Fiction

Five across: Puzzle

MY FRIEND PHILIP enjoyed a weekly crossword.

He bought or subscribed to a magazine he freely acknowledged was of at best passing or peripheral interest – society gossip, largely, such as I could gather – but with a puzzle on its inner back page he adored.

No other word for it, I'm afraid.

An office friend.

Every Thursday.

We inhabited together a section of partitioned alcove forty business hours a week.

Hodgkins, his last name.

Not married.

No longer married.

I didn't ask.

Nor he of me.

As I knew too to leave him alone that day with his magazine.

'Do you mind?' he said.

I stepped back.

'It's my one pleasure,' he excused his gruffness.

Stretching a barren smile.

On Thursdays I ate my sandwich in the park.

Unless it was raining.

Then I went there or there or there.

Whatever.

I left him alone.

Do you do crosswords? Neither do I. I don't have the interest, the aptitude, I don't know what you'd call it. The need, I suppose. Oh, stuck on a plane I might find myself reaching for my rollerball and filling in a word or two, but the answers are either so easy I feel childish or else I'm irritated not knowing so I turn to the answer on the next page and that's the end of that.

Good riddance too.

No loss.

I have other avenues for my intelligence.

Philip, it seems, didn't.

 

OUR WORK IS is telephoning.

It's not difficult. What we say is written out for us.

What else can I tell you?

Work is work.

 

THURSDAY.

I took my sandwich.

Another Thursday.

It wasn't raining.

I went to the park.

And when I came back Philip had finished his crossword, as he always did, unobserved, as he required it, left alone, but this time he spoke.

'They've made a mistake,' he said.

'The answer to last week,' he said.

'Usually I don't look,' he said, 'I don't need to look.'

He glared at me.

No other word for it, I'm afraid.

He glared.

'They've printed the wrong one.'

 

I WENT HOME when it was time to go home.

Philip went to wherever he went.

He phoned me.

'It wasn't the wrong one,' he said.

My telephone is on the kitchen wall. I sleep naked.

'Philip,' I said. 'It's two o'clock in the morning.'

 

HE WAS WAITING for me with both magazines.

'Look,' he said.

I wasn't even out of my coat.

'One across.' He pointed. 'Hero's antagonist. I put villain. They've got badster. Then one down, using my v, the clue is repository for flowers. Vase. They've got bowl.'

He showed me.

'Look,' he said.

He was right.

'And this one,' he said.

Every word different.

'And here,' he said.

Every answer.

'Nineteen across,' he said.

His and theirs.

'Fourteen down,' he said. 'Where I've got Dutch uncle.'

It was uncanny.

'Thirty-six across,' he said.

Both answers.

'Triangular plate on arm of anchor,' he read me the clue.

Everything fit.

 

'WRITE TO THE magazine,' I said.

We should have been telephoning.

'The Guinness Book of Records,' I said.

It was time to be telephoning.

'The Nobel Prize,' I said.

Thursday.

I took my sandwich.

Another Thursday.

It wasn't raining.

I went to the park.

And when I came back Philip still sat with his pencil still in his hand, the magazine open to the appropriate page on the surface of work table in front of him, the squares of the adored crossword entirely untouched, not a single space filled, virgin and immaculate, completely unmarked.

'I can't,' he said.

He looked at me.

'I just can't,' he said.

He wouldn't look at me.

'What if it happens again?'

 

HE BEGAN TO read books. I think he read books. He must have read books.

'A tree,' he said.

'Shade from the sun,' he said.

'A picture for the afternoon painter,' he said.

'A fecund factory for the formulation of fruits,' he said.

'A cold man will carve it one way, a cabinetmaker another,' he said.

'The same tree,' he said.

 

I TOOK MY sandwich.

It was raining.

I went to the park.

This was a Tuesday.

 

THE MAGAZINE STARED.

Two untouched months.

I asked why he still bought it.

Eight untried issues.

His mouth opened.

I suggested he not buy it.

He looked at me.

The magazine waited on his work table.

He had no words.

 

'THE TREE' he said.

Work was over.

'The same tree,' he said.

We stood at the corner.

'See the tree,' he said.

And stepped out, dead before you could even utter the word, directly into an oncoming truck.

He must have seen the light as green.

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