Sunday 8 December 2019


by Nick Gisburne

When I was a boy I saw a man, a tall, thin man, a tall man who wore a long, black overcoat and silver-buttoned boots. He walked on the cobbles of a lamp-lit street, on a cold, clear evening. He walked towards me, and walked towards me still, until finally he stopped. I saw him and he saw me. He saw me watching him and he stood and stood, still and silent. He did not hide from me, did not look away from me, and I knew that he wanted to share a secret with me. The tall man took a small, black box, a small and perfect box, out of a coat pocket, and he held it up, up to his face, with thin, grey fingers. He waited, and I held my breath, and he waited, until I must breathe again. And we both breathed together, as he swung open the lid of the small, black box.

There. I saw it there, inside the box. A scrap of paper, and only that, a thin, square scrap of paper, plain and white and ordinary. What I saw was very, very ordinary, but I knew that it could not be, must not be ordinary, because it was inside that box. It was special. It was. I knew. The man, the box, the paper, they must all be important and special. As special as this place, at this moment. The man lifted the ordinary paper between two thin, grey fingers, lifted the paper and held it up, up to his eyes. He put the box away, somewhere, somehow, but I did not see where. I looked at the ordinary scrap of paper, and I watched, and I waited.

The tall man twisted the paper this way and that, as if this way was better, but no, that way was best, but then, this way and that, and again. I saw a fold, a fold in the paper, a new fold, but I did not see how it appeared. The twist of fingers and paper, of wrist and arm, of elbow and shoulder, all, all were one, one movement, one this way and that movement, and the fold was there, and I did not see how.

More folds, more folding, but these other folds I saw. I saw fingers folding the paper, twisting edges and corners, bending and folding. Grey fingers folded the white paper, and the white, folded paper, became a shape, a form, a form with a shape I knew. I knew the shape of a boat, and this boat, this tiny, paper boat was no ordinary boat. Here were sails, here were ropes and rigging and masts and anchor, perfect details, a perfect boat. The man, the tall man with thin, grey fingers, balanced the boat in the centre of one thin, grey palm, and we breathed in again, breathed in together. And our breaths ended, together, as before.

Thumb and finger, delicate finger and thumb, pulled and picked and raised the paper boat to his eyes, to the deep, dark eyes of the tall man. Those dark, darker, darkest eyes gazed at the tiny paper boat and those eyes knew what he would do now. I, with my bright eyes, the bright eyes of a boy, watched the man as he lifted the paper boat and held it, held it at both ends, held both ends of the boat, and pulled, and pulled, and pulled them apart. And I was cold, cold in an instant. I was cold as toes in the snow, cold as ice on the neck, cold at the thought that such a pure and perfect creation, this boat, this perfect paper boat, would be ripped and ruined and wrecked.

And yet, I heard no rips. I saw no ruin. I saw not what I knew would happen, not what I thought I knew. I saw something else, something I knew could not happen, could never, never happen. The small paper boat, pulled apart, pulled length-ways and long-ways and cross-ways, now grew. It grew larger, and it grew longer, and it grew, and again it grew. What had been smaller than a hand, smaller than his hand, smaller than my hand, was now five of his hands, or ten of mine, and soon ten of his, ten grey hands from end to end, then twenty, then longer, wider, taller. The paper boat grew, and the man, the tall man, stood now behind it, behind the boat, the boat which now was resting at his feet, but no, not resting, never resting. It rocked and it swayed as the man danced around it. The man with the grey fingers and the dark, dark eyes danced in his silver-buttoned boots, danced around what he had created, danced as the paper boat grew, and grew, and grew.

I did not see when the dance ended, because I could no longer see the man who danced, so large now was the boat, the boat he had folded and grown from a single, small scrap of ordinary paper. The paper boat towered above me, towered above my head, towered above the street. Paper planks, paper sails, paper ropes, paper everything, paper everywhere, but where was the tall man who had built this paper creation, this huge paper boat?

I heard footsteps, his footsteps, steps on the cobbles, but saw nothing, no sign, no tall man. But there, there he was, beneath the flickering street lamp. There, in his long, black overcoat and silver-buttoned boots. The tall man looked at me and we breathed together again. As the breath ended, as I struggled for another, and for more breaths as my heart demanded them, the tall man strode to the bow of the boat and raised his arms, raised both arms, raised them high overhead. His thin, grey fingers found a length of twisted paper twine and he pulled, pulled hard, and released a ladder, a long, loose ladder of paper ropes, swinging low from the bow. His steps were quick, always quick, quick and confident, and the tall man climbed up, up the ladder, up and into the paper boat.

He strode about the deck, fore and aft, port and starboard. I saw him touch the paper wherever he found it, smoothing and shaping, perfecting the imperfect, wherever it was needed. When he stopped, when he was still, I knew that his work was done, and I knew that he was ready. Ready to sail, ready to leave. Ready to leave without me.

“Take me with you!” I pleaded, pleaded to the tall man on the paper boat, though my tears would surely have reduced any paper creation, large or small, to a pile of warm, wet pulp. I knew he would not take me. I knew that his journey was not mine.

His grey fingers tossed something over the side and I caught the small, black box, the box which had held a small, ordinary scrap of paper, from which he had folded and twisted and stretched and grown this magnificent paper boat. The breath I took as I saw what it was, as I saw what he had thought to give me, was the last breath we shared together. When I released it, the paper boat began to rise, rise up, up into the dark of the night. Above the street lamps it rose, above the roofs and the chimneys, until at last the paper sails took a breath of their own and filled out, filled up, filled with the clear air of the cold, ink-black sky. The paper boat sailed away, and the tall man was gone.

I opened the small, black box only once, on that night, on that same night. Inside it I found a scrap of paper, a thin, square scrap of paper, plain and white and ordinary. I am no longer a boy, and have become a man. I am a tall man, but I am not yet an old man. The time will come when I am ready to open the small, black box again. And on that day I will build a boat, a splendid paper boat of my own, in which I will sail the skies, and I will find for myself a place where I can rest. One day. But not today. No, not today.