Garbutt was scarcely conscious of the time that had passed as he stared at the ceiling. He forced himself up, got dressed, and left.
He always went for a long walk on Sunday morning along the canal to Nottingham and back again for no other reason than to help lose the lethargy brought on by the previous nights’ drinking, and also to prepare him for the session beginning later that day. It was an attempt at physical exercise that helped lessen the guilt he felt from over-indulging. He would always deny he was an alcoholic but Sunday, being the last kick of the weekend, would never be allowed to remind him of his mother’s mundane laundry-day hours from childhood.
He didn’t bother washing before leaving, only brushing his teeth, his hair, and putting on clothes covered with a coat for the bad weather that was predicted later that morning. He hoped it would rain because it kept the fair-weather people indoors and he’d rather be wet and have the freedom to move than be dry and congested, sidestepping the bicycles and family groups blocking the narrow pathway along the water’s edge. Before he left he looked out of his window to see the clouds resemble a vast, grey blanket miles across the sky.
Halfway through his walk, he thought he saw a familiar face approaching from the opposite direction. The surprised expression was already there long before Dorsett got close enough to speak.
‘Hello, Garbutt. How strange is this?’
But Garbutt didn’t answer. He’d got to a point where he didn’t care if he was considered rude. He didn’t want to take part in a conversation he was sure would end up awkward or quarrelsome.
‘I’m sorry I can’t stop, Dorsett. I’m late.’
He’d already begun to walk away as he spoke but Dorsett dashed after him.
‘I’ll walk with you.’ He said. ‘I’ve gone far enough anyhow. I only walk up to that milestone over there and then turn back.’
He was pointing to it but Garbutt wasn’t looking, pacing rapidly ahead. Dorsett walked in step with him and Garbutt pulled his coat collar up over his ears even though he wasn’t cold.
‘Sorry I left you last night.’ Said Dorsett. ‘I got a phone call and had to rush off.’
‘Don’t apologise.’ said Garbutt. ‘I had two drinks to finish instead of one. I knew you weren’t coming back so I drank both.’
‘Good thinking. So where are you off to?’
‘I don’t know.’ said Garbutt.
‘You don’t know? I thought you said you were late?’
‘I meant I got up late for my walk.’ he said, surprising himself with his answer. It began to rain lightly and he was glad of it on his forehead which was beginning to perspire. His footsteps accelerated. Dorsett looked intensely at him as they continued, something Garbutt noticed but was determined not to react to.
‘Are you alright, Garbutt? You seem a little agitated.’
Garbutt stopped in his tracks and faced Dorsett head-on.
‘I’m in tip-top condition, Dorsett. How are you?’
‘I’m fine.’ he replied.
‘Good.’ he said. ‘Then we are both well.’
They marched in unison for another thirty seconds before Dorsett mentioned it.
‘You counted nine steps last week, didn’t you?’
Garbutt stopped but didn’t turn around. He looked ahead all the way along the canal path where no one walked. Then he turned around to look at the pathway he’d travelled and there was not a person in sight. Neither did birds fly or traffic sound. The two of them were totally alone. Dorsett looked behind him to a wooden bench in a niche a few yards back from the pathway, something Garbutt hadn’t even noticed.
‘Let’s sit down.’ he said.
But Garbutt remained still. ‘Why did you mention the steps?’
‘Sit down and I might tell you.’ he said.
Garbutt’s curiosity was stronger than his resistance and he followed Dorsett to the bench. When they were settled Dorset spoke like a considerate doctor.
‘Ever had a feeling that whatever you do has been preordained, Garbutt?’
‘No. I haven’t.’ But it was a reply too quick to indicate contemplation.
‘Try again.’ said Dorsett. Garbutt relented with a sigh.
‘No,’ he answered, ‘it’s always going to feel like that after it’s happened. It’s only when you break a routine that you’re convinced you’ve changed something planned. But then someone might argue that that was preordained, too.’
Dorsett nodded as if recognising something found. Garbutt stared at the reflected clouds moving on the water and rippled one to death with a pebble before it resurrected back to life.
‘Have you been following me?’ he asked.
‘I don’t have to follow you to know where you are.’
Garbutt was determined not to show surprise at anything Dorsett said.
‘Would you mind elaborating on that?’
‘Haven’t you noticed that whenever we talk we’re never interrupted? We spoke at Marcie’s table last week and she didn’t say a word to you. I could tell you were uncomfortable. You couldn’t wait to get back to your table.’
‘Those steps on the staircase.’ Garbutt reminded him, ‘How did you know about that?’
‘No one in the building counted the steps except you,’ answered Dorsett, ‘therefore only you would notice the change when one went missing.’
Garbutt knew that any questions asked might have unusual answers and didn’t think he was ready for them yet. He stood up abruptly and had already started to move away before he spoke.
‘I’m going home.’
‘Why?’ asked Dorsett.
Garbutt, hoping his silence might leave some doubt in Dorsett’s predictive mind, walked on. He decided the next day would be a different one.
He woke the next morning and did not allow tiredness to keep him under the bedsheets. He knew that Derek was not going to call so dressed, washed, and drank his coffee alone. When he left he walked across the roads of Derby, Ilkeston, and Alfreton, all the way up to the road that led him past the plaque that said JOHN MENZIES LIBRARY SERVICES and leaped up the steps without counting them. He opened the doors to the shop floor and noticed Dorsett sitting at his table alone. Dorsett said good morning to him but Garbutt passed across without reply and went to his own place of work.
He sat and waited for his colleagues to arrive and they did soon enough. The usual good mornings were exchanged but Garbutt was waiting for the clock to start the day. When the books came up from the lift and were taken to the tables to be sleeved, he left his own and walked over to Dorsett’s. He sat on the edge of it and looked down at Dorsett who looked surprised to see him.
‘Hello, Dorsett. Thought I’d come and have a chat.’
Before he could say anything further Marcie raised her voice from the table behind him.
‘What do you think you’re doing, Garbutt? Get back to work.’
Garbutt turned his head slightly to the side but did not look at her.
‘No. Me and Dorsett here are talking about something important.’
He heard the chair scrape on the floor as she stood up. A moment late she was facing him, hands on her hips. But Garbutt didn’t feel the same way about Marcie as he did before. The hate had gone, replaced only by annoyance that she’d interrupted his talk with Dorsett. When he looked at her he thought of her sad upbringing, the lonely nights at home with her brother, their disharmonious unity built on nothing more than familial ties. No matter how angry she looked, his sympathy for her would always make her harmless. She repeated her order.
’Get back to your table, mister. Move.’
Dorsett looked at Garbutt, not saying anything. Garbutt remained.
‘Aren’t we allowed to talk today then, Dorsett?’
He turned to Marcie.
‘You didn’t stop me from talking to him last week, Marcie. Why are you so angry now?’
Marcie pushed her large face close to his.
‘Last chance. You either get back to work or you don’t come back tomorrow.’
The others on the table were alert as cats, watching the dispute. Their well-practiced hands continued with the bookbinding without the help of eyes. Garbutt gave up his resistance and returned to his table, despondent at the change. When he’d sat down, Derek placed a hand on his shoulder.
‘What’s the matter, Garbo? Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine. I wanted to test Marcie’s patience, that’s all.’
The other women on his table lowered their heads to look across at him, surprised at what he’d done.
‘You can see Dorsett at break time, Garbutt.’ said widow Julie, sympathetically. Garbutt felt comforted at the conciliatory comments, and puzzled expressions were exchanged between his colleagues before the morning groaned on again. He was left frustrated at the experience but knew all he had to do was wait.
When morning break came he got his coffee but drank it at his own table. Dorsett remained at his table, too. At the dinner break, he knew Derek would leave the building with Isobel to go to the sandwich shop and most others would leave also, the hour too long to stay indoors on a sunny day. But Dorsett remained, eating alone at his deserted place. Garbutt walked over and sat down next to him.
‘So, Dorsett. How come Marcie shooed me away this morning?’
‘Because that’s what she does.’ said Dorsett.
‘She didn’t last week.’
‘That’s because we were talking about something important.’
‘How do you know I wasn’t going to say something important? Ask about one of your big questions, maybe?’
Dorsett shook his head.
‘No.’ he said. ‘You only came across to try and find something out.’
‘Oh? And what was that?’
‘You tell me.’
‘OK, I will. I think that when you want to talk then we have all the time in the world. No one seems to notice. But when I want to talk, everything goes back to normal. Like this morning with Marcie. Why is that?’
Dorsett stopped eating his lunch, pushed it away, and turned to face Garbutt.
‘Those books that you read last week. Did you notice anything unusual about them?’
‘Don’t change the subject. Answer my question.’
‘I’m not changing the subject. Go and look at those books again.’
‘I’ve read them three or four times, Dorsett. I didn’t get any big questions.’
‘Don’t read them,’ he said. ‘look at them. You’re not paying attention, otherwise you would have noticed by now. They are blatantly unique and yet you can’t even see it when it’s staring you in the face.’
Garbutt tried to think.
‘One is about atoms.’ he recalled. ‘The other is about the universe. Then the Mobius Strip and that funny shaped bottle.’
‘The Klein Bottle.’ said Dorsett.
‘Whatever.’ said Garbutt, waving a dismissive hand.
Dorsett turned back to his table.
‘It’s time for work.’ he said. Garbutt was about to correct him when the doors opened and he saw Derek and Isobel and the others enter. His look at the clock confirmed it.
‘I’ve only been here five minutes.’ said Garbutt, bemused.
‘Evidently not.’ replied Dorsett, looking at his watch. Garbutt saw Marcie come in and was tempted to remain.
‘She’ll have to ignore me again.’ he said.
‘I don’t think she will.’
‘But we’re talking about some important stuff now, aren’t we Dorsett?’
‘We’ve already talked about it. Look at the books again.’
Garbutt looked at Marcie as she walked by him and saw her place her handbag down on the table and remove her coat. She made a deliberate show of looking up at the clock. There was a minute to go. He waited for the final seconds of the dinner break to pass and then walked back.
He took out the four books that he’d kept in the drawer of his table and looked at them: The Wonder of Atoms; The Expanding Universe; The Mobius Strip; The Klein Bottle. He placed them against the low backboard of the workbench and looked at them as he worked.
He knew there was a scientific association from one to the other, a connection to the physical world perhaps. But he was not advised to read them again, only look.
On the atoms book cover, there were images of small tiny spheres spinning around a larger one.
On the next, the book’s title was in white letters against a dark background of a Hubble telescope photograph of deep space.
The third showed a figure resembling the number eight on its side, like a twisted ribbon.
The final and fourth, a computer-generated image of a bottle with a handle that had a hole in the bottom leading through it.
Maybe this was another one of Dorsett’s big questions: What do these books have in common? It was only when he looked down at the books he was binding that it came to him like an illumination. All of them had more words on the covers. The four books leaning on the backboard looked bare by comparison.
There were no author’s names.
He looked across to Dorsett and saw a head-nodding back at him, aware of his sudden understanding.
Garbutt endured another afternoon of confusion, one where the hours seemed to have no direction. When the home time bell rang he looked at the four books and they remained the same as he’d left them, author-less. He waited for the others to leave the building and then went over to Dorsett who was putting on his coat.
‘Those books.’ said Garbutt. ‘Did you write them?’
‘If I’d written them then they’d have had my name on wouldn’t they?’
‘Stop fucking around. Who wrote the books, Dorsett?’
Dorsett stopped fussing over his jacket buttons and sat down again.
‘Grab a chair. This might take a while.’
Garbutt took the nearest one and moved it closer.
‘I suppose you could say I wrote those books,’ said Dorsett, ‘but not directly. I wrote a bigger one.’
Garbutt waited for more.
‘This building,’ said Dorsett, ‘you, Derek, and the world that surrounds you. Certain people have the ability to create existences, wherein are characters, environments, and events. They are able to bring these existences to life by their imagination.’
Garbutt for a moment tried to understand but then gave up.
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘The steps.’ continued Dorsett, ‘The coincidental meetings we had. The way we were never bothered by Marcie when I was trying to make you think of those questions. Remember the clues I threw at you? Do you believe that everything you do is preordained? And you said, It’s always going to feel like it’s preordained after it’s happened. Do you remember all that, Garbutt?’
‘I remember. So what?’
‘It began with the steps on the fifth flight. Nine one day, ten the next. Then you asked me if I’d been following you and I said I didn’t have to follow you to know where you were. I was throwing information at you. About atomic structure, how the world and all things in it are made up of- how many pieces?’
‘Right, ninety-two. I knew you were fascinated by that small part of science, so I fed you a little more to try and encourage you. You were ideal, even though you have no knowledge of physics.’
‘Ideal for what?’ asked Garbutt.
‘You drink in a peculiar way, Garbutt, responding to it as it develops to intoxication. Your thoughts and ideas grow more profound as your drunkenness increases. You have a way of separating constructive ideas from absurd ones before they collapse into disorder. It doesn’t last long, maybe an hour and a half, but it’s time enough for you to come up with a disclosure that might be the thing I’m looking for. You drink too much for the good of your health, that’s no secret, but for a short space of time, you reach a place of fertility where a vein of something valuable might be discovered. There are lots of big questions but I was hoping you might help answer one. It’s known as the Nonsense Question.’
Garbutt answered blandly. ‘Seems an appropriate name for it.’
’You became interested in science when you were in primary school, didn’t you? You read a book about atoms and mistook it as fantasy, a world made up of pieces like toy building bricks. Years later, you grew to learn that it was real life and it captivated you. So right there in your early years, fiction and fact combined to open up a way into a limitless world. It was an accident. Most children learn to distinguish science from fantasy as they get older and can travel each path without complication. They are separated and don’t mingle. You can do the same but often prefer to keep that illogical relationship. For you it’s easy.
Stare at the blackboard of a physicist and the workings of his mind and you might as well be looking at the Japanese language. It means nothing to you. But that one part of it, the part about little pieces making up everything in the world, that remained. It was as if a chemistry of its own kind came to you, something untouchable that transferred to your common sense yet kept that first magic that was sparked in childhood. The fact that you can’t see these pieces doesn’t matter. It only makes them more fascinating. Einstein felt the same thing the first time he was given a compass and it set him on his way. But you didn’t have the discipline to learn the mathematics that would get you deeper into the subject. With you, it was always going to be a surface obsession, an attraction from the outside.
You didn’t want the numbers and symbols that took the mystery away from your ignorance. You enjoyed the wonder of it. There’s hardly an event in nature that can’t be explained anymore and that’s regret for you. You could look at a rainbow and be captivated, but then hate the evidence that stripped it bare by explaining the process of refraction and reflection that caused it. You preferred the mystery.
So I had to tap into that to set your curiosity in motion. That’s why I changed the number of steps on the staircase. I had to jog you out of your stupor, this routine you’re in.
You know you’re in a dead-end job. You can see yourself trapped. So what do you do? You drink. It’s not exactly complete freedom, but it’s a break of a kind. And within that small break, you start imagining what you’re doing with yourself. You see things detached. You’re not part of what surrounds you anymore. People and places become separate and you become so immersed in your own thoughts you hardly need eyes. You feel your age, situate your time in life, and know that you can do anything you want in a game that someone else made the rules for. But whatever it is that made the rules is no longer around and it feels like you’re out illegally and shouldn’t be. Then Monday comes around and you’re back in the rut again.
Look at widow Julie. There’s someone who’s dead to the world. A good soul who can offer nothing more than what any man can see. But she’s no dreamer and she’s adapted to a routine so well she’s not even aware that it is routine. To her it’s a job, something that’s necessary to get money to live. She’ll die the same person that she was born with little change from the offset of her adult years. You’re kind of near a cliff’s edge in the dark, Garbutt. At the moment you’re in this boring job but you take your jumps off the cliff’s edge at the weekend when you get drunk. And that’s why I’m hoping you’ll dig up some kind of idea of what the answer is to the Nonsense Question.’
Garbutt began to think of questions of his own but preferred to settle suspicions first.
‘I remember that time in the restroom,’ he said, ‘you mentioned that Derek might be lucky this time. You seemed to know she’d say yes. I couldn’t figure that out.’
‘I needed time to talk to you.’ said Dorsett. ‘Derek and Isobel getting together was a good way of isolating you.’
‘And that chat-up line he gave her.’ Garbutt reminded him. ‘That didn’t come from the Derek I know.’
‘He spoke the words.’ replied Dorsett. ‘And as much as you claim surprise at my arrival and all the weird things that have happened, you suspected there was something genuine about all this stuff that I’m telling you now.’
‘Really? When was that?’
‘When Marcie didn’t interrupt us when we had our first talk. You were uncomfortable.’
‘So you’ve predicted everything that’s happening. Is that what you’re saying?’
Garbutt pulled back.
‘Maybe you should be in a fairground. Do you read palms as well?’
Dorsett fixed his eyes on him.
‘If you believed that someone could create existences, put lives in them, and make all of them do whatever he wanted, what would you call him?’
‘A con man.’ answered Garbutt.
‘He’d have to be a good one.’ said Dorsett.
‘Doesn’t matter how good he is if he’s still a con man.’
‘That’s a strange thing to say.’ said Dorset. ‘A man called Jesus was praised for doing something similar yet millions worshipped him for it. What you and I would call incredible events. Yet people believed in him. Millions still do.’
Garbutt got up from the chair.
‘I’ve had enough of this.’
‘Or maybe you feel uncomfortable with something you suspect is true.’ said Dorsett.
Garbutt had almost reached the swing doors that led to the stairs before he stopped and turned around.
‘Prove it.’ he said, ‘Make something happen, something unmistakable.’
‘It has to be credible.’ said Dorsett, ‘Otherwise it won’t be convincing. People won’t believe it and all this won’t work.’
‘Work for who?’ asked Garbutt.
‘For any of us.’
‘So you couldn’t give me the ability to fly, is that what you’re saying?’
‘Right. It would be implausible.’
‘But you could make me rich.’
‘And how would I do that?’
‘I could be walking home and find a briefcase full of money in some bushes under a bridge. The consequence of a recent robbery and thrown out of an escaping car. I read about that somewhere, it happened. That wouldn’t be incredible.’
‘It wouldn’t be far from it.’
‘Ok. I buy a lottery ticket tomorrow and it’s a winner. That’s not unusual.’
‘The news of it isn’t. But the chances of it happening are astronomical.’
‘But not incredible. It happens all the time. In fact you could say it has to happen.’
‘But then where would that leave you in the search for the Nonsense Question? With that much money, you’d probably drink yourself dead in less than a year. Those moments of imagination you have would be flooded by overindulgence. You’d be drinking seven nights a week instead of only two or three. You would leave this job and that would mean you’d lose the incentive to forget your miseries of working here. Sometimes you have to have the discipline of miserable work to keep your mind healthy.’
Garbutt looked about the empty shop floor.
‘If it’s work that’s as miserable as this then it can’t be healthy.’
Dorsett followed his eyes and reconsidered.
‘Ok, here’s the deal. You get me a credible answer to the nonsense question and I’ll give you your pot of gold.’
Garbutt recalled a memory.
‘When I was a small boy I once walked a long way to try and find that pot of gold, the one they said was at the rainbow’s end. I got home very late that day without it. This search seems just as pointless.’
A sudden interruption of noise cracked the silence of the shop floor and they both turned to see Mr Bensing open his office door, close it, and walk between them out of the building without saying a word, like a ghost of substance absent of life. Garbutt walked back to the table.
‘You said the answer has to be credible. Does that mean it doesn’t have to be the right answer?’
‘It’s known as the Nonsense Question.’ said Dorsett. ‘I suppose that means there can be no conclusive answer. But like I said, if a question can be put comprehensibly, then I think there should be no incomprehensible answer. Any carefully considered response has to be a possible solution.’
‘And those books,’ said Garbutt, ‘they’re clues to the question?’
‘Oh no.’ replied Dorsett, ‘I can give you the question. And you can discard the books about atoms. It was only there to reignite your interest. The Mobius Strip and the Klein Bottle run on the same theme, infinity, and they’re more relevant. Or might be later. The universe book is the important one, and remember that there are no equations in it which means none are required by you to solve it.’
‘So what’s the question?’ asked Garbutt
‘I’ll tell you Friday.’ Said Dorsett.
‘Because that’s when you go out for a drink, isn’t it?’
‘It is. But why not give me the question now?’
‘Because you’ll start thinking about it now, start looking up information on computers and other books. You won’t find the answer that way. You need to have the question late so that when you go into that third or fourth drink, you might be filled with enough curiosity to mix up something feasible, your own theory that’s born from nothing but intuition.’
‘I remember my science teacher saying that unless a theory can be proven by experiment, then it has no value.’ said Garbutt. ‘It’s just guesswork. If it can’t be proven then it’s no good to anyone. How the hell could any conclusion I arrive at be proven?’
‘As long as it can’t be disproved, then your guess is as good as anyone's. If the clever people can’t answer it, what disqualifies you from trying?’
’Because I’m not a scientist. They’ve studied that stuff all their lives. Their guesses are always going to be more reliable because they know the rules in physics. I could guess why a car moves along the road, but a mechanic would know why.’
’But you would still know that you could find out if you were given enough time. But the universe isn’t a machine. The scientists know a lot of what happens in it, what constitutes it, how it moves and behaves, but they haven’t a clue why it’s there, why it started, or where it’s going. Science breaks down and free thought takes over.
Einstein was working in a boring routine, not unlike your own. He stared out of his window and asked himself a question: what would it be like to travel on a beam of light? A lot of people might think that was a Nonsense Question. But he had to ask the question first before he could answer it. Well, the Nonsense Question has already been asked, and it’s not even difficult to understand. But the answer? That’s something else.’
‘If you claim to predict the future, Dorsett, you should know what my answer is going to be already.’
‘I don’t predict the future. I write it.’
‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.’
‘It’s true. And because I write it, it’s not a prediction because I’m not even certain which direction the words will take me. I try and find my answers through writing and you, through drink, so you speak through me. I’ll see you Friday.’
‘You’re not here tomorrow?’
‘No. I’m having a day off.’
‘Does Marcie know?’
‘She will when I don’t turn up.’
Garbutt watched Dorsett leave and had a temptation to follow, even though he didn’t know would be impossible for him to do so.