited with
his Fairy Princess" - something along those lines. I'll get on to it at
once. What a story! The public will lap it up.'
'No,' said Guido, 'I'd rather not.'
'What do you say, Momo?' asked the first young woman, fixing Momo with
an artificial smile. 'Surely you'd like to see your picture in the paper,
wouldn't you?' . 'Leave her alone!' snapped Guido.
The second young woman glanced at her wristwatch. 'We're going to miss
our flight if we don't get a move on, and you know what that would mean.'
'God Almighty,' Guido protested, 'can't 1 even have a quiet chat with a
long-lost friend?' He turned to Momo with a rueful grin. 'You see? They
never give me a moment's peace, these slave-drivers of mine - never.'
'Suit yourself, but we're only doing our job,' the second young woman
said tartly. 'That's what you pay us for, lord and master, to arrange your
schedule and see that you stick to it.'
Guido gave in. 'Okay, okay, we'd better get going. Tell you what, Momo,
why not come to the airport with us? We can talk on the way, and afterwards
my chauffeur will drive you home, all right?'
Without even waiting for an answer, he seized Momo's hand and towed her
to the car. The three secretaries got in behind while Guido sat up front
with Momo wedged in beside him.
'Right, he said, 'I'm listening, but first things first. How come you
disappeared like that?'
Momo was on the point of telling him about Professor Noga and the
hour-lilies when one of the secretaries leaned forward. 'Sorry to butt in,'
she said, 'but I've just had the most fabulous idea. We've simply got to
introduce Momo to the
top brass at Fantasy Films. She'd be perfect for the title role in your
next film - the one about the girl who becomes a vagrant. Think what a
sensation it would make: "Momo, starring Momo"!'
'Didn't you hear what I said?' snapped Guido. 'I don't want her dragged
into anything of the kind, is that clear?'
The young woman bridled. 'I just don't get it,' she said. 'Most people
would jump at such a heaven-sent opportunity.'
'Well, I'm not most people!' Guido shouted in a sudden fury. He turned
to Momo. 'Forgive me, you may not understand this, but I don't want these
vultures sinking their talons into you as well as me.'
At that, all three secretaries sniffed and looked offended.
Guido groaned aloud and clutched his head. Producing a small silver
pillbox from his pocket, he took out a capsule and gulped it down.
Nobody spoke for a minute or two.
At length Guido turned to the trio behind him. 'I apologize,' he
mumbled wearily, 'I wasn't referring to you. My nerves are on edge, that's
'We know,' said the first young woman, 'we're getting used to it.'
'And now,' Guido went on, smiling down at Momo rather wryly, 'let's not
talk about anything except the two of us.'
'One more question before it's too late,' the second young woman broke
in. 'We'll be there any minute. Couldn't you at least let me do a quick
interview with the kid?'
'That's enough!' roared Guido, beside himself with rage. 'I want a word
with Momo in private -- it means a lot to me. How many more times do I have
to tell you?',
The second young woman was just as irate. 'You're always complaining
because the publicity I get you doesn't pack a big enough punch.'
"You re right,' Guido groaned, 'but not now. Not now\'
'It's too bad,' the second young woman pursued. 'A human-interest story
like this would be a real tear-jerker, but have it your way. Maybe we can
run it later on, when -'
'No!' Guido cut in. 'Neither now nor later - not ever! Now kindly shut
up while Momo and I have a talk.'
'Well, pardon me\' the second young woman retorted angrily. 'It's your
publicity we're discussing, not mine. Think carefully: can you really afford
to pass up such an opportunity at this stage in your career?'
'No, I can't,' Guido cried in desperation, 'but Momo stays out of it!
And now, for pity's sake, leave us in peace for five minutes.'
The secretaries relapsed into silence. Limply, Guido drew a hand across
'You see how far gone I am?' He patted Memo's arm and gave a wry little
laugh. 'I couldn't go back now, even if I wanted to - I'm beyond redemption.
"Guide's still Guido!" -remember? Well, Guido isn't Guido any more. Believe
me, Momo, there's nothing more dangerous in life than dreams that come true,
at least when they come true like mine. I've nothing left to dream about,
and not even you could teach me to dream again. I'm fed up to the teeth with
everything and everyone.'
He stared morosely out of the window.
'The most I could do now would be to stop telling stories and keep mum,
if not for the rest of my life, at least until people had forgotten all
about me and I was poor and unknown again. But poverty without dreams? No,
Momo, that would be sheer hell. I'd sooner stay where I am. That's another
kind of hell, but at least it's a comfortable one.' Guido broke off. 'I
don't know why I'm rambling on like this. You can't have understood a word.'
Momo just looked at him. What she understood, first
and foremost, was that Guido was ill - gravely ill. She suspected that
the men in grey were at the bottom of it, but she had no idea how to cure
him if he didn't want to be cured.
'I've done nothing but talk about myself,' he said. 'It's high time you
told me about your own doings.'
Just then the car drew up outside the airport terminal. They all got
out and hurried into the foyer, where a pair of uniformed stewardesses were
already waiting for Guido. Some newspaper reporters took pictures of him and
asked questions, but the stewardesses started fussing because there were
only a few minutes left before take-off time.
Guido bent down and gazed into Memo's eyes, and suddenly his own eyes
filled with tears.
'Listen,' he said, lowering his voice so the others couldn't hear.
'Stay with me, Momo. I'll take you along on this trip - I'll take you
wherever I go. You can live in that fine new house of mine and dress in silk
and satin like a real princess. Just be there and listen to me, that's all I
ask. If you did, perhaps I'd manage to think up some proper stories like the
ones I used to tell, know what 1 mean? Just say yes, Momo, and everything
will be all right again. Help me, I beg you!'
Momo's heart bled for Guido. She longed so much to help him, but she
sensed that he was wrong. He would have to become Guido again, and it
wouldn't help him at all if she stopped being Momo. Her eyes, too, filled
with tears, and she shook her head.
Guido understood. He just had time to nod sadly before he was hustled
off by the three secretaries he employed to do just that. He gave one last
wave in the distance, and Momo waved back. Then he was hidden from view.
Momo could have told him so many things, but she hadn't managed to say
a word throughout their brief reunion. She
felt as if, by finding him again, she had really and truly lost him at
Slowly, she turned and made her way across the crowded foyer. Just as
she reached the exit, she was smitten by a sudden thought: she had lost
Cassiopeia as well!
'Where to?' asked the chauffeur when Momo got in beside him.
She looked perplexed. Where did she want to go? She had to look for
Cassiopeia, but where? Where had she lost her? The tortoise hadn't been with
them on the drive to the airport, that much she knew for sure, so the
likeliest place would be outside Guide's house. Then she remembered the
words on Cassiopeia's shell: 'GOODBYE' and 'TO LOOK FOR YOU'. Of course!
Cassiopeia had known beforehand that they would lose each other, so she'd
gone looking for her. But where should she, Momo, go looking for Cassiopeia?
'Make up your mind,' said the chauffeur, beating an impatient tattoo on
the steering wheel. 'I've got better things to do with my time than take you
'Back to Guide's house, please,' Momo replied.
The chauffeur looked faintly surprised. 'I thought the boss said to
drive you home. You mean you're coming to live at his place?'
'No,' said Momo, 'but I lost something in the road outside, and I've
got to find it.'
That suited the chauffeur, who had to go back there anyway. As soon as
they reached Guide's gate, Momo got out and started peering in all
'Cassiopeia!' she called softly, again and again. 'Cassiopeia!'
The chauffeur stuck his head out of the window. 'What are you looking
'Professor Hora's tortoise,' Momo told him. 'Her name is Cassiopeia,
and she always knows what's going to happen half an hour in advance. She can
make words light up on her shell, too - that's how she tells you what the
future holds in store. I've simply got to find her. Would you help me to
look for her, please?'
'I've no time for jokes,' snarled the chauffeur, and drove on. The
remote-controlled gate opened and closed behind him.
Undaunted, Momo continued the search on'her own. She combed the entire
street, but Cassiopeia was nowhere to be seen.
'Perhaps she's on her way back to the amphitheatre,' thought Momo, so
she slowly retraced her steps, calling the tortoise by name all the way. She
peered into every nook and cranny, every ditch and gutter, but in vain.
Although Momo didn't get back to the amphitheatre till late that night,
she searched it as thoroughly as the darkness would allow. She had nursed a
vague hope that Cassiopeia might, by some miraculous means, have reached
home before her, but she knew in her heart of hearts that the tortoise's
slow rate of progress rendered this impossible.
At long last she crept into bed, really alone for the first time ever.
Once she had given Cassiopeia up for lost, Momo decided to concentrate
on trying to find Beppo. She spent the next few weeks roaming aimlessly
through the city in search of him. No one could give her any clue to his
whereabouts, so her one remaining hope was that they might simply bump into
each other. The vastness of the city made this a forlorn hope. They had as
little chance of meeting as a shipwrecked sailor has that his message in a
bottle will be netted by a fishing boat ten thousand miles from the desert
island where he tossed it into the sea.
For all that, Momo kept telling herself, she and Beppo might be quite
close to each other. Who could tell how often she had passed some spot where
he had been only an hour, a minute, or even a moment or two before?
Conversely, how often had Beppo crossed a square or rounded a street corner
only minutes or moments after her? Encouraged by this thought, Momo often
waited in the same spot for hours. She had to move on sooner or later,
however, so even that was no insurance against their missing each other by a
How useful Cassiopeia would have been! The tortoise could have
signalled 'WAIT!' or 'KEEP GOING!' As it was, Momo never knew what to do for
the best. She was afraid of missing Beppo if she waited, and just as afraid
of missing him if she didn't.
She also kept her eyes open for the children who used to come and play
with her in the old days, but she never saw a single one. She never saw any
children at all, though this was hardly surprising in view of Nine's remark
about their being 'taken care of.
Momo herself was never picked up by a policeman or other adult and
taken off to a child depot, for the wry good reason that she was under
constant surveillance by the men in grey. Not that she knew it, confinement
to a child depot wouldn't have suited their plans for her.
Although she ate at Nino's restaurant every day, she never managed to
say any more to him than she had on the first occasion. He was always in
just as much of a rush and never had the time.
Weeks became months, and still Momo pursued her solitary existence. One
evening, while perched on the balustrade of a bridge, she sighted the small,
bent figure of a man on another bridge in the distance, wielding a broom as
if his life depended on it. Momo shouted and waved, thinking it was Beppo,
but the man didn't stop work for an instant. She ran
as fast as she could, but by the time she reached the other bridge
there was no one in sight.
'I don't suppose it was him,' she told herself consolingly. "No, it
can't have been. I know the way Beppo works.' ' Some days she stayed home at
the amphitheatre on the off-chance that Beppo might look in to see if she
was back. If she was out when he came, he would naturally assume that she
was still away. It tormented her to think that this might .ilready have
happened a week or even a day ago, so she waited - in vain. Eventually she
painted" the words 'I'M BACK' on the wall of her room in big, bold letters,
but hers were the only eyes that ever saw them.
The one thing that never forsook Momo in all this time was her vivid
recollection of Professor Hora, the hour-lilies, and the music. She had only
to shut her eyes and listen to her heart, and she could see the blossoms in
all their radiant splendour and hear the voices singing. And even though the
words and melodies were forever changing, she found she could repeat the
words and sing the melodies as easily as she had on the very first day
Sometimes she spent whole days sitting alone on the steps, talking and
singing to herself with no one there to hear but the trees and the birds and
the time-worn stones.
There are many kinds of solitude, but Momu's was a solitude few people
ever know and even fewer experience with such intensity. She felt as if she
were imprisoned in a vault heaped with priceless treasures - an ever-growing
hoard that threatened to crush the life out of her. There was no way out,
either. The vault was impenetrable and she was far too deeply buried beneath
a mountain of time to attract anyone's attention.
There were even moments when she wished she had never heard the music
or seen the flowers. And yet, had she been offered a choice, nothing in the
world would have induced her to part with her memories of them, not even the
of death. Yes, death, for she now discovered that there are treasures
capable of destroying those who have no one to share them with.
Every few days, Momo made the long walk to Guide's house and waited
outside the gate for hours in the hope of seeing him again. By now she was
ready to agree to anything - ready to stay with him and listen to him,
whether or not things became as they once were - but the gate remained
Only a few months passed in this way, yet Momo had never lived through
such an eternity. No clock or calendar can truly measure time, just as no
words can truly describe the loneliness that afflicted her. Suffice it to
say that if she had succeeded in finding her way back to Professor Noga -and
she tried to again and again - she would have begged him to cut off her
supply of time or let her remain with him at Nowhere House forever more.
But she couldn't find the way without Cassiopeia's help, and
Cassiopeia, whether long since back with Professor Hora or lost and roaming
the big, wide world, had never reappeared.
Instead, something quite different happened.
While wandering through the city one day, Momo ran into Paolo, Franco
and Maria, the girl who always used to carry her little sister Rosa around
with her. All three children had changed so much, she hardly recognized
them. They were dressed in a kind of grey uniform and their faces wore a
strangely stiff and lifeless expression. They barely smiled, even when Momo
hailed them with delight.
'I've been looking for you for so long,' she said breathlessly. 'Will
you come back to the amphitheatre and play with me?'
The three children looked at each other, then shook their heads.
'But you'll come tomorrow, won't you, or the next day?'
Again the trio shook their heads.
"Oh, do come!' Momo pleaded. 'You always used to in the old days.'
'In the old days, yes,' said Paolo, 'but everything's different now. We
aren't allowed to fritter our time away."
'We never did,' Momo protested.
'It was nice,' Maria said, 'but that's not the point.'
And the three of them hurried on with Momo trotting beside them.
'Where are you off to?' she asked.
'To our play class,' Franco told her. That's where they teach us how to
Momo looked puzzled. 'Play what?'
'Today we're playing data retrieval,' Franco explained. 'It's a very
useful game, but you have to concentrate like mad.'
'How does it go?'
'We all pretend to be punch cards, and each card carries various bits
of information about us -- age, height, weight and so on. Not our real age,
height and weight, of course, because that would make it too easy. Sometimes
we're just long strings of letters and numerals, like MUX/763/y. Anyway,
then we're shuffled and fed into a card index, and one of us has to pick out
a particular card. He has to ask questions in such a way that all the other
cards are eliminated and only the right one is left. The winner is the
person who does it quickest.'
'Is it fun?' Momo asked, looking rather doubtful.
'That's not the point,' Maria repeated uneasily. 'Anyway, you shouldn't
talk like that.'
'So what is the point?' Momo insisted.
'The point is,' Paolo told her, 'it's useful for the future.'
By this time they had reached a big, grey building. The sign over the
gate said 'CHILD DEPOT'.
'I had so much to tell you,' Momo said.
'Maybe we'll see each other again sometime,' Maria said sadly.
As they stood there, more children appeared. They streamed in through
the gateway, all looking just the same as Momo's former playmates.
'It was much nicer playing with you,' Franco said suddenly. 'We used to
enjoy thinking up games for ourselves, but our supervisors say they didn't
teach us anything useful.'
'Couldn't you just run away?' Momo hazarded.
The trio shook their heads and glanced around for fear someone might
'I tried it a couple of times at the beginning,' Franco whispered, 'but
it's hopeless. They always catch you again.'
'You shouldn't talk like that,' said Maria. 'After all, we're taken
care of now.'
They all fell silent and stared gloomily into space. At last Momo
summoned up her courage and said, 'Couldn't you take me in with you? I'm so
lonely these days.'
Just then, something extraordinary happened. Before the children could
reply they were whisked into the courtyard of the building like iron filings
attracted by a giant magnet, and the gates clanged shut behind them.
After a minute, when she had recovered from her shock, Momo cautiously
approached the gates intending to knock or ring and beg to be allowed to
join in, no matter what game the children were playing. She had barely taken
a couple of steps, however, when she stopped dead, rooted to the spot with
terror. A man in grey had suddenly materialized between her and the gates.
'Pointless,' he said with a thin-lipped smile, the inevitable cigar
jutting from the corner of his mouth. 'Don't even try it. Letting you in
would be against our interests.'
'Why?' Momo asked. She felt as if her limbs were slowly filling with
'Because we have other plans for you,' said the man in grey, blowing a
smoke ring that coiled itself around her neck and took a long time to
People were passing by, all in too much of a hurry to give them a
second glance. Momo pointed to the man in grey and tried to call for help,
but no sound escaped her lips.
'Save it,' said the man in grey with a bleak, mirthless laugh. 'You
ought to know us better than that -- you know how powerful we are. No one
can help you, now we've got all your friends. You're at our mercy too, but
we've decided to go easy on you.'
'Why?' Momo managed to get out.
'Because we'd like you to do us a little favour. Be sensible, and you
can do yourself and your friends a lot of good. What do you say?'
'All right,' whispered Momo.
The man in grey gave another thin-lipped smile. 'Then we'll meet at
midnight to talk it over.'
She nodded mutely, but the man in grey had already vanished. All that
marked the spot where he had stood was a wisp of cigar smoke.
He hadn't told her where they were to meet.
Momo was too scared to go back to the amphitheatre. She felt sure the
man in grey would turn up there for their midnight meeting, and the thought
of being all alone with him in the deserted ruins filled her with terror.
No, she never wished to see him again, neither there nor anywhere else.
Whatever his proposition might be, it boded no 'good' for her and her
friends - that was as plain as a pikestaff. But where could she hide from
A crowded place seemed the best bet. Although no one had taken any
notice before, if the man in grey really tried to harm her and she called
for help, people would surely hear and come to her aid. Besides, she told
herself, she'd be hardei to find in a crowd than on her own.
So Momo spent the rest of the afternoon walking the busiest streets and
squares surrounded by jostling pedestrians. All through the evening and well
into the night she continued to trudge in a big circle that brought her back
to her starting point. Around and around she went, swept along by a
fast-flowing tide of humanity, until she had completed no fewer than three
of these circuits.
After keeping this up for so many hours, her weary feet began to ache.
It grew later and later, but still she walked, half asleep, on and on and on
'Just a little rest,' she told herself at last, '-just a teeny little
rest, and then I'll be more on my guard ...'
Parked beside the kerb was a little three-wheeled delivery truck laden
with an assortment of sacks and cartons. Momo
climbed aboard, found herself a nice, soft sack and leaned her back
against it. She drew up her weary feet and tucked them under her skirt. My,
did that feel good! She heaved a sigh of relief, snuggled up against the
sack and was asleep 'before she knew it.
But she was haunted by the weirdest dreams. In one of them she saw old
Beppo, with his broom held crossways like a balancing pole, teetering along
a tightrope suspended above a dark chasm. 'Where's the other end?' she heard
him call, over and over again. 'I can't see the other end!' And the
tightrope did indeed seem infinitely long - so long that it stretched away
into the darkness in both directions. Momo yearned to help the old man, but
she couldn't even attract his attention; he was too high up and too far
Then she saw Guido, pulling a paper streamer out of his mouth. He
pulled and pulled, but the streamer was endless and unbreakable -- in fact
he was already standing on a big mound of paper. It seemed to Momo that he
was gazing at her imploringly, as if he would suffocate unless she came to
his rescue. She tried to run to him, but her feet became entangled in the
coils of paper, and the more she struggled to free herself the more
entangled she became.
And then she saw the children. They were all as flat as playing cards,
and each card had a pattern of little holes punched in it. Every time the
cards were shuffled they had to sort themselves out and be punched with a
new pattern of holes. The card children were crying bitterly, but all Momo
could hear was a sort of clattering sound as they were shuffled yet again
and fluttered down on top of each other. 'Stop!' she shouted, but her feeble
voice was drowned by the clatter, which grew louder and louder until it
finally woke her up.
It was dark, and for a moment she couldn't think where she was. Then
she remembered climbing aboard the delivery truck and realized that it was
on the move. That was what had woken her - the sound of the engine.
Momo wiped her cheeks, which were still wet with tears, and wondered
where she could be. The truck had evidently been on the move for some time,
because it was in a different part of the city. At this late hour not a soul
could be seen in the streets, not a light showed anywhere in the tall
buildings that flanked them.
The truck was going quite slowly and Momo, without stopping to think,
jumped out. She began walking in the opposite direction, eager to get back
to the crowded streets that seemed to offer protection from the man in grey.
Then, remembering her nightmares, she came to a halt.
The sound of the engine gradually faded until silence enveloped the
She would stop running away, Momo decided. She had done so in the hope
of saving herself. All this time she had been preoccupied with herself, her
own loneliness and fear, when it was really her friends who were in trouble.
If anyone could save them, she could. Remote as the chances of persuading
the men in grey to release them might be, she must at least try.
Once she reached this conclusion, she felt a mysterious change come
over her. Her feelings of fear and helplessness had reached such a pitch
that they were suddenly transformed into their opposites. Having overcome
them, she felt courageous and self-confident enough to tackle any power on
earth; more precisely, she had ceased to worry about herself.
Now she wanted to meet the man in grey - wanted to at all costs.
'I must go to the amphitheatre at once,' she told herself. 'Perhaps it
still isn't too late, perhaps he'll be waiting for me.'
That, however, was easier said than done. She didn't know where she was
and hadn't the least idea which direction to take, but she started walking
On and on she walked through the dark, silent streets.
Being barefoot, she couldn't even hear her own footsteps. Every time
she turned a corner she hoped to see something that would tell her she was
on the right track, some landmark she recognized, but she never did. She
couldn't ask the way, either, because the only living creature she saw was a
grimy, emaciated dog that was foraging for scraps in a rubbish heap and fled
in panic at her approach.
At last she came to a huge, deserted square. It wasn't a handsome
square with trees or a fountain in the middle, but an empty, featureless
expanse fringed with buildings whose dark shapes stood outlined against the
Momo set off across the square. When she reached the middle, a clock
began to chime not far away. It chimed a good many times, so perhaps it was
already midnight. If the man in grey was waiting for her at the
amphitheatre, Momo reflected, she had no chance at all of getting there in
time. He would go away without seeing her, and any chance of saving her
friends would be gone, perhaps for ever.
She chewed her knuckles, wondering what to do. She had absolutely no
'Here I am!' she called into the darkness, as loud as she I'ould. She
had no real hope that the man in grey would hear her, but she was wrong.
Scarcely had the last chime died away when lights appeared in all the
streets that led to the big, empty square, faint at first but steadily
growing brighter -- drawing nearer. And then Momo realized that they were
the headlights of innumerable cars, all converging on the spot where she
stood. Dazzled by the glare no matter which way she turned, she shielded her
eyes with her hand. So they were coming after all!
But Momo hadn't expected them to come in such strength. For a moment,
all her new-found courage deserted her. Hemmed in and unable to escape, she
shrank as far as she could into her baggy old jacket.
Then, remembering the hour-lilies and the mighty chorus of voices, she
instantly felt comforted. The strength flowed back into her limbs.
Meanwhile, with their engines purring softly, the cars had continued
their slow advance. At last they stopped, bumper to bumper, in a circle
whose central point was Momo herself.
The men in grey got out. Momo couldn't see how many of them there were
because they remained outside the ring of headlights, but she sensed that
many eyes were on her -unfriendly eyes - and a shiver ran down her spine.
No one spoke for a while, neither Momo nor any of the men in grey. Then
a flat, expressionless voice broke the silence.
'I see,' it said. 'So this is Momo, the girl who thought she could defy
us. Just look at her now, the miserable creature!'
These words were followed by a dry, rattling sound that vaguely
resembled a chorus of mocking laughter.
'Careful!' hissed another grey voice. 'You know how dangerous she can
be. It's no use trying to deceive her.'
Momo pricked up her ears at this.
'Very well,' said the first voice from the darkness beyond the
headlights, 'let's try the truth for a change.'
Another long silence fell. Momo sensed that the men in grey were afraid
to tell the truth - so afraid that it imposed a tremendous strain on them.
She heard what sounded like a gasp of exertion from a thousand throats.
At long last, one of the disembodied voices began to speak. It came
from a different direction, but it was just as flat and expressionless as
'All right, let's be blunt. You're all on your own, little girl. Your
friends are out of reach, so you've no one to share your time with. We
planned it that way. You see how powerful we are. There's no point in trying
to resist us. What do they amount to, all these lonely hours of yours? A
curse and a burden, nothing more. You're completely cut off from the rest of
Momo listened and said nothing.
'Sooner or later,' the voice droned on, 'you won't be able to endure it
any longer. Tomorrow, next week, next year -it's all the same to us. We
shall simply bide our time because we know that in due course you'll come
crawling to us and say: I'll do anything, anything at all, as long as you
relieve me of my burden. But perhaps you've already reached that stage? You
only have to say.' Momo shook her head.
"So you won't let us help you?' the voice pursued coldly. Momo felt an
icy breeze envelop her from all sides at once, but she gritted her teeth and
shook her head again.
'She knows what time is,' whispered another voice.
'That proves she really was with a Certain Person,' the first voice
replied, also in a whisper. Aloud, it asked, 'Do you know Professor Noga?'
'You actually paid him a visit?'
She nodded again.
'So you know about the hour-lilies?'
She nodded a third time. Oh yes, how well she knew!
There was another longish silence. When the voice began to speak again,
it came from another direction.
'You love your friends, don't you?'
'And you'd like to set them free?'
Yet another nod.
'You could, if only you would.'
Momo was shivering with cold in every limb. She drew the jacket more
tightly around her.
'It wouldn't take much to save them. You help us and we'll help you.
That's only fair, isn't it?'
The voice was coming from yet another direction. Momo stared intently
at its source.
'The thing is, we'd like to make Professor Hora's
acquaintance but we don't Know where he lives. All we want is for you
to show us the way. That's right, Momo, listen carefully, so you know we're
being honest with you and mean what we say. In return, we'll give you back
your friends and let you all lead the carefree, happy-go-lucky life you used
to enjoy so much. If that isn't a worthwhile offer, what is?'
Momo opened her mouth for the first time. It was quite an effort to
speak at all, her lips felt so numb.
'What do you want with Professor Hora?' she asked.
'I told you, we want to make his acquaintance,' the voice said sharply,
and the air grew even colder. 'That's all you need to know.'
Momo said nothing, just waited.
'I don't understand you,' said the voice. 'Think of yourself and your
friends. Why worry about Professor Hora? He's old enough to look after
himself. Besides, if he's sensible and cooperates nicely, we won't harm a
hair of his head. If not, we have ways of making him.'
Momo's lips were blue with cold. 'Making him do what?' she asked.
The voice sounded suddenly shrill and strained. 'We're tired of
collecting people's time by the hour, minute and second. We want all of it
right away, and Hora's got to hand it over!'
Horrified, Momo stared into the darkness beyond the ring of headlights.
'What about the people it belongs to?' she asked. 'What will happen to
'People?' The voice rose to a scream and broke. 'People have been
obsolete for years. They've made the world a place where there's no room
left for their own kind. We shall rule the world!'
By now the cold was so intense that Momo could barely move her lips,
let alone speak.
'Never fear, though, little Momo,' the voice went on, abruptly becoming
gentle and almost coaxing, 'that naturally won't apply to you and your
friends. You'll be the last and
only people on earth to play games and tell stories. As long as you
stop meddling in our business, we'll leave you in peace. Is it a deal?'
' The voice fell silent. A moment later, it took up the thread from a
different quarter. 'You know we've told you the truth. We'll keep our
promise, you can rely on that. And now, take us to Professor Hora.'
Momo tried to speak, almost fainting with cold. Finally, after several
attempts, she said, 'Even if I could, I wouldn't.'
'What do you mean, if you could?' the* voice said menac-ingly. 'Of
course you can. You paid him a visit, so you must know the way.'
'I'd never find it again,' Momo whispered. 'I've tried. Only Cassiopeia
The professor's tortoise.'
'Where is it now?'
Momo, barely conscious, murmured, "She . . . she came back with me, but
... I lost her.'
As if from a long way off, a chorus of agitated voices came to her
'Issue a general alert!' she heard. 'We've got to find that tortoise.
Check every tortoise you come across. That animal's got to be found at all
The voices died away. Silence fell. Momo slowly regained her senses.
She was standing by herself in the middle of the square. Nothing was
stirring but a chill gust of wind that seemed to issue from some great,
empty void: a wind as grey as ashes.
Momo didn't know how much time had passed. The church clock chimed
occasionally, but she scarcely heard it. Her frozen limbs took ages to thaw
out. She felt numb and incapable of making decisions.
How could she go home to the amphitheatre and climb into bed, now that
there was no hope left for herself and her friends? How could she, when she
knew that things would never come right again? She was worried about
Cassiopeia, too. What if the men in grey found her? She began to reproach
herself bitterly for having mentioned the tortoise at all, but she'd been
too dazed to think straight.
'Anyway,' she reflected, trying to console herself, 'Cassiopeia may
have found her way back to Professor Noga long ago. Yes, I hope she isn't
still looking for me. It would be better for both of us.'
At that moment something nudged her bare foot. Momo gave a start and
There was Cassiopeia, as large as life, and she could dimly see some
words on the animal's shell: 'HERE I AM AGAIN,' they said.
Without a second thought, Momo grabbed the tortoise and stuffed it
under her jacket. Then she straightened up and peered in all directions,
fearful that some men in grey might still be lurking in the shadows, but all
Cassiopeia kicked and struggled fiercely in an effort to escape.
Holding her tight, Momo peeped inside the jacket and whispered, 'Please keep
'WHY ALL THE FUSS?' demanded Cassiopeia. 'You mustn't be seen!' Momo
hissed. The next words to appear on the tortoise's shell were, 'AREN'T YOU
'Of course,' Momo said with a catch in her voice. 'Of course I am.
You've no idea!' And she kissed Cassiopeia on the nose, several times in
Cassiopeia responded with two rather pink words. 'STEADY ON,'they read.
Momo smiled. 'Have you been looking for me all this time?' 'OF COURSE.'
'But how did you happen to find me here and now?' 'I KNEW I WOULD,' was
the laconic reply. Had Cassiopeia spent all those weeks looking for her
although she knew she wouldn't find her? If so, she needn't really have
bothered to look at all. This was yet another of Cassiopeia's little
mysteries. They made Memo's head spin if she thought about them too hard,
and besides, this was scarcely the moment to puzzle over such problems.
Momo gave the tortoise a whispered account of what had happened since
last they met. 'What should we do now?' she concluded.
Cassiopeia had been listening attentively. 'GO TO HORA,' she spelled
'Now?' Momo exclaimed, aghast. 'But they're looking for you everywhere.
This is the only place they don't happen to be. Wouldn't it be wiser to stay
But all the tortoise's shell said was, 'WE'RE GOING ANYWAY.'
'We'll run right into them,' Momo protested. 'WON'T MEET A SOUL,' was
Cassiopeia's response. If Cassiopeia was sure, that settled it. Momo put her
down. Then, remembering their first long, arduous trek, she suddenly felt
too exhausted to repeat it all over again.
'You go on alone, Cassiopeia,' she said wearily. 'I'm too tired. Go on
alone, and give the professor my love.'
Cassiopeia's shell lit up again. 'IT'S NOT FAR,' Momo was astonished to
read. It dawned on her, as she looked around, that this shabby and
desolate-looking neighbourhood might be the one that led to the district
with the white houses and the strange shadows. If so, she might after all be
able to make it as far as Never Lane and Nowhere House.
'All right,' she said, 'I'll come too, but wouldn't it be quicker if I
'AFRAID NOT,' Cassiopeia replied.
'Why should you insist on crawling there by yourself?' Momo said, but
all she got was the enigmatic reply: 'THE WAY'S INSIDE ME.'
On that note the tortoise set off with Momo following slowly, step by
They had only just disappeared down a side street when the shadows
around the square came to life and the air was filled with a brittle sound
like the snapping of dry twigs: the men in grey were chuckling triumphantly.
Some of their number, who had stayed behind to keep a surreptitious watch on
Momo, had witnessed her reunion with Cassiopeia. The wait had been a long
one, but not even they had dreamed that it would yield such results.
'There they go!' whispered one grey voice. 'Shall we nab them?'
'Of course not,' hissed another. 'Let them carry on.'
'Why?' demanded the first voice. 'Our orders were to capture the
tortoise at all costs.'
'Yes, but why do we want it?'
'So it can lead us to Noga.'
'Precisely, that's just what it's doing now. We won't even have to use
force. It's showing us the way of its own free will - unintentionally.'
Another dry chuckle went up from the shadows around the square.
'Pass the word at once. Call off the search and instruct all Agents to
join us here. Tell them to exercise the utmost care, though. None of us must
be seen by our two unsuspecting guides or get in their way. They're to be
given free passage wherever they go. And now, gentlemen, let's follow at our
It was hardly surprising, under these circumstances, that Momo and
Cassiopeia failed to encounter a single one of their pursuers. Whichever way
they went, the men in grey melted away in good time and joined the rear of
the evergrowing procession that was silently, cautiously, following in the
Momo was wearier than she had ever been in her life. There were times
when she thought she would simply sink to the ground and fall asleep at any
moment, but she forced herself to put one foot before the other, and for a
while things went better. If only Cassiopeia wouldn't crawl along at such a
snail's pace, she thought, but it couldn't be helped. She trudged along,
looking neither right nor left, only at her feet and the tortoise.
After an eternity, or so it seemed to Momo, the surface of the street
grew suddenly paler. She wrenched her leaden eyelids open and looked around.
Yes, they had finally reached the district where the light was neither
that of dawn nor dusk, and where all the shadows ran in different
directions. There were the forbidding white houses with the cavernous black
windows, and there was the peculiar, egglike monument on its black stone
At the thought that it wouldn't be long before she saw Professor Hora
again. Memo's courage revived. 'Please,' she said to Cassiopeia, 'couldn't
we go a bit faster?'
'MORE HASTE LESS SPEED,' came the reply, and
the tortoise crawled on even more slowly than before. Yet Momo noticed,
as she had the first time, that they made better progress that way. It was
as if the street beneath them glided past more quickly the slower they went.
That, of course, was the secret of the district with the snow-white
houses: the slower you went the better progress you made, and the more you
hurried the slower your rate of advance. The men in grey hadn't known that
when they pursued Momo in their cars, which was how she'd escaped them.
But that was the last time. Things were quite different now that they
had no intention of overtaking the girl and the tortoise. Now, because they
were trailing them at exactly the same speed, they had discovered the
secret. Gradually, the streets behind Momo and Cassiopeia became filled with
an army of men in grey. And as the pursuers grew accustomed to the
peculiarities of the district, they went even slower than their quarry, with
the result that they steadily overhauled them. It was like a race in reverse
- a go-slow race.
On and on the strange procession went, further and further into the
dazzling white glow, weaving back and forth through the dream streets until
it came to the corner of Never Lane.
Cassiopeia turned into the lane and crawled towards Nowhere House.
Momo, remembering that she'd failed to make any headway until she turned
around and walked backwards, did the same again.
And that was when her heart stood still.
The time-thieves, like a grey wall on the move, stretched away for as
far as the eye could see, rank upon rank of them filling the entire width of
Momo cried out in terror, but she couldn't hear her own voice. She
walked backwards down Never Lane, staring wide-eyed at the advancing host of
men in grey.
But then another strange thing happened. As soon as the leaders tried
to enter the lane, they vanished before her very
eyes. Their outstretched hands were the first to disappear, then their
legs and bodies, and last of all their faces, which wore a look of surprise
But Momo wasn't the only one to have witnessed this phenomenon. It had
also been seen by the men in grey who were following behind. They shrank
back, bracing themselves to resist the pressure of those still advancing in
the rear, and something of a scuffle ensued. Momo saw her pursuers scowl and
shake their fists, but they dared not pursue her any further.
At last she reached Nowhere House. The big bronze door swung open. She
darted inside, raced down the corridor lined with statues, opened the tiny
door at the other end, ducked through it, ran across the great hall to the
little room enclosed by grandfather clocks, threw herself down on the dainty
little sofa, and, not wanting to see or hear anything more, buried her head
under a cushion.
A genrie voice was speaKing.
Momo emerged by degrees from the depths of a dreamless sleep, feeling
wonderfully rested and refreshed. 'Momo isn't to blame,' she heard the voice
say, 'but you, Cassiopeia - you should have known better.'
Momo opened her eyes. Professor Hora was sitting at the little table in
front of the sofa, looking ruefully down at the tortoise. 'Didn't it occur
to you,' he went on, 'that the men in grey might follow you?'
There wasn't room on Cassiopeia's shell for all she had to say, so she
had to reply in three instalments: 'I CAN ONLY SEE-HALF AN HOUR AHEAD - TOO
LATE BY THEN.'
Professor Hora sighed and shook his head. 'Oh, Cassiopeia, Cassiopeia,
even I find you puzzling sometimes.'
Momo sat up.
'Ah, our guest is awake,' Professor Hora said kindly. 'I hope you're
'Much better, thank you,' said Momo. 'Please excuse me for falling
asleep on your sofa.'
The professor smiled. 'It's quite all right, you've no need to
apologize. Cassiopeia has already brought me up to date on anything I failed
to see through my omnivision glasses.'
'What are the men in grey doing?' Momo asked anxiously.
Professor Hora produced a big blue handkerchief from his pocket. 'We're
under siege. They have us completely sur-
rounded - that's to say, they're as close to Nowhere House as they can
'But they can't get in, can they?' Momo said. The professor blew his
nose. 'No, they can't. You saw for yourself, they vanish into thin air if
they so much as set foot in Never Lane.'
Momo looked mystified. 'Yes, but I don't know why.' 'It's temporal
suction that does it,' the professor told her. 'Everything has to be done
backwards in Never Lane, as you know, because time runs in reverse around
this house. Normally, time flows into you. The more time you have inside
you, the older you get, but in Never Lane time flows out of you. You grew
younger while you were coming up the lane. Not much younger - only as much
younger as the time you took to get from one end to the other.' 'I didn't
notice anything,' Momo said, still mystified. 'That's because you're a human
being,' the professor said with a smile. 'There's a lot more to human beings
than the rime they carry around inside them, but it's different with the men
in grey. Stolen time is all they consist of, and that disappears in a flash
when they're exposed to temporal suction. It escapes like air from a burst
balloon, the only difference being that a balloon's skin survives. In their
case, there's nothing left at all.'
Momo knit her brow and thought hard. 'Wouldn't it be possible,' she
asked at length, 'to make time run backwards all over the world? Only for a
little while, I mean. It wouldn't matter if people grew a tiny bit younger,
but the time-thieves would be reduced to nothing.'
The professor smiled again. 'A splendid idea, I grant you, but I'm
afraid it wouldn't work. The two currents are in balance, you see. If you
cancelled one, the other would vanish too. Then there'd be no time left . .
He broke off and pushed his omnivision glasses up so that they rested
on his forehead.
'On the other hand ...' he murmured. Momo watched him expectantly as he
paced up and down the room a few times, lost in thought, and Cassiopeia
followed him with her wise old eyes. At length he sat down again.
'You've given me an idea,' he said, 'but I couldn't put it into
practice unaided.' He looked down at the tortoise. 'Cassiopeia, my dear, I'd
like your opinion on something. What's the best thing to do when you're
'HAVE BREAKFAST,' came the reply.
'Quite so,' said the professor. 'That's another splendid idea.'
The table was laid in a flash. Whether or not it had been laid all the
time and Momo simply hadn't noticed, everything was in place: the two little
cups, the pot of steaming chocolate, the honey, butter and crusty rolls.
Momo, whose mouth had often watered at the recollection of her first
delicious, golden-hued breakfast at Nowhere House, tucked in at once.
Everything tasted even better than before, if possible, and this time the
professor tucked in heartily too.
'Professor,' Momo said after a while, with her cheeks still bulging,
'they want you to give them all the time that exists. You won't, though,
'No, child,' he replied, 'that I'll never do. Time will come to an end
some day, but not until people don't need it any longer. The men in grey
won't get any time from me - not even a split second.'
'But they say they can make you hand it over,' Momo said.
'Before we go into that,' the professor told her, very gravely, 'I'd
like you to look at them for yourself.'
All she saw to begin with was the kaleidoscope of colours and shapes
that had made her so dizzy the first time, but it wasn't long before her
eyes got used to the omnivision lenses. And then the besieging army swam
The men in grey were drawn up in a long, long line, shoulder to
shoulder, not only across the mouth of Never Lane but all around the
district with the snow-white houses. They formed an unbroken cordon, and the
mid-point of that cordon was Nowhere House.
But then Momo noticed something else - something strange. Her first
thought was that the lenses of the omnivision glasses needed polishing, or
that she hadn't quite grown used to them yet, because the outlkies of the
men in grey looked misty. She soon realized that this blurring had nothing
to do with the lenses or her eyes: the mist was real, and it was rising from
the streets all around, dense and impenetrable in some places, only just
forming in others.
The men in grey were standing absolutely still, all wearing bowlers and
carrying briefcases, and all smoking little grey cigars. But the smoke from
the cigars didn't disperse in the normal way. Here, where the air seemed
made of glass and was never disturbed by a breath of wind, the threads of
smoke clung like cobwebs, creeping along the streets and up the walls of the
snow-white houses, festooning each ledge and cornice and windowsill,
condensing into a noisome, bluish-green fog bank that billowed ever higher
until it encircled Nowhere House like a wall.
Momo took off the glasses and looked at Professor Hora inquiringly.
'Have you seen enough?' he asked. 'Then let me have the glasses back.'
He put them on again. 'You asked if the men in grey could make me do
something against my will,' he went on. 'Well, they can't get at me
personally, as you know, but they could subject the world to an evil far
worse than any they've inflicted on it so far. That's how they hope to force
Momo was appalled. 'What could be worse than stealing people's time?'
she asked. 'I allot people their share of time,' the professor explained.
'The men in grey can't stop that. They can't intercept the time I
distribute, but they can poison it.'
'They can poison it?' Moglo repeated, more appalled still.
The professor nodded. 'Yes, with the smoke from their cigars. Have you
ever seen one without his little grey cigar? Of course not, because without
it he couldn't exist.'
'What kind of cigars are they?' Momo asked.
'You remember where the hour-lilies were growing?' Professor Hora said.
'I told you then that everyone has a place like that, because everyone has a
heart. If people allow the men in grey to gain a foothold there, more and
more of their hour-lilies get stolen. But hour-lilies plucked from a
person's heart can't die, because they've never really withered. They can't
live, either, because they've been parted from their rightful owner. They
strive with every fibre of their being to return to the person they belong
Momo was listening with bated breath.
'If you think I know everything, Momo, you're wrong. Some evils are
wrapped in mystery. I've no idea where the men in grey keep their stolen
hour-lilies. I only know that they preserve the blossoms by freezing them
till they're as hard as glass goblets. Somewhere deep underground there must
be a gigantic cold store.'
Memo's cheeks began to burn with indignation.
'And that's where the men in grey draw their supplies from. They pull
off the hour-lilies' petals, let them wither till they're dried up and grey,
and roll their little cigars out of them. The petals still contain remnants
of life, even then, but living time is harmful to the men in grey, so they
light the cigars and smoke them. Only when time has been converted into
smoke is it well and truly dead. That's what keeps the men in grey "alive":
dead human time.'
Momo had risen to her feet. 'Oh,' she exclaimed, 'to think of all those
poor flowers, all that dead time . ..'
'Yes, the wall they're erecting around this house is built of
ucad time. There's still enough open sky above for me to send people
their time in good condition, but once that pall of smoke closes over our
heads, every hour I send them will be contaminated with the time-thieves'
poison. When they absorb it, it'll make them ill.'
Momo stared at the professor uncomprehendingly. 'What kind of illness
is it?' she asked in a low voice.
'A fatal illness, though you scarcely notice it at first. One day, you
don't feel like doing anything. -Nothing interests you, everything bores
you. Far from wearing off, your boredom persists and gets worse, day by day
and week by week. You feel more and more bad-tempered, more and more empty
inside, more and more dissatisfied with yourself and the world in general.
Then even that feeling wears off, and you don't feel anything any more. You
become completely indifferent to what goes on around you. Joy and sorrow,
anger and excitement are things of the past. You forget how to laugh and cry
- you're cold inside and incapable of loving anything or anyone. Once you
reach that stage, the disease is incurable. There's no going back. You
bustle around with a blank, grey face, just like the men in grey themselves
-indeed, you've joined their ranks. The disease has a name. It's called
Momo shivered. 'You mean,' she said, 'unless you hand over all the time
there is, they'll turn people into creatures like themselves?'
'Yes,' the professor replied. 'That's how they hope to bully me into
it.' He rose and turned away. 'I've waited till now for people to get rid of
those pests. They could have done so -after all, it was they who brought
them into existence in the lirst place - but I can't wait any longer. I must
do something, •ind I can't do it on my own.' He looked Momo in the eye.
'Will you help me?' 'Yes,' she whispered. 'If you do, you'll be running an
incalculable risk. It will be
up to you wnerncr me wona oegins to live again or stands stili for ever
and a day. Are you really prepared to take that risk?'
'Yes', Momo repeated, and this time her voice was firm.
'In that case,' said the professor, 'listen carefully to what I'm going
to tell you, because you'll be all on your own. I won't be able to help you,
nor will anyone else.'
Momo nodded, gazing at him intently.
'I must begin by telling you that I never sleep,' he said. 'If I dozed
off, time would stand still and the world would come to a stop. If there
were no more time, the men in grey would have none left to steal. They could
continue to exist for a while by using up their vast reserves, but once
those had gone they would dissolve into thin air.'
'Then the answer's simple, surely?' said Momo.
'Not as simple as it sounds, I'm afraid, or I wouldn't need your help.
The trouble is, if there were no more time I couldn't wake up again, and the
world would continue to stand still for all eternity. It does, however, lie
within my power to give you - and you alone - an hour-lily. Only one, of
course, because only one ever blooms at a time. So, if time stopped all over
the world, you would still have one hour's grace.'
'Then I could wake you,' said Momo.
The professor shook his head. 'That would achieve nothing, because the
men in grey have far too much time in reserve. They would consume very
little of it in an hour, so they'd still be there when the hour was up. No,
Momo, the problem is a great deal harder than that. As soon as the men in
grey notice that time has stopped - and it won't take them long, because
their supply of cigars will be interrupted -they'll lift the siege and head
for their secret store. You must follow them and prevent them from reaching
it. When their cigars are finished, they'll be finished too. But then comes
what may well turn out to be the hardest part of all. Once the last of the
time-thieves has vanished, you must release every stolen minute, because
only when people get their time back
win i wane up and the world come to life again. And all this you'll
have to do within the space of a single hour.'
Momo hadn't reckoned with such a host of difficulties and dangers. She
stared at him helplessly.
'Will you try all the same?' the professor asked. 'It's our only
Momo couldn't bring herself to speak, she found the prospect so
daunting. At that moment, Cassiopeia's shell lit up. 'I'LL COME TOO,' it
Unlikely as it seemed that the tortoise could be of help, the words
conjured up a tiny ray of hope. Momo felt heartened at the thought of not
being entirely alone. Although there were no rational grounds for such a
feeling, it did at least enable her to make up her mind. 'I'll try,' she
Professor Noga gave her a long look and started to smile. 'Many things
will prove easier than you think. You've heard the music of the stars. You
mustn't feel frightened.' He turned to the tortoise. 'So you want to go too,
'OF COURSE,' Cassiopeia spelled out. Then, 'SOMEONE HAS TO LOOK AFTER
HER.' The professor and Momo smiled at each other. 'Will she get an
hour-lily too?' Momo asked. 'She doesn't need one,' the professor replied,
gently tickling the tortoise's neck. 'Cassiopeia is a creature from beyond
the frontiers of time. She carries her own little supply of time inside her.
She could go on crawling across the face of the earth even if everything
else stood still for ever.'
'Good,' said Momo, suddenly eager to get on with the job. 'What happens
'Now,' said the professor, 'we say goodbye.' Momo felt a lump in her
throat. 'Won't we ever see each other again?' she asked softly. 'Of course
we will,' he told her, 'and until that day comes,
every hour of your life will bring you my love. We'll always be
friends, won't we?'
'I'm going now,' the professor went on, 'but you mustn't follow me or
ask where I'm going. My sleep is no ordinary sleep, and I'd sooner you
weren't there. One last thing: as soon as I'm gone, you must open both
doors, the little one with my name on it and the big bronze one that leads
into Never Lane. Once time has stopped, everything will stand still and no
power on earth will be able to budge those doors. Have you understood and
memorized all I've told you?'
'Yes,' said Momo, 'but how shall I know when time has stopped?'
'You'll know, never fear.'
They both stood up. Professor Hora gently stroked Momo's tousled mop of
hair. 'Goodbye, Momo,' he said, 'and thank you for listening so carefully.'
'I'm going to tell everyone about you,' she replied, 'when it's all
From one moment to the next. Professor Hora looked as old as he had
when he carried her into the golden dome - as old as an ancient tree or
Turning away, he walked swiftly out of the little room whose walls
consisted of grandfather clocks. Momo heard his footsteps fade until they
were indistinguishable from the ticking of the countless clocks around her.
Their incessant whirring and ticking and chiming seemed to have swallowed
Momo took Cassiopeia in her arms and held her tight. Her great
adventure had begun. There could be no turning back.
Pursuing the Pursuers
Momo's first step was to open the little door with Professor Hora's
name on it. Then she sped along the corridor lined with statues and opened
the big bronze front door. She had to exert all her strength because it was
That done, she ran back to the great hall and waited, with Cassiopeia
in her arms, to see what would happen.
She didn't have to wait long. There was a sudden jolt, but it didn't
actually shake the ground. It was a timequake, so to speak, not an
earthquake. No words could describe the sensation, which was accompanied by
a sound such as no human ear had ever heard before: a sigh that seemed to
issue from the depths of the ages. And then it was over.
Simultaneously, the innumerable clocks stopped ticking, whirring and
chiming. Pendulums came to a sudden halt and stayed put at odd angles. The
silence that fell was more profound than any that had ever reigned before.
Time itself was standing still.
As for Momo, she became aware that she was clasping the stem of an
hour-lily of exceptional size and beauty. She hadn't felt anyone put it into
her hand. It simply appeared, as if it had always been there.
Gingerly, Momo took a step. Sure enough, she could move as easily as
ever. The remains of breakfast were still on the table. She sat down on one
of the little armchairs, but the seat was as hard as marble and didn't yield
an inch. There was a mouthful of chocolate left in her cup, but the cup
wouldn't move either. She tried dipping her fingers in the dregs, but
they were as hard as butterscotch. So was the honey, and even the crumbs
were stuck fast to the plates. Now that time had stopped, everything else
was immovable too.
Cassiopeia had started to fidget. Looking down, Momo saw some words on
her shell. 'YOU'RE WASTING TIME!' she read.
Heavens alive, so she was! Momo pulled herself together. She hurried
through the forest of clocks to the little door, squeezed through it and ran
along the passage to the front door. She peered out, then darted back in
panic. Her heart began to thump furiously. Far from running away, the
time-thieves were streaming towards her up Never Lane. They could do that,
of course, now time had ceased to flow in reverse there, but she hadn't
allowed for the possibility.
She raced back to the great hall and, still clutching Cassiopeia, hid
behind a massive grandfather clock. 'That's a good start,' she muttered
Then she heard the men in grey come marching along the corridor. They
squeezed through the little door, one after another, until a whole crowd of
them had assembled inside.
'So this is our new headquarters,' said one, surveying the vast room.
'That girl let us in,' said another grey voice. 'I distinctly saw her
open the door, the sensible child. I wonder how she managed to get around
the old man.'
'If you ask me,' said a third voice, 'the old man's knuckled under. If
time has stopped flowing in Never Lane, it can only mean he switched it off
himself. In other words, he knows he's beaten. Where is he, the old
mischief-maker? Let's finish him off!'
The men in grey were looking around when one of them had a sudden
thought. His voice sounded even greyer, if possible, than the rest.
'Something's wrong, gentlemen,' he
said. 'The clocks - look at the clocks! Every one of them has stopped,
even this hourglass here.'
. 'I suppose he must have stopped them,' another voice said
'You can't stop an hourglass,' the first man in grey retorted. 'See for
yourselves, gentlemen - the sand's suspended in mid-air and the hourglass
itself won't budge! What does it mean?'
He was still speaking when footsteps came pounding along the corridor
and yet another man in grey squeezed through the little door, gesticulating
wildly. 'We've just had word from our agents in the city,' he announced.
'Their cars have stopped, and so has everything else - the world's at a
standstill. There isn't a microsecond of time to be had anywhere. Our
supplies have been cut off. Time has ceased to exist. Hora has switched it
There was a deathly hush. Then someone said, 'What do you mean,
switched it off? What'll become of us when we've finished the cigars we're
'What'll become of us?' shouted someone else. 'You know that perfectly
well. This is disastrous, gentlemen!'
They all began to shout at once. 'Hora's planning to destroy us!' - 'We
must lift the siege at once!' - 'We must try to reach the time store!' -
'Without our cars? We'll never make it in time!' - 'My cigar won't last me
more than twenty-seven minutes!' - 'Mine will last me forty-eight!' - 'Give
it to me, then!' - 'Are you crazy? It's every man for himself!'
There was a concerted rush for the little door. From her hiding place,
Momo saw panic-stricken grey figures trying to squeeze through it, jostling,
scuffling and swapping punches in a desperate attempt to save their grey
lives. The rush became a violent melee as they knocked each other's hats
off, wrestled with each other, snatched the cigars from each other's mouths.
And whenever they lost their cigars, they seemed to lose every ounce of
strength as well. They stood
there with their arms outstretched and a plaintive, terrified
expression on their faces, growing more and more transparent until they
finally vanished. Nothing remained of them, not even their hats.
In the end, only three men in grey were left. They ducked through the
little door, one after the other, and scuttled off down the passage.
Momo, with Cassiopeia under one arm and her free hand tightly clutching
the hour-lily, ran after them. All now depended on her keeping them in
She saw, when she emerged from the front door, that they had already
reached the mouth of Never Lane. More smoke-wreathed men in grey were
standing there, talking and gesticulating excitedly. As soon as they caught
sight of the three fugitives from Nowhere House, they started running too.
Others joined in the stampede, and soon the whole army had taken to its
heels. 'More haste less speed' no longer applied, of course, now that time
was at a standstill. An endless column of grey figures streamed towards the
city through the strange, dreamlike district with its snow-white houses and
oddly assorted shadows, past the monument resembling an egg, until it came
to the grey, shabby tenements inhabited by people who lived on the edge of
time. Here too, though, everything was still and silent.
What followed was a chase in reverse - a chase in which countless grey
figures were pursued through the city, at a discreet distance behind the
last of the stragglers, by a girl with a flower in her hand and a tortoise
under her arm.
But how strange the city looked now! Long lines of cars choked the
streets with the fumes from their exhausts solidified, and behind each wheel
sat a motionless driver, one hand frozen on horn or gear lever. Momo even
caught sight of one driver who had been immobilized while glaring at his
hour and meamngtully tapping his forehead. Cyclists were poised at road
junctions with their arms extended, signalling right or left, and the people
thronging the pavements resembled waxwork figures.
Traffic policemen stood at crossroads, whistles in their mouths, caught
in the act of waving the traffic on. A flock of pigeons hovered motionless
above a square, and high overhead, as though painted on the sky, was an
equally motionless aeroplane. The water in the fountains might have been
ice, leaves falling from trees were suspended in mid-air, and one little
dog, which was cocking its leg against a lamp-post, looked as if it had been
stuffed that way.
Lifeless as a photograph, the city rang to the hurrying footsteps of
the men in grey. Momo followed them cautiously, fearful of being spotted,
but she needn't have worried. Their headlong flight was proving so arduous
and exhausting that they had ceased to notice anything any more.
Unaccustomed to running so far and so fast, they panted and gasped for
breath, grimly clenching their teeth on the little grey cigars that kept
them in existence. More than one of them let his cigar fall while running
and vanished into thin air before he could retrieve it.
But their companions in misfortune represented an even greater threat.
Such was the desperation of those whose own cigars were almost finished that
many of them snatched the butts from their neighbours' mouths, so their
numbers slowly but steadily dwindled.
Those who still had a small store of cigars in their briefcases were
careful to conceal them from the others, because the have-nots kept hurling
themselves at the haves and trying to wrest their precious possessions from
them. Scores of struggling figures engaged in ferocious tussles, scrabbling
and clawing with such wild abandon that most of the coveted cigars spilled
on to the road and were trampled underfoot.
The men in grey had become so frightened of extinction that they
completely lost their heads.
There was something else that caused them increasing difficulty the
further into town they got. The streets were so crowded at many points that
it was all they could do to thread their way through the forest of
motionless pedestrians. Momo, being small and thin, had an easier time of
it, but even she had to watch her step. You could hurt yourself badly on a
feather suspended in mid-air if you ran into it by mistake.
On and on they went, and Momo still had no idea how much further it was
to the time store. She peered anxiously at her hour-lily, but it had only
just come into full flower. There was no need to worry yet.
Then something happened that temporarily drove every other thought from
her mind. Glancing down a side street, she caught sight of Beppo!
'Beppo!' she called, beside herself with joy, as she ran towards him.
'I've been looking for you everywhere. Where have you been all this time?
Why did you never come to see me? Oh, Beppo, dearest Beppo!'
Still ck'tching Cassiopeia, she flung her free arm around his neck --
and promptly bounced off, because he might have been made of cast iron. It
was such a painful collision that tears sprang to her eyes. She stepped
back, sobbing, and gazed at him.
The little old man looked more bent-backed than ever. His kindly face
was thin and gaunt and very pale, and his chin was frosted with white
stubble because he so seldom found the time to shave nowadays. Incessant
sweeping had worn away his broom until the bristles were little longer than
his beard. There he stood, as motionless as everyone and everything else,
staring down at the dirty street through his steel-rimmed spectacles.
Momo had found him at last, but only now, when she couldn't get him to
notice her and it might be the very last
time she saw him. If things went wrong, old Beppo would continue to
stand there forever more.
Cassiopeia started fidgeting again. 'KEEP GOING!' she spelled out.
Momo dashed back to the main street and stopped dead. There were no men
in grey to be seen! She ran on a little way, but it was no use, she'd lost
track of them. She halted again, wondering what to do, and looked
inquiringly at Cassiopeia.
'KEEP GOING,' the tortoise signaled again, then:
•YOU'LL FIND THEM.'
If Cassiopeia knew in advance that she would find the time-thieves, she
would find them whichever way she went. Any direction was bound to be the
right one, so she simply ran on, turning left or right as the fancy took
She had now reached the housing development on the city's northern
outskirts, where the buildings were as alike as peas in a pod and the
streets ran dead straight from horizon to horizon. On and on she ran, but
the sheer sameness of the buildings and streets soon made her feel as if she
were running on the spot and getting nowhere. The housing development was a
veritable maze, but a maze that deceived one by its regularity and
Momo had almost lost hope when she caught sight of a man in grey
disappearing around a corner. He was limping ..long with his suit in tatters
and his bowler hat and briefcase gone, mouth grimly pursed around the
smouldering butt of a little grey cigar.
She followed him along a street flanked by endless rows of houses until
they came to a gap. The big rectangular site where the missing house should
have stood was boarded up, and set in the fence was a gate. The gate was a
little ajar, and the last grey straggler squeezed quickly through it.
There was a notice above the gate. Momo paused to read it.
An End and a Beginning
Momo took several seconds to decipher the longer words on the
noticeboard, and by the time she slipped through the gate the last of the
men in grey had disappeared.
In front of her yawned a gigantic pit, eighty or ninety feet deep, with
bulldozers and excavators around it. Several trucks had stopped mid way down
the ramp that led to the bottom of the pit and construction workers were
standing motionless all over the place, frozen in a variety of positions.
Where to now? There was no sign of the man in the grey and no clue as
to where he might have gone. Cassiopeia seemed equally at a loss. Her shell
did not light up.
Momo made her way down the ramp to the bottom of the pit and looked
around. Suddenly she saw a familiar face. It was Salvatore, the bricklayer
who had painted the pretty flower picture on the wall of her room. He was as
motionless as all the rest, but something about his pose made Momo think
twice. He was cupping his mouth as though calling to someone and pointing to
the rim of a huge pipe jutting from the ground beside him, almost as if
drawing Memo's attention to it.
Momo wasted no time. Taking this as a good omen, she hurried over to
the pipe and climbed inside. She lost her footing almost at once, because
the pipe sloped downwards at a steep angle, twisting and turning so sharply
that she slithered back and forth like a child on a helter-skelter. She
could see and hear almost nothing as she hurtled ever deeper into the
ground, sometimes sliding on her bottom, sometimes
rolling head over heels, but never letting go of the tortoise and the
The deeper she went, the colder it became. She began to wonder how she
would ever get out again, but before she could give the problem any real
thought the pipe abruptly ended in an underground passage. It wasn't as dark
here. The tunnel was bathed in a grey twilight that seemed to ooze from its
very walls. Momo scrambled up and ran on. Her bare feet made no sound, but
she could hear footsteps ahead of her. Guessing that they belonged to the
men in grey, she allowed herself to be guided by them. To judge by the
innumerable passages leading off her own in all directions, she was in a
maze of tunnels that ran the full extent of the housing development.
Then she heard a babble of voices. Having traced the hubbub to its
source, she cautiously peeped around the corner.
She found herself looking at a room as vast as the conference table
that ran down the middle of it, and at this table, in two long rows, sat the
surviving men in grey. Momo almost felt sorry for them, they looked so
woebegone. Their suits were torn, their bald grey heads cut and bruised, and
their faces convulsed with fear, but their cigars were still smouldering.
Embedded in the wall at the far end of the room, Momo saw a huge steel
door. The door was ajar, and an icy draught was streaming from whatever lay
beyond. Although Momo knew it would do little good, she burrowed down and
tucked her bare feet under her skirt.
A man in grey was presiding at the head of the conference table, just
in front of the strong-room door. 'We must economize,' Momo heard him say.
'Our reserves must be carefully husbanded. After all, we don't know how long
they'll have to last us.'
'There's only a handful of us left,' cried someone. 'They'll last us
'The sooner we start economizing,' the chairman went on imperturbably,
'the longer we'll hold out. I don't have to tell you, gentlemen, what I mean
by economizing. It will be quite sufficient if only some of us survive this
disaster. Let's face facts. As things stand now, there are far too many of
us. Common sense dictates that our ranks be drastically thinned. May I ask
you to call out numbers in turn?'
When the men in grey had called out numbers, all round the table, the
chairman produced a coin from his pocket. 'I shall now toss up,' he said.
'Heads mean the even numbers survive, tails the odd numbers.' He flipped the
coin and caught it.
'Heads,' he announced. 'Even numbers may remain seated, odd numbers are
requested to dissolve forthwith.'
The losers emitted a dull groan, but none of them demurred. As soon as
the winners had relieved them of their cigars, they vanished into thin air.
The chairman's voice broke the hush. 'And now, gentlemen, kindly do the
The same gruesome procedure was followed a second time, then a third
and a fourth, until only half a dozen men in grey remained. They sat at the
head of the conference table, three a side, and glared at each other in icy
Momo, who had watched these developments with horrified fascination,
noticed that the temperature rose appreciably every time another batch of
losers disappeared. Compared to what it had been before, the cold was quite
'Six,' remarked one of the survivors, 'is an unlucky number.'
'That's enough,' said another. 'There's no point in reducing our
numbers still further. If six of us can't survive this disaster, neither
'Not necessarily,' said someone else, 'but we can always review the
situation if the need arises - later, I mean.'
No one spoke for a while. Then another survivor said, 'Lucky for us the
door to the time store was open when disaster struck. If it had been shut at
the crucial moment, no power on earth could open it now. We'd be absolutely
'You're not entirely right, I'm afraid,' replied another. 'Because the
door is open, cold is escaping from the refrigeration plant. The hour-lilies
will slowly thaw out, and you all know what'll happen then. We won't be able
to prevent them from returning to their original owners.'
'You mean,' said yet another, 'that our own coldness won't be
sufficient to keep them deep-frozen?'
'There are only six of us, unfortunately,' said the second speaker.
'You can calculate our freezing capability for yourself. Personally, I feel
it was rather rash to cut down our numbers so drastically. It hasn't paid
'We had to opt for one course of action or the other,' snapped the
first speaker, 'and we did, so that's that.'
Another silence fell.
'In other words,' said someone, 'we may have to sit here for years on
end, twiddling our thumbs and gawping at each other. I find that a dismal
prospect, I must confess.'
Momo racked her brains. There was certainly no point in her sitting
there and waiting any longer. When the men in grey were gone, the
hour-lilies would thaw out by themselves, but the men in grey still existed
and would continue to exist unless she did something about it. But what
could she do, given that the door to the cold store was open and the
time-thieves could help themselves to fresh supplies of cigars whenever they
At that moment, Cassiopeia nudged her in the ribs. Momo looked down and
saw a message on her shell. 'SHUT THF. DOOR,' she read.
'I can't,' she whispered back. 'I'd never move it.'
'USE THE FLOWER,' Cassiopeia replied.
'You mean I could move it if I touched it with the hour-lily?'
'YES, AND YOU WILL,' the tortoise spelled out.
If Cassiopeia knew this in advance, it had to be true. Momo carefully
put the tortoise down. Then she took the hour-lily, which was wilting by now
and had lost most of its petals, and stowed it inside her jacket.
Going down on all fours, she sneaked unseen beneath the conference
table and crawled to the far end. By the time she was on a level with the
time-thieves' six pairs of legs, her heart was pounding fit to burst.
Very, very gingerly, she took out the hour-lily and, gripping the stem
between her teeth, crawled on. Still unobserved by the men in grey, she
reached the open door, touched it with the hour-lily and simultaneously gave
it a push. The well-oiled hinges didn't make a sound. The door swung
silently to, then shut with a mighty clang that went echoing around the
conference chamber and reverberated from the walls of the innumerable
Momo jumped to her feet. The men in grey, who hadn't the remotest idea
that anyone but themselves was exempt from the universal standstill, sat
rooted to their chairs in horror, staring at her.
Without a second thought, she dashed past them and sprinted back to the
exit. The men in grey recovered from their shock and raced after her.
'It's that frightful little girl!' she heard one of them shout. 'It's
'Impossible!' yelled another. 'The creature's moving!' 'She's got an
hour-lily!' bellowed a third. Is that how she moved the door?' asked a
fourth. The fifth smote his brow. 'Then we could have moved it ourselves.
We've got plenty of hour-lilies.'
'We did have, you mean!' screamed the sixth. 'Only one
thing can save us now that the door's shut. If we don't get hold of
that flower of hers, we're done for!'
Meanwhile, Momo had already disappeared into the maze of tunnels. The
men in grey knew their way around better, of course, but she just managed to
elude them by zigzagging to and fro.
Cassiopeia played her own special pan in this chase. Although she could
only crawl, she always knew in advance where Momo's pursuers would go next,
so she got there in good time and stationed herself in their path. The men
in grey tripped over her and went sprawling, and the ones behind tripped
over them and went sprawling too, with the result that she more than once
saved Momo from almost certain capture. Although she herself was often sent
hurtling against walls by flying feet, nothing could deter her from
continuing to do what she knew in advance she would do.
As the chase proceeded, several of the pursuing men in grey became so
maddened by their craving for the hour-lily that they dropped their cigars
and vanished into thin air, one after the other. In the end, only two were
Momo doubled back and took refuge in the conference chamber. The two
surviving time-thieves chased her around the table but failed to catch her,
so they split up and ran in opposite directions. Momo was trapped at last.
She cowered in a corner and gazed at her pursuers in terror with the
hour-lily clasped to her chest. All but three of its shimmering petals had
withered and fallen.
The foremost man in grey was just about to snatch the flower when the
other one yanked him away.
'No,' he shrieked, 'that flower's mine! Mine, I tell you!'
They grappled with each other, and in the ensuing scrimmage the first
man knocked the second man's cigar out of his mouth. With a weird groan, the
second man spun around, went transparent and vanished.
The last of the men in grey advanced on Momo with a
minuscule cigar butt smouldering in the corner of his mouth.
'Give it here!' he gasped, but as he did so the butt fell out of his
mouth and rolled away under the table. He flung himself to the ground and
groped for it, but it eluded his outstretched fingers. Turning his ashen
face towards Momo, he struggled into a sitting position and raised one
'Please,' he whispered faintly, 'please, dear child, give me the
Momo, still cowering in her corner, couldn't get a word out. She
clasped the flower still tighter and shook her head.
The last of the men in grey nodded slowly. 'I'm glad,' he murmured.
'I'm glad ... it's all ... over ...' Then he vanished, too.
Momo was staring dazedly at the place where he had been when Cassiopeia
crawled into view. 'YOU'LL OPEN THE DOOR,' her shell announced.
Momo went over to the door, touched it with her hour-lily, which had
only one last petal left, and opened it wide.
The time store was cold no longer, now that the last of the
time-thieves had gone. Momo marvelled at the contents of the huge vault.
Innumerable hour-lilies were arrayed on its endless shelves like crystal
goblets, no two alike and each more beautiful than the other. Hundreds of
thousands, indeed, millions of hours were stored here, all of them stolen
from people's lives.
The temperature steadily rose until the vault was as hot as a
greenhouse. Just as the last petal of Momo's hour-lily fluttered to the
ground, all the other flowers left their shelves in clouds and swirled
around her head. It was like a warm spring storm, bur a storm made up of
time released from captivity.
As if in a dream, Momo looked around and saw Cassiopeia on the ground
beside her. The glowing letters on her shell read: 'FLY HOME, MOMO, FLY
HOME!' That was the last Momo ever saw of Cassiopeia, because
the tempest of flowers rose to an indescribable pitch. And as it gained
strength, so Momo was lifted off her feet and borne away like a flower
herself, along the dark passages, out into the open air and high above the
city. Soaring over the roofs in a cloud of flowers that grew bigger every
moment, she was wafted up and down and around and around like someone
performing a triumphal dance to glorious music.
Then the cloud of flowers drifted slowly, lazily down and landed like
snowflakes on the frozen face of the earth. And, like snowflakes, they
gently dissolved and became invisible as they returned to their true home in
the hearts of mankind.
In that same moment, time began again and everything awoke to new life.
The cars drove on, the traffic police blew their whistles, the pigeons
continued circling, and the little dog made a puddle against the lamp-post.
Nobody noticed that time had stood still for an hour, because nothing had
moved in the interval. It was all over in the twinkling of an eye.
Nothing had moved - no, but something had changed. All of a sudden,
people found they had plenty of time to spare. They were delighted,
naturally, but they never realized that it was their own time that had
miraculously been restored to them.
When Momo came to her senses again, she found herself back in the side
street where she had last seen Beppo. Sure enough, there he was, leaning on
his broom with his back to her, gazing ruminatively into the distance as he
used to in the old days. He wasn't in a hurry any more, and for some unknown
reason he felt brighter and more hopeful.
'I wonder,' he thought. 'Maybe I've already saved the hundred thousand
hours I need to ransom Momo.'
At that moment, someone tugged at his jacket and he turned to see Momo
smiling up at him as large as life.
There are no words to describe the joy of that reunion.
Beppo and Momo laughed and cried by turns, and they both kept talking
at once - talking all kinds of nonsense, too, as people do when they're
dazed with delight. They hugged each other again and again, and passers-by
paused to share in their happiness, their tears and laughter, because they
all had plenty of time to spare.
At long last, Beppo shouldered his broom - he took the rest of the day
off, of course - and the two of them strolled arm in arm through the city to
the old amphitheatre, still talking nineteen to the dozen.
It was a long time since the city had witnessed such scenes. Children
played in the middle of the street, getting in the way of cars whose drivers
not only watched and waited, smiling broadly, but sometimes got out and
joined in their games. People stood around chatting with the friendliness of
those who take a genuine interest in their neighbours' welfare. Other
people, on their way to work, had time to stop and admire the flowers in a
window-box or feed the birds. Doctors, too, had time to devote themselves
properly to their patients, and workers of all kinds did their jobs with
pride and loving care, now that they were no longer expected to turn out as
much work as possible in the shortest possible time. They could take as much
time as they needed and wanted, because from now on there was enough time
Many people never discovered whom they had to thank for all this, just
as they never knew what had actually happened during the hour that passed in
a flash. Few of them would have believed the story anyway.
The only ones that knew and believed it were Memo's friends. By the
time Momo and Beppo reached the amphitheatre, they were all there waiting:
Guido, Paolo, Massimo, Franco, Maria and her little sister Rosa, Claudio and
a host of other children, Nino the innkeeper and his plump wife Liliana and
their baby, Salvatore the bricklayer, and all of Memo's regular visitors in
days gone by.
The celebration that followed, which was as merry and joyous as only
Momo's friends could have made it, went on till the stars came out. And when
all the cheers and hugs and handshakes and excited chatter had subsided,
everyone sat down on the grass-grown steps.
A great hush fell as Momo stepped out into the middle of the arena. She
thought of the music of the stars and the hour-lilies, and then, in a sweet,
pure voice, she began to sing.
Meanwhile, in Nowhere House, the return of time had roused Professor
Noga from his first sleep ever. Still very pale, he looked as if he had just
recovered from a serious illness, but his eyes sparkled and there was a
smile on his lips as he watched Momo and her friends through his omnivision
Then he felt something touch his foot. Taking off his glasses, he
looked down and saw Cassiopeia sitting there.
'Cassiopeia,' he said, tickling her affectionately under the chin, 'the
two of you did a fine job. I couldn't watch you, for once, so you must tell
me all about it.'
'LATER,' the tortoise signalled. Then she sneezed.
The professor looked concerned. 'You haven't caught cold, have you?'
'YOU BET I HAVE!' replied Cassiopeia.
'You must have gone too close to the men in grey,' said the professor.
'I expect you're very tired, too. We can talk later. Better go off and have
a good sleep first.'
'THANKS,' came the answer.
Cassiopeia limped off and picked herself a nice, dark, quiet corner.
She tucked her head and legs in, and very slowly, in letters visible only to
those who have read this story, her shell spelled out two words:
Many of my readers may have questions they'd like to ask. If so, I'm
afraid I can't help them. The fact is, I wrote this story down from memory,
just as it was told me. I never met Momo or any of her friends, nor do I
know what became of them or how they are today. As for the city where they
lived, I can only guess which one it was. The most I can tell you is this.
One night in a train, while I was on a long journey (as I still am), I
found myself sitting opposite a remarkable fellow passenger -- remarkable in
that I found it quite impossible to tell his age. At first I put him down as
an old man, but I soon saw that I must have been mistaken, because he
suddenly seemed very young - though that impression, too, soon proved to be
At any rate, it was he who told me the story during our long night's
Neither of us spoke for some moments after he had finished. Then my
mysterious acquaintance made a remark which I feel bound to put on record.
'I've described all these events,' he said, 'as if they'd already happened.
I might just as well have described them as if they still lay in the future.
To me, there's very little difference.'
He must have left the train at the next station, because I noticed
after a while that I was alone.
I've never bumped into him again, unfortunately. If by any chance I do,
though, I shall have plenty of questions to ask him myself.
Last-modified: Sat, 23 Mar 2002 07:49:31 GMT