It was the noise that caught my attention at first. A gently rustling, down amongst the weeds and wind-blown litter trapped under the bushes. Some sort of wild animal, a cat, perhaps? But as I moved closer, I could hear something else.
A gentle sobbing.
Pulling aside the branches, I saw him. And what an odd figure he was. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell what I was seeing at first. He was about four inches tall, no arms, legs or head. In fact, there were no features at all. He was vaguely rectangular, slightly thicker at one end and dark grey in colour; almost black, in fact.
And he was crying.
The shock hit me as I realised I recognised this figure. It was like discovering an old friend who’d fallen upon hard times. “Hang on,” I gasped, “I know you.”
He stopped crying momentarily and turned towards me. Well, at least I think he did. It was rather difficult to tell, what with the lack of a face.
“Go away,” he said. His voice was low, trembling. “I don’t want to speak to anyone. You’re all the same, you people. All those years of service I gave, only to be cast aside.”
For the first time I looked at the building in front of us. It was a fairly anonymous-looking place - a book shop - one of the major chains to be found in most large towns. And then I understood. I crouched down to his level. “You’re an apostrophe, aren’t you?”
“An apostrophe? The apostrophe.” He made a sound that was, I reckoned, the nearest thing to blowing a nose a punctuation mark could make. “For decades I was quite happy. I sat there, on that sign,” he indicated the fascia of the shop. “But then they decided that I wasn’t right for the digital age.”
“I heard about that. Something about apostrophes not being used in web addresses, that sort of thing, yes?”
The apostrophe harrumphed. I tried to brighten the mood.
“It’s not so bad, apostrophe. Look, for what it’s worth, not all of us humans feel the same.”
“Well, that’s as maybe. Right now I’m out of a job.” He paused. “I could use a drink,” he said, hopefully.
I picked the apostrophe up and dusted the leaf debris from him. Placing him carefully in my jacket pocket I went looking for a bar that didn’t look too busy. I didn’t want to attract too much attention, plus I wasn’t entirely sure what the licensing laws had to say about punctuation and hard liquor.
Twenty minutes later the apostrophe and I were installed in a booth at some place up a side street. I had a beer; he sipped fitfully from a Cosmopolitan in a shot glass.
“It never used to be like this,” he said. “There was a time when we were respected.
People knew how to use us and valued what we brought to the written word.”
“The indication of ownership and missing letters in contractions, you mean?”
“That is right. Or, that’s right, if you prefer. I mean, I understand that the English language changes, but we served a purpose. An apostrophe’s job is to make things more clear.” He hiccupped gently.
“I must admit, apostrophe, I never knew punctuation marks did much drinking.”
And as the empty glasses began to build up, he talked. He told me about the different personalities out there. Question marks are never satisfied, apparently. Always inquisitive, never pleased. Permanently on the lookout for answers. The apostrophe’s voice shows a hint of sadness as he spoke about them, as if he felt the question marks’ constant struggle for truth.
“And then there are the exclamation marks. Absolute berserkers, the lot of ‘em.”
“Oh yes. They start out a little excitable, like Labrador puppies. But over time they get a little...’Viking drinking hall’. You know what I mean?”
“I understand....I think. What about semi-colons?”
“Semi-colons; now there’s a bunch of drinkers for you. Seriously hardcore, those fellas. Completely the opposite from bullet points. Those boys are scarily organised. Almost obsessive-compulsive. Oh yes, we’ve all got different personalities, you know.” He snorted. “Just don’t get me started on full stops.”
“Smug little gits. The Internet has a lot to answer for, but promoting those jumped-up little specks of print is one of its worst crimes. Anyway, I’m not here to talk about the others. They can speak for themselves. Especially the quotation marks.”
“So when did it all go wrong for you, apostrophe?”
“I blame the greengrocers.” If he had a brow, it would have furrowed. “What’s so difficult about writing signs? I mean, I had a little sympathy when they were dealing with potatoes and tomatoes. But ‘apple’s’ started to creep in. What’s that all about? I ask you.” The apostrophe sighed, turning his attention back to his drink.
“And don’t get me started on ‘its’ versus ‘it’s’, or ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’. ‘Your’ and ‘you’re’ just brings me out in hives.”
He was getting his second, vodka-fuelled, wind. “It’s not as if it’s rocket science, is it? But the common-or-garden apostrophe has had its usage well and truly mangled for years. It’s enough to drive you to drink.” He regarded the latest empty glass, hungrily.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.”
The apostrophe’s tone darkened. “That’s the problem with your lot. You never realise. You invented us, you know. We didn’t just appear from nowhere. You came up with punctuation marks to make things easier. More clear, more efficient. You thought you were so clever. But misuse and abuse is all you know.”
“We’re not all the same. Some of us care about this sort of thing.”
“Pah! I can’t understand you lot. You come up with wondrous works of art. You’re cultured, apparently. You can put a man on the moon. You invented pop-tarts.” At this, he sounded almost wistful. “But most of you still can’t tell the difference between an em-dash and an en-dash. Christ on a bike. You’re all bloody hopeless.”
There was an awkward pause. I had essentially just been upbraided by a symbol. I cleared my throat. “So what are you going to do now?”
“Well. Now I’ve lost the Waterstone’s gig, I’ve got all this free time on what you might call ‘hands’ if I had them. So I’m going to rest up for a while, do some things for kicks.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“A bunch of us are thinking of going up to Toys ‘R’ Us.”
“What – so you can feature on their sign?”
“Oh God no,” he shuddered. “That’s just wrong on any number of levels. But have you seen what they’ve done to the letter ‘R’? It’s just hilarious.”
With that, the apostrophe was gone. And as I stared into the bottom of my beer, I wondered how many people would even notice.