Last year, I took part in a joint event between the writers’ collective 26 and the Letter Exchange, which represents typographers, calligraphers and letter cutters.
It was to celebrate 26’s tenth anniversary. The idea was to couple a member of 26 with a member of the Letter Exchange in order to collaborate on a piece that would be exhibited at the Free Word Centre in London in a birthday celebration.
There was a gathering at a pub in Clerkenwell, where a large dictionary was centre stage. Each pair of collaborators had to place a knife anywhere between the pages; wherever the knifepoint landed, that word became the brief for the work. There were 26 collaborators.
This was unusual for me because, ten years earlier, I was involved with the celebration of 26’s very first birthday, then wearing my designer’s hat. Ten years on, I was coming at it from the writer’s prospective. My collaborator was the wonderfully creative letter cutter Mark Firth. The word that our knife had pointed to was ‘fraction’.
We met up to talk about ideas, emailed, talked further, exchanged more emails and then jettisoned all the ideas. One morning while lying in bed anticipating the imminent sound of my bedside alarm clock bursting into life, I had an idea. It was based on the notion of a man whose day was regimented within a very rigid structure. This is what I wrote…
The alarm sounded at 7.30 a.m. Dressed and bleary eyed, he descended the stairs, scooped two tablespoons of strength four Colombian coffee into the cafetière, glanced down at yesterday’s unfinished crossword – 6 down, 8 letters – Any number of equal parts. – Hmmm?
He set his stopwatch to zero, slipped on his size 8.5 Nike Air trainers, opened the front door, checked the porch barometer (which indicated a crisp -3°C) and, with a quick intake of breath, sprinted forward into the morning chill.
On reaching no. 14, with its distinctive olive green door, he triggered the stopwatch. From No. 14 back to his front door was exactly 2 miles and over the course of the run his heart rate would settle at around 160 beats per minute.
When running he liked to focus on particular things: door colours of red, indigo, chocolate and apple green; and the many cast-iron covers that populated the pavement on the journey. They also kept him alert to the frequent deposits of dog crap – he had never understood how people could scrape up fresh squelchy turds by a hand enclosed in a thin, plastic bag. The fact that it could split made him feel distinctly queasy. Glancing down again, he noticed he was wearing odd socks. This filled him with dread; he hated getting things wrong.
Rounding the bend, his familiar yellow front door came into view – 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. He hit the front gate two seconds before the stopwatch sounded. Perfect.
Back in the kitchen. The kettle reached the optimum 92°C and he poured the steaming contents into the cafetière, and then buttered two slices of perfectly browned toast and cut them in half. An audible ping denoted the climax of his two four-minute eggs. With the radio tuned to 94.5 FM, he sat down for breakfast.
Looking down again at the unfinished crossword, he picked up the pencil and filled in the remaining squares: F-R-A-C-T-I-O-N.
And this was Mark’s brilliant visual response to my story, beautifully cut into Welsh slate…