Stack – Shameless Self Promotion
Just a remainder that my book of short stories Stack, made free through Lulu by my publisher Les Editions du Zaporogue here, is available to be hated, admired, poured over, loathed, loved, lost or censured at the will and whim of all.
In the manner of all cerebral seductresses, I have decided to shamelessly tease with a story from the collection, below.
If you are able to get through The Previous Owners Shopping List, and are able to enjoy it to the extent you feel inclined to download the free copy of the book, I will include in my cajolery what the marketing folk label a “call to action” and flagrantly request a review here, here, or here, if the mood so takes you.
Of course, if by some unfathomable quirk of fate (no doubt attributable to PDF Formatting or your computer screen) you don’t like the story or the book, I (probably even more vehemently) request you do not review here, here or here, and in fact tell no one – most of all me.
The Previous Owner’s Shopping List
The dandelion spore of a woman placed a precarious foot to the road, having parked her car and turned toward the bookshop. Inside the shop, a man of considerable girth made his way past War Stories to True Crime, promising today of all days he would answer literature’s call, get his substantial carriage to the smaller aisles and take home a book that nourished his mind. Tonight both people visited the shop impulsively.
There existed between these two readers strange parallels that, despite the overwhelming differences, would bring them together at a crucial moment in time. Something superior to their knowledge and beyond the physical bonded them.
The woman walked as if the tilt of the earth could topple her. Clutching at her large prescription-filled handbag, conscious of the elements and their personal vendetta against her, she wondered at the reckless decision made under inspiration in a safer space. Her mapped-out day didn’t allow for this kind of spontaneity, preferring instead to act as a buffer against the regularities of life that could mean the end for a woman this frail. If her body provided no imperviousness against the elements, she had to use her mind to protect herself from them.
She’d assented to this early in life, and the recognition grew into a love affair with the fact. In her mid-twenties, not sure if she’d see thirty, she fancied her sickly remains separated her from the healthy herded masses of ordinary people preoccupied with instant gratification. With no real body to serve, no physical presence to mark her streak on the world, she felt forced to focus on the more delicate things of life. She fancied her immersion in frailty marked her as conscious; even superior.
Tonight, uncharacteristically, she’d left her work as a political archivist ten minutes ahead of time, shocking her colleagues into checking the batteries on the hall clock. She’d go to the large bookshop on King Street on the way home, alone.
Now she stood beside her car, parked close to the shop’s gaping, inviting front, a gentle thrill moving under her skin; a rare moment when her body spoke to her, from behind its glass; its usually muffled message clear. She felt the immersed disquiet delight of being in a place usually attended in the day. The leftover from childhood subterranean excitement of doing something you don’t have prearranged permission to do. She received an intuition of twisted vastness, connecting her via her mind’s electric meandering through her body, with fields of hopeful emptiness. This emanated from the shop, she presumed. It was an aching residual trust that once and for all this place can change you and make you who you want to be.
The shop’s awareness of its position in the street, the city, the world and time coupled with its invitation to be a part of its heaving expanse, its excited pant and its theatrical possibilities enticed any regular thinker into its seductive web. The shop not only sold books, but ideas. Ideas challenging enough to be burned, its writers murdered, for salacious content in days gone by. These were rich lives lived and jotted down in row after row of invitation to the alternative. Here it all rested, offered to you and you alone, the thinking writer’s soul mate. This shop, this testament to radicalism, this documenting of anti-establishment prancing through occasion, sold second-hand books. Ideas flowed— no, gushed—out of the busy pens of thinkers not bound by time into its goods. The building stood, magnificent in its dishevelled disdain, caring more for what lay between the covers of its wares than for its own physical presence. It held the books, not vice versa. You had to pay to take them away, out of its great dust-filled belly.
The structurally unsound woman standing in front of the store particularly enjoyed the idea that the shop collected the books for her. She liked to think they were friends, as if the bookshop had personal advice for her. They corresponded via an intuitive undercurrent passing between them; remarkably ensuring what called her next would be available on the shelf that day. The shop, also governed by life sustaining rules, knew her even when her body was elsewhere. It existed for her she believed, the other shoppers being a necessary evil; what it took to run business as business.
This afternoon she appeared, deliciously out of context, arriving at the pivot on which things essential and unseen tilted. Now was the moment of transition between the regular and familiar flow of the daily folk to the brash confidence of the wealthy workers freer to spend on that which they have no time to enjoy. She stood outside, aware she was an intruder because the shop knew her as a weekend visitor, always in daylight, always in sunshine. The store would have her anyway she knew. It would be glad to see a kindred spirit, shuffling its shelves to offer her its latest secrets. She allowed her gaze to settle on the other damp-coated, high-heeled, suited customers; those she knew to be competitors, wrestling for prize places in thin cluttered aisles.
This nervous fish out of water of a woman, felt more at ease with the thriving bodies in her world if they maintained a distance of several feet than pressed up against her; damp upon damp, breath sour effluvium, spoor, hair and cells mingling under microscopes with fragile skin. She ventured inside, tucking her woollens closer around her throat.
Inside, she moved with sureness, as if the building lured her with its confidence, her passive face set with a determined squint at the literature section at the back. Many long coats stood by the magazine rack, expanding into the territory they claimed. Their occupation meant sliding down a further passageway, the aisle where espionage and crime relaxed comfortably up against true war stories. It wasn’t her usual aisle, but she remembered it to be broad. Quelling panic, she took a relatively deep breath, as much as she could handle, heard her feet walk toward the gangway, the river of unfamiliar books opening up to her like a grossly enthusiastic virgin.
She silently cursed the suits as she moved past, head held high, unnoticed. They bent over their magazines about money, politics and investment, seemingly oblivious to the momentous expanse of their bodies, preventing innocent needy folk from reaching the literature they craved. The bookshop towered over their perfection, dropping its dust, its ceilings a reaching ogre, its fluorescent lights muted by the time they landed their electric blue on white skin. The hollow click clack of her shoes echoed out and out from the vinyl floor, as did the sigh of her coat wafting against the immovable mound of magazines, and the slight wheeze in her panicked breath. The strange silences of so many people standing adjacent, sensitive to disturbance, discouraged a request to move aside. The bookshop smelled of mouldy dust, the scent of age that can’t be known but is the first thing to hit you in a retirement village, and an end-of-day reapplied male deodorant.
True Crime loomed ahead, making it larger, womb-like, welcoming a fresh new face. She felt a gust of breeze from the open staff door she knew to be at the top of the True Crime aisle, located furthest from the entrance, to entice traffic through the store, she’d always assumed. She shuffled through a strangely clear passageway as circumstance forced her to move that way, feeling obedient, the store laughing at her, knowing what she had to shed to get to her final destination.
Turning the corner, she almost bumped into the large man his open book held close to his face, his concentration endearing, and his fervour obvious. She stood for a moment. His stationary hull-like frame sat bulbous, broad, taking up the bulk of the walkway as if he were being prepared to be tugged out to sea. She found herself staring at the long leather belt, hooked through the eyes on trousers so voluminous, so broad; she wondered momentarily what possible threat could remove them and thus warrant the belt.
Her stare sparked the inevitable glance from him in her direction. A fleeting moment passed between them as each prepared for the conversational imperative faced by those suddenly wanting to be in the same space at the same time in a bookshop with its elegantly fragile silence; the obligation of communication without the preamble of intimacy, or even familiarity. They had nothing to share but the space.
Turning her gaze to focus on the floor she worked through her options, words neither dismissive of her intrusion, nor neglectful of her right to be there. She noticed his shoes shuffle toward a long row of encyclopaedic war novels, accompanied by a murmur of apology.
Relieved of the burden of directing their connection, she glanced up, flushed, and smiled at him: a smile containing the warmth of gratitude, without any hint of seduction. He caught her eye. She blushed again, and looked away as she moved into the space. A casual “thanks” had been on her lips, but became lost as she blew past him, her eye set against picture after picture of dishevelled mug shots on the covers of the books of True Crime. She drifted by without incident, leaving him to his books and her without further challenge on her journey to literature.
The literature section opened up toward her slowly, her feet echoing out into the silent store. Having explored the first few alphabetised shelves, she’d abandoned her previous hunt at the start of D, and it was here she chose to move forward. Here, where writers at their most dangerous lay packed back to back on thin dusty shelves, books sat in anthills scattered through the aisle, boxes of them forming a semi-solid base, while shuffled-through and rejected others, babbled their ideas up precarious towers ready to tumble if a mint of a breath brushed against them. Feeling her way, speculatively, through each shelf, she wriggled a small shimmy side to side, thinly avoiding brushing past and potentially toppling any teetering pile making its way to god.
The frail woman in a bubble felt her way through the titles, choosing to remove only those with a Kandinsky corresponding vibration in her soul. This book, this next that she’d read, needed to find her through the vibrations of energy, have the recondite ability to reach her without using the senses she didn’t trust. The bookshop rained its dust, and she inhaled it, filling her wheezing lungs with fine particles, the smell of old leather, the dirty taste of the air, the high blue descending hum of the lights and the funereal silence challenging her, combining forces to prevent her feeling that still small touch as it tapped against her spine.
As she passed her dowser’s fingers over the books, she felt for the subsonic disquiet she expected. She received it from a Marguerite Duras book, Blue Eyes, Black Hair; having never doubted the bookshop’s message before she saw no reason to start, so she tugged at the book wedged between various copies of The Lover and Summer Rain, slipping it off the shelf. She looked at the gentle pink of the cover, the thinness of the book, turned it to read the blurb and at that point decided the shop was again to be congratulated on its latest gift to her. So seduced was she by the prospect of starting a journey through Marguerite Duras that she ignored her own convention and reached out for Summer Rain as well, the intention to buy two contributing to the evening’s madness.
This move, this one diminutive action that should have been uneventful, carried the weight of the penalty of recklessness. This sickly woman, a woman out alone in her freedom, this woman caged by conformity is thought to be free and therefore in tune with the finer things of life. The bookshop, always masked as friend, turned on her and her flouting of her own structure; that which was proven to be so should never have been ignored in favour of a supercilious haste.
It was Summer Rain that held the list and it fell out of the book, its feathered floating taking it to the floor, a side to side dance blurring the ink that sat on the paper, face up showing it to be a list. It pirouetted twice as it fell, smooth, a small kite with no string, no structure and no owner. It seemed to fall, the surprised weak woman thought, almost out of time, taking twice as long as one would expect to reach the dusty vinyl floor.
The Previous Owner’s Shopping List, its stark purple ink glaring tattooed in single words down the page, lay graceless now that it stared at her from the floor. The woman who was not supposed to be there stared at it for a weightless moment, unsure of its origins, suspended in the dangling instant it took to recognise it as part of the book she held. Driven by nonsensical politesse, she bent to replace the list, as if its position were not equally the floor as between the covers of a book no longer owned by the list’s maker.
As she bent toward what she recognised must be an inventory, script came into focus, letters made their way into words and the list broke into her consciousness revealing not just what it appeared to be but what it actually was. This list contained several items, seven to be exact, that were identical to a shopping list she had written only the day before. Leaving the list in its freshly made imprint against the dust on the floor, she brought her large prescription-filled handbag over it, and rummaged through, knowing in that unfathomable place where useless etching of trivial histories are stored, that she still had the list from yesterday. Her spindle fingers found it, lifting it so as not to tear it from her bag, flashes of green ink confirming it to be the list she sought.
Dumping her bag next to a teetering tower of books, she picked up the Previous Owner’s Shopping List, and compared the two.
Alert, composed, acutely aware, thin, without pre-plan or structure, in the wrong place at the wrong time, the completely sick woman stood holding each list at arm’s length, her weak knees slowly supporting her centimetre by centimetre rise, her neurons working overtime to search cellularly for logic or sagacity in her body, or this structure, this reckless bookshop where anything could happen, providing no safe haven when anything did.
Even her mind let her down, its best offerings being the easily dismissed probability of television shows like Candid Camera or Twilight Zone. Her calculating neural pathways began the arduous organisation of figures, computing the unlikely chances associated with each list existing, and the least likely scenario of them meeting in a place soon after she wrote her list which would be torn and discarded in the next few days.
Her mind, upon which all her faculties hitherto relied, raced down a road less travelled. It was the presence of Ventolin, Fendi and Valerian, marked of no consequence on her own list, a simple errand to the chemist, which pulsed with what she wanted most to avoid. These told her another woman, a woman who smelled of Fendi—the only scent to which she was not allergic—who had respiratory problems so common she took Ventolin regularly, had problems sleeping and so consumed Valerian, no doubt according to the packet’s strictest instructions. Worse than this, this doppelgänger had read Marguerite Duras before her, and seemed to be living her life, a few years ahead.
It was now that her body positively kicked in, and started to send messages clear as day. A thin sheen of sweat, never felt before, broke out over her all at once; a shake started at a fault line in her belly but shocked through her joints causing the papers she held to quiver; heart palpitations, sending her blood thudding through her veins; her mouth dry as a camel’s; a numbness spreading its way through her hands and feet as though all feeling, sensory opportunity, were closing itself off to her.
She stood, face to face with the overwhelming fact that her illness did not make her unique; it had no bearing on her at all; it made nothing about her special. The list in all its simplicity told her she was not out of the ordinary and the illnesses, many and varied though they had been in her life, were not indicative of something else and did not mean she had been singled out for anything.
Standing in shock, the Previous Owner’s Shopping List in her hand, she disappeared into eternity, seeing herself as a speck of meaningless dust, amid the millions of dust particles in the store, floating, inhalable, a place to make an imprint and nothing more.
She was so taken by the enormity of her moment that when the large man blocked the walkway in front of her, she barely noticed. When he moved toward her, brushing past three towers of books that tumbled in response to his girth, she didn’t move. When he begged his “excuse me” with the intention of moving past her, she didn’t respond. She stared, mesmerised by the identical shopping lists and the weight of all they contained.
She saw him in her peripheral vision make his way into her space, but she remained stoically unprepared with no structure to cope with what the world now offered her. She felt him, his firm jelly belly, pushing her back toward the bookcase, now her enemy, as she fell. Her bag splayed out, its contents spilling as the new body pushed her small thin frail one onto a large long waiting nail, sticking out of the old bookcase. She felt it enter her in the back, piercing her coat, her shirt and her skin instantly. He turned, a worried look on his face, not realising his bulk pressed harder against her with his turning, forcing her further back and deeper impaled on the nail.
She heard a faint ‘pop’, accepted it and dropped the two shopping lists together. She looked at him, no blush to warm her face, no recognition in her eyes as she felt the store take the last of what she had to give. She slumped but the bookshop held her in place, impaled on a moment in time, a sickly woman of no consequence after all.