Of all the stories in Learning to Swim, "The Watch" was the best received by American critics. Unlike the other tales in the collection, which are firmly rooted in realism, this one wanders into the realm of fantasy. A watch crafted by the great-grandfather of Adam Krepski, the narrator, possesses the magical quality of never needing winding. But even more than this, whoever carries the watch will have near immortality, living until they are killed but never dying of "old age." As a result the older generations bring a great deal of pressure to bear on the younger, causing a generational war that creates the central conflict of the story.
With the prospect of unlimited longevity the Krepskis feel no need to marry and have children, a situation that causes great unrest between the elders and our narrator. The narrator is not the first of his clan to rebel in this manner. The narrator's father, Stefan, rebelled against his father, attempting to steal the treasured watch, perhaps to smash it. Stefan did not want longevity, he wanted a life full of excitement. In order to escape the stale atmosphere of the Krepski home and watch shop, Stefan "ran away to sea, to the beckoning embraces of risk, fortune, fame -- or oblivion." (p.166) Swift's familiar sea imagery is smoothly entwined in this tale as well.
In addition to risking his life, Stefan married a young singer against his father's wishes. From this marriage came Adam, born just as his father was being killed at sea in the battle of Jutland. Adam falls in love and marries, a cause for friction between him and his grandfather who believes that women should be treated not as love-objects but instead as servants. The problems that arose in Adam's marriage were created by the Krepski disdain of fatherhood. Put simply, he did not want to have children because he did not need them. Adam's wife flees the situation leaving Adam only the company of his grandfather.
But as time progresses the ancient art of watchmaking declines as people begin to wear mass-produced watches. Swift makes his only overt reference to Dickens (except for the epigraph of Waterland) here : "By the 1950's Krepski and Krepski was no more than one of those grimy, tiny, Dickensian-looking shops one can still see on the fringes of the City." (p.170) Leaving the city for a small country cottage, Adam hopes to improve the quality of his life and his grandfather's life at the same time. After arriving at their new country home they take a walk and are struck by the extreme stillness of everything Amid this great quiet, the grandfather realizes that nature is far more permanent than even a Krepski can be. This drives him slightly mad, and that afternoon when a larger-than-reality storm lashes out against the countryside he goes for a walk up a hill in order to be closer to the elemental nature that has proven itself superior to even a Krepski. Adam knows that his grandfather could be killed by lightning but does not stop him. Later, walking out in the storm himself, Adam comes upon his grandfather's charred body. The watch lies beside it, still ticking.
Walking back through London later, Adam considers throwing the watch into the river. "Why not? Why not?" (p.180) challenges the waterborne voice of his father Stefan. He does not throw the watch away but takes it with him to a flat in his ancestral home in Whitechapel, where he will wait in solitude to die. In the flat below him is a pregnant young woman who does not speak English. She has clearly been abandoned by her lover, and is going through a very difficult pregnancy. Adam sits alone in his flat listening to her cries until he can listen no longer and goes down stairs to help her. This is the central climax of the tale, when a Krepski who has never had to worry about death must face the drama of birth. The situation is embarrassing, but Adam fully understands its significance. The child is born but is so sickly that it will not be long for this world. Adam realizes what he must do and puts the watch in the child's hands. Almost immediately the baby issues a healthy cry and regains its grip on life. The power of new life stops the watch at last, and Adam stumbles out into the street realizing that he has done the proper thing and knowing also that his own breaths are now numbered.