It all started with a watch.
Just a regular ordinary diver’s watch that had stopped working a long time ago, the little cogs and gears all frozen in time with the small hand poised at the edge of midnight.
‘What’s the story with the watch?’ my co-workers would ask with a hint of playful humour in their eyes. There must be a story; they’d think to themselves, there must be some reason why I’d choose to wear a broken watch, hidden under my neat white shirt. The curiosity would be almost palpable, as one by one they’d all come over to have a look at the diver’s watch on my left wrist and see the tiny arms unmoving.
‘It’s just something my dad gave me’ I’d tell them neutrally and the playful humour would switch immediately to confusion or bewilderment. Some small part of them would whisper gently that this was a topic not to be discussed and best left for the gossipers and rumour mills.
I didn’t mind all too much, after all I’d probably do the same in their shoes. When you spend eight hours a day pouring through papers and turning in forms stories become a gateway into a more glamorous world.
The cubicle to my right breaks out into laughter again, probably James telling his story about the time he ran half naked out of a house to his mate’s car being pursued by an overeager girl. Good story, definitely one to stash away for a rainy day like this. You would hardly think that it’d rain as much as it did over in Sydney but the last few weeks had brought nothing but rain. At first, I would have thought it to be an omen, but as the weeks ground on it just became another thing to tune out when I’d forget to bring my umbrella. Just another reminder of how each day seemed to blend into another until they all looked the same.
The door creaks open and the laughter evaporates instantly. A few scuffled footsteps mark the tell-tale signs of the boss approaching and everyone immediately pretends to work. You can hear the sound of his polished Italian shoes hitting the floor and the little squeaks of complaint from the carpet as it accommodates his weight. A large hand taps gently on my shoulder, tearing me away from filling out another tax form.
‘Matt I’d like to see you in my office.’
I turn to face him but he’s already gone with an uneasy murmur of gossip starting up again in his absence. There are a few stolen glances over toward me all wondering the same thing. I disappoint them with a half shrug and ensure that my tie is on properly before I step into his office.
He’s lounging behind his chair, already impatient, the striped blue in his tie matching his eyes.
‘Come have a seat’ he says regally.
I try to ignore the managerial posters plastered on the walls, or the picture frame of his family resting on the mahogany desk and sit down opposite him. He keeps me waiting for several uneasy seconds and steeples his fingers before speaking.
‘I’ve been reviewing your work these past few weeks and I’ve noticed a distinct trend.’
I stare back at him impassively, willing him to get this over with.
‘Your work ethic is consistent and your results are good but I get the impression that your heart is not in this.’ There is a touch of sincerity peering through his cornflower blue eyes.
‘I would like to promote you, but before I do I’m interested to know where you see yourself in five years time, or rather’ he stops to wipe his sweaty forehead, ‘what your plans for the future are.’
Plans, now isn’t that a funny word.
When I graduated I already had plans all set and lined up for what I was going to do. I’d set my aim high and shot far up into the clouds but it seemed that my shot had missed and torn off into the empty space between stars. Gravity didn’t seem to like me and so all the plans and preparations I’d made slowly floated away, leaving me with bills that needed to be paid anchoring me to a life I hadn’t quite imagined. I guess if I went back in time and talked to my younger self he’d do the right thing and stab me in the neck. I don’t suppose homicide would count if you killed your future self so it’d be classed as suicide.
That’s a calming thought.
The boss notices my lack of attention.
‘Matt are you listening to me? I was asking you what your plans for the future are.’
I could tell him the truth, but the truth doesn’t come with a 401K and a dental plan.
‘I want to be where you are sir’ I say stiffly, ‘I want to sit behind a desk all day and drive a nice car to my high rise property where I can neglect my family and wonder why my son hates me.’
His mouth falls open in disbelief.
‘I want to stare at the numbers on my bank account and tell myself that those numbers make up for all the years I wasted and take pills to go to sleep so I can do it all over again in the morning.’
A vein in his temple throbs as he struggles to process this level of insolence.
‘I want to use those numbers to buy things I don’t need to show off to people I don’t care about so that one day I can compare myself to someone and feel better than them.’ The words keep pouring out in a measured monotone with no inflection and with no real meaning.
‘Finally I want to use all that money I worked so hard to earn to slowly go to pieces in a retirement home where I complain that my children never call until I finally die after never having lived to begin with.’
His stunned silence is so perfect that the only sound I can hear is the ticking of the ostentatious Rolex on his wrist.
But of course, all good things must come to an end.
‘Matt’ he says, his tone trying to convey the seriousness of the situation. ‘Effective immediately you are on suspension pending a review from HR.’ He gives a gruff grunt, his chest swelling with pride at the imaginary power he wields. ‘I would like to add that the only reason why I am not firing you is because I think you have a lot of potential and your track record so far has been impressive.’ He sinks back into his plush chair and waves his hands magnanimously, ‘Go get yourself sorted and don’t come back until you do.’
I walk out of his office and go collect the few personal things I have scattered throughout my cubicle into a brown cardboard box. The picture of my friends on our graduation day saying goodbye for the last time, a letter from a teacher wishing me luck and of course an instruction manual for my still, silent watch.
James peeks his head out and asks what happened but I ignore him like so much white noise. He’s a friendly guy always eager to grab a round of drinks, or to liven up the mood with a joke, but right now he’s too loud for my world to fit him in.
‘Mate if you want I’ll put in a good word for you.’ He offers but I just nod and walk away.
The rain still hasn’t stopped and it turns the familiar streets into something unrecognizable. You’d think I’d have remembered to bring an umbrella after weeks of rain but somehow it always slips my mind. I don’t mind the rain much, it’s more of a cool drizzle than a relentless battery beating down on you but from the people running between cover to cover you’d think it was acid. Walking down George Street I notice a girl around the same age as me sitting at a table waving at the people passing by. She’s smartly dressed in business attire with her dirty blonde hair neatly groomed. She waves to me as I draw closer and when our eyes meet I notice a tired, defeated expression hiding under her bright upbeat manner.
‘Hi there,’ she chirps, ‘just a one off charity for disabled kids.’
I walk past her, ignoring her completely like the dozens of others she’d greeted, and a small part of me wonders what she’s doing sitting out there while it rains. Maybe her plans have blurred too in the rain into something she can’t see anymore.
It’s a half an hour commute between where I work and where I live. I guess I’m lucky in that sense; most of my co workers spend an hour travelling to and fro. The rain and traffic add on another ten minutes as my bus chugs into the congestion and patiently waits until it’s spit out into the highways that lead out of the city and to the suburbia where I live.
The house is empty when I step inside. My flatmates are probably in a lecture hall on their laptops checking facebook, or playing games, while the professor ploughs on with his notes. It would be nice if I had a pet to greet me when I got back home but my room mates are allergic to cats and I’ve never been too fond of dogs. The phone blinks red to indicate a voice message but it’s most likely for somebody else. I put my stuff down in my room and lie on the bed. There isn’t much in here and since most of my time is spent working or sleeping the room constantly has the air of a place that is never lived in. My eyes scan the room but the few possessions I did bring with me are all neatly stacked in the corner and the books I did bring I’ve already read half a dozen times.
The watch still hangs on my wrist, silent. I remember when I was younger I’d always enjoy hearing the gentle tick tick tick the watch would make as the cogs and gears spun to rotate the hands. It was comforting listening to the watch constantly moving in the dead of night when the rest of the world had gone to sleep and it was just me listening to the quiet working of the watch. I don’t really know when it stopped working or why but after a while you get used to the silence with the hands still frozen in place. Day after day I’d keep reminding myself to go get it fixed but somehow I’d just never found the time. Eventually, I’d start to wonder if the watch ever worked to begin with, or if it was just my imagination colouring old memories with nostalgia. Then again, now that I had time off I could go and get it fixed. There had got to be an old watch shop in the city somewhere that could help me. I didn’t exactly have much else to do now with the suspension hanging over my neck. Maybe this was what I needed to ‘get myself sorted’.
I don’t remember falling asleep.
I woke with the sun’s rays peering down at me unexpectedly. Rolling over I noticed that my alarm hadn’t been set and that I’d slept in past my morning routine. There’s a sense of relief when I remember that I no longer had a job to wake up early for. It was nice lying there without a care in the world. I could feel the cold metal of the watch on my wrist and felt glad for the first time in a very long time that my watch could not tell me the time. Yesterday’s idea blossomed again in my mind and so begrudgingly I left the comfort of my bed and went to face the day.
It was unusual being able to go at my own pace. My flatmates had already left, off to go to their classes, so the house was once again quiet. Stepping into the bathroom I was greeted by my reflection with the faint signs of stubble showing on his chin and darkened shadows hanging under his eyes. He didn’t really look like me, and I suppose to his defense, I didn’t really look like him. The only thing that seemed the same was the broken watch hanging uselessly from my wrist.
After going through my morning ritual I caught the 9:30 bus heading into the city feeling odd that there was no one else on the bus beside me. I still hadn’t any idea of where I might find a watch shop in the city but that thought didn’t bother me in the slightest. I had all the hours of today and perhaps even all the hours of tomorrow until I’d have to put on my suit and tie and ask politely for my job back.
For once the rain had temporarily stopped besieging the city and glimpses of blue sky shone through the clouds. It was oddly serene having the sun shining in, through broken patches of cloud, and the light sparkled in the rich blue waters. Pretty red houses near the waterfront cautiously peered out from the trees around them and a startlingly clear silhouette of the city stood out in the horizon. The city that I thought I had moved to was slowly coming back to life as I started to recognize the sights that had been lost to the rain.
The bus driver smiled when I thanked him and wished me a good day as I stepped out once again into George Street and felt the city stir beneath me. Sydney was different in the sunlight with the panicked rush of yesterday fading into a more leisurely stroll. I started to look around for a nearby map when I spotted her again in the exact same spot she was yesterday.
Not much had changed from what I could see, her blouse was different to the one she was wearing yesterday but other than that everything was the same. The same table, the same cheery wave, the same defeated expression hiding underneath. I don’t know why I felt myself walking toward her with a sense of curiosity building inside me but I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to know about her, who she was, what she was doing here, why she tried so hard to look happy when she looked beat down and weary. She noticed me and raised her hand in a wave before a flash of recognition shot through her eyes. Before she could say anything I sat down at the chair next to her.
‘Hi’ I said half an octave higher than I usually would. ‘I’m sorry I ignored you yesterday - that was rude of me.’
She gave me a look of incredulous amazement.
‘That’s okay,’ she stammered, ‘why are you sitting here?’
The shock was slowly turning into a look of hostility.
A grin started to creep across my face, ‘Actually I was going to ask you the same thing.’
Dozens of people continued to walk past, resolutely ignoring the conversation unfolding before them.
‘This is my job,’ she said a tad icily, ‘so could you leave me alone and let me get back to it?’
This wasn’t going the way I had planned it. Then again I hadn’t planned it to begin with, it had just sort of happened.
‘But what exactly are you doing?’ I asked, ‘I mean people don’t seem to be stopping and listening to you.’ To demonstrate my point she waved cheerily at a group of uni students walking by. They stared back at her with a mixture of annoyance and pity.
She turned back to me with a hostile glare, ‘Look I don’t exactly have many options and…’ she gave a long sigh, ‘oh forget it, you wouldn’t understand.’
The light reflected off my watch as if to remind me of what I was here to do but I brushed it aside. ‘Try me,’ I pushed.
She stopped glaring at me and her shoulders drooped. The happy upbeat face quickly became replaced by the defeated expression it was hiding. ‘I thought it’d be so glamorous to move out to the city and leave my small town behind’ she said softly, ‘but it seems like all I’m doing is keeping my head above the water.’ Suddenly she looked very small and very vulnerable, like a stray curled up at your doorstep in the hopes that you’ll let her in. All of a sudden I felt very young and then very old again.
I grabbed her hand without meaning to and her eyes met mine again. ‘I’m sorry’ she gushed, ‘I don’t even know you and here I am telling you about my problems.’ Her hand was warm in mine.
‘I’m Matt’ I said to her, ‘I don’t know you, but I think I’d like to.’
Her name was Abbey and she hated her job.
‘Every day, I go out there and the same people walk by in their suits and briefcases and they don’t even notice me.’ We were sitting in a small café across the road. ‘I’m sick and tired of being invisible all the time.’
‘Why don’t you do something else?’ I asked her while we waited on our coffee.
She looked down at the table, ‘I can’t’ she said very quietly, ‘I don’t have any experience to get another job and I need to pay the bills somehow.’ My mind flashed back to the days and weeks and months I’d spent working at my old job and how little I could remember of what I actually did outside of it.
‘Story of my life’ I echoed and she smiled briefly.
‘So what are you doing out here today then?’ she looked up at me and I noticed for the first time the warm hazel in her eyes. The waitress interrupted us with coffee and we both took a break to stir in sugar.
‘It’s a bit of a weird story.’
‘Try me.’ She pushed and broke out into a hesitant smile.
I showed her the broken watch on my wrist. ‘I’m trying to find a watch shop so I can get this fixed.’
Her eyes brightened with curiosity, ‘Cool watch, bet it means a lot to you.’
I took a sip of my coffee and noticed that her comment had struck home, ‘What makes you think that?’
She pointed at the tan outline the watch made against my skin, ‘Because it doesn’t look like you’ve ever taken it off’ she said, grinning.
The conversation flowed smoothly after that in a mish mash of questions.
‘So what are you doing here? You don’t sound like a native.’ She overemphasized her slight accent to punctuate her point.
I went over the little fact book I had compiled on my life.
‘I wanted to start over somewhere new’ I told her, ‘I didn’t want to grow old with the people I’d known all my life in my tiny little corner of the world.’ I thought back to all my friends back home, all safe and secure in their cozy lives with the same old dramas and the same old stories. There were too many memories back home for me to shake.
Abbey nodded in agreement, ‘Back home everyone already knew what they were going to do, and who they were going to marry, and it just seemed so… so boring.’ She gave a frustrated sigh, ‘I wanted adventure, I wanted something different but I guess different isn’t always good.’
There was a slight pause as we both mulled over our words and found ourselves in the presence of a kindred spirit.
‘So’ Abbey started up again, ‘tell me about the watch.’
‘It belonged to my dad.’ I deflected the same way I had deflected hundreds of other inquiries.
‘Oh come on, there’s got to be a story.’ It was hard not to admire her enthusiasm or at least her lack of tact. I wasn’t really sure I was ready to talk to anyone about the watch but there was something about her that was curiously disarming.
‘My dad gave it to me when I was young as something to remember him by.’ I combed through my head for memories of when I’d first received the watch but my mind drew a blank. ‘I guess that didn’t work out too well, I can’t remember when he actually gave it to me.’
Abbey had let her hair down so it fell casually on both sides of her face. She tilted her head as if considering whether or not I was telling the truth. ‘Alright fine, bit too personal for a first date’ she joked, ‘when did it stop working?’
Again no memories surfaced to tell me just when exactly the watch had stopped working or even why. It was as if the filing cabinet upstairs had been knocked down a flight of stairs and some of the papers had gotten lost in the tumble.
‘I honestly don’t know.’ I admitted, ‘Maybe it never worked to begin with and I just didn’t know about it or maybe it broke one day and I just didn’t realize until later.’ Abbey looked slightly sad at hearing this and it puzzled me because I couldn’t think of a reason why.
‘So now you’re off to go fix it?’
An errant thought crossed my mind.
‘Well now we’re off to go fix it’ I corrected her, grinning ‘after all now that you know the story you have to help me reach the thrilling conclusion.’ I said jokingly but a part of me didn’t want to say goodbye just yet.
Her face lit up, ‘Sure!’ she agreed but then her gaze turned to the table at the other side of the street. Her expression fell and she looked off to the side, thinking intently.
‘Screw it’ she muttered offhandedly, ‘this is way more important.’
There was something different in the air at George Street when we left the café. Something electric that clung to me like static and lingered at my fingertips, waiting to be named. I wasn’t quite too sure what it was or what to call it but for the moment I was content with the pleasant tingling sensation creeping along my spine.
It was nice to be out into the city now that the sun was shining and Abbey’s presence made it take a special new quality.
‘So do you know any watch shops in the city that might be able to help?’
‘Actually I haven’t the faintest clue’ I admitted cavalierly, ‘but we have all day and a good portion of the night to find one.’ She grinned back conspiratorially at the quest we’d suddenly found ourselves undertaking.
We crossed the road over into a nearby plaza and a picture of the Sydney Opera House shone out of a nearby tourism poster.
‘I’ve always wanted to see the Opera House up close’ she whispered, more to herself than anyone.
‘Same’ I said breaking her out of her reverie, ‘I told myself every day that I’d get around to seeing it but somehow it just fell through the cracks.’
Abbey gave a mock gasp, ‘And you’ve been living here how long?’
Just like that the challenge presented itself.
‘Well I only see one solution then.’ I could feel my heart racing from the exhilaration. ‘Let’s go see it now, together.’ She beamed at me and rushed over to the map next to the poster.
I was starting to understand the strange new feeling that was running through me.
It was purpose.
The map had a complex series of very squiggly directions navigating a series of streets and alleyways that would get an ordinary man hopelessly lost. I racked my brain for a way to tell Abbey my geographically challenged abilities when she pointed down to a portion at the bottom.
‘Says there is a ferry that leaves every twenty minutes at the pier’
In my confused meanderings throughout the city I vaguely recalled a series of directions that led to a pier. I clutched the rope and began climbing before another alternative was given.
‘Sounds great, we can make the next one if we hurry.’ Abbey was off before I could finish, her hair shining as a beacon in the crowd.
Twenty minutes later we were on a ferry bound to the Opera House along with dozens of tourists out enjoying the sunny day. I’d never noticed just how different the city looked from so far down where the waves were rolling. It was oddly peaceful leaving the crowds behind and staring off into the endlessly blue horizon.
‘Well don’t you look lost in thought’ Abbey teased, walking up the railings where I was.
‘I just never realized how much I’d never seen of the city.’
She leaned her head against mine, ‘This sounds corny so forgive me’ she stuck out her tongue, ‘but I guess this is the first time since I got here that I’ve ever really lived.’ She gauged my face for my reaction. ‘I was right, that was incredibly corny of me.’
‘At the risk of sounding even cornier I feel the same way.’
We both broke out laughing and watched the Opera House grow bigger and bigger.
The sun was still shining brightly through the clouds that were forming when the ferry came to dock. Dozens of other tourists spilled out from the bridge, chatting animatedly and snapping pictures.
‘I’ve seen it before a hundred times on tv but nothing like this.’ Abbey said, taking my hand in hers. ‘Come on lets go get our picture taken.’ Her hand gave a warm pulse through mine as she led me forward through the crowd. The tourists parted gracefully, small families out with their kids and visitors from all over the world. They smiled at us as we walked past them and in my minds eye they saw us as another cute couple off to see the Opera House like everyone else. I smiled at the thought and realized just how natural it felt. I’d stumbled into her life just earlier today but it felt like I’d known her all this time without really realizing it.
‘I think I’m dreaming’ Abbey announced, stopping us right at the entrance.
The Opera House had sneakily grown in size while I wasn’t looking and now it towered over me, larger than it had ever been from the bus window on my way to work.
I pinched her on the elbow lightly. ‘Now you’re certain you’re not.’ I retorted.
‘What if I dreamed that as well, after all anything is possible in here.’ She tapped at her head.
I could see cars coming in from the harbor bridge where I was standing and I could picture yesterday’s me staring down at me and wondering if he’d ever have enough time to do what he wanted to do instead of what he had to do.
‘Well is it at least a good dream?’ I asked, smiling.
Abbey didn’t answer and took out her phone, angling the lens toward us. ‘Cheese!’ she yelled and before I could react she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. For a moment I forgot about the watch and stared into the bright flash, realizing for the first time just how bright the world was around me. Something cold and wet landed on my shoulder and I looked up to find that it was raining again.
I felt my cheek grow warm where she’d kissed me.
‘I’ll take that for a yes.’
The rain didn’t change the city like it did before. Instead of distorting everything into a watery blur everything was exactly the same as it always was. There was a rumble of thunder and the rain picked up into a flurry of drops that scattered the crowds and sent people fleeing to find shelter. I could feel each individual raindrop landing on me and the cold trickling sensation of water dripping down my back but I wanted to stand out here and feel the raindrops. I looked to my left and found Abbey with her arms outstretched just like mine and as our eyes met we broke out laughing at the absurdity of it all. Tourists were looking at us with an expression wondering if we were mad but neither of us cared in the slightest because we were young and we were carefree and yes I suppose, we were both a little mad. I felt her wrap her arms around me, sharing her warmth with mine and felt something else, a connection that I’d never before felt with someone else.
‘Right’ she said when we’d both stopped laughing, ‘now let’s go find that watch shop.’
Walking back into George Street we both notice the table and chairs over where Abbey should be are gone. Nothing, no trace of them left behind to indicate that they had ever been there and nothing to suggest that they will ever be there again. The same crowds filter in under the shelter of nearby buildings, unaware of the rain falling.
‘Hey look’ Abbey calls out, pointing at a small store tucked away into an alley. A cog formed the sign and in large print the words Watchmaker were clearly distinguishable through the rain. I’d never noticed the store before even though I’d spent every day walking down this street but then again I guess I’d never really known what I was looking for.
Parting ways with the crowd we step into the alley and the door makes a tinkling sound as I open it.
The watchmaker notices my entrance and raises his silvery eyes to meet mine. There is something in his eyes that I can’t look away from. A crystal clear clarity that seems to pierce right through my eyes and stare down into who I am, and who I will one day become.
‘I have a watch I’d like you to fix’ I tell him but my voice is tinny and quiet in the secret magic of the store. Abbey just stands there silent next to me, afraid to break the spell of silence.
The watchmaker smiles from ear to ear and walks over toward me. He has a kindly face with a simple pair of glasses balanced on his nose and dark hair streaked with grey.
‘And to whom did this watch belong to?’ he says warmly and I feel as if he’s been waiting here all this time waiting for me to return.
I turn to Abbey and give her a shy smile, ‘It used to belong to my father but I think it belongs to someone else now.’
I undo the clasp on the watch and take it off for the first time since putting it on. The watchmaker takes it in his hands with a special kind of reverence, as if there is something alive in there that needs to be handled gently.
He walks over to the counter where his tools are and opens the watch carefully.
‘Ah’ he says, surprised. ‘Come over here and take a look.’
I take Abbey’s hand in mine and lead her over to where the watch is.
‘A small cog has broken inside’ the watchmaker tells me, ‘watches are very complex things. All it ever takes is a small part of them to break, and the whole thing will stop working’ he reaches into the watch with his tools and takes out a single cog at the very center.
‘It can be something simple or something big but once a single part breaks, it’s only a matter of time’ the watchmaker continues to explain
‘Can you fix it?’ there is a hopeful edge to my voice that I didn’t intend.
The watchmaker shakes his head, ‘It’s not just a matter of fixing the broken piece, the entire watch needs to be fixed for it to work properly again.’ He walks off to the back of the shop and returns carrying another watch that looks very similar. ‘But sometimes, we get lucky’ he whispers, drawing us closer. ‘Sometimes you find another watch that’s similar and you find that the part that is broken in one watch work perfectly fine in another.’ The watchmaker picks up his tools and deftly switches the broken cog with one from the other watch. ‘And voila, everything works again.’ He hands me the watch and I can see the little hands moving with the tick tick tick sound the watch would make in my dreams.
Gratitude overwhelms me and the forgotten memories come back to me one by one until I remember them all again. I try to thank the watchmaker but the words catch in my throat and turn into a jumbled mess. He smiles again in that patient manner as if he’s known me my entire life and tears break through the levee. My vision blurs in tune with the rain and when I can see again its Abbey hugging me and the watch clutched in my right hand. I hold out her hand and clasp the watch on her wrist.
‘Hey!’ she says, surprised, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Giving the watch to its rightful owner’
‘But that’s you’ she protests
Smiling I take both her hands in mine and our eyes meet somewhere inbetween.
‘It was always yours, it’s just been waiting all this time for you to come along and make it whole.’
Before she can say anything else I lean over and kiss her, hearing the tick tick tick of the watch reminding me of the missing piece I didn’t know I had.
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.