The Watch

His ear, pressed painfully against the pillow, still heard its swift musical ticking; a blithe trotting sound that, when all other presences and noises had become blurred in delirium, was his one communication with things external to sickness, like voices and sunshine.

He had always wanted a watch, and his father, because of an empty pocket and the belief that an energetic boy of ten wouldn’t know how to look after one, had always merely promised; but when, weak and feverish, the boy had objected about going to hospital because he couldn’t see any reason for such a shift, a bargain had been struck, which amounted to the boy’s receiving a shining pocket-watch with a chain that gathered like mercury in the hand and, in return, his giving consent to be taken to hospital.

He would turn his head on side in bed to squint at it beside his pillow, or dandle it under the bedclothes, or fondle its chain, and tell the time every minute of the day. It was never given a chance to run down. The serrated bead-sized winding-knob clicked magically between his thumb and finger, and there was the long, thin, red second hand that he loved to peer at as, effortlessly revolving, it outpaced the small perceptible movement of the minute hand and the imperceptibble labour of the sluggish hour-arrow. The glass covering the sheer white face, on which were printed in sharp black Roman notation the twelve numbers, with “R—” in flowing italics under the twelve and “Swiss Made” in delicate letters squeezed in under the six, glinted like a sun, and the steel back felt like the smooth warm radiator-cap on his father’s old car. He liked pulling the winding-knob out and sweeping the hands round the dial like miniature rays of darkness across clear light, and then snapping the knob back again to rest tight to the rim.

The watch could be held quite a distance away and its tick would still be audible. Naked against the ear, it literally bounded, metallically gallant. Sometimes he would manoeuvre it under the bedclothes to a pleasant position between the soles of his feet. It couldn’t be heard then, but it seemed a newer, even more significant thing down there, and the knob against his toe brought an incalculable expression to his eyes. It was there that the nurse found the watch when he at last became oblivious to all but the pain in his chest and shoulders. She restored it to beneath his pillow, where, like some irresistible and sounding spirit, it edged him away from death.

He became inordinately proud of it. He displayed it on all occasions, flaunted it for every eye, told everybody the time without invitation or provocation, “timed” the football matches, made figures and letters out of its chain on his desk at school, put it, once, into a basin to see how much louder it would sound, adjusted the hands studiously each day to the chime of the town hall clock, and, withal, grew a little arrogant.

One afternoon he set off for the big paddock. The football match had already begun when he arrived. To cries of “Hurry up, you’re late”, he solemnly detached the chain from his trouser-belt and placed the watch, cowled in a grubby handkerchief, in a hole that a dog had dug by the fence; then he joined in the game. At halftime he limped across to where the watch lay and, while eating an orange, swore that the referee had blown the whistle thirty seconds too soon, which meant that Stalky would have had time to score that try, and also proved that the ref. was in league with the other side.

When he struggled off the field at the end of the second half, the watch was gone.

His father went to the home of every boy who had been in the paddock that afternoon, appealing to parents. Every boy fervently denied that he had never been near the hole; which was untrue, but acceptable to the parents, maddening to the boy’s father, dully inconsequential to the boy.

He was, in time, given another one. It had “R—” in flowing italics under the twelve and “Swiss Made” in delicate letters squeezed in under the six. It glinted in the sun, and the steel back felt like the smooth radiator-cap on his father’s old Morris car. Its chain gathered like mercury in his hand. But he never told anybody the time, unless asked; he kept it hidden on his person, never made letters with its chain on his desk, didn’t bother about setting it to the town hall chimes, left it at home when he went playing football, and grew, withal, a little mistrustful.