Fender pulled on his longjohns and tugged his thermal vest over his head. A thick pair of trousers followed, as did two pairs of socks, one over the other. Then a shirt and a jumper. Heavy boots. He walked towards the door and took the winter coat off the peg and enveloped himself within. He looked around for his hat and scarf but couldn’t find them. He cursed and, after pulling on his gloves, decided to brave it and head out without them. He stepped through the door and into the street. It was 26 degrees Celsius, the warmest day for months.

Every other man he could see was wearing a t-shirt or a short-sleeved shirt; the women were all in skirts or summer dresses. He shivered a little, drew his coat even more tightly around himself and ran across the street to where his car was parked. As soon as he got inside, he turned on the ignition and fired up the heating.

While he waited for the car to warm up he gazed blankly at the pairs of flags strung up across the road into the distance. He recognised the city’s coat of arms on one, but the other was a mystery. Red, with a strange cityscape inside a badge in the top right corner; he had never seen it before.

The steering wheel still felt slightly chill as he swung the car out into a gap in the traffic. He wished he was in a country where he had to turn off the air conditioning rather than turn on the heating; where rain came only to break through the humidity rather than as an almost constant drab, damp blanket. The radio blurted out something about the start of a mild, early heat wave, but he knew that wouldn't amount to much and certainly not enough.

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His job that day, as every day, consisted of replacing some road signs, restoring others to their proper upright position and cleaning up defaced signs so that they read as they should. It wasn’t a great job, not least because it meant being out in the freezing cold all the time, and Fender thought the task was gradually whittling away his intelligence. He was forgetting more than he had ever learnt, but he also got some pleasure from dreaming of being in those other places the signs pointed to, and that was almost enough. The problem with living on an island was that those other places weren’t all that far away and most days they were just as damp and cold as where he was.

On four days of the week he left the office to go to a different compass point of the city. That day it was to the west, where there were few options for motorists except to turn around and head back towards the centre. The coast was only a few miles out from the city and the small village of Mote was the only thing that lay between the two.

At least once a month someone would scrawl a prefix of “Re” in front of the village’s name on any one of a dozen signposts, and it would be Fender’s task to clean it off. This time he came across slightly more inventive graffito, though. Someone had changed the “e” to an “o” and added “-rway” as a suffix. Fender assumed it to be a sarcastic complaint about the poor road conditions and set to restoring the sign to its original state.

Three other road signs in the area were defaced that day. The first turned the town of Pales into something unreadable and the second the suburb of Cartgate into Cartagena. And that week, as every other, the main sign pointing towards Landsend had been replaced with its more commonly used nickname of Landfill.

Fender had never heard of Cartagena before. With his tour completed by early afternoon he decided to use the remaining hours back in the office to find out where it was. What he found made him pine even more for another place. Whether it was the Spanish or the Colombian version made little difference, either would be a substantial improvement on Cartgate, Landsend or indeed the city itself. The heat and the humidity of either were welcome thoughts on their own, but the exoticism of the Caribbean coast and the stories of pirates and privateers, or the history that must lie inside every Roman brick of the Mediterranean ruins added far greater depth. Fender sat back in his chair and thought about living a contented life travelling between the two. The Spanish city was the nearer, but he was slightly more drawn to the Latin American version, even if it was five thousand miles further away.

After half an hour someone came in to knock him out of his reverie and, discovering they had walked into the wrong room, promptly left again. Fender got up and headed to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee to wake himself up properly. While he waited for the kettle to boil he looked at the local paper that had been abandoned on the counter top. The front page was mostly taken up with a story about the city being twinned with somewhere called Skopje, in Macedonia apparently. Fender had never heard of that either, but the description of a small landlocked state didn’t really appeal. Why there? Why not pick a partner from somewhere more exciting, somewhere warmer, somewhere that might lend a fresh air to the place, a warm breeze to fend off the chills.

The next day he went about his rounds to the east of the city and he fell back to these thoughts, dreaming up places to pair with the suburbs and villages he was travelling through. He put St Petersburg with one, Venice with another, Johannesburg with a third. How far away were all these places? He tried to estimate the distances but gave up when he realised that he could only guess within a range of a few thousand miles. After abandoning that thought, he instead fell to thinking about directions to those cities which, with the pallid, weak sun in the sky above as a guide, were easier to work out.

From there it was only a short mental distance that Fender himself had to travel before he came to the one thing that would define him, to take the action which would arch over anything he had attempted before. But it still took a week for him to resolve it in his mind.

He first broached the subject with his girlfriend, who laughed. Then she pursed her lips and suggested it would be a rash act which could lead to his dismissal. A friend laughed even more and said it would definitely see him thrown out of his job. These objections and observations were met by others in his own mind, but they were outweighed by the romanticism of the move.

He started small to see what impact he might have. While out on his rounds one day he simply added a line to the bottom of an existing sign which pointed the way to Farrow and St Justice Junction. To these two unrewarding destinations he added Cap Bon, which lay in the same direction, albeit rather more distant.

Another week went by before Fender had built up enough courage to do it again. In that time not a single complaint had been made about his first intervention, which fortified his resolve and pushed him to be more ambitious. This time, instead of a simple direction sign, he did a bit of research on his target city and decided to go for distance as well. Towards the end of his shift, while pretending to clean off some graffiti on a sign to the south of the city, he put down the name of Ipiales, along with a rounded-up number of the distance that it lay from there in miles.

Once again he didn’t hear of any complaints, and as the days went by and he passed to and from work, his portfolio of new direction markers grew. Alongside the prosaic signs for the ferry and the bridge, the capital, the outlying suburbs and the coastal towns were added the names of cities and landmarks which many locals had never heard of before, places that Fender hadn’t been aware of before his research: Salta and Segovia, Montenegro and Nouakchott.

Each evening he would pore over an atlas and the internet. Starting with a local road junction, he would extend a line until it hit a foreign city, preferably in the tropics for the sake of his own climatic aspirations. The next time he covered the relevant territory on one of his rounds he would augment the existing signs as necessary.

His work became easier with the lengthening of the days. As the evenings extended he no longer had to rush to finish his normal work and allow time for his hobby – there seemed enough daylight hours for both. The unusually dry weather helped too – Fender was able to paint the signs without the disruption of regular showers that was the norm. While he drove around, the car radio in the background boasted of the ever-improving climate.

The signs seemed to provoke no public complaints, but Fender’s manager did at times comment on the profusion of illegal signs that were appearing, urging him to work additional hours if at all possible to combat the plague. Fender happily acquiesced. It gave him more time to devote to his task, and at overtime rates of pay. The manager did not see that the problem worsened with the more hours Fender worked and was merely thankful that he had such a devoted employee.

Despite his long-standing scepticism, Fender began to think there might be something to the continual exhortations by the media to enjoy the heat wave. For the first time in years he began to feel warm, to the extent that he left the house one day without his thick winter coat. The warmth seemed particularly marked in the corridor to the south of the city, where he had spent much of the previous week planting signposts to Luanda, Asmara and Riyadh. Oddly, he thought he had perceived a light dusting of sand close to one sign as he drove past.

And there were other, more troublesome developments. Car drivers began to complain about getting lost, and bus drivers were being harried to take passengers to destinations which lay well beyond their usual route, well beyond the limits of their buses’ endurance. The buses which worked the road now pointing to Karachi were more overcrowded than ever; several chickens and one goat (all live) were smuggled on to some of the Bamako-bound ones; and there were complaints from distraught school children about a suspected case of a guinea pig being eaten close to a turn-off marked for Lima. In other parts of the city things were worse. There was at least one instance of someone trying to ride on the top of a train heading in the general direction of Bangalore, who met with an unfortunate end courtesy of a low-slung power cable overhead. One of the drivers on the Prague route was sacked for persistently seeking extra, illegal payments from passengers with luggage.

But as long as the weather continued to improve, Fender was willing to overlook such difficulties. In any case, there were also improvements to some routes. The quality of cooking in the cafes on the way to Cap Bon seemed to improve markedly, and no-one objected to the empanadas that were now on sale by roadside vendors close to the junction for Bogota.

And so Fender began to experiment. One day he added the name Tromsø to a sign. The next day the radio reported a freak hail storm in that part of town. But it could still all be coincidence, he told himself, it just needed further study.

He decided to set up more experiments. He began placing some signs on a more random basis, not necessarily pointing in the direction of the destination they mentioned. He bought some small weather kits which could measure rainfall, hours of sunshine and wind speeds, and installed them close to the signs so he could gather his own data.

The initial results were inconclusive He wondered if different signs might be cancelling each other out, or perhaps the direction really was the key. Further experimentation and record-keeping would be needed, but after just two weeks his ability to track what was happening was disrupted by the weather itself.

One day torrential rain started to fall in his part of the city, causing flooding which prevented him getting beyond the end of his road. It was dry on the far side of the city, but impromptu streams and rivers were making channels for themselves all around his house, and he was trapped. Some elderly neighbours were evacuated but those who wanted to stay were allowed to. Fender, mindful of someone discovering his hoard of signage equipment while he was absent – equipment that his girlfriend asked ever more penetrating questions about whenever she visited – decided to stay put.

After the rain gave way to some dry days he was able to get back out, return to his job and restart his tours of the city’s road signs. He had been absent for just a few days, but he found that the usual graffiti had returned in abundance and his signs seemed to have provoked even greater creativity in others. A marker pointing to Rhodes was appended with “to nowhere”, Oslo had been turned into sOslow and the capital of the Comoros Islands, Moroni, had been altered to Moronic. The roads were still dangerous with so much standing water, and Fender even skidded off the road at one point, knocking into a sign close to his house that pointed to Juneau in Alaska. That put him off driving for the day and, given that there were too many signs for him to deal with in one day, he decided to give up for the evening.

That night the snow started to fall around his house. It piled up over his car and up to his windows in the space of just one night. The next day he went out with a shovel and dug out a path to the road, but the road itself had been buried deep under the white. The path could take him to the road, but if he couldn’t get anywhere beyond that there was no value in having reached it, so he stopped shovelling and retreated into his house.

Again he was trapped, but unlike the rain which had stopped after just a few days, the snow kept coming day after day. It reached up past the first storey of his house to the second floor. His food supplies began to drop and he took to eating sparingly. The pipes around his house froze, cutting off the supply of water, the phone lines crashed down under the weight of snow. He took to wearing his entire wardrobe of clothes, but still he felt cold. If he had managed to carry on digging the path from his house and gone past his car to the end of the road, he would have realised that the sign he had crashed into was no longer pointing in the direction of Juneau as he had thought, but straight at his house.

THE END

The first time I saw Alex she was scribbling furiously in a book. The second time she was doing the same, her pen skimming across the page. On the third occasion I went and asked her what she was doing. At that point she looked up, surveyed me and focused back on her book where she carried on as before. I followed her lead and, upside down, saw her write what I had just said.

It turned out that she was trying to write down every conversation she was involved in. But this was before she had learnt any decent method of shorthand, so she wrote everything in longhand with just a few abbreviations as and when they came to her. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but the fact that she had recorded my question was a positive sign.

I sat down at a nearby table and drank my coffee and after a few minutes she came over to apologise for not answering my question earlier. She had to finish off a previous conversation while the memory was still fresh she said. That was when we talked properly for the first time. Halfway through, after she’d explained her project, I asked her why she wasn’t writing down this one. She said she would remember it and write it down later. It was the closest she ever really got to saying something romantic. Some time afterwards I found the book where she’d recorded it and she had remembered it just as I had.

Later she would hone a much better technique, but at the point I first approached her the weight of letters was starting to bury her so she had taken to evaluating a new contact before working out whether the conversation would be important enough to record.

Each person was given a number in a cycle of 1 to 99. I was one of many 27s. If they turned out to be enduring contacts they would gain a two-or-three-letter acronym to distinguish them, which might or might not equate to their initials. Eventually I became FB. The second letter stood for boyfriend, but she would never tell me if the initial F was for first, of fifth or even fourteenth, though I never had any reason to think the second or third option was likely. After we split up I remained FB and never heard of any SB.

She had been doing her writing for about nine months when we met and her project to record everything she said to anyone and everything that anyone said to her was already starting to override all else in her life. Friendships were becoming unworkable, family relationships tense.

Her apartment was filling up with the accumulated tomes of her conversations. Volumes of notebooks lined the corridors or were in boxes, all carefully categorised. They were her ‘day books’ where she’d jot down the conversations as she was having them. Depending on what she was doing and how big or small the notebook was, she could get through more than one in a day. The most she ever completed in a single 24 hour period was three and a half. There were other books where she would analyse the conversations. This was before she got a computer.

Numbers were important to Alex. All the conversation logs were mined for information: how many words she spoke in a day; how many were spoken to her; how long it took for each conversation to run its course; how many words beginning with A, then B, then C; the average number of syllables in a word; the proportion of sentences, words and syllables spoken to her versus those uttered by her.

She never fully explained to me why she had started doing all this, although one night she told me that she was looking for patterns which she could extrapolate into bigger truths. She was sure the habits of individuals would be replicated by society as a whole, by all of humanity even, and it shouldn’t change much over time. The problem with such conversations was that she was writing them down as we were having them, which made the exercise all rather circular and that became her reason for not talking about it anymore. She could have decided not to record those conversations, but she didn’t want to do that. Either way it would unfairly skew the data she said.

When we were first going out we had a pact that anything after 10pm would go unrecorded, not so much to preserve any secrets or intimacies, but just so we could have some normal time together for at least part of the day. I started timing my visits to her place to coincide with this watershed but after just a couple of months she reneged on it and insisted on writing or taping everything that went on.

We split up not long after that, but I kept in touch fitfully. It was easier to do so on the phone or email, when the notebook wasn’t so apparent or intrusive. I didn’t see her often.

She still managed to go out of the house and interact fairly normally, often with a recorder rather than a notepad and pen and she’d transcribe everything when she got home. As time went on she developed a method of writing up her conversations that now leaves them all but incomprehensible. She rejected the notion of words for being too time-consuming to write down and instead focused on the first letter and the number of syllables in any word. I don’t know how but she seemed to intuitively grasp how many there were in a word without having to think about it. Pages of her books were filled up with strings of letters and numbers like “a3 b4 c1 n1...” and so on and on and on. A litany of algebraic equations with no solution; conversations that had now gone quiet. She wasn’t big on capital letters but there was some basic punctuation.

According to a few of her calculations that I came across, on average five per cent of all words of three syllables or more were misused by people in conversation – with a high of around nine per cent for words with five syllables and less either side of that. Conversations were longer towards the end of the week but with a higher proportion of shorter words. Those can’t have been the only results she came up with but I can’t find any more.

Her notation system meant she started using fewer notebooks which took up less space, but the intelligibility declined precipitously and were lost to anyone but Alex, who seemed to be able to remember the conversations and work out the words in context. It made her computation of conversational statistics easier of course.

The only way for anyone to figure out what the books refer to is if Alex kept the recording of the conversation, which she did with increasing regularity as her project went on and technology improved. At first she’d use a cumbersome portable cassette tape deck, but later she would carry around a small digital device. Any recording I’ve listened back to and compared has matched perfectly to her codified transcription.

She was in the process of transferring everything – all the conversations and all the recordings – to a computer and was working backwards through them, charting everything and comparing it to the previous statistical results as she went. I can now hold the contents of almost 5,000 notebooks in the palm of my hand on a little memory stick.

When we were dating I would watch her try to make sense of everything she had compiled. She worried sometimes about the results that stared back at her. For a while people were speaking far more to her than she was saying in reply and she was concerned that, if everyone followed this route, the world would soon turn silent as people said less and less in reply to any sentence. But then she thought about the reverse. What if everyone in the world said more than was said to them? This was the majority of people she had been interacting with after all. The world could die in a cacophonous avalanche or run out of time to say everything that needed to be said.

Then one day she decided to just go quiet. Any conversation would just make matters worse one way or the other. She refused to go out, she disconnected her phone and sealed her letterbox. She spent several weeks just allowing herself to wither inside her flat. I still had keys from our abortive relationship so I was the one who found her.

The nurses encourage me to speak to her when I go to visit, or at least read to her from a book, but she can’t reply even if she wanted to and I know a one-sided conversation would just infuriate her, so I just sit there silently by her bedside for a few hours every day. Sometimes while I’m there I write down what I would like to say to her. In fifteen years I’ve filled 1,782 notepads. They’re all stored in my flat but I’m starting to run out of room. I might stop soon.

If she ever wakes up and leaves this place and sees all the books and asks what I’d been doing, what I’d been writing about, this is what I’d tell her.

THE END