The rain drops tap against the window pane with glassy fingertips, as if fleeing from the grey looming clouds from which they had tumbled. The coach lurches forward, a woman in front of me gasps 'Bismillah!' and holds on to her fraying seatbelt for dear life. The upholstery of the seats are so well-used they feel like concrete - and the spluttering coach seems to deliberately swerve in the direction of each pothole and mound in the street. When it comes to a stop, I can already feel the bruises forming on my thighs and the back-ache I will have when I wake up tomorrow.
Mumbling and groaning, the coach stops besides a worn footpath. This is my stop and it seems like I'm the only one who will be getting off here. Before I have even stepped off the coach, it lurches forward, engine spluttering, and I stumble into a murky brownish puddle - so much for looking presentable.
It has been raining since last night. But even the dismal weather and the equally dismal journey isn't enough to suppress the eagerness I can feel within me.
I soon fall into step alongside the general current in which the people around me are travelling. I allow myself to be swept along by the eager murmurs and tide of anticipation. One of the most well-known writers of our country, by no doubt a national treasure, is launching his most recent novel - there are rumours it may become a feature-length Hollywood film by the end of next year. In my hands there is a copy of that very novel clenched firmly within my ink-stained fingers.
I am hoping -inshaAllah - that he will sign this copy. What more could a literature student want, I think, then to have a copy signed by the most renowned writer in the land? I walk a little faster, in pace with the leaps my heart is making in my throat.
The forest of people is becoming denser. I'm young and a head taller than most of those around me, I weave through as quickly as I can, the morning fog creating a hazy, dream-like atmosphere. It is 6am, I have come early to be certain I can finally meet the master of words, the interpreter of dreams, as he is called. I also want something more. In my hands lies an empty notebook - it is empty, just blank page upon blank page. I long to write, and yet when I look into that white nothingness lying before me, the words just fail to come. It's like those blank pages are a white vacuum. I want to fill them. I want him to teach me how. How to bring an end to that white silence.
So close. Just so close-
I step into a clearing in the dense forest of coat-clad trees. I stop and feel my mouth drop open.
The lines lead from the door of the book-signing office to the far end of the street, and then back towards the door, and then towards the end of the street, and back and forth, looping one after the other. There must be at least four-hundred people. I look around in disbelief. An officer whose face is greyer than the clouds indicates to me my place at the end of the line. He must have been forced to wake up early in anticipation for the large crowds - he glowers at the book in my hands, the culprit. I slip it into my coat. The murmurs of the rain become more audible - splashing against the pavement, the cars, the solitary huddles of people, looking distant and ghostly in the wavering fog.
And I wait.
The rain is roaring in my ears, the clouds have become darker, brooding silently, watching. I am soaked to the skin. The looping line of people has almost doubled in size. I feel lost in the black-clad figures. But also excited - soon, soon I will have his name signed on my book. I can't wait to show my friends.
He has finally arrived. I am on the far end of the street but I could recognise him anywhere. He is two hours late - maybe he was stuck in traffic? A doorman holds an umbrella over his head, and the writer disappears behind the glass doors of the office. It's another hour before the first of the line of people are allowed inside.
I shuffle forwards at a snail's pace.
Another two hours pass by - the seconds are warping and stretching, the time a gaping ravine between me and those glass doors. I can hear the seconds tick painfully slow on my watch, a loud yawning tick-tock which somehow swells above the howling rain, the dissenting murmurs, the rustle of pages -
'Come on in!'
There is an elderly man standing before a door, just a few metres ahead of where I am standing. He is looking somewhere in my direction. He's wearing sandals despite the late-December weather, his windswept white hair as curly as the fist-length beard framing his face. I idly glance around, shifting my weight from one aching foot to another.
Then I realise.
He's talking to me.
'Come on!' He isn't smiling as he says this. He has a serious, intent expression on his face.
By an impulse I have no idea why I am following, I tell the man next to me to keep my place for me and I make my way to the old man. Before he leads me into the dark interior of his shop, I have enough time to glance at the sign, it is in a flowing antique script: Bookbinders.
At his insistence I gratefully sink into a chair besides a small electric heater, accepting the chipped, steaming mug of coffee he presses into my hands. I take a sip and cough. It's strong. Books are surrounding me, piles of them. They spill from the tables and shelves and rise here and there like frozen waves in a stormy sea. It smells like ink and paper. Like books.
'So you're here to have that book signed.' He has noticed the book I am holding.
I can't help but notice the sarcastic lilt to his voice. 'Yes,' I say a little defensively.
He smiles. He lifts a couple of books, glances briefly at their covers, and places them on another pile. It swerves dangerously but stays put. 'You'd think an Oxford graduate will have offered his guests some tea and cake.' He waves vaguely in the direction of the line of people outside. It hasn't even moved.
'He's busy....he's a writer.'
'Aren't we all.....' he murmurs softly.
We sit in silence for some time. Five minutes? Ten? The inside of this room seems strangely timeless. Not quite in touch with the world outside. As does the man.
'So you want to be a writer as well,'
'How do you know?' I can't keep the surprise from my voice.
'You're ink-stained fingers. And glasses,' his eyes are bright, 'You look like a writer already,'
'I'm going to ask him to teach me,' I say, 'Teach me how to write like him.'
'He can't teach you how to write,' the old man whispers so softly, as if he is speaking to himself, 'He can't teach you to unravel and weave words to form a tapestry - you have to learn that yourself.'
I am not sure what to say, 'I've tried to write, and I can't. I need him to teach me.'
'Why from him though?'
For some reason I feel a little irritated, 'Because he's the best! Would you be able to teach me?'
'If you want me to.' He seems to have taken me seriously.
He picks up another book, places it onto another pile. And then he picks up the empty notebook which I had placed upon the table. Before I can protest, he tears out a page and gives it to me. It's white and empty. It's blank.
'It's strange, so many of us are frightened of things which are blank....empty. A blank mind. A blank wall. A blank paper. We force ourselves to fill it with something - anything, as long as it is full. But why? Why are empty things, blank papers so terrifying to us? Why can we not consider it to be what it truly is - a paper of infinite possibilities.'
I start, he seems to have read my thoughts. Or perhaps he is reading his own thoughts out to me. I don't know.
'But it is empty, how can anything that is empty contain anything?' The old man intrigues me, he seems to be intimately connected to the books around him in a way I haven't seen anyone else. The long line outside the window shuffles forwards. But I don't mind.
He leans forward, his eyes alight, 'Rather than staring at a piece of blank paper, desperate to fill it up as quickly as possible, why don't we appreciate it as a piece of art? That paper, in the moments for which it is blank, is capable of anything. A limitless amount of words can be written upon it, an infinite number of dreams can be seen beneath its surface, it is possible of anything and everything. Not like a piece of paper with words - it's now fixed to that idea, to that dream - it has been named and it's identity given. No. A blank piece of paper is so full. It's not empty. It's waiting. Will it be a poem? A love letter? A secret diary? It's a whole universe and more lying before you - if only you wish to see it. Waiting for you to open it up.'
I am silent, I am staring at the paper in my hands. A blank piece of paper. So precious and unknown. Beneath it's surface a thousand ideas glimmering, a thousand dreams flickering uncertainly.
'A blank piece of paper is a circular square,' he smiles, 'A circle of infinite possibilities.'
'Or a circle within a square,' I murmur.
'Don't be frightened of emptiness - it's only in the emptiness that something new can come.'
Outside, the line shuffles forwards by an inch, perhaps two. They are so still, like trees. A forest of trees, made of wool and pashmina and linen, damp in the veils of fog.
I glance again at the blank piece of paper. It's yawning whiteness no longer daunts me so much. It's doesn't have to be filled up, it can just be white, and nameless, until it finds its name for itself.
A circular square. Infinite.
Already, I can see some of the ideas, some of the dreams, within the blank paper becoming distinct,
The old man is again rearranging the books. They loom around me. A forest of paper and ink.
'I'll go,' I say.
I receive no reply. I glance around, and I find him hidden behind a few towers of books, he goes down upon his knees, places his forehead on the ground. I silently leave the shop. And the old man. With his books. And his prayers.
I step into the line of people, but I don't stop there. I walk on, and look back. It is too crowded there, too many letters, too many words. I need to go somewhere empty. Somewhere blank. Where there's no words. So that I can fill it with something new.