prosetry

Killing Time

In the hospital there is a shop. It sells newspapers and sandwiches and biscuits and cans of liquid sugar and tissues and balloons that say IT’S A BOY. Just outside of this shop there is a crate of books. There is no real literature in this crate. Just books that are easy to read, books that help you to kill time, books that probably aren’t going to change your life in any way. Some are 50p and some are £1. This isn’t much money to spend on temporary escapism. I always look at the books but never buy one. I only read soul-shattering books. I enjoy trying to put my soul back together afterwards. I looked at the books and wondered how many of them I’d actually bought.

When my father died I got all of his good books, his ‘proper’ books. The hundreds of crime/thriller novels he had amassed over a 20 year career in Time Killing were no use to me. I used to work in the Crime and Thrillers department of a top publishing house. I’ve read enough dreadful manuscripts with flimsy plots and ridiculous twists to last a lifetime. But they are perfect books to waste time on. So I donated them to this hospital and to a day-centre for homeless people. When I was a frequenter of that day-centre I remember being sad that there were no books. If anyone needs escapism, it’s people on the streets. And if anyone needs to kill time, it’s people surrounded by death and disease, waiting to receive their own slice of bad news.

So I’m looking at this crate. I spotted a few titles that I reckoned were my dad’s. I ordered a lot of them off the internet for him. He loved the idea of paying 1p for a book. I never told him about the £2.80 delivery charge. He always paid me the penny he owed me for the book. Even though that man owed me nothing. There was a Simon Kernick that I was sure was my dad’s. Its pages smelled like cigarette smoke. There were some James Pattersons and Lee Childs. I didn’t want to look at the books anymore. I went upstairs for my appointment with the neurologist. It was an appointment I had waited 3 years, 4 weeks and 3 days for.

I didn’t know that the neurology department is right opposite the ward where my father died. I did not like being there again. I paced around and around and around. An elderly woman stared at me suspiciously. “My dad died in there,” I said to her, pointing at the door. “Oh,” she said, walking around me. A man with a laundry trolley came towards me. “My dad died in there,” I said to him, “right through there. He died.” He said, “I’m so very sorry to hear that, my girl,” and went on his way. I told every person that walked along that corridor, “My dad died in there.” Anyone who’d listen. Anyone who wouldn’t listen. Some mumbled things, some expressed condolences, some looked frightened, some ignored me altogether. I just had to tell them. I don’t know why, but it was essential.

I punched the wall outside the neurology department and caught my little finger on the edge of a wooden frame. The frame fractured and I got a splinter caught in my skin, right on the joint. In the waiting room, a man was reading a crime novel. I didn’t read a crime novel. I picked at the splinter on my finger. I kept clawing until my name was called, long after the splinter had come out. The neurologist told me that my brain is broken and my nerves are shot. I told him that I already know that. I waited 3 years to find out something I already knew. And in all that time that I spent waiting for a letter, a referral, an appointment, an MRI, a CAT scan, a thousand blood tests, in all that time I didn’t read a single crime novel.

I went outside for a cigarette. On my way back in I looked at the books. There was a book called Private Vegas, part of the ‘Private’ series by James Patterson. I remembered ordering 8 books of the ‘Private’ series off the internet for my father. He paid me 8p. I picked up Private Vegas. It was well read. I had bought it for him second-hand. I opened the book and tucked in the back page was my receipt from the Book Depository. I put the book back in the crate.

I went downstairs for my blood test. The receptionist was reading Stuart MacBride. I introduced my father to MacBride when I worked at the publishers. He was always chuffed to bits when I’d bring early proofs or publicity copies of the latest thrillers home to him. He was so proud of me. Living the dream. Living the nightmare. The phlebotomist gauzed up the hole I’d dug in my little finger.

As I was leaving the hospital I walked past the crate of books again. Private Vegas was gone. Sold to another stranger killing time. That’s all life is, though, isn’t it? Killing time. We are all just killing time.

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life

What’s Yours Is Mine

I’m on the Northern line reading Angela Carter. This book used to be yours; I remember the strange cover. You lent me this book years ago in exchange for my copy of The Bloody Chamber. Now I have all of your books. They live alongside mine in shaky stacks, perilously piled around my flat, propping doors open and lining windowsills.

I am so impressed by Carter’s writing, as I always am, that I stop reading and take my phone out of my handbag to send you a particular sentence of hers that I know you would love and to express how gutted I am that she’d died when she still had so many words left in her. Then I remember that you’re dead too and put my phone away.

I am trying not to make a habit of crying on public transport so I turn the page over to the next story and find a flattened Rizla packet wedged into the spine. On the packet, in your handwriting, is a note reminding you to remind me about an upcoming reading of Joyce’s Ulysses on BBC Radio 4. The title of the story where I find this note is ‘The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter.’ I wonder if this is coincidental and I miss you more than ever.

I always feel especially close to you when I’m reading your books. I like the fidelity of my thumb pausing in the same spot where your thumb once rested while you absorbed the page, how your thumbprints on the cover or bottom right corner are slowly being replaced by mine, smaller but nonetheless comfortable.

I remember exactly how you’d read, how you turned the pages, how you used your finger to guide you down the lines, how you would straighten the book out on the table when you stopped to roll a cigarette, putting it perfectly in its place until the next devouring.

I like the idea of my brain ingesting these words in the same order that you did, of my heart processing all of the unwritten words and underlying slivers of brilliance that exist between the lines just like yours did. I cannot live the stories of your life just as you could not live mine, but we could live the tales told by master storytellers together.

I also like the things that I find inside your books, and I’ve found allsorts. Some of your books were gifted to you by girlfriends past, and sometimes they had written an adoring note to you inside the front cover. (We personally believe writing in books to be a sin but I suppose these decades-old sentiments have survived longer than you have).

I’ve found plenty of bookmarks: a beer mat lodged at page 341 of The Glass Bead Game, a shopping list hiding in between pages 226 and 227 of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, an appointment card to see your vascular consultant lurking towards the end of The Master and Margarita. Scraps of newspaper, napkins and cigarette papers hibernating in many more.

We don’t believe in dog-earing books and you would scold others when they borrowed a book from you and returned it with folded corners. I found a couple of “real” bookmarks, one made of leather with your initials on it and a metal one in a Celtic cross design. I like the beer mats more.

You’ve given me tens of thousands of pages, all smoke-stained to a degree. In fact, I can work out when you first procured a book based on the level of smoke-staining. Your books from the 60s and 70s are tar brown and smell like stale incense and damp fireplaces. Your books from the 80s and 90s are entirely yellowed, the edges of the pages are darker than mustard. Your books from this century are less ‘smoked’ but all smell like Golden Virginia tobacco, a smell that will always remind me of you for as long or short as I live.

I also like looking at the prices of books and how they’ve increased over the decades. Some of your books are priced as costing a florin (two-bob), four and thruppence, and 4/6, all shillings and half-crowns and other ancient values. Then there are the books costing 25p, 40p, 60p, 75p: classic novels that would now cost me around £8 paperback in Waterstones. And the prices go up from there.

Your books present all kinds of other matter, too: cigarette ash, sand, the odd blade of grass, a flattened bug, biscuit crumbs, sticky tea rings on the back cover, strands of your silver hair caught in the spine, a smudge of blood from a paper-cut, train tickets, a pressed flower, general grit from your manual labour days, splashes of paint where you’d been reading on your lunch break, post-it notes, business cards, phone numbers written on the back of receipts, prescriptions, an unwritten postcard from Milan, a cartoon strip cut out of a newspaper, a £50 note… last week when I opened up The Rebel I found a couple of tiny rocks of hash stuck in the valley between pages 14 and 15.

It was decided about 15 years ago, when you first faced death, that I would get all of your books and my brother would get all of your music. I am lucky and grateful to have all of your books. You didn’t start reading serious literature until your late 20s/early 30s, and I am so glad you instilled a love of literature in me from day one.

And I am really enjoying making my way through your books, your favourites, page by page, word by word, and finding odd little notes from you. Like in The Snow Goose, you wrote (against your own rules) on the title page, “To my darling girl, A book as precious as you are. Oodles of love, Dad.” You wrote that in 2002. I just found it a few weeks ago.

These books were yours, you held them in your hands, you learnt from them, you formed opinions from them, you had your own ideas from them, these books informed your personality, your thoughts, your attitudes, these books inspired your own writing, your own poetry and art, determined how you treat yourself and all human beings, enabled you to grow and improve and teach others. Now these books are mine, and through these books you are giving me the opportunity to become great, just as you were great.

You are still here with me. You still exist every day: through your words, through my words, and through the words of all of these incredible authors who continue to teach me even though you no longer can.

You were gifted a collection of Emerson essays in 1978 by a girlfriend, we will call her H. I just found this smoke-stained note inside it, handwritten in blue biro, saying, “Don’t think anything of me giving you this book, but DO read it, right? (You know it’s very inexpensive to sit in the garden and quietly read a book– you can even afford an occasional ‘special’ cigarette, for example).” This little note perfectly captures you as a reader, and is how I will always remember you.


[Featured image source here]
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prosetry

Soup

I had spent the week in the same way, lying in bed, flat on my back, arms straight by my sides, staring out of the window, watching the ash trees slow-dancing and the gangs of birds loitering with intent and the city skyline lurching woozily in the heat, listening to the rattle of spray cans from the garage downstairs and the mistakes made by the bell-ringers during their weekly practise peal.

On the third day, West London was on fire and the smoke was rolling in vertical waves: I didn’t think it would ever cease. And still, I lay in bed, useless, like a wildly unconvincing Frida impersonator, spitting words about inside my head, words that have already been said, already been read, counting magpies and missing dragonflies, thinking of names for the children that I’ll never have, tearing the skin around my fingernails, peeling ’til they’re bleeding, and waiting, just waiting.

In the mornings I lay waiting for nightfall. In the evenings I lay waiting for the sun. I lay waiting for sleep, for help, for silence, for affirmation, for you, for life, for a sign, for God, for answers, for revolution, for the tide to turn, for Godot, for death, for change, for justice, for love, for me, for reprieve, for miracles, for time, for everything, for anything, for nothing in particular.

Five days into my self-imposed bed rest, he phoned me up to talk about nothing in particular. He checked if I was still alive. I said that I was, that I am. I heard him smile down the phone but could not mirror the sentiment.

He told me about his brother receiving a big compo cheque for his motorbike crash. He asked me if I wanted to go to Dublin with him for a few days next month and I said “I’d love to but don’t think I could manage it.” He said that he’d picked up his neighbour’s cat off their garden wall and taken it indoors with him because it was a nice cat and he wanted to hang out with it for a while, but he wasn’t sure if that was called “kidnapping” or “catnapping” and what did I think? I said “borrowing.” He invited me to a party on Sunday night, I said, “Absolutely not.”

He told me about how Islington Council are chasing him for library fines. He said he’s lost the book somewhere in his house before he’s even read it, and that the overdue charges fine is now so huge that he could’ve bought the book brand new four times over and still have enough money left over for a bag of chips.

I asked what book it was and he said, “It was Book 5 of My Struggle, I can’t even remember what it’s fucking called.” He asked me what I was reading and I said Fireworks – short stories are easier for my broken brain to comprehend. Then he said, “I’m coming round to your place soon, I need you to I Ching me,” to which I replied, “Ooh, kinky.” He reminded me to eat and to pay my rent and to stay alive.

One day before Bed Rest I had made a huge vat of my special tramadol, tequila and tomato soup. It means that when I’m tired of being conscious I can drink some and quickly go to sleep for a few hours: when it’s cold it’s just a More Bloody Mary but is equally knockout. If I could sell this soup at the Farmer’s Market I would be a millionaire. The Grenfell death toll was creeping up and I was ready to go back to unconsciousness.

As I was crawling along the floor from my bed to the kitchen I spotted it in one of the stacks of books that line every wall of my flat. “Some Rain Must Fall: My Struggle Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard.” I only ever bought Books 1 + 2. I grabbed it and opened it. Sure enough, inside there was a stamp from Islington Central Library and a few sticky barcodes on the back.

“Fuck,” I thought. “That man will do anything to get me out of bed.”

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