It was nearly five o clock. Stan shivered in his worn grey overcoat and
pushed his hands deep into his thin pockets. A carrier bag swung from
his wrist and banged his leg as he walked. The sky was darkening and
the street lamps were flashing orange as they spluttered into life. He
moved slowly, in some pain from the war wound in his knee. He passed
the cinema and the supermarket which was bustling with customers. He
was almost knocked flying by a brash young man with a loaded trolley
who swore viciously at him when Stan didn't stop to let him pass.
Almost at the end of the street, just before the lights, was a junk
shop. It was between a newsagent and a gents' hairdressers. Stan
stopped outside the shop to catch his breath. He was tempted to sit
down on one of a set of dark wood dining chairs chained together under
the window, but thought better of it. His eye was drawn to a gold
watch, still in its presentation case, between a pair of binoculars and
a pale blue glass vase.
The watch was marked ?3.50. The price tag, a small self-adhesive label,
had slipped to the shelf and the blue ink had been bleached by the suns
of many summers. The watch was clearly worth more than ?3.50. It was
Russian and boasted an expanded metal strap, also in gold. It looked
brand new, even though the silk lining of the presentation case had
faded from old gold to soft silver.
Stan's fingers closed around the change in his pocket. He'd been to the
Co-op for some cheese, a small loaf and two cans of Bass and had what
was left from a ?10 note . Without thinking any more about it, he
pushed open the shop door. A bell tinkled as he stepped gingerly
between the precarious displays of china ornaments to the counter. The
shop was empty, and smelled of boiled fish. Stan shuffled his feet,
coughed and tapped on the counter.
A girl, in scruffy dungarees, appeared from behind a bead
"Yes?" she said quietly. " Can I help you ?"
"The watch. In the window. ?3.50."
"The watch ... oh , yes. I'll get my grandfather."
She disappeared for a few minutes and returned alone.
"Granddad says ... OK.," she said, a little evasively.
She moved to the narrow curtain which screened the window display from
the shop and took the watch and its case from the glass shelf. A clear
patch in the dust of years was left when it was removed. She passed it
to Stan. "There you go," she said.
Stan took the watch. It had stopped at 1.25. It looked in good
condition. There were no scratches on the glass and the mainspring
seemed healthy when Stan gave the winder an experimental couple of
turns. He gave it a few more turns , then held it to his ear. It ticked
like a heartbeat.
"Got the time? " he asked the girl.
She looked at a digital watch on her wrist.
"Five twenty. Exactly"
Stan moved the hands to the correct time. "Three pounds fifty? Seems a
bargain. I'll take it."
He passed her four pound coins in a neat stack and dropped them into
her open palm. She took a Tupperware box from under the counter and
scrabbled among the small coins it held. She passed him a fifty pence
piece and put the box back.
"Do you want it in a bag?
"No thanks," said Stan. "I'll wear it."
He slipped the bracelet onto his left wrist and offered the case to
the girl. " I won't be needing this," he said.
She took it, closed it and placed it on a shelf behind the
"Bye," said Stan, picking up his bulging carrier bag. He turned up his
collar and went out into the night.
The watch felt cold around his wrist, and the strap was a little tight.
He stopped and ran a finger under the bracelet. To his surprise there
was no give; it was as if the chain-links in the bracelet had somehow
fused together to become like the copper wristband his brother wore as
a talisman against rheumatism. He looked at the dial. It still said
5.20. He held it to his ear. It was ticking, more loudly than before
Stan thought, but more slowly.
Stan was hungry, but it would be some time before he reached the warmth
of the two rooms he called home. Since Marcy's death he had lived at
the top of the big terraced house, renting the ground floor and
basement to students for just enough rent to cover his bills. Mick and
Brian were good lads and, surprisingly, seemed to spend most of their
As he passed the clinic he was aware of a dull , pain in his left
hand. The strap was no tighter , but it was still cold. He stopped
again and examined the watch. Something glistened on the glass. It was
frost, thick as ice on a car windscreen, opaque and crystalline.
Mystified, Stan scraped the watch face with a shaking fingernail. It
took two or three passes to clear enough to see the face. The hands
stayed at 5.20. He held the watch to his ear. It boomed on.
Stan shivered. The pain in his left hand was getting worse. It was as
if the blood had stopped flowing. He peered at it in the gloom. It was
pale, almost white, the veins standing out like the lines in a Danish
cheese. He held it to his face. It was cold, clammy, like meat in a
chill cabinet, but there was no feeling in his fingers. He couldn't
feel the stubble on his unshaven cheeks. The frost had returned to the
watch-glass, obliterating the face. The pain had moved up Stan's arm
and was now a howling ache across his shoulders. He was shivering and
his teeth chattered. He turned back towards the lights, towards the
shops, desperate for warmth.
The shop was shut up for the night. The chairs had gone from under the
window, a wire grille crossed the door and a "Closed" sign confirmed
what Stan feared. He looked for signs of life but, apart from lights
reflected in mirrors and cheap brass ornaments, the shop was in
darkness. Stan was, by now, shivering uncontrollably and had lost all
feeling in his left arm. The fingers of his left hand were now rigid,
solid, useless. The watch steamed in the evening air.
Stan summoned all his will and began kicking the bottom of the door. He
banged on the grille with his good right hand.
A light appeared in the shop and heavy bolts were slid aside. The door
was opened by a man of roughly Stan's height. He was thin, gaunt,
aristocratic. He spoke softly, almost breathlessly, with a trace of
"You bought the watch then?"
"Help me, help me..."
Stan held out his left hand. It glistened like bloated glass,
"Get it off my wrist," he whispered. "I'm turning to ice."
The man reached for Stan's arm. He had beautiful fingers, with
exquisitely manicured nails. He touched the back of Stan's hand and a
sensation like birds fluttering passed along his arm and across his
numb shoulders. His nerves tingled and the warmth returned to his body.
He felt strangely rejuvenated. The pain in his knee disappeared and he
stood upright for the first time in years.
"Better ?" smiled the thin man. He took the watch gently from Stan's
wrist and returned it to the case.
"How ... "
"From the Russian Front, 1917. We were freezing to death in the
trenches. The bodies were solid. I traded a pint of vodka with a dying
man for the watch. I think 1 have his soul too. I sell it only to those
whom Anna thinks need help. She is his grand-daughter."