Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Man with the Double Watch

Michael W. Thomas


“So I'm afraid,” he said, “we shan't be proceeding further at this time.”

I let my eyes lose focus. I used to do that as a kid, quite a lot. Bored in lessons, I'd make my book, the classroom, the teacher all go fuzzy. Images would turn vague, hang together for a moment, then break up. It was like mucking about with a Victorian stereoscope. It was oddly restful.

It was restful now, as he spoke on, thanking me for the opportunity, assuring me that my work had been thoroughly evaluated. His regret, he said, was deep. I looked past his shoulder. A salad-cart stood between us and the bar. Couples and families were circling it, pondering, drawing each other's attention to this or that bowl, digging spoons in, changing their minds. As I stared, their bodies broke up. A green salad floated above and to the left of its receptacle. A man walked over to a couple. I blurred him. By the time he said, “Was it Pernod and a pint of Exhibition?” he was a man and a half.

“I'm so sorry to have to leave you,” my companion said now, “but I'd better get on—rush-hour traffic and all that.” He offered a wheeze with some laughter poking through. Awkward, a bit self-deprecating. Practiced. I allowed myself one last minute of rest, blurring the watch he held pointedly to his face. Something inside it seemed to ripple and tug. It split apart, so that there were two of it on his elastic wrist. The circumferences were just touching. Rush-hour traffic, he'd said. At three in the afternoon. Perhaps he knew the area better than I did. Perhaps it was busier than it looked.

My voice started up obligingly. I heard it thanking him, knocking out a formula, for your time and trouble and all that. He wished me well: “Oh, and I'll leave this with you,” he added, placing a manila folder before me. At the top was the date on which I'd posted the folder to him. It was some time back now, suggesting that, as he said, the contents had been considered seriously. Or perhaps suggesting nothing. Perhaps they'd been gathered in a rush, unread, before he set out.  It had just seemed like a good sign, the length of time he'd had it. You have to hang on to them. Good signs. I had an urge to look inside, to see if the pages were in the same unthumbed order as when I'd inserted them. Instead, I just considered the date at the top, the diagonal bar I always put through my sevens.

Hands were shaken.  Alone, I tried the trick of the eyes on the folder. It wouldn't budge. I tried again, puzzled, even a little afraid, like someone robbed of their party piece by a change of atmosphere. I don't know how long I kept trying, but I suddenly found myself looking up at a situation: me all alone at a table with a padded bench and three chairs, and a group of five standing over me, evidently trying some tricks of their own, willing me to melt out of all that comfy space.

In the car-park, I walked up and down, smoking. I pondered the man with the double watch. “We shan't be proceeding further at this time.” “At this time” was a pleasant little gloss, a curlique of no-hope trying to be hopeful. He'd used it a hundred times. His tongue was born to it.  Perhaps he was off to use it again. I stared down to the road, then at the roundabout beyond. The occasional car or van went by. There was all the space in the world for an easy drive. “Rush-hour traffic” he'd said, jigging his two smart watches under my nose.

At times like these, tiny things always stick. They swell, dwarfing all other memories. Pulling out of the car-park, I saw a sign telling me to have a safe journey. Opposite, a chained board said No Exit. I'll remember that, I thought. When I'm trying to rebuild life, stick all the pieces together again, that dozy tableau will be right at the front of my mind. When I'm trying to remember something crucial, something that might just save other skins, all I'll see are Safe Journey—No Exit. It's the kind of thing newspapers use as a filler, under headings like Just Look At This! or Our Funny Old World. Folk send them in, get paid for them: ten quid, twenty, more. Perhaps I should come back and take a snap of them. It'd be a start, ten or twenty quid, since the unblurrable folder can't be taken any further. At this time.

As I drove along the dual carriageway, they all settled around me.  Moon faces, hopeful faces. The faces of home. I saw them doing what they do: sliding clean dishes under counters, pinning earphones into place, fighting over the TV remote. But they'd be waiting, bound together more surely than in any mantelpiece photo. “Am I looking at a winner?” I heard her say. “So when does it all start?” I saw the boy staring at me, gawky in his tee-shirt: Alabama State Line, it said, black letters on cherry-red. He didn't know what to do with his hand. It curled towards a thumbs-up, then went slack. A nod of expectancy troubled his impossible hair. He wanted me to spill the beans, so that he could mumble “Wow, fantastic.”  A ballet-bag shoved him aside, and there was the princess. I imagined her jumping up and down. Yay! Yay! she yelled, pigtails flying. A man”s voice spoke of trust and cashed policies. “I believe in you, brother of mine,” he said. “That's why I pinned my shirt to your back.”  

I saw myself at the lounge door, swaying a little. I spoke aloud. The car's interior made my small voice smaller. I told the waiting faces that there had been deep regret but also gratitude at the chance to evaluate the folder with a date at the top. “I don”t know why I do that,” I burbled. “Put a diagonal bar across my sevens.” Now everything began to vanish. My family were miming in unfurnished space. Non-dishes slid behind invisible wood. The battle for the remote was just a dance of empty fingers. The mime got slower. Even their clothes began to disappear. They seized up.  Lifting a hand from the wheel, I imagined touching each of them in turn. Hard. Cold.

I was scared of what lay ahead. Tired, too. My mind turned, hid itself back at the beginning. Again I felt her squeeze of my arm. That had started it all—or rather, ended the indecision, the months of talk. It was a dreadful morning: pools in the lawn, draggled cats. Briefcase and bags were weighing down my left hand. I'd just realized that my keys were in my left pocket and was preparing to transfer the ballast when I felt it. A girlish squeeze, full of the old times. You'd think we were getting ready to walk out—to a pub's tatty welcome, then a dance, then the curious intimacy of a street-lamp. “You've convinced me,” she said. “Go for it. Cautious-bones,” she added, her words smiling at the man she'd known for years, right up to that moment when I fished out my keys and a cat slithered past, blotching my trousers.  

The day changed as I drove off. The rain fell on everyone but me. Pedestrians were just too slow to miss tyre-loving puddles. Above the crowds, umbrellas fought, some flipping into bowls on sticks. But I walked from the car with a glowing shield about me. I could have been in an advert for pain relief.

A little while later, McDowell stared at me from the far side of a desk landscaped with pictures and a Newton's cradle, its balls arrayed shinily.  His phone rang. Shooing off the caller, he pushed it away from him and resumed his stare. “Heavens, you do surprise me,” he said. “I thought you'd be with us for the duration.” A sigh escaped his lips, along with a word or two I didn't catch. Cautious-bones, perhaps. “Might I ask about this . . . what do we call it? Venture? Leap in the dark?” He made the sound of an old man shaken from sleep. I'd never known him get any nearer than that to a laugh. Year after year, it had puzzled special guests at the Christmas socials—even frightened a few, who feared a doctor would be required. Blurring the cradle, I started to explain. The row of balls obliged my eyes by doubling in number. My stare spread them wide apart, then drew them together, overlapping them, making them kiss. By the time I'd finished, they were a silvery mush.

A sharp rattle brought me back to the now. It was raining hard. The hand that had imagined the cold feel of those dearest to me now flipped on the wipers. I thought of bad omens. How you don't have to look far to find them. How you create them yourself if you're not careful. That's how all those extravagant dinners made me feel now. They started a day or so after my words with McDowell. Celebrating the future, that's what they were about. Marking my transformation from Cautious-bones to a gutsy leaper in the dark. I went along with it all, though I should have seen that it was unwise, a delirious counting of chickens. I couldn't remember much about them now. The restaurants and pubs melded into each other. This waitress's name was Karen; that sweet counter offered lovely profiteroles. Only one time stood out, thanks to a misunderstanding. Suddenly a huge cake was plonked down before me and the entire room launched into Happy Birthday. “But it is your birthday,” my brother said, putting his arm round my shoulder, holding hard. “Your rebirth-day.” He repeated the phrase all evening, each time a little more hiccupy than the last.

My brother. The chief investor in my leap in the dark. The one who'd always had me down as the lucky lad, always rolled his eyes at my inability to see it. Perverse, he called me. I thought of the evidence he'd trotted out over the years. A winning ticket in a school raffle, which I'd lost, found, accidentally surrendered to the washing-machine in a jeans pocket and finally grabbed as it fluttered above the clothesline. A Christmas when dad had squared it with a pub landlord so that we could accompany him, and a juke-box started playing Elvis Presley's "Follow That Dream" just as I walked past. Girls who, my brother insisted, sighed and pined for me, though I never discovered who they were. There were other miracles, too, as flimsy as these.  He'd turned them all into articles of faith. “High time you followed that dream,” he said after one dinner, reminding me that he'd seen to his final policy and the money would be in my account soon, ready for the gilded future. He'd have had a thing or two to say to the man with the double watch. I wondered what he'd say to me. I imagined him standing there, "Follow That Dream" on his lips. The words broke down into a quavery hum. His mouth hung open, silent.

The motorway was in sight. More signs, no doubt, winking at me through the worsening rain. Spray. Slow Down. Caution. I thought of the folder, how my eyes had failed to budge it. Again I felt afraid. Surely I hadn't lost the trick. It was so relaxing, such a haven. Surely I hadn't lost it. I got myself comfortable. My fingers eased their pressure on the wheel—almost slid off. “Safe journey,” said that sign in my head. “No exit,” goofed its sidekick. A tide of cars and heavy rigs gathered from the right. I hadn't lost the trick. Surely.

___

Michael W. Thomas lives in England, but is poet-in-residence at the annual Robert Frost Festival, Key West. His latest poetry collection, Port Winston Mulberry, was published by Peterloo Poets in autumn 2008. His novel, The Mercury Annual, was published by Silver Age books.

© Michael W. Thomas

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2009