The Swiss Watch (Part 1)

Kishinev, 1944

From A Family Album:

They met moments after Pavel Zetov was shot. Shaken and horrified, Galina Dafin would have left the Annex immediately, but one of the Nazi officers ordered her to return to her office and wait. She sat at her desk and closed her eyes.

When she opened them, a short man in a gray business suit was standing in the doorway watching her.

“Hello,” the short man said. “Mrs. Dafin, I apologize I intrude. I work for the German War Commissariat, and I’m here to audit your books. My name is Michael Suru. I am an accountant. I have nothing to do with the incident that just occurred, nothing at all.”

“Incident?” Galina exclaimed. “They shot him like a dog on the sidewalk, in front of everyone.”

“Would it have made a difference had they done it at night, in some back alley?” the man asked.

Galina thought he was being flippant — a crass comment, meant to show how little he cared. But on his face she read the immovable determination of a man who had to carry on, no matter what.

“We are at war, Mrs. Dafin,” the man said.

Galina tried in vain to ignore the recurring images of the black-booted soldiers entering the workshop, the mechanics silently moving aside, Pavel coming down the metal steps, and her watching the scene through the glass wall of her office like a projection on a movie screen. She guessed more than heard the order for Pavel to step outside, and she jumped up and ran down the steps to follow the others into the street, eager to put in a good word for Pavel and help clarify whatever misunderstanding was going on. But a second later, she saw a gun being aimed at Pavel’s head and heard the shot exploding in a deafening burst. Pavel fell across the sidewalk, the thick pool of blood under his temple spreading like ink on blotting paper. The soldier barked a second command. She understood he told his men to remove the body and recognized the words ‘Jude’ and ‘Hund.’

“He’s not Jewish!” she screamed as if it weren’t too late, and the soldier, a man younger than Galina by perhaps two decades, looked at her the way a father would look at his hysterical child.

“We know you were friends,” he said in Romanian. “Go back to your desk and wait for our man. Don’t dare leave.”

Galina had no choice but to obey, and now ‘their man’ was there.

“Mrs. Dafin, I will sit down,” he said with a timid voice.

Galina sighed.

They reviewed the books — better said he did, and she followed his orders for a while. He was skilled. When the light outside her office window turned crimson and then dark indigo, the man placed his indelible pencil in his breast pocket shield and said, “Tomorrow’s another day.” He took a mint out of a little tin box and placed it in his mouth.

Galina looked at him in a daze, concerned yet relieved. As hard as it had been, the work had shifted her attention ever so slightly to the numbers entered in the ledgers. She had been thorough in her job and doubted that Suru would uncover any irregularities. She didn’t know what he was hoping to find, and to what end. With Pavel gone, the business of the Annex, one of the larger car repair shops in Kishinev, was a rudderless ship.

Below, the shop stood empty. Everybody was gone. The car lifts looked like ghosts under the electric lights, and tools were abandoned all over the place. Did the mechanics leave after the shooting, or did they finish their shift? Were they scared? Were they ordered to leave?

She was alone with Suru, feeling a strange kinship towards him. They were partners in this frightful event. Suru offered to give her a ride home, but she refused.

He sucked at his mint and nodded a few times, silently letting her know that he understood.

“Mr. Suru, what will happen to this place?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

As he was leaving, he looked at his pack of fancy German cigarettes resting on her desk. “I’ll leave these here for you.”

Alone, Galina felt her panic return. She lit one of his cigarettes and inhaled deeply trying to calm the racing of her heart. It had been fifteen years since Ivan, her husband, had died, and this was the first job she liked. She had been a math teacher before, presumably good with numbers, and her brother Leo had put in a word for her. Pavel Zetov, the owner of the Annex, had hired her to keep the books. He gave her the office next to his on the upper floor, with an outside window and an inside glass wall overlooking the repair shop and the metal stairway leading to it. Galina was a small, nice looking woman, and the mechanics were friendly to her. Pavel Zetov was friendly as well.

Galina lit a second cigarette from the stub of the first, then forced herself to get up, switched off the lights, locked the gate and went home.

It was a long walk.

The next morning, she found Suru pacing up and down her sidewalk and smoking.

“What are you doing here? Did you fear I wouldn’t return to work?” Galina asked. She hadn’t slept well, and the crystal spring air added to her feeling of being somewhere between dream and reality. In full bloom, the cherry tree branches draped languidly over the old wooden fence, a few petals clinging like tiny butterflies to Suru’s gray jacket. She noticed his dapper suit, its fine wool and the fashionable lapels perfectly smooth over his matching vest.

He pointed nervously to a black car. “Just wanted to make it easier for both of us to return to that place.”

“You have my address,” Galina said.

Suru nodded. The driver opened the door for her, while Suru crushed his cigarette and sat next to her. “The Annex has been shut down,” he said. “The Germans are confiscating all the equipment and machinery.”

“Is that why those animals killed Pavel?” Galina asked.

Suru turned a crank and a glass divider rose between the driver and the back of the car.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “No. I don’t know.”

“You do know. Perhaps yesterday you didn’t, but this morning you know.”

“The Germans are in a hurry,” he said. “The Soviets have retaken Odessa, and their army is on the move.”

Galina stared out the window, afraid. It was hard to follow the events of the war. Nobody was telling the truth. Talking to Suru with his driver present had not been prudent. She had no idea who either of them was, but perhaps she just didn’t care any more.

Suru knocked on the glass partition and the car moved.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“To the Annex, to finish the work.”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

“The Germans expect me to perform. They need a complete inventory and the ledgers need to be in perfect order — German perfect, you know.”

“Pavel has been good to me,” she said. “And the mechanics who work at the Annex — some of them are my friends. What will happen to them?”

“I don’t know,” Suru said. “What happens to people during a war?”

“You’re working for the Germans.”

“I’m doing my job.”

They drove silently through streets ravaged by the bombings. At the repair shop, Galina unlocked the gate, and they walked between the motionless machinery, oil puddles and abandoned tools. Upstairs in her office, she sat at her desk and felt safe, in a familiar place.

“Mr. Suru,” she asked again, “what will happen to me?”

Suru sat opposite her. Apparently, she was now working for him.

“I’m a single woman,” she continued, “and since you’re closing the Annex, I’ll no longer be able to earn an income. How am I to survive?”

“Help me finish this job. You can work with me on other assignments in the future. Your talent is well appreciated.” He reached for his cigarettes and offered her one.

“I think I would like to move to Bucharest,” she said taking a cigarette from his pack and rolling it between her fingers. “Or at least go for a visit. But, you know, the trains are a problem these days.”

“To be with your daughter Dalia, who studies medicine there, and one of your brothers, correct? I could help you with that.” And as if to show her how helpful he was, he produced a gold lighter from his vest pocket and lit her cigarette.

“My God, Mr. Suru, what else do you know about me?” she asked, looking at him over the flame.

“I make it a point to know everything about the people I’m dealing with.”

She heard a vague threat in his response, and yet she felt flattered. He had looked her up. Not sure how to react, she gathered the ledgers they had reviewed the previous afternoon and pushed them over to him. While she pretended to work, Galina found it difficult to stop thinking about her situation. She finished her cigarette and reached for another one.

“You’re worried,” he said.

“It’s hard for me to continue. I’d rather show you where everything is and go home.”

He shifted in his chair, stiff in his suit. “You can’t leave,” he said.

“What, am I your prisoner?”

He hesitated. “Please.”

“Mr. Suru, but why?”

“Because I enjoy your company.” He looked her straight in the eye.

“This isn’t appropriate,” she said.

“There is a war going on, and both of us could end up dead tomorrow, or next week.”

“Mr. Suru, you scare me.”

“I’m sorry,” he answered. “I just wanted to say that normal rules don’t apply. And my first name is Michael.”

“Michael,” she repeated and glanced out the window. The sky was pale blue. She didn’t know what to do. He seemed proper and very reserved, yet he was crossing a line into a realm where they didn’t belong. Or did they? The whole thing was absurd. “It’s so peaceful outside,” she said.

“Let me tell you a story,” he said, removed his glasses and placed them on the desk. “I was married once, too. She was a beautiful woman, my wife, much younger than me. Had she lived, she would have been about your age. I loved her, and I thought she loved me as well. We were married in Kiliya, on the Danube, where her parents lived. A year later, we moved to Jassy. The larger city attracted us. Her name was Maria and in Jassy, we were M and M to our friends. We had a lot of friends. I worked as an auditor and traveled from time to time. I made good money, and we lived well. Our pride and joy was our son, Lucian. The boy meant the world to me. For his ninth birthday, I bought him a bright red shirt that I found in a fashionable store in Bucharest. Lucian was tall for his age, skinny, and he looked like his mother. That summer, Maria and Lucian went to Kiliya to visit her parents who lived on a small lake, connected through a canal to the Danube. After breakfast one day, they jumped in the family canoe that was tied to their pier. Maria had rowed on the lake a million times. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. When they did not return, late in the afternoon, my in-laws sent a search party for them. They discovered the capsized canoe about three miles down the river. Maria was caught underneath. They found Lucian’s body, in his red shirt, two days later, in the same area, tangled in an island of reeds.”

“I am so sorry,” Galina said.

Without glasses, his eyes seemed deep, like the muddy Danube waters, and as troubled. “I carry this story with me, always, and I don’t like to talk about it. I stopped visiting Maria’s parents, or my own relatives, except for my brother who lives in Bucharest. I hide. It’s been over ten years, and this work for the Germans is my best antidote: irregular hours, ruthlessness, and the panic of war. It’s like drugs that keep my mind in a fog. When the fog clears and I think about Maria, I have this persistent suspicion that she killed herself, and I’ll never know why. She must have hated me, because she took my son with her.”

“Michael, don’t talk like that,” Galina said.

He picked up his glasses from her desk and walked to the window. He looked outside for a long time. Galina waited. When he turned around, his glasses were on.

“I apologize. Mrs. Dafin, let’s get back to work.”

“Call me Galina,” she said.

Please come back next Saturday to read Part 2.