IN LESS THAN A MINUTE, he sets the time two hours early in all his watches and clocks. He knows that if it takes him more than a full minute, the pieces would not tell the same time. He likes the idea that even cheating needs skill, that it is not easy to trick anyone.
When he is done with the last piece, an old grandfather that has been with him for years, he sits on a stool in a corner of the room, silent as a drum. Outside, above the shadow of dark houses, the ribbon of night sky is stained with clouds, studded with stars.
He could already close if he wants to, but he lights a cigarette instead and studies his own face in the glass windows. His eyeglasses reflect the yellow light from the lamp posts outside, making him look sad and surreal: an android from the past.
The clink of the door chimes at last, a familiar perfume in the new air, and a woman greets him. He crushes his cigarette on an ashtray, stands up, and smiles. I was beginning to think you wouldn’t come.
The woman laughs to keep herself from looking at his eyes. You know I’m always late because I always manage to get myself lost anywhere. She gently tugs at a loose strand of beads about her throat.
No, you’re actually early. I was surprised. He feels her eyes moving towards the clocks on the walls. Their faces tell the same time: eight o’clock in the evening.
He was someone who had been obsessed with the study of geography only because he liked maps. When he was younger, before he became a watchmaker, he would often draw labyrinths of entire cities—Paris, Madrid, Manila, Middle Earth, Babel, Atlantis the Lost.
He would always show them to her, and she would trace routes on the map for hours. She found it a marvel that it is easy to get lost and find the right way again using the same paths, streets, rivers, bridges.
Once, she stumbled into one of the halls in his map of Minas Tirith, the last city of the Kings of Men in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The room was where the Lord Denethor hid the palantir, one of the ancient elven spheres that allowed the keeper to gather news from places far from the city.
She had asked him why she was able to find it. She wanted to know why there were no doors, no mazelike entrances and exits to keep it secret.
It never occurred to her that the hall was indeed in the middle of an intricate maze. She did not realise that she had come to know his maps so well that she could already anticipate the right turns and detours, the dead-ends and missing stairwells of his mind.
Nor did it occur to her that he had wanted, secretly, for her to find it.
She holds the watch in her open palm, admiring the thin strap of silver, the onyx-and-pearl dial. She sighs as she strokes it with a finger. But this is too expensive really for something I might lose out of carelessness. You know how forgetful I am with things.
Then let me give it to you as a gift, so you would have to take care of it. He carries the watch from her hand into a waiting box and closes it. It is a trick he always used on shoppers. And it always works: people desire beautiful things that they only see for a moment.
I feel like I should give you something in return. It’s unfair because I haven’t even visited you for years and now you’re giving me this. You’re always nice to me. She opens her bag to get her purse, but he drops the box inside her bag.
Just remember to come back and then we’ll settle your bill. There’s a deal.
She hesitates then finally offers a smile of friendly defeat. Her cup of coffee rattles against its saucer as she brings it to her lips. What about you? You have plans?
He thinks about the vague question and how he could answer it in two ways. You mean for tomorrow? Nothing really. You’d catch that plane and I’d stay here in my shop, just in case you left something. What time again did you say your flight is?
Nine o’clock. I guess we still have some few minutes to kill. It’s eight thirty.
He was not in his shop the day she had called him on the phone out of the blue, after years of only letters and postcards. He had been working on the large clock of the church a few streets away. It was old and nobody else wanted to fix it because it was too heavy to be unhinged from the wall. It had to be fixed where it was.
He missed her call and he finally knew she was leaving only when she decided to visit him instead. She had said she would like to properly say good bye. And that she needed a new watch. There was no need for her tell him that she left her watch (again) at a public restroom when she washed her hands.
What she did tell him was that she had quit her old job at the radio station and landed a job in an ink factory in Korea. She said she does not have someone to make her think twice.
But there should be a reason why you’re leaving, he had told her then. They were in the steps of his closed shop, sharing a cigarette because she claimed she was trying to quit.
There isn’t a reason why I should stay either, she had answered, and in that moment between her words and the cigarette smoke from her mouth, when her breath was held for an exquisite second, he wanted to hold her and draw a map of his answer on her lips.
She lights a cigarette while they walk towards the bus stop. She is smoking again and she offers him a puff every now and then. For the first time, he notices she is wearing a dainty blouse and a long skirt. He likes a long skirt in a girl, the swish of it when it moves, the silhouette of the hips, the glimpse of only an ankle.
Then caught in her beauty, in the wildness of his heart, he arrives at a decision. Years later, he would look back to this moment and admire the wedded bliss and grief of his brave choice.
He turns now to her and tells her of a different route to the bus stop. In a few minutes, they would pass by the church with the same clock he had fixed the day she tried to call him up. “Hope is the boy, a blind, headlong, pleasant fellow, good to chase swallows with the salt. Faith is the grave yet smiling man.”
He would see her split her glances between her new wristwatch and the open face of the big church clock. “Stevenson,” she would murmur, as if the name was a dream from another time, another place.
the persistence of being earnest - Sometimes I swear it is easy to just give up whenever the universe is sending me signals that it doesn’t care about what I’m trying my best to accomplish—m...