Volume 33, Number 4

Guide to Losing Time

Roberto Franco-Alba

The round face of the Breitling seemed to be gazing at him from behind its slim, black hands. The two big circles like stunned eyes marked the day of the month and the day of the week and seemed to stare in awe. In these two circles, only the hands of the first had to be corrected once every sixty-two days because the mechanism didn’t differentiate between months that had thirty-one days and months that had fewer. But the second, which indicated the day of the week (and which was the source of all the plight), had never required adjustments. Anacleto and the Breitling observed each other for a long time until one of them understood what had happened. The circle in question, surrounded by the tiny initials of the English days of the week, was intersected by lines at perfect sixty-degree angles, and that could only mean one thing. He took a silver Roger Dubuis from the shelf and placed it next to the Panerai. The mechanisms moved in a calm and coordinated manner, taking rhythmic steps on the faces full of digits, and Anacleto could not believe his eyes. When he'd reviewed all the other mechanisms one by one, including the one on his wrist, he confirmed that Fridays were gone.

That detail, tiny in appearance if you looked at it against a small glass-framed circumference, would have tremendous implications. Those additional nine point fifty-seven degrees on the angles that divided the lines of the weekday dial would cause a whole series of misalignments within the gadget and in life as we know it: if the remaining six days were not adjusted to absorb the twenty-four lost hours (thus generating days of twenty-seven hours and twenty-six minutes), then the months and years would lose any resemblance with the Gregorian calendar. If not accompanied by a steep decrease in the Earth’s rotational speed, then each calendar day would swallow three hours and twenty-six minutes from the next, thus generating weeks with shifting dawns and dusks, disturbing sleep cycles and dentists’ appointment books.

After checking all his watches against the angle of the sun, he concluded that the morphology of the day, with its twelve sections repeated twice a day, hadn’t changed. Thank God! This all meant that the average month would only have twenty-six days and, therefore, that the year would be left with forty-four weeks and a half; that is, a little more than ten months. This also meant that winters would move to accommodate each month of the year every six years and a few days.

This was unacceptable for a number of reasons: ships would dock at the port only to learn that they’d arrived at least a day late; Filipino crews would refuse to disembark on suspicion of a ruse to pay them less; only God knows if our calendars would coincide with those of the rest of the world or if we would have to translate between their dates and our dates; also, the six o'clock cinema show, which Anacleto watched every Friday since his late childhood, wouldn’t be screened anymore because it didn’t fit into such a narrow week; even more, the year would remain unrecognizable and the number of teeth on the wheels and other clockwork wouldn’t be the same for a six-day week as for a seven-day week. He would need to find who the hell sold six-day wheels, or he would need to cast them in his workshop. It was a monstrous crime! Through this tsunami of petty violence, all clocks, calendars, and measuring gadgets were condemned to disastrous inaccuracy.

Anacleto took out from the depths of his drawers a heap of brittle, yellowed booklets. He had treasured them since his time as an apprentice in Triburg, at a time when firms held gears, wheels and springs in high regard, as well as the patience required to calibrate them. Those times were different! Manual labour didn’t conflict with accuracy, and despite the need to clean and grease, neither the hours, much less the weeks ceased to be precisely measured. The booklets faithfully described how to replace damaged dial plates, repair bent wheels and expired chains, and ensure airtightness. But there wasn’t a single word about flaws in time itself, about deficiencies in the length of the week, much less about the absence of Fridays.

Out of perplexity, he phoned two colleagues. As he’d guessed, they’d never dealt with such an occurrence. One of them spent seventy-six minutes grumbling about the advent of quartz watches, which weren’t only less aesthetically pleasing but also now hopelessly irreparable. The other one, with a deep voice behind a thick moustache, stated more optimistically that one way or another, they would all lead useless rests of their lives for the next few years. Anacleto wasn’t discouraged. He left the receiver in its place and outlined a diagnosis: time didn’t disappear just like that, without an express will, without sufficient authority to divert the inertia of the hands. He remembered Gregory XIII and the ten days he stole from October. He stole ten days from October because the Earth had moved faster than predicted sixteen centuries earlier; but also, and mainly, because he could. He also recalled Julius Caesar and Octavian Augustus who, out of self-love, renamed the sixth and the seventh months (they would later be the fifth and the sixth) to July and August, just to have their names appear alongside goddess Juno. Then he took a heap of booklets, and a bag full of watches and six-day calendars as documentary evidence. He closed behind him the workshop of large windows, splintered wooden frames, and rotten metallic awning.

The facades of the city centre, like intermingled vestiges of different ages without a defined order, reminded him of the current situation in which Friday and Saturday overlapped in the same period, contradicting the laws of classical physics with obvious impunity. Sailors in their impeccable white suits, with bright, thin swords, paraded through the streets like visitors from more elegant times. Uniformed schoolchildren, freed from their duties in the face of their teachers’ uncertainty, ran in groups through the main square. The rusted roller doors of the shops remained ajar, wondering if they should close. In front of the Doric columns of the tall marble theatre, a group of actors demonstrated with banners against the cancellation of performances on a night no more listed on the billboards.

Anacleto slipped into the colonial building of the town hall of wide white arches, walked across the dark ebony bars, and asked for the mayor's office. He handed the secretary a small business card with ninety-degree hands and his name in golden letters.

—I’ve come to see the mayor.

—Do you have an appointment? —she rebuked, ignoring the gravity of the matter.

—It’s about the Fridays—he added naturally, while the woman gazed at him, trying to understand—I’m a watchmaker—he added in order to defend his interest in the subject, without achieving even a slight inflection in her gestures.

—On Saturdays, the mayor leaves by noon.

—This is what I want to discuss with him! —he leaned towards her and whispered—: today is Friday—Anacleto insisted, and the woman took a calendar from the desk and pointed her finger at the fourteenth, indeed a Saturday.

—Only the public works councillor is around—she reluctantly admitted—Should I tell him that you’re here?

The young lady, as thin and docile as a small buffalo, stood up indifferently and entered the council room. Anacleto listened to the high-pitched bugle notes dripping from one of the neighbouring military courtyards and the regular tick of a large pendulum clock behind the desk. The young lady returned to announce that they were waiting for him. She showed the way with her hand.

The councillor was a short man of few words. He fiddled with a pocket watch between his fingers and told him that, in short, the crime in question, if it were at all, was not categorized and he declared himself overwhelmed. We haven’t had time to look at this. Although they always had time to look at this. He also said it was Saturday, producing no evidence, and also said he was about to leave. He suggested Anacleto call the National Metrology Commission, which would hold a session on Monday. A Monday that would have been Sunday. They may have something to say.

Displeased, Anacleto returned to his workshop and refused to take the day off, like the rest of the Saturdays when they were still Saturdays. He had in his possession a few hundred devices, with mechanisms that needed to be returned to their original precision. With every step, with the sight of every calendar on a wall and every watch on a wrist, Anacleto felt more overwhelmed. He felt overwhelmed by the number of wheels he had to fix to get the hands working, he felt surpassed by the number of dials that he had to adjust so they sectioned the weeks in seven identical pieces. In his head, the Italian word for week, setimana, suspiciously close to both Spanish and Italian words for seven, echoed in protest. The idea of a six-day week was unacceptable. He wondered if there were spare crowns or if he would have to turn them in the lathe. He would normally enjoy these technical challenges, but the size of the problem was overwhelming; also, with age, his hands had slowly lost their steadiness. Besides, who was he—a simple watchmaker, an expert only in counting and measuring with precision, to champion the mission of caring for time.

On Monday, which was rather Sunday, Anacleto left for the main square to breathe the salty breeze and smoke a Havana cigar. He sat by a tiny, dusty table facing the coast and ordered a cup of aromatic coffee. Like on other February days, the sky was bright and severe, but the breeze was temperate and humid and could bring about an abrupt change. The oil-smeared sea roared all the way to Boca del Río or even farther south, and the only perceptible sounds were the exclamations of containers colliding under the cranes across the bay. After just five minutes, he took his Panama hat, placed it over his shiny, white hair, and left a handful of tiny coins on the table. Just like his trade, he’d inherited from his father the habit of wandering on Sundays through the streets of the old, white city. The force of habit embeds in one’s genes and leads one to perpetuate even what is most imperceptible; Anacleto, noticing it or not, traversed the same long circuit, sprinkled with shoe stores and narrow alleys, perfuming them with the thick, bitter whiff of tropical smoulder. He entered the low, white cathedral and sat down in the last pew. He would always cut the cigar and store it in the front pocket of his shirt, and he would always sit for half an hour to hear the severe assertions that the priest spitted over his myrrh-smelling audience: the kingdom of heaven, the needles and the camels, the prostitutes and good Samaritans, the Roman patricians fallen from their horses. But that Sunday there was no audience. Only the usual elderly women praying, covered with their black veils in front of the altar like living pictures of times long gone. The priest and his audience kept forgetting that it was a Sunday like the other Sundays. Rain droplets started to tremble on the windows of nearby shops, while Anacleto read the legends under a scene in the Way of the Cross about the Feria sexta, the Roman Friday; and he wondered whether back then days were also the Caesar’s.

When the rain receded, he took his half cigar out of his pocket and walked toward the wet jetty. With his eyes, he followed the ocean liners that advanced like floating plateaus off the coast and counted in silence the number of teeth that would be needed to be replaced on the wheels. Did he have enough ruby stones for the pallets? He moved slowly, dodging sunglass vendors and sporadic bathers. He found in the stroll a therapeutic effect against intellectual afflictions that he didn’t know in any other activity.

At some point, he stopped abruptly and turned towards his workshop.

He pushed his way under the rusty roller shutter and up the spiral staircase to the attic, cluttered with old instruments and abandoned ideas. After a few minutes, he came down with a whitish cloth adorned with brown letters in fresh ink. He hung it behind the largest window and sat on a chair facing the asphalt with the pride of a child armed with a slingshot.

In the weeks that followed, Anacleto's workshop unexpectedly recovered its life. Customers formed a long line in front of the store, waiting for their turn. Some carried various devices in their hands, most of them with quiet hands and timid, stained glosses. Most had kept them out of suspicion that they still held some value, despite the lack of ticking. A few others treasured them for having belonged to their parents, grandparents or uncles, or they’d simply thrown them into a corner after replacing them with a newer model. They brought a variety of devices, automatic and spring-powered, a cuckoo clock, and others with hopeless quartz mechanisms. A neighbour with a wheelbarrow brought a large piece of furniture with a sizeable wooden dial and its detached pendulum leaning against its base. The cloth behind the window offered four seven-day weeks of free servicing to any time devices that needed fixing. The only requirement: that the artifact had an indicator for the day of the week.

The challenge was not minimal. The objects received, although readily accepted, had varying degrees of imperfection. The ones that led easier lives needed spiral adjustments or hand soldering. Many others had worn or dirty wheels, or lacked lubrication. The last customer handed Anacleto a fabric bag containing at least two hundred tiny pieces, and, with the huge grin of an incomplete dentition, he confessed he had tried to repair it himself.

After three weeks of sleeplessness, Anacleto had given the breath back to at least two hundred devices with different ailments. The mechanisms now performed with accuracy, and days and hours were marked with precision.

Nonetheless, and despite the achievement, despite not having charged one peso for his services, the first clients started to return and proclaim their frustration. Dials shone their metallic splendours with a faint smell of gasoline, the hands advanced regularly and unscathed, and in most cases, even airtightness was attained. In all cases, however, the watches had a major drawback: they boasted a seven-day week marker. That is, they were in excess of one Friday. What is the use of a clock that runs slow at a rate of one day per week? Anacleto responded each time in the same manner: it was the calendar that ran faster at a rate of one day per week. Also, the repair had been free and the operation was consistent with the book, with his family’s long tradition. In every case, he recommended they use the day marked by the device and waved off with a smile. Customers, of course, thought this was a gimmick, some sort of smart stunt, but unable to claim any money back, they walked away with their annoyingly precise gadgets.

By the third week, the city was plunged into discord: those who did not possess a mended device, insisted that a given day was Tuesday; those who did, claimed that it was rather Thursday; a young couple, distracted, did not know if it should be Thursday or Saturday, since the hand on her watch pointed to an obsolete day. A group of dissenters, having argued enough over the identity of a particular day, determined it was all a plot by the watchmaker. There was enough evidence, there was much for him to gain, for nobody fought about the days of the week before. Also, none of them understood the stale attachment to a day that the rest had forgotten. A furious voice cried He’s playing with our time!

As is normal among angry and impatient groups, passions were more effective than reason and, under the leadership of those with the shiniest watches, they headed with sticks and stones towards the source of all evil. They advanced through the streets, shouting slogans and inviting others to join. Hearing the uproar, Anacleto looked out the window. The first thing he noticed was the gleaming gadgets in their arms and, filled with pride, he went out to greet the mob.

The first to attack was naturally the most confused. You thief! he yelled and threw a rock large enough to shatter the display case of the tobacco shop next door. Without fully understanding why, Anacleto realized that his happiness was unfounded and fled to the safety of the interior. He pulled hard on the roller shutter, but when the second stone hit and bruised his right forearm, Anacleto abandoned all elegant solutions and ran up the spiral stairs to the attic that had a small exit to the roof.

The windows of three generations succumbed to the neighbours’ scalding exchanges and a hundred years of watches and clocks abandoned in the workshop were removed to compensate for the offense, even though these also marked one extra day between Thursday and Saturday. The yellowed booklets, wooden furniture, and other lacklustre items were incinerated in a pyre that eventually also consumed the abandoned tobacco shop, the bookstore, and the warehouse adjoining the workshop. Graffiti on what was left of the place still reads: Fridays don't exist!