Brian left the office building where he worked and started on his familiar walk home, a grey man in a grey suit walking through the drizzle of a grey autumn day. Few people in London could have known a short walk as well as Brian knew the route he had taken twice on every working day during the last eighteen years. Out of the cul-de-sac, where his employers had their tiny, cramped offices, and left into St. Dunstan's road, where he opened his umbrella on turning the corner, the drizzle showing signs of turning into proper rain. Then about two hundred yards past dilapidated shops on his left, until he reached the zebra crossing. Across the first half of the road, busy in the rush hour, to the traffic island, and then--and then Brian stopped, frowning as he looked across the two remaining lanes at what should have been a familiar view. Something had changed. Something was slightly different.
Across the road was a high wall of brown brick running for about fifty yards in the direction Brian would take on his journey towards the neat little terraced house he and Cynthia had made their home for the last twenty-three years. The wall was its usual self, its dull brown expanse broken only by grey stains, pollution from the near constant stream of passing traffic, and by two rather mysterious wooden doors Brian had never seen opened. It was one of these doors that had changed. For eighteen years they had both been the same dark green in colour, and now someone had taken it upon himself to paint one of them grey, as if London wasn't a grey enough city by nature without such efforts.
Brian pulled his eyes from the door and hurried across the remainder of the crossing after a waiting van had blown its horn. He didn't like change. Definitely a conservative type, Brian was one of those people who went through life in a constant state of indignation at the arrival of every new gadget, and these seemed to be crowding into his world at an alarming rate nowadays. He had to use a computer at work, and it was making his life a misery. It had taken him about five years to become accustomed to his old calculator, but now the little machine seemed like a dear old friend when compared to the ugly, humming monster taking up so much space in the middle of his neatly ordered desk. Whatever next? They were talking about people staying at home and sending all their work into the office through the phone lines soon. This would be a bitter blow to Brian, who prided himself on being the only person at work never to have arrived a minute late despite having been at Jenson & Barnby's far longer than most of his colleagues. And now someone was going around painting things grey.
Brian stopped by the door and looked it up and down, not realising how well camouflaged he was by its new colouring. Then his neck jutted forward, his eyes bulged out, and he stood transfixed for nearly half a minute, just staring at it. What he saw was frightening. The door had certainly become grey, but the coating of paint was clearly not new. It was as stained and flaky as the green coat of the door's companion portal a few yards back down the street. Brian literally couldn't believe his eyes. Was he going mad? Was it possible that the door had never been green in the first place?
A boy with a dog on a lead hurried past on the pavement, staring rudely at the little man in the grey suit who was standing motionless in the now pouring rain, looking at an old grey door. One of those mouthy, cheeky London boys, a type Brian couldn't abide.
"Why don't you knock on the bloody thing before you drown, mate?"
The question brought Brian back to his senses. The umbrella was not a complete protection against the downpour, and he hurried on his way, knowing he still had an eight and a half minute walk ahead of him. It always took that long from the crossing. All the way home he thought of the door but could find no solution to the puzzle it had presented him. He would have noticed if the colour of the damn thing had changed before today. How could that coat of grey paint appear to be so old.
That evening Brian found it difficult to settle into his normal routine. His mind was elsewhere. Cynthia cooked, as usual, and after they had eaten Brian washed the dishes, as usual. He broke a plate, something he could never remember doing before, and this unsettled him even more. When he sat down in front of the television, he found it impossible to concentrate on the programmes Cynthia had chosen to watch. He didn't like a lot of the loud, flash rubbish they put on the box these days at the best of times, but that wasn't the problem. Brian just didn't seem to be able to get that old, grey door off his mind. The paint had been flaking, and the undercoat showed through. But that had looked old and grey as well, not the reassuring green he would have been pleased to see. Something had changed, and something was terribly wrong.
We can trace the beginnings of Brian's sad decline from this dreary, rainy autumn evening; a Wednesday that should have been an ordinary day in a routine week for an ordinary man who lived by routines. During the next two days at work everything seemed to go wrong. Twice, he found problems with his computer that he could not cope with. This meant the humiliation of asking his neighbouring colleague, a nineteen-year old newcomer to the office, for help; and young Charlie always managed to make use of the machine look so easy. Brian found himself finishing the week behind on his work for the first time ever, not because of the newfangled machine, but because he just couldn't seem to concentrate on anything. The weekend brought no relief. He tried to do a few odd jobs around the house, but only managed to bruise his left thumbnail badly while trying to hammer a tack into the stair-carpet. Giving up, he went for a walk, which was not part of his Saturday routine.
Brian's walk took him, inevitably, to St. Dunstan's Road. Eight and a half minutes after leaving his house he was standing in front of the mysterious, changeling door. After looking at it for a moment, almost in fear, he retraced his steps to the first corner, counting his paces as he went. Fifty-six he counted, before turning right and walking on until he reached the first road to run parallel to St. Dunstan's. Turning right again, he counted carefully measured strides up to fifty-six, and stopped. He was standing in front of a stationer's shop, which took up the ground floor of one in a long row of four-storey high Victorian terraced houses. If his calculations had been accurate, this should be the building with the backyard from which the devilish green/grey door opened onto St. Dunstan's Road, if it ever was opened.
Brian didn't go into the shop on this occasion. He could see a young woman, perhaps no more than twenty, behind the counter, and doubted if this was the shop's owner. Anyway, he was not the sort of person who could approach a stranger with a question like 'have you recently painted a door?' Not without extreme embarrassment. He was to pass the shop every Saturday over the next few weeks, only entering it once. On this occasion he bought a packet of envelopes from a neat little middle-aged man who spoke with the traces of a Welsh accent, but Brian failed to mention the door.
At work, things went from bad to worse. Brian didn't seem to be able to cope with the simplest of tasks. During that long, grey winter, he slipped from being the most reliable member of the office team, if not its most brilliant, to being the least reliable. He became a liability. Colleagues noticed, of course, but with their polite English reserve, said nothing; at least, nothing to the little man's face.
At home, he managed to keep up a pretence of normality. Cynthia noticed changes in his behaviour, but she was preoccupied with her very sick mother in Barking with whom she was now spending several nights each week. Another unwelcome change in routine for her husband. Brian had several small accidents in her absence, twice burning his food, and once spilling a bucket of water all over the kitchen floor while attempting the unaccustomed chore of cleaning it.
Landmarks came and passed at work. Brian's first time ever late at the office was on a morning when he had actually left home forgetting his briefcase. He had been nearly at the dreaded grey door before he realised his mistake, and had had to retrace his steps. Then, just three weeks later, a greater calamity, his first day off sick. Waking one morning with a streaming cold and a slight temperature, he just couldn't face going in to his backlog of work and the sight of that damned computer on his desk.
Christmas passed, not a white one, but grey, like all the other days of that winter, or so it seemed to Brian. The weeks dragged on, and when spring finally came, it brought not renewed hope, but tragedy. On the first cloudless day of the year, Brian was allowed to leave the office two hours early because he was in no fit state to work at all. He had received the greatest shock of his career. A few months ago, when he was a model of efficiency and punctuality, this couldn't have happened. Brian would have been one of the last of Jenson & Barnby's workers to be considered if redundancies had to be made. But on that fine spring day, he learnt that he would find himself without a job in two month's time at the awkward age of forty-eight. The credit built up during eighteen years of loyal service had disappeared like so much dust in the wind. Brian's colleagues almost smelled of embarrassment that afternoon. Young Charlie concentrated on his computer and avoided his neighbour's eye.
Brian left the office at three o'clock, blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight as he emerged from the cul-de-sac onto St. Dunstan's Road. He walked past the rundown shops towards the crossing, the only pedestrian without the spring in his step that a rare day of sunshine tends to bring out in Londoners. Five yards before the crossing, he came to an abrupt halt. His eyes had been dragged, as they were every working day, to the old brown wall on the other side of the road. Brian gasped, then let out a strangled cry. He felt a sudden pain in the left side of his chest and a fine mist came up before his eyes. The pair of doors matched each other again; they were both green.
Some passers-by saw a little grey man in a grey suit stagger into the road while staring across it, looking neither right nor left. Some also saw the large white van approaching at a speed slightly over the legal limit for that stretch of road. But all heard the screech of breaks and the sickening thump which marked Brian's last second on this earth and, perhaps, the end of his consciousness for all time.
Huw Rees looked up to the sky from the back doorstep of his shop and smiled at the sun. The first day of spring wasn't a date on the calendar, he thought to himself. It could come at any time, but you always knew when it had arrived. It was always a day to enjoy, but also a day on which things must be done; those little jobs put off throughout the wet, grey months of winter.
He walked over to the one room building which had been the garden shed when the backyard had been a garden and the house had been a fine Victorian residence. There was no door to the shed, and Huw remembered well the rainy autumn day when he had discovered that its door was an exact match for the rotting one opening onto St. Dunstan's road. Both must have been the originals, standard sizes put in when the house was built. The shed door, perhaps better protected from the weather than its twin, had survived for well over a century in near perfect condition. It had been the work of an hour to unhinge the two doors, then to hang the good one where the rotten one had been. Huw had completed the job between rain showers on that dismal, grey Wednesday.
Neat and tidy man that he was, the little shopkeeper found the tin of green paint he had bought several months earlier with his paint scraper lying in readiness on its lid. Only the winter weather had stopped him from completing this job before. By mid afternoon, the door had its shiny new coat of green, and Huw could stand back and admire his handiwork with the satisfaction of a tidy person who has just made his surrounds that little bit tidier.
When all was finished, Huw closed and locked the door, sealing his private little yard from the bustle of St. Dunstan's road and, unwittingly, sealing the fate of a little grey man called Brian, who had never taken well to change.