“Do you have the time.”
This is barked at me across the aisle in the quiet carriage on a Thursday afternoon by a man who makes it very clear that this is not a question, this is an order. From the manner in which he has spoken and way that he is dressed I imagine he is someone who is used to demanding answers rather than asking questions.
I hesitate as I take in his words, for he was the first person to speak anything to me for some time other than “tickets please” but also because although I had just looked at my watch, he knows this hence his communication, I can’t for the life of me remember where the hands were pointing.
We lock eyes, and during this split-second showdown I have time to create a mental image of him stood at a desk, the city of London framed through a glass wall behind him, bellowing down a telephone at an unknown and unnamed personal assistant “Capital of Djibouti now “and then having that person fired for providing a smart-arsed answer.
In frustration at my delayed response he looks away and snaps his newspaper to attention (briefly revealing his hairy and watch-free wrists) in an intimidatory move that indicates that not only is he a busy man with papers to read but that he has had people forcibly removed from his premises for lesser acts of insubordination.
I’m guessing he’s having a bad day, not helped by the fact that he’s forgotten his self-winding Rolex. It’s probably sat on his dressing table on one of those devices that keeps it moving so that it doesn’t stop. His watch is probably rocking away like a rich man’s nodding dog at this very moment in time, later it will be dusted by a miserable maid.
Instead of taking the easy option and looking at my watch again, I rile him further (attempting to retain some dignity in this situation) by trying to remember what time it actually is, and pretending that my memory has a capacity for information greater than a gold fish, which clearly it hasn’t.
He moves his newspaper fractionally to give me that look that teachers do when you stall in answering the question “What did I just say?” he even does the little double nod that indicates that you were wasting the time of everyone in the class by pretending that you were listening, and if you could just say “I don’t know sir” then we could move on to the next stage of humiliation.
“I don’t know” I respond, just managing to grab the word sir before it leaves my lips.
As he rolls his eyes in a manner that says “you can’t get the staff anymore” I sneak a glance at my watch.
“It’s twenty-five past four” I tell him, I want to say mate at the end, not because it’s the kind of thing I would normally say, but because it is as far from the word sir as I can imagine, and I think he might explode at the mere thought of him and me being mates. I don’t, and he doesn’t explode, in fact he barely acknowledges my response, he just grunts and turns back to his paper.
I watch him for a few seconds to see if he has anything more to add to the conversation, he doesn’t and lifts his newspaper a little bit too high than is natural to demonstrate this. My services have been dispensed with.
I open my kindle, the time displayed at the top, 17:06.
Ha, fuck you!