Saturday, 30 November 2013

Episode 7: In search of identity...a new Crusade

Crusade, thrown by Treason’s forthright accuracy, mumbled: ‘What I was trying to say earlier is that I really…’

‘Ssssh…’ she placed a finger to her lips. ‘You don’t need to explain. I’m flattered by the lengths you’ve gone to…I am, I really am, it’s just that…Look, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t really go in for the romantic novel stuff. Oh, I’m susceptible to a bit of flattery and somebody making an effort but I thought you’d be aware of the sort of thing which really works for me.’

Crusade continued to stare at her, waiting for her knowing smile to re-appear but Treason merely looked around the room and waited for him to reply. He remained silent and she, unsettled by this, returned his gaze and sighed.
‘Er, I think I’ll head back to T-block after all. Let’s just see this as a misunderstanding. Maybe you’ve caught me on a bad evening, I don’t know. I’ll contact you tomorrow. Umm, thanks for…you know. As I said, I’m flattered.’ She stepped towards him, rested a hand gently on his shoulder, kissed his cheek and turned to the door. ‘Night, night.’

And she was gone. Crusade said ‘goodnight’ as the door closed and remained exactly where he’d been when she walked in from the balcony. So, he’d spectacularly misread this situation…and not just the situation either. Had he got her completely wrong? He tried to make sense of it. OK, he wasn’t the first to face rejection nor would he be the last but that was no consolation. He’d assumed that Treason was as enamoured by him as he was her, an assumption which now seemed misplaced. Or was it just that he’d caught her on a bad evening? She’d said so herself but Crusade dismissed this. No, she was probably not for him and could he now continue their friendship knowing this? He was unsure.

He looked around at the carefully prepared tableau – the flowers, an ice bucket, the dimmed lighting – and swore in annoyance. Treason was right; this was all too clich├ęd for somebody of her refined taste and sensitivities. She was also right that Crusade should have been alive to this. A misunderstanding, she’d called it…she’d been generous in that assessment.

He switched off the lights in the room and walked towards the lift shaft to make the journey to his room where he’d spend another solitary evening. Unable to face this prospect, he pressed the button which took him to the ground floor and left C-block. He needed some company or to, at least, be in the presence of others so the proximity of B-block was fortuitous.

If the OED’s A-blocks had anti-establishment associations and the C-blocks held ties with the underworld, within the B building, it was difficult to escape reminders of alcohol. There were bars on many of its floors where one would regularly bump into Bitter, Brandy, Barman, Booze and nights often ended with Blotto wending his way unsteadily around the building. Crusade sought out one of these hostelries, The Bootlegger Bar, for some respite after his encounter with Treason.

The dimly-lit room was modelled on an American speakeasy from the Prohibition period and was popular with many of B-block’s residents. When his eyes adjusted to the lighting, Crusade picked out Brandy, Beer, Brewery and Bottle seated at the long bar, hunched over drinks, joshing contentedly. Nearby, Breathalyser sat alone, nursing a glass of water, a disapproving look trained on the others.

Crusade took one of the vacant stools at the bar and nodded in the general direction of the four words already there. The barman wandered over and acknowledged Crusade.

‘Set ‘em up, Joe,’ Crusade said out of the side of his mouth and gestured towards the four at the bar. ‘Whiskey Mac for me and whatever my chums here are having.’

Bottle giggled and tapped Crusade on the shoulder. ‘Thanks, old pal. It’s good to see you. We’ve just been chatting about the whole business of cultural exchange. What’s your take?’

Cultural exchange was the term applied to words which moved between native English-speaking terrains but whose meanings were different within those regions. Words such as Tradition and Doctrinaire harrumphed about “barbarians at the gate” but most words were open to, at least, allowing newcomers a chance to colour their conversation with fresh interpretations. When a programme was started to allow words to swap places with their equivalent word in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand or USA, dozens of words applied for inclusion.

There had been some confusion when Biscuit moved to a US dictionary and was baffled by the meaning of other words in American English. When his US counterparts realised this, they arranged a gathering where Trunk, Yard, Gas, Muffler and Vest added to his confusion. Biscuit would henceforth refer to George Bernard Shaw’s quote about the UK and US being “two nations divided by a common language” as sagacious.

‘Oh, I’m all for it,’ replied Crusade and listened as the others swapped anecdotes about cultural confusion. He leaned back on his bar stool and smiled. Company was what he needed and these four provided it and lifted his spirits into the bargain. Had he been foolish, fraternising with radicals? Nominative determinism wasn’t just a guideline; it did what it said on the determined his life but it was something he wanted to overcome – to hell with tradition and values, it was time to strike out on his own.

He thought about novels he’d read where people were confined and how they rose above such confines. Nineteen Eighty-Four? Probably not the best example because the hero eventually gave in but not before he’d sampled love in its purest sense. Brave New World? Again, not perfect but it did illustrate how individuals could think for themselves. Maybe the answer to his dilemma lay in literature...he could re-invent himself, forget about Treason or he could present himself as a word who she would wish to become involved with. It was time to seek out somebody with some answers. He asked his fellow drinkers where he might find Bookworm.

‘Where might you expect to find him?’ asked Brandy. ‘There’s a clue in the name.’

Crusade shrugged.

‘He’ll be in the reading room, Crusade. Why? What’s up?’

‘It’s time I took control of my own affairs,’ Crusade announced as he slipped on his coat.

‘Oooh, intriguing,’ said Brandy. ‘Sounds like you’re on a mission. Is there anything we can help you with? I’m up for a challenge.’

Barman leaned towards Crusade and whispered, ‘That’ll be the drink talking.’

The reading room in B-block was shabby; many of the books available were well-thumbed and in need of replacement with just a handful of new editions and most of the few occupants – dozing on plump, faded armchairs – there for reasons other than an interest in literature. In one corner, a couple were hunched over a table playing Scrabble. Bookworm nodded a greeting to Crusade, walked to the door to join him and they proceeded to another B-block bar.

‘Scrabble? Really? Hardly the most relaxing way for a word to spend an evening, is it?’ Crusade asked.

‘Lexicon and Anagram aren’t your typical words, though. They’re members of a league which stages games of Scrabble and crossword-offs and, boy, do they take them seriously. They even play them in “neutral” buildings where a camera relays them live to other league members. Lexicon is fiercely competitive….and scrupulously fair as well. One evening, she was a couple of points adrift of Glossary in a game of Scrabble with just two letters – B and L – which she couldn’t fit anywhere on the board. Just then, I walked in with Bel and it prompted Lexicon to use the two letters she was stuck with.’

‘Bel? Bel is a word?’

‘Yep, it means ten decibels…the sort of obscure stuff which only Lexicon and her friends would know. Bel is, of course, only one of the words which the individual in question represents. Anyway, Lexicon said that she would never have thought of the word had she not seen Bel so she forfeited the points and lost the game. The incident became known as the Lexicon Waive.’

They both laughed and Bookworm continued: ‘Have you heard about their dictionary contests? No? Well, a novel is opened on a page at random, the first word chosen and the contestant has to provide as many words as they can on either side of it in the OED. The record stands at 34. Yes, 34…I know, hard to believe. So, what can I do for you?’

As they sat at a table in a quiet corner of the bar, Crusade said he needed some advice. He provided an abridged version of his dilemma: ‘I want a new me.’

‘That’s pretty drastic, Crusade. May I ask why?’

‘Affairs of the heart. Something didn’t work out and I want to re-invent myself.’

‘I see. When you say “re-invent” yourself, you mean a new identity?’ Bookworm continued when Crusade nodded. ‘My advice is to avoid official channels; the bureaucracy involved can be a nightmare. You’ll be questioned and questioned and I’m guessing that’s something you’d wish to avoid.’

‘But does that mean some unlicensed, back-street operator?’

‘It doesn’t have to be; there are practitioners who don’t declare themselves – ethical ones too – and they’ll get you a new identity for next to nothing as long as they’re convinced you’re doing it for a justifiable reason. You are doing it for a justifiable reason, aren’t you?’ Crusade nodded again. ‘Well, in that case, I can recommend someone to help you.’

‘But won’t that impinge on the current holder of my new name? I don’t see how I can get around that short of inventing a new word…and that brings a fresh set of problems.’

Bookworm smiled. ‘Now this is the clever bit. What you need is to find a word which is defunct and assume its identity. Re-introduce that word into usage – it doesn’t have to be in everyday use, probably better if it isn’t – and you’re back in business.’

‘You make it sound straightforward.’

‘Well, what you’d call the mechanics are straightforward. A disguise, a name change and you’re no longer recognisable as your old self. It’s the psychological side which can be a stumbling block but it sounds like you’ve worked through that?’

Crusade nodded in response to Bookworm’s questioning glance.

‘So, you just need to resurrect a word. I’m happy to help but I’d see it as something too personal to involve a third party. Besides, I have no wish to feel compromised should this go wrong; you won’t want to run that risk either. OK, do you want to browse through my bookshelves? One entire section consists of classics and Shakespeare where you’re bound to get some words which have gone out of use. But there is an alternative you might consider, especially if you want to remove yourself from view.’ Bookworm paused. ‘You could always take on the identity of a number.’

‘Are you serious?’ asked Crusade. ‘A number! Why the hell would I want to become a number? No!’

‘Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. I know we look down on numbers and treat them as mere functionaries but there’s a place for everybody in this world.’

‘But they’re just jobsworths whose purpose here is to facilitate telephone communication and to generate those infernal statistics on all of us. They can’t make people think or dream. When did anybody write poetry about the beauty of, say, 27? Show me a statue which celebrates the existence of 53. Numbers are just numbers; they’re faceless, they have no identity, no personality. Good God! What a ridiculous idea…and coming from a confirmed bibliophile like you, Bookworm. I’m shocked, I really am.’

Bookworm held up his hands in supplication. ‘I was just floating the idea, making you aware of other options. I thought somebody with your history of supporting minorities and disadvantaged would be more open-minded. There’s nothing wrong with numbers; they were just dealt a pretty poor hand in life, that’s all.’

‘OK, I take your point. ’

Crusade accompanied Bookworm to his room, a room festooned with rows of paperbacks, hardbacks and pamphlets. Crusade was soon engrossed in his trawl through literary masterpieces in search of a word which he would adopt as his own. He found many words redolent of a lost age but discounted them from his quest. After a pleasant couple of hours, he’d singled out the word “fuzzle” (to intoxicate). It seemed appropriate that a quest which began in a bar in the company of inebriates would lead him to this word.

However, a cursory search through the internet revealed that fuzzle had been commandeered as the name for a range of children’s toys. This wouldn’t do: he needed something with more gravity. The search continued. He found “bedizen” but the word attracted attention to itself – not something he wished to do. He found “ubiquarian” in an 18th century volume of poetry and liked the definition: a person who goes everywhere. This might well turn out to be his fate. He thanked Bookworm for his help and returned to the B-block. Some sleep was needed before he embarked on the next stage of his mission.

Next episode: How ATMs are used in a dictionary....

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