hey stare at each other through the glass door. She is heavily built, not so old but tending towards ancient in her scowl, weight, and palpable mistrust of the world. Eckersley is still young but tending towards both middle-age in his physique and toddlerdom in his persistent ability to be confounded by the simplest acts. Like this one for example: opening the door to a block of flats. They have both arrived and tried to insert their keys at the same time. They both try again. As the crone bends forward, the face of a gnome appears at the back of her neck, poking out from beneath her collar. Eckersley thinks that it’s clearly incumbent upon him to be doing the honours so he can then pull back the heavy door but he is confused by the gnome. Because of his hesitation, the crone feels justified in thrusting her key forward again. Eckersley decides to allow her to do the turning and just to concentrate on pulling back the door. He waits. Nothing seems to happen. Then he realizes that the old woman and the gnome are, in fact, waiting for him to act. Confusingly, she has kept her key hovering around the keyhole. Why? Just in case? He tries with his key again, but in the few moments it took him to realize what was going on, she has obviously been making her own calculations and stabs forward once more. This time, though, he is able to withdraw quickly enough for her to complete the operation. Eckersley then sets about pulling the door back and ostentatiously standing aside for her and her... Companion? Passenger? to step through. As the crone passes by, she snaps: “Some people have to do all the work,” but the gnome gives Eckersley a cheerful wink.
This episode suggests to Eckersley that he is in need of a tune-up. He knows that the sharpener usually comes by at this hour on this day of the week and sure enough he soon hears the man’s keen whistle coming from around the corner. Eckersley steps out a little way into the road to make sure that the sharpener sees him waving. A wiry, enthusiastic little man with a grin and a deep respect for his office, the sharpener pulls up in front. He has rigged his bicycle so that only a minor adjustment to a couple of chains transforms the front wheel into a spinning whetstone. He asks Eckersley whether he remembers how this works. Already bending over, Eckersley says that he does. The sharpener examines Eckersley’s head for a moment with a pair of weathered, skilful hands before tapping thrice at just the right spot. Eckersley’s skull opens like the boot of a car, pop, exposing his brain. Gently, the sharpener scoops out the brain, slop, and places it against the whetstone, splat. Eckersley’s body goes limp and his eyes roll up into the back of his skull, as though they were trying to peek through the new hole. The sharpener quickly sets about his work – time is an issue – buffing and sharpening different areas of the brain, looking for patches where it has dulled since he last performed the task.
As usual, neighbourhood children gather around to watch the spectacle. Brain-sharpening is a dying craft, although certain research scientists are re-assessing its therapeutic worth.
Once the sharpener has finished, he gives the grey matter a quick once over before slipping it back into its slot and closing Eckersley’s skull. Click. Then he packs up his whetstone and readjusts his bicycle before accepting the payment and tip that Eckersley proffers. He reminds Eckersley that brains are best washed in cold water without soap and then is on his way, blowing his whistle in search of more business. Whee.
Eckersley turns to go back inside, avoiding the stares of the gawping hellion, but then stops suddenly. Something is wrong. Instead of the usual afterglow of increased acuity and enhanced senses, he feels vaguer than ever. His eyesight has gone blurry, and he can barely remember which building is his. The sharpener must have made some kind of mistake.
Eckersley turns around to look for him but the man is long gone, his whistle drowned out by the traffic. Eckersley tries to clear his mind but finds it almost impossible to string two thoughts together. It is as though he has been pushed halfway out of his body. As he looks around, he finds that this is not quite the case. While his immediate surroundings seem cloudier and more distant, certain other things are in fact much clearer than they were before. However, this is not as reassuring to Eckersley as it might sound. The megalosaurus wandering down the middle of the road, for instance, ought not to be there, and neither should the creature with a man’s body but a bird’s head who seems to be eyeing him critically. But that’s Dickens, he realizes, and this fellow, this is the guy who told Bioy that Borges was dead.
Eckersley thinks about asking the bird-man for help, but can’t see what good that would do. What he needs is to find the sharpener. He tries to think about where he might have gone but, even if he had an idea, the configuration of the city is now unfamiliar to him. Whether because the city has changed, or because of his misfortune, he is unsure.
“Are you alright?”
Bird-man is talking to him.
“You shouldn’t be able to talk,” Eckersley tells him.
Bird-man seems unsure how to respond to this. Eventually, he asks:
“Your beak isn’t designed to make that kind of sound.”
“I never thought of it that way before,” Bird-man muses. “And yet we are conversing.”
“I don’t suppose you know where the sharpener went, do you?”
“The man who was fiddling around with your brain?”
“Yes, that’s the one. I think he might have made a mistake.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“No, I suppose it isn’t,” Bird-man agrees. “What will you do now?”
“I imagine I ought to try to find him, but I have no idea where to begin.”
“How did you find him last time?”
“He blows his whistle and you wave.”
“Then I suggest that you wait for his whistle once more.”
This is the most logical statement that Eckersley has ever heard in his life. He thanks Bird-man and looks around for somewhere to sit down. He chooses the step in front of what might be his building, he isn’t sure. Then he gets a slice of luck. The crone and her gnome are coming back out, only now the crone is piggy-backing on the gnome. This is indeed his building. The gnome, smiling, holds the door open for him but Eckersley shakes his head.
“I’m waiting for the sharpener to come back this way,” he explains.
The gnome thinks for a moment and seems to understand. The crone shrugs and the door closes. That young man was always an odd fish.