The author, Clive Gresswell, screwed up the piece of paper he had been writing on and tossed it into the bin. He was dissatisfied with the characters who had not been behaving themselves and doing what he wanted them to do. Another typical day of frustration for the ageing hack. This writing lark always got to him, but he was only too well aware he had a book to finish. If the characters were not behaving there must be something wrong with the plot, he mused. Time to get out his writer’s notebook and think again.
Bus Stop Betty, so-called because she was always waiting by the bus stop, had come out of her house into Dinktown and knew there was something wrong — but she could not quite put her finger on what it was. There were hardly any cars on the road and she noticed that the bus was three-quarters-of-an-hour late, something that rarely happened.
She sniffed the air and on looking up noticed that the name sign for the Muslim school was blank, as was the road name sign. As Bus Stop Betty looked all around her she noticed that all the signs in the street were blank — as if someone had raided them overnight.
Other citizens of Dinktown had come out of their front doors to go about their busy lives and also noticed this strange phenomenon. None of them could quite believe their eyes. For the first time in years neighbour talked to neighbour as though this sign drama had brought them closer together. Where the signs had gone and what effect this would have on the town no-one seemed sure. Drivers wondered whether it would be safe to drive to work.
Bus Stop Betty had been joined in the queue by Simon and Walter — other regulars.
“Immigrants blame I the,” said Bus Stop.
“Blame I council the,” said Simon.
“Blame I author the,” said Walter.
Just then the bus came round the corner. Even though it was terribly late it had made it on its circular route around the town.
Even the bus did not have a route sign. Luckily, this was the only bus on the way to the shops. Naturally enough the blanking out of the signs was the talk of the bus. The driver, Malcolm, who normally whinged to passengers about his spastic colon and other medical ailments, was sweating profusely.
He told his passengers: “Signs thing this is awful just. Many car accidents are in all way the round. Many stuck on roundabouts are going circles in knowing not to get off where. It’s dangerous bloody what it is that’s. It is this like town over all. Shops none of have any signs proper got. More life than my worth to bloody bring bus this out and I’ll buggered be if am I going to do all day it.”
Bus Stop Betty and the other passengers asked each other how an earth this could have happened, but no-one had a clue. Bus Stop Betty held firm in her belief that it was all to do with immigration. She ventured her theory on the bus, despite the wide ethnic diversity of the other passengers.
In town the police were out in full force and ambulances and fire crews were on emergency standby. Some police officers were standing in the middle of roundabouts, directing traffic as best they could. Strangers to Dinktown were totally lost and some had abandoned their vehicles in horror at the situation. One driver went into a petrol station and asked the owner: “Aren’t there any damn signs to anywhere in this place?”
“Were there yesterday but all they seem to have been gone today,” he said and shrugged his shoulders in a nonchalant manner.
News of what had happened in Dinktown spread fast and soon the world’s media had descended on the tiny place, from international television stations to the national press.
There were many interviews with the Town Mayor, Rigby Diamond, about what might have happened and what could be done. The best he could suggest was to impress upon the local council the need to replace the signs as soon as could be. He pointed out, however, that there were problems. There was bureaucracy to get through, and replacing all the signs would be expensive.
“May it be that don’t we need replace to all signs the but main only ones the,” he told a shocked TV crew who could not understand what on earth he was talking about.
“That’s just fucking great,” howled television producer Justin Crimp. “We cannot put that gibberish on the air without providing some sort of interpretation.”
His assistant, Max Palser, suggested sub-titles and it was agreed, regretfully, that was what they would have to do.
The place was in utter chaos. It wasn’t just signs in the town centre that were affected but those all over the place including the local fire, police and ambulance HQ’s. Places affected included shops, factories, churches, cemeteries, bus stops and taxi ranks — anywhere that used to have a sign. The local hospital had been put on emergency standby when visitors and patients found it virtually impossible to find their way around.
There was gossip about the army coming in, although exactly what they would do was unspecified, and there was certainly talk of creating a town border and not letting outsiders in so as to ease the already fraught situation. Bus Stop Betty thought this was a brilliant idea. It was about time the authorities clamped down on strangers.
It was decided a public town meeting should be held as soon as possible prior to a full council one, and it was called for the next day. That night the only signs in Dinktown were the ones pasted up on telephone poles for the open meeting which was to be chaired by the Mayor. The new sign, dictated by the Mayor, said: ‘Notwithstanding drama the terrible befallen Dinktown a meeting special called has been at the hall village for night tomorrow. Many as people possible called on are attend to.’
A special edition of the local paper, The Crier Dinktown, was also prepared to be distributed the next day just before the open meeting. Editor Rick Vancloofe had worked through the night putting the final touches on the newspaper before its free circulation throughout the town.
“A Sign Of Times The!” screamed the front page headline. The article started: “Emergency an meeting called has been for tonight 6:30 p.m. in wake of drama dramatic shock horror of signs blank gone.
“The of whole Dinktown disarray in was yesterday when signs all the in the town blanked out were causing chaos absolute. Even ducks chalk the pavement on gone had and meant nobody knew what they.”
Panic had started to spread in the town and before the meeting some determined residents had made new signs of their own — placards with which to lobby the gathering.
“Action we want see to now,” said one of the placards.
“Enough, enough is,” said another.
A group of about thirty Dinkstownians gathered together to march on the village hall in unison. On the way they waved their placards, which had now gone blank before their eyes, even though the ink was not yet dry.
Diamond called the meeting to order and appealed for calm. Everyone was talking all at once in an almighty din. It was the most excitement Dinktown had ever known and there were some elements determined to make a crisis out of a drama. Even the Dinktown branch of the Anarchist Front (all two of them) were there.
Diamond cleared his throat and raised his hands to call the rabble of a crowd to order.
“Not anywhere we’ll get we if all talking start once at,” he said. “What need we is meeting a sensible.”
Some Dinktownians nodded their heads in agreement and eventually the din of the meeting settled down. “Better that’s,” said Diamond “Now anyone has helpful suggestions any?”
Everyone looked around from one to another at first, shrugging their shoulders.
Bus Stop Betty eventually stood from her seat and said: “Close borders the immediately we should. Not is only all immigrants fault the of, but extremely dangerous is.”
The crowd nodded and cheered.
Another long-time resident, Bobby Smiley, known as Smiley because he was always smiling whatever the circumstances (and he was smiling now as he spoke), said: “Aim the be should get signs our back the quickly possible as.”
Diamond appealed for hush after this got a big round of applause. “It’s simple not quite that as. It easier would be if knew we what made signs the disappear in first the place, but don’t we. Nevertheless have I in touch with army been and General Curruders agreed has organise borders closing off the to.
“Second done thing I have is organize a meeting full of Council Town to discuss the urgently how deal we with situation the. It’s good no we if don’t know all how started and just go up putting them. Might they just blank go again.”
General Curruders was as good as his word, and the troops arrived to seal off all four entrances and exits to the town. Soldiers carrying machine guns guarded the area; after all who knew what might have caused this? Originally residents were to be given passes but it was soon found that the ink on those faded almost as soon as it was put on so all of them had to wear little pink and yellow tags to get in and out.
Meanwhile the full council held its meeting and decided it just did not know what the heck to do. Chairman Pete Pugwashton eventually put forward a hotchpotch of a motion which was passed. It said: “Withstanding not grave the circumstances the of happened what Dink town to at council we the take case extremely seriously most and incumbent upon call the on Government to cash provide for immediate signs replacement of.”
Minister for Local Government Paul Lehope appeared on television trying to calm people’s fears and promising that the Government would indeed take control of the situation. Like Mayor Diamond he explained that it was not just as simple as replacing all the signs immediately. First there would have to be a departmental inquiry as to what had happened at Dinktown to make sure it could not happen anywhere else.
He said that could take several months, and that did not wash well with the people of Dinktown at all. Residents decided to lobby outside Lehope’s government office calling for something more urgent to be done forthwith.
They actually did not have any suggestions as to what to do. All they knew is that their little town had been turned into a nightmare to live in and things were becoming more than a joke. For one thing more and more of the international press had descended on the place, getting in everyone’s way.
Two representatives were allowed in to see Lehope, who himself was exasperated about what to do. He was at his wit’s end with the situation down there, and with these damn people who just wouldn’t shut up about it. Not only that, but he couldn’t understand a damn word they said anyway.
After the meeting he was complaining to his wife, saying how he could not see what might be done, when she had a brainwave.
“Paul,” she said: “why not bring the author back in and see what he can do!”
He gasped. Jesus, the idea was so simple and ingenious he wondered why nobody had thought of it before.
Here was a chance not only to restore his reputation but to actually achieve something in politics. Although it was only a small place, there were still plenty of votes to be had in Dinktown.
Lehope called the secret service in to look for Clive Gresswell’s telephone number, which took about three days because he was ex-directory. But never mind; Lehope knew he was onto something.
When he telephoned Mr. Gresswell, and perhaps much to his surprise, the author was not unsympathetic. But he had to work out exactly what had happened to the characters in his story and why the signs had gone blank.
Then he remembered throwing the first draft into the bin, and fished it out. Almost immediately he noticed that words had slid off the paper and were in the bin. Words such as “Hospital,” “Turn Right” and “Dinktown Muslim School.” He patiently gathered all the words together and, noticing there was even a drawing of a duck on a pavement, glued them onto a piece of paper.
The next morning the people of Dinktown awoke to a miracle — the signs were mysteriously back without a by-your-leave or thank-you. The army packed up and went back to base as did the hordes of press that had been invading the town.
Lehope was on television boasting about how the Government had taken control of the situation, but Mr. Gresswell, as he watched, knew differently.
He shrugged his shoulders and got back to work on his story.
CLIVE GRESSWELL is an innovative fiction author and poet working out of Luton in Bedfordshire, UK. At the tender age of his mid-50s, he rediscovered his passion for writing and studying at the university in his home town. He does not keep snails.