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Today's Story by Damian Small

No one goes to those places anymore. It will be fine for us.

The Old Watch Shop

Maria removes her watch from its cushioned bed in the hard black box. She handles it with the face of a child holding a new toy that needs batteries. With eagerness she tries it on. It hangs lose on her thin wrist.

“I need some links taken out. I want to wear it tonight.”  She puts the watch back in its square nest.

We are walking down Boulevard Carol. Maria knows a small shop that will be able to take the links out of her watch strap. I am familiar with the boulevard but not with the shop we are heading toward.

“It’s an old shop. No one goes to those places anymore. It will be fine for us.”

Our half of Boulevard Carol is shadowed from the sun behind dark solid blocks of stone rising from the ground in French Renaissance style. Opposite is a thin glass structure with grey tiled steps joining it to the pavement. A young woman listening to music on headphones is reflected in the glass facade as she walks past.

Maria and I cross an intersection with a quiet side street. It is cobbled and lined with grey apartments, tall trees and parked cars. I watch an elderly couple cross the cobbles. She walks slowly with frail steps and a slight limp in her left leg. The old man steadies her with his arm as they walk into the shade of the concrete bloc. They pass a red car with a sticker of the Rolling Stones tongue stuck to its body.

The street is filled with bright young people. A small group of students look hopeful as they hurry their words in enthusiastic tones, perhaps about the evening they are planning and its possibilities. Behind the excited gang walks two girls in garish clothes and large black sunglasses. They are tanned and I can see the  hip bones of one of the girls protruding with each step she takes. They look like incarnations of any contemporary pop singer that plays incessantly on music channels since the end of communism. Maria would call them cheap. Cheap looking, cheap clothes.

My head plays her voice saying this like a recording.  “They look shitty, come on, I hate these people. These kinds of people are not having their own tastes and determination and are not people I want to know. They look like fucking flies with their nasty fake sunglasses.”

Behind the two girls is a solitary young man. He is listening to music on large head phones. He walks at a slower pace. Maybe listening intently to the lyrics is the reason for his more measured walking, I’m not sure. He wears close-fitting jeans and scruffy trainers. They define him and tell me something about him. He looks edgy with the world and I imagine he asks many questions. Maria was like this. She is proud of her country and concerned for the direction those at the helm are taking. Young and passionate.

The watch shop is an old establishment. The concrete pavement’s momentum is broken by a smooth granite-like surface that climbs up to knee height where it turns into the glass facade of the shop front. I find these communist relics attractive. I know it is out of fashion with the majority of shiny new people. Nestled between the prevailing clean and colourful modern businesses it looks tired, endeavouring to maintain its right to be there.

Two wooden shelves offer an unemotional display of plastic bedside clocks. They are dusty and the plastic looks slightly yellow, licked by age. Rescued and repaired maybe. The shelves are bowed carrying the years from which the bedside clocks are from. The name of the shop is displayed in antiquated font that reads in an arc. The sign writing is a dim red. It looks faded, struggling to be seen.

Next door is a contemporary clothing store. As if agitated by its old neighbour it has opted for the brightest yellow when displaying its name. The modern font screams    ‘you don’t belong here anymore’ at the watch shop.

We walk inside. The floor is parquet and sinks in front of the small wooden counter worn from the years of familiar faces and strangers discussing non-functioning watches, clocks that don’t keep time, the weather and friendly banal conversation.

An old man is working at a desk. He is hunched over with his back to us but I can see what he is doing. He is quiet and is focused on the guts of a watch through his eye glass. His mouth is slightly turned up at each end and his lines of old age on his forehead are close together as he concentrates on some intricate metallic part. I watch him and wonder what the world of cogs and gears looks look magnified. He has brilliant grey hair that is pointed and sharp at the ends. It hangs like thousands  of plumb-lines diving down towards the pull of gravity, sweeping forward instead of over his ears. It looks like his hair has now settled at this angle after his years of looking behind watches at his desk, evolved into the most comfortable position to aid his tinkering.

The old man, already probably aware we are there, finishes what he is doing and turns towards us. His hair stays at the same angle. He smiles and greets us. Maria smiles back and says something in Romanian as she places the nest containing the shiny silver watch on the old man’s counter. I wonder what he thinks of the watch as he takes it out of the nest and lays it on the murky glass of his counter. It sits there in contrast to old pocket watches and cheap looking alarm clocks. What does he think of Maria. She is young but her tone is respectful when she talks to the old man.

It only takes a few sentences before his tools are at work on the links and his expertise is exact in knowing how many to remove so that it sits comfortably on Maria’s wrist. His work is done and suddenly I am needed when Maria asks if I have any money with which to pay the old man. Before I can ask how much she would like the old man is saying something to her. Maria takes 100 lei from me and gives it to the old man. He holds his hand out and thanks us a number of times, looking at each of us i turn while nodding his head slowly. He looks humble, almost apologetic. Maria is gracious and thanks him before we leave the shop and begin walking back down Boulevard Carol.

I ask Maria what the old man was saying.

“He didn’t want to take the money, he said it is nothing, a small job. But I wanted to give him something for his work.”

I agree with her that it was right to give him a small tip as a gesture of thanks. But the more I think about the old man the more I want to talk about him. I keep seeing in my mind him at his desk working with his pointed hair focussed as sharply on watch parts as his narrowed eye squinting through the eye glass.

“Does he earn enough money to live ok,” I ask Maria.

“Did you see his shop, it is old, no one goes to those places anymore.”

It only makes me ask more questions. I ask Maria how he can stay open for business if no one goes there, and the rent, he must have bills.

“It is probably a shop he has had for years, a family business. He will have a pension and he lives like this,” she says in a almost nonchalant manner.

“Is he married do you think.”

“I don’t know, I don’t think so. I think he is old and just works on small jobs for extra money. This is how people live sometimes.”

Maria is not feeling what I am for the old man. I feel a sadness in my stomach because I think he is lonely and is witnessing a changing world walk by his window every day as dust settles on his murky glass shelves. Perhaps she is more used to these sights and accepts that change does not stop, that it beats on ceaselessly.

My train of thought is interrupted as we stop at a junction and wait for the traffic to calm. Waiting on the other side of the road and behind us are young people. I feel caught in a sea of youth. Up ahead a surge of young people are exiting and entering a shuttle bus that has wheezed into Piata Rosetti. I think of the wooden smell that envelopes the old man as he sits at his desk in the shop. It will be quiet there now, cool and the only sound his breathing as he explores cogs and gears. He may look up and see young people walking past, interrupted by their excited talk.

Maria said he is probably alone with no wife. This is how people live sometimes, she said. This is how people live. I ask Maria if she thinks the old man is lonely. Her tone shifts. “Stop thinking the worst things about my country. Just because he is an old man you think that he is sad in his little shop. Shit man, come on.’”

We arrive at Calea Mosilor as a tram rumbles to a halt. Maria tells me to ‘come here’, quickly kisses me and pats my back as if I am a child in need of reassurance. “Stop worrying about old men in old communist shops.” She stands for a moment smiling and inviolate, entrenched within herself. Then she is gone, a passenger on the departing tram.  I walk towards my apartment. The sun sparkles through the sea of youth upon the pavement; their smiles, their beautiful faces glimmer. On the pulsating boulevards the sun wouldn’t be going down alone. The youth would be going down with the sun, not alone.

I try to retain Maria’s words and to shrug off the overwhelming pity I feel for the old man. My own image of him refuses to abate – to hear his voice is to smell the dulled oak scent of the worn shop floor.   I can see him, retired from his day’s labor  sat on a bed thinking about youthful times, different times, meaningful times. Perhaps he will think of a wife who once watched over his shoulder at the miniature workings of their watch shop. A touch to the shoulder a call to bed.

I arrive home and sit for a moment in silence. Nothing remains but pity and it comes howling into my room like a storm. I slam the door on it but it remains with me. I am not alone.


Damian Small lives in a quaint market town where he spend lots of time wandering and thinking about what would make a good short story.


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