The Watchmaker and the Soccer Player

by James Gould

Marin Vukovic left home early to walk to his shop before the cruise ships disgorged the tourists so he could pretend that things in Dubrovnik were as they used to be. He saw small trucks and pushcarts making deliveries, a couple of nuns and a few old-timers like him. He walked the stone streets between the stone buildings, looking up at the stone palaces and churches and the twenty foot stone walls. Aside from the red tile roofs, this was a city of stone which was good when the Serbs had fired their artillery.

His route looped by the fountain where a man in Renaissance Guard costume sat reading a newspaper and drinking coffee, his halberd spear at his feet. Soon enough he would be standing at attention for the tourist photos all day, with the only break the marching to the next gate every so often, passing the other guards. “Pretend soldiers who have no idea of war,” Marin thought. Not for the first time, he had the passing thought that the city of his birth, that had withstood centuries of would-be conquerors, was falling to the tourists, turning into a kind of movie location. But what saddened him the most was the declining number of children in the city, a result of foreigners buying apartments for vacation retreats, delayed marriage and young families’ preference for modern apartments. Even his son moved to a high rise.

Marin talked to himself, an indulgence of age. He pondered, “What is a city without children?” He answered, “A museum!” He especially missed the sounds of flocks of boys and girls running past his shop, their shoes slapping on the paving stones, their voices echoing off the stone walls. But it is not easy raising children in a movie set.

Marin shook his head. “Not my city any more. But why think of such bad things on this day? I have too few days remaining and should just enjoy them.” He continued his walk down the Stradun and looked up at the clock tower and its two statues with hammers that rang the bells to mark time. “Even they are not real, just fiberglass and epoxy,” he thought. But the originals were in the museum after years of restoration. “Maybe that’s what they should do with me; do a restoration and put me in a museum with a sign ‘One of the last two watchmakers in Dubrovnik.’”

The clock tower bells rang 7 A.M. as Marin turned back through the gate, past the palace and turned right before the cathedral into the open air market. At least this was real, with people bringing in honey and lavender from the Island of Hvar. When he heard the horn blow on the cruise ships in the harbor signaling the arrival of the shuttle boats, he knew it was time to retreat before the stampede. He bought a paper and walked down the street past the pizza place, the T-shirt shop, the wine tasting store and the souvenir store to his shop.

He looked up at his sign “Expert Watchmaker, All Makes Repaired.” “Some repairs nowadays,” he muttered to himself. With digital watches all he did was replace batteries and broken bands and crystals. And sometimes flush the saltwater out of supposedly waterproof watches tourists wore swimming. No wonder there were only two watchmakers left, the other one even older than Marin. They both would have retired by now had the city council not given them essentially free rent to keep at least some of the old crafts alive.

He unlocked the door and walked into his tiny shop. Three walls had floor to ceiling shelves with clocks and cabinets of drawers with parts and tools. The fourth had the door and his workbench in front of the window. Over the years, as he used his tools less and less, he had neglected to return things to their proper place, a cardinal sin for a watchmaker.

Marin sat at his bench, put on his glasses and started reading the paper. Hours later he was still there, dozing, no customers having disturbed him. He was reliving his student days when he was working on his final examination. To be certified a Master Watchmaker, it was necessary to make a watch from scratch. He remembered the happy hours making the gears and pivots and springs. He was up to the best part when his watch won the first place award when some loud tourists going by awakened him.

Marin stayed in half sleep for a while, holding onto the memory. Then he shook himself and said aloud, “Enough of this foolishness. No customers so no reason to delay lunch.” Lunch was Marin’s favorite meal of the day, the subject of much cogitation. As he was closing up with his mind full of mussels, a young boy of eight or nine came running up.

“Sir, do you fix watches?”

“Can’t you read the sign?” Marin said grumpily.

The boy studied the sign. “So you can fix mine, then.”

Marin thought of the mussels and started to tell the boy to come back after lunch. Then he stopped and looked closely. The boy was trying hard not to cry, knowing that Dubrovnian men were supposed to be strong. But the boy’s lip was quivering. Marin also saw the soccer shirt with the Croatian team colors and the skinned knee.

“What happened?”

“I was goalie in the soccer game and made a dive for a save. When I landed I heard a crunch and when I looked my watch had stopped. Please, can you fix it? My father is in the Merchant Marine and bought it for me when his ship stopped in America. It is my most special thing in the world and I wear it all the time, except for baths and swimming.” The boy said all this without pause on one breathless rush.

Marin smiled, remembering playing soccer himself as a boy.

“One question – did you make the save?”

“Yes. And we won the game.”

“For a gallant goalie, let’s see what we can do. Give me the watch.”

The boy took it off and handed it up. A Mickey Mouse watch.

“Great,” thought Marin. “Just the thing to remind me how far I have fallen.”

He was about to make a sarcastic remark, but was stopped by the boy’s face which was looking at him as a hero. For the first time in quite a while, Marin felt some professional pride. At least someone would appreciate his work.

“Come back after lunch,” Marin said.

“If it’s all right, I would like to stay and watch.” In truth the boy had no appetite with his watch broken.

“You can stay, but keep your hands off things.”

Marin cleared off a space on the cluttered workbench, laid down a piece of chamois, unscrewed the stem and then popped off the press fit back. He took out the broken crystal and replaced it, thinking that it should be called a plastic rather than a crystal. He tried a new battery. Nothing. He put on his magnifiers and looked closely at the electronic circuitry. The tiny printed circuit board had a crack. He could fix many things, but not that. It would have to be replaced.

“Now where did I put that Swatch I found in the street last month with a broken band?” He started opening drawers, then more drawers. With increasing frustration, he remembered the days when he knew the contents of every drawer. That knowledge was gone and the cryptic labels on the drawers did not help.

“My God! Is this what I’ve become? No self-respecting watchmaker would be this disorganized.”  The boy, unaware of this inner turmoil, just kept watching. Finally, Marin found the right drawer. He disassembled the Swatch and put the Swatch innards into the Mickey case. It fit, but loosely. “That will never do for a soccer player like you. You need it snug so it will not rattle around.”

Marin started opening more drawers, looking for the spacer rings that help the movements match the cases. He found the drawer and tried every one. One was close, but not perfect.

“Close is not good enough!” Marin said out loud. Lunch forgotten, he put the closest fitting ring in a tiny anvil and found his jeweler’s saw. He cut an opening in the too-small ring, cut a small section from another ring, and then clamped the cut ends together. Rummaging furiously in the clutter he found his jeweler’s torch and solder. Adjusting the flame to a fine point he soldered, filed and polished the ring. He put the movement in the ring, the ring in the case. Perfect. He fit in a new battery, attached that hands and Mickey face. He reattached the back, set the time and polished the assembled watch.

“Give me your hand.”

Marin fastened the watch on the small wrist as the boy saw the second hand moving. “You did it! You did it!”

Marin smiled, a real smile, the first real smile in a long time. He looked at the boy, then around at his shop and an idea came to him. “Yes, it’s fixed. Now about my payment.”

The boy was suddenly crestfallen. “I don’t have any money. Are you taking the watch back?”

“No. But I have a business proposition for you. You see my shop is a mess. I need someone’s help organizing it again. Someone with small hands. Someone like you. Help me do that and we’re even. Is it a deal?”

The boy’s face lit up. “Yes, it’s a deal. I’ll come by tomorrow after soccer.”

Marin and the boy solemnly shook hands, sealing the deal as men are supposed to do.

The boy went running down the street, as boys who play soccer never walk when they can run.

As Marin locked up he finally thought of his delayed lunch. But mainly he thought that for the first time in a long time he truly looked forward to tomorrow.

James Gould, since retiring after 34 years of patent litigation, has pursued non-legal writing in many genres, including travel, self help, short story and children’s stories. Present projects include a memoir and a screenplay. He also loves travel and City culture.