If I’d done Benson’s once, I must have done it twenty times. I’d been in and out of that shop so often, I almost felt as though I owned part of it. Well, perhaps in a way I did, though I don’t know if hanging onto stuff you’ve nicked means that you come to actually own it! I’d seen all the new ideas come and go: different counters, new tills, snazzy wallpaper and, of course, all the latest in clocks and watches.
That’s where they’d always been at a disadvantage, you see: me going through the place so often meant I could spot even the slightest change in their alarm system. I knew the wiring of that shop like I know the lines on my own face.
Not that I didn’t enjoy doing Benson’s. They always had some new gadget to try out on me. But, just as you might go on a pub crawl, and make your own local the last place you call into, knowing that you’ll feel more at home there, so, when I was on one of my “nights out” I liked to leave Benson’s till the end.
This particular night, having already taken a load of dodgy shirts back in the van and put them in my shed along with the TVs and the perfume, I took a stroll around the corner to where the big sign was flashing, “TIME TO WATCH BENSON’S”. Three of the words had gone dead. The sign was supposed to tell you that it was time to buy a watch at Benson’s; but I’d been following the advice which the sign actually gave, and I knew that they’d recently taken delivery of some fine examples of the latest in solid gold, electronic, waterproof, dust-proof, anything, that is, but Reggie Piggott-proof, Swiss time-pieces.
It was just beginning to drizzle as I reached the back door. I noticed that they still hadn’t painted out the scuff marks that I’d made on my last visit. But I was quite impressed by the new lock they’d had fitted – Japanese job it was, all black and silver. The paint came off fairly easily, mind you, which was a real blessing. I gave it a good old scratching, with my jemmy, and used my wrench to bend the handle back half an inch or so. Then, when I was satisfied that it looked as though I’d got in and out through the door, I walked around to the lane at the back, to the bottom of the fire escape, and climbed a couple of flights of stairs.
With a name like Piggott, and standing 5′ 3″, people often used to tell me that I’d have made a good jockey. Being small has got its advantages in the trade I’m in, I used to reply, though I never used to tell them what trade, of course. You’ve got to learn to keep your own secrets when you run a one-man business like mine.
I pulled myself across the ledge, and prised open the window, which wasn’t shut quite as tight as it might have been. It came open alright, but just as I was squirming inside, a spanner slipped out of my hand and hit the edge of the fire escape, clattering against the metalwork all the way down to the ground. The whole staircase shuddered, clanging out like Bow Bells. Just for a second I thought the game might have been up. In fact, when I got inside, I hung about for five or six minutes, waiting to see if the lads in blue would show.
But then, when I’d given them enough time to make their minds up, I wandered down into the shop. I’d made my entry through the toilet window, by far the most ‘convenient’ way in. There was a small kitchen on the landing, with tea-bags and an electric kettle, milk and sugar. I saw that there’d been a change of staff since the last time I’d called: they put their names on the cups, you see. “David” was still here. I guessed he was the manager, his name inscribed on the big pint pot; but “Anna”, and “Graham” – it was the first time I’d seen their names. “Tom” had been working in the place since before I’d done my first job. He’d been using the same old cup for the past twenty years – a coronation mug, with a picture of the Queen and Prince Philip on one side and the owner’s name on the other.
I put the kettle down and, while I was waiting for it to boil, I went down to the ground floor, using devious means to avoid the various movement sensors and stepping over or under the criss-cross of light beams. I recalled that they’d installed a new type of photo-electric alarm across the passage-way leading from the back door. I was small enough to crawl underneath that particular beam, of course, but I remembered how, some years back, it had taken me by surprise and I’d had to leave almost empty-handed. As it turned out, the bobbies had stopped me on the street the next morning, but they couldn’t touch me for anything. I told them that my new watch was a present from my dear old Auntie Doris. She lived on a farm in Somerset. Even gave them her address. Auntie Doris was quite used to visits from the local constabulary. In her cottage she had the finest collection of bent gear I’ve ever seen, other than my own, of course. I kept sending her little odds and ends that I couldn’t get rid of, and she’d always back up my alibis, God rest her soul. I used to take my holidays down on her farm. It was a marvellous place to be, even though I knew that the hens were knocked off.
I could hear the familiar drumming of the clocks now, as I strolled into the room known as the “Main Display Area”. They’d put up a little sign over the door, just to let me know exactly where I was. The luminous alarm clocks were on show across the shelves to the right; some with big faces, some small, others ornate and traditional, and still more, digital timepieces, looking as though they’d been designed to the latest space-age standards; but most of them throwing out an eerie, green glow; and each with a different version of the time! The one clock that I knew was right was the solid old grandfather clock which sat in the corner, its pendulum swinging to and fro before the others, like the baton of a maestro, an old-timer, conducting an orchestra of young and eager novices.
I looked to the left. There were the wrist watches, with choice enough to satisfy both dustman and duke, pauper and prince. I had already decided, though, that tonight my tastes were expensive.
I brought the tea down to the display room, dodging the light-trap at the foot of the stairs. It had been a long night’s work so far, and my being a fairly senior citizen had made carrying TVs from the warehouse to the van pretty heavy going. I always had a cuppa at Benson’s. I usually left the cup on the counter, with a few small coins underneath it, so that they’d know that they hadn’t had strangers wandering about the shop at night. I enjoyed their hospitality, and felt obliged to pay for it. Feeling so at home in the place, I never took more than six or seven pieces – wouldn’t have been right to take any more. I’d have been the last person wanting to see them go broke …
I took a seat behind the watch display counter and put my feet up. All around me was the rhythm of precision workmanship. At times, three or four of the larger clocks would begin ticking together, just for half a minute or so. I’d find myself listening to them, their tempo erasing the sound of all the others, till a cuckoo would fly out from the shadows, and break the monotony with the dubious announcement that it was a quarter to one. But the old grandfather clock reassured me. I knew that there’d be no-one around until well past eight. I still had more than enough time to finish my night’s work and “clock out”.
While my tea was cooling, I pulled out, one by one, the shelves of watches beneath the counter, and shone my torch over the black velvet. I picked the best of the bunch. There was no doubt in my mind that they were the finest watches I’d ever pinched, and I took my jacket off and strapped them around my left arm. I’ve always thought that having a good watch on one’s wrist does wonders for a man’s confidence; so I felt particularly cheery now, buckling the seventh one onto my arm.
I pushed the drawers closed again. The rain was pouring down outside, and I could hear the sound of the neon sign, struggling to replace the lost words. But I felt more cosy with my hands on the hot tea cup – I always used old Tom’s – and I sat watching the pendulum of the grandfather clock swinging to and fro, to and fro. What a friend it had been to me, that old clock, over all these years! Clip, clop, clip, clop. I felt a funny feeling of somehow belonging to that old clock, as though it was a real grandfather to me, and was pointing out some new way, advising me of some new direction that I might take. Its face could have been the face of a wise old man, with a great silver beard. And the green glow all around it, that might have been a field of unripened corn, shimmering in the sunshine of a glorious afternoon, the slow thud of horses’ hooves taking me nearer, and nearer to those hills in the distance.
The old man’s eyes were kind, and he took my hand in his as we walked towards the green haze of corn, which waved before us in the light breeze. The wind seemed to be whispering, though I couldn’t quite make out the words it was trying to say. He led me by the hand, following the slow, clip, clop, clip, clop, of the young stallion nearer and nearer to the hills. There were wonderful birds in the air now, swooping down towards the corn, stealing the seed which our steed disturbed. In the distance I could hear the faint call of a cuckoo. Now the bird-songs faded, mingling into the sound of the rustling wind. We reached the edge of the corn, and followed the young horse through the waving blades. Suddenly, with a tremendous pounding of hooves, the animal reared up, and galloped off into the distance.
Now the old man stopped, and turned towards me. The wind became a little stronger now, pushing back the silver locks around his head, showing the wrinkles of Time itself, etched into his face. It had seemed a friendly face until this moment. I hadn’t noticed that the old man was carrying a great sickle in his hand. He looked at me, and then turned back, towards the hills. The wind began to rush, whirling and curling the blades of corn, whispering something which was still not quite distinct.
He called out to the hills.
“For whom does the wind blow now?”, he shouted, and a great howl of wind brought a quick, monstrous, whispering reply:
“Reggie Piggott, Reggie Piggott, Reggie Piggott”, it cried.
“So be it!” called back the old man, as his eyes met mine once more. He bent low, and began to scythe down the stalks all around me. I tried to turn and run, but I could not move. I seemed to be rooted to the spot, like a blade of corn.
“No, not yet!”, I shouted. “I’m not ready yet!”
The old man swung the scythe towards my head.
* * * * *
I was quite right in imagining that “David” was the manager. He was the one who woke me next morning, after finding me on the floor, propped up in front of the display counter. He warned me about the nasty lump on my head, and suggested that I might have fallen and banged against the counter. He made me a cup of tea, whilst we waited for the police to arrive.
I also met “Anna”, a sweet girl of about nineteen, who seemed quite frightened of me, and “Graham”, who was an older gentleman, a new assistant, who informed me that “crime just doesn’t pay”. And, as I was being led out of the shop, I noticed an old, flea-bitten cat in the corner, lapping milk from a coronation mug. So that was “Tom”!
But I’d seen another thing as I was sitting by the counter. In the shadows, the pendulum of the old grandfather clock was no longer swinging to and fro. There was a crack across its face. I could have sworn that, just for a second or two, I saw the face of the old man again, the hands of the clock momentarily becoming his lips. The clock had stopped at 8.20.
* * * * *
In entering this plea of Guilty, I should like the Court to take 479 similar offences into consideration. Written statement signed by me, this 1st day of March.
Copyright: Richard Fox 1976 (revised 2015)
All rights reserved
Image credit: chickens – Martin Addison CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons; others public domain.