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 saw his brogues had an economy of movement: raised enough to avoid tripping over uneven paving stones or stepping on cracks. Later, he’d say it amused him to think that by treading on them he'd fall into a 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 recklessness. For this reason he skipped over them. As a consequence, his head would occasionally bob above those of other 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 expanded or contracted 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 it could be proved 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.
Seeing commuters scurrying struck him as absurd: their coats flapping behind them, 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 always in touch with a paving stone. No matter how quickly his legs carried him, his stride was never more than a walk.
He seemed determined not to run and, as far as I knew, he never did.
Later, he’d admit his sole concession to haste was to snap a series of imaginary geodesic chalk lines over the cartesian plane of the neighbourhood, travelling 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 recalibrating 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 only had the opportunity to observe him from behind. He frequently sat ahead of me on the bus’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 an oily blackness. And despite a reluctance to hurry, the ruddy scruff of his neck had beads of perspiration mixed with pomade between his short-back-and-sides and starched collar.
I’d idly draw patterns between dandruff, tracing imaginary constellations across the shoulders of the navy-blue gabardine trench coat bound 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 a habit of sitting perfectly immobile, with introspection and acute self-consciousness—that commanded my attention. And though curiously at ease with the interest it attracted—conceivably he had grown accustomed to the discomfort—he was deep in thought, and appeared to be grappling with a conundrum.
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, but then 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 bus’s fanlights. The strips of glass fell sluggishly on worm gears, as if fatigued by the heat of the morning. A pleasant breeze moved through the lower deck as the bus hurried down Green Lanes and again, without much thought, I’d found myself sitting behind him. I smelt the metallic tang of his unscented pomade that mixed with a smell of starched cotton like charged molecules of ozonic air before a storm. It was unexpected, pleasant, neutralising a disagreeable muskiness from the moquette. 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 iniquities of man.
And whilst it would be true to say he was good looking, introspection 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 had little flexibility. I’d learn that he was frequently in the right, but unnecessarily 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 perhaps that was unfair. Any aloofness or censoriousness was a misunderstanding—on the part of others—of his theoretical disposition which was unprepared and ill-equipped to negotiate the terrain of other’s 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. And though possessing these uncommon attributes, he maintained he was comfortable with the routine of public service administration; happier when its predictability overwhelmed the unexpected.
It would be unreasonable to say his introversion was mute, though when we talked—with his back to me—his words, put together without much fluidity, would stumble over the empty seats ahead of him. He’d chattily explain 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 Carroll and not Harper Lee, though to the contrary, 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 they wouldn’t hesitate removing, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy from where their assistant had placed it. It would be returned beside To Kill a Mockingbird—covertly, as I suspected there might be concern about the feelings of their young assistant. They might also run a finger down the spine, levelling it with books on either side, pat the shelf, and let out a quiet ‘Ha!’ behind 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 shelves. Destined to travel from C to L and back again, making frequent visits to fellow authors Lewis Carroll 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. ‘It’s an opportunity to lift the manhole covers—they won’t have been put 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. His shoulders dropped. After a few moments he lifted his head. Again he said nothing, until… words came flooding from his mouth in an irrepressible stream of consciousness; a spring freshet with an unstaunchable flow; ‘If they have a hinge there’s no difficulty They can lift them and lower them without a problem They'll go back fine Without a hinge it’s complicated Manhole covers are better with hinges If they replace them however they want without thinking I see it all the time It’s an issue … well … you know …’ His words trailed-off, converting themselves into deep thoughts. To emphasise its importance when mentioning the hinge, he ostentatiously swung a forearm from his left side over to the right.
And so I learnt about his peculiar interest.
From his coat he pulled out 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 were numbered. I reasoned they corresponded to numbers next to the street names in the notebook. I leaned forwards so our foreheads almost touched. With the tip of my forefinger beneath my nose, I flipped the separating page backward and forwards, eventually arriving at the understanding that more numbers meant bigger circles.
The significance of the entire vector diagram remained unexplained.
He held-up two photographs and demanded with unexpected certainty, ‘What’s different?’
The only visible difference was that he’d written a number on the back of one but not the other. ‘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.’
By rolling his eyes he acknowledged an observation that in all certainty was relevant, however unwittingly made. He urged me to widen my thinking, ‘And so? …’
Hot melt thermoplastic paint—the difference was conspicuous.
The photograph without a number had a continuous centre line painted over the tarmac and manhole cover, whilst the cover in the numbered photograph—after painting—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 randomly oblique to anything around it.
He fancifully interpreted the road as a ventilation engineer’s diagram. The road’s line represented a duct; the cover’s virgule an inline-damper … constantly open. Rarely—should the cover be replaced correctly—might it close. Open, it was 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 hinged manhole cover 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. Rotating it three times, I calculated it gave an evens chance 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 invariably be replaced incorrectly. The council couldn’t match his standards or expectations. Misplaced manhole covers were beacons of ineptitude. ‘Do you know there are infinite possibilities to replace a circular cover incorrectly,’ he murmured.
‘Yes, I do.’
Despite the success of his disclosure, he was uneasy with praise that came his way. He was a little diffident. Explaining it revealed his disposition: a blend of assertiveness and reticence. A suspension of oil and water. A singularity of two opposing forces. No matter how much he tried to emulsify them, they would stubbornly separate out. If it was a condemnation of his youthful ingenuity, it would also be his prerogative and undoubted charm.
As we sat in file the following morning, he removed two sheets of yellowed paper from his coat pocket, both folded in half twice. Sent by the Town Clerk of Haringey Council, he opened each letter carefully—the folds had begun deteriorating—and 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.’
His thriftier proposal had followed a year later, but did little better.
‘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.’
Afterwards, in an obdurate though self-reflective moment, he said that whilst he himself gave ‘full consideration’ to the idea that perfection was rarely obtainable—air quoting as he said it—he was nevertheless captivated by its rigour, enchanted by its absoluteness, never able to overlook its flawlessness and constantly reassured by the enticing possibility of its attainment.