X-Word, For Bill by Barry Marshall

1. ACROSS A cessation, often unexpectedly swift and brutal.

2. DOWN An irregular beat, such as that of the sickly heart.

3. DOWN A sufferer of a mental illness who exhibits lupine behaviour. Now that would be a good reason for the truncation of one’s employment, would you not agree? Certainly a lot more debilitating than a mere dicky ticker.

4. ACROSS Contrastive units in a writing system. But they are so much more than that, are they not? They are both unique individuals and of a whole greater than themselves. Though tiny, they can carry the heaviest of weights and convey the greatest of power. Withholding them could push a saint towards women and wine. They can be separated and collected, collated even. You can build a career on such things but this, like ____ themselves, is finite.

5. ACROSS Folk tale. It may be obvious to you by now, dear reader, that my time as crossword editor for this fine newspaper is coming to an end. Fear not for my health; I still have plenty of lead in my pencil. Of course, my literal pencil has been snatched away by the well-intentioned HR department upstairs. Like any ____ must, my story as it exists is coming to an end.

6. ACROSS The study of the origin of words and their changing meaning. I do hope you all will forgive me my indulgence. There is something about how this word conveys fluidity that speaks to me in this moment. Things change, no matter how much we rail against them, and those who cannot move with them are left behind. When I first started this job, my editor, Bill Waingrove, told me that we should always treasure words, but be sure to respect them also. Like a dog of uncertain temperament, they can turn on a sixpence and bite if your attention wanders for too long. That advice stayed with me, like most of what Bill said as he made the transition from editor to mentor to friend. The ancient Greek _____ of 5. ACROSS is conversation, by the way. I miss Bill’s conversation.

7. ACROSS Literary device employed to create an anti-climax. And what is early retirement but an anti-climax? I am yet to bridge the mental divide between enjoying a good career and having enjoyed it all. The current staff on this paper are very sweet, you know. I can hear them in the canteen preparing a party. I do not wish for you to flood the paper with demands for my reinstatement (though I would not protest too vigorously should you insist). I shall miss the company, if not The Company.

8. ACROSS Gel or solution containing at least one colourant. I imagine that it shall take some time for the smell of it to leave my fingertips. Bill often used to joke that I was so steeped in the stuff that I had ___ for blood. My wife at that time agreed, though it sounded unkinder from her lips. Thinking back, that period was the beginning of the end for Bill and I. He took a promotion at the other end of the country, but this new distance seemed unremarkable until my divorce. Suddenly, I had dual voids in my life that I filled with work. Maybe, like a frog in a boiling pot, I became so immersed that my veins flowed with ___ before I realised it was happening. If nothing else, it would explain the heart issues.

9. DOWN Superlative adjective; taking a great amount of time. It always struck me as funny that time is usually referred to as something that is taken, rarely given. I suppose this is because we are hard-wired to see time as an obstacle and not a gift. Maybe that is why I am struggling with the end of this chapter. The working day flies by because it is filled by so many tiny interludes. I can see Bill’s old desk from where I am sitting. I cannot begin to count the minutes and hours that I stood in front of it, cracking jokes, arranging fishing trips. A small moment like that can become the highlight of another’s day. Filling your time without them should not feel like hard work, but I fear that it shall be. 

9. ACROSS A brief failure of concentration or judgement. There are multiple meanings to this word of course. An interval of time; the termination of a privilege through disuse. In the end, these breadcrumbs all lead to the same clearing. For myself, the former caused the latter two.

10. ACROSS A feeling of apprehension or doubt.

11. DOWN Very close. It is impossible to overstate how close Bill and I became over the years. Some friendships develop through routines or constant proximity, but with Bill we had an immediate intimacy, the kind that you never notice you were lacking in your life until it unfurls itself. We shared holidays and, briefly, homes, but we were always at opposite ends of the office space. This intensified our bond, if anything. Making that special effort to cross the bustling floor to share just a nod or a smile made it easy for us, two men of words, to show rather than tell of the deep regard we held for one another. Perhaps this is why we unspooled so rapidly and unexpectedly once that distance became insurmountable. Bill settled into a new job in a new city, perhaps nodding with another across the office, whilst my life withered on the vine. The phone calls continued for a while, but they stuttered and stopped not long after my divorce. For a long time, I resented Bill for this. For a considerably longer time after that, I resented myself.

12. ACROSS Make or become weaker. It is a law of physics that most bonds act in this way over time. But some laws are so obtuse that they deserve – nay, demand – to be broken. Sometimes structures can be violently torn apart by uncontrollable forces, and at others you feel the slow drift as they unravel naturally. This is nothing to be ashamed of. The shame lies in destroying these bonds yourself for neither rhyme nor reason.

13. ACROSS Feeling of regret; an expression used to convey apology. And I am, Bill.

14. DOWN A feeling of intense longing for something. Or someone. To me, this word always puts me in mind of another: swooning. Not necessarily the shape or sound of it, but because I can imagine the physicality of _____; growing so despondent in your need that you become almost liquid. You can scarcely stand, never mind walk. But walk you must, because even a prison cell has a door.

15. ACROSS Not closed or blocked. I trust implicitly that you, dear reader, are aware that no two objects are ever truly in contact with each other. Their atoms contain electrons that repel each other. On a purely atomic level, it is impossible for a door to touch a doorframe. If this is the case, then can a closed door, no matter how steadfast we perceive this obstruction to be, ever really be closed? Is it not better to think of it as being, to a degree, permanently ajar? I am beginning to hope so.  

16. ACROSS Perceive the significance or cause of. And I finally do, Bill.

17. ACROSS Conscious of one’s own dignity. A seed can grow into something beautiful. It can also prove toxic if consumed in great quantities. And so it is to be too ___. As the weeks of silence turned into months which begat years, it was this ridiculous emotion that prevented me from picking up the phone. I did not want to be the first to call – how ludicrous does that sound? Maybe I was just bitter that my friend was maintaining something as ordinary as a regular, happy life whilst I was scrabbling on my knees. More likely than not, Bill recognised this bitterness but assumed it was a mere seed, not something that would take root and consume all before it. Bill always believed that an upcurve exists at the edge of the deepest ditch and to find it required only time. Had I engaged instead of retreating, he would have surely reminded me of that. But we both had our reasons not to call and so we stood apart and silent, two ___ men glancing at their phones and wondering, will this be the day that he rings? Of course, neither one of us have the same phone number as we did back then. What would have been a small step is now a leap into the unknown. Taking the first step is hard, undoubtedly, but if that is the price of doing something worthwhile, then it is worth paying. I am sure of one thing: the second conversation would have been infinitely easier.

18. ACROSS Engaging or ready to engage. And I finally am, Bill.

19. ACROSS Taking place after the usual, expected or proper time. And with that in mind, I hope that my exit has not been too prolonged, dear reader. I leave this job, and this column in particular, a wiser man than when I started them. Certainly, I was wise enough to make a small enquiry with the subscriptions department before I began crafting this puzzle. Though they obviously would not give me any personal information, they did tell me something crucial: that one particular subscriber in particular is still out there, and I do not doubt that he reads these crosswords on a daily basis. So then, for this audience of one, I would like to say that I am leaving my contact details at the front desk before I depart the building for the final time. And just for you, there is one final puzzle. The first letters of each answer spell out a message. I hope I have not been too ___ in getting it to you, pal. I hope that you see it and find it welcome. I hope.

Barry Marshall is a literary fiction writer from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK. He holds a Creative Writing MA and is a Creative Writing PhD candidate at Northumbria University. Barry has been published by Idle Ink, STORGY Magazine and InkyLab Press Anthologies. His happiness can be measured by his proximity to cats and quality black coffee, and his Twitter handle is @BJM_Writes.