The caterpillar appears on a Tuesday morning at thirteen minutes past eight, clinging to one of the few remaining green leaves on Graham Paint’s dying houseplants - although it takes a further nine minutes for it to unleash a quantum event which shatters the universe apart.
It appears to Graham, that is. In fact it has been lurking in his kitchen for a while, waiting for him to pad downstairs on the cream berber carpeting which flows through his semi like a great flood of muesli.
The caterpillar is big and sap green, with a very silly face drawn on its pulsating bottom. Its head is hidden away at the pointy end. But on its great verdant bum it has two eyes drawn with what looks like black felt-tipped pen. The eyes are coloured in with bright orange, while the pupils, again outlined in black, have pale blue centres. They are unfeasibly badly drawn. Why? you might ask. Do caterpillar predators have absolutely no artistic taste, no sense of irony, no grasp of when someone is totally taking the piss?
Clearly not. If natural selection can create creationists, then it can manage a caterpillar with a face on its arse.
The houseplants are Kerri’s responsibility. ‘Responsibility!!’ Graham might have thought, if the caterpillar hadn’t distracted him. That’s a laugh, he would have muttered mirthlessly to himself under his breath. But he doesn’t think any of this, because of the laughable green caricature clinging to his plants. Graham guesses that evolution has given it a rear end which, to a bird, looks like the head of a snake. So that’s what birds think snakes look like.
Catapulting it out the window into the bushes on the end of a spoon would be temporarily satisfying, but ultimately not as rewarding as identifying it, classifying it, and learning of its habits and lifestyle. Pate, his colleague at work, is bound to know about caterpillars. Pate knows all about this sort of stuff, and also about everything else (except fashion sense and avoiding being irritating).
But first, Graham needs to get himself to the office.
And already, with all this staring at a drawing of a bird’s worst nightmare created by Richard Dawkins or God or somebody, Graham will be at least two minutes, possibly three, late for work.
He picks up a big matchbox, empties the matches into the drawer which houses the string, pencils, playing cards, old spectacles, and bits of things which belong to things and scoops up the badly drawn caterpillar into the box. He will show it to Pate and relieve his itchy curiosity with the backscratcher of knowledge.
Graham thinks that Pate can provide him with answers. But the familiar pattern of his day has been disturbed in ways he cannot begin to understand. By putting the caterpillar in a matchbox, he has just changed his life forever. Or till it ends. Whichever comes first.
Graham puts the matchbox down on the granite worktop and switches on the kettle. He’s not going to let a caterpillar disturb his morning routine. But a quick mental calculation tells him he’s going to have to dress twelve percent faster than usual. Even Kerri’s puzzling absence makes little difference, other than the lack of chainsaw noise in the bedroom as he rushes upstairs to grab a tie. Sometimes at this point there’s a sudden choking sound as his wardrobe rummaging wakes her and she tries to inhale her own brains. This is generally followed by a plaintive wheedle...
She calls him this, thinking it endearing. (Wrongly).
Grey Paint. Sounds attractive. Fortunately this morning there’s no bleat from the bed, and no need to explain that he doesn’t have time to make her a cup of tea. He scans the ties. That one won’t go with his shirt, that would clash horribly, that’s gross, that screams 1978. He holds up ‘won’t go’ and ‘1978’, and puts ‘1978’ back.
Charging back downstairs into the kitchen he pauses in the act of tying his tie to pour hot water into a cafetière. He pulls the long end through (tie) and plunges. A sploot of coffee fires upwards and lands on his shirt.
“Shit!” he hisses sibilantly. He’s yet to master any other sort of hiss.
Then he remembers he’s alone in the house, apart from a large green caterpillar with staring orange eyes (with cobalt blue pupils) drawn on its bum. It probably has only a rudimentary grasp of English vernacular.
“Arse!!” he yells.
The extra ‘e’ adds at least an order of magnitude to the Richter Scale of sweariness. It feels much more efficacious. The sheer joy of the lengthened vowel releases his soaring heart like, like… …well it reminds him of a hunting hawk thrown skywards. (Did I remember to point out that Graham can be quite a prat at times?) He looks at the stain on his shirt (his only shirt - how the hell is he supposed to work out how the washing machine starts? He tried a wash three days ago and his shirts are still gazing wrinkly at him through the glass as the machine absolutely refuses to negotiate for their release. He knows they are gazing wrinkly. They have wrinks in them). He looks at the stain on his shirt and comes back down to earth. Or more strictly speaking, berber.
“Bum,” he mutters.
Graham dabs at the hot coffee on his shirt (Ow!) with some kitchen roll from the pine wall dispenser, then adjusts his tie to make the wide bit sit a little higher on his chest. That should hide the stain from most angles. Even if he had another shirt or could swap a hostage with the washing machine he wouldn’t have time to change and still catch the 8.21 bus. He grabs his suit jacket from the chair where it has spent the night (Wouldn’t that just piss her off if she knew about it! Ha!), adjusts his tie sideways, picks up his briefcase and opens the glass-panelled front door. Then dives back into the kitchen and grabs the matchbox, thrusts it into his jacket pocket, and skids back outside.
It takes him two minutes and forty seven seconds to make his way to the bus-stop - down the concrete slab path with chippings on either side, past his 4 x 4 gleaming on the drive. (Might as well look good even if you can’t actually afford to drive it, park it or tax it. He could do a SORN certificate and formally take it off the road. But then he’d be stuffed for the seven mile trip to Tesco and the bottle bank. Oh well.) Out through the squeaky clanky gate, along the pavement past the other really quite similar houses (although Graham’s has definitely got an extra couple of feet of garden which will be great when kids come along) up to the end of the avenue, left at the pillar box and down the street to the main road where the bus stops.
Today he does it in 2.39. Strange how striding along like the clappers till your breath is laboured and your brow glistens only saves you eight seconds.
The bus shelter is empty.
Again Graham allows himself an ‘e’, but fortunately he only thinks the word. Because he thinks it jolly loud. In his head he yells and screams it until it echoes back and forth between the double glazing and privet hedges.
The problem is this. There are normally between four and seven people at the stop when the bus arrives. The arithmetic mean is about 5.3, or was last time he kept a diary. So the chances of arriving at the stop seconds before the bus is due and finding nobody else there are about the same as finding eleven people waiting. In fact the probability that there are fewer than 0.3 people standing there (by chance) is 5% or less. Reckons Graham. So there’s a 95% chance that he’s just missed the bus. He calculates. Because he’s like that.
Graham wonders how ordinary people without the benefit of an education and without lively enquiring intellects ever muddle their way through their sadly uncalibrated lives.
He peers up the street to the left where the bus would have headed.
Then again, it only takes seventeen seconds give or take two or three to get to the trees at the end of the road and vanish, so he might have missed it by eighteen seconds and never know.
Now this presents Graham with a quandary.
Option 1: He can stay where he is and hope both the bus and its usual passengers are late. (He calls this Bus Not Been.) He’ll be first in the queue (if one materialises) and can jump on board and grab the best seat available. But if the situation is actually Bus Been he could be standing here at the stop for ten minutes and will definitely be late for work.
However (Option 2) he can set off up the road and past the trees at the end and stride on another couple of hundred yards to the traffic lights near the shops. This allows him a choice of an additional bus (the number 19 which converges at that point with his usual 13). Graham’s analytical brain tells him that Option 2 (Walk) gives him more choices of bus and a decent chance that he’ll only be four or five minutes late. Whereas Option 1 (Stay) is a gamble. It’s his only chance of arriving on time – but the downside is greater too. (See Example 1 at the end of the book.)
Take a chance and go for broke by staying put? Or opt for the mathematically correct way of minimising his lateness? What will he choose?
Kerri would know the answer. As she would put it -
“You’re a wimp, Grey. You always imagine the worst that could happen and go out of your way to avoid it. Why don’t you just trust your luck some time and take a sodding chance?”
“You loser,” she would add, in case he’d missed the point.
Which is why Graham, after dithering like a small boy needing a wee, sets off up the road at a brisk pace, glancing back nervously over his shoulder every few paces at the empty bus stop.
At least he thinks it’s empty.
Then he’s not so sure. Is that someone inside the shelter up at the far end? A few yards further, glance back, and now there’s a woman approaching with a wailing kid pulling at the buggy she’s trying to push.
A few more yards, look back, and the bloke he knows from Number 11 strides up, looking up the road and down at his watch. By now the figure at the head of the queue is fidgeting from side to side.
Graham isn’t quite trotting as he passes the trees, but he would be disqualified from a walking race. Assuming they’d let him take part in a grey suit in the first place. And let him walk while trying to look backwards, which could be construed as potentially dangerous.
Then as a schoolgirl runs towards the stop the bus sweeps into view, and pulls up smartly, herding all its standing passengers forward in a neighbourly huddle.
By a more mysterious mathematical law than the ones Graham has computed (The Law of Sod) he is exactly halfway between the two bus stops. He dithers backwards and forwards, then starts to run up the road towards the traffic lights. If the woman has problems with the buggy, and drops her change, and the schoolgirl’s pass has expired, and if the traffic lights stick on red, then he might, just...
But the Mysterious Mathematical Law also decrees that everyone has the right change and gets on in a trice, perhaps even a bice, if such a thing exists. One might imagine it would be two thirds of a trice. And in seconds (about seventeen you’ll recall) the bus is cruising past where Graham stands, panting and defeated. Graham, not the bus. The bus is barely out of breath. Graham glares at the passengers, many of whom look like they’re trying to stifle a monumental fit of the giggles. The schoolgirl covers her face with her hands as she sees Graham gasping and forlorn. The mother of wailing children purses her mouth as if she’s holding her breath underwater.
Then Graham gets the shock of his life. A shock which could hardly be surpassed if he lived many lives.
A man is sitting in his favourite window seat, halfway up the bus.
The man wears a dark grey business suit.
He has a tie like Graham’s, knotted so the small end is longer than the big end.
It really, really doesn’t go with his shirt.
The man looks exactly like Graham, except Graham would never wear an expression like that - one of insufferable smugness.
It’s uncanny. The man’s eyes meet Graham’s, and widen in amazement.
Doppelgraham nervously fingers his tie, revealing a brown stain on the shirt beneath. As the bus sweeps past, the man looks down at Graham’s shirt. So does Graham. The two men sport identical Rorschach coffee tests. What the men see in these shapes is unambiguous.
Doppelgraham will get to the office on time.
And Graham, as usual, is stuffed. But precisely how stuffed he is, he doesn’t yet begin to comprehend…