Marc Joan’s “Swiss Watch” is a transcendent story, composed with the precise craft and compassion readers desperately need these days. He not only transports us to an intimate city park in Geneva but within the very yearnings of four distinct citizens passing through this “place of green secrets.” Beneath the stone gaze of four statues of the Protestant Reformation, their fates briefly intersect, providing us a sobering glimpse of where our modern era needs desperate change. This tale is a gift, a grace. Read on.
Marc Nieson, author of Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape
In Geneva, there is a park, which in high summer is full of the deep shadows and dropping sap of plane trees; a place of green secrets. It is bounded on one side by tall railings, and on another by a sheer wall, nearly thirty feet high. Against this wall are set four statues: outsized figures of stone, forbidding, almost intimidating in their severity. Somehow, they convey both age and great strength; wisdom married with power.
This place of trees and shadows is the Parc des Bastions, set between the Grand Théâtre and the Université like a dark emerald clutched by pale claws. The wall — known today as Reformation Wall — is the outermost part of the steep fortifications of the Old City of Geneva; from here, Catherine Cheynel poured boiling soup on the heads of the invading Savoyards in 1602. The statues commemorate the main agents of the Protestant reformation: William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox. These Four Reformers have watched the park unceasingly, with the grim attention of stone, for over one hundred years.
Valentina carefully lowered herself onto the bench, in the sun. Once, she would have gone into the Restaurant du Parc des Bastions, found a seat in its elegant Victorian pavilion, and ordered a petit café. Now, she avoided the place; it was always so busy, so full of tourists, the service so slow. And she didn’t have the money, not any more. But today was warm enough to sit outside; nobody would think anything of it. An old lady, watching the churn of people: students and sightseers, old men and office workers.
After a while she opened her bag and took out a boiled sweet. Slowly, obviously, demonstrably, she unwrapped it, squinting at the tinted cellophane, pinching at it with swollen fingers. She didn’t want the sweet, of course, she didn’t like the things; but she hadn’t forgotten her training. Always have two reasons for every action, they’d said; the real reason, and a reason for others to see. Yes, she didn’t remember everything these days, but she remembered her training. Always give the watchers something. So out came a sweet, the bright red of synthetic flavourings, ostentatiously presented for the benefit of those who watch; and out too, but unseen, came the little roll of paper, carefully held against her palm by her smallest finger. Slowly, deliberately, she put the sweet in her mouth, and mumbled it around her tongue, pressing it against her remaining teeth so she could suck it noisily; and all the while she held the sweet wrapper aloft, as though she had forgotten about it, a little plastic flag, a crinkled red semaphore to signal her innocence.
How the West had crowed when Gorbachev had betrayed his country and hers! And how they had betrayed Gorbachev and his successors since! The Cold War is over, they’d said, and Communism has lost. Oh, life had been black and bitter, in those days. Three decades in the Service, and for what? To see the Soviet empire humiliated, and its people abandoned. She’d almost gone back to Russia right then. But then the gentleman had come, with his small cough and his great plans. We need you, Valentina, he had said. We need you where you are. Russia will rise again. And Valentina had listened.
She peered around once more, as though she were searching for something, but had forgotten what; the vague, inconsequential, short-sighted stare of an old woman, dreaming in the sun. Her expression didn’t change, not by a wrinkled iota, but she was irritated. Somebody was there, in the way, right by the dead-letter box. An African, in one of those ridiculous African shirts she hated so much, the clashing colours of banana and mango. She looked away, towards the four statues of Reformation Wall, as though profoundly uninterested, but kept the gaudy palette in her peripheral vision. The African was loitering in just the wrong place; but no matter, she too would wait. Indeed, she was good at waiting; and the gentleman had warned her there would be much of it. Just keep on as before, Valentina, he’d said, be patient. Use your contacts in the council. Keep an eye on the Swiss gnomes and their silly war games. Keep me informed: above all, what is the role of the police in the event of population mobilisation? That is particularly important, Valentina; when the Swiss army is waving pen-knives at the border, what are the police doing? How many of them get called up?
And so Valentina had not returned to Russia; she had endured, here in Geneva, watching and waiting. She had done her job, and done it well, even when the gentleman with the small cough had, over time, been seen less and less frequently. Her contacts had gradually dried up, especially after she retired, but she had continued to pass on information; or, where there was no information, simply to pass on the All is well signal. Blank paper, with no message; just a little roll of unmarked paper, tied up with a blue thread: all is well.
Paper and thread! – can you imagine? But the gentleman had said The old ways are the best, and perhaps he was right. When everyone is monitoring emails and mobile phones, nobody notices little rolls of paper or coloured thread; nobody even thinks of looking for them. The old ways are the best.
That’s why they used the dead-letter box, by the rubbish bin where the African was standing. It was so easy, so fool-proof. The bin was attached to a tubular metal pole, which itself was fixed to the plane tree by rusting bands. Towards the top of this pole, just above the edge of the bin, was a circular aperture, perhaps a centimetre wide, as though made for a large screw. But if there ever had been a screw, it was no longer there. So the hollow pole formed a discreet letter-box, at just the right height for an old lady to grasp with one hand, while, with the other, she tidily, fussily, obviously disposes of some unwanted scrap—for example, a bright red sweet wrapper. And then she can pause for a second or two, as though to catch her breath, while listening to the scuttering rustle made by a little rolled-up paper tube, tied with thread, as it falls down inside the hollow steel support. There it can stay until the gentleman, with a small, quiet cough, in the quiet, small hours, comes and puts his hand underneath and pulls out the temporary blockage, a plastic bag or some such, crammed into the bottom of the hollow pole, and catches Valentina’s coded message as it falls out. Blue thread, wrapped around a roll of blank paper: No news. All is well.
Only today, reflected Valentina, all was not well. She was old; she felt it, she knew it. She was tired of living in the shadows. Tired of foreigners, tired of Westerners, tired of waiting. So today she would send a different message. A roll of paper, as usual; with no writing, which was not unusual; but tied with scarlet thread instead of blue. Cease operations, it meant. Not All is well, but Bring me out of the shadows; take me home; I am tired of this life. At last: the termination message.
And why not? She had done her job diligently, faithfully, ever since the treason of glasnost and perestroika; and now that Mother Russia, under the great Putin, was again resurgent, it was time for her to go home. To sit in the sun, and forget the shadows. She looked around again, with studied absent-mindedness, still signalling with her sweet wrapper, her clear, bright reason to go to the dead-letter box; but still the African remained there, with his foolish grin, shifting from foot to foot. Damn him.
Patience, Valentina, she told herself; you have waited so, so long now. Soon he will go, and you can drop the red-tied paper into the rusting metal tube, and the gentleman with the small cough will retrieve it in the dark of the night or the quiet of the morning; and then they will come to take you home. Have patience.
Eight francs for a wrap, boys and girls, he thought. Come and get it, mes petits Suisses, come to Omar, come now. Eight francs for a wrap, ten for sinsemilla, twelve for skunk. He smiled: a broad, good-humoured smile. Imagine: twelve francs for a smoke. In Niger, you could feed a family for a week with that. But in Switzerland, money falls from the trees. Like this one.
Standing in the shadow of the plane tree, Omar patted the trunk, and gave it a little stroke before dropping his hand back down, just inside the rubbish bin, and resting it on the rim of a little cardboard box. This, placed carefully on top of the bin’s harvest of plastic bottles and cigarette packets, tissues and drinks cans, was most emphatically not rubbish. It was his stock-room; it held his carefully wrapped commercial assets, the little paper twists of cannabis that he traded for the finer paper of good Swiss francs. And the rubbish bin, close to the University, in the park where all the silly little white boys and girls go to and fro trying to be noticed by each other, was his shop-front and his get-out clause.
There were regulars, and there was passing trade; but each transaction was substantially the same. A petit Suisse would approach, hardly able to believe his own daring; Omar would raise his arm from the rubbish bin for a brief handshake; and the kid would leave with a twist of street credibility, while Omar would be left a few francs richer. And if a police officer should approach, why, Omar is only standing by the bin, officer, Omar likes to be tidy, he does not litter your beautiful country, oh no. How can Omar be responsible for drugs left inside a public bin? Preposterous!
Omar smiled again. Life was good en Suisse; certainly easier than scraping at the drought-crusted soil of sorghum fields while thorns poked through his old sandals. Most certainly more pleasant than getting beaten by the Niger police for stealing, and whipped by his father for not stealing enough. And definitely better than watching bruises grow and fade on his mother’s face, week after week. Briefly, Omar’s face darkened, and his hand tightened on the edge of the bin, stretching the skin across his knuckles. But then his smile returned: C’est fini, maintenant. Second-hand sandals and bruises; finished. Finished for him, at least, ever since he’d left Niger with only a carrier bag and a bus ticket. And, oddly enough, it had been old sandals — or the shame of them — that had sped his departure. It had been a mistake spending what savings he had on Nikes, of course. But Omar had wanted to know how it felt to feel good about oneself.
The feeling hadn’t lasted long. Nice shoes, the gendarme had said, two days later, as he squatted down and dangled the Nikes in front of Omar’s face. Where did you get these, putain? Omar had remained silent; it was difficult to speak with a knee pressing your head to the floor. But as he’d looked from the Nikes – bought, not stolen! – in the policeman’s hand to the Adidas trainers – a bribe, not a purchase! – on the policeman’s feet, he’d finally accepted how Niger worked. And understood that to remain in Niger was unthinkable.
Eight francs for a wrap. Merci, mon petit Suisse; and good riddance to your long greasy hair, hanging down on each side like the coat of an animal, and good riddance to your spotty white face with its subservient smile, half-scared, half-ingratiating. Good riddance, but come back again with your fine Swiss francs.
Yes, life was good, now. But there was one thing still missing: a girl. A real girl, not one of the tarts in Les Paquis who do anything for drugs or money. And Omar knew just the one. He’d first seen her on the tram. She’d been a few seats in front; he had watched her all the way to her stop – one before his – and had got off alongside her, close enough to smell her perfume. He’d followed her back to a block of flats near the train station. Behind the apartment block was a poorly lit courtyard, one corner of which was set aside for paper and glass recycling. So, the night before the council came to empty the bins, he’d waited there, squatting behind his parked moped as though to check a tyre. He’d patiently watched the tidy Swiss deposit bundles of paper wrapped in string and boxes of empty wine bottles. And soon he’d got lucky.
Out she had come, her hair catching the dim electric glow of the light over the apartment block’s back door, her hip’s curve holding back the door while she manoeuvred an armful of paper and card through the opening. Omar noted where she placed the bundle, and as soon as she’d gone, he’d darted across the courtyard, retrieved it from the communal bin, and strapped it to the back of his moped. Minutes later, he was carrying it up the stairs to his poky council flat.
In this way, Omar had collected three of Isabel’s batches of waste-paper. From these, he had learnt her date of birth, name, bank details, and place of work; her phone number, email address, and the number of her pension plan. He’d found out that her mother had recently died, all alone, back home in France; and that a small but useful legacy was coming Isabel’s way. Yes, Omar really knew Isabel rather well.
He wiped his forehead with one hand; he must be getting acclimatised to this country, for he was actually finding the day hot, and was glad of the plane tree’s shade . He looked towards the railings of the park; soon, the students would be stopping for lunch. Come on, petits Suisses, eight francs a wrap.
But wait: that was her! Isabel! In pocket-sized Geneva, you bump into everyone sooner or later; sometimes in the station, sometimes by the lake, and sometimes, why not, in the Parc des Bastions. She was heading towards the tree-lined promenade in the centre of the park, carrying a shoulder bag and a paper parcel. The strap of the bag passed over one shoulder and across her chest, accentuating her breasts. And as Omar watched her, this motherless girl, for one small second he wrestled with an instinct to love and protect that he hadn’t felt since he’d hugged his mother goodbye, a year ago.
No. Look after yourself. Nobody else will. You know that. Involuntarily, he gripped the edge of the bin again, hard; old bruises ached.
Omar knew nothing of the man behind him until he was hit between the shoulders, very hard, a great momentum cannoning into him and lifting him briefly from his feet before slamming him to the ground. And as he lay there, a knee pressing his head into the dust, he saw that the man who was calling him putain wore Adidas trainers; and for a moment Omar thought he had grasped some great truth, but it slipped away before he could truly understand it.
Isabel got off the tram outside the Parc des Bastions, and walked through the park gates, the golden tips of their black iron railings gleaming down at her from at least double her height. She had no particular reason to be here other than to seek some shade, some cool green space to escape the continental summer. Also, it was convenient; Bastions was about half-way between Rue Dizerens and her home in Les Paquis. Originally, she’d intended to go straight home from the cramped offices of the Service Étrangers et Confédérés, and enjoy a half-day’s holiday catching up with the re-organisation of her tiny two-room flat; but the sight of the leafy, shaded park through the tram window had been too tempting, and on the spur of the moment she’d decided to take advantage of this precious enclave in Geneva centre.
She thought about sitting down in front of the Four Reformers, but the noon sun made the pale stones of Reformation Wall painfully bright, and she squinted with discomfort and quickened her pace. Better to walk down the tree-lined Promenade des Bastions, and find a bench in the shade. There should still be seats free; it was too early for most people to have stopped for lunch. Although the fact that one old lady was actually sitting in the sun, even on such a day, might mean that all the shady seats were taken. Look at her: thick coat, tights, even a hat; on a day like this! She had one hand in the air and was holding aloft some small red thing, as though offering a treat to an invisible friend. Then, as the old girl turned her head, looking around the park, Isabel had a jolt of recognition – her! In the Service Étrangers et Confédérés, they laughed about her; they called her “The Bizarre of All the Russias”. But Isabel knew that her name was Valentina; in fact, Isabel reflected, she probably knew as much about the old woman as anyone. Because she was Isabel’s special project.
Joel had assigned the old lady to Isabel several weeks ago.The Russian had been drawing Swiss state benefits for years, on the basis of permitted residence and disability, and Joel, eternally suspicious, determined to guard every centime of Swiss tax-payers’ money as his own, had smelt a rat. Some idiot doctor at the Hôpitaux has signed her off as suffering from early-stage Alzheimer’s, he would rage, but I’ve spoken to her, and if you ask me she remembers a hell of a lot more than she lets on! She’s hiding something, damn it! I know it! She lies all the time! And after frothing and snarling and calling on the gods of the Swiss People’s Party – forgetting, apparently, that Isabel too was not Swiss – Joel had instructed Isabel to take on Madame Valentina as a special project, keeping a very close eye on the old bat, to make sure that she was in genuine need of state support. The last thing they needed, he’d growled, was another crooked Russian playing the game, taking Swiss benefits while quietly pocketing some undeclared cross-border income.
So Isabel had carefully and gently gone through Valentina’s assets and expenditure, her lifestyle and needs; had chatted to her endlessly while arranging this form of care and that; had visited her in her council flat, and noted her books and gew-gaws, her bills and bottles of Krasnaya Polyana balsam. She had even followed her to the supermarket on a couple of occasions, the Migros on the Rue de la Servette, and surreptitiously noted what the old lady bought and how much she spent. But she had discovered nothing to suggest that Valentina was anything other than what she was widely held to be: an old, half-senile, unfriendly Russian émigré, living a hand-to-mouth existence on state benefits.
And during this time, she had got quite fond of the old girl, with her grim silences, occasionally broken by patriotic declamations on the subject of Mother Russia, and her face like wrinkled, weathered granite. Could such a woman have ever loved anything more than an ideology? It was hard to imagine so. Sometimes Isabel brought her the little cakes that Maman had liked so much; to soften the old girl up, she told herself; but that wasn’t the reason. In any case, Valentina would accept these with a gruff Merci, and eat them slowly, to make them last; but all the time, she would watch Isabel suspiciously, peering at her with failing, watery blue eyes. She would sometimes ask Who are you? and when told, say Oh yes, as though it had simply slipped her mind. Isabel could see why this behaviour made Joel suspicious; it was as though Valentina were playing a part, the part of a forgetful old woman. But Isabel was sure that Joel had got it the wrong way round – it was the forgetting that was genuine, and the pretending to remember that was the artifice.
She was a sweet old thing, in a way. It was a crime for her family to leave her on her own, like this; but these days, you have to go where the work is, even if that means leaving your frail old mother on her own. And Isabel knew what that was like. She also knew a little of what it was to be foreign: Geneva was French-speaking, but it wasn’t France, and she wasn’t Swiss, and the Swiss sometimes reminded her of that. So Isabel often felt as lonely as the Russian seemed, especially since Maman had passed away. Sometimes she’d hug the pensioner, tight, catching the scent of old wool and soap before Valentina disengaged herself impatiently.
Anyway, here she was, the old Russian, sitting in the sun and eating sweets. Isabel walked towards her, intending to say a quick Bonjour and check that all was well, but was brought up short by a commotion under one of the trees. The sound of an impact, followed by a clatter. Towards Reformation Wall, three men were on the ground. Two of them, burly and intent, were restraining the third, a black man in a loud shirt. His arms were being held behind his back while his wrists were cuffed; his head was pressed to the ground by a knee. A rubbish bin nearby had been overturned, spilling its contents over the ground. As Isabel watched, one of the men looked through the detritus before retrieving a small cardboard box. Isabel looked back to Valentina, and saw that the old woman had risen from her seat. With one hand still absurdly raised at head height, presenting a piece of gaudy red cellophane, and the other clutching her eternal bag, she was clumsily waddling towards the unfolding drama.
‘Valentina?’ Isabel called out. ‘Valentina! Valentina, wait!’
Up here, on the Rue de la Croix-Rouge, above and just behind Reformation Wall, one might have expected a cooling breeze. But the only movements of the stifling air were dusty draughts stirred up by cars. One such eddy caught a clump of plane tree pollen, and flipped it up and around before suddenly discarding it, as though bored of a childish game. The fluffy pollen drifted and yawed, and slowly sank. Finally, it came to rest at the feet of the man sitting on the low wall that stopped absent-minded pedestrians falling thirty feet into the Parc des Bastions.
He was a broad man, approaching both middle height and middle age, with hair cut close to his scalp, and dark brown eyes that seemed permanently angry. He wore trainers and track-suit bottoms, and a T-shirt with a faded logo: clothing carefully chosen to be unremarkable. He had his back to the park, and was looking at a mobile phone, his thumb occasionally moving as though he were reading messages. To look at him, you would think Roma mafia; in fact he was a policeman, and he was studying real-time images of a box of drugs in a rubbish bin. His name was Daoud.
Much as he despised his colleagues in the Service Télécommunications et Informatique, with their reliance on technological tricks and book-learning, Daoud was grateful for the ingenious, and tiny, camera that they had embedded into the underside of a projecting branch of the plane tree. He and Jean-Paul had been watching the dealer now for three-quarters of an hour, and, at last, they had what they needed. Jean-Paul’s latest text, sent from where he hunched and glowered over a screen in the surveillance van waiting by the Grand Théâtre, had assured Daoud of the collection of enough evidence to finally nail this scumbag. Daoud texted the single word ‘Allez’, turned off his phone, shoved it into his pocket, and started walking down the Rue de la Croix-Rouge; briskly, but not so fast as to draw attention. He was a big man, the drug dealer; but that didn’t bother Daoud. He’d knocked down bigger skittles in his time. He glanced at the park, to his left; he couldn’t see the dealer from here, but no more would the dealer see him.
As he walked, Daoud’s jaw clenched, on and off, on and off, a danger signal that his colleagues had long ago learnt to recognise. His fuse had been lit, no doubt about that; and the powder kegs had been stacking up for the best part of thirty years, ever since he and his parents had come over from Morocco. It had been difficult to get into Switzerland in those days, he remembered; even more difficult to fit in, to be accepted. They had made sacrifices, all of them; sacrifices too numerous to mention, too painful to recall. But now the likes of him can trek all the way from south of the Sahara and mince into the country as though they own it, expecting the state to fall at their feet while they do anything to make money except honest work.
It was unjust; they should earn their place in society, just as others had. Daoud ground his teeth until the enamel squealed.
As he got closer to the Parc des Bastions, he slowed his walk so as to mingle with the growing stream of people. He fell in behind a cluster of kids, students probably, and then casually wheeled away from them, taking a sharp left in front of the open-air chess boards with their retinue of old men, intense and combative. A fine, bright day; his father would be opening up the Restaurant Maroc, right now, and his mother fussing in the restaurant kitchen. Annette would be tapping on a keyboard in the Service Étrangers et Confédérés immigration office, and their son would be running to the school cafeteria. Life was good in Switzerland: the product of a careful balance. And people who disrupted that balance really were very, very unwelcome.
He strode purposefully on, behind and to the side of the Restaurant, and then slowed to a casual walk, looking up towards the top of Reformation Wall; just another tourist. Here it comes, Daoud; here it comes. The end-game. He kept the bright shirt in his peripheral vision, slowing his walk to match those around him. When the plane tree was directly between him and the African, he suddenly turned and ran straight towards the tree, accelerating as though to run through the trunk and splinter it apart. At the last minute, he jinked to one side and launched himself at the dealer, hitting him centre-spine with his shoulder, feeling the satisfaction of impact. He was almost thrown off to one side, because the man was gripping the edge of the bin, and if it had held, Daoud’s momentum would have carried him past the dealer and to the ground; but the bin was old, and its support was torn away from the trunk of the plane tree, upending the receptacle and disgorging cans and cigarette ends and unwanted food over the grass. Daoud found himself on top of the man, and quickly grasped his wrist, pulling it behind his back and up towards his neck. Jean-Paul appeared as if from nowhere in the way that he had, and quickly cuffed the African, while Daoud pinned his head to the ground.
‘So, putain, what are you selling today, hmm?’ Daoud murmured softly; but the dealer was too winded to answer, and anyway, no answer was necessary, because Jean-Paul was retrieving the box of cannabis twists from the scattered detritus. Daoud took his phone out of his pocket, and pressed a quick-dial number.
‘C’est fini, maintenant.’ And almost immediately, there was the sound of a nearby siren.
Breathing heavily, the two men hoisted the African to his feet. Daoud’s heart was racing, but with the exultation of victory, not tension. A careful operation, followed by a perfect result. This was why he was in the police. Shame about the bin, but it must have needed replacing anyway, to have come off the tree so easily. As they walked their prize to the gates of the park. Daoud looked back, and saw a little cluster of onlookers — gawping tourists and slack-jawed students — trying to capture every moment on their mobile phones. And there, by the plane tree, was an old woman, poking around in the mess of litter on the ground; a tramp, perhaps, looking for cigarette ends or food. Disgusting! he thought; how disgusting! No shame! Couldn’t she at least have waited until there was nobody watching?
Beneath the gaze of the Four Reformers, an old, old lady is on her knees, weeping. Her swollen fingers paw at the little paper rolls scattered on the ground, small tubes tied up with cotton. Dozens of them, all tied up with red cotton: yes, red cotton, every one. A young woman tries to comfort the old thing; at least, she puts a hand on her shoulder, and speaks to her gently. But nobody notices this; all eyes are on a black man, in a colourful shirt, being led out of the park by two policemen.
The Four Reformers, of course, keep their peace, staring into the green void; but if they were to speak, what would they say? Perhaps only what is carved into the hot stone flags beneath them: POST TENEBRAS LUX.
Marc Joan spent the early part of his life in India and the early part of his career in biomedical research. He draws on this and other experience for his fiction, which has been published in magazines including Lighthouse Literary Journal, Structo, Bohemyth, Smokelong Quarterly, Hypnos, Chroma, Madcap Review, Danse Macabre, The Apeiron Review, STORGY, Literary Orphans, Bookends Review, Sci Phi, Weird Horror and Sein und Werden. His novelette, ‘The Speckled God’, was published by Unsung Stories in Feb 2017; he is a contributor to the forthcoming Comma Press anthology ‘Mirror in the Mirror’ and the DBND anthology ‘Ghost Stories for Starless Nights’; and his novella ‘Shame’s Aspic’ has been accepted for a forthcoming Kyanite Press anthology. He has been placed in various competitions as follows: he was a finalist in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2017/2018; Runner Up in the Ink Tears Short Story Competition 2017/18; received a Special Mention in the Galley Beggar Short Story Competition 2017/18; long-listed for the Brighton Prize 2017; reached the last 60 (from nearly 1,000 entries) of the 2018 BBC National Short Story Award; received an Honourable Mention (placed in the top 4%) of the 2020 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize; winner of the 2020 Punt Volat Spencer A. Parker Memorial Award in Fiction, and finalist in the same competition with a second entry; was long-listed in the 2020 William van Dyke Short Story Prize (one of 20 semi-finalists from over 400 entries); and was finalist / selected for publication in the 2020/21 Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. Marc lives in England with his family, and can be contacted via www.marc-joan.com.