Ghost story based on the destruction of the Doves Type Press matrices and type
Consigning the type to the Thames
Mist rolled off the wide river like smoke, creeping down the streets and alleyways and billowing out into the main thoroughfare. With it came the stench of the Thames mingling with the smog of coal smoke. The green flickering glow of the gas lamps, pools of dim light interspersed by darkness, illuminated shadowy figures huddled into their coats and shawls against the chill.
A small bent figure hurried from Hammersmith Terrace, drawing his coat about him against the cold and clutching a wooden box in his gloved hand. Looking back over his shoulder as he turned the corner he passed into Black Lion Lane and from there alongside the Thames. He thought back over the past months since the feuding began between him and Walker and the high feelings that went with it.
These letters will never see the light of day again. Will never be used in a press pulled other than by the hand of man. A curse on anyone who finds them. Let them be washed away in the waters of the Thames just as the letters will be. I am the only one who loved them. I will not allow anyone to use them again. They are mine. Walker never took an interest. I was always the only one to check the accuracy of the print; to check that it was perfect. It was all down to me that we earned so much and gained so much in reputation.
The vehemence in his thoughts ran as hot as the liquid metal that had poured the die for each individual beautiful letter of the Doves Typeface.
Winding through the narrow alleys, past the Dove Public House, and onto Hammersmith Bridge, he hurried almost unnoticed. To a passerby he was just an old man out walking, perhaps coming home from an evening at the opera or a dinner with friends. The green and gold turrets of the bridge barely showed a glimmer on this gloomy winter’s evening. The sounds of boatmen calling out on the river and the splash of oars reached his ears. Waves lapped noisily at the shoreline in the wake of the boats. Reaching the middle of the bridge, the diminutive figure drew back the lid of the box and, with a final glance around to make sure he was alone, scattered small pieces of metal over the side. They made no real sound as they hit the water far below. If he heard anything it was mere droplets raining onto the swirling inky surface.
This was far easier than the large packets he had brought in the first few weeks. Weighing in at about 12lbs each they had made quite a splash and he became afraid of drawing attention to himself and having his plan thwarted. Apart from that, he was getting older and the heavy packages had begun to weigh on him. He had lost count of the number of trips he’d made but this was almost the last. The entire Doves type and the punches and matrices that were needed to cast more had been consigned to the Thames unknown to anyone other than himself.
The deed completed without mishap, he closed the box and turned back in the direction of home.
Finding the type and matrices in the Thames
The clatter of cutlery and plates mingled with the chatter of people filling the cafe after work. The smell of coffee and muffins floated around Robert Green and the young reporter he’d come to meet. The glow of an iPhone screen revealed Robert’s three year obsession. Lines of typeface scrolled by at the swipe of a finger.
“I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent getting this right,” he told the young reporter. “I first came across the lettering at art college when I saw the books produced by the Doves Press. I got hold of as many of the books as I could and it went from there. You could say I was obsessed by it. It cost me my marriage and I lost friends over it. I wanted to reproduce the lettering as closely as I could and put it into a digital format. You wouldn’t believe the artwork that went into this project. Just when you think you’ve got a letter looking right you put it into a line of print and it stands out so you have to go back to the drawing board. Each serif and curve has to be just right. Just so.”
“So when did you believe you had the final product?” asked the reporter.
“2013. I believed I had it then, but no. It still needed refining. It was really only last year, 2014, that I felt it was right and that it could be used. Then I had the bright idea of trying to find the original pieces.”
“Tell me something about the process of finding the original type,” said the reporter.
“Well, when I started to look into the story behind the destruction of it I felt that it might be possible to find the original letters. Cobden-Sanderson left so many clues in his diaries as to where he was when he threw the type into the river that I felt almost as if I could catch them as they fell. I’d only been looking for about 20 minutes when I found the first pieces, the letters i, e, and v. We had to get a mudlarkers licence to look for the rest at low tide, would you believe? At the end we hired professional divers and found, altogether, about 150 pieces, some old coins and a bullet.”
He swiped the screen again to scroll down the sample text. A ripple passed across the screen, a momentary thing but enough to be noticed. He swiped his finger up and down but it didn’t happen again. Bloody iPhone, he thought. I hope it’s not going to pack up on me. Not now.
“What happened to Cobden-Sanderson?”
“He died in 1922. His ashes were buried alongside his wife’s beside the Thames. Flooding has since washed them away. Rather ironic considering the manner in which he disposed of one the most elegant typefaces the printing industry has ever seen.”
The interview at an end, Robert sank the rest of the coffee the reporter had bought him and scraped his chair back. “It was great to meet you,” he said to the reporter. “I look forward to reading your article. It’s a story waiting to be told.”
“A bit like an Edgar Allen Poe story,” said the young man.
“I guess you could say that.”
They shook hands and left the cafe together.
Doves Type doesn't want to be found again
Robert walked to the riverside and sat on a bench overlooking the Thames. He pulled his phone from his pocket and swiped at the screen again, watching carefully for any faults. Nothing. If it happened again he’d have to take it back to the store and get it fixed, or replaced. He scrolled through the alphabet, marvelling at the beauty of the letter shapes as he had done a thousand times since he began to reproduce them. And then it happened again. A ripple passed across the screen followed by another. It was as though he was looking through water. He swiped at the screen again. The letter i appeared to sink from the screen, shrinking and fading before it disappeared, leaving a gap in the row of letters. And then the letter e went the same way. He tried to switch the phone off but it was having none of it and he watched in dismay as the letters sank from the screen one by one, fading into a murky rippling effect.
I’m looking at them in the cloud, he told himself. They’re not really disappearing. I can get them back on the computer. But panic rose in his throat nonetheless. These bloody phones. I’m going to have to go and get it looked at. He rose from the bench and made his way towards Hammersmith Bridge and his office on the south side of the river.
Dusk had begun to press itself against the waters below. The traffic on the bridge hummed beneath a reddening sky and the river boats chugged their commuter-laden way between piers on a high tide, their wash breaking against the shoreline in waves. A mist had begun to rise from the river and with it came the evening chill. Robert drew his coat around him and thrust his hands in his pockets. Just a couple more hours at the office and then home. He could take his phone to the store in the morning. In the meantime there was always the PC.
He’d almost reached the middle of the bridge when something stung him on the side of the face. He flinched and put his hand up to his cheek. Blood. Looking around he thought at first that it must have been a stone flicked up by a passing car. And then something else hit him hard on the skull. Ow. He felt blows to his clothing as if someone were firing small pellets at him and then they began to rain onto his face. His skin split open and he put his hands up in defence but the onslaught was incessant. He felt blood flowing down his face and hands and heard bones crack in his fingers. He was aware of a clattering sound around his feet. He looked down and noticed slugs of metal falling to the pavement. Familiar slugs of metal to anyone in the printing trade.
From out of nowhere he was being pelted by metal printers type. His arms offered no shelter and there was nowhere to run. People swarmed past him as though he wasn’t there. The attack was fierce. Some of the metal embedded itself in the back of his hands and every turn he made to escape the pieces of metal met with an even fiercer barrage. He bounced off the parapet of the busy bridge and almost into oncoming traffic. Horns started to blare, cars swerved but did not stop. He began to scream for help. Still no-one stopped. They looked but saw only a mad man covered in sores and behaving in such a strange manner they didn’t want to get involved.
There was only one way out and he didn’t want to take it.
But there seemed to be no other option.
Beneath him flowed the inky blackness of the Thames, beckoning and mocking. The cold waters waiting to ease the pain.