The Anatomy of Disconnected Lines
I first noticed him on the other side of Westbury Avenue, as we both made our way to the bus stop.
Even through heavy traffic I could see his brogues had an economy of movement: raised enough to avoid tripping over uneven paving stones, or stepping on cracks. He said to me, that it amused himself to think by treading on them he’d fall into their world of unpredictability and imperfection. That beneath the stones, suffocated in a turbulent sea of discomfort, he’d lack the ability to free himself from its reckless transformations. For this reason he’d skip over them. As a consequence his head would occasionally bob above those of his fellow commuters.
He took the opinion that the 141’s timetable represented a rotating loop of contiguous eight minute integers. For each commuter the integer maintained an element of standing or sitting—the arrival of the bus a divisor between the two. As time would expand or contract according to the unpredictability of the rush hour, one couldn’t determine how one might coincide with these integers. And so … there was little point running for the bus. He assured me he could prove this algebraically, but didn’t have much inclination to do so.
In any case, on weekday mornings the median waiting time was four minutes, and he thought it foolish to define four minutes as waiting.
When he saw commuters scurrying it would strike him as absurd: their coats flapping in their wake, briefcases stuck under their armpits, and hands holding hats to their heads. At times he would scuttle along, but like a race walker at least one of his brogues was touching the paving stones. No matter how quickly his legs carried him, his stride was never more than a walk.
He was determined not to run, and as far as I knew, he never did.
He admitted his sole concession to haste was to snap a series of imaginary geodesic chalk lines over the cartesian plane of the neighbourhood. This way he travelled the minimum distance from point A—his front door, to point B—the bus stop. In this unusual manner he cut the most economical path around obstacles, or through the crowd. On occasions he recalibrated his way forward, moving around those more unyielding than he was.
It was many months before we would speak to each other.
Until then I had the opportunity to observe him from behind. He frequently sat ahead of me on the Routemaster’s red-chequered moquette seating. With a sheen of pomade, his rosy ears bookended his well combed heavily dressed hair. It fell from a single crown, where small particles of dandruff were encased in its oily blackness. And despite his reluctance to hurry, the ruddy scruff of his neck had a mix of perspiration and pomade. It formed beads on the nape of his neck, between his short-back-and-sides and starched collar.
I’d idly draw patterns between dandruff, tracing constellations across the shoulders of his navy-blue gabardine trench coat. The coat strapped to his young wiry-frame by the narrow leather strap of a camera case.
None of these attributes were in themselves strange. It was rather their combination, together with his habit of sitting perfectly immobile, with introspection and acute self-consciousness. It commanded my attention. Deep in thought, he seemed to be grappling a conundrum, though curiously at ease with the interest he attracted. Conceivably he’d grown accustomed to the discomfiture of everyday life. Yet, when we talked, he would present his back to me, and his words—put together without much fluidity—would stumble over the empty seats ahead of him.
It was a hot week in Spring when we had our first conversation. A handful of April days in London that take you by surprise. Blustery and wet some weeks before and
after—for now it was hot and dry. A foretaste of what you’d want the summer to be, though it rarely was.
The conductor energetically turned the curvaceous cast-metal handles, lowering the Routemaster’s fanlights. The strips of glass fell sluggishly on their worm gears, as if fatigued by the heat of the morning. A pleasant breeze would move through the lower deck as the bus hurried down Green Lanes. As it passed around him, I smelt the unscented pomade that gave-off a metallic tang. It mixed with a smell of starched cotton like the charged molecules of ozonic air before a storm.
It was unexpected, pleasant, neutralising the disagreeable smell of the moquette—caused by the sweat of passengers: a catalyst that encouraged the dust to release its muskiness. Without much thought I found myself sitting behind him. So on that hot spring day a wholesome breeze charged with youthfulness washed around me. A chaste scent infused with innocence and virtue: a primordial odour yet to be touched by the sins of humanity.
And whilst it would be true to say he was good looking, introspection and a lack of expression obscured his attractiveness. His appearance and manner of dress were patrician, but an awkwardness and hesitancy betrayed a lack of privilege. And despite displaying a facility for exactitude, its execution lacked flexibility. He was frequently in the right, but I often found it unnecessary for him to be so. He lacked the ability to
be economical with the truth, keep his own counsel, or loosen his expectations. It appeared he had no sympathy, compassion or understanding of the human condition.
But as far as I could see, that was unfair. Any aloofness or censoriousness was a misunderstanding—on the part of others—of his theoretical disposition, that was unprepared and ill-equipped to negotiate the terrain of human fallibility.
Despite this, as an assistant in Bethnal Green Library his appreciation of the plasticity of time, mathematical reasoning, and necessity for order, was likely a benefit in many facets of his work. Despite possession of these uncommon attributes, he maintained he was comfortable with the routine of public services administration. Happier when its predictability overwhelmed the unexpected.
It would be unreasonable to say his introversion was mute. He chattily explained the nuances of the library’s classification system. As ‘le’ was a definite article, he was adamant John le Carré should always be on the same shelf as Lewis Carrol and not Harper Lee. Though to the contrary he explained that as ‘Le’ was part of a proper noun, it was acceptable for Ursula K. Le Guin’s books to be beside Harper Lee’s.
“But you’ll always find a‘Tinker …’ side-by-side ‘… a Mockingbird.’” Amused by himself he shook his head in a mannered, slightly clumsy way.
“I guess so.” I acknowledged, unconvinced of its importance.
Apparently the chief librarian took a contrary, though mistaken, view.
As such, I speculated he could not avoid removing, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ from where his assistant had placed it. He’d return it beside ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’—albeit covertly, as I suspected he would be sensitive to the feelings of his young assistant. He might also run a finger down the spine, levelling it with the books on either side: pat the shelf and let-out a quiet ‘ha!’, behind pursed lips and a half-smile.
They had very divergent views about the classification of books. So one imagined the unfortunate John le Carré enduring a nomadic existence, between the shelves of the library. Destined to travel from C to L and back again. Making frequent visits to his fellow authors Lewis Carrol and Harper Lee.
“You like taking pictures?” He returned my non sequitur with a non sequitur of his own.
“It’s hot,” he said, turning to me with an ineffectual look, as though unprepared for the consequences of the summery weather.
“The road gullies will be dry today,” he offered, then adding, “it’s an opportunity to
lift them—they won’t put them back properly.”
He inclined his head, raised a brow, and opened his mouth as if to voice an opinion, yet seemed reluctant to add anything more. His shoulders dropped. After a few moments he lifted his head. Again said nothing, until he arrived at the moment when he had no option, and words fell from his mouth.
“If they have a hinge well there’s no problem lifting them and then lowering them but with no hinge I’m sure there will be problems and if … well …”His words trailed-off, converting themselves into deep thoughts. To emphasise its importance when mentioning the hinge, he’d ostentatiously swung his forearm from his left side over to his right.
And so I learnt about his very peculiar interest.
From his coat he pulled a small spiral bound notebook and a pocketful of photographs—images of manhole covers. He shifted himself forward. Placing both elbows over the handrail between us, he opened the notebook to a vector diagram of Bethnal Green. Each vector represented a borough’s road in its approximate cartographical location. A circle, more or less enlarged according to a significance I was unaware of. He turned the page:
‘Ada Place/Approach Road/Bethnal Green Road/Bishop’s Way/Blythe Street/Bonner Road/Cambridge Heath Road/Canrobert Street/Centre Street …’
Many of the photographs had numbers on their back. I reasoned they corresponded to the numbers next to the list of street names in the notebook. I leaned forwards so our foreheads almost touched. With the tip of my forefinger beneath my nose, I turned the separating page backward and forwards. Eventually arriving at the understanding that, more numbers meant bigger circles.
But the significance of the entire vector diagram remained unexplained.
So he held-up two of the photographs in front of me, “What’s different!”he demanded with an unexpected surety.
The only visible difference was on the back of one he’d written a number, and on the other he hadn’t, “Well … they’re both manhole covers.”
“But they’re different.” His self-assurance grew.
“No I don’t think they are. They’re made in the same foundry; they’re round, and both are in the middle of a road … look! You can see the road markings.”
His eyes opened wide, acknowledging an observation that in all certainty was relevant—however unwittingly found.
“And so? …” his voice called on me to widen my thinking.
The difference was conspicuous—I’d overlooked the hot melt thermoplastic paint.
The photograph without a number had a centre line painted over the tarmac and manhole cover, whilst the cover in the numbered photograph—after being painted—had been lifted and replaced in a different orientation. The road’s centre line was broken—wasn’t continuous. The line on the manhole cover was randomly oblique to anything around it.
His interpretation of the road as a ventilation engineer’s diagram was fanciful. If the road’s line represented a duct, the cover’s virgule would be an inline-damper … constantly open. Only rarely—should the cover be replaced correctly—might it close. Open, it would be a fountain of unpredictability and imperfection, throwing cascades of confusion into the streets of the borough. Such a theoretical flight of fancy bore an empirical truth—road lines had a duty not to equivocate. However one looked at it, a manhole cover with a hinge was easier to lift, theft proof and couldn’t be replaced in an incorrect orientation.
“It’s not such a problem if they’re rectangular,” he added. By rotating it three times I calculated there was an evens chance that the manhole cover would be replaced correctly. The probability of an error tripled when the manhole cover was square. When they were circular, they’d be replaced incorrectly: the council couldn’t match his standards or expectations.
“Do you know there are infinite possibilities to replace a circular cover incorrectly,” he murmured.
“Yes I do.” I agreed.
Misplaced manhole covers were beacons of ineptitude.
Despite the success of his disclosure, he was uneasy with any praise that would come his way. He was a little diffident. Explaining his work had revealed his disposition—a blend of assertiveness and reticence. He was a suspension of oil and water. A singularity of two opposing forces. No matter how much he tried to emulsify them, they’d stubbornly separate out. If it was a condemnation of his youthful ingeniosity, it was also his prerogative and undoubted charm.
The following morning, from his coat pocket he removed two sheets of yellowed paper. Both folded in half twice. Sent by the Town Clerk of Haringey Council, he opened each letter carefully. The folds had begun deteriorating. He passed them to me over his shoulder.
‘We read with great interest and give full consideration to your suggestion to replace the current inspection covers with hinged units along the borough’s roads and highways. However, we do not feel it prudent at this point in time to adopt such a proposal. The works are deemed non-essential and currently only essential works are being considered.’
The other proposal followed a year later.
‘We read with great interest and give full consideration to your suggestion to lift and realign inspection covers along the borough’s roads and highways. However, we do not feel it prudent at this point in time to adopt such a proposal. Current procedures for replacing inspection covers after maintenance works are deemed adequate.’
Tim Harris, a designer from London, chose to develop his writing in a remote Spanish village. Work has been accepted by Litro, Sad Girls Club, The Dead Mule Society of Southern Literature and Litbreak. He’s lived in the UK, Spain, Mumbai, and Doha, which feeds his fascination for showing the idiosyncrasies of the human condition.