Tuesday, February 5, 2013


There was this odd man walking about the printers again.

He had a beard. A huge, fuzzy brown beard like a bird’s nest hung sideways from his face. No head hair; and tiny gimlets for eyes. A large coat, hunched, grey and fraying at the cuffs and collar, with huge knobby fingers like potatoes stuck together at the joints. He was sniffing around the computer clusters -literally sniffing- all suspicious-like, and it was a wonder campus security hadn’t already marched in to throw him out.

He had this huge sack on him, fat and bulging, hung from his side with a pair of old luggage straps. I watched from my nest in the sofa cluster, hidden under my piles of crumpled scratch-work and musty old pillows that smelt of fart; and would have thought it a dream if I hadn’t seen him, days before, hanging around the library printers from my reading hole between the shelves on the upper floor. Back then, I paid his actions no mind, but today, frozen as I was under the papery weight of three-dimensional calculus, I couldn’t help but study at his antics in careful detail.

Between the printer and wall is a small area of space that serves as the purgatory of printed materials. Rather than entering the heaven of a student’s subject folder or the wastepaper basket of hell, occasionally print materials will slip –intentionally or otherwise- into the gap between. Misprinted essays, double-printed articles and/or forgotten homework all coexisted there in silent, dusty harmony until the inevitable spring cleaning where they would be swept away to be judged at the incinerator.

With careful, tender care, the strange man reached into the back of the wall with his knobby fingers, somehow fitting them into the thin gap, and extracted one such piece of abandoned print from its ethereal prison. Wrinkles were smoothened out, and corners flattened. For a minute or two he stood there, brows creased as he studied the contents of the paper. On its back I saw a tic-tac-toe puzzle. That too was surreptitiously analysed with as much as attention as he gave the earlier paragraphs of font 12 text. Out from his bag came a massive folder, a ring-binder hung with enough multi-coloured bookmarks and strips to laminate a table, and with all the intention and demeanour of a librarian sorting through a filing system he flicked through its pages, finally settling on one marked with a purple, flowery tag, sliding the sheet inside it with a satisfied grunt.

This process repeated itself about half a dozen times: once with a series of half-printed assignments, another with an entire stack of textbook pages. Each time, the man read the papers with frightening focus and speed, occasionally nodding or letting out a low chuckle, each time ending with him filing the document into one of his many specialized folders. Quietly I watched him, not wanting to disturb this odd spectacle, until it came at last that the sound of the cleaning staff vacuuming the floors drifted over from across the hall.

With practiced ease the stranger stowed away his folders in his bag, now ever so slightly thicker, and turned to regard the printer. With his hands clasped together, the stranger seemed to be saying something to the remaining papers still trapped in their dusty prison, but with the hum of the vacuum growing ever-louder all I could hear was an odd, rustling noise, like the wind over crisp pages, fresh and soft. That done, the stranger turned with ceremonial grace away from the printer, and with unusual speed and silence bounded off into the stairwell, leaving barely a trace of his passing. Only then did I rustle from underneath my fort of crumpled, dead scribbling, wondering as the hum of reality drifted back into the world if I had for a moment back there imagined the answering rustle, let alone heard the cry of thoughts half-penned but never to be.