Delia loved untidiness. That would have surprised most people that met her. She wore immaculately tailored suits an kept her hair back in the tightest bun you could imagine. The jewellery she wore was restrained and tasteful. Her car was ten years old, but as clean and shiny as the day she bought it. Her staff at Storage World in the South Hertling Super Centre all looked at her with a mix of utmost respect and abject terror. She looked like the sort of person who said the phrase “a place for everything and everything in its place” more often than she said “good morning.”
But she loved untidiness, sure enough. Mess, unruliness, chaos. She loved it like a valued enemy, a worthy foe. She loved it like a hunter might love a wily jaguar, like a chivalric knight might love his opposite number in the enemy lines, like a master detective might love a criminal mastermind. Oh, she’d fight her foe. Destroy it if she could. But that didn’t for one moment make her love it any less.
The day she found the Measure, she arrived at work as she did every morning — an hour before opening. She fed her guest in the cellar, then cleaned her little shop from top to bottom. She had already cleaned it before leaving the night before, but that made no difference. When her staff arrived, she would make them clean it again, for chaos is a tricky foe.
The first of her employees to arrive was the newest arrival, Donna. One of the refugees from the Handy Pavilion. The shopkeepers of the Super Centre had committed themselves to hire as many of the Pavilionites as they could. The ones who were alive and who remained out of gaol, anyway.
“Good morning, Delia,” Donna said, before commencing with the unnecessary dusting.
“Good morning, Donna. How are you this morning?”
“Tired. I’ve was up late trying to exorcise the fallen Brownie from the Centre. Unfortunately…”
“‘Fine,” Donna,” Delia said. “When I ask how you are, you just answer ‘fine’. If you’re not fine, call in sick.”‘
Donna looked guilty, which pleased Delia. Her job – her vocation – was all about guilt. For every person who purchased Storage World items to genuinely organise their lives and reduce clutter, there were perhaps another ten who were motivated purely by guilt. They looks at the chaos of their lives and felt that something should be done, so they bought drawers, hangers, organisers, bins, and then left them in a handy corner of their homes, still in their original boxes.
Chaos was a cunning foe indeed. Delia sold the weapons that might fight it, only for Chaos to take those weapons and use them as its own.
After cleaning, the morning’s business went well. In the afternoon, Alfred from the clock shop came by to purchase a little plastic cabinet with dozens of tiny drawers. He seemed to dawdle in selecting his purchase until Delia was behind the counter, at which point he hurried over and put down his prize.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Delia cut him off: “I would have thought you had one of these.”
Alfred blushed, as if he’d been caught out in a deception. “Several,” he said. “But a watch repair shop can’t have too many tiny plastic drawers. Can it?”
Delia gave a brittle smile which seemed to wither the fellow even more. Alfred paid by card and slunk out of the shop.
“Well?” Delia said to Donna, who was hovering suspiciously nearby. “Are you going to tell me that I am cruel to him? That he is clearly keen on me?”
“No, Delia. I can see that it is not him that you dislike. It is not him that you discourage.”
Delia had not been expecting that answer. She turned to her young protégé with renewed interest. “Go on?”
“You demand clarity of purpose,” Donna said. “You do not discourage Alfred as an individual. You discourage those who lack purpose.”
Delia rewarded Donna with her brittle smile. It seemed to encourage the girl, just as much as it had discouraged Alfred.
“You know who you are, and what you want,” Donna said. “Alfred has a good heart, sure, but he does not know who he is or what he wants. He is good at what he does, but he only does it because he can’t think of anything better to do.”
“I wish he had purpose you know,” Delia said quietly. “It would… If not for that… I wish he had purpose.”
Donna smiled broadly, and went back to dusting immaculate shelves. “Oh,” she said.
“What is it?”
Donna held up a small brass object. “Looks like a tape measure,” she said. “I think that odd woman must have left it. You know, the one in the Laplander. She was measuring up these shelves when… oh, I think it was while you were at lunch.”
“Put it in lost property,” Delia said. The words came out of her mouth as if she were swearing. Lost. Property. In her view, people who couldn’t keep an eye on their property didn’t deserve to have any.
And that might have been the end of the story, had the afternoon been a busy one. As it was, it had gone quiet after lunch and Delia was at a bit of a loose end.
“It looks old,” she said. The brass had that glossy patina of long use. There had once been a pattern engraved in the side, but it had worn smooth from long use. “I wonder if it’s even metric.”
Delia pulled the tape out a way. The yellow paint was cracked here and there, but she could still see that it was divided into neither centimetres or inches. The increments were longer than either measure. Almost as wide as her hand. Out of curiosity, she measured her palm on the tape. Her hand was exactly one unit wide.
“How odd,” she said.
“Let me try,” Donna said. She measured her own hand. “Same here. Now that’s a coincidence.”
Delia pursed her lips. She took Donna’s unresisting hand and held it up. She pressed her own hand against it, like a slow-motion high-five. She lined her index finger up with Donna’s, and found that her hand was narrower by half a finger-width.
“Huh,” Donna said. “So how…”
“I don’t know,” Delia said. “But with all that has been going on around here lately, I think it might be wise to find out.”
Donna looked at Delia expectantly. After about a minute, Delia took an apple from her desk drawer. She munched on an apple as she read a catalogue about desk organisers.
Donna coughed. “So are you going to…”
“I didn’t mean now.”
“Oh,” said Donna.