This Also Shall Pass
This Also Shall Pass
William Plum woke up to find he was 73. No one had gotten him up. His bladder had recently taken up the cry of an alarm clock, beginning a slow drip percolation like a drooping Dali timepiece. He passed through the bathroom like the shadow of a broken bird, the mirror capturing him for a moment in a tango of confusion: a man in a brown shirt, thick vest beneath and bottle green corduroy trousers. Tufts of snow white hair clung to his speckled, domed head like clusters of sheep clinging to an ancient knoll. He looked like a man that could have been a well-loved grandfather had the cards fallen right.
Around mid-morning birthday post arrived, the metal letter box sagging like a broken jaw as the letters fell in like loose teeth: two final demands, three takeaway menus, a pink envelope and a blue envelope. He knew from the handwriting that the pink one was from his sister, the blue from his brother. He thought he’d like to save them for later. He put them to one side in the fridge to and promptly forgot about them.
He left the house with the intention of buying a cake and some cigarette tobacco. Fifteen minutes later, having walked through a small, sparse park barely showing signs of spring, he found himself in a busy mini-supermarket. He brought three lemons and a copy of a Caravan magazine. Even as he paid for them he was convinced there was something else he had intended to buy. He had asked the plump girl behind the counter if she had any idea what he might have come to buy. She had just stared at him, holding a hand out for money.
He caught the next bus into the centre of the city. Even now there are three lemons lolling around on the upper deck of the 142.
A woman called Grace reads the caravanning magazine as she sits on her toilet waiting to wee. She thinks a caravan holiday might be nice for the children in summer.
Sitting on the upper deck of the 32 to Wigan, William digs into the pockets of his old brown overcoat. Pulling out an olive coloured notebook he sits it on his knees. In another pocket he finds a grimy metal pencil sharpener, an ancient stub of a pencil the colour of blood, fourteen assorted rubber bands, a tiny plastic lion, £1.49 in change and a walnut coated in pocket fluff. Replacing all but the pencil, William opens the notebook, his hand hovering over it with the pencil; each uncut fingernail hanging like a glacial shelf, the fingers themselves hard and narrow like a mountain pass.
The notebook has board covers and opens like a book. It is very old with a split spine that causes the book to hang loose when open. Each presented double page has been sectioned off with a ruler and a hard, immovable line: The middle is marked with a central gutter of around two inches, above which is the word Early. To the left of centre is a three inch wide section, above which is the word On time and to the right of the centre, a three inch wide section, above which is the word Late. William has had similar notebooks; many similar notebooks. This is volume 17. The first volume began shortly after he was pushed, by unseen hands, into premature retirement. His days had gaped out in front of him as a terrifying desert with no obvious sign home. Refinements have been made to the layout of the notebook, and could William remember, he would have chided himself for his early, somewhat amateurish efforts.
There is still nine minutes before the 32 begins its inexorable shunt and shudder to Wigan. William looks out across the bus bays as he begins filling in the notebook. The 111 departs early and a minute is recorded in the central gutter; two 143’s leave at the same time, both on time to the second. William captures the memory in the left hand column. Minutes pass, during which time the bus shakes slightly as people climb the steep stairs over the driver’s compartment. William hears snatches of conversation in different languages and stares out the front window of the bus. A traffic helicopter hovers overhead like the world’s fattest, ugliest dragonfly.
The 18 is eleven minutes late leaving, the driver still taking time to greedily smoke a cigarette before getting back on board. William scratches the details into the right hand column. The 32 leaves on time and William sits back. From the upper deck he can see into hotel rooms: a woman leans forward on the edge of a bed, head in hands, long dark hair hanging like a thunderstorm cloud…a large man in a suit waddles back and forth on a mobile phone, his free hand swollen and flapping like an open wound…a cleaner smokes from an open window, raising a hand to William as she sees him watching her…William waves back and the bus moves away into the clogged, greasy traffic. Hotel rooms give way to offices filled with flustered lives, frantic heartbeats, inhospitable machinery, busy coat stands and fourteen thousand miles of cabling. Between the offices are gaps of dead air, blank space, a sneak peak at the flanks of a railway line, bloated carriages bumping and sighing into the distance. It will be exactly the same on the return journey.
Back home William makes a pot of Earl Grey and works out the tally for the day, having torn the notebook pages into three strips:
Early: 7 minutes
On Time: 42 buses
Late: 53 minutes.
He shifts position in his chair. It is a papier-mâché chair, made from thousands of columns torn from the pages of his notebook. The chair is made from the strips that have recorded the buses running on time – nobody wants to take comfort from a chair that is too early or too late. He reaches for a teacup and saucer sat neatly on a papier-mâché occasional table. They are made from the strips detailing the early buses, as this excess of time keeps his tea from going cool quite so quickly.
He sips his tea and looks out across his sitting room. A dining table and two chairs made from papier-mâché are pushed into the corner. William remembers high tea of Russian Caravan tea and pastries. He cannot remember when that was. Or who it was with. A papier-mâché light with a low wattage bulb cast a dim, but warming yellow glow over the room. William looks at the tally – it is a reasonable tally, but he finds himself worried for the days when he is unable to get out the house quite so much and won’t be able to keep the notebook up to date.
He has spent time with the notebooks, experimenting.
He found out very early on that the columns recording he late running buses were useful for removing time. He used these for making papier-mâché blankets to sleep under, the lateness perfect for lie-ins and epic dreaming. Sometimes they kept the loneliness from creeping out of the corners of the room and catching him unawares.
The columns filled with early buses were excellent for aches, pains and general all-weather fatigue, the excess of time ideal for reducing the germination of ailments.
The first of the columns recording the buses on time – of which there were a surprising amount – William used to make a walking cane for woodland walks, for ambling alongside a local stream; time unfolding with perfect precision.
In the early days of his notebooks, he had used water to moisten the paper for his papier-mâché world, sometimes the remnants of Earl Grey, the fragrance of which made some wonderful papered curtains for the spare bedroom. Then, one night, recalling a woman with night blown ebony hair, a mouth like a navvy and a punch like a sailor, he found himself weeping in a way he’d never allowed to overtake him. The tears had fallen onto the strips of his notebook – strips capturing early buses – as he had prepared to make himself a fruit bowl, the excess minutes used for keeping the fruit fresher. In an epiphany both unexpected and devastating, William realised that his tears were never going to run dry – and since that day had been the moistening for all of his papier-mâché triumphs.
Replacing the teacup and saucer, William sighs. He can feel a call inside of him; his days have been counted. He has had this feeling for a while now and his papier-mâché masterpiece sits in the spare bedroom at the front of the house. He had been stockpiling columns recording the buses running on time as they make for the perfect time, the most right of moments. Rivers of tears have gone into this final work of art. Measuring his height was difficult a first, struggling with the tape measure, but then he realised he could draw a line on the wall above his head with a pencil.
He was amazed he actually fit inside the box when he tried it, but he did, and with a snug acceptance. He had set out to buy silk for the lining, but had come home with drain cleaner, a mango and a set of coasters. In the end he used old pillow cases which, whilst not as opulent as silk, were of a crimson hue he particularly liked.
William thought it odd, funny even, that in the days since finishing his papier-mâché coffin, his tears had run dry. For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t afraid of the loneliness any longer. Glancing at the papier-mâché clock William yawns. Perhaps this will be the last night. Perhaps the tears have done all that they were needed to do.