The Shop

The noise from outside was abruptly cut off, highlighting the soft choir of ticking clocks within. Leitha breathed a sigh of relief and came into the shop to have a better look at their strange rescuer. The Watchmaker was standing in the space between the shop doors, tinkering with what looked like a fuse box. It was high on the wall, so he was on tiptoes and looked uncomfortable.

Leitha gazed around the shop while he was occupied. It was dimly lit by an ancient incandescent bulb which shone on the dark polished woodwork of the glass fronted cabinets. The walls were lined with an assortment of shelves in a similar wood held up by ornate carved brackets; no two were the same, and all were covered with clocks. Towards the front of the shop these were neatly displayed, but behind the counter most were just piles of components.

The window display, now in deep shadow, took up most of the front wall. The counter lay parallel to this wall, about halfway into the shop. A door led off to her right; another was set in the wall to her left, but this was inside the shop area and had a table in front of it. Both doors were firmly closed. Leitha wondered where they might lead, trying to recall what came after the clock window. The sinister mannequins would be on her right, facing the Avenue as she was. She shivered, hoping that door didn’t lead to them, stepped further into the shop.

The chessboard motif of the tiled entrance continued inside until it was covered by a plain brown carpet worn almost threadbare in places. Although untidy, the establishment was clean, even welcoming. A tiny stove was set into a fireplace on the right hand wall – it was not lit – and a small armchair sat beside it, rather hemmed in by tables where repairs were clearly happening. There was a stout looking stool beside one of these.

“Mr Watchmaker?” she called, “would you like something to stand on?”

“No thank you Leitha,” his reply accompanied the tinkle of the inner door closing, “I have finished there now. Would you put the kettle on please? I think it is time for tea.”

Taken aback – how could he know her name? was it on the scroll? – she crossed the living room to a kitchen area in the back corner.

“It looks like an exhibit from a museum,” she thought crossly, “How is this supposed to work? Where’s the water tap?”

She found a brass tap in the cupboard underneath two great ceramic sinks. Clear cold water gushed out, caught by a shallow basin. Leitha quickly filled the copper kettle. There was a wood fired range; it was stone cold. She twisted a knob on the antique cooker and could hear the hiss of gas, but there was no self-ignition. She hastily turned it off again.

“Matches in the drawer,” called the Watchmaker, who was still busy in his shop. The drawer nearest the cooker contained only spiderwebs; the next had a box of matches as well. These flared up so violently when struck that there was a moment’s panic as she dropped the first one on the wooden floor. The burn mark hardly showed; her next attempt was more successful.

With the kettle established, she set about looking for something to drink, and something to drink it in. Set in the tiled wall behind the worktop was a window. The autumn forest view was only a painting, but the windowsill held a number of tins. Most were empty. The one marked ‘Tea’ held sugar.

Leitha wasn’t sure about the dried milk though, and there were no cups to be seen. She pushed aside the drapes and walked into the shop. The Watchmaker was standing behind his high counter, the top of which was hinged up to reveal a complex instrument panel studded with flashing lights and twitching dials. Screens set into the underside of the counter top displayed swirling patterns of colour. He wore a pair of headphones and gazed into space with an air of intense concentration as he adjusted a slider.

“Oh dear,” he sighed at last, laying the headphones down. Leitha was fascinated by what she could only imagine was the very latest in music technology and utterly baffled to find such a thing here. On the other hand, it had been a long day without one single cup of tea. The kettle would probably boil soon.

“Excuse me,” she tapped the Watchmaker on the shoulder, making him start nervously. He peered at her through his round glasses.

“Ah. Yes. Tea.”

“I expect the kettle has boiled by now,” Leitha prompted, “Can you please show me where the tea things are?”

The old man hesitated, reluctant to leave the machine. Finally he flicked a switch decisively and its lights faded out.

“Nothing I don’t know already,” he muttered as he closed the counter top. “Come on then, young lady. I think I have some biscuits in the Emergency Stores.”

The Watchmaker dragged a metal box from the tiny utility room in the corner. It was sealed, covered with official labels. Takeshi took a keen interest.

“Ahem,” the Watchmaker cleared his throat. “As a loyal subject of the Realm – er, Empire, no that’s wrong. As a loyal Citizen of the State…” he glanced at Leitha.

“State.” she agreed.

“Which of course I am,” the old man added hastily, “I hereby open this box entrusted to me in an Emergency Situation, which I believe this to be.”

He used the blunt penknife to slice through the paper seals and flung the lid open with a flourish. The children gasped in amazement. It was overflowing with gaily packaged goodies – sweets, biscuits, cakes. The bright colours seemed to glow in the dim room. Underneath were more sensible supplies – tea, cocoa, tins of milk, flour and onions.

Leitha looked suspiciously at the Watchmaker.

“It was full of such dull stuff when I got it,” he said sheepishly, “Gas masks, bullets, vitamin pills”

“It was sealed,” thought Leitha, wondering if he could forge papers for her with such ease. Which led her to wonder what was going on outside as she drank her tea. The televised dramas, which the matrons watched avidly, often had the characters trapped in unusual places during an air raid so that relationships could develop. It was only to progress the story though; there was never anything damaged outside when they emerged after a night or two. Except in ‘Truman Street’ where the Town Hall had been bombed so the janitor was revealed as a traitor and got written out because something had happened to him in real life which even she couldn’t discover with her eavesdropping skills.

“I suppose I can go back to Home if I turn up with Takeshi,” she mused, “Where did Daisy and Melissa go? The procession got attacked or something, and they didn’t get to the Embassy. I hope they ran away, I hope they didn’t get hurt! Elly was at the Embassy. She ought to be safe there, but the Watchmaker said it wasn’t. Not safe for just me, or for anyone?”

She wondered if she should just cut loose in the confusion after All Clear. Glancing up, she saw Takeshi staring at her, looking worried. Had she spoken aloud? Surely he wouldn’t understand her anyway.

She made another round of tea and biscuits. Takeshi took some cola from the box, as he didn’t care for Leitha’s tea, and found a booklet entitled ‘Civilian Procedures in an Emergency’ which the Watchmaker seized upon and began to read. Leitha leafed idly through the pile of comics. They were all about fighting, mainly aerial combat in Japan. ‘The Red Baron’ was bannered across one, over a picture of a biplane from history books. Takeshi had acquired paper and pencil now, and was copying another of these drawings with intense concentration. He was quite a good artist for his age. Leitha was impressed, but the boy saw her watching and covered the picture with a scowl.

“Moody,” thought Leitha crossly and was about to put the kettle on again when there was a booming roar outside. The glasses rattled on their shelves and a trickle of dust drifted down from the ceiling.

The Watchmaker consulted his large gold pocket watch.

“I’ll need to mind the front now,” he told Leitha, “This might take awhile, have a look around, keep yourselves amused.”

Takeshi returned to the comics; Leitha began to read the ‘Emergency Procedures’. It was full of dull propaganda with no useful information, exactly the same as the one at Home. She knew that one off by heart, it being the only available reading in the isolation room. Another sharp explosion nearby made her jump and she dropped the booklet.

“Waste of time anyway,” she thought, and cast about for something else to do. She didn’t much care for war comics. Besides, Takeshi had clearly found ones written in Japanese and the English ones were nowhere to be seen.

“I may as well tidy up,” she thought. She had cleaning down to a fine art after years of punishment duty. Slowly and thoroughly, people forgot you were there, they left you alone. Often they’d have conversations as if you were invisible, which could be very interesting.

So the day passed. Leitha sat down with yet another cup of tea to admire her work. She was hungry, she realised, for something that wasn’t biscuits. The squashed pie from her pocket sat on a newly cleaned plate, but there had been plenty of other food in the cupboards. She ought to cook for everyone really. It wasn’t like there was anything else to do.

“Takeshi, we have to stay here tonight,” she told him, “There’ll be a curfew by now.”

“Sleep here,” the boy agreed, “Dinner?”

“Probably.” Leitha went to find the Watchmaker. His instrument panel had folded out some more, and he was playing a complex computer game across three screens. Two went dark as she watched; he appeared to be losing.

“Can I make some dinner?” she ventured. The Watchmaker sighed, mopping his brow with a large spotted handkerchief.

“Of course. Use anything in the cupboards.”

A maze of paths reappeared on one of the screens; he peered intently at a flashing white dot moving along them. Leitha had no patience with computer games, but as she turned away she nearly collided with Takeshi. He had crept up behind her and was staring, fascinated, at the screens.

She left the two of them chatting in Japanese, feeling slightly jealous, and set about cooking. The game was going better with Takeshi’s help. Occasional rousing cheers from the shop told of victories.

“Might tire him out,” Leitha told herself as she stirred a sauce to go with the pasta. The light began to flicker. Prudently, she fetched out candles from the utility room, setting a couple in candlesticks.

The light abruptly went out, accompanied by a roar of disappointment from the shop. Takeshi and the Watchmaker were in high spirits when they came back in, however. Takeshi ran over to the cooker, tilting the pans to inspect their contents.

“You’ll have that over yourself,” Leitha told him.

“I want noodles!” he demanded.

“You’ve got pasta.”

The boy fixed her with an impressive hard stare. Probably worked on his mother thought Leitha and, as if he had heard her, Takeshi suddenly flashed her a brilliant smile and skipped back to his comics.

“Pasta fine. War heroes respect cooking women.”

The Watchmaker had been working on another of his tangled fuse boxes in the utility room. Suddenly a different set of lights sprang into life; he toured the room turning off all but the ones they needed. With impressive swiftness, he built a fire which was crackling merrily before the meal was served, and they all sat down together.

“What time is it?” Leitha asked, collecting the plates.

“You may well ask,” responded the Watchmaker with a strange touch of bitterness. Then he sighed, consulting his pocket watch.

“It’s night outside. Late, I suppose you would call it.”

“Can we take a look?”

As if on cue, the explosions began again. The old man shook his head.

“I’ll get some blankets,” he said. “You can sleep on the settees while I keep watch. We’ll know what’s going on in the morning.”

Leitha didn’t want to think about the morning. She would have to decide whether to go back to Home, or go on the run. She might never have a better chance to escape, but her confidence was wavering. She distracted herself by making beds and cocoa.

Takeshi didn’t want to settle down, but Leitha began to doze while listening to their conversation. It sounded as if the old man was telling the boy a fairy story. The words drifted in and out of her understanding; she fell asleep puzzling over which language they were actually speaking.