By Kashif Choudhry.
He had read that book a long, long time ago, when he had been much younger. He could remember precisely the very moment she had given it to him: an old and tattered artefact that she had bought from a secondhand bookstore when she had been on holiday. She hadn’t yet read it herself, but had thought he would love to read it, and so gifted it to him. He could sense she was mildly torn at the prospect of being parted from what she explained to be a coveted find, and she no doubt wondered if he would care for it as she would, but at the time they didn’t really know each other as well as they thought. He had, in fact, duly returned it to her after he had read it, but he had hesitated, wondering whether she would notice that which had changed. He had hesitated, reliving the moment she had given it to him.
It had been a cold, wet day and they were inside. He sipped his coffee as she played with her hot chocolate. The streets were fairly quiet and the rain beat down on the windows, distorting the view. The atmosphere outside seemed to be slowly seeping through the glass façade of the café, but they wouldn’t stay there long enough for it to affect them. They were happy, for a while. She talked about what she had done, how someone’s brother had said something seemingly unimportant, and how a friend of a friend knew a famous photographer. He obliged her as always. He contributed little, somewhat bored. The other part of his mind was occupied with other things: the luxurious menace of her smile, the moistness of her breath upon his neck, and her teeth digging into his skin. He mentioned a good song he had heard recently and she responded with a quizzical look on her face, stating that her friend had already seen the band play live a year ago.
He had given up talking about things he liked because it began to feel like conversation was more of a competition. It seemed that she always knew of someone who had seen that film before, or heard that song before, or read that book before. Perhaps it limited her own experiences. At the time she had given him the book, though, he had not yet learned that lesson. He picked up a newspaper and looked at the local events. Somebody murdered in a square where they always went out to eat, local businesses swallowed up by chains, more new housing developments lying vacant. Nothing exciting really. He finished his coffee and ordered another.
There was some music playing faintly in the background, but it kept cutting out. He hummed his favourite song and she tried to hold his hand on the table. He selfishly looked at his watch as she played with his hand, thinking he had to leave to meet the next person in his busy schedule. His phone starting vibrating in his pocket, but he ignored it knowing if he answered she would get offended. He didn’t like having to do that, he didn’t like changing his actions for her benefit. Where would it stop? Would all sense of himself be annihilated if he carried on in this way? He couldn’t let that happen. He fumbled for his phone but as he grasped it the vibrations stopped. She picked up her bag from the floor and took out three books. Two were brand new, the other was the book. He greedily picked up his new acquaintance, trying to find the blurb. But there was no front cover, and the back was so worn out that the writing was nothing but a shadow.
She told him what somebody else had told her about the story; it was enough to fuel his thirst. As she began trying to explain in detail the events of how she had come to find the shop from were she had bought the book, the waitress brought his second coffee. He drank it quickly and then made an excuse and left her there. She had probably stared in awe as he disappeared into the misty afternoon, but he didn’t turn around to find out. He would only ever see her once again, but it wasn’t her that mattered. He didn’t keep any other commitments that day, but instead went straight home to read the book. He got into his bed, arranging his pillows and throwing off the sheets, and began to read. As he read, the world around him slowly dissolved until he was left with nothing but the words pervading his very being. An astounding beauty had dawned upon him as he came to the ending with the day’s failing light. As he held the worn paper he could sense it. The words rewrote themselves in his mind, bringing an immense clarity to everything that lay beyond the bed in which he lay. He inhaled the aroma of the old pages, and savoured the cigarette he had just lit.
There were times when he read a story that he could relate to immediately. It didn’t have to be a story – it could be a song or a film, or something someone said. But it was something that stood out, that grabbed his wandering attention and burrowed its way deep into his consciousness. This was one of those times, and yet it was like no other. Something transcended his arrogance, and instilled a solemnity he would never enjoy, for it was fleeting. He could only return to his customary ways, seeking those powerful moments where innocence was cast aside, and he would seek to expose that which he did not comprehend. He sought words that would make him create experiences that would relate them to his life. He wanted to make himself sad, just to know that he could. When he read about tragedy, he would create a small tragedy to amplify his feelings. Happiness was never a problem, he had plenty of that. And fun, friendship, contentment, and confidence. It was the darker emotions that he craved. They were like a drug.
Inevitably they moved on from each other, moved cities, changed lives. And many a time he came to think about the words he had read. He remembered how he had felt that day. He never knew what she might have felt when she read the book. He knew she hadn’t. But it didn’t really matter – with time he had reduced her role to that of a vessel merely transporting the book to him, even though he had returned it. What he wanted was the book itself. He needed to be sure. He had once known somebody who told him that you could never choose your family, but you could choose your friends. Therefore, you could rely more on your friends and you could trust them more. He believed that for a while, and then he had read the book. He had once seen a film about a man who believed everyone was capable of murder. He had believed that too.
He walked into the bookstore. It was always a grand occasion because of the appropriate grandeur of the building. Elegantly but firmly placed on the corner of a street, the wrought iron railings protected the stone façade. The tall doors were almost always open, welcoming those with the thirst. He always felt elated by the rows and rows of books, tables with piles of books, and the divine staircase in the centre. He approached the staircase and descended to the floor below, acknowledging again the unusual way in which the staircase split. Then he began his search.
He approached the attractive young woman at the service desk, and asked if she had the book he was looking for. She performed a search on her computer fairly quickly, and directed him to the appropriate section. Once there, he began to scan the spines – some were tall and thin, others wide and flamboyant. He looked at them all, mouthing the titles. And then he found it. He looked at it for a few moments before picking it out. He placed his finger at the top of the spine and ran it down the entire length, feeling the title’s footprints. He held the book between his thumb and index finger and removed it from the shelf. He breathed onto the cover, his breath settling onto the smooth surface and then slowly shrinking like a retreating ocean. It was the wrong book.
He cursed and threw the book against the shelf. He returned to the service desk and asked the lady to search again. She asked him what it was she needed to search for. He shouted in disgust as she repeatedly refused to acknowledge that she knew what he was looking for. She knew. She politely but firmly asked him to leave the building, and as he looked around in frustration, the looming presence of a security guard and the disapproving glances of other customers forced him to leave, albeit begrudgingly. He made his way home, eventually, after two cups of coffee. Once home he looked around his empty house, room by room. He walked through the lounge and into the kitchen. He walked up the stairs and down the landing, opening each door, turn by turn. He then opened the door to the last room, the small room at the back of the house. The door opened noisily, disturbing the dust. He looked at the piles of books, piled high from the floor to the ceiling, perilously placed one on top of the other.
He reached out to the one closest to him. It had no cover, like all of the books in the room. But it was not what he was looking for, and neither were any of the other books in front of him. He couldn’t believe what had happened in the bookstore. He could not comprehend never finding that book again. He didn’t understand that it wasn’t the book itself that he needed. He could not believe that certain things only happened once and once only. But he didn’t believe in much anymore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kashif Choudhry is a self-proclaimed writer, surgeon, surrealist, aestheticist and evolver. He has previously won the Best Short Story Award at the 2008 Muslim Writers Awards, and has since published short stories and poetry in anthologies.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 25th, 2012.