GREY MATTER

The following piece is a collaboration between  Nachiketa Anand and I – Links to her blog (http://easeleyes.wordpress.com/) (http://behindthatsweetface.wordpress.com/)

Birmingham station was crowded. Office-goers in greys and blacks stood in stark contrast to the bohemian collegians. Couples kissed each other goodbye with a promise to return. A young lad of six clung on tightly to his mother’s hand. Scattered around in parts were tourists, some looking lost and some in the innocent hope of finding themselves.

Dressed in a grey trench coat and a black hat, he looked like a remnant from the 1970’s. His handlebar moustache accentuated his Hitchcockian persona. Standing at his usual spot, right next to the Doughnut Mart, he took in the sleepy Monday morning. There was something amiss about the day. It didn’t seem blue enough. And that bothered him. Aware of his OCD of sorts, even a minor change in events disturbed his equilibrium. With a Dunhill tucked perfectly between his lips, he took a last and generous drag of the nicotine nirvana before viciously stubbing it under his black soles. His train was due in five minutes and he had to grab his seat, the third one from the left. He hated missing his seat. With that, he marched towards the platform leaving behind a sharp woody fragrance. Keith Wilson’s week had begun.

The train was two minutes late and Keith hated delay. It made him uncomfortable. As he stood there tapping his right foot rather impatiently, Keith noticed him standing two feet away. He had been noticing this stranger since Doughnut Mart. An athletic man in his late 30s, he looked a tad too suave in his black suit. He had a kind face which was repulsive and icy-grey eyes that lacked compassion. Keith disliked him instantly and had no idea why. Before he could draw a conclusion, the train pulled to a screeching halt. Keith jumped in and rushed to grab his seat. But he was late. The seat had been taken by the stranger in black.

Captivated by change and inspired by evolution, Mark Henderson believed he was special. And believed to have a rather unique mutation. Unable to put it to words, this enigma about himself baffled him and excited him at the same time. A lover of after thoughts, the perception and possibilities of people taking him to be someone trivial was fascinating to say the least. Always sharp and hiding under a cloak, black was his confidante, wife and mistress. But the truth was pregnant and could go in labour any minute.

Caught in a Monday breeze, he was all set to change the blues to greys. He had tilted the newsstand next to the Doughnut Mart. He had tilted the ‘Open’ sign on its door too. He had doled out half smiles to all the people present at the square. He only wished someone could sense the difference. Someone who knew he was behind this. Appreciation was all he longed for. His mutation otherwise would go unnoticed. With a plagued heart, he sauntered towards the station. The train too dragged itself and stopped right in front of him.  Dejected at the lack of response and gratitude, he relinquished his window seat and sat on the third one from the left.

Keith was trying hard to control his temper. He had half a mind of grabbing Mark by the collar, punching him in the face and dragging him out of his seat. But sanity prevailed and he thought otherwise. Keith sat opposite him, staring hard, tapping his right foot once again, hoping that Mark would get off at the next station. Hoping he’d get to sit on his seat. Hoping that Monday would soon turn the right shade of blue. Keith looked at Mark. There was a disturbing quality to him. His neck was tilted to one side as was the newspaper he was reading. Keith found it very strange, yet amusingly funny.

‘Odd Bob, he muttered under his breath.

Just as his thoughts escaped his mouth, Mark looked up from his newspaper. ‘Excuse me?’, he said in a baritone voice that seemed to echo through the hollow corridors of the unusually empty train.

‘Nothing’, Keith said embarrassed at being caught, struggling to find the right words. ‘I noticed how you were reading the paper. The tilt…very unique, indeed’, said Keith mirroring Mark’s style.

‘Hope that didn’t make you uncomfortable, it was intentional. I’ll tell you a secret. The tower of Pisa? You know what happened to it right? Don’t tell anyone.’ Mark said with a response evoking grin.

‘I’m Mark Henderson’, he introduced himself. Keith looked at him uncertainly. He disliked over-friendly people. And Mark had a way of stamping his presence, one that made onlookers uncomfortable. Mark was looking at him expectantly.

‘I’m Keith’, he replied. ‘Wilson’, he added.

‘I’m a tourist here. I got here a week ago. I’m a little unsettled with the drone sort of life people lead here. I’m here to change that, just like I did with Pisa’, Mark said, trying hard to sell his mutation. Keith nodded again. He was getting increasingly uncomfortable.

‘Actually… would you mind suggesting a few places I could go to? Just to explore, maybe?’, Mark added handing Keith a pocket-sized leather diary and a pen. Keith did not want anything to change, let alone his favourite places. Thoughtfully, he penned down a few places.

‘Thank you, kind Sir’, Mark said, tipping his hat as a sign of appreciation. And as he started to read his diary, his eyes gleamed. Written in a neat, sharp font, Keith’s handwriting was a heart-wrenching beautifully straight. Mark could not stop staring at it. He had found his shot to fame. It was going to be Keith.

Keith walked out of the train with a mission. He could not let a stranger change his world. He had made peace with order and preferred it that way. He had to keep the order. For himself if not the world. He picked up the phone. “Hello Susie, I need to see you at half past 11 outside the subway.” Susie Jones was a detective. The finest of her time. Her providence lied in disguise. One that she had mastered without masks. Back in the department they called her the “Camouflage Antidote”. During pressing situations, she was the woman of the hour. She was Keith’s confidante too. The only woman who could keep a secret. Keith had met her at a conference in Poole few years ago. She was the only one who could bring back order.

At half past 11, there she was. A beige skirt, a white shirt, a scarf that was electric blue, matching her shoes. Burgundy hair that was kissing her shoulders and grey shades that were fighting the sun. Keith always found her beautiful, but always maintained a distance. He feared being tricked at some point. As Keith approached her, he gave her a list of all the places he had suggested Mark to visit. Trafalgar Square, Stonehenge, Tower Bridge and the London Eye. Keith had carefully listed down these places. He knew Mark would sense an opportunity in these marvels, and this was the best place to catch him red-handed. Susie on the other hand was fascinated by Mark’s motivations. And did not find his intentions wrong, but Keith was a dear friend. She could not betray him. Fascinated to meet Mark, she set up a team at each of these places. This was going to be her biggest challenge. To turn in a man, she would rather take home.

The first call came from Trafalgar Square. It was flooded by pigeons. After the law was passed to ban feeding food to pigeons, there was a dearth in pigeons in the area. Suddenly there was a flock flying around. And people had started flooding in. Peace was disrupted. There were children playing around the square. Couples photographing themselves with the pigeons. Old loyalists had returned to feed the pigeons. Trafalgar Square had come to life. It was like the old times. The place was infected with smiles, and there was nothing authority could do now. Witnesses reported seeing a man bringing these pigeons overnight. They called him the “Grey Crusader”. Susie was late. Mark had disappeared.

Second call came from Stonehenge. The Stonehenge was carved to form sharp cylindrical cubes and written in a heart-wrenching beautifully straight handwriting was, “Let’s change”. Keith was present this time around. So was Susie. Susie’s eyes spoke of love, Keith’s spoke of anger. Mark had taken Keith’s form and was doing what he had set out to do. Keith could not digest the fact that he had led Mark to these wonders of the world. He stubbed the cigarette under his right foot in contempt. The Grey Crusader was leaving his Mark.

London Eye was painted grey. And the two towers at Tower Bridge were now tilted. Mark had been mocking Keith all this time and Keith had no answer. Susie and Keith were sipping tea at the nearest café. Keith was bound by his composure. Susie in the middle of twirling her hair, dropped the pencil on the table. Her look said she had figured it out.

“Keith, take the morning train. You’ll find him there. I’m sure you will. I would have been on the train, if I was him.”

Keith liked the idea. He also sensed emotion in Susie’s voice. It was heartbreaking. He could not let Mark do this to him. Not anymore.

Keith dressed himself in black. It was his turn to mock Mark. This Monday was different from the previous Mondays. The air was fresher. The blues were brighter. The greys were fading away. Keith was confident. Order would return to his life. Sensing victory, he stepped inside the morning train.

Mark had taken the third seat from the left. Keith had expected this; Mark had walked into a trap. Letting out a generous half-smile, Keith sat opposite to Mark. “Hello Mark Henderson or should I call you the Grey Crusader now?”, Keith smirked at him. “Hello. Sir, have I thanked you for directing me to those places? Let me thank you again. It was a delightful journey”, Mark replied with ease. “Oh, stop the pretense already, you’ve lost. And now you’ve been caught as well”, yelled Keith. “Susie, here’s your man. Arrest this scoundrel”. Susie was dressed for the occasion. Dressed in a stone grey dress, hair swept back, kohl laden eyes, Susie was dressed for a date. Taken aback with her appearance, Keith’s eyes reeked of dejection.

“Mr. Henderson, you are under arrest for disrupting peace and order in the city and its heritage.”

Mark looked deep in her eyes and smiled. “Thank you my kind lady. It’s been an honour.” Susie at that moment had fallen in love. As Keith walked out of the train, media was there to congratulate him. Kids wanted his autograph. And in that moment, it all came together for Keith. He noticed the change in his routine. He had liked the newness to the day. This change. He was wearing black. And as he was about to give an autograph, he realized he could not leave his signature. He had to tilt his writing. At that moment, he looked at Mark walking away. Mark left the station looking at Keith, tipping his hat as a sign of appreciation.

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