At about 9:14 AM, Albert Latham was standing about a quarter mile away, at the east edge of Westminster Bridge, just outside his family's watchmaking shop, looking across the river at Big Ben, and then down at his watch, and then at Big Ben, and then at his watch again. "Using Big Ben to check your watch, are you, Sir?" someone asked.
Without looking in the direction of the voice, Latham replied, "Other way around, my good man. Using my watch to check Big Ben. They're getting better. The thing really is extraordinarily accurate." Then he looked toward the voice, and saw a large grey-haired man with big moustaches smiling at him. Latham bowed his head in greeting and said, "Good morning, Sir."
"You don't remember me, do you?"
Latham frowned. "I'm terribly sorry, no."
"Oh, it's quite alright! I know you, and I knew you were checking to see how Big Ben was running, and not your watch. I imagine this might jog your memory," and he pulled a Latham watch from his waistcoat, gold, with a shimmering blue face, gold Arabic numerals and markings and hands.
"Mr White, of course! You purchased that from us in 1896. Started to plan the design of it with us in March, and we had it done for you in July. Our man Williams did most of the work on the movement, I made the face and the case and the hands. You brought it in last autumn for servicing, it seemed to be running alright at the time. I hope it still is?"
"More accurate than Big Ben, just like yours."
"We do try to make every watch we sell as solid and dependable as the ones we carry."
"And I daresay that's one of the reasons your firm is so highly admired."
Latham was about to comment more about the movement of White's watch, which was quite unique as far as he knew, and which in his opinion was particularly good in several different ways, when he recalled something his father had said to him the previous week: "Al, my own son and heir, very few people care a hundredth as much about watches as you do. Not even when they pay us thousands of pounds for one watch. They talk to you about watches coz they know you're daffy about watches. Sure, some other people are daffy about watches too, it's not just you and me and one of your brothers and the people who work for us. But chances are, they're just trying to be friendly and say hello to you. They don't really want to hear you go on about horology for the next half hour. Same way that when someone says, 'Looks like it'll rain,' they probably aren't looking for a half-hour lecture on some fascinating points of meteorology. It's just a way of saying 'Hello.' D'you understand, my dear?"
At this moment White seemed to Latham to be honestly fascinated by watches. It was so difficult for Latham to figure people out, most of them. But White, as far as he knew, only owned the one watch, was a lawyer whose career had nothing to do with watches and, indeed, had no call for precision timekeeping, and, to judge from what his father and some other helpful people had told Latham, White had probably spent so very much money on one watch for reasons having to do with fitting in in his social class. Latham found such things, purchases of expensive things the purchasers didn't particularly care about, and many other things people did all the time, to be perfectly bizarre, and it amazed him that almost no-one else found them to be bizarre, but at the same time he knew that he was not like most people, and that he needed to rely heavily on other people's advice and explanations of the ways people tended to be, in order to keep his life running smoothly, and in order not to disrupt other lives.
All of this flew through Latham's mind in about a half-second after White had finished saying, "And I daresay that's one of the reasons your firm is so highly admired." Raced through his mind and left him a bit exhausted. And so, although it seemed bizarre to him, he didn't talk any further about White's watch, but instead simply said, "It's very gratifying to hear such things from our customers. Thank you very much indeed, Sir."
Latham had thought that this would leave the door open for White to extend the discussion in the direction of horology, but instead White just said, "Oh, I'm very pleased with my watch. And I'll see you again this year for another servicing, or, hopefully, sooner. Good morning," and touched the brim of his hat and took his leave.
Like many social exchanges, this one had left Latham very tense, because of the unsuccessful effort to guess just what it was some other person wanted. So much effort, and so little success... He took his watch out of his waistcoat pocket again and held it to his ear, just to let the ticking sooth him. The chain was just long enough that he didn't have to undo it to hold his watch to his ear. He had no idea at all how much time passed before his brother William called to him from the back door of the shop. William, the one who didn't care at all about watches and would most likely go into some other line of work, if he didn't stay with the family business just to tend to the finances. How could anyone not be fascinated by watches, not love them, not count himself luckier than a prince to have been born into this family, which had been making some of the finest, most-desired watches in the world for four generations?
"Al!" William called. "Inspector Raymond would like you to meet him at Waterloo station, track 3, as soon as you're able to."
"He still on the telephone?"
"Yeah. How'd you know he telephoned?"
"Nevermind. Tell him I'm walking that way, see him in five or six minutes."