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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
We’ll meet again,
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.”
“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.