It was nearing midday.
Alfred could tell this because shadow of the tip of the Pyramid pointed directly at the door of his shop. He looked up into the burning eye of the vast structure and shook his head. Like most of the locals, he found that the best way to deal with the Pyramid was to not think about it too hard.
From his doorway, Alfred looked around the South Hertling Super Centre. It had been weeks since the Battle of Wellington Road and the rise of the Great Pyramid. When the gigantic structure had arisen from the ruins of the Mega Centre it had initially been bad for business. But other people had joined Alfred in not thinking about it too hard, and gradually the customers had returned.
A clock rang – the only clock in Alfred’s shop that was set to the correct time and which had the ringer turned on. Twelve o’clock. Usually, Alfred hurried to the door by the third ring, but now he had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time to see Delia Crispin leave Storage World to go to Carol’s Café.
The same time ever day. Precisely.
“Morning, Alfred,” she said, her grey bun bobbing as she nodded at him.
“Afternoon, Delia,” he replied. It took everything he had to keep his knees from trembling as he said it. And she passed him without so much as a second glance, and he returned to his store and the ticking of the clocks.
“I’ve finished the repairs, Alfred,” said Alfred’s new employee.
“That was very fast, Fanaka,” Alfred said.
“Oh, did I do wrong?”
“Well, my previous repairman generally took eight hours a day to earn his eight hours pay.”
“Ah, I see,” Fanaka said, with a look that said that he did not. “I’ll try to dawdle over my work in future.”
“By which you mean, you’ll slow your pace and take more care,” Alfred said.
Alfred sighed deeply. He was a short, stout, pale man — sunken chested and balding. When he’d met Fanaka, he’d initially resented the tall, broad-shouldered and extraordinarily handsome black man. But it hadn’t taken Alfred long to realise that underneath it all, Fanaka was even more awkward than he was. He’d warmed to the fellow after that.
“Just try to make your work fill the time available, Fanaka,” Alfred said. “Isn’t that how they did things…”
Alfred realised, too late, that his words were leading to the phrase ‘back where you came from’. He had an intuition that words should not lead there if at all possible, though he was a little uncertain as to why.
Fanaka didn’t seem to notice. “We practiced a more cooperative form of economics back home,” he said.
But Alfred had already moved on. He went to the door, hoping to catch Delia on her way back from the café. But his way was blocked by the bane of his business life – a customer.
This customer was a tall woman with wild grey hair that poked out from under a crocheted Laplander hat. She wore an ankle-length patchwork coat over a baggy old tweed jacket and jeans and glared at Alfred through the most intense grey eyes that he’d ever seen. Unconsciously, Alfred took a step back.
“Clock?” she said.
Clocks and watches were Alfred’s business, so the mention of them shouldn’t have confused him as much as it did. He hesitated, and the strange woman’s eyes grew even more intense. He became aware of his hesitation, and this just increased his uncertainty. He swallowed, but his throat seemed very dry.
“Clock?” she said.
With enormous effort of will, he answered: “Clocks, watches, timepieces. What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for Mr Clock, the proprietor of this establishment.”
“Ah, I see,” Alfred said. “I am the proprietor of Arthur C. Clock’s Timepiece World but, alas, my name is not Clock. I am Alfred J. Pilbrook. The name of my shop is more whimsical than precise.”
“I see,” the woman said, with a look that said that really she didn’t care. “Well that is by the by. I have a watch in need of repair.”
“There I can help you. May I see it?”
Alfred had hoped to move the conversation from his threshold to the counter, but instead the woman reached into her pocket and withdrew an enormous silver hunter pocket watch.
“That’s an antique, madam,” Alfred gasped. “I’d recommend a specialist repair service.”
He regretted having to say so as he turned the device over in his hand. It was a thing of beauty. Real craftsmanship, not the usual Japanese tat that he sold and repaired. It almost took an effort of will to hand it back.
“No, no, that won’t do,” the woman said. “No, hm, won’t do. I need it fixed immediately.”
“I’m not doing anything now, Alfred,” Fanaka said.
“There, you see?” the woman said.
Alfred tried to argue. He had a million reasons to say no. Insurance issues alone meant that he shouldn’t handle a watch like that, to say nothing of the question of sourcing parts. But the woman’s insistence and Fanaka’s enthusiasm wore on his resolve.
“Oh, come on, man, take a chance,” the old woman said.
Behind her, Alfred saw Delia, her hair in a grey bun that seemed immune to the afternoon breeze.
Take a chance.
“Very well,” he said. “If you’d come over to my counter, I’ll get your details.”
“Excellent,” the woman said, turning to go. “I shall return yest… tomorrow. I shall return, yes, tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow I shall return.”
“Thursday would be better,” Fanaka said.
The woman left, the pompoms of her Laplander sweeping behind her.
“Strange person,” Alfred said, handing Fanaka the watch.
Fanaka whistled. “What a beauty! If I didn’t know better, I’d say finest Malawi craftspersonship. But given it’s from your timeline, I suspect it probably has a French mechanism.”
Alfred watched Fanaka as Fanaka watched a watch. The joy on the man’s face was a thing to behold. Alfred wished he were as fascinated by clocks and watches.
People always assumed that Alfred was a horology nut. They saw a fastidious little man who owned a watch shop and just assumed that he was the sort of person who valued mechanical precision above all things. In fact, he’d inherited some money in his early twenties and decided to buy a shop. A local watch repair shop came up for sale at just the right time, so he sort of lucked into the business. That had been two shops ago. Two shops, three daughters…
Alfred sighed as he looked out into the carpark again. It was filling up, Pyramid be damned. After all, it was lunchtime and that was a busy time for people dropping in for minor repairs. “Put that watch aside, Fanaka, I’m going to need both of us on battery changing duty.”
The big man put the watch away, with one last look glance — a glance so longing that it bordered on the adulterous.
“Are you married, Fanaka?” Alfred asked.
“I have a girlfriend,” Fanaka said with a shy grin. “Well, I say girlfriend. She’s about fifty percent machine, so…”
“That’s good,” Alfred said, hurriedly. He liked Fanaka, but sometimes he found it necessary to pointedly ignore his nonsense. “It’s good to have someone. You know. Someone in your life.”
Alfred half hoped Fanaka would ask him what he meant. Perhaps he would have, if the first customer had not chosen that moment to make an appearance.