Birthday Money

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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Birthday Money

The guy outside was wearing a Submariner on his left wrist, steel with black dial and bezel, so he was probably called something like Charles or Jonathan or just about anything.

He was closing his wallet, which had several large-denomination notes clearly visible within it as he slotted the elegant leather bifold into his pocket. He probably drove a Mercedes if he was as predictable as he seemed, or maybe an Audi or a BMW if he was closer to the arse end of the spectrum.

The car will be black, or at least something that wouldn’t look out of place anywhere, Neves thought, taking note of the time on his own watch.

He watched through the big window as the guy walked into the parking area, going up the nearest row. Neves could immediately tell from his body language that the man had proximity unlocking on his vehicle; there was no sense of reaching for a key fob. Sure enough, he went straight up to a black sedan and got in. When the car reversed out, Neves could just make out the logo on the rear with four interlinked silver rings. He sighed.

The tinkling of the little bell above the shop’s door drew his attention, and a father and his early-teens son walked in. The boy looked both apprehensive and excited, and the father had the restrained version of the same expression. They both wore neat jeans and smart-casual shirts, but only the father looked like he dressed that way regularly. Neves sized them up immediately, and the smile he gave was genuine.

“Hello there,” he said. “Let me know if I can help you with anything.”

The father nodded and the boy gave a small smile of his own, still looking nervous. The young man glanced around the shop, his eyes pausing for a moment on the Omega display over at the rear on the left, then the adjacent IWC Schaffhausen cabinet, and then he looked away again. Neves understood it all as if he could read their minds.

The boy knows a bit about watches, but his dad doesn’t, he thought. The boy is intimidated to be here because of the expensive brands. The father just doesn’t want to have to refuse him something because it costs too much.

It was a delicate, if commonplace, situation. As expected, it took more than ten minutes for the pair to wander over to the counter that Neves stood behind. He smiled once more.

“My son is looking to buy a watch,” dad said, and Neves nodded.

“Excellent,” he replied. “Anything caught your eye?”

“He saw something just over here,” dad said, indicating the display directly across from where they stood, and Neves nodded, gesturing that he’d join them there.

The boy looked even more shy now, and of course Neves knew why. Whilst the brand was on the more accessible end of the spectrum price-wise, it was by no means entry-level overall. The pieces weren’t Swiss, but they were accurate, reliable, and finished to a high standard. His own long experience of working in retail had honed his instincts to the point that he even knew which specific watch the youngster was captivated by.

“You have a good eye,” Neves said. “I have a few of these myself. I’m wearing one, actually,” he said, drawing back his shirt cuff to reveal the watch he knew the boy was after, with its twin on display less than a metre away. “One of my absolute favourites.”

The boy’s eyes widened, and Neves could again easily read the shifting expressions on his face. Surprise, delight, validation, the shedding of any lingering embarrassment, and of course the dark glitter of need which preceded all of the most satisfying acquisitions in life.

“That’s the exact one!” the boy said with excitement, and Neves pretended to be amused at the coincidence, before he launched into the sales pitch.

“Mechanical, of course, so no batteries or any need for sunlight,” he said. “Rated accurate to within plus-or-minus 45 seconds or so per day, but you’ll find that in reality they’re several times better than that. This particular model offers hand-winding and a hackable movement, a sapphire crystal, unidirectional bezel, and water resistance to two hundred metres. Several dial colours to choose from, but between you and I, this green variant is the most striking.”

And so the dance began, where the boy, openly smiling now, at first casually did not look at his father, and then very carefully did not look at his father, and then ultimately did at last look at his father. The father himself wore the expression that parents had when they were bemused by their child’s enthusiasm for a thing, but more than willing to accommodate it — providing the price wasn’t prohibitive. Neves could sense the man’s underlying tension, and for the first time he wondered if perhaps the boy was the product of a separated or divorced household, spending time with the non-resident parent on a pre-arranged schedule.

“He seems to have made his mind up,” the father said, and Neves laughed politely, now gesturing to the instance of the watch which was still on display.

“Let’s try it on,” he said.

A few minutes of bracelet-sizing later, under the strong lights which showed the piece off to best effect, the boy was clearly fully committed to the timepiece which now adorned his wrist.

“Why don’t you wander around and see how it feels,” Neves said to him. “I can adjust it more if necessary.”

The boy nodded and walked away, arm lifted awkwardly as he admired the watch he wore, and then the father turned to Neves, adopting the stance that pairs of men had found themselves in since time immemorial. It was time to agree on a price.

“It’s an important gift for him,” the father said, and Neves nodded.

“My own father gave me a watch at around his age,” he replied. “Partly why I’m in this business. I still have it. Properly looked after, they last a lifetime.”

“He’s looking to spend his birthday money,” the father continued. “But I’m not really sure he can afford that one.”

Neves could tell that it wasn’t a gambit. The man was tense again; almost apologetic. His shirt was clean and in good condition, but not ironed, and his jeans looked as if they’d been washed many times.

“I understand completely,” Neves said, effortlessly recalling the other man outside earlier, walking to his car and away.

He reached for his own watch, taking an instant to appreciate the striking green dial, then pulled the crown out two stops. The second hand froze in place, allowing for precise time-setting; this was what it meant for a timepiece’s mechanical movement to be hackable. Neves noted the time.

He glanced up at the father, who was of course now also frozen in place, as was his son a few metres across the floor, facing away from them. All the hands of all the watches in his boutique were motionless.

Neves twirled the crown counterclockwise, enjoying as always the blur of motion in front of him. The father and son accelerated backwards around the shop, stopping now and then for fractions of a second, and then ultimately they reversed out of the front door and vanished as the time on the face regressed to the hour and minute that Neves remembered.

Outside, there was once again the Submariner wearer, holding his wallet, about to walk to his black car but unable to do so because time no longer flowed.

Neves left the shop, feeling the static heat of the day but no breeze, and hearing no sound. He reached the man, and he pulled several banknotes from his wallet, ensuring they were of sufficient value. Then he walked back into his shop and regained his previous position, before twirling the crown clockwise this time.

Again, the blur, but now in the correct direction. A dance of puppets, along predetermined tracks, until the moment that the naive masses thought of as the present had once again been attained. Neves pushed the crown fully back in.

He looked up at the father, animate once more, who blinked and adjusted his stance slightly, clearly ill at ease with the delicate subject of money.

“Since it’s a special occasion,” Neves said, “I’d be delighted to give you a discount.”

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