Scott Palmer: [The Salesman Rings Twice]

There was no way to put last week’s events in any form of rational order. Believing that it all happened within those seven days and further still, that it ended only yesterday, was even less fathomable. It feels like years have passed. This morning I spent a little longer in front of the mirror, checking. Physically, however, little if anything has changed. My hair was still there: same light brown colour, same length and same thickness. I then touched my skin – still taut, to a degree, with the same wrinkles that were there before: no more, no less. My eyes were bright. Fortunately, the little purple sacks that hung under them like floating half moons have disappeared.  And now when I lift my hands up, I see that they no longer shake. I guess this is all positive, really.

Tempted as I am to see this as a new beginning, a revitalized, reformed “me”, I know deep down this is not really the case. Nevertheless, I need to think about it to be sure. Reincarnation is an alluring inference. But don’t worry, I won’t be getting all religious here, proselytising is not my thing. However, I have changed. Somewhat. More importantly, I believe I’ve reverted to the way I was two weeks ago. True, it’s not a long period of time. One would expect any evolution to occur gradually, perhaps even inconspicuously to the naked eye. This transformation was abrupt.

Last Monday was December 6th, the feast day of St. Nicholas. I’m not one for saints, or sinners for that matter, but I am nostalgic and I like festive days. They remind me of my parents, who are no longer around, and my ex-wife. Dinners, parties, children, old people all happy together. Days I wish I could return to, relive. Anyway, on this Monday morning, I saw the snow outside, unusual for London at this time of year, and dressed myself for the cold, putting on a scarf, winter coat and gloves. My phone could have told me the temperature but I didn’t look. As I approached the door to go out, the bell rang. I peeped through the eyehole.

“Good morning. Mr. Hauser?” The voice was chirpy.

“Yes.”

“It’s Mr. Samuel. I am from the Perpetual Time Company. You called us last month”

The name didn’t sound familiar. In fact, I hardly use the phone any more. Texting and email is sufficient for me.

“Are you sure it was me?”

“Yes. I have the notes right here. Mr. Thomas Hauser, Flat 6, 18 Randolph Street, London. Am I at the right place?”

I had no recollection of the call, but he had my details so we may have spoken.  My ex-wife used to say I was far too earnest and gullible to live in a big city. She always criticised me for being a poor judge of character.  I never heard the end of the story where I gave the plumber three thousand pounds to upgrade the bathroom and he left after removing the old toilet, sink and all the tiles never to return. The bathroom remained a shell over the next year while I genuinely expected him to come back and finish the job.  She probably had a point. I am trusting to a fault. But it wasn’t always that way.

“I’m delivering the watch you ordered and I’m here to show you how to use it.”

Ah the watch. Indeed, I had ordered it last month. When it didn’t arrive after a few days, I’d forgotten about it. The purchase was a bit of a punt anyway. The website made these preposterous assertions that couldn’t possibly be true. Or so I thought. Feedback from previous customers was almost universally positive: “Happy with purchase! 5 stars”, “Does exactly what it says on the tin!”, “So far so good. Have even ordered the women’s version for my wife.” And such like. Trusting the reviews, I had bought it.  With only one left in stock it must have been popular. I felt privileged to get the last one.

Following this recollection, I let the man from the Perpetual Time Company in. A few minutes later, I sat across from Mr. Samuel, holding the watch in my hand. At first its weight surprised me. But I’ve heard heavier watches were more valuable so this impressed me. Otherwise, it was unremarkable: a shiny metal watch band of interlinking rectangles, a dark octagonal clock face with a large blue display of today’s date and time and a smaller one with numbers flashing. Oh, and there were buttons and knobs on the side. I don’t have the watch anymore so had forgotten about these. However, it was not until I turned the watch face over that I noticed the light: a tiny green bulb, recessed in the watch case, which blinked incessantly.

A sparkle came to Mr. Samuel’s eye. “That’s what makes the watch special. It’s our own invention, patented internationally. Years of painstaking scientific study. Simultaneously, it functions as an energy indicator, a transmitter and energy absorber. It’s a truly marvelous feat of technology.” Mr. Samuel had rolled up his sleeves, and was leaning over the table.

“I see. It looks very advanced.” I said. Too nonchalant for Mr. Samuel, apparently. A perplexed look appeared on his face.

“You do know what you’re buying?”

My eyes shifted over to the opened box lying on the table. “With the Chang Shou watch, there’s always enough time. It’s just a question of priority” was written on the side in a bright yellow font.

“This is a perpetual watch,” he continued. “There are no batteries. What’s brilliant is that it just needs your body’s energy to make it go. So when you wear it walking it recharges. Heck, even if you wear it when you sleep it’s working.”

“Great!” I say, trying to sound more enthusiastic this time. “But that’s not all, I presume?”

He looked at me as if I was the slow kid in maths class who couldn’t distinguish between addition and subtraction.

“Yes. It does have the functionality, assuming it’s fully charged, to go back to certain points in the past.  But you can only stay there as long as there is charge in the watch.” He paused for a moment and sighed.

“Don’t get me wrong, here.” With his fingers outstretched and his hands raised high above his head he twisted his wrists back and forth like a crazed shaman. “It’s not like any of this time-space travel hocus pocus you see on TV.”  “It’s designed for busy people who may have missed an event, a meeting, a date. Or even a chance to say sorry. Everyone is busy these days. There’s just not enough time for everything.” He paused for a moment.

“This,” pointing to the watch, “this watch gives you the possibility to go back to opportunities that might have passed you by. The idea is not to change the course of your life. Rather, it lets you live without the stress or fear of missing out on anything important.” He smiled and winked, “Or anyone”.

“But how does it manage to do that?” I asked expecting some long complicated answer I wouldn’t understand.

“I don’t know. I’m no scientist; I’m only the sales guy. All the details are in the brochure or on the website. There’s even a hotline number you can call.”

I resolved to research all that later, “And how do I pay?” This was sounding exciting and I was keen to start testing it out.

“The contract is in the box. Effectively, in the first year, it’s free and every year thereafter it’s ten pounds. Not really a significant amount of money, I’m sure you’ll agree.” He waited for me to nod. “However, when you go back into the past, it takes a function of the time spent multiplied by how far back you go and then just deducts it from your normal lifespan.”

I remembered reading this in the small print on the website. It did seem farfetched at the time. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or scared.

“So, if I understand correctly, I am mortgaging off some of the end of my life to get more life now?”

“We see it an improving the quality of your life. You live more when you’re young and healthy and less when you’re old and sick. It empowers hindsight. Leaving you to prioritise moments in your past you need to change to make your present life better.”

That reassured me. It all sounded very convincing. My knees had started to twitch and I was hoping he would leave soon so I could play with the watch. As an experienced salesperson, he must have been attentive to this manifestation of impatience. Telling me we were nearly done, he said he would wrap up by quickly demonstrating the watch’s features.

“Now the top button here sets the historic time and date. The lower one the current date. When these two buttons are pressed simultaneously, and held for three seconds, the watch resets. The option menu is here. Pressing this button twice causes…” His words started to drift into the air while I sat mesmerised by the watch. My mind began to wander. I did want to go back in time and fix things in my life but I wasn’t sure if this was the right way to go about it.

Seeing me distracted, he changed tact: “Think of your life as a series of tube journeys with a wallet of cash and an Oyster card. You can travel as long as you have money to top up your Oyster card. As your money runs out you take fewer and shorter journeys.”

When I asked how I would know when credit is running out, he told me the light on the backside would turn amber and then red. Having that clarity, I signed the invoice.

“And remember, like an Oyster card it takes its payment at the start of a journey and deducts the maximum so don’t take off the watch or switch it with anyone.”  With that, he wished me a happy Christmas and left.

I held the watch in my hand and contemplated its power. All that technology contained in such a small device. Things have sure come a long way since the Tardis. I decided to approach the situation methodically. If I was going to change my life I shouldn’t start by making the same mistakes again. No more rushing through things headfirst or acting without adequate forethought.

The first rule came to me quickly.  “Do no harm”. Easy enough. For the second rule, I scribbled: “This is not a tool to become rich”.  The futility of this rulemaking dawned on me after I completed the second one. I’d be sitting there all day coming up with optimistic pronouncements and aspirational morals. I would have pages and pages of them but what would their true value be. Rules are easy to make when you don’t consider the consequences of always having to follow them. Being a cautious person by nature, I decided instead to develop general principles of use. Principles are necessarily vague and their application can only ever be subjective. This flexibility could come in handy. After crossing out the few, I decided instead just to have one guideline, more of an aide-memoir, to be preciseI wrote in block capitals:  “THIS IS NOT A PANACEA FOR ALL THE MISTAKES, BETRAYALS, AND ABANDONMENTS YOU’VE CAUSED OR BEEN SUBJECTED TO IN LIFE.” Grandiose, perhaps, but it allowed significant leeway for personal interpretation. This suited me better.

In light of the watch’s nearly infinite capacity to change my life and seductive as it might have seemed, financially at the very least, to use that power to its fullest, I resolved to be prudent and practical in its deployment. I didn’t want to turn myself into an instant celebrity nor had I any inclination to change the course of history, stop wars, or cause all of the members of the Pussycat Dolls to fall in love with me. That would be far too dramatic. I wanted to find a meaningful purpose for the watch. So, I hoped to return first to last Christmas.

Why? Well that was the last time the whole family got together. My wife, her parents and our daughter had all gathered at her parent’s house bordering the Sussex downs, a place I’ll always associate with holidays. However, this was the first Christmas we’d spent together in two years. The divorce hadn’t been finalised yet, but we’d already been separated for some time. I blamed myself at first. However, there is only so long one can wallow in self-pity, and I needed an outlet for my grief. My ex-wife, Melissa, reassured me that it wasn’t my fault. She claimed she had changed.  And as a consequence, she’d become unhappy and could no longer stay with me. I looked deep into her brown eyes and could see she was on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry, Douglas,” she said, ‘it’s not you it’s me.” This seemed disingenuous. Despite my poor record of showing empathy towards her and my frequently inaccurate appraisals of her emotional state, this was the one time I sensed she was lying. The break up wasn’t her fault; notwithstanding her assertions to the contrary. No. And, it definitely wasn’t mine either.  Rather, I was certain her best friend bore responsibility for the rupture.  She was the one who drove the proverbial nail into the coffin our relationship. The Chang Shou watch provided me with the tool to prove that.

I opened the box and took out the brochure. The hotline number was written in bold letters on the front. Before my first use, I called customer service to have them talk me through the process. Initially, I had some trouble understanding the helpdesk woman. I had assumed that she worked in one of those call centres somewhere in India. The ones where women with names like Srividya are shortened to Susan for the British public. But it turns out that she was from Newcastle. And she was called Susan.

“Good morning. May I help you?”

“Hello, it’s Mr. Hauser here. I’ve bought your Chang Shou model and it’s the first time I’m using it so I was hoping you could walk me through the various steps.”

Susan took a few details from me and then registered me as the watch’s owner. For the sensor to work properly, she explained, it had to properly synchronise with my body’s DNA. In order to do so, I would need to engage in an activity that would cause me to sweat while wearing the watch.  That was easy. I would walk up and down my building’s four flights of steps. After all, it was too cold to go outside.

“Now, Mr. Hauser,” she said.”You must remember that you can only go as far back as the beginning of your life.”

“That’s fine.” I replied. “I have absolutely no inclination to go travelling around the medieval past.”

She giggled and then put on a maternal tone: “Just be careful when you set the watch’s travelling function back. You should probably practise; say with a little event in the not too distant past.”

Heeding her advice, my first journey was short: going back a month to watch Gravity in the cinema when I’d actually been giving a presentation in the office. No one I knew saw me and I came back immediately. Looking back, I’m still not sure if that meant I was skiving from work, or if it resulted in me simultaneously being in two places at once. For my next adventure, I set the watch back to last summer: to vacation in the south of France, instead of camping in north Devon. That was great, the food and weather were much better, and I got the opportunity to speak. I no longer cared if somehow I had extracted the Devon experience from my life.

I was starting to enjoy this. Of course, I honoured my two rules and one guideline. I wouldn’t do anything to harm anyone and could resist the desire to change the course of world history. Soon I was dropping back into parties in sixth form acting all knowing and confident to impress the girls who had thought me boring in school. I even transported myself back to my university days to challenge professors about my marks, ensuring I got a first. Gradually I became emboldened. The watch’s effect was like a drug. My shyness disappeared and I felt emancipated. In no time, I’d have mastered the watch enough to confront my ex-wife’s best friend.

Paula had known my wife since their days at university together and they’d been best friends ever since. I must confess I never really understood what drove the friendship nor why my ex-wife was so attached to her. Paula’s character was the polar opposite of Melissa’s. The Melissa I married was considerate, soft spoken and polite, whereas Paula was spontaneous, unreliable and crude: a wild child who had never grown up.  Melissa, on the other hand, matured and had moved beyond those crazy days of youth, if that period ever existed for her. I never knew. Melissa was not very forthcoming about her time at university. I didn’t meet her until long after she’d graduated. She’d already been working in publishing a few years by then. All the natural tensions existed for Melissa and Paula to drift apart: jobs, family, errands and domestic bliss. Melissa had them all and Paula had none. Instead, Melissa remained beholden to Paula. Why, I never learned. I had enough trouble figuring out why Melissa had become so stubborn and resistant to any of my suggestions. Most, if not all, were inherently practical – such as going on holiday to Butlins when we had our daughter Louise and separating the knives, forks and spoons into different sections of the cutlery tray in the dishwasher. However, she would jump at any proposal, no matter how harebrained, of Paula.

I recall the time Paula suggested that they both go to Ibiza. Paula had just broken up with her boyfriend, the latest in a semi-permanent rotation of three month liaisons, and wanted to get away. When Melissa sought my opinion, I admit I may have become a little animated. We were in the kitchen and I approached Melissa who was bent over the sink cleaning the pots. When she cooked, which was most of the time, she always managed to use the vast majority of the pots and knives in our kitchen so I usually made myself scarce after dinner.

“If it were me,” I stated, “I would have chosen a quiet contemplative place, like, say, the west coast of Ireland.”

“But it’s not you, darling.” She replied. “Paula said she wanted to go to a place where there was “fun and sun”. I don’t think rugged cliffs and a bitterly cold salty wind are what she had in mind.”

“But you’ve never shown any interest in the Balearics.”

She leaned her face towards mine and our noses were almost touching. Her long auburn hair was tied back in a ponytail and she still had the rubber dishwashing gloves on. I felt the pace of her breathing pick up. “You’ve never shown any interest in any place that doesn’t come in the form of some packaged pre-planned tour.”

This wasn’t going as I had anticipated. “That’s not true,” I said, pointing out the error of my wife’s reasoning in no uncertain terms. “I just want to spend more of my vacation relaxing and not planning for it.”

Not entirely true, either. On holidays, my ex-wife was a profligate spender and poor planner and I couldn’t be bothered to research hotels, check museum opening times or book excursions. I genuinely believed the all-in-one deals suited us all.

“But you’re never curious about anything or want to do anything spontaneously,” she countered. Thinking back on it, “but” cropped up frequently in discussions over the last years of our marriage.

“OK, ok. Go to Ibiza with your friend and live spontaneously. You’ll have lots of fun.” Naturally, I was sure the opposite would occur but had no desire to goad Melissa. Frankly, I predicted that the next day she might even turn Paula down or suggest another location more in keeping with their age.

The next evening I was surprised to hear an enthisiatic Melissa on the phone. There was a vigour in her voice when she was discussing the hotel and beaches. She was smiling and seemed very content. Then she became conscious of my spying on her and moved to the dining room. From that point on, I decided, against my intuition, that the best course of action was tacit encouragement. Let her go to Ibiza. She would return, hate it, realise the vacuity of it all and of Paula, and be grateful to be back with me in England. Of course, this was not the first time one of my thoughtfully conceived and well-intentioned schemes didn’t come to fruition. A month after she came back, she moved out of the house and filed for a divorce.

At this point, I should have been sad, but, strangely, I felt free. I thought of it as a pleasant coffee break during a busy working day. Obviously, there were more things do around the house. However, no one was there to pester me. Like all good things, this period was short-lived. Thereafter, I became aware of the void. Suddenly it felt as if someone had reached their hand into my stomach and pulled out my entrails. Cold air rushed in through my body and sucked all happiness out. I slept poorly and drifted through those days in a stupor. It became so bad that I avoided people and just stayed in the house. I even had to take sick leave and had the doctor prescribe sleeping pills. Through all this, I never blamed Melissa. She must have been confused and probably still is. But the watch offered me the potential to put that all that behind me and to return to how we were. I needed to get to Ibiza. I had to go back to when Paula convinced my wife to leave me.

The details of how I got there aren’t so interesting. I put our daughter, Louise, on the tube with instructions to go to Melissa’s parents, and soon after found myself in Ibiza Town, May 2012. From some notes my ex-wife had left by the phone at home, I found their hotel. The Eldorado sign ran down the side of the white building lit up like somewhere, I imagined, in Las Vegas. The room next to theirs was available so I took it. As much as I’d like to think so, this luck wasn’t attributable to the watch, rather more likely the fact that it was mid-week, off-season and few people were staying at the Eldorado. Whilst I pondered whether I should challenge Paula alone, or face them both when they were together, I heard them speaking outside on the balcony. I wasn’t listening all that attentively to their discussion until I heard mention of my name.

“You know I’ve been rethinking what you said yesterday about Douglas,” my ex-wife was saying. “I can’t stay with him.  I don’t see anything anymore in him and worst of all, I don’t feel anything towards him. Living there day by day is soul destroying.”

“But you loved him once. There must be something left. Give him a chance. Speak with him again.” Paula said.

“That was years ago. And maybe I was wrong then. I was probably too young, too naïve. He offered stability and I didn’t think about anything. I just wanted to settle down.”

“Listen, Melissa, you’ve got a wonderful daughter and a doting husband. OK, he may be forgetful at times and occasionally insensitive.” This is what I expected, Paula was starting to draw her dagger. “But all men are. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot worse.”

My hair started to rise from my head. I clenched my fist. I wanted to scream out at Paula. I put my knuckles in my mouth and sat still. I needed more evidence.

“I’m sorry for that. But I don’t want to settle for middling mediocrity. With Douglas, I can’t grow. I feel stifled. I’m just so bored, Paula.” Melissa started to sob. Paula seemed to move closer to her, because she was speaking softly now.

“Give it one more chance Melissa. It can’t be all that bad.”

This was the killer punch. I predicted that Paula would start using reverse psychology on Melissa and here was my proof. I regretted not having a tape recorder so I could play the conversation back to Melissa when I saw her next.

“I can’t stand living in that house with him.” Melissa raised her voice. “Douglas lacks curiosity, sympathy, empathy, even choreography! He couldn’t dance to save his life! I should have seen it years ago but I had the mind of a child when I married him. I’m not going to waste the rest of my life. I’ve considered and re-considered it for months and months now. I’ll make the preparations to move out when I get back. Let’s not talk about this anymore and enjoy our vacation together.” There was a pause.

“I remember when we were first here together twenty years ago.” Paula said. I tried to picture what Paula would have looked like then. Probably not very different. She still looked young for her 37 years.

“Yes, the hotel hasn’t changed at all. Still ugly and still cheap” Melissa replied.

“And us?”

“You mean still ugly and cheap?” They both laughed.

“Have we changed?” Paula asked.

“Not as much as you think.”

“Are we dull? Are we old?”

“No. But I think we know better what we want from life now.”

At that point, I stopped eavesdropping and closed the patio door softly, despite the temptation to slam it shut. I had already gathered all the information I needed about Paula’s sabotage. Tomorrow I would confront them both. This sense of purpose calmed me and I slept so deeply that I was only woken at noon by the chambermaid knocking at the door. Telling her to wait I showered and got dressed. She was still at the door when I left the room. In the bar beside the hotel, I ordered a café con leche and a small pastry. An hour later I returned to the room to wait for Melissa to come back. I waited all day and eventually fell asleep. When I woke it was 4am and a pink hue was penetrating the dark sky outside. I sat there watching, thinking my life was not all that bad. Everything would soon be back to normal.

When I didn’t see Melissa and Paula the next day I got nervous. I went to the front desk to ask after them. The receptionist said that they had checked out the day before. Racing back to my room, I packed my rucksack, checked out and left the hotel. Leaning against the wall of the hotel I reflected. Where could they have gone? And why did they leave so soon? I remembered that Melissa came back to the house in England exactly seven days after she left. So she must be somewhere on the island.

For three days I searched the beaches, restaurants and hotels of Ibiza. I kept ending up in towns named after saints – Sant Joan, Sant Mateu, Sant Antoni. But no epiphany arrived. Doubt crept over me. Was this a dream? Or was I physically present in Spain. Then I noticed the watch’s sensor flashing amber. Susan at the help desk had said that it was best used for short trips back to the past, to say attend a child’s nativity play that you missed, but not for long extended stays. Counting up my journeys, I had used two weeks in France, five days in Spain, and maybe a week or so reliving my sixth form and university days. This was significantly more than the odd conversation or social event. I resolved to spend two more days searching for them. If I still hadn’t found Melissa, I’d go home.

Around noon the next day, just as my lunch was being served, the sensor turned red. Suddenly I felt old, my veins bulged and brown spots appeared on the back of my hands. The watch was taking its payment for all the time travel I’d done. Pressing a few of the buttons to forestall it workings, I came across “life till empty”. It read nine years. At this rate, I wouldn’t live to see my fiftieth birthday. My fingers were shaking as I set the time back to the present. I left twenty euros on the table, went to toilet and pressed the “go” button. When I arrived back in the present I threw the watch away in the first bin I saw. There was no way I was going to let it shorten it my life. I’d achieved little in the first thirty nine years, there was still so much to do. This morning it pleased me when I looked in the mirror and saw how little had changed. Looking again, more closely this time, my hair has grayed and they are wrinkles around my temples. The brown spots are on my face as well as my hands. Making a fist I came close to smashing the mirror. I don’t. Maybe I can sleep it off.

The doorbell rings. It rings again.

“I know you’re there. It’s Mr. Samuel. I have your watch. You need to put it back on. There are still some years to repay.”

nerd glasses with tape

Scott Palmer

Scott lives and works in London. Since graduating with a degree in East Asian Studies, he has taught English, translated Chinese, toiled in a kosher peanut butter factory and now works in finance. An avid and curious traveller, he has lived in Canada, China, West Africa and the UK. Scott has been writing since childhood and attended courses at City University, Birkbeck College and Arvon. He is currently working on a crime novel.

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