Writ on Water

Alicia didn’t like this place. It was a run-down covered market in the east end of London. All the shop units—little more than boarded-in alcoves fronted with plywood and clear plastic—contained nothing but old things. There were vinyl records, VHS tapes, second-hand clothes and used books. She tasted dust in the air, all those years of dead skin and street grit. But this was the place where she would find the perfect present for Rich.

Rich–the new man in her life–liked fine wines, Saville Row suits, Vivaldi, rare books and her to wear high heels. But the high heels hurt and rare books were expensive even on her salary. She didn’t really read books but when she’d entered Rich’s apartment she’d been impressed by his bookshelves with all their leather-bound volumes. Old things could have their place: as long as they were cleaned up and so become not old, but vintage, retro, antique. She would buy him such a book that would look good on his shelves and this was the place to get it without paying west end prices.

Most of the shops seemed to only have tatty paperbacks in cardboard boxes, twenty-five pence each, five for a pound. She was about to give up and leave in disgust when she came to the last store. The plastic window of this was dirty and she could not see beyond the stacks of yet more paperbacks. But then she glimpsed the shelves inside and could see more promising fare, the old bindings that Rich liked, that set off a room so well.

“Yes?” said a nasal voice as she entered.

There was a man sat at a battered desk that was dominated by an ancient mechanical cash-till. He glared at her over the tops of his glasses; his face nestled in a mass of black hair around his chops that had receded at the top leaving him with a bald forehead. He might have been anywhere between thirty and sixty.

“Oh, it’s one of you,” he said.

“What?” she felt a sudden flush of confusion; she couldn’t have heard him properly. “Have we met?”

He wiped his brow leaving a print mark on his pink flesh. His finger slipped down and adjusted his glasses. “Evidently not,” he said. “Now if you’ll excuse me…”

“I’m looking for a present…”

But the man was rising from his chair, bringing with him a waft of tobacco smoke and sweat that mingled with the dust of the books.

“I’m just about to close up,” he said.

“But it’s eleven o’clock,” Alicia said. It was there or thereabouts; she’d glanced at her phone before coming into the market.

“Oh,” he said retreating to his chair, “is it? Is it that early? Oh dear.”

She smoothed down her charcoal work skirt suddenly aware of how smart she was, of how good the shoes looked even if they did hurt so much. It was as though she were noticing her own presence here, so gorgeous and clean among all this decrepit old stuff.

“I’m looking for a present, for my….” what was Rich? Well apart from rich. She gave an inward schoolgirl giggle. The perfect boyfriend and perhaps more; she so wanted it to go right this time, for this to be a new chapter in her life. Wasn’t that what this was all about? “For a friend of mine. A book…”

“What book? What about?”

“Well it doesn’t matter what it’s about so much as…”

The man pinched his nose, snorted and stared at her again over the top of his glasses. She was used to male attention wasn’t she? But this was different from the usual sizing up and assessment.

“Of course it matters! What could matter more?”

“I’m sorry, I…” What happened to the customer was always right?

“Very well,” said the man and he rose and came towards her making a sort of ushering gesture with his hands, flapping them forward as though he could move her out of the way like this, “what do you want?”

Alicia looked around. There on the back shelf were the old books with their gold leaf nestled in the little trenches of title letters, the rich grain of the bindings. Then she saw it. In the middle of the shelf and shining–almost as though it was lit by a spotlight that cast everything around it into shade—was a book that glowed, the velum of its cover for a moment gold.

“That one,” she said and as she reached out to touch it she felt as though she were seizing a forbidden treasure.

The man grabbed her forearm. She felt the pinch of his fingers through the sleeve of her suit jacket.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yes,” she gasped.

He dropped her arm and barged in front of her reaching up to the shelf for the book. It seemed much bigger as he carried it and laid it on the desk, pushing the cash-till away to teeter on the very edge. The book seemed still to glow.

“What is it?” she asked, awed.

“The catalogue,” he said.

“What?”

“Have you heard of the Pudskillites?”

“I’m sorry, I…”

Then he opened the book.

Afterwards, when she was outside in the street, the book safely wrapped in brown paper, she tried to recall what she had seen inside it. For a moment she thought of unwrapping it and examining it but an odd excitement shot though her and she clutched the package to her. What had she seen? It wasn’t clear. All there that there was, were the man’s words.

The Pudskillites, he’d said, were a religious sect in the days of the English Commonwealth, after the execution of Charles the First. They accumulated a vast library of their lore and history but nevertheless were deeply suspicious of books. Regarding mirrors as a vanity they reasoned that books, which mirror the world, are a vanity too. Books, like mirrors presented a false verisimilitude; they seem to picture the world but are in fact a distortion, reversing, contracting, making simpler that which is complex. Worst of all were those books which referred to other books. These were like a mirror held up to another mirror, offering an infinite distortion, a trap in which one could wander into a life of endless sin. Books which referred to other books that in turn referred to other books would result in a world that was eventually composed of nothing but references, the real world of God’s creation lost forever.

Yet the fanaticism of the sect led them to attempt to collect every book ever written. Perhaps this was an attempt to create a perfect version of the world from all the partial and flawed versions. Perhaps there was a more sinister purpose from the outset.

For this sect a catalogue of their own library would be an abomination; yet it is said that the librarian produced a catalogue that not only listed all the books in the library but actually contained them all. Finally in an outbreak of probably inevitable fundamentalism, they burnt their library. The librarian, dedicated to his calling, escaped the fire and kept the catalogue with him when he went into exile.

This book is the catalogue.

#

 

A new chapter started. She walked through the backstreets comfortable in her new shoes. No-one would mind that she’d been gone so long. She had the sort of job at the bank that meant she didn’t really answer to anyone, not like other sorts of jobs she could imagine. On Whitechapel High Street she managed to hail a taxi back to her office in Docklands where she bought wrapping paper and a card in the basement shopping mall. All that afternoon she managed to work and forget about the book.

That evening was hectic. She was meeting Rich at a Turkish ocakbasi he liked in Dalston. All very deprivation chic. She just had time to get back to her flat in Islington and change into a sexy red dress she found in her wardrobe and then she had to wrap the book.

But when she got it out of the package the book looked different. It did not have the same glow she remembered. It looked like just a normal hard-back without the dust jacket. She recalled that what had been inside had been marvelous, even if she couldn’t quite remember what it was. She flipped to somewhere near the middle and read.

“…she looked out of the window and watched as he walked across the street to his car. It was raining and he ran, covering his head with his briefcase. She knew that tonight he would be seeing her, the other woman. She knew that really their marriage was already dead.”

What was this? She flipped to the front where there was a blurb.

Writ on Water is a poignant story of the flowering and withering of love. Set against the high powered bankers of London’s Docklands with its bright new office blocks overlooking and reflected in the waters of the eternal Thames…”

Alicia closed the book. Surely this wasn’t what she’d bought. There must be some sort of mistake when the man had wrapped it, or else he was a crook who had pulled a quick switch. There was no way she could give this to Rich. It didn’t even look that good from the outside now she examined it. The book she had looked at had been beautiful, profound, full of… What? If only she could remember.

It was time to go now. She looked at herself in the mirror and saw how great she looked. Her figure was perfect; she was slim with hips that curved out just the right side of voluptuous. Her hair fell in curls of deepest brown. She found the birthday card and she wrote inside: “Your present for tonight is ME.” She underlined the ‘me’ three times. Then, with one last scowl at the book, she left.

The next morning’s recollection of the previous evening was something of a blur; a wonderful, fantastic blur. She’d never known, or at least had never been certain, that Rich had felt that about her. After the meal they’d jumped in a taxi down to the river and he’d taken her to one of the little beaches that are only there at low tide. The Thames stretched out before them and they gazed up at the illuminated turrets of Tower Bridge. They’d both been slightly tipsy but to the rhythm of the ancient river and the glow of the boats and the oval glass of City Hall–like a great mirror on the south bank–Rich had proposed.

“I can’t wait to see that book you were telling me about,” he’d said as he bent over to kiss her goodbye in the morning, “you couldn’t stop going on about it last night.”

For a moment she couldn’t recall what he was talking about but then she remembered. She would have to go back. That day she left work early and when she entered the covered market she was overcome by a sense of deja-vu, but of course she had been here before. The shop was the same, of course it was, it had only been yesterday after all. As she entered the man looked up and said in his nasal voice.

“Oh, it’s you.”

“Yes it is,” she said, “and this is not the book I bought.”

He didn’t even glance at the book she was waving in his face, just looked up at her over his glasses and she was suddenly struck by how desperately sad he was.

“The catalogue,” he said, “could never be a book per se.”

“But,” she tried to remember what he had said, “you said it was the… what’s-it-called,” she dredged the name up, “the Pudskillites…”

“Oh,” he said, “it could be the Maracionites. A first-century Gnostic sect that believed that the fruit of the tree of knowledge was in fact a book. In their credo the primal couple, Adam and Eve, were exiled into its pages.”

“What?”

“Perhaps it’s an artifact from the future where reality has been rendered into a simulation. Or the Sibylline Auguries of Ancient Rome, thought to have been burnt. The lost cantos of Nostradamus. The True Bible of Hermes Trismegistus. The Chronicles of Atlantis. ” He sighed. “All I know is that since it contains all possible fictions, histories and sciences, the catalogue must, therefore, contain all possible explanations of its own existence.”

She was fed up with this. He was trying to confuse her, get her off the point.

“But this isn’t a catalogue at all. It’s some crappy novel.”

“Perhaps you should look inside it.” He nodded at the book; he gave a wan smile that for a moment almost made her warm to him. She started to open the book.

“Not the start,” he said, “go some way in. It’s usually better.”

She opened the book and read:

The next morning’s recollection of the previous evening was something of a blur; a wonderful, fantastic blur. She’d never known, or at least had never been certain, that Rich had felt that about her. After the meal they’d jumped in a taxi down to the river and he’d taken her to one of the little beaches that are only there at low tide. The Thames stretched out before them and they gazed up at the illuminated turrets of Tower Bridge. They’d both been slightly tipsy but to the rhythm of the ancient river and the glow of the boats and the oval glass of City Hall–like a great mirror on the south bank–Rich had proposed.

“I don’t understand,” she said. Suddenly the pain in her feet seemed to make her legs buckle. She held onto the desk for a moment. Then, as though it were the hardest thing she would ever do, she made to turn to another page. As she did so, the man–with a slick movement–half-stood in his chair and snatched the book from her.

“Give that back,” she shouted, but then her eye caught the way the light was falling on the back shelf, alighting on a particular volume, a beautiful book, bound in vellum….

“That’s the book I want,” she said pointing, “give me that one.”

“And this one,” he said, brandishing the book he’d taken from her, “the one you didn’t want me to take away a moment ago. You don’t want this one?”

“No. I…” But she hesitated for just long enough for him to butt in.

“The book on the shelf is the catalogue,” he said.

“I know it’s a catalogue.”

“No. It’s the Catalogue.”

She couldn’t really follow what he was saying. The glowing book of promise held her attention. There it was on the shelf. Why didn’t the stupid man give it to her? Her feet ached again, the pain shooting up from the arch of her foot to around her ankles.

“Look,” she said, and she actually stamped her foot, like a child, sending a sharp painful sensation up her calf, “I just want my book.”

He shook his head. He was holding a book in his hand. Wasn’t it the book that she’d come in with? She felt confused and suddenly could hardly remember why she was here.

He started to read out loud.

“’That evening was hectic. She was meeting Rich at a Turkish ocakbasi he liked in Dalston. All very deprivation chic. She just had time to get back to her flat in Islington and change into a sexy red dress she found in her wardrobe and then she had to wrap the book.’ “

“Shut up,” she screamed.

He flicked to the back of the book and continued.

“’She walked along the Thames embankment. It was a bright morning with the sun burning beyond Tower Bridge. Once she had been down there by the river with the man she thought she’d spend the rest of her life with. The tide was high now and the little beach on the foreshore was covered with water mirroring the slate-grey sky. Everything had changed.’ “

“I don’t like that book,” she said, her voice rising to a high pitch.

“I’ve read worse,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Story of doomed yuppie love?” he said, “It could have been…. No. It doesn’t matter,” And he sat back in his chair and exhaled so loudly that it was as though he were expiring. He shook his head. Alicia felt giddy for a moment then found her attention drawn back to the glowing book on the back shelf.

“Well,” he said, “what is it I can do for you madam?”

“That book,” she said pointing, “let me look at it. It looks marvelous. What is it?”

He put down the book he’d been holding and stood slowly reaching out to the bookshelf.

“Let me tell you about this book,” he said, and he brought it down slowly and moved his big cash-till out of the way to make a space for it on his desk, “then you can decide if you really want it.”

“Oh, I’m sure I will,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, “people always are.”

And, as she opened the book and peered in, the pain in her feet melted softly away.

 

Gary Budgen grew up and still lives in London, England. He has had stories published in various magazines including 'Interzone', 'Dark Horizons' and 'M-Brane'. Recently he has had stories in two anthologies 'After the End' from Static Movement and 'Where are We Going?' from Eibonvale Press. His website is: http://garybudgen.wordpress.com/

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