BETWEEN THE LINES • by Benjamin Sixsmith

I lost my job and my girlfriend on the same day. Trudging back from the office after being dismissed I found the flat empty and the jar we had crammed with savings half as full as it had been. In the weeks since this one-two punch I had lain about the flat, drinking and reading books. This was not the classic vodka and pot noodles: it was fine wines and stir-frys. Yet I read lazily. I got boxes of books from a charity shop down the road and lost myself in anything from old romance novels to annuals. Best of all were mysteries, from Sherlock Holmes to true crime.

It was another day. I lifted a book from a pile and gazed at the front. A couple embraced before a star-studded sky. Jesus. I flipped it open, looking for a giggle in its sudden sayings, ringing shots and quivering breasts. Someone had penned a dedication:

To Sarah,
Happy birthday!
Alan

Poor sap. Women read these kinds of novels if they are eternally single or frustrated with their partners — and, besides, could a prospective boyfriend ever live up to the standards of “roguish”, “firm-jawed” Doctor Nelson and his “clinical attentiveness to her erogenous zones”?

Tossing the book onto the floor, I reached for another. Charles Bukowski’s weathered face leered out from a cover of Post Office. Ah, yes. I splashed wine into a glass and settled back, turning, again, to the title page.

This is the book I was telling you about.
Love,
Al

Al? Alan? I studied the handwriting. It was the same — down to the curls on the kisses. Alan must have endeared himself to this Sarah girl! The awkward initial gesture may have seemed charming. It made sense to show some intellectual substance now — and some backbone.

After a handful of books without dedications — a weight-loss “bible”, poetry by Anne Sexton, a battered copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead — I found a note inside a text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

S,
Love,
A

Phwoar! Still, I knew there could not be a happy ending to this tale. The books’ presence in the shop was as revealing as flowers in the gutter. Sure enough, inside a copy of Norwegian Wood there was this bleak inscription:

Miss you.
A

Poor Alan. A pathetic character, that much was obvious. Bukowski? Lawrence? So pretentious. Had this loser even read beyond the dirty bits?

I had thought this was enough entertainment for the day but spotted a thin paperback lurking between a self-help tome and a worn copy of Jude the Obscure. A girl’s white back was lain across the cover of Story of O. I turned a page.

Miss S,
We’ll meet again,
L

Laurence? Liam? Laura? There were no more dedications from “L” but other novels, books of verse and works of philosophy contained inscriptions from hopeful admirers. I was fascinated: this woman had been passionate enough to want these people, and these books, but clinical enough to reject them once they had served their purpose. How did she attract them? What did she desire from them? I wanted to understand her. To reach the end.

Yet how could the girl be found? Nobody had left her full name or signed their own. The following day I walked to the charity shop and approached the twinkly cardigan-clad proprietor.

“That box,” I said, preparing myself for a small mistruth, “Had a bracelet in it. Do you know how I could get in touch with the owner?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “She did not leave contact details. If you give it to me I can pass it on if she returns.”

“Hm,” I said, shifting like a child before a teacher, “I should have thought to bring it.”

“She was called Sarah,” the man continued, smiling at the memory of their interaction, “A nice woman.”

“What was she like?”

It was a bizarre thing to say. As a concerned citizen with a lost bracelet I had no reason to care about anything except her address. The man was a volunteer, though, and he enjoyed the chance to talk.

“She was a nice ordinary woman.”

Ordinary?”

“Yes,” he said, looking startled, “Forties. Brown hair. Dark blouse. Read a lot.”

I returned to the flat and sifted through the books. The man had to be mistaken. I knew nothing about Sarah except that there was nothing ordinary about her. Ordinary people do not inspire such desperate romance. Was he asexual? Had Sarah disguised herself?

My gaze wandered across the dedication from “L” and I was side-swiped by a feeling of déjà vu. “L” wrote kisses with identical curls to “A”. As I studied other books I saw that the habit was shared by “Tom” and “B”. There was something feminine about the swoops and circles with which they had signed their names. In my head I saw a woman as she scribbled messages to herself.

Perhaps a private indulgence had lost its appeal or perhaps she liked the thought of being perceived as a heartbreaker. Closing the last book, I swept the pile off my chair. It seemed wrong to intrude on private loneliness and I was beginning to feel as if I had been walking streets and looking into windows without ever going home.

Home. I looked across the room. There were three books on its shelves that I had never opened: a Bible I had inherited from my Grandfather, a book on kids from when my girlfriend and I had “considered” them, and a diary I had bought to help me organise my life.

I stood up from my chair. It was June 30th and halfway through the year. It was time to stop reading.


Benjamin Sixsmith is an English writer. He hopes you have enjoyed this story.


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Rate this story:
 average 2.5 stars • 2 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Joy Manné

    Just when I imagined I knew where you were going… Just when I imagined your story would be predictable. Well done and well told. thank you.

  • Joy Manné

    Just when I imagined I knew where you were going… Just when I imagined your story would be predictable. Well done and well told. thank you.

  • Yes, I did Benjamin, quite a bit. As Joy commented, it wasn’t predictable, and it didn’t have the unbelievable twist that ruins a good story. Well done.Five stars.

  • Yes, I did Benjamin, quite a bit. As Joy commented, it wasn’t predictable, and it didn’t have the unbelievable twist that ruins a good story. Well done.Five stars.

  • “Phwoar!” ? Is this a common word of exclamation in UK? Anyway, I very much enjoyed the story. It’s very well written, kept me totally interested from beginning to end. I look forward to more.

    • lol…I recognized it immediately. My cousin, Stephen, he’s English, uses it but this is the first time I’ve seen it spelled out. Made me laugh

      • Thanks… I keep trying to figure out what it sounds like.

  • “Phwoar!” ? Is this a common word of exclamation in UK? Anyway, I very much enjoyed the story. It’s very well written, kept me totally interested from beginning to end. I look forward to more.

    • lol…I recognized it immediately. My cousin, Stephen, he’s English, uses it but this is the first time I’ve seen it spelled out. Made me laugh

      • Thanks… I keep trying to figure out what it sounds like.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Took a while to get into, but what a great story.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Took a while to get into, but what a great story.

  • Benjamin Sixsmith

    Thanks to everybody here for their generous comments and thanks to the editors, without whose feedback this would not have been half as good.

  • Benjamin Sixsmith

    Thanks to everybody here for their generous comments and thanks to the editors, without whose feedback this would not have been half as good.

  • Minkee

    Yes, enjoyed it very much.

  • Minkee

    Yes, enjoyed it very much.

  • S Conroy

    The psychology of fantasies… Feel sorry for that 40 year old that her attractiveness diminishes once he fantasises that she’s lonely. But the story was very well told and grabbed this reader’s attention from start to finish.

  • S Conroy

    The psychology of fantasies… Feel sorry for that 40 year old that her attractiveness diminishes once he fantasises that she’s lonely. But the story was very well told and grabbed this reader’s attention from start to finish.

  • Katherine Lopez

    Not very believable as a premise, and not an entirely satisfactory resolution, the turn wasn’t quite there, but well written and a good authorial voice.

  • Katherine Lopez

    Not very believable as a premise, and not an entirely satisfactory resolution, the turn wasn’t quite there, but well written and a good authorial voice.

  • PCH

    What a fun premise! I would love to see this developed into something longer.

  • PCH

    What a fun premise! I would love to see this developed into something longer.

  • Alie Bell

    Fantastic! thank you so much for such a brilliant story.

  • Alie Bell

    Fantastic! thank you so much for such a brilliant story.

  • MPmcgurty

    Yes, Benjamin, I did enjoy it. Had a couple of ideas as to where it was going, but they were wrong. I felt like I was along for the ride while you searched for her. Well done.

  • MPmcgurty

    Yes, Benjamin, I did enjoy it. Had a couple of ideas as to where it was going, but they were wrong. I felt like I was along for the ride while you searched for her. Well done.

  • MaryAlice Meli

    Clean writing, intriguing twists and a few chuckles – thanks for a fun read.

  • MaryAlice Meli

    Clean writing, intriguing twists and a few chuckles – thanks for a fun read.

  • Ah, a literary mystery of unfulfilled love. A reasonable guy, this MC. No vulgar vodka for him, but enough imaginative trists to become obsolete. So, I have to wonder why he lost his job and his girl in the first place?

  • Ah, a literary mystery of unfulfilled love. A reasonable guy, this MC. No vulgar vodka for him, but enough imaginative trists to become obsolete. So, I have to wonder why he lost his job and his girl in the first place?

  • I enjoyed this story and I liked the way it was written. Only the lonely know what it is like to dedicate a book to yourself! 🙂

  • I enjoyed this story and I liked the way it was written. Only the lonely know what it is like to dedicate a book to yourself! 🙂