“The Watch”
by Roy Googin

Ayaz ignored the guard’s nod as he pulled through the gate and turned left onto the carless early morning street. It was still dark, the eastern sky showing only the barest hint of a dark blue prelude to sunrise. Few houses were visible through the gates or over the walls. He was by habit an early riser, and a pre-dawn trip to the office or the airport would not seem unusual to anyone who knew him well enough to recognize his car. Still, under the circumstances, he preferred anonymity. He drove slowly, taking mental inventory of the few faces he passed. He spotted a guard, precariously balanced on a folding metal chair by a neighbor’s gate, chin to chest, sound asleep. Three veiled women, housekeepers perhaps, moved slowly up the hill. He noticed no one that would have a reason to notice him. He continued to guide his car down the crumbling asphalt street, past the well-kept stone walls.

The faint, not unpleasant smell of burning garbage drifted up the street from the squalid encampment farther down the hill. The walls and the guards, he thought, can keep out everything but the smell.

* * *

Ayaz thought back to the day, sixteen years ago, when their friendship began to crumble. They were so young then, only boys. He could see himself, all those years ago, walking around the corner, away from the crowded marketplace, back toward the dusty old colonial park where Iqbal the driver would be waiting with the car. His friend Sharif would be there by now. He would have the old man take them home now, perhaps, or, no, first to the harbor to buy crabs. He cut behind the old library, the car was in sight across the lawn.

Something was wrong; Iqbal was on the ground by the car. He had been beaten, badly. Sharif had gotten there first, and was kneeling next to him. Even from this distance, it was clear there was nothing to be done for the old man. Whatever had happened, whoever had done this, had done a thorough job. Iqbal was finished. As he got closer, he could see that Sharif was removing the watch from the driver’s wrist. Sharif looked up, caught Ayaz’s eyes. He was frightened, startled. His eyes froze, but his hands continued to work the watch’s clasp. It came free. Awkwardly, he stood, his eyes still locked on his friend. He did not speak. Ayaz broke his gaze, looked down at the old servant, at his cheap tan shalwar kameez, collar stained with blood, pant leg twisted. His body small and broken, half obscured under the car’s open door. No doubt about it; he was dead.

“Why do you want his watch?” he had asked.

“No one saw. Only you know. Look around you, we are ignored. No one will know.” Sharif was rambling. He was not answering.

“Why? Why the watch?” He noticed the watch in the other boy’s hand. It was a nice watch. Strange, the poor old servant having such a nice watch. “You can have it, I don’t care, he has no family.” Sharif’s eyes narrowed; he took a breath. Ayaz knelt by the dead man. “Help me put him in the car.” They drove home in silence. It was a dangerous country, a senseless time. The old driver had no luck, that day less than ever. It was not Sharif’s fault the old man met a violent end. If he liked the luckless servant’s watch, fine, he could keep it.
Arrangements were made, there was a small funeral. A new driver was hired. In months, Iqbal was forgotten. Ayaz and Sharif went through the motions of friendship for several more years. Ayaz lost interest in their conversations, Sharif only seemed interested in discussing cricket, or recounting the ludicrous plots of Indian movies. Sharif eventually left Karachi for school in Lahore. Ayaz did not miss him, and rarely thought of him. If their mothers had not kept in touch, Ayaz would have long forgotten him.

* * *

Now Sharif was back in Karachi. His sister was to be married. Ayaz’s father died years ago, leaving him in charge of his mother’s house. His mother had invited Sharif for dinner, certain Ayaz would be pleased to see his old friend. He let his mother think this was true, though he quietly dreaded the evening.

Sharif arrived at the appointed time. The cook had made lamb. His mother smiled at them, as they struggled to keep the conversation alive. She was so glad to see old friends together again. She became tired, and made her excuses. She went upstairs to bed.

Sharif was saying something about the courts in Islamabad, as he leaned back in his chair, resting his arm on the table. Ayaz noticed a watch, the watch, on his wrist. “You still wear that watch,” he blurted in casual surprise, wishing instantly he had let it slide. He just wanted the night to come to a natural and early conclusion.

Sharif’s face turned gray. “Yes...still.” He practically whispered. He looked towards Ayaz, not at him. “You never told anyone, did you? You promised me you would not tell a soul.” He shifted his weight, looked up at Ayaz’s face.

“‘Promised’? What did I promise? But no, it never came up, why would it? The old man was killed, you wanted his watch, I said you could have it. There is nothing to tell. But I made no promise. Why would you ask for such a promise?”

Sharif was silent for a long moment. Finally, he spoke, quietly. “Not about the watch. You know what I am asking you. I killed the man. You know this as well as I do - and you lied to protect me. You are as guilty as I am. You know, you never even asked me why.” He struggled to steady his breathing. The room became library-silent. Every incidental sound, the rustling of a sleeve, the creaking of the wooden chairs, became obtrusive, distracting. Sharif continued. “I had a reason, you know. The old man, you remember how he was. In his eyes - I could tell he looked down on me, he knew my family did not have the wealth and importance yours had. I got to the park early that day. You were late. I told him to tell me the time. He just stared at me. Then he said ‘if you are in a hurry, call your own driver...but of course, forgive me, you have no driver’. I said ‘tell me the time old man’. He said ‘what, you have no watch either?’ I was furious. I struck him. I hit him again and again. He fell to the ground, and I kicked him. I don’t know how many times. He never made a sound.” Sharif wiped tears from his face with his palms. He looked up at Ayaz. Ayaz was staring at him, clearly stunned.

“You killed him.” It was obvious, of course he had killed him, why had he never realized? “You killed him.”

“This has haunted my life. I have carried this secret like a stone on my heart for sixteen years. I have known what kind of man I am. Nasreen will be married this month, to a good family. They will care for my mother.” He only now made up his mind, as he spoke the words. “After Nasreen’s wedding, I am ending this, turning myself in.”

Ayaz closed his eyes, pulled off his glasses. He pressed his fingertips to his forehead, trying to force his brain to think clearly. He opened his eyes. “You fool. You are not turning yourself in. You told me yourself - you had every right to do what you did. The courts would not have understood - the old man was insubordinate. You did us all a favor.”

“I killed a man because he did not like me. I am a monster, how can you think otherwise? I am a monster, a liar. I will no longer be a coward.”

“Think of your family! You cannot humiliate them like this. You fool! Don’t you see? You will never be caught. You should not have even told me this tonight. I truly did not know - I never would have known. You could have carried this to your grave. Now no one will believe I did not know. Even you thought I knew. Damn you, they will come for me too, they will think I have protected you all these years. My ‘dear old friend’.” He sneered across the table.

Sharif looked past Ayaz, through the window, it was pitch black outside. “I will no longer be a coward. It is over, Ayaz.”

“Shut up.” It was late. His mother was long since asleep, the servants were back to their rooms behind the kitchen, well out of earshot. He stood, walked through the door into the kitchen. He poured himself a glass of water, and selected a large-bladed knife. Yes, Sharif. It is over.

* * *

Ayaz snaked the car through the shack-lined alleys of Dhobi Ghott, the ancient, decrepit district of laundrymen, cripples, and criminals that clung to the banks of the filthy dying river as it trickled the last few miles towards the ocean. He had never been here before, and had only seen it once or twice, from a safe distance. Looking down from the road that skirted the edges of this hellish enclave, Dhobi Ghott had always seemed to Ayaz to be an endless expanse of anonymous squalor, populated by faceless wretches. The place had nothing to do with his world. It had seemed the only rational place to quietly end this foolish episode.

It was still dark, and the unfamiliar winding streets were making it difficult for him to navigate. The few vehicles that shared the streets were pulled by donkey, camel, or ox. It had not occurred to him that his car would be such an oddity. Still, he did not seem to be drawing undue attention, in fact, the few faces he passed seemed to actively avoid his gaze. He was not of these people, and they lived in a world that did not encourage curiosity. That was fine with Ayaz. The street curved left; he saw the river at last appear before him.

He stopped the car on a muddy bank. The nearest structures were a row of shapeless tents across the street, nearly invisible in the pre-dawn gloom. If he could not see them, they could not see him. Still, he wasted no time. Sharif’s body, wrapped tightly in the cheap wool rug, made an awkward but manageable package. He pulled the body from the trunk, and dragged it the few feet from the car to the edge of the river. He pushed it into the water with his foot, bracing himself against a stone wedged in the mud. He gave the body another shove, and at last it caught the feeble current. Ayaz watched for a few seconds as Sharif began to float downstream. He turned back to the car, walked the few steps back through the mud, climbed in, pulled away from the river. The sky had begun to lighten. The streets were coming to life. In the distance, the azan called the faithful to prayer. He pointed the car back towards home; he would need to change his clothes before heading to the office. He checked his wrist. He would still be early. He glanced again at the watch, and smiled. It was a nice watch.

© 1998 Roy Googin