I scribbled (well, I typed) this short story immediately after my exams this past June. I had just finished reading both volumes of Roald Dahl’s complete short stories and was feeling rather inspired by them. This isn’t a sinister story, neither is it black or dark. In fact, the only resemblance to his masterful tales might be the lengthy ‘dialogue-within-dialogue-within-dialogue-within-you-get-the-idea’. I had fun writing it, but it’s mediocre. I won’t be submitting it to magazines, so I decided to post it here. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it.
by Justin Lau
My uncle owns and runs a second hand bookshop. It’s a modest affair with modest furnishings, but he’s well proud of it. Most of the books I read growing up were recommended and furnished by him, all used of course, which might explain my disdain for brand new spotless books and my desire to spill coffee all over the white pages to create aesthetically pleasing stains. Every Saturday, I would spend the entire day at his shop, either engrossed in a novel or browsing the shelves in search of my next life textbook. We would share our thoughts about books we’ve read, arguing over the beauty of the prose or whether the main character truly deserved the happy ending.
It was the third Saturday in the month of May, and despite the warmer weather it was pouring cats and dogs. The clock struck three and my uncle prepared the tea and biscuits. The shop was empty. As we were sipping our cups of Earl Grey, I asked him a simple question, one that I had been meaning to ask for a long time: ‘Why did you open a second hand bookshop?’ I was in the mood for one of his entertaining anecdotes, and sure enough, he proceeded to tell me a most interesting story.
‘Ever since I was old enough to pick up a book and stare at the muddled scribbles on greasy, tattered pages, I would relish the weekends when my mum would take me to the used bookshop right around the corner (it’s long gone now, rest in peace). The Waterstones was off limits; “too pricey and overcommercialised”, my mum used to remark disdainfully, her nose scrunched up as if she could pick out the distinct smell of money-hungry publishers lurking in the oversized, illustrated, hardcover, leather-bound, deluxe editions. As such was the case, my nose grew so accustomed to the musky, damp smell belonging to books centuries old that weekends on which, for whatever reason, we were unable to make our routine trip, my nose would start tingling and I would sneeze all day, only curable by the smell of picture books or novels falling apart at the bind. That was probably the reason why even after going to university and attaining a degree that my mum was so proud of (she cries every time she looks at my graduation photo), and after working a desk job for several years, I quit and ran off to open my own bookshop.
‘My bookshop was originally a small room with a decently high ceiling, but eventually expanded when the shop next door closed down (garish looking clothes falsely dubbed to be the latest fashion from Tokyo) and I bought it at an affordable price. I transformed it into what you see now, a majestic three rooms with over thirty bookcases, all rising up to the ceiling. Last I counted, I stock over 100,000 books, and still growing. My seven-year-old self would shit himself if he could see how far I had come since my DIY three-shelved bookcase, which mum still keeps for sentimental reasons.
‘My only qualm with the business I now run is that secretly I wish nobody would walk through that door, that the bell would never ring. I have an unnatural, unhealthy obsession with these books, and I didn’t want any greasy, callous, flippant fingers flipping through the pages without so much as a care. Oh, to see them open a book so wide, creasing the spine! Such agony! How many times do I have to reprimand you, even bribe you to return the books to the shelf carefully, to prevent the corner of the cover from bending? I keep reminding myself that they don’t know any better. “Forgive them for they know naught what they are doing.” Precisely.
‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a miser, nor a stinge. Deep down, I feel joyful anticipation when an unsuspecting customer walks through that door, curious and maybe a tad bit eager, pacing the floor in expectancy. From behind my cluttered counter where I spend hours reading, listening to the radio and mending tattered books on the verge of complete deterioration, I watch. I watch that genuine smile on the face of a kid ready to devour another magical world, that quiet and slightly embarrassed chuckle of a lovely gentleman who reads the synopsis of a humorous mystery, that gasp of pleasant surprise by two mums who stumbled across a book that had entertained them years ago, forgotten but found. I smile and chuckle and gasp along with them, imperceptibly of course.
‘Talking about customers, I meet perfectly delightful people every day. Some days, maybe a handful. Other days, up to a hundred. I do enjoy a pleasant conversation every now and then, particularly from the young pretty ladies, but those tipsy bums of an ungentleman are a pretty spectacle and wholly amusing. But once in a while, very peculiar customers walk through that door. Let me tell you about one special, memorable old man.
‘It was an autumn mid-afternoon and drizzling outside as usual. My shop was empty and it was almost tea-time. I heard the slow creaking of the opening door, the jingling of the doorbell, then the door closing. I poked my head over the counter, wondering if an old man or lady needed help with the door, when I saw it open again, fully this time, and in stepped a dirty old man bent over, hands clasped behind his back. Dirty wasn’t the right word; he was disheveled. He had black unkempt hair that fell to his shoulders and wore an odd-looking green beret that looked like it would fall off any second. His overcoat was creased and tattered, not unlike the seventeenth century almanac I was attempting to repair. He looked like he had just walked out of a Charles Dickens novel, from an infamous London alleyway blackened by shady dealings.
‘I’ve always been the hospitable type and looks are never a reason to turn someone away, but I was rather cautious. With a little precaution, I let him wander about, hoping he wouldn’t spit snot out of his nose onto the floor, or worse the books, and praying hard I wouldn’t have to talk to him. I went back to my book – a collection of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories – and turned the radio slightly louder. Not a minute had passed before he suddenly appeared in front of my counter, causing me to jump slightly. I put on my best business smile and asked, “How may I help you, sir?”
‘He continued to stare at me as if I were a book on the shelf and I began to grow uncomfortable. Despite his untamed look, his eyes were rather piercing and again, Dickensian thoughts ran through my mind and I hoped this wouldn’t involve making a pact with the devil. He opened his mouth and said in a raspy voice, “I’m looking for a book.”
‘Wonderful, as do most people who come in here, I thought, and said, “What kind of book, sir?”
‘Well, that’s slightly better. “Ah, yes. We have plenty of that — are you looking for a specific title or an author?”
‘He thought for a moment before answering, “I would like your longest novel.” He paused before adding, “In English.”
‘“Clarissa?” he asked, his questioning answer tinged with hesitant urgency.
‘“Yes, that’s right. It almost has a million words, just over 1500 pages if I’m not mistaken. And it’s in good shape, too. Would you like to have a look at it?” I stood up.
‘“Clarissa?” he asked again.
‘“Yes, it’s called – “
‘“Clarissa. Clarissa. I once knew a girl named Clarissa.”
‘“Did you now?” I mustered a chuckle and went to the R shelf. I brought it back to the counter where he stood still, bent over, staring at me.
‘“I once knew a girl named Clarissa,” he repeated. “Would you like to hear about her?”
‘I opened my mouth to decline as respectfully and politely as I could but he disappeared behind one of the shelves in mid-sentence, and before I could breathe a sigh of relief at having escaped audience from what I foresaw to be long-winded, tedious blabbering, he reappeared once again, dragging the three-runged ladder staircase used by folks to reach the higher shelves, plopping it right beside the counter and sat down, making himself rightly comfortable. I made a mental note to scribble and post a sign on it immediately, written in bold, ghastly lettering: NOT FOR SITTING ARSES.
‘“Let me tell you about Clarissa,” he whispered. It didn’t look like I had a choice so I plopped the hefty magnum opus on the counter, turned the radio down, sat back and hoped it would end in time for my tea and biscuits. He began his story in a remarkably smooth and eloquent manner, one uncharacteristic of his looks. His voice was deep and resonant, not the raspy whispers I had heard minutes ago. And he said:
‘“A long, long time ago, Clarissa and I were neighbours. We grew up together, went to the same school, played with the same friends, fell victim to the same love. Our families had been neighbours for as long as anyone could remember. What else lasted for years? A stupid ancient feud between our two families which originated from some idiotic ancestor who thought it would be rather entertaining to stir something up. Granted, he could not have known it would last for decades. While we loved each other, our families succumbed to hate. We were young, we were feisty, we were the reincarnation of Romeo and Juliet, the valiant Montague and the unwavering Capulet. We decided to marry. Or at least, we presumed we would. Not surprisingly, everyone else opposed it, and that’s putting it lightly. Death threats were made between our families, each blaming the other for poisoning our minds to side with the enemy. We tried to tell them, we were in love! But no, in those days, way before your time, love was never a good enough reason for anything. We were radical, rebelling against the traditions of old, which bound our parents and who in turn, decided of their own accord that they would submit us to the same fate. I understand. To them, it was only impartial; but to us young lovers, it was unfair.
‘“Our families decided to hold an urgent meeting. It had been years since such a gathering had happened, but to them our little crisis was a good enough reason to set aside differences, to talk things over in as peaceful a manner as they could manage. And what do you know? For the first time in history, our two families agreed upon the same thing: we two lovebirds could never get married. Our fathers grinned and shook heads. You could say our little attempt at revolting was a blessing for it brought them together. To make things worse, our parents had arranged for us to marry someone else. You probably cannot quite fathom the concept of arranged marriages, and trust me, neither could we. Yet here were our parents returning to the Stone Age! It was devastating. Not only did we have to marry someone we didn’t love, our families also took extra precautions to prevent us from ever meeting again. We refused to be torn apart. We knew something had to be done, so we decided to elope.
‘“We both loved reading and frequently visited the neighbourhood second hand bookshop just a few minutes from our estate. One night, I crept out of my house and knocked on her bedroom window. We promised to meet at the bookshop the following evening and run away. I spent the next day being as innocuous as possible, and calculated what I would need to pack for my long-term removal from my repressive family. When the time came, I took my little suitcase and escaped. I was filled with vigour, with adrenaline, knowing I was running towards my freedom where I could freely cultivate the love that so overwhelmed me. I cannot even begin to describe my utter despondency when I entered the bookshop to find no one there and the bookkeeper shaking his head in genuine pity. I could tell he knew something but I didn’t dare ask him what.
‘“We stared at each other in silence for a while before he finally spoke: ‘I’m sorry, lad. The young lady showed up early this morning, tears streaking down her face. She told me her family had secretly undergone preparations to move house this very day. They left town this afternoon… she had no idea where she was going. She left you this.’
‘“With sympathetic eyes, he passed me a tattered copy of Clarissa and I, in a dreadful sobbing mess, received it graciously. You see, previously we had challenged each other over who could read it the fastest. She was always the faster one, but I had to humour her. I also joked about writing another novel entitled Clarissa which would be even longer than this one, recounting the tales of joy and laughter we would have together. She was jolly pleased about that, even though she knew my writing was atrocious. This novel meant something to us.
‘“I flipped it open and inside, on the title page, was a scribbled message in a handwriting all too familiar: ‘My loving Sam, I will be gone when you read this. But my love will never die. I will leave messages in every Clarissa I can find. Follow me, find me, let us love once again. Don’t give up, on me and on yourself. With utmost love, Clarissa xx’
‘“It is laughable, I know. It was foolish, but then again we were young, so our foolishness was acceptable. How could I possibly search every bookstore in the country, or even the world to find one person out of billions? But I did not think; I did not need to. I had a strand of hope left and I held on to it. For an entire year, I traversed the country, searching out every bookshop I could find with a copy of Clarissa. Every time I flipped the cover open and found nothing, I would close my eyes and upon me would settle a hopeless dread, wishing it was just a dream yet knowing all my efforts were futile. After a year, I gave up. I went back to my family, married another girl, fathered children, even had grandchildren. But I never did manage to forget Clarissa who in my mind fully stayed with me through the best and worst of times, and will stay till the end of my days.
‘“My wife died five years ago. My children all have families of their own. I realised I was left all alone; but then I remembered Clarissa. I wondered where she was, what she was doing. Maybe she was happily living with her husband in a pretty little cottage somewhere in the woods. Maybe she was already dead. Or maybe she was in the same position as I was, old and alone, still thinking of me. I had no other goal left in life and so I did the only thing I could: I resumed my search and pursuit of my beloved Clarissa. I am old so I cannot move as fast as before. But my mind is still intact, dare I say still fresh. And my will is strong. I have seen hundreds of copies now, brand new, sparkling white, dogeared, tattered, torn, yellowish-brown, coverless, you name it. But to this day, not once have I found a Clarissa with the handwriting I so wish to see. But instead of that despondent hopelessness I felt in my younger days, I feel a steady peace. My hope may be futile, but to me it is the only thing that is keeping me alive and going. Clarissa.”
‘The old man had tears in his eyes and damn it, so did I. I didn’t know what to say so I silently handed him my copy. He took a deep breath and opened the cover. For a minute or two, he stared silently at it. I held my breath as the clock ticked by. He smiled, closed his eyes, closed the cover. He slowly shook his head and passed the book back to me. Why did my heart feel so torn, so broken for this man I had just met? It was at this moment I realised that all people, all human beings are essentially the same, that we have the same core, that we are made of the same parts. And in unexplainable moments like these, there is something that connects all of us together.
‘“Thank you,” he quietly said, wiping the tears. I nodded and didn’t dare say a word for fear of my quivering voice. I watched his lonesome, bent yet proud back as he exited the bookshop.
‘It was only three days later when an old elegant lady with shining white hair and beautiful gentle eyes walked through the door and entered my shop during tea-time. I didn’t give her much notice until she walked up to my counter and asked in a dignified sweet voice, “Excuse me, dear. Do you happen to have the longest novel written in the English language?”
‘I nearly dropped my cup of tea. I managed a “Yes, ma’am, I do” and went to get it for her. I tried hard to keep my fingers from trembling. I passed her the weighty tome and tried to stay collected.
‘She smiled at me and asked, “My love, this will sound awfully strange, but could I possibly scribble a message for someone inside? Just on the title page, if you don’t mind.”
‘I nodded and choked out, “I don’t see why not. Plenty of books in this shop have names of their previous owners or birthday messages written in them.”
‘She took out a pencil from her purse. I dared not look at her, dared not intrude on her privacy. When she finished, she put the pencil back in her purse and handed the book back to me. “Thank you for humouring an old lady, you’re a real gentleman,” she said. And then she walked out. I didn’t say a word.’
I waited for him to continue but he simply sipped his tea which had grown cold. ‘That’s it?’ I asked.
‘That’s it,’ he replied. And that was that.
I suspect more than one of you dear readers might accuse him for not speaking up. I did too. I was utterly exasperated. Was he wrong in keeping silent? Shouldn’t he have told her that the man she loved, whom she had been searching for for a lifetime, the very recipient of her heartfelt message had just been here a few days ago? He later told me that he didn’t because he couldn’t. He said it didn’t feel right, it seemed too cruel for him to destroy and shatter the hope that fuelled their passionate pursuits.
In my uncle’s defence, he is just a bookkeeper. He observes things, hears things. I suspect he didn’t feel worthy enough to interfere in their lives, especially ones so connected as theirs. But to his credit, he did take Clarissa off the shelves and to this day, keeps it behind his counter, the message unread and reserved, just in case the disheveled old man shows up once again.
© Justin Lau, 2014