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The Book

I wrote this short story a few years ago, and published it in an anthology of the same name. Just quite recently, out of the blue, I had an email from a college teacher who told me that he always read this story aloud to the students who were about to depart school.

I’d like to share it with you today.

I can’t remember, now, why I had to take the train that day.

It was late autumn, perhaps, or early winter. Very early morning, the pinkish promise of dawn only a smear above the rooftops. Cold. But the dawn frost didn’t touch the grimy urban pavements. It only held itself as a crystalline possibility in the dry air, its glistening, hoary potential kept at bay by the damp, litter-strewn streets.

I was early, of course, having set off with contingent minutes for every likely and unlikely delay between home and the station. The platform wasn’t empty, though. Others, like me, well ahead of time, (just in case), loitered like shadows in the twilight. They shuffled their feet and perused the listless noticeboard, reading adverts for events long passed that they had read the day before and the day before that. Some of them sipped from steaming Styrofoam, the vapour making halos in the barely-morning light. They were mainly dressed in city uniform; smart suits, warm woollen overcoats; grey, black, navy. Their faces, though washed, remained smudged with sleep. Their eyes were dull and reluctant. One girl began to apply make-up, smearing pale foundation over pale skin, enhancing, rather than diminishing, her ghostly morning pallor. Minutes passed. But the whole platform remained in a deep box of shadow cast by the ticket office and the waiting room of the opposite side, which interposed itself between us and the newly risen sun.

The idea of coffee attracted me, momentarily, but a glance over my shoulder to the Pumpkin coffee outlet showed me a queue five or six deep and that long-winded kind of coffee machine which dispenses the stuff drip-by-achingly-laborious-drip, and I dismissed the idea. I couldn’t be bothered. That, then, was more or less my life’s mantra: I couldn’t be bothered. What was the point? When everything I had touched had turned to ashes and all that I had once dreamed of had proved itself to be no more than what had gone before; drudge and disappointment. Dead-ends.

The tannoy crackled into life. ‘Stand back from the platform edge,’ we were instructed. ‘The next train is a through train and will not stop here. Stand back from the platform edge.’ Sure enough, the express tore through the station like a shrieking harridan, a pulsing blur of silver like a needle into atrophied flesh, with an after-rush which pushed us backwards and caused litter to dance and skitter. The hair of the girl doing her make-up whipped across her face and stuck to her tacky complexion. Mine, a hasty arrangement of random feathers and care-less curls, took momentary flight as though it might escape imprisonment, before settling back down to roost more or less in the same configuration. The vacuum of the train’s wake sucked our breath from our bodies, but our expressions registered nothing, as though the train, or we ourselves, were spectres.

I walked almost to the end of the platform where a slither of sunlight had sliced past the buildings opposite to make a shard of brightness on the dull grey scene. A solitary girl perched on a bench, there, as though placed in a spotlight on a stage, and I gingerly took a seat at the opposite end. It was damp and cold, but clean. When I looked back down the platform to check the digital display I couldn’t see it for the sun in my eyes. The others on the platform had disappeared into its shadow, their dark clothes and dull faces absorbed into the gloom. I checked my watch. Still twenty minutes to wait.

The girl on the bench was young, perhaps not quite twenty years old. She wore no make-up, had clear skin and almond-shaped eyes. I couldn’t see her hair, it was completely covered by one of those brightly coloured, multi-patterned hats with a pointy apex and two plaited tassels suspended from ear-flaps. It suggested the Andes; Peru; a high plateau with brightly flapping prayer-flags and meandering goats; a hard, simple, happy life. Her coat was red, closely fitting with a nipped-in waist, a little grimy around the cuffs. Beneath the coat she wore jeans, and the bottoms of these were stuffed into warm sheepskin boots. The hands which protruded from the grubby cuffs held a book.

There was something about the girl. Of course she was unlike any of those semi-comatose commuters further down the platform. She was - like me - in the sunshine instead of - like them - in the shade. But she was - unlike me - illuminated in a way which had nothing to do with the wintery sun. She glowed with a radiance which seemed to come from an inner source, to light her up, almost to elevate her. She appeared hardly to be sitting on the bench at all, but to be floating just above it, so energised, so buoyed was her whole demeanour. Although she remained perfectly still on the seat it was as though she exuded waves of glee so palpable that they seemed physical. She was rapt; transported. Her face declared it. A smile played constantly around her lips and sometimes broke out, and the even teeth she pressed from time to time onto her bottom lip failed to subdue it one iota. Her eyes sparkled, they were wide with a kind of surprised awe, and full of laughter. I believed I could hear the occasional gasp or murmur of amazement but perhaps I conjectured these as the logical and irrepressible expression of her air.

She is meeting a new boyfriend, I thought, or has just left him after their first night of lovemaking. She is starting a new job, perhaps, although her clothes don’t corroborate this. She is going travelling (again), back to Peru or off to somewhere else equally full of adventure. But where is her luggage?

I felt drawn to her, attracted by the powerful pull of her mein; intrigued, and envious of her youth and hopefulness and of this other non-specific but tangible current of secret gladness which emanated in appealing waves. At the same time I felt almost angry, resentful. Why, I wondered, should she have such evident cause for optimism, and I none at all?

In her hands she held a book and as the minutes passed by it seemed to me more and more apparent that the book was in some way the font of her happiness. Occasionally she would press her palm down on its cover, or trace its spine with her finger. I saw her draw her fingernail down the edges of the pages, almost as though it were an instrument she could play. Once she turned it over in her hands and I thought that she would open it, but she laid it back to rest on her lap. And all the while, she smiled, and projected gusts of private pleasure and knowing.

It was a hard-backed book of the old-fashioned type, bound in waxed linen of a brownish-copper colour. It looked, if not old then certainly not new; giving the impression of having been much-handled; not dog-eared or damaged, but definitely used. On its spine some tooling in gold lettering and an intricate perhaps quasi-Celtic design remained maddeningly unreadable as her hands caressed it. The front cover was blank, but from between the pages sprouted a number of different book-marks; ribbons, cards, plaited threads, denoting significant episodes or favourite passages. I have seen people with Bibles like this and, until recently, Filofaxes, their timely reminders and comforting reassurances marked for quick reference. But this was neither a bible nor a Filofax. It was a book.

The tannoy announced the next train - not mine, and, evidently, not the girl’s either - and presently it arrived. I was aware of more passengers milling, the jostle of embarkation, but my attention now was so focused on the girl and her book that I scarcely took any notice. Neither did she, but remained still, glowing and enraptured, and slowly caressing the book. Dimly, I heard the thud and echo of hurried footsteps and the growl of wheeled suitcases as they crossed the bridge from the other platform but they seemed distant and irrelevant. The station master blew his whistle and the train departed. It might as well have disappeared. My curiosity mounted with every moment that passed and took on a life of its own. The girl and her book felt like the whole world, like the only thing that mattered or would ever matter. I had to know, I had to understand.

‘The next train on platform two will be the London train,’ said the station master. ‘Platform two for the non-stop service to London.’

It was my train. A fizz and rattle on the rails proclaimed its approach. ‘That looks interesting,’ I blurted out desperately, nodding at the book.

The girl turned wonderingly towards me, as though noticing me for the first time. ‘Oh! Yes!’ she said, giving me a brilliant smile which gathered up as into a bouquet all the effervescence, the simmering joy and astonishment which had budded and bloomed and perfumed the air around her for the past twenty minutes.

‘What is it?’ I pressed.

She turned it in her hands again. The wording on the spine eluded me once more. The train drew into the station and its doors opened. People began to press into the carriages. Others struggled off, shrugging into their coats, dragging cumbersome luggage.

Picture by Rob Adams

I got up. I had to go. But some needy connection prevented me from walking away. ‘Is this your train?’ I asked, with a forlorn hope that I might persuade her to sit next to me on the journey. She shook her head. I was desperate. The platform had all-but cleared. A porter began to load parcels into the freight carriage. ‘What is it?’ I asked again. ‘A holy book? A diary?’ Down the platform, the station master consulted his watch and checked it by the station clock. A late-comer, a woman with a pushchair and a toddler in tow, burst out of the lift and he began to help her board. She nodded. ‘Both those. It’s a life-story. Someone gave it to me earlier. Here you are.’ Incredibly, she rose to her feet and handed me the book. ‘It’s yours,’ she said. At the last possible moment she stepped onto the train and the doors closed. The whistle blew and the train moved away, leaving me rooted to the platform, the book in my hand. The morning rush was over. I could hear the station master and the porter making tea in their office. The platform was deserted, I alone remained, gasping and blinking, in the morning sun. Tentatively, my train, my journey and everything else completely forgotten, I examined the book. The gold tooling on the spine turned out to be runes and curlicues of a language unknown to me; Russian, perhaps, or an ancient Aztec Sanskrit? I could not tell. I traced them with my finger, as I had seen the girl do earlier, and examined the fluttering ends of the ribbons and woven threads of the bookmarks which denoted episodes of special significance in this sacred life-story which had in some inexplicable way now become mine. What travels, I marvelled, what adventures and experiences, what successes, to have filled this volume and to have filled her with such a tangible vibe! My envy came back to me like a bitter gout of vomit in the back of my throat. What a paltry offering, I thought, what a limp and lifeless pamphlet would mine make, in comparison! I opened the book and turned the pages. Every one, from first to last, was entirely blank. The shock threw me backwards onto the bench with the force of an express hurtling past. Realisation filled me up; water pouring into an empty vessel. Understanding frothed and fizzed and dazzled. The pristine whiteness of the vellum was almost blinding. It shone like a canvas stretched and primed and ready for paint; its glorious potential vast and incalculable. My fingertips tingled as I stroked the guiltless pages as though tracing Braille. The yet-to-be-written story ahead of me - a prospect so golden, so rich with opportunity and full of promise - beckoned and enticed. Minutes - perhaps hours - passed in a sort of dream. Trains came and went again. People roamed the platform. I sat entranced and listened to the book’s story of endless possibility, and thrilled at the high-points prophesied by those momentous markers, until I knew it all by heart. ‘That looks interesting,’ said a man I had not noticed before, from his seat on the opposite end of the bench. ‘What is it?’

This story, and others, can be found in The Book anthology, which also contains excerpts, articles and reviews.

I suppose my main desire in sharing it with you today is to encourage you that, no matter how dark the days seem just now, or how dire our situation, life still holds volumes of potential for us, so don’t despair.


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