36. A certainty in life (5)
London, Wednesday, October 10. 12:15 PM
The sprawling Sunday Times editorial office was, as usual, bustling with activity and a slight distraction to his train of thought.
Smooth (8), silky (5), century (7) width 16 cm, depth 10 cm, height 8 cm, mystified (9), perplexed (9), flummoxed (9), solvable (8).
Around him, journalists, researchers, and editors rushed to make their deadline in the 30m wide 60m deep, dry, poorly regulated air-conditioned room. At least it was not filled with smoke as it was thirty years ago when he first began. However, the blue nicotine hue that once hung over the cigarette smoking staff was now replaced by wafts of men’s aftershave competing against female perfume, which, at times, seemed like all-out chemical warfare. Maybe smoke was a healthier option, he thought, as he made his way across the floor to his own quiet, odour free domain.
These days, George did not recognise many of the younger faces; few were employed at the newspaper as long as he.
A young female intern, early twenties, with short-cropped purple hair, stared as he walked past her desk. "Who’s that?" she asked her colleague, sitting opposite in her strong Liverpudlian accent.
Ten years her senior, fashion editor Beverley Grange glanced up with tired eyes over the top of her reading glasses at the man, early sixties, carefully weaving his way through the rows of desks, across the floor, avoiding eye contact with other staff. His non-distinctive, slightly ill-fitting dark brown pinstriped suit, with an overcoat folded over his left arm, and a full-length black gentlemen’s brolly hanging from his wrist, looked very much from another era.
"Oh," Beverley replied, finally realising who exactly the intern was commenting on, the unimposing man heading for the far corner of the office. "Oh, that's George," she sighed, then went back to preparing her copy for publication.
The young female nodded and tapped her lips with her Bic pen. "I've seen him before. Floats in and out without a word to anyone. Looks a bit of a nutter. What does he do?"
"Compiles the crossword puzzles," Beverley replied, uninterested.
"Really? I’ve never seen him at any of the editorial meetings. You mean those cryptic puzzles and all that sort of thing? He does them? Wow. My dad used to crack his brain on them every Sunday afternoon. Drove my mum mad, that did. Dead hard they are. I could never solve them."
"Me neither." Beverley said, dropping her pen and abandoning her text. She removed her reading glasses, rubbed her eyes with her thumb and forefinger, and glanced around the room. "In fact, I don't think anyone in the office has ever completed them twice in a row. He always comes up with brain crunchers."
"Brain crushers you mean. So, he is a nutter," she sneered.
Patina (6), finish (6), lustre (6), perfection (10)
No one knew how George managed to avoid the compulsory editorial meetings, annual Christmas parties, receptions of expired, retired, or job-changing colleagues, but he did. The tedium of shaking hands and explaining his work to someone new, or listening to drunken co-workers talking about their latest exploits with bad breath bathed in a vapour of alcohol and vomit, was all too much for him to bear. After his first years of employment he developed an art for avoiding nearly all forms of contact with anyone in the office not connected to his work.
There was only one person of course, and that was enough.
Unmindful to the general noise of people talking, chatting on phones and typing on keyboards, he strolled unobtrusively towards his own tiny office in the corner.
A treasured luxury in an age of desk sharing and cutbacks, he had successfully negotiated an irreversible clause into his contract when he first joined the newspaper; a guaranteed private office. However, the actual metered space had significantly diminished over the years. Now there was just enough room for a small desk and a chair, and no more. During the last downsizing, his own hat and coat stand was made redundant. The tall late-Victorian, dark-brown mahogany stand now resided in his house just inside the front door, next to the near identical stand inherited from his parents after they died.
The moment his door closed and the noise outside became muted – tranquillity returned.
Calm (4), peace, (5), tranquillity (12), equilibrium (11), work (4)
George, unaware he was being observed through the opaque glass window of his office by another female in her early 50's, settled into his chair.
Immediately, she came into action, going through motions that had long turned into routine. She opened a locked drawer under her desk, and removed a small box filled with envelopes, all cleanly cut open, together with folded emails lodged between, ready for inspection.
As always, she knocked gently on the door and waited for permission to enter.
"Come in," George said, his voice scarcely audible.
Holding the box firmly, she opened the door just enough to step in.
"Good afternoon George," she said, cheerfully. "We've got a healthy batch this week. It should keep you busy for a while."
George gave a short but shy smile. For less than a second, he glanced up at the middle-aged woman and made eye contact as she placed the box in the middle of his small century-old, patina rich desk.
"I'll drop around later to see if you've picked any winners. Quite a few this week, I’m sure."
"Thank you Matilda," his soft voice answered, as he gazed at the overflowing box in front of him.
She lingered, as if wanting to ask something. George never noticed, his mind was elsewhere.
Winner (6), cinch (5), facile (6), sorted (6), systematise (11)
He reached out and pulled the box of letters and emails towards him.
"Right," she sighed, with an air of finality, "I’ll leave you to it." Matilda closed the door and returned to her desk.
Turning his attention to the box, George ran his hand along the edge of the letters and emails. At least two hundred, he thought. Finding a winner would be quick. The cryptic crossword last week was one of the easiest he had published in months, possibly years.
He had to give them hope.
Matilda could have picked out a winner, but that was not the way things worked in his tiny department governed by time and tradition. George was head of his own one-man operation devising the cryptic and quick crossword puzzles that appeared in all the Times newspapers. Each would normally take about thirty minutes to work out, except Sunday. The cryptic crossword puzzle for the Sunday Times was meant to be difficult. If it did not crack brains, its reputation would flounder. Created by his predecessors in the early part of the twentieth century, standards were set, and had to be upheld, no matter what.
He gently took hold of the first bunch of letters and emails. Matilda had sorted them in the usual manner. The first to arrive were at the front and last at the rear. Sense of pride that everything was fair and square for those who took the time and effort to solve the puzzles, was utmost paramount.
The prize – a rolled gold fountain pen worth two hundred pounds. Very generous, he thought. Not that he agreed to this altruistic prize depicted by senior management. He could remember the day when printing the winners name in the newspaper was more than enough accolade.
As usual, and according to his instructions, the cut-out puzzle solution remained inside the envelope, concealed. He knew of secretaries and assistant editors in rival newspapers who removed the solved puzzle and pinned it to the outer envelope for the editor to check, all for convenience. To George, it represented a violation. Years of working in intelligence during the Cold War had ingrained a strong compulsion for privacy and confidentiality. Even the most facile answers to crossword puzzles should not be exposed with a paperclip for all to see. Matilda had strict instructions to keep the box in the small locked drawer under her desk, which she dutifully did.
He could trust Matilda.
Confidence (10), certitude (9), guardian (8), cerberus (8)
A brief smile of inner merriment rose within him for a couple of seconds, but he quickly quelled it. Within ten minutes he found a winner and was in the process of writing down the name and address when his telephone rang.
"Hello?" He answered, then recognised the caller at the other end. "Ahh, Benton old friend," he said, in a mild uplifting voice. "How are you? Haven’t they pensioned you off yet?"
"Oh no, I’m still here," Benton replied, "but in general I spend most of my time in the garden, except for the last couple of weeks. Things have been getting a trifle hectic."
"Well at least you’re happy I’m sure. To what do I owe the honour of your call?"
"I have a small job to do and I'd like to use your services, if you don't mind, that is?"
"Of course, you never stop working for Queen and Country, do you?"
"Or retire," Benton replied. They both chuckled.
"I'd be happy to do a placement for you. When?"
"If it could go out next Sunday, then that would be wonderful."
George glanced up at the mundane calendar pinned to the grey wall next to his desk. "You will have to be quick. The deadline is still Friday, as usual."
"I was going to bring them around myself, but I could give them to you now, if that's all right with you?"
"Yes of course. I’d be happy to do that, no problem whatsoever."
George wrote down the words Benton dictated. "Very good. I’ve got that. I should be able to think of questions that will match. Anything else?"
"How about dinner sometime soon?"
"Now that would be nice," George replied. "It's been a while."
"Not this week, too busy. Let me give you a call when the time is right."
"That’s fine, Benton. I’ll speak to you soon."
George looked down at the words on the note pad. From a locked drawer he removed a separate folder containing special blank crossword templates for the Sunday edition. He checked the week number on the calendar, then pulled out the corresponding template. Benton had an exact copy.
Three hours later, George opened the gate to the small garden of his early twentieth-century terraced house in the quiet Wimbledon suburb. The leaves on the few shrubs had turned yellow and fallen.
Deciduous (9), evanescent (10), fugacious (9)
An autumn chill hung in the air. Time to sweep the path and remove the dead leaves tomorrow, and that would be enough gardening until spring. From his jacket pocket he removed a small bunch of keys and inserted one into the Yale lock he had known his entire life.
Home (4), safety (6), warmth (6), seclusion (9)
Inside the darkened hallway, a ray of sunlight deflected through the blue, red, and yellow arched stained-glass windows onto the rustic brown and white diamond shaped floor tiles in the hallway that carried on through to the small kitchen at the back. Two small paintings with unassuming scenes of the English countryside hung randomly on both walls, left and right. Above them, small, hand sized Japanese puzzle boxes sporadically decorating the remaining free space, rested on little dark-brown wooden ledges.
George hung his dark tweed overcoat and placed his brolly in the mahogany hat and coat stand that had previously resided in his office. Next to it stood his parents near identical stand. A gentlemen’s brolly and a woman’s umbrella rested upright in the umbrella well, as they had done for the last twenty-five years.
George headed for his very private comfort zone.
Reserved (7), non-public (9), solitary (8), sequester (9)
With less light than the hallway, the front sitting room curtains were always drawn, with just a small gap not to warrant use of the early fifties floral ceiling lamp in the middle of the room. The scent of soft, sweet wood with a hint of furniture polish greeted him. Visitors who came to the house were brought into the dining room at the rear. His front sitting room was special. No more than one other person had entered this hallowed sanctuary within the last twenty years.
George poured himself a Drambuie from a small drinks cabinet and sat down in the worn leather armchair once governed by his father. Many years ago it was turned towards the fireplace, now it faced outward, the most ideal position for concentration, as well as the best view. After taking a sip, his eyes fell on to a small box that lay on the rosewood side table next to the armchair. Unlike the petite, hand-sized boxes in the hallway, this was twice as large.
George took it in his hands and ran his fingers gently over the wood.
Masterful (9) artistry (8), adroit (6), cryptic (7), hermetical (10), obscure (7)
It felt smooth, old, silk like, with fine lines carved into the wood which gave the impression of little drawers.
He raised it to eye-level and studied it closely.
From the moment he left the house that morning, the ornate box had occupied his mind. Benton’s telephone call had briefly disrupted his train of thought, but now, feeling refreshed and energised, he was once again engrossed in his most recent puzzle. The person who sold it claimed it was a doll’s house cabinet. He knew better but did not say. To George, it had puzzle written all over it.
Cylinder (8), mortise (7), fastening (9), conundrum (9), mystifyier (10), enigma (6)
Carefully, he placed his fingers on each side of the box and pressed. A small drawer opened, empty. This he had already done many times before, but knew there had to be more to it. The finely carved lines were just that, lines, but he had his doubts. George turned the box over and tried to peer inside. With nothing obvious to see, he was about to give up, then had an idea.
His fingers slid into the open slot, and moved them from left to right, it was certainly empty. Feeling slightly defeated, he gently shoved his hand in deeper. The fleeting idea of getting stuck worried him, and the notion of damaging the box began to seriously play on his mind. Carefully rooting as deep as he dared, he felt something – a lever.
This was new.
Joy (3), Glee (4), wonder (6), rapture (7)
Never had he come across anything like this before. A brief smile crept to the corners of his mouth. A tempered rush of excitement heightened his senses; this was the thrill. Tenderly, not wanting to damage the lever, he pushed against it and heard a click. A second drawer, directly beneath the first, sprung open.
Surprise (8), revelation (10), amazement (9), eureka (6)
The open top drawer obscured any view of the one beneath it. While attempting to close the top drawer, the bottom began to close in unison. Twice he tried to close the top drawer separately and twice the bottom drawer moved with it. They were connected, but how? Why? The puzzle had deepened. George couldn't believe the excitement.
Reaching for his glass of Drambuie, he paused to concentrate.
Relax (5), concentrate (11), ruminate (8), ponder (5)
Two minutes later, he tried to pull the bottom drawer out completely, it proved fruitless. Repeating the first procedure, he pushed the bottom drawer back in; it clicked into place. Once again, he inserted his fingers into the top drawer, pushed the lever, and the bottom drawer sprung open. Leaning back in the armchair, he took another sip of Drambuie. For the next ten minutes he stared at the box in near absolute silence – the only sound being the faint ticking of the early-thirties mantelpiece clock on top of the fireplace.
The solution was somewhere, but where?
Scrutinise (10), inspect (7), analyse (7)
George shifted in his armchair, then sat upright. He turned the box around, the drawers faced outward, and slowly ran his fingers over the smooth wood at each end. Unnoticed before, he felt two dull points. Both slightly protruding, no more than a half a millimetre on either side, and hardly detectable. Shoddy workmanship or water damage may have caused the wood to expand ever so slightly, but George knew better. A box so expertly crafted as this would have no craftsmanship flaws. Water damage so precise – affecting nothing else, was impossible. There had to be more.
He had a thought.
Turning the box around with the drawers now facing towards him, he placed each index finger over the bumps and pressed hard. Using both thumbs, he pushed against the top drawer; it slid in with a gentle smooth glide. The bottom drawer finally remained open. George gasped an air of success.
The rush of achievement in solving the puzzle was highlighted even more when he noticed a small, cream-coloured parchment lay rolled inside the compartment. Covered in Peony petals, a Chinese flower normally associated with wealth and aristocracy in ancient times. Familiar since he used the name of the flower in his cryptic crosswords once or twice; a clue only one or two people could solve.
Mystery, (7), puzzlement (10), apocryphal (10)
He smiled briefly, then carefully removed the petals and parchment, opened it out to reveal small Chinese characters. He had no idea what they meant, but he knew someone who did. George reached for the old seventies black telephone next to him and punched in a number.
"Hello, Benton? Yes, it's me, George. I found something you might be interested in. A Chinese silk parchment, eleventh century, I think. At least the box may be, the parchment could be later. I thought you might want to have a crack at unravelling it."
"Really? It sounds like a piece of Chih. Expensive in those times. Where did you get it?"
"A little present I discovered in a puzzle box I recently acquired. I must say, it does look very authentic."
Benton sounded excited. "And very rare indeed, I can imagine."
"I'll bring it with me when I see you next time."
"That's very kind of you George, I would love to see it."
"The markings are very clear."
"Really? A real challenge."
"Yes, for both of us."
"Talking about challenges, did the work for Sunday go okay?"
"Yes, it’s in."
"Excellent. Thank you very much, George, you're a real crypto master. I’ll get back to you on the dinner, it’s impossible to pin a date at the moment."
"No rush Benton, you always know where to find me."
"Yes, you are not one for change, are you?" Benton chuckled. "Speak to you soon, old friend," and hung up.
George leaned back in his armchair and took another sip of Drambuie. He acquired the box about a month ago for more money than he wished to part with. Now that he had discovered the hidden parchment, its worth had increased astronomically.
Since the purchase, little else had occupied his mind. The beauty of the seemingly simple box fascinated him. He could not help but wonder about its secrets. The contents were indeed interesting, but, to George, the mystery of the box itself was the real prize. Rarely had he seen such an unpretentious work, yet so complicated. Other than the few carved lines, there were no markings on the outside whatsoever. It resembled a block of wood, but he realised from the moment he first saw it, too beautiful and simply crafted to be just that.
Boxes like these did not really exist before the nineteenth-century. Was the parchment original? What did it mean? Benton should be able to decipher the ancient markings; it was after all, his hobby. The puzzle would be partially solved. He was not sure he would ever get to the bottom of it. Time had buried many secrets. Selling it on could be very beneficial. Especially now that anything old and Chinese was selling well at the prestigious auction houses. It could even secure him a very nice pension for the next thirty years. But would he sell it? Never.
Feeling relieved and proud of his little conquest, he took another sip and stared up at the walls of his small living room.
Small Chinese and Japanese puzzles and boxes rested on their individual handmade shelves, spaced evenly throughout the room.
Children (8), family (6), progeny (7), treasured (9)
Only a fraction of his collection, he began when he was ten years of age. His uncle, who had worked with the Americans after the surrender of the Japanese after World War II, gave him a puzzle box he picked up in Tokyo when he realised his nephew's passion for puzzles as a young boy. The collection grew until it filled every inch of his bedroom then extend it to the garage in his late teens. It was not long before he began to construct his own little puzzles and intricate boxes, including the wooden plinths they stood on. After his parents died, they gradually filled every room in the house. Each with its own private pedestal – the beauty of it fascinated him. It was probably also the reason why he never married. Any girl of interest back in his youthful years never shared his fascination. Only his parents were his true fans, and they were long gone. These days he isolated himself from everyone, except Benton, who seemed to be the only person who understood his mind and accepted his peculiar interests.