Robert Smith was dressed in a brown tweed jacket. Under it, he wore a white shirt with blue pin stripes, and a pair of brown trousers. On his left hand was a Breitling timepiece, which kept time accurate to within 2 seconds a year, and on his feet were a pair of neatly polished brown leather shoes. On these shoes were a pair of well tied laces, the laces that were about to change Robert’s life.
Robert Smith was late. This would not have bothered another man too much but for Robert, it was life threatening. Robert swore by his watch. There was a certain place that he had to be at a point in time, and he just had to be there. If there was something that had to be done at appoint in time, it just had to be done. He did not quite have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but what he had, bordered on it. He left home, walked the two blocks to the bus stop in a minute and thirty four seconds, took the 8:15 bus to the office and stepped into his cabin at exactly fifty one minutes past eight.
On this particular day, a Tuesday, he was waiting at the bus stop, as usual, and could see the bus approaching. It was 8:14 and the bus was bang on time. He liked that. That was when fate played a cruel trick on him. He looked down and saw something he had not seen for eight years, three months and four days (yes, he kept count!) For a minute he was taken aback. How could it have happened? He had been as meticulous as he had ever been and yet … What then had gone wrong?
While he pondered on this, the bus came ever closer to the bus stop and was nearly there. What could he do? Well, he couldn’t possibly step into the bus now, not in his current state. What was he to do?
Now, Robert was a methodical man, and his brain was a calculating one. He based his life on logic, and that logic now suggested that there was time enough to right the wrong.
So, he bent down, leaving his briefcase by his side, and got down to the business of tying his shoelaces that had come undone, all the while still trying to work out as to where he his tried and tested method had gone wrong that morning. Being the methodical man he was, he put in his all into the act of tying his laces. The left lace went over the right one to form a knot. Then the right one was held, while the left was looped around to form a bow knot, which was then fastened by pulling at both the ends. Satisfied with his handiwork, and still a bit perplexed, Robert stood up, straightened his jacket and looked up… only to see the rear of the 8:15 bus in the distance.
For a minute, his sensed numbed and he broke into a sweat. Something somewhere had conspired and had made him miss the bus, HIS bus. Then, the rational side of his brain took over. There was another bus at 8:25. He knew the time table by rote, of course. And thus, arose his next problem … The wasted 10 minutes. He decided to use it constructively. He decided to find out what had gone wrong in the process of his tying the shoelaces. And so, for the next 10 minutes, he rattled his brain, trying to come up with an answer to what had gone wrong. And while he was deep in thought, the 8:25 came and went.
Now, he was positively flustered, bewildered and shattered, all the same time. His world, as he knew it, was crumbling around him. Yet again, his cool and calculating mind took over. He now knew that there was a bus at 8:30. He knew the time table by rote, of course. And so, he waited. Waited with bated breath for the arrival of the 8:30 and as soon as he saw it in the distance, his feet started twitching, his palms got sweaty and he was filled with nervous energy. He would not be foiled. Not for a third time.
He put all his effort into concentrating on the approaching bus, and no sooner had it stopped and the driver opened the door, than Robert was in the bus. He got his ticket punched and settled in his seat. It was 8:31 and for the first time since 8:14, he relaxed. He was on a bus, not his bus, but a bus, nonetheless. This was good.
Sitting back in his seat, his mind was going over the extraordinary incidents of the day, when his chain of thoughts was suddenly disrupted by the most unusual site he had seen. The bus had started, and there was this woman, running behind the bus, and having caught up with it, was banging on the door and willing the driver to stop the bus. To Robert, this was a novelty. After all, bus stops were the place to get on bus, right? The driver did try to drive on, but the lady’s incessant banging on the door made him finally yield to her demand and he stopped the bus and let her in. She got in, got her ticket punched and had more than a few choice words to say to the driver. Robert thought no more of this, and went back to his thoughts.
Fate, they say, raises its head in odd places. In this case, it sat itself down, right opposite Robert. ‘I mean, can you believe the cheek of the driver! Not stopping for a lady and making her run behind it for two whole blocks!’ she prattled, to Robert. Now, if the day hadn’t had more than its share of excitement for Robert, this was scaling new heights. ‘I mean, look at the state of the country’, she continued, before pausing and looking for Robert, presumably for assent. Robert simply did not know how to respond. He just nodded. That was enough. She took this as the cue and went on about the problems of the world and her life. Robert was completely perplexed. Here was a woman, quite a beautiful one at that, one he had never met in his life, telling him about the problems of the country, her family and even her dog!
And so, she prattled on until suddenly, without warning, she got up and said, ‘Gotta run. My stop!’ and got off. Nothing more, nothing less. Robert was bemused. He was so shocked that he couldn’t bring himself to even call out after her to ask for her name. Never before, had Robert encountered anything remotely this bewildering. It was … different. Soon, it was his stop and Robert hurried out and into his office, later than 8:51 for the first time in about nine years (8 years and 278 days to be precise). The rest of the day was an anomaly with Robert desperately trying to make up for the lost 15 minutes. Yet, try as he might, he simply couldn’t manage it. He was quite simply, too well tuned.
And so, the day went by, all the while, with the nagging feeling of something just not being right, and Robert went to bed that night, and as always, rewound the entire day. He had run through the entire day a million times. His thoughts kept going back to the lovely lady from the bus. Try as he might, he quite simply could not get his thoughts away from her. He decided that he would do something that he didn’t think he would ever do. He was going to break his long standing routine and miss the 8:15 bus to meet the woman and make sense of what happened that morning. He slept.
The next morning, Robert arrived at the bus stop at his usual time and saw the 8:15 approaching. Torn between what his brain and heart were saying, he decided to side with his heart, just this once. And so, he missed the 8:15, and indeed the 8:25. He got on the 8:30 and took the same seat as the previous day. He waited for the lady. He watched her stop come, and then go by. He waited. He waited with ever fading hope that she would present herself again. Alas! His stop had come. Dejected, he went into the office, later than 8:51 for the second day in a row.
He was bemused. Everyone did something at particular a time right? How could someone take a bus one day, and not take it the next. It was bewildering. It was as if his whole life, a life that he based on the intricate mechanics of time, was slowly coming apart. Perplexed, he spent the rest of the day musing over this and his life in general. Soon it was time to leave for the day.
Robert waited at the bus stop for the bus. Not his bus, the one that came 15 minutes after his. When it came, he got in and took the same seat that he had taken the previous day. When the bus started moving, his thoughts drifted and he looked out the window. Only, for the first time in his life, he didn’t just look, he saw. He saw children playing on the street, people playing with dogs and others sitting at the corners of the road and chatting. It was novel, just observing these people. He realized that he had been so self absorbed in his little life, that he had just never cared to see.
And then he saw this site. There was this park. A park that he knew existed, but one that he never really bothered about. He now saw it, lush green with a beautiful lake in the middle. In the corner of the park, below a beautiful oak tree, he saw it. It was a park bench. All alone, in the corner, under a tree. It was quite simply beautiful.
On an impulse, he got down from the bus at the nearest stop and went into the park. He was quite surprised that he had acted this impulsively, but secretly, was quite happy that he had. He approached the bench, removed his jacket, folded it and placed it on the bench, rolled up his sleeves, sat down, took in the serene scene around him, closed his eyes… and breathed. He felt a whiff of life.
Change, they say, is refreshing.
Footnote: Inspired by the movie ‘Stranger than fiction’ and the comic genius of the inimitable P.G.Wodehouse.