I just thought it was interesting: Jeremy coming up to us after classes to say something about our history teacher’s wrist-watch. So odd, so out of order.
- Honestly. I fucking checked it. I’ve been checking this whole fucking month now. – His swearing seemed exaggerated even for a place as formless and scrappy as a school playground. You could see right away how badly it bounced off his lips. Some people are just useless at it: I’ve seen many actors and rock stars betrayed by close-ups and intonations. This was no rock star, though: this was Jeremy. And in his case, it sounded like his swearing was the only thing that could make us believe him. Maybe he was right: as far as we were concerned, Jeremy was ruining the game.
The memory is distant, but it comes with props and embellishments: fags, lipstick, condoms. They might not seem like much of an embellishment, but they certainly help evoke the scene: four of us scruffy thirteen-year-olds smoking near the shrubs behind the playground. And playing that silly game of ours, like we so often did.
- I sometimes want to wear lipstick.
This was Peter. I think we all had a feeling Peter was lying about those things, but it’s not as if you could check. Our laughter was forced, as was our teasing. After all, saying you wanted to wear lipstick didn’t really amount to much. Did it? Who doesn’t have thoughts of that kind? Particularly sometimes? It’s not even like you steal lipstick from your mother or from your sister and wear it for real. You just want to wear lipstick, you just have these dreams. So what, we all have dreams. It was obvious that Peter was playing it safe, but neither me nor Owen had the presence of mind to expose him; not least because we were not too keen on facing his two elder brothers (both studied at our school and would have no doubt eagerly bullied the shit out of anyone who dared to offend their younger, somewhat frail-looking sibling). I guess we never particularly liked Peter, but it was handy to have him around. As your friend, that is.
- I’m not sure how to put a condom on.
This was hotter. This reeked of truth. Also, this was Johnny. The problem with Johnny was that he couldn’t lie without getting himself into trouble or at least some kind of minor embarrassment. And now that I think of it, it was Johnny who was responsible for the game’s preposterous longevity. Johnny and his painfully honest confessions. Some day he would tell us he kissed his mother before going to bed. Another day he would admit to experiencing an arousal when Julia was around. I bet you could say those things about most of us, but we were either too cowardly or full of shit to admit as much. Johnny, though, was taking it seriously – somebody had to. “I’m not sure how to put a condom on”. It was as if he feared that we would check it and then beat him up in case it wasn’t true. Still, this was interesting. After all, it was more than saying you were a virgin – this was saying you had never even tried. Surely we couldn’t let it lie and were bound to exploit his sorry fit of honesty for about a week or two. Still, we liked Johnny. Johnny was like an amusing pet you can kick and stroke – quite often at the very same time. Also, we felt some kind of fatherly responsibility for him: after all, it was the irresponsible us, Owen, Peter and I, who had turned him on to smoking.
The game? We thought it was our invention, we honestly believed we had the copyright. I’m not sure, though, that this was the case. Apparently many kids played it – or at least something similar. Maybe they still do. There was no rule book, but it was all fairly simple: every Tuesday (it didn't have to be Tuesday, of course, but it had to be something) after school our circle of four would gather at our spot near the honeysuckle shrubs, smoke together and utter the most painful confession you could think of. Humiliating habits, odd desires, things like that. All very silly. I’m afraid of cockroaches (pretty tame, now that I think of it). I take my pajamas off before getting into bed. I haven’t changed my socks for ten days (one of mine, I’m afraid). I’ve masturbated to a picture of Miss Swinton (our maths teacher). Things like that. Keep in mind that you couldn’t get away with something random: it had to be painful, preferably risqué. Something one could tease you about. The major flaw of the game, and perhaps the reason why we couldn’t stop playing it, was that there was no prize at the end. No special award, no jealous glance, not even a congratulatory slap on your shoulder. No, the only thing you were supposed to get at the end was all that ensuing humiliation.
We really did call it our circle (as opposed to ‘gang’), though it makes me wince now. We occasionally hung out together after school, camped once or twice in Peter’s backyard, smoked together and once a week played a silly game that didn’t even have its own name. And that was it. We never discussed the endless family run-ins we were all going through at that time. We never invited each other to our birthday parties. And during our Physical Training classes we didn’t play in the same volleyball team. So it was not the kind of unforgettable, fateful friendship you might find in a children’s adventure novel. But since the whole thing was limited to the four of us, we did indeed call it our circle. Between us, of course, when no one was listening. We tried to invite a few others – mostly our classmates. But they were either too confused or intimidated by the rules of the game to fit in. And there wasn’t supposed to be any initiation without at least a couple of rounds of dirty, honest confessions. I remember the day Owen brought Susie. (Physically, though only physically, Owen was probably the most impressive exponent of our age, and his easy success with girls testified to the fickle nature of the latter.) At first we were all very excited about the arrangement, because we were dying to hear what she had to confess. Also, her presence was electrifying – though that probably came down to her being a girl. But the moment she said yes, she agreed, we all suddenly realised that it was about us, too. That she would listen up when you would say something about your last wet dream or give the particulars of the pornographic pictures you had seen a day or two before. And then she would no doubt tell everyone about it, and in glorious detail, so you would be embarrassed for eternity (we made a good point of keeping all the confessions between us). So it was all very tense, and never really worked out.
One thing about the shrubs. The place was not chosen randomly. No, I guess we were making a point: you see, our spot could be easily seen from a number of school windows. And there we were, smoking. This gave it an edge.
None of us liked short and ginger Jeremy all that much, but we pricked our ears. Jeremy was one of those precociously smart boys you just don’t envy. His precociousness was like an odd and cruel joke on the part of nature: seemingly, his brightness owed it all to his excessive clumsiness. Still, I didn’t really mind seeing him that day. It was my turn to confess, and I couldn’t think of anything good (or bad) enough. And most probably neither could Owen – who I think was desperately running out of his unlikely sexual failures. Jeremy was standing there like a dog that’d done something wrong and came to make peace; slightly afar, slightly confused. He didn’t try to force himself upon us, but even if he did, well, we badly needed some new blood. However tenuous, however infected.
And in the meantime he was muttering some nonsense about Mr Stetson’s wrist-watch. It seemed interesting – but only vaguely.
- His watch never works. Never. Isn’t that odd?
We didn’t answer. We feigned apathy and indifference – like we were already fed up with that lie going around our class, our school, our town. Apathy and indifference – not something a teenager can’t do.
- Okay, we’ll check, – said Owen. – But it’d better be the way you are telling us…
- I promise, – said Jeremy, his mouth quivering doggedly. – I fucking promise.
- And hey, – I said, as he prepared to turn his tail, – stop saying ‘fuck’.
You know how sometimes you are in the middle of something, like reading a book or watching the latest news, and then something insignificant happens. It starts drizzling outside or your cat softly, silkily paws his way into your room. Suddenly you stop whatever it is that you’ve been doing: you put away your book or switch off TV. And go do something else, or maybe stay exactly where you are and do nothing. Jeremy made us stop playing the game that Tuesday, and leave the sickly paling of November shrubs. It wasn’t really his words that made us stop, for there was little to his words - it was just like that rain starting to tap outside, or your cat gently meowing under your sofa.
As we were walking home, Owen and I, we didn’t discuss the incident between us. It was not really much of an incident, and yet we didn’t share a word. I think we were more speechless than silent. It was as if Jeremy’s surprising appearance touched a nerve of some kind. I’m sure we were both thinking about Mr Stetson at that moment. Interestingly, while we had a strong and most likely unfavourable opinion about everyone we saw at school, we still had no idea what to think of our history teacher. He seemed all right; he was not too demanding and was able to tell a good story to keep our minds on the track of the subject. That was basically all I could think of – that and some vague impression of his pleasantly measured tone and his brown suit that was elegant yet dull and inconspicuous.
Funnily enough, the day he suddenly entered our classroom in the middle of October for the first time, we were all convinced he would be just like his predecessor, Mr Bailey. Mr Stetson was a huge man with a soft, sad, unmoving stare - it felt like you would never know what to expect. But after just two weeks we realised that nothing would come out of that stare. Nothing. No one would be told off, no one would be embarrassed, no one would be given extra homework. On the face of it, this might seem like a schoolboy’s ideal incentive to start making his teacher’s life hell: half-whispered obscenities, pins, blackboard inscriptions, blotches all over his desk papers… But perhaps Mr Stetson really was the first person in our lives (besides bullies and movie stars, of course) for whom we felt genuine respect. Which didn’t seem natural, considering what cruel and incorrigible cynics we all were. When we were told at the end of September that Mr Bailey had been taken to hospital after suffering a severe stroke, we didn’t even try to hide our vulgar, rapturous joy. And only hoped that our next history teacher would not humiliate us for not knowing the dates or the outcome of The French Revolution.
The next day was Wednesday, and on Wednesday we didn’t have a class with Mr Stetson. However, Mr Stetson was very much on my mind. But one interesting thing: while I could easily spend hours dreaming of Julia or Susie or basically any girl I fancied, thinking about Mr Stetson made me feel ashamed. I suddenly came to realise that there was something about that man, about his tone, about his ways and about his suits, that told you, in a most polite way possible, to stay away and mind your own business. So that I felt uneasy even while I was merely thinking about him. Still, even Miss Swinton’s latest dress swirling right through my wistful gaze kept returning me to our history teacher and his wrist-watch. Which, in the words of our new friend Jeremy, never worked. Hunched under nondescript figures and equations, I was wondering how long it had taken Jeremy to pluck up his courage and face us. Because it seemed like he dreaded the sight of everyone – and that included Johnny.
Still, the best I could do was wait a day longer and keep myself from wandering through our school looking for Mr Stetson and asking him what time it was. Another thing I could do (and this I did) was corner Jeremy in the corridor and tell him that if he decided to spill the whole thing out, Peter’s brothers would come and get him.
- Okay, okay, Vern, – I didn’t even have to finish my account of what might happen to him then. – Of course I won’t tell anyone. I told you guys…
Poor Jeremy probably prayed that night and asked God (or whoever he prayed to) for his words to be true. For Mr Stetson’s wrist-watch to be permanently stuck, non-working, dead.
And it was. At first it seemed slightly amusing and mildly intriguing, but minutes, hours and weeks made it confusing and even maddening. Yes, of course Jeremy was right: the watch didn’t work. The watch was dead. It showed the same time day in day out: sixteen or seventeen minutes to five. I remember a couple of fiery arguments we had about that; it somehow seemed a big deal, that one minute. Owen and Peter were convinced it was seventeen, while the rest of us insisted it was a minute less.
When you are thirteen, you don’t really need a lot to make your judgements. Everyone looks like a blurry non-entity with one ridiculously overblown feature sticking out. In Miss Swinton’s case, it was her young age and everything that went with it; in Mr Ashby’s case, it was his nose that never stopped running (which we so mercilessly abused with a dozen handkerchiefs going off simultaneously during his literature classes); etc. Thanks to Jeremy, we finally managed to find that one feature in Mr Stetson and were ready to exploit it. Seventeen minutes or sixteen minutes? (“Sixteen! Are you fucking blind?!”) Right hand or left hand? (Left hand.) Same wrist-watch or did he change it occasionally? (The same one – all the time.) There was one big difference though: this time we badly needed to go deeper than that one feature. Suddenly Mr Stetson’s wrist-watch was not enough. We needed more: for once, we needed the whole thing.
But what was there to it? A pleasantly average, nice looking man with his watch as the only thing that made him different from the rest. Clearly we weren’t getting anywhere. I wouldn’t say that I lost my sleep over it, but I did get carried away with the whole thing. But what could you do: following Mr Stetson home or spying on him was useless; questioning him during our school break or after classes was simply inconceivable. And as for things like anonymous notes and expressive synchronizing of watches during our history class, that was absolutely out of the question. It’s weird, but I think the knowledge made us feel protective of Mr Stetson. So much so that the only point that gave me some slight relief was that at least Mr Stetson would never look at his wrist-watch. If he did, it would have surely been too much. Instead, when he thought it was time to let us go, he would look at the huge boring clock hanging above the blackboard.
And by ‘we’ in that last paragraph I happen to mean the five us, for our circle now included Jeremy. Jeremy seemed more tolerable on closer look, and he brought a new dimension to our game. That first Tuesday behind the playground he told us that he probably was a gay. Needless to say, we were all duly stupefied. Jeremy and his fucking grades? Jeremy and his smelly home-made sandwiches? Jeremy and his cartoonish, multi-coloured rucksack? Jeremy and his baggy, ill-fitting clothes? Jeremy was a gay? None of us felt comfortable with that word, but, strangely enough, Jeremy’s confession didn’t make us kick him out of the circle. Also, he said ‘probably’, which of course might have seemed as superficial as Peter’s bullshit. One thing about Jeremy, though: Jeremy couldn’t lie; he sincerely believed that he probably was a gay. Johnny rebelled at first, but we quickly silenced him. The whole notion felt exotic and bizarre, and those were some of our favourite words. All of a sudden Jeremy got the edge he so badly needed. He could have said he was an alien or his father was Adolf Hitler, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have worked. What he said was that he was homosexual. The line we assumed went something like this: well, as long as he isn’t going to drag us into that shit…
But speaking of the game, it no longer interested us all that much. We got a new one, and this time it didn’t feel like a game at all. It was like suddenly witnessing the actual crime away from the safety of your TV screen. Now that I think of it, the game was soon abandoned. Kind of naturally; there were other things to discuss or keep silent about – after classes, at our spot behind the shrubs.
- You know, – Owen said once. – I read somewhere that it could be about blood. Apparently some people have it. It makes the watch stop. Or maybe it was about skin…
We all gave it a good, but disbelieving thought. Like it was too easy and needed to be shaken off immediately.
- Come on, – I said. – It still makes no sense. Why then would he keep it on his wrist all the time?
Everyone seemed to agree with my reasoning, but we were none the wiser.
Certainly there were lots of ideas about Mr Stetson's wrist-watch, and I remember that one of mine ran as follows: Mr Stetson was a sad and lonely man who had recently got dumped by his cheating wife. Suffering from depression, he cut his wrists and now had to wear a watch to cover the bruises.
In my eyes, the theory was extremely beautiful and uptight, but everyone else dismissed it.
- Weak argument, – said Jeremy, holding a cigarette (yes, we did that to him, too, though it must have taken us at least a month) so squeamishly as if it was not just a phallic symbol, but actually the real thing. – It doesn’t explain why the wrist-watch doesn’t go.
- Maybe he doesn’t need it.
- No, – said Peter, – it makes no sense.
- No sense?.. Ah fuck it, – I said. – Maybe he just forgets to wind it.
- Every day?
- Yes. Every day. Have a better idea?
Nobody had a better idea.
The popular opinion was that Mr Stetson lost his wife (alternatives: his daughter, his son) in some accident and the stopped watch indicated when exactly that happened. Minute for minute. Whatever the case, the general pattern was more or less clear: Mr Stetson surely had gone through a tragic past.
Imagine your alarm clock goes off in the morning, and you wake up. You then proceed to your bathroom to have a shower, shave and get dressed. Then it’s time for your breakfast, so you go to the kitchen to make your omelette and drink your coffee. This might be accompanied by the crusty leafing of a newspaper that you don’t so much read as gape at. Well, doesn’t matter. You put on your wrist-watch, take your briefcase and go out. Or something like that. In any case, it must sound pretty natural. Now how about this: doing all those things I’ve just listed, but the watch you put on doesn’t actually work. Never works. It’s stopped. Face it, it’s so preposterous that you can’t even put it down to routine or general carelessness (yes, at first Mr Stetson did have certain difficulties trying to remember our names, but that can hardly amount to much). This is simply bound to have some undertones. Some deeper meaning, if you want.
That there was a woman involved was something that we never doubted. Mr Stetson was certainly a man women could fancy (he had the looks and the sort of fading charisma middle aged men have to face) and yet there was no ring to be seen. It’s rather embarrassing to admit, but at that time I was convinced that this was the kind of contradiction nature could not allow.
And as far as our other classmates were concerned, they never noticed any of it, not to our knowledge. We didn't mind. Somehow – it made us special. Surely if a snotty idiot like Andy learnt about the watch, in an hour or so the whole school would be drowned in gluttonous fits of cruelty and cynicism. Like I said, we felt protective. We cared. Imagine a kid from your school gets beaten by a gang of older kids from another part of town. What would you do? Odds are, even the last coward wouldn't let it lie. I can swear that if Johnny learnt that Peter had let it all out, he would have emerged fists up. Never mind the two elder brothers.
It was not like we were amused on-lookers, though. We did try a thing or two. For instance, I remember one particular incident that involved Owen. It all came completely unexpected, I’m sure we hadn’t discussed it beforehand, though admittedly we barely even talked at that point (this was already after Christmas holidays, I think) – certainly not behind the shrubs and certainly not every Tuesday. Our circle remained, but more like an idea than the real thing.
It was a break before our history class, and Owen was standing with his face turned towards the blackboard. Mr Stetson was sitting at his desk reading something. I can’t remember now what that was, but I’m pretty sure it was non-fiction. Autobiographies, history books, those were his things.
Anyway, pretty soon Owen began nodding fervently, as if his head was the head of a china doll that had just been touched or, worse, shaken up. He was nodding so expressively that I quickly realised what he was up to: he was actually synchronizing his watch with the clock on the wall. And then he said, as loudly as to be heard by everyone who was in the classroom at that moment.
- I’m sure the clock is actually wrong. Look at my wrist-watch, it’s four minutes late.
- How do you know it’s not your watch that is wrong? – said someone.
- Well, mine is always right. I’m telling you.
Since by the point I knew exactly what Owen was getting at, I looked in the direction of Mr Stetson. Mr Stetson was looking at Owen. Or maybe not actually at Owen – but through him. That was the thing about Mr Stetson: his eyes were piercing through you, though never in a shrewd, fact-finding sort of way.
- Johnny, – said Owen. – Look at your watch, please, and tell me what you think.
The bastard! It was pathetic: he knew perfectly well that Johnny didn’t have a watch. And when Johnny, shaken and confused, told him exactly that, Owen (but of course) turned to Mr Stetson:
- Mr Stetson, what do you think?
Well, there was a pause. I was sure at that moment that the moment this would be over, I would have to beat Owen to death.
- Owen, I’m sure the clock is correct. I checked it yesterday.
- Yes, Mr Stetson, but what about today? What about your watch? You have one, right?
I swear that at that moment I was close to coming up to Owen and stabbing him with the nearest pen or pencil I could find. But I was in fact watching Mr Stetson – intently, almost carnivorously. Mr Stetson smiled vaguely, but seemingly didn’t even consider looking at his wrist-watch or shuffling it deeper into his sleeve.
- Yes, Owen, I have one.
Yeah, and the full stop. Just like that. It was pointless to push him any further, and I felt greatly relieved when the bell rang.
It might seem strange today, almost thirty seven years later, but I was actually terrified of the possibility of coming one day to Mr Stetson’s class and seeing that his watch indicated the right time. Or that the watch was not there at all. Somehow I just didn’t want that to happen. And this is why I was so furious at Owen and rang him that evening and told him to ‘shut the fuck up’ next time he felt he had anything to say.
But all the same: in May it was over. In a snap. I guess it is fitting that it was Jeremy who told us about that. That he had seen Mr Stetson in the corridor and caught a glimpse of Mr Stetson’s watch.
- It works! – Jeremy seemed exhilarated. – It actually works! Imagine that?..
- The same one? – I asked angrily.
I was angry and disappointed – not because I hadn’t seen it first, but because the whole thing was over. Just like that. And just to ease the tension a little, I promised Jeremy to beat him up in case it wasn’t true.
Jeremy nodded again. In fact, I wasn’t fair to him. I mean, there’s a great possibility that without Jeremy we wouldn’t have known about Mr Stetson’s watch in the first place. We would have been as blind as our classmates. Somehow there was a lot to thank Jeremy for.
I’ve no idea about the four others, but I approached the next class with Mr Stetson with a sense of muted, subdued inevitability. Interestingly, it felt natural. The watch worked, like it should have. Mr Stetson’s face was the same as ever, and the sound of his voice hadn’t changed either. Had I dreamt it perhaps?.. Had we all dreamt it?..
Jeremy looked as shattered as myself, and the stirring image of his long face is actually the only proof I now have that he didn’t delude us with all that wrist-watch stuff. As for Peter, Owen and Johnny, they weren’t at all disturbed about any of it. Miss Swinton hadn’t become a nun, Mr Ashby’s test was cancelled, and Mr Stetson wrist-watch was fine (so no more thinking about that). And me, I felt like a cellist left the band – and that cellist had been the only reason why I cared for the band in the first place.
Next Tuesday I summoned everyone at our spot that had already become cold and unfamiliar. The full-bloodied May shrubs looked nice, but it was also evident that they didn’t have anything to do with us.
We were silent for a while. Everyone was looking at me, their eyes asking: “What is this all about?” I proposed a round of the game. After a pause of genuine confusion I could sense a slow, forced flurry of recognition. Someone said it was a great idea, but I guess there was no enthusiasm.
Anyway, it didn’t work. Johnny muttered something silly about the group sex in his latest dream, and that was it. No one could be bothered, and minutes later the spot was abandoned for good.
- Jeremy, – I said. Jeremy was the last one to stay. – Tell me, you’ve been here with us many times. Have you ever felt anything strange?
- How do you mean?
- Well, like something is around. I’ve just realised that it’s always been here. Something…
- Something is around?
- Ah never mind.
- Vern, are you all right?
- Yeah yeah. Fuck off. See you tomorrow.
Jeremy left – slowly and for good, like everyone else. For the record, by the time we graduated from school, it had long become widely known that Jeremy was a gay.
But in the meantime, I was still standing near the shrubs, motionless. Something was around. I brusquely turned my head and faced the dull, identical rows of school windows. A tinge of odd, unsettling sensation ran through me like a shiver of nippy Northern wind. I could swear (though not anymore) that a face had just been withdrawn from the glass one of one of the windows. There was something chilling about it, an element of an old horror story. Oddly, I knew exactly which window that was, and was quick to place the classroom. That strange man? Looking through the window, watching us? Seemed too incredible, and I decided not to give this one too much thought. After all, how was I supposed to get to the bottom of it? I suddenly felt extremely tired, and kicked the shrubs with both of my feet. It felt pointless, like catching the air, and so I dropped that too and went home.
There’s very little left to write. My school hasn’t changed much, certainly not from the outside, though I doubt that I would recognize anyone there these days. I heard somewhere that Johnny taught biology there for some time, but I may have heard it wrong. The truth is, I’ve forgotten most of it. Actually, that one year with Mr Stetson (he only worked that long at our school) is the only thing that has more to offer than a disjointed array of small, unintelligible bits and pieces.
That wrist-watch. I actually do that sometimes. I’ve done it multiple times: stopped my watch, let it show the same time for a week or two. Just for the hell of it, I guess. But I must have gotten it all wrong – for nobody ever notices.