John Watson owns two watches. One is analogue, the band leather. The other is digital, a circle of metal around his wrist. Except to shower, he never removes them. There is a system to his watches, to the tan lines at the ends of his sleeves, but a careful observer would say he only wears the one.
A careful observer would be wrong.
The early days are hard. He has but one watch then and uses it only to tell the time. When it begins, it begins like this:
First, he is shot in Afghanistan.
Second, he wakes to a phone call in Chelmsford, Essex.
The call is urgent, a summons to Broomfield Hospital. Car accident on the motorway, massive. He responds in the affirmative, rising out of habit, dressing automatically. He knows the hospital, can’t place this house, and accepts it as a dream. He has yet to realize he will never dream again.
Twenty hours later, focused past any danger of confusion, he settles down. Limbs were lost, lives were saved. Most lives. He drinks his coffee and opts for a nap before he drives home.
Third, he wakes to Bill’s voice and face and more pain than he has ever known. He passes out.
Fourth, a new day begins. There was a firefight the day before, but he’s unharmed. He has the wounded to check on and chalks up his nightmares to the PSTD he’s already sure he has. Everyone who was alive that morning falls asleep peacefully that night and that makes it a good day.
Fifth, there’s a knife in his shoulder, going after the bullet. He screams, Bill holds him down and
Sixth, it’s time to drive home from Broomfield. Exhausted but frantic, he rushes to the toilet. Pulls off his scrubs and stares in the mirror at an untanned man with a perfectly good shoulder. His hair is too long, his muscles too small. He stares until he sighs, thinking dream, thinking nightmare, knowing he left Chelmsford and Broomfield Hospital for the army years ago. He’s still in Afghanistan, has to be. He returns to the house he has the keys to and searches through his CV and old appointment books. Finally, after hours of searching, he nods off while scouring the internet.
Seventh, he’s screaming.
Eighth, he’s still screaming, so it’s around that point where he loses track.
Surgery and rehab are the worst parts, worse than even the confusion. The confusion is consistent, constant. His situation may vary but his thoughts keep themselves stable. As stable as they can be for any man so mad as to live like this. He keeps track of it as best he can, writing down every detail in his Chelmsford residence. With his unit in Afghanistan, he has other concerns, other people to fix and mend. Even crazy, he’s still a good doctor, very good.
In hospital, he lives up to the cliché and is the worst patient known to creation. It’s because of the escape, the possibility of it. He can fall asleep in pain and wake in health. Whenever he likes, he can have Essex clouds or Afghan sun. The painkillers help him along, keep him down and groggy, and it’s ages before he realizes there’s a reason why these bedridden days are endless.
“Could I have a book, please?” he asks. “Anything, I don’t care what.”
He gets his book, nods off with it, but when he cycles back through Afghanistan and Chelmsford, the book is gone.
“Did someone take my book?” he asks the nurse.
“What book?” the nurse replies.
John tells him the title. “I asked for it yesterday,” he says.
“Pretty sure you didn’t,” the nurse tells him. “As chance has it, though, I just finished reading a copy of that.”
The nurse furnishes him with a paperback with a crease down the cover, the pages curled and crinkled at the top by spilt water. It’s unmistakably the same one he was reading.
“Thank you,” he says weakly.
When he’d asked God to let him live, this isn’t what he’d meant.
Rehab is always more draining the second time. Every painful step, every exercise inflicted upon his arm, every single motion must be repeated. He feels himself sliding back, and sliding back, and sliding back. The only changes between his days in hospital are the ones he creates himself. If he didn’t have his other two lives to balance these out, he doesn’t know what he’d do.
In Chelmsford, he relearns friendships, discovers an ex-girlfriend he’d known nothing about, and eats Thai food at every opportunity. He remembers finding Chelmsford immensely dull, remembers craving London with such an ache, but now he couldn’t say why for the life of him. He takes up jogging and does press-ups until he shakes, weaker than he should be. He gets a haircut when he finally can’t stand being confused by his own reflection.
Bill tells him he’s getting jumpy. In Afghanistan, that is. Maybe he is, particularly as he doesn’t want to be shot again, couldn’t handle a third round of rehab on top of his double load. He doesn’t think he is, though. He’s just so much more alive here. The world is sand and camaraderie, anticipation and boredom, and it is the best damn thing he has ever had. He never realized that, before. In one day out of four, he still has his life, his real one. Here, he sleeps only when it is absolutely time to, when exhaustion pulls him down.
In that hospital bed, in that Chelmsford flat, he forces himself away from napping. Using up his good days only puts his boring ones on hold. He could delay them indefinitely, more or less, but what will he do when his tour is up? What when all of him is back in England and slowly going out of his skull?
He wonders, vaguely, in a way he would never think of mentioning to his therapist, what would happen if he were to commit suicide. He’s going to find out, someday, what will happen when one of him dies, and it’s that certainty that lets him put down the idea, tucking it away for later. He’s a doctor with a gun: when he changes his mind, it won’t be difficult.
In a very abstract sense, he thinks about getting married someday. Meeting a nice woman, determining the rules for cheating if life is split in four directions. Probably the same rules as normal life. Maybe he’ll find a woman and pursue her in multiple lives, try not to be creepy about it. But then he’d muck up fatherhood so terribly if they had a child in one life and a different one in another. Or worse: the same child twice. No, if he ever has a family, it should only be in one reality. And what if this is contagious? What if it’s genetic, simply unlocked by the trauma of a bullet wound? His mother died years ago and he won’t ask his father. Should he warn Harry about this? What if he’s shot again, or hit by a car?
Is he going to be like this for the rest of his life – lives – life?
It’s really no wonder he can’t speak with his therapist.
In Afghanistan, he wears his watch as he always has, the leather strap around his right wrist.
In London, his first days limping about, he switches the watch to his other wrist. Feels odd, left-handed man that he is, but that’s hardly the oddest piece of his day.
In London, he wakes up with his watch back on the right. He takes it off.
In Chelmsford, he scribbles down details, assigns nicknames to events, tries to find patterns that aren’t there. He looks through his home and finds items he can only assume are his. This watch is digital without being plastic, metal without being clunky, sleek without being showy. Wishing he knew where it came from, he fastens it on his right, metal covering faint tan lines left by leather.
Days later in London, and searching online, he finds that same watch. He means to get a different one, a distinct one, but it’s surprisingly cheap and he’s tired of checking the time on his mobile. He receives it in the post five days (three weeks) later. He puts it on and it feels right, even around his left wrist. Left is for London.
John Watson owns two watches. One is analogue, the band leather. The other is digital, a circle of metal around his wrist. He looks so impatient, remarkably bored and harried at once. A careful observer would say he’s always checking the time.
A careful observer would be wrong.