Up until this point, Stephen’s life had been one continuous internal struggle against the weakness in his mind; a weakness that had festered and since plagued his every waking moment. People tell you to take pleasure in the little things yet these little things were what made Stephen’s life so unbearably dull. His life consisted of so many little things that eventually they all culminated into one miserable and, quite frankly, unexciting existence. He had realised that he was getting nowhere.
Not literally, of course. He spent a lot of time on the move, whether that be on the grueling half hour commute from High Barnet to Camden Town via Tube (which he endured every morning, 5 days a week) or vice versa. He may even dare to venture into a nearby café for a cup of tea (two sugars and a reasonable amount of milk) or possibly into a bookshop, where he may indulge in yet another book of crosswords. Stephen had acquired a fair amount of (albeit trivial) knowledge due to the vast amount of time he had spent at his desk with pen in hand, scribbling away at innumerable crosswords. Every time he filled an entire book (a regular occurrence, I’m sure you can imagine), he positioned it carefully atop the stack of previously completed crossword anthologies that had amassed in the corner of his room.
Anyway, I digress. The fact of the matter is, up until this very moment, our protagonist’s existence may only be described as tedious, trivial and terribly uninteresting. Yet, unbeknownst to our chief character, his life would soon be given purpose. His entire world would be not only be turned upside down, but also blindfolded and subsequently spun 360 degrees until it was all disoriented and out of sorts.
The day had started out like any other. Stephen had arisen promptly at 6:00AM and was sat at the table drinking his tea by 15 minutes past. His porridge had cooled to satisfactory temperature by 17 minutes past and was consumed thereafter. He ate alone and did not utter a word, not even to himself. The only sound that could be heard was the ceaseless ticking of the numerous clocks located throughout the house. The great mechanical hands of the large clock that adorned the space above the kitchen door lurched forward, signifying it was 25 minutes past six. This coincided exactly with Stephen scraping up the last of his porridge before giving the bowl and the spoon with which he had enacted said scraping a thorough rinse and returning them to their rightful places alongside the ranks of other kitchenware.
By 6:45AM Stephen had stepped out of his front door and was walking up the street towards the Tube station. On this particular day, Stephen wore his favourite button-down shirt beneath a slightly tattered corduroy jacket and accompanied by a pair of characteristically grey trousers. Housing his feet were a pair of brown loafers which, prior to him leaving the house, had been the subject of rigorous polishing. From within his jacket he retrieved a copy of the Telegraph with which he had equipped himself for the purposes of keeping his mind occupied during the journey on the Tube. He would glance over the headlines before making his way to the crossword located towards the back of the paper. He did not like to concern himself with world affairs. Or any affairs that occurred outside the comfort of his own home, for that matter. Knowing he would never have any radical impact upon the planet he inhabited, he looked upon its seemingly non-stop sufferings with indifference.
As predicted, the Tube journey took no longer than 28 minutes. Stephen had been accompanied by the regular crowd of commuters whom he saw shuffle onto the carriage from their usual stops. A young businesswoman who rarely averted her eyes from whatever handheld device she had brought with her (it seemed to be a different one each day); an elderly fellow who walked with the assistance of a cane and always wore the same vibrantly coloured scarf. Both entered the carriage at West Finchley approximately 10 minutes into the journey and remained on the train until after Stephen had departed. A bespectacled African gentleman who would stand beside the door, a copy of the Financial Times clutched in both hands, his eyes darting between the countless facts and figures that seemed compressed into an almost microscopic print. He joined the throng at Highgate and exited two stops later at Tufnell Park.
Upon stepping out onto the platform (remaining mindful to the Gap which London’s transport system had become so renowned for), Stephen glanced at his watch. 7:32AM. Excellent, thought he. That gave our protagonist time to have a cup of tea at his favourite cafe, as he did every morning, without being detrimental to his perfect punctuality record at work. By 7:45AM he had assumed his seat by the window and was ready for Mary, the pleasant young woman who served him every morning, to bring him his tea and toast. To his agitation, Stephen caught no sign of Mary. Instead, a gentleman of olive complexion approached him, brandishing a notebook and pencil. “Good morning, sir,” he bade, his accent sweet and dulcet. “May I take your order?”
Seized by an innate sense that something was wrong, Stephen inquired as to the whereabouts of the woman who normally served him. “I’m terribly sorry sir,” came the response, “but I’m afraid Miss Summers no longer works here. Now, what can I get for you?”
"When will she be coming back?" persisted Stephen.
"I don’t think she will be coming back. She quit."
"Yes, only yesterday. A terrible shame, she was a lovely girl. May I take y-“
"Why?" interjected Stephen, severing the waiter’s honeyed words.
"Excuse me, sir?"
"Why did she quit?"
"I cannot tell you that. Now, if you’re not goi-"
"Look, if you could just find her and tell her that I’m here, she knows my order." Stephen took out his newspaper and continued with the crossword he had started on the Tube. For a moment the waiter remained unresponsive, taken slightly aback by the apparent stubbornness. Uttering an array of curse words in his native language (whatever that was, Stephen could not tell), he returned to the kitchen before reappearing a few moments later with a gentleman dressed in a crisp white shirt and paisley tie. He possessed the look of an authoritative-yet-outwardly-affable figure.
"Stephen, is it?" he asked, outstretching his hand for the clearly distressed customer to shake. However, his friendly gesture was promptly dismissed and Stephen continued to look somewhat frightened and confused. Despite this, the man (whom we must assume to be the manager of the cafe) did not refrain from creasing his cheeks into a smile that could only be described as warm, inviting and extremely patronising. "First of all, allow me to take this opportunity to thank you for your service to the cafe. I have noticed you come in here every morning for a long time now. Am I correct in assuming that it was Mary who normally took your order?"
"You are correct. Where is she?"
"As of yesterday, she is no longer under our employment. She had to move away."
"Away? Where to?"
"I am not at liberty to say, however, if it is any consolation to you, she is in good health and pursuing that which makes her happy."
"I don’t understand. Why wasn’t she happy here?"
"Again, I cannot say."
There was no use in firing interrogatives, they would all result in the same vague and entirely unhelpful response. “Will she ever be coming back?”
"I don’t think so. She emigrated."
3 across. 9 letters. To leave one’s own country in order to settle permanently in another. Emigrated.
"Ah." Utterly resigned to the cold realisation that he would never again be served tea and toast by that youthful face and melodious voice, Stephen gathered his belongings and, without a word, left the cafe. He glanced at his watch. Five minutes until he had to be sat at his desk answering phonecalls and mulling over business propositions. It took approximately seven minutes to get from the cafe to his workplace, even when walking at a brisk pace. Stephen did not run anywhere, partly because he was never put under circumstances that required him to. He always gave himself enough time to walk at his own pace. However, due to the incident in the cafe, he was impelled to run as fast as his predominantly sedentary lifestyle would allow him.
He arrived at the office hot and flustered with 20 seconds to spare. Barely able to muster the breath to bid anybody good morning, he signed in and hastily made for his cubicle, oblivious to the number of perplexed stares being darted in his direction. Letting forth a great sigh of relief, Stephen removed his coat and slumped into his chair. Moments later, Stephen was joined by his supervisor, who did not seem best pleased.
"Stephen," he asserted. "What are you doing here?"
"Yes, I see that. Didn’t you get my notice the other week?"
A pause. The look of anger that had initially adorned his supervisor’s face subsided and became somewhat solemn. He seemed to be having difficulty summoning the courage to speak, which was unusual of Stephen’s supervisor. “The notice regarding your redundancy.”
"Your redundancy, Stephen."
Redundancy. Why did the word bear such a negative connotation?
7 down. 10 letters. The state of being not or no longer needed or useful. Redundancy.
"I don’t understand, this is my job."
“Was your job. The company is going into liquidation. I’m sorry, Stephen.”
"Going into what?"
"What was that word you just used? The company is going into…"
“Liquidation,” echoed Stephen.
3 down. 11 letters. When a business or firm is terminated or bankrupt and has its assets sold or redistributed. Liquidation.
"But, this is my job!" he protested. "This is where I come to work everyday, from 8 ‘o’ clock in the morning until 7 ‘o’ clock at night. This has been my routine for almost ten years, sir! What am I supposed to do now? Where will I go? I don’t have anywhere else to be. If I’m not here by 8 in the morning I feel out of sorts. Like I’m somewhere that isn’t safe." Stephen continued his outburst between intermittent breaths. "I won’t be able to see the people on the Tube every morning. What will they do now that I’m not there to watch them as they get on? Somebody else will take my seat, they have no right to do that, that’s my seat!"
"Stephen, if you could please calm do-"
"Don’t you see? This is my life, sir! I was supposed to do this. If I don’t follow this routine I have nothing left. This is my life.”
A week later, Stephen found himself sitting before the ornate wooden desk of Doctor A. H. Hartley, the words ‘Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’ resonating throughout his mind.
12 across. 9 letters. Of, relating to, characteristic of, or causing an obsession. Obsessive.
15 down. 10 letters. Resulting from or relating to an irresistible urge. Compulsive.
2 down. 8 letters. A lack of order or regular arrangement; confusion. Disorder.
The time was 9:37AM.