Wrong Place, Wrong Time by Paul Robinson
That's what it says on the display of my watch. Well, y'know, specifically it reads eight-zero-zero-eight, but it'd take a man far more mature than I am to read that as anything other than “BOOB”. The colon that usually blinks away between the middle two digits is nowhere to be seen, so if it doesn't say “BOOB” it says eight thousand and eight, and since eight thousand and eight isn't even a time, I may as well read it as “BOOB”, because I'm late for work again and the levity is welcome. I arrive at the platform just as the dust from my departed train settles. My watch beeps, for no reason whatsoever.
The station clock shows what I assume to be the correct time: eight forty-seven. And as I look down at my watch, it now also shows eight forty-seven. And god damn if that errant colon hasn't suddenly reappeared. I'm not surprised: it always does this. It tells me the correct time, but only when it's too late.
I know what you're thinking and the answer is that my father gave me it for my birthday and my father is now dead. His time ran out. And while I'm reasonably sentimental I'm not blessed with a great imagination so I can think of no other way to honour his memory than to wear a malfunctioning timepiece. Although the more times the display reads “BOOB” or “HAHA” or “OH-OH” the harder I find it to convince myself that this is what he'd have wanted.
Pretty much every watch I've ever owned was bought for me by my father, but this is the first digital I've ever had. Even as a kid, when my classmates were sporting black plastic beasts that dwarfed their arms with 1980s bulk and on the stroke of the hour emitted twee, bleepy versions of the theme to Knight Rider, or Star Wars, or ET, I always favoured an analogue watch. They just looked classier. So why, after thirty-eight years did I suddenly switch to digital? Ironically, it was because my last watch, another gift from Dad, kept losing time, and I kept being late for work.
The trouble with an analogue watch losing time, of course, is that you don't realise it has until you're late for something. I figured that as ugly as digital watches are, they at least don't run slow: they either show the right time or they show nothing at all, at which point you just look at the time on your cellphone. And the reason I don't do that with this watch is because it's sneaky. It wasn't saying “BOOB” when I left the house: it was saying eight-twenty seven, the same as the clock on the microwave. But when I was halfway to the station, and got accosted by that homeless guy and talked to him for, I dunno, two minutes? four minutes?, and then made the key decision to walk rather than run the rest of the way to the station, was it really eight-thirty seven, like the watch said, or was it, say, five minutes later? I'll never know, I guess. But I figure that sooner or later the battery will die, and that will be the universe's way of telling me that it's okay to stop honouring my father's memory by wearing a shitty watch. Until then the cycle of it gaining and then betraying my trust will likely continue.
So it's nine twenty-three when I get to work, and try as I might to approach my desk in stealth mode, Walters gets me on his radar.
“Jack, a word,” he yells.
Only it won't be a word: it'll be, like, five thousand words, and at least twenty of those will be “synergy”, which should be enough to tell you what an asshole he is. My tardiness is having a negative impact on synergy and he'd prefer that we didn't have to keep touching base like this.Touching base, for Christ's sake. And his lecture will waste more time than my being late did, but that will be irrelevant because at least he'll have gotten to listen to himself speak for half an hour.
“How many times is this, Jack?”
“I dunno, I guess a lot. Too many. I'm really sorry.”
“Damn right too many, do you know how your persistent lateness is impacting synergy?”
I want to tell him that impact isn't verb, it's a noun and, moreover, a noun that he can shove up his ass, but, y'know,things you can't say to your boss.
“I'm sorry,” I say.
Momentarily the light reflected from his watch dazzles me. It is ostentatious with platinum and diamonds and cost more than a year's rent on my apartment and I know this because he told me. I know how much everything he owns cost. Everyone in the office does.
“I'm trying real hard to get a handle on this, Jack. I've done everything I can to incentivise you to be punctual, but nothing seems to work. I mean, look at my office, Jack. Bigger than your apartment, right?”
“I guess, yeah.” I don't tell him that it's four times as big. Nor do I tell him that it's way bigger than it needs to be for a building this size and that if he hadn't inherited the business from his father he'd be at a desk in an open-plan like the rest of us.
“And I know what you're thinking,” he continues, “you're thinking I got an office like this just because I have this brilliant business mind; because I know how to bluesky; because I think so far out of the box that I'm in a different zipcode to the box; because I give it one hundred and ten per cent eight days a week. And you're right, Jack, but that's not all. I didn't always have this gift: I acquired it through blood sweat and tears. And you know what that starts with, Jack, it starts with turning up on time.”
My watch starts to beep.
“What's that Jack, an alarm? It should be, Jack, it should be the alarm that tells you it's time to wake up and smell the coffee”. I'm not making it up, he really says this.
As I fiddle with the buttons on the watch and shut the beeping off, I notice that the display now reads “ASS”, briefly, and then “HOLE”. Perfect timing, for a change. Walters, meanwhile, moves to the window and, although we're only two floors up in a two-storey building in Hicksville, he looks out like he's the goddam king of Manhattan or something, blueskying the hell out of shit, impacting synergy from fifty floors up.
As he continues to look out of the window, presumably taking in the awesome spectacle of the half-dozen cars and the dumpster out there, he runs his hand through his hundred-dollar haircut and inhales deeply, like he has something awesome and insightful to say that nobody in the world has ever thought to say. But before he has chance -
“Shut up, asshole.”
Not me. The watch. The goddam watch speaks. It's a hissy, 1980s 8-bit video game of an utterance, but it it's clear and audible enough as “Shut up asshole”. Walters spins around with a look on his face like a roomful of people have just thought inside the box and ruined all potential for synergy.
“Did you just call me an asshole?”
I look around. There's only me and him in the office. Me and him and a watch that just called him an asshole. Now that he's facing me I wait for the watch to pipe up again, because I figure that the only way he's going to believe that a watch called him an asshole is if it happens again while he's watching. I look down at the watch: it is silent and the display reads the correct time. It is as normal a watch as ever there was. I weigh up my options.
“Yeah, I called you an asshole”, I say.
In way more words than are necessary, he starts telling me I'm fired, and once I've filtered through the management-talk enough to be sure that that is indeed the message that is being conveyed, I head for the door, and am just about to leave when the watch starts beeping again.
“There goes that alarm again, Jack. That's exactly what you need, a-”
“No, I think maybe you need an alarm,” I say, and as I walk out of the door I put my fist through the glass of the fire alarm panel and suddenly all sounds from my watch are drowned out. It's not my finest hour, and in the following days I will redraft the “I think maybe you need an alarm” quip several times in my head, but I am happy enough to have marked my last day in the office by at least causing Walters a not inconsiderable inconvenience. I'll say goodbye to my now ex-colleagues outside in the parking lot when they're being accounted for by Claire, the fire marshal.
Here's a thing. Two months have passed and I have a new job. A better job, in a good office, with a normal human being for a boss. And I haven't been late once, because since I got fired from the old job the watch has worked perfectly. No LCD malfunctions, no shouted profanities, and the alarm hasn't gone off unexpectedly since the beep-beep-beep that inspired me to set off the fire alarm immediately following my dismissal from Walters and Son Office Supplies. Go figure.
My sister, Jackie, she's a hoot. She says it was the watch looking after me the whole time. The watch made me late for work. The watch got me the regular lectures in the boss's office. The watch pissed Walters off. The watch got me fired. I've got this cool new job because the watch wanted me to. In fact, I'm only alive because the watch got me out of that office just in time. That watch has the spirit of Dad in it, she says. He's looking out for you from above through that watch, the final gift he ever gave you. I told you, she's a hoot. Me, I don't believe in ghosts. When I look back on it now, I'm not even so sure that the watch did call Walters an asshole. Maybe it was me all along. I mean, who ever heard of a talking watch?
As for the old office, well, you probably heard about it: the whole floor, pretty much, was taken out by a huge explosion. Nothing to do with me, I might add. Although it happened on my last day there, the whole thing was caused by a gas leak. It seems that Walters' bluesky thinking didn't extend to health and safety issues like getting appliances checked. Fortunately, none of the staff were in the office at the time: they were out in the parking lot, as per the fire evacuation procedure. In fact, the only person who wasn't outside was the one person who knew it was me who'd set the fire alarm and who'd stayed in his office, slightly inconvenienced but, at least, glad of the opportunity to look down on his loyal servants from his glassy vantage point, and slightly smug with the knowledge that he, unlike them, knew that there wasn't really a fire in the building.
Apparently he ended up in the parking lot, but he didn't come down the stairs like everyone else.
The coffin was really expensive, they tell me.
“Hey Jack, we're gonna go grab lunch; you coming?”, asks Jenny, my new boss.
I look at my watch. Twelve-thirty.
“Sure,” I say.
© Paul Robinson, 2014
Paul Robinson lives in York, England. He is a sometime blogger whose work can be found at http://robbo-thecube.blogspot.co.uk/
Wrong Place, Wrong Time was read by Jonathan Harford on 6th August 2014