FICTION (July 2018)
by John Ord
Sir Ronnie Rice tapped at his watch. It was annoying. It just wasn’t right.
‘No, no, you carry on. I’m lissnin.’
But he wasn’t really listening. Earlier that morning he’d woken, eaten, and dressed for the working day much as he usually did. Then he’d chosen a watch. In his dressing room, he’d opened the door of his Barron and Zorn Classic Protect and reached, as he automatically would on a new product day, for his special 2004 Highroller Grand.
Something about the watch was wrong though, something about the customisation. He fastened it around his wrist, tapped at the sapphire fascia, then went down to the waiting car.
‘Something the matter, boss?’ asked Reg, his driver and first ever employee, as they headed to downtown Harlow.
‘Yeah,’ replied Sir Ronnie, tapping again at his watch, ‘somefin is the matter.’
It had bothered him all morning and continued to bother him in his meeting, as he failed properly to listen to someone trying to interest him in a musical iron.
‘Sorry, sorry, Mr er… What is this bladdy fing again?’
Just as effective at flattening clothes as any rival model, the guy was saying, but also from its two inch cone could blast really phat beats and…
‘Bollocks,’ said Sir Ronnie.
He dismissed his kitchen electricals team – ‘mappits’ – and was straight on the phone.
‘Clear my diary, Carol, and get the Rolls out front. I’ve got to get to Plimmuff, and pronto.’
Twenty years earlier, for some long-forgotten dopey deal or other, he’d gone to Plymouth. At a loose end, he’d happened upon the premises of Mr P. Rimrose, ‘Purveyor…’ a small black tile announced by the front door ‘…of fine timepieces’.
It was a tiny shop in a back street away from the waterfront and, apparently, closed. Ronnie, already something of a collector, was drawn to its little window and immediately taken by the unusual, but serious chronometers displayed. Not many pieces, for sure, but particularly beautiful and of ‘feature combinations’ he’d not seen before – in fact with features he couldn’t identify at all. He knocked at the door.
There was light and then movement; a dark shape beckoned Ronnie in (plain Mr Rice as he was back then). He could have sworn he’d already tried the handle with no success but now it turned in his hand and he stepped, almost tripped, into a space even smaller and gloomier than he’d expected. Under his feet were broad floorboards, black and worn, and the walls were panels of similarly dark wood. A couple of purple shaded lamps shone dully and, beneath them, two rectangular, gold framed display tables glowed with some odd, interior illumination.
In the corner opposite the door stood Mr Rimrose, tall and thin in a black suit and tie and white shirt. His head, pale, oval and hairless, was held back and to one side and a single eyebrow raised.
‘Hmm, I know you, don’t I now? Oh yes, Ronnie Rice,’ said Mr Rimrose, seeming to stifle a snigger as he added: ‘Businessman.’
Overall, it was a peculiar encounter but still, he’d left the shop wearing £7,000 of classy Dominator Max, and on the subject of fine wristwatches, Mr Rimrose soon became his most trusted counsellor: when it came to top quality chronographs, there was nothing the man didn’t know.
And as the years passed, Mr Rimrose procured for Ronnie many more unique pieces, for which he was generally very happy to hand over large amounts of cash. Then one day, he proposed a model with special customisation. It was all very mysterious, but Ronnie once again stood waiting in the tiny shop, unable to see much in the gloom. Rimrose placed in front of him a small casket and opened its lid to reveal, on a cream velvet cushion, a watch – a Virilia. Obviously, it was a Highroller Grand, but… different: platinum and 24 carat gold bracelet, champagne dial, chromalight display… but what was this?… the hour sub-dial had been replaced with something else, a circle one half ice blue, the other rose pink, and its hand wasn’t fixed but span woozily like the needle of a compass unsure of north.
‘Beautiful,’ said Ronnie, ‘but what’s that?’ he asked, pointing to the strange dial.
‘That,’ whispered Mr Rimrose, ‘is for deal assessment. Simply observe the movement of the hand during any decision-making process then, quite simply, choose.’
‘Eh? Deal assessment? But how?’
‘Ah, well, it’s quite simple: it works out whether a deal is a good one or a bad one and reveals the result through the oscillations of this indicator, here, between positive and negative areas.’
Ronnie still didn’t get it. ‘But, how?’ he asked.
‘Well, as the deal is in the balance, you observe the oscillations and then you choose.’
‘No, I mean, how does it, well, assess?’
It didn’t make any sense. Was this a joke?
‘Ah, how? Well the internal device weighs the outcomes, then causes the oscillation,’ Rimrose said.
‘No but,’ Ronnie wouldn’t let it go, ‘how does it weigh the outcomes?’
‘By assessing, of course, which outcomes are most likely and beneficial.’
‘But I mean…’
‘And then causing movement, or oscillation, in this dial here which you may then read…’
Ronnie gave up.
‘Oh, I see: so it’s a deal assessment dial…’
Mr Rimrose smiled: ‘Yes’.
‘How much?’ asked Sir Ronnie (as he was by then).
And now, all these years later, it was the deal dial that was broken. What had it contributed to his fortune? Well, he wouldn’t like to say. Before it he’d done well, very well, but with its guidance he’d really pushed on and made some serious cash. The whole ‘Sir’ thing, even was down, in some way or other, to its uncanny augury. Probably he could go back to just his instincts but, well, nah – he didn’t want to – bollocks to that.
In the back of the Rolls, somewhere on the M4, he held the watch up to his eyes, rotated it slowly, squinted sideways at it in the afternoon light, turned it upside down and frowned. No, it just wasn’t right. Broken.
Five thirty, shops were closing. Knocking but no answer. More knocking. Nothing. Then a sound and perhaps a shadow.
Mr Rimrose appeared in the gloom, smiled and the door became unlocked. Sir Ronnie stepped into the familiar hush and didn’t know what to say.
‘A bit late isn’t it?’ said Mr Rimrose.
‘Oh yeah, very sorry but it’s my well, this, here,’ he held out his watch, ‘I mean the deal dial, it’s broken.’
Mr Rimrose raised an eyebrow, stared seriously, or semi-seriously, at him and his watch, then took it and held it to his eye in the light of a small torch. Soon satisfied, he switched off the light.
‘Not broken,’ he said, cheerfully, ‘just maxed out.’
‘Eh? Maxed out? Sorry I don’t follow…’
‘I’m surprised it’s lasted this long but, yes, you’ve used it up. Here…’
He gave the watch back.
‘I’ve done what? No, I mean I’ve only used it, well, more recently I…’ Ronnie was very confused. ‘Used it up?’
‘It was in our agreement. You remember you signed an agreement?’
Ronnie didn’t remember signing an agreement.
‘I think the key passage reads ‘…for which sum the purchaser may receive significant advancement from the prognosticator on no more than six hundred and sixty-six separate occasions…’
Ronnie couldn’t think, his throat was dry.
‘You’ve used it up – six, six, six – and now you have to pay.’
Unsteady, confusion thick in his mind, he protested: ‘I’ve already paid.’
The smile on Mr Rimrose’s lips had gone. He seemed to have grown in the gathering darkness.
‘Oh no Ron, no – you really haven’t.’
It was then explained that when his life was used up, and before his soul was judged in the usual way, he must submit, in return for the advancements of the prognosticator, to a number of trials equal to the quantity of qualifying prognostications – in his case, the maximum six hundred and sixty-six. Of these ‘trials’, all Mr Rimrose would say was that they were often unexpected and unusual but generally violent and painful. Some ‘demons’, he added with a shake of the head, were just ‘nuts’.
Of course, Ronnie requested the paperwork, and a copy of the contract was put in his hands. There, at its bottom, was his signature and, glowing red in a box labelled ‘Trials Remaining’, the figure ‘666’.
‘Bladdy bollocks,’ Ronnie said.
But it was all true. Still, it turned out these trials didn’t have to be right now. Rimrose conceded that Ronnie could go back to his life and carry on, until, well his ‘natural end’, so to speak.
Was there anything he could do, Ronnie asked, to reverse it, to reduce the number of trials, even?
What if he were to undo the advantages he’d accrued? What if he were knowingly to take some terrible, stupid, barmy decisions? Rimrose frowned, disappointed with Ronnie’s ‘attitude’.
‘Attitude?’ Ronnie replied, suddenly defiant. ‘I’m a bladdy fighter I am and I’ll show you, you bleedin’ ponce. I’ll tell you this for nuffin,’ he said, now at the door and shaking his fist back at the gloom, ‘my lawyers will ave somefing to say about this flamin’ contract. You ‘aven’t heard the last of this you, you… bollocks.’
In the weeks following, the lawyers were fastidious in their advice, and their billing, but the matter was without precedent. Sir Ronnie listened, paid, and eventually determined that he would try to rewind the whole process by making some really crap decisions. And, over the next months, that’s what he did.
Firstly, he invested enthusiastically in an audible dog whistle. It wasn’t clear why a dog whistle needed to be audible to humans – indeed, wasn’t the point of a dog whistle its circumvention of human hearing? – but, mindful of his trials, he signed a deal.
Then there was ear cream. For the face, the neck, the eyes, there is a cream. Why no cream for the ears? he was asked. The modern world makes many demands on our ears – the arms of glasses, the proximity of mobile phones, muffs – so why do we neglect to care for them? Ronnie couldn’t think of a good reason, so coughed up a few grand.
Hats made of copper. Expensive, yes, but copper was an excellent conductor and malleable so why not shape from it a head covering that not only protected the brain, but also boosted its power and effectiveness? More cash ploughed in.
What about a supertoaster? Put in some bread and it’s toasted, receives optional coatings of spread and topping – jam, marmalade, or any other conserve – and may even be ‘decrusted’ all in the one ultra-modern machine. The thing was the size of a suitcase but, again, Ronnie jumped on board.
Then there was a no-skin gravy boat slash custard pail. Yes, undeniably, a skin very often forms on certain liquids while they cool on the dinner table, but surely that’s just physics, or chemistry, and can’t be helped? Wrong! A device now existed that, with its small motorised stirrers defied natural law, and kept food juices on the move and so skin free. Eager not to miss this action, Ronnie piled in.
Initially, it seemed that the contract with Rimrose responded to his poor choices. Though the correlation wasn’t exact or predictable the six six six did become a lower number. Ronnie persevered and managed to get down to the five twenties, but things were going badly – he was losing money and, worse, credibility. There are only so many goldfish monitors (it whistles if yours stops moving) and monkey finders (it finds monkeys) you can invest in before you become an object of ridicule. Trusted advise left, he was mocked on TV panel shows, fellow captains of industry became strangers. One by one the businesses were sold, and his empire crumbled.
But then the trials on the contract would also randomly increase, say from a five twenty-three to a thirty. It wouldn’t make sense. Had a terrible idea turned out to be not so terrible? Had he made some unexpected money? It was never clear; it was… maddening.
When things got really desperate, with most of his watches in hock, his fancy B&Z cabinet sold and creditors less accommodating, he agreed to take part in a reality show for celebrities. After signing up, another fifty trials disappeared from the contract but this barely lightened his mood – had it really come to this?
Yes, it had. He was picked up from his home in a minicab (even Reg had had to go) and, very many uncomfortable hours later, was deposited with his fellow inmates in an inhospitable camp miles from anywhere. Unhappily he starved, bickered, and failed to sleep. As he submitted himself to the show’s ‘ordeals’ he was filled with disgust.
Close to despair, but not yet voted out – and so nearer to another few hundred grand – he was forced to step into something called ‘the Dungeon of Dragons’, so as to secure for supper something other than a bag of beans. Not a dungeon but just a cave – probably filled with snakes or reptiles or, more likely, both. The presenters shoved him in.
At first, he could see nothing and felt his way gingerly along a rocky wall. Perhaps there was movement, hissing… Maybe he should have been fearful, or excited. No, he realised he was bored – bored, tired, and angry. He sat down. There were no snakes, no reptiles, just silence. Well, maybe he would stay just where he was. At least there was some solitude and peace. Yes, maybe he would just sit here…
A low, familiar voice in the darkness. He very nearly expired with fright.
‘Bladdy hell! Rimrose?’
‘The very same.’
Unmistakably it was him.
‘What are you doing here? I mean…’
‘How’s it going, the trial?’
Ronnie began to explain just what he thought of the show and ‘the Dungeon of Dragons,’ but the voice interrupted him.
‘No, you misunderstand. I mean The Trial.’
Ronnie did misunderstand. Mr Rimrose explained.
This was all a trial – everything since, well the beginning – was one of his trials, his six hundred and sixty-six trials, and it was now time to bring it to an end and move onto the next. Probably trial number two would be more of a physical challenge, but it was just a guess, Rimrose wasn’t in charge, after all.
‘You’re ‘avin a bleedin’ larf.’
In the darkness, Mr Rimrose smiled.
‘Bollocks,’ said Sir Ronnie, ‘bladdy bollocks.’