Everything has a Cost

Opening the virgin pages of a new book is a special feeling, like an explorer stepping onto a foreign shore for the first time. But the characteristic new-book smell escapes as you open the covers and turn over the first pages; a mixture of size, printer’s ink and freshly dried glue.

I prefer to read library books with their worn covers and dog-eared pages, after being handled many times over. American photographer Edward Weston described a photograph as a message you send into the future. It is the same with used books, which often contain messages for future readers, “reading lines”.

Reading lines in old books are reminiscent of the sacred “dreamlines” or “songlines”* of aboriginees. Their sacred creation myths tell of the legendary beings who wandered over the Australian continent, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – plants, trees, rocks, waterholes, bushes, animals – and so singing the world into existence. Songlines form a labyrinth of invisible pathways, knowledge handed down by their ancestors, to help the aboriginees find their way across the outback.

Reading lines are the signs and pathways left behind in books by previous readers. They will guide you through the book, if you know how to follow the lines and decipher the messages left by earlier generations. Some signs also give clues about their reading habits. Cocoa stains and biscuit crumbs, often Digestive, point to the surreptitious bedtime reader who is not too fussy with borrowed books – or sleeping on gritty sheets. For some, the lingering fragrance of tobacco may enhance the experience of reading a novel about post-war life. For others it may be a total turn off; so much so that they close the book for good and possibly miss out on a good read.

Other readers leave more visible and deliberate traces on their journey through the book, signs which can be followed in much the same way as the aboriginees’ songlines. In well-read library books, notes, comments, scribbles, brackets, underlinings and exclamations often accompany you on your journey between the covers, your guide.

Recently I had the company of a wealth of reading lines left by an anonymous annotater throughout Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”. She, I am sure it was a woman, had used a mixture of marginal comments, underlining, brackets, exclamations and other scribbles in bold black, as she followed the fates of Maurice, Sarah and Henry in Greene’s book about relationsships in post-war London.

A key message is the passage – and her comment – found at the bottom of page 47:

“Just as I went home that first evening with no exhilaration but only a sense of sadness and resignation, so again and again I returned home on other days with the certainty that I was only one of many men – the favourite lover for the moment. This woman, whom I loved so obsessively that if I woke in the night I immediately found the thought of her in my brain and abandoned sleep, seemed to give up all her time to me. And yet I could feel no trust: in the act of love I could be arrogant, but alone I had only to look in the mirror to see doubt, in the shape of a lined face and a lame leg – why me?”

This is Maurice, doubting Sarah’s love for him despite her contriving a couple of pages further on to make noisy love to him on the living-room floor, while her husband Henry is upstairs in bed with a cold, a lunch tray and a hot water-bottle for company. She spontaneously declares her love for Maurice on page 50: ”I’ve never loved anybody or anything as I do you”. Despite this, Maurice still doubts in her love for him. This is one of Greene’s central themes in the book.

By adding the comment: “how I felt with Stefan” our anonymous annotator draws a parallel to her own feelings – and her relationship with Stefan, doubting his undivided love for her. But who has added this comment, who is she? And who is Stefan?

Several clues to her identity can be found by studying the many reading lines scattered throughout the book. Her comments are brief, apparently spontaneous, to the point and written with miniscule but bold hand. Her handwriting imitates printing, letters not joined up but rounded in the prescribed school style of the last ten or twenty years. The writer is young – under thirty, probably early twenties.

For the next 150 pages I did not feel alone as I followed the complicated relation between Sarah and Maurice, and indeed also with her husband Henry. Following the reading lines left by the annotator convinced me that my companion was using the book as therapy to understand her own feelings for her lover Stefan – and in particular his lack of feelings for her. At times the parallel story took over. My reading focused more and more on those parts of Greene’s story which she marked with thick brackets. These passages were not about Maurice and Sarah, rather events and feelings she recognised from her relationship with Stefan. As she made her way through the book, she marked more and more dismal passages. From periods of calm, to tenderness, to hate and jealousy, and finally death.

“Hatred is very like physical love; it has its crises and then its periods of calm.”

“After possession comes the tenderness of responsibility when one forgets one is only a lover, responsible for nothing.”

She highlighted several other passages where Maurice discusses hatred and jealousy. She hated two-timing Stefan and was at the same time jealous of his other “lovers of the moment”.

“If I hate her so much as I sometimes do, how can I love her? Can one really hate and love? Or is it only myself that I really hate?

“the nightmare’s nearly over”

“She had been as dead then as she was dead now. As long as one suffers one lives.”

The book has a tragic ending, a real end to the affair. Both stories were quite depressing. I am convinced our annotator lost Stefan, just as Maurice and Henry lost Sarah. Her final message in the margin was: “Everything has a cost.”

* Read more in “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin

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Dinnertime

The narrow brook slowly meanders and wanders, emptying smallish lakes way upstream and draining broad, low-lying fields on its way to the sea. For most of its length it is enclosed by steep banks which the streaming water has gradually sculpted over the centuries. In some places the brook is wider, and the water seems completely still. Sometimes it overflows the low banks, turning nearby pathways and fields into small ponds.

The course of the brook is marked by a thick line of bushes which stretch their thirsty roots down through the rich soil to reach the water. These thickets provide shade and food for flocks of small birds, but also conceal a well-camouflaged, high fence. A wide footbridge, situated where the brook is broader and slow-moving, attracts a large flock of mallards. Little children and pensioners lean over the side of the bridge, bags of old bread at the ready. Themallards seek refuge under the bridge when the hawks circle above, biding their time to launch an aerial attack. This autumn the abundant rain has made life difficult for the mallards; the brook has swelled so much that the brook reaches up to the floor of the bridge, blocking off their escape route.

A loud squawking and flapping of wings broke the silence of the autumn twilight, as a mallard desperately tried to lift from the still water. The heavy bird came crashing through the bushes, flying low into the sunset, trying to gain height. A drone-like hawk struck from above, homing in on its target. A dull thud could be heard as the hawk sank its hooked beak and talons into the neck of the heavy mallard, slicing through its feathers. Linked together they sailed through the air for another twenty yards, hawk hunched like a jockey on the back of the mallard. They hit the ground together with a loud bang; two final choking squawks and then, silence. The hawk wasted no time plucking the feathers off its victim, still warm, just right for dinner.

Train Connection

The fat bulldog showed little interest in following its owner onto the underground train. “All aboard. Mind the doors” commanded the loudspeaker, but the dog still didn’t budge. The owner half dragged and half lifted the heavy beast into the train just before the doors slammed shut. Breathing heavily from the effort, the dog  flopped down on the floor, legs splayed like a cartoon dog dropped from on high. His owner leaned nonchalantly against the carriage wall, pulling out his phone.

Two stops later the owner made for the door, dog slowly waddling after, leaving behind an atmosphere of lethargy in the carriage. Passengers on their way home from work seemed to share the feelings of the bulldog.

Nobody reacted to the woman who moved swiftly down the aisle of the carriage, seemingly in a hurry to get off before the doors closed. She wore a black hijab, floor-length wide grey skirt and a long dark purple tunic. She was not strikingly pretty but quite attractive, in her late 30’s or early 40’s. Almost at the exit, she turned and banged her fist down on the shoulder of a man sitting next to the window, with his back to her. He jumped up, startled. The closest passengers looked up from their smart phones at this disturbance. The man was African, tall and slim, in his mid-20’s, wearing a blue quilted winter jacket and smart jeans. He instinctively turned towards his assailant, holding out his hand to keep his balance. The woman quickly pushed a screwed up paper into his hand, turned and almost running disappeared into the rush-hour crowd on the platform. Nothing was said. The man remained standing, as in a state of shock, and slowly opened his hand. He held it out at arm’s length for all to see. In his palm lay a few screwed-up banknotes. Incredulous, he stared at the crumpled notes for what seemed an eternity. Then he deliberately turned his hand upside down so that the notes sailed down onto the carriage floor. As if to say, this has nothing to do with me. He sat down again. A sympathetic smile from the young woman opposite made him feel a little more at ease. Together they peered down at the notes lying on the dusty floor. After exchanging an embarrassed glance, he decided the best thing was to pick up the notes and stuff them into his jacket pocket.

This is a true story. The woman was taking a big risk. If the doors had closed before she had time to escape from the train, or if the man had chased and caught up with her on the platform, what would have happened? A real life “Sliding Doors”.

Guttural

The deep, slowing throb of a Harley Davidson* attracted my attention, as the biker slipped it into neutral. It was a late-summer afternoon on a busy city street. The queue waiting for the green relaxed. They were in no special hurry.

The biker hunched low in the saddle, brown pointed thin-soled leather shoes resting confidently on the asphalt. Grey nylon socks and brown-patterned suit brought to mind a pen pusher, not a cruiser. He was too skinny to fill out the khaki wind-jammer. It demanded a more muscular frame.

A greying pony tail hung down below his cream-coloured helmet, which was worn, but still feigned to provide some protection. Gold-rimmed glasses and mottled grey moustache with yellowish-brown stains completed the picture.

A rattling, guttural sound broke the silence, growing louder and more persistent. The biker was clearing his lungs from the effects of the cigar which was perched nonchalantly between the fingers of his left hand.

The lights switched to green but the Harley didn’t move, just turning over. The biker slowly flicked the ash off his cigar, stuck it firmly in the corner of his mouth and then deliberately slid in the clutch. The machine responded with its own guttural sound and slowly they cruised down the middle of the street, leaving behind two thin trails of blue smoke.

* Harley Davidson: The most effective way to turn gasoline into noise without producing any horsepower, according to the Urban Dictionary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

WHAM!

The silence of the sleeping houses was broken by a dull sound, muffled by the piles of snow which still covered the ground. The snow had a greyish hue in the weak rays of the winter sun.

They had come a few days ago, appearing suddenly from nowhere. About ten of them, a family group; small ones, medium sized, adults and a vicious-looking extra large one with only half a tail. What attracted them was the brown patch of nuts and seeds on the snow below the hawthorn tree, spilled by the greedy birds. ­­

As newcomers they were on their guard. At the first sound of the door lock being turned they split in all directions, as though a grenade had landed in their midst. Some disappeared under the fence into the next-door neighbours. I rang on their doorbell but only the dog was awake. A few minutes later the door was opened by the woman, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Oh yes, we’ve seen them too. Aren’t they horrible!“ she exclaimed drowsily. Her husband coming along behind almost fell out of the door trying to control the snarling terrier in his arms. “You know”, he added, “these dogs can kill three hundred in an hour if they get up the scent!” Yeah right, I thought, having often seen them dragging the lethargic animal up into the woods to do its business.

After a couple of days we adapted our lives to the intruders, making extra noise opening the door and not leaving any doors open as we fetched the newspapers from the mailbox. We almost missed them when they weren’t around. From reports received we understood they visited other nearby gardens.

The general concensus was that we should get rid of them. So I planned the deed, waiting for the right moment. It came early on Saturday morning. A lone medium-sized animal was preoccupied with digging through the snow to find some breakfast. I slowly slid back the door lock and slipped silently outside. Grasping the blue snow shovel with both hands I lifted it high above my head, held my breath and “WHAM!” There it lay on the crust of the snow, flattened and presumed dead. But wait, its tail was still quivering. Maybe I had just stunned it. Instinctively I raised the shovel once more, “WHAM”, and then again for good measure, “WHAM”. The snow gradually turned dark red around the edges of the flattened corpse. I knew the job was done and left it there to stiffen in the freezing air.

Blue Shovel
The Blue Snow Shovel

Replacing the shovel in the corner behind the door, I returned triumphantly to my breakfast and newspaper. “All in a day’s work for a man”, I told myself.

An hour or so later I knew it was time to get rid of the stiff. So with plastic bag and gloves at the ready, I returned to the scene. But what now! Somebody has stolen my corpse! The only evidence was a pale pink stain on the shrinking snow.

The next day a neighbouring cat-owner proudly described how his cat had come home with one of the intruders dangling from its jaws. “Strange though”, he said, “it was all flattened. I don’t want to know how the cat managed that.” The cat was rewarded with some fresh herring for its bravery.

An Unlikely Couple

Heavy rain last night, and now the muddy cocoa-coloured water almost overflowed the banks of the narrow brook as it snaked its way to the sea. Yellow water lilies leaned over in the strong current. The hot rays of the sun melted the morning mist.

Two figures walking close together appeared round a bend in the pathway which followed the meanderings of the brook. Two women. One appeared very frail as she shuffled along in her bright orange wellies, trying to avoid the puddles in her path.  Her matching orange raincoat was slightly too large, hanging down way below the knees of her white trousers. She was pale, striking white hair in an almost fashionable page cut, thin and not very tall, probably over eighty. Her thin arm, submerged in the oversized raincoat, was hooked over the arm of the other woman. She was younger and much taller, the older woman not quite reaching up to her armpit. The younger woman had a soft olive face, surrounded by a colourful tight shawl which concealed her hair, long flowing blouse and skirt, heavily patterned in dark green and brown, on her feet a pair of intense white sneakers. They walked slowly, the older woman leaning on her companion’s arm for support, both silent and looking dead ahead.

I stepped aside to let them pass on the narrow pathway. The only sound came from the water on its way to the sea. As the couple passed by, I was sure I could hear their thoughts.

The older woman thought; this is my first outing for ages. There’s so much to see and hear and smell, I just can’t take it all in. Wonder what she thinks about this? What was her name again? Must be boring to be sent out to walk me, like taking the dog out for a walk. She should be having fun with others her own age instead of this. We just have nothing to talk about. I’m so curious about where she comes from. But you can’t ask, can you! Might think I’m nosy. All these puddles – good job I got my wellies on. Poor girl in those thin shoes. She’ll catch her death of cold. Perhaps they don’t use wellies where she comes from.

The younger woman thought; here we are again, now it’s Gertie’s turn for a trip around the park. If only she would talk it’d feel less like taking the dog out for a walk. I’m sure she has a lot of stories to tell. Wonder where she grew up and what it was like when she was young? But you can’t ask, can you? Might think I’m nosy. Ahh! my bad luck. Right in a puddle with my sneaker. Went straight through – wish I had wellies like her.

Turning I saw that they took a firmer grip on each other and continued on their slow, silent walk along the brook.

Commuter Games

She sat on a corner seat at the end of the carriage and opened her fur-lined coat wide, oblivious to the other commuters. Sitting in her cosy corner nest she smiled to herself, ruminating on past memories or pleasures to come. The train rattled on, exchanging passengers at each station.

Suddenly her warm dark voice slices through the carriage; “John!” and then again “John!”, much too sensual for a regular morning commuter greeting. A man in his late 40’s is walking slowly along the aisle towards her, head held high with a scarf chokingly tight around his neck, giving him an aloof expression. As he approaches the woman he pretends to suddenly notice her and exclaims “Hello, fancy meeting you here”. He reaches out to shake her hand, as distant acquaintances do. “Yes, what a surprise” she replies, grabs his arm and pulls him into her corner nest. She links arms and snuggles up to him, face bubbling over with joy. His token resistance is noted by the other commuters, peeping from behind newspapers or glancing up from smart phones. She pulls him closer, like a spider hauling in its prey. Their conversation is muted, whispered almost. New passengers glance furtively at the couple before turning away, looking troubled or perhaps envious.

The train jerks to a halt, ready to offload another batch of commuters. The man disentangles his arm and plants a loud wet kiss on her mouth, jumps up and clears the doors just before they slam. He strides off along the platform without a backward glance, leaving behind only the hissing sound as the doors lock into place. Smiling, she raises her hand to wave but then hesitates, letting it fall back heavily into her lap. The woman snuggles down again into her coat, hugging herself tightly as if he was still there. The other passengers relax, their daily commuter routine back to normal as the train disappears into the dark tunnel.

The man slowly climbs the stairs from the cave-like station, breathing laboured and perspiring slightly as he reaches the open air of the park. He is in a hurry, wiping his mouth carefully with the back of his left hand, lips pale and tense, eyes too clouded to notice the yellows and reds of the trees.