I have been spending some time in the company of distinguished intellectuals. Some of them are verbose, some more reticent with their opinions and thoughts. Others are meditative, contemplative, cumulative. What unites them is that they are all profoundly distinguished and deeply intellectual. I enjoy keeping their company.
On an evening with such folk, over cocktails and gentle jazz, a Professor of deeply impressive bearing and a firm yet gentle countenance waved his hand with authority and stated that the subject under discussion was ‘Kafkaesque’.
I sat bolt up right at this as if he had slapped me on the rump and called me Daisy. I was captivated. Kafkaesque - what a word it was! I had no idea what it meant - I pinched and pulled it in my mind to see if it would reveal itself. I felt its contours and crevices, shaking it a little to hear it move. It was foreign, surely, or if English, from some distant corner of these isles. But its taste and sound offered no clue to its meaning - all onomatopoeia absent. It was an impenetrable word, and therefore, surely - deeply intelligent.
Emerging from my reverie, I returned to the room, nodding attentively and chuckling knowingly at appropriate intervals. In the brief interlude between dessert and whisky, I stole off to the bathroom to conduct further research. I glanced at myself in the mirror and as I made to pull out my device, caught the eye of the bathroom attendant winking and reflected in the artificial light. A thought crept in.
‘Say, you there - fellow,’ I began.
He looked up pleasantly.
’You don’t perchance happen to know what ‘Kafkaesque’ means, do you?’
He was a youngish man of wispy character. He creased his brow, nodded quickly and responded.
‘Ah, yes, Sir, it refers to the author - Franz Kafka. Austro-Hungarian, I believe he was. His works are possessed of a rather distinctive style… absurdly nightmarish in quality they are, his protagonists often find themselves in deeply unpleasant and absurd situations or caught in the web of an oppressive bureaucracy. So, the adjective - Kafkaesque, that is - might be used to describe such a situation.’
‘Good God - what depth of analysis!’ I screamed with pleasure. ‘Here - have a penny for your thoughts.’
I produced a rusty copper coin from my top pocket and winked suggestively as I popped it in the wispman’s bowl.
‘A pleasure, m’Lord,’ he mumbled, blushing.
How strange! And again - what a word! The feel of it, the texture, the Austro-Hungarianness - it was all so deeply intelligent I could barely contain myself. I made a note to read some of the work of this thinker and scholar once the evening’s festivities had been brought to a meaningful end. I returned to the fray to chitter, sip and nibble amongst the dwindling party.
As evening concluded, I thanked the host effusively while shaking him by the begonias and made a brief detour to the learned Professor.
‘Quite an evening eh, Professor?’
He narrowed his sombre and insightful eyes and mused at me intelligently.
‘Indeed,’ I felt emboldened. ‘Not Kafkaesque in the slightest, wouldn’t you say?’
I relished every syllable of the sweet delicious word. The Professor’s mouth opened slightly as he pondered contemplatively and contemplated ponderously all at once. My - what a man!
‘Well, I suppose not.’
Aha! A correct usage. That was all I had time for - I retreated quickly and waved a single brisk hand in salute. I would see this Professor again soon - for we were equals now, him and I.
But now - the library beckoned.
The college library late at night had become something of a haven for me - the bemused moans of undergraduates brought me a good deal of sadistic pleasure. I wandered defiantly about, slapping my feet on the marble flooring like a punchdrunk sailor fresh from his most recent bout of scurvy.
Quickly enough, I found the place. I began rifling through the volumes and found him almost instantly - Kafka. Franz. Presumably dead - for many of his books were old and grey. One bore the title ‘Metamorphosis’ and had a rather charming portrait of a dung beetle on the front. I decided to start with that one - I have an inexplicable fondness for dung beetles.
I retired to my room, loosened my bow tie and kicked off my shoes as I fell backwards onto my feather pillow clutching the tome with great care.
Within a page - I was intensely embarrassed. For the foolish bathroom attendant had misled me - there were no tales of woe or nightmarish spectres in these pages.
The plot concerned some unfortunate fellow who one morning finds himself transformed into something hideous and verminous. The text didn’t quite specify but (encouraged by the front cover) I saw him as some sort of cockroach or beetle scuttling to and fro quite pathetically.
It was hilarious.
It was a riot, nay - a barrel of laughs, a murder of giggles. Indeed, I would go so far as to call it a chucklefest.
The poor chap was ostracised by his whole family, and they chased him from the room whenever he entered. He would clumsily and amusingly scuttle off back to his chamber, presumably weeping with misery. I was barely able to turn the pages such was my mirth for the duration of the first few chapters.
A man becoming a cockroach and having to live as one… hahaha - what an image! I wondered if the book had been adapted into a film or a series featuring that comical dunce who played Mr. Bean - it would’ve made excellent slapstick.
My drunken jollity increased as the book went on. The little roach found himself in increasingly ridiculous situations and conundra. The repeated images of the silly bug shuttling up and down the walls filled me with incomprehensible glee. His parents treat him with increasing disdain and the house guests complain about his lack of hygiene. Oh dear, we’ve all been there! Surely all of us have forgotten to bathe or shower on occasion. Oh sweet relatable Kafka - how have I only discovered you now.
Sleep now pressing down upon me, I made to save the final few pages for the following day. I chuckled to myself and tucked the slim volume under my pillow.
‘Ah, how very Kafkaesque,’ I mumbled fondly, slipping into a deep and blissful sleep.
The pigeon regards me with a single eye. I know not what it wants. I maintain my focus on my Sunday broadsheet, proudly purchased with a pocketful of change. I have progressed to page six, where I find further insightful analysis and intelligent comment. I consume it noisily.
My indifference emboldens the little bird. It scuttles closer, its headpecking curious and attentive to the possibilities I appear to offer.
This bothers me. My focus dislocated, I scrutinise it now through my peripheral vision.
It is a single pigeon, unaccompanied by any others of its kind. To be clear - there are others in the park, some by the lake, others under trees or over paths. Some are in ungainly flight, mooching and sniffing from one source of sustenance to another.
They disgust me, these rodents of the skies. In lazy protest, I dangle a kick towards the pigeon. I seek not to harm it but hope it will move on and leave me to my broadsheet-based idyll.
The pigeon is perturbed but not abashed. It looks inquisitively at my offered foot as if it means to peck it or attempt a nibble. Its anxious neck tuts to and fro. Bemused and bored, I push out my foot again.
‘Away, pidgin,’ I mutter.
I look around for where it might scuttle off to. It could go and plunder a bin or harass a small toddler. It could start a turf war with some local squirrels for all I care. If only it would leave me in peace.
I look back at its little pigeon face. It remains intent in its longing, pure in its solitude, unblinking in the afternoon haze.
And now I stifle a laugh in something approaching admiration - the little blighter doesn’t give up readily!
Then it occurs to me - pigeons never form a cohesive whole. While one might stumble upon a great number of them all seemingly together, they are always independently squabbling and seeking some advantage over another. They do not appear to feel solidarity or warmth - they do not look at each other and smile fondly. They do not reminisce or laugh.
A desperation washes over and submerges me completely. I regard the pigeon. Sympathy would be too strong a word, but I understand its plight more fully now. This pigeon is alone but for its own instincts. Perhaps all it seeks is company.
I do not encourage the bird but nor do I dissuade it. While I sit still with my paper, page six bristling gently in the breeze of the park, my focus is now entirely on the pigeon and what it might do. I am alive to it now, its mangy feathers and contorted beak, its darting eyes windows to the black retinas behind.
The pigeon remains upwards glancing and skittish. I see it desires some more decisive move from either it or myself, but is not yet confident enough to take or elicit action.
I carefully rearrange myself, moving leg that had been resting on opposite knee to ground. I fold my paper and make to place it carefully on the bench beside me. However, I am too eager - the paper slips from my hands and slaps to the ground.
The pigeon is betrayed by this development. It thought we had developed an understanding. It hops back uncertain, and looks at my face, judging, predicting my behaviour.
I am saddened and make to apologise - I meant no harm. I had just become uncomfortable and needed to rearrange.
But there is something lost between us now. I have nothing substantial to offer it to tempt it to stay - I could volunteer a sheet of my paper, perhaps some of the glossy advertising material that tumbles forth at random intervals.
I slyly and hastily check my pockets for any treats within - a biscuit perhaps, or a fruitcake. There is nothing but faded receipts and lint.
The pigeon is lost. Any hope I had of keeping it is dashed by my carelessness and under-preparedness for the day. Quietly, I curse myself for not thinking to bring with me a bag of nuts or other assorted snackstuffs.
The pigeon looks about for other interests. Perhaps by the tree or off towards the road. Its attention, but a minute ago so intently focussed on me and my form, is now elsewhere. It has moved on.
I regard the pigeon as it scuttles off, over the grass and away, to pick and peck at the shoes of another.
I left Bristol on a Tuesday. It was Christmas Eve. I enjoyed my year there - I was lucky to live with excellent people and I made some good friends. But it was something of a half-year - I was caught between two lives. Now I was back home to Winchester for Christmas, before returning to London, from whence I had came.
On Christmas Eve Eve, I collected all my souvenirs of the previous 12 months of life. Each object stirred a memory or a rumbling of the stomach. My clothes, ever dependable, were scrunched and shoved neatly into my backpack. I gazed proudly at the mirror I had retrieved from a local skip. I rolled up the one or two posters I had on the walls, humming softly as I remembered the gentle guidance they had offered me. And, finally, I folded up my trusty ironing board.
My ironing board is unexceptional. It bears some unexplained and inexplicable stains; some brown, some black, some violent magenta. The design is floral but it is unlovely to look at; more air freshener than a fresh bunch picked on a spring morning. It is not one of those sturdy models that resembles a hardback book or a man named Cornelius. One might go so far as to say it is a flimsy ironing board. It is borderline anaemic in character, and is prone to collapse from time to time. I bear a small but visible scar on my upper knee cap from one such episode.
But, in spite of its shortcomings, I have a good deal of affection for the board. It was a gift from a beloved friend, and thus, I cherish it. It may not be terribly attractive to look at, or even perform its duty reliably, but it has served me as well as I could have hoped. There is a hopeless charm to it, like that of a bedraggled dog or a drunken uncle. So I could not leave it. My ironing board came with me on that fated Christmas Eve.
On the morning of my departure, I heaved my backpack on, and put another smaller backpack containing valuables and trinkets on my front. In each hand, I carried 2-3 additional bags, some containing books, some containing presents bursting generously and deceptively at the seams. A water carrier was stowed safely somewhere on my person. I tucked the ironing board under my arm, stepped out through the front door for the last time, put everything down again to elegantly post my key through the letterbox, and began the walk to work.
Not five seconds after leaving the house, I encountered a woman pushing a pram. I knew her and she knew me. We would not normally greet each other, but we had certainly passed each other on this road before. There was a mutual recognition between us; no need for verbal or even physical greetings. Simply being human in the same space was sufficient. On this morning, she scrutinised me beadily, unblinkingly motoring along at an impressive pace. In a second, we were face to face, and I shuffled awkwardly, laden down by my various wares.
‘Oop, apologies,’ I smiled generously.
I made to move to my left and her right, anticipating a complementary move from her. I pondered whether to put down a bag or three in order to facilitate the stopping process. But this would have been too soon.
‘Sorry, haha,’ I chuckled again, hoping to elicit some response, some acknowledgement of the absurdity of the situation.
But she did not respond. She seemed intent on the piece of pavement just beyond me, greedily eyeing some unseen prize as she forcibly shunted me backwards.
‘Scuse me!’ she hollered cantankerously, her baby infant sucking on his thumb and staring at me smugly as I stumbled into the street.
I fell. The mirror tumbled out of my arms and my ironing board gaped open like a broken pair of scissors.
‘No!’ I cried, narrowly saving the board from splaying open fully.
‘Shhhh,’ I soothed it, clipping it back into its closed position.
I muttered angrily at the woman, but when she turned, I gave her a simpering smile and she nodded curtly in response. It was Christmas, after all.
It was an inauspicious start. I collected myself and my various belongings and prayed that the rest of my journey would be free of such encounters.
After a shuffle to the end of my road, I turned right onto Wells Road, a great throbbing vein of Bristol that carries in the commuters and school children each morning. Today being Christmas Eve, it was quieter. There was the occasional bus and grumbling old man, but largely, I was free to totter down the hill uninterrupted. I appreciated the general shape of the background noise without really registering its specific details, as if it were the waffling of a beloved relative I’d stopped listening to. My mind began to clear and I inhaled deeply, pleased that I was on my way.
Things took a turn when I crossed a side street. I failed to register a white van approaching me from the east until it was too late. My turning circle is expansive at the best of times, and as I was carrying at least my body weight again in various possessions, my movement resembled that of a bull with two broken ankles. I had no hope of getting out of the way. I looked skywards, braced myself for impact and prayed to the only god I knew. The driver screeched to a halt, his brakes effective but his momentum carrying him to halt just a few inches short of my personage.
‘Fucking idiot!’ he screamed merrily, shaking his fist out of the window in some unknown Christmas greeting.
‘And good day to you, Sir!’ I responded amicably.
He did not wait for me to finish my crossing, but rather skirted round me as a trembling racecar driver emerging from the pitstop. Ah, seasonal cheer, I thought to myself, shaking my head amusedly.
The rest of my journey down the hill was largely uneventful, aside from the odd look or weird glance. However, as my proximity to the office increased, so too did the frequency of my rest stops. It was a chill day, and I was suitably layered up, but my exertions had resulted in an intense build-up of sweat. I was dripping, and not attractively so. With a gloved hand, I wiped my brow, and attempted to air out the rest of my person by flapping my jumper back and forth. A passing old woman tutted vociferously at my exposed flesh. But I cared not - for my goal was in sight.
I passed the train station experiencing the emotions a mule might have done in days of yore - thirst, fatigue and fury at the idiocy of human beings. The station approach was busy, and its occupants seemed not to register my presence, preferring instead to stare absent-mindedly at their phones or feet. My path was a torturous hopscotch, a dance with death on the eve of Christmas no less.
‘Urgh,’ I grunted, dodging an infant on a scooter, ‘eesh,’ as I passed a man walking his dog, ‘sgrrrrr,’ I hummed as a gaggle of teenagers mocked me unabashedly.
Oh, the humanity.
But it mattered not. For I could now see the office. I had arrived. The first stage of my journey was complete.
I decided to enter, not unreasonably, through the revolving door. However, the ironing board got jammed as I neared the completion of the circle and I was as stuck as a lemming who had missed his flight and was forced to find an overpriced and tacky hotel close to the airport for the night. While the door opened slightly, the crack was nowhere large enough for me and all my possessions to pass through. The foyer was tantalisingly close, but I could not reach it.
‘Help!’ I pleaded, ‘please!’
The security guard looked on perplexed and then with increasing frustration as I vainly attempted to get myself out of the spot I was in. I heaved and pushed and raged against the world t0 no avail. With a roll of the eyes, he raised himself from his seat, sauntered to the door, gripped my door segment and wrenched it suddenly so I flew into the space beyond.
‘Many thanks,’ I mumbled, nodding bashfully as I did so. ‘A Merry Christmas to you and your family’.
He did not respond.
I struggled up to the second floor via the stairs, greeting all those I passed with merriment and good cheer.
‘Christmas,’ I snorted at a colleague. She retreated, aghast.
‘Merry,’ I screamed at another. He blinked shyly.
Finally, I reached my desk.
‘Fucking hell, Adam!’ my boss laughed, both amused and perplexed at my impressive pack-mule abilities.
I nodded proudly, possibly more pleased than I had ever been to make it to the office.
A small crowd gathered.
‘All you’re missing is the kitchen sink!’ noted the office wag.
I winked, and waggled a knowing finger at him.
‘Ha ha! A good one,’ I admitted.
He looked at me with murderous glee, pleased his joke had skewered me so. But I would not let it, on this day of days. For it was almost Christmas.
The next few hours at work passed without much note. I said my goodbyes, and my boss kindly gave me a lift with my cartload of possessions to the train station. I thanked her and bade her farewell.
‘Christmas!’ I shouted after her.
But it was now back to work. Stage 2 of my journey commenced.
Bristol Temple Meads was far less busy than usual, but there was still a gentle throng of people mingling with one another. The Christmas Eve crowd seemed to consist of people deeply committed to their jobs, those who had missed the last train the night before, and a number of busy elves. I assume they were elves, for they were dressed in hats and shoes. I might have stopped to enjoy the pleasant warmth of the scene on another day, but I was running late.
Indeed, I had to run. For my platform was the other side of the station, and my train was scheduled to leave in 3 minutes’ time. My ironing board yapped along happily like the reliable mutt it was. My back bag bounced contentedly. The front pack was altogether more violent in its movement and I had to take measures to suppress it. The presents, so carefully wrapped, were starting to fray.
No matter. I made it onto the train, and took a deep breath. It was standing room only. But there was an air of seasonal goodwill in the air, so I didn’t anger anyone with my presence as I had expected to. In fact, several people nodded at me cheerily.
‘Ha, moving house on Christmas Eve, stupid decision,’ I r0lled my eyes to demonstrate quite how self-deprecating I was being. They nodded in agreement and returned to their chuntering.
A train wag caught my eye on his way to the toilet and looked me up and down.
‘Here…’ he said, ‘the only thing you’re missing is the kitchen sink!’
‘Aha,’ I smiled knowingly, ‘don’t worry chap, it’s in the backpack.’
I would’ve patted my bag had I a free hand but I simply jerked my neck to indicate the bag I was speaking of.
‘Ahhhhhhhh,’ he looked down and raised a palm to the sky, knowing he had been bested. He got off a short time later at Bath Spa. I never saw him again.
Sadly the crowd on the train did not thin out as much as I had expected, and I was left standing for much of the journey. However, I was able to find a series of hideaways and cubby holes for my various belongings, all within my field of vision. The only one I clung to still was my ironing board.
The pure movement of the train was bullet-like: intent and piercing. I was lulled into a trance, as the Somerset countryside calmed my very soul. I thought of the farmers and families I was passing, all the roads I would never walk down, the trees I would never climb. There was something in that thought that restored me, and placed all my travels and travails into a wider context.
My reverie was brief. For at Warminster, Margaret boarded the train. She introduced herself immediately and explosively upon boarding, trailing a wheely bag behind her with the determination of an angry dog-walker or fisherman.
‘’Ello, I’m Margaret,’ she said, offering a firm hand. I sensed she was coming for the ironing board, so gripped it closer, and gave her a warm smile instead of the handshake she desired.
She was inordinately drunk, so blissfully full of Christmas cheer that I would’ve been surprised if she was aware she was on a train at all, never mind the day or the year that it was.
‘How arrrrre ya, darling?’
‘Very well, thank you Madam,’ I responded.
‘Ah lovely, lovely,’ she rubbed a red wine hand on my cheek, smearing it with her rosiness. ‘You’re a good buoy.’
She belched loudly.
I concealed my discomfort by suppressing a gulping sob and whispering ‘thank you’. I hoped desperately that she would go away soon.
‘Keep an eye on tha’ bag, will ya!’ she said, offering me the handle of her roller luggage bag contraption.
Again, I suspected a ruse to pluck the ironing board from my unsuspecting hands, so I held the floral patchwork ever closer. I was eager for her to leave me be so I nodded that I would do as she said.
Thus I felt partially responsible for the carnage that ensued. For the following twenty minutes, Margaret rampaged up and down the carriage, kissing babies, scratching dogs, and patting elderly ladies on their elderly heads. She jibed at a couple who had been enjoying some peace and quiet. She riled a man with a gardening magazine by insulting his taste in begonias. Most egregiously, she ruined the ending of a television programme being watched by a small boy from Dundee.
‘Where’s the trolley???’ she beseeched of the ticket inspector.
‘No trolley on this service, I’m afraid,’ the cheery fellow replied.
‘Naaaaaargh,’ she wailed disconsolately, her alcohol levels beginning to dip. ‘NO TROLLEYYYYYYY!!!’
It was hellish, a scene from a nightmare, some fictional demon sent from the depths to torment me and my fellow passengers. While she seemed to be well-intentioned and perhaps even pure of heart, we could not bear this affront, this confidence, this drunkenness in a public and crowded space. My heart began to palpitate. A small woman wept quietly as a grandfather turned off his hearing aid and threw it out of the window, screaming ‘GOODRIDDANCEYOUSHIT!’ at the device as he did so.
After several more minutes of torment, we arrived at what appeared to be Margaret’s stop.
‘Arrecgh!’ she screamed, ‘here I am!’
She hiccuped aggressively, and made to get off at the door she was standing by. It suddenly occurred to her that she’d forgotten her bag. She looked around desperately and set her eyes on me.
‘You! It’s you!’ She steamed down the carriage, clobbering a young family out of the way as she bore down on me.
‘Thanks darling! Oho, an ironing board, I might grab it - HAHA!’
She made to grab the board, an eventuality for which I had been prepared from the start.
‘No, you demon!’ I shouted, and pressed my open palm against her forehead, ‘please, for the love of God!’
A brief and pathetic struggle ensued, as I made to force her away and she flapped like a fish on a hook raging against the dying of the light.
Suddenly, a calm descended over her.
‘Thanks darling! Merry Christmas, give us a kiss -’ she leant forward, tongue outstretched and waggling expressively. I feared the consequences if I declined outright, so proffered a melancholy cheek towards her. It was grotesque, a fleshy and slippery slug painting an outside wall.
The train doors began to beep, indicating her last chance to get off and away. She hopped off the train, turned and cackled maniacally, and waved us off as we were again on our way.
Once she was out of sight, I wiped my cheek, slumped to the ground disconsolately, and did not look up again until Southampton. I kept firm hold of my ironing board all the while to ensure that there would be no further attempts to part me from it.
Gradually, my breathing slowed, and I looked up. The carriage was now largely empty. As we arrived in Eastleigh, an elderly lady placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder and said warmly ‘Take care son. Merry Christmas’. I twitched at the physical contact, but I was deeply moved by her goodwill and generosity of spirit. Perhaps things would be alright after all.
At Southampton, I changed trains with little fanfare. After a short wait, I boarded the last train to Winchester. I was almost home. The comforting vibrations of the carriage resonated deep within me, as a boy of about 8 regarded my dishevelled form with curiosity. 15 minutes away became 10, 10 became 5, and 5 minutes dissipated as it always does, as if it is no time at all. Rolling into the city had never before elicited such a surge of gratitude or warmth. My journey had been long, the obstacles many and varied. But I had made it. My beloved ironing board, so unsteady and unsure of itself, had survived. I realised how proud I was to own such a board, one that dependably gets on without asking for any acclaim or recognition. One that’s there when you need it, one that never complains, one that tries its best against the odds and accepts failure as a part of the process. My board is good and true. I am lucky to have it.
There’s something sacred in a bookshop - all those hushed tones and muffled coughs, the reverence for aged texts. Occasionally a cantankerous old person at the front, glaring at those who do not display sufficient respect for the agreed rules. There is a bookshop pace - a speed which cannot be exceeded. No one may march or strut in a bookshop. You may gently glide or humbly dodder, or even muse and nudge - but all movement must be self-contained. Anything bold or at all staccato is much too much too much.
But then - a bookshop is not a library. Murmured conversation allowed, casual perusal much more of a treat. There is no laminated flimsiness, no posters on the wall that screech at children in ghastly green fonts. Even the smell is different - not dusty like some distant relative’s front room, but warm and reassuring, like coffee with a favoured friend.
As some might spend an hour a day in a gymnasium or a casino, I deem an hour a week in a bookshop to be strictly necessary. For pleasure and relaxation, yes, but primarily as a reminder of all the books I will never read.
I could learn to speed read, and perhaps get myself into the Guinness Book of World Records if I displayed a real aptitude. Even then, I’d only be able to read a few lines in the great tome of humanity. On one floor of a humble village bookshop is more than I could ever hope to read even if I live to a hundred and two.
There have been times when this thought terrified me. Life’s finiteness rendered yet more evident - if you can ambitiously, read two books a week, you can do 104 a year. If you live 80 more years if you’re lucky (and not diabetic), then that’s an optimistic 8320 more books.
These are obviously fairly large numbers, certainly capable of filling a personal library or even a Kindle. But you have to be selective with your range. All of us are only capable of knowing and reading the tiniest fraction of all there is to know and read.
So to be in a bookshop is to be valuably humbled. You can browse and muse and delve among shelves. Choose what you’d like to read next - slide it right off and hold in your hands. See splendid spine soon to be cracked, uncrinkled pages soon inky-smudged. A crisp and proud front cover stands resplendent, decorated with a quote from a figure of note, soon dog-eared and weary, aged quick and read well.
Maybe there is something misleading about the physical fact of a book - that it is perfectly formed and finite, compact and self-contained. ‘The History of This Place’ suggests it as the only and authoritative work on the subject - the only one you need to read to achieve a real expertise. Subjects, fictions, stories are rarely as simple, they will spill out from pages and continue years after you thought them finished or extinct. Something may change unexpectedly and fundamentally in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps our various News Feeds are more honest in this way. Always something new to process, to capture your attention. A book is instantly out of date - an ambling walk through the hills so you arrive late when you could’ve just taken the train. The platforms we spend our lives on are always refreshing, always more and more uptodate. This is honest, no, about knowledge itself - new knowledge to know and new thoughts to be thunk, every day, every moment, every Tweet.
But I feel our capacity to process information is rewarded more by the pages of a book. A collection of ideas, a tale of two lovers, an absurdly detailed autobiography of a septegenarian Australian who lives in a wood - these can be contained in a volume. If you think about the finite amount of time we have to read or do anything, would it be worthwhile reading Emma or The Goldfinch or One of Us or Great Expectations or 20,000 threads. That is a real choice that we can make on a weekly basis.
I’ve picked some classics to make a point - you don’t have to arbitrarily get through Shakespeare’s or Dickens’ back catalogue just so you can tell your friends. It could be the best book about a topic you’re fascinated by. It could be a collection by an amazing writer you’ve never heard of (e.g. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett). Or anything else that takes your interest.
And then you will have finished something worthwhile, even if you hated it. ‘The End’ is just the start of your ignorance, and the beginning of the next chapter. It starts in the bookshop.
To haggle is an ancient art - a calling, a song, a dance-off in the street. You must trace your opponent’s next steps in your mind as you circle each other. Never underestimate or patronise, never give them a clue as to your next move. Be vigilant and primitive, attuned to it all and ready for anything. If they tremor or twitch, it’s likely some devious plot or ploy which you must guard against with your life. And we do not want to die today.
To commence, I go low - for I have played this game before.
“I’ll give you…” I sniff arrogantly, pausing, as if I am genuinely pondering how much I will offer. Little does she know it’s a ruse - I know exactly how much I will say! I may well be a master of the art.
I tap my fingers on my chin in a silent repetitive rhythm. I am either sculpture or sculptor, lost in perpetual thought, but also fingers braced dextrously and ready for action. The planets rotate, tides rise and fall, stars implode millions of lightyears away and heavenly choirs sing.
And still I stand, deep in thought.
“Two pounds…. fifty-three pence.”
I cast out the pence as an afterthought, almost callous, certainly casual, and not a little indifferent to the outcome. I could just as well spend my money elsewhere - I am honouring my opponent with any offer at all. They would do well to take the money and run.
She recoils - presumably eager to maintain my attention and my interest in her wares. I prepare for the inevitable and immediate acceptance, and open my face and mind to gratefully embrace it when it comes.
“Sir, it’s £17.99, as you can see from the sticker.”
She thrusts a finger at the item I hold to a garish piece of paper plastered there. It does indeed say the mentioned amount and I see now that I have underestimated her. She is fully prepared, possessing a dangerous artillery including this ‘sticker’ which seems to be so convincing.
I must take heed, and respond in kind.
“I see,” I muse, outwardly confident and assured. But in the depths of my mind, the panic has set in. I wasn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t prepared for her confidence, her dismissiveness, her sturdy correctness. Damn her, and all her assertions.
I’m on a slope now through a thickening forest and I don’t know which way to turn. Before, there were a great many paths open to me, each offering a languorous and relaxing Sunday stroll to my destination of a price I determined. Now all I see is crows and other rabid woodland creatures scuttling up tree trunks and laughing maniacally at me.
The haze thickens and I revert to early childhood, I am lost and alone - inconsolably uncertain of how things will ever be the same again. I feel myself shrinking to the height I was when I was three years old, and I stare up at her, open-mouthed and loomed over.
“Sir?” she continues.
My god, the affront! The aggression! Can she not see that I am down, in the midst of an existential crisis of uncertain adulthood. Still she insists on stamping down hard on my prone form - she’s probably enjoying this, the merciless sadist. It’s too much to bear.
I’m reeling, I know, but I must respond. I must pull myself from this pit of despair and pluck triumph from defeat’s malevolent grasp. Remember who you are, I tell myself quietly.
“Hmmm…. interesting,” I begin, before the ground swallows me again and I start weeping aggressively.
I had thought that my own speech would restore me, coax me back and undissipate my sense of self. But it’s hoarse and whispery, choked and non-existent. If anything, it dissuades, and makes me realise the shell I’ve become. There is nothing physical that this can be attributed to - I don’t have a cold or even a sniffle.
“Sir, please if you don’t want the item, then can you please step aside - there are other people waiting.”
She truly is relentless. I turn and there is indeed a gathered mass, each of them murmuring to one another quietly as if engaged in some bizarre and chaotic game of Chinese whispers.
“Don’t you people know the rules!” I cry, falling to my knees in despair.
“Sir, again, I must ask you to step aside if you’re not going to buy the item.”
“Alright,” I whisper, “I’ll give you five pounds.”
She points to the sticker with a cold unblinking glare. I clutch the item to me now, as I know our fates are intertwined.
“Ten?” I wonder hopefully, all childlike innocence and curiosity.
“Sir, I’ll be calling security if you don’t either buy this product or leave in the next ten seconds.”
Ah, of course, I should’ve known a time would come when she would call for back-up. The heavies, the muscle, the reinforcements. At least I can take solace in the fact that she has resorted to this. But I must now, I suspect, accept defeat. I’m only one man - after all.
“Right,” I swallow, “seventeen pounds ninety nine it is.”
I reach out with my card an extension of my digits. The plastic which I’ve come to cherish trembles gently in the artificial light. Broken, I brush the machine and it beeps instantaneously, the cruel God of capitalism sated briefly by the movement of tokens from one imaginary place to another. It belches out a receipt in contentment, and I tear it off meekly without another glance.
“Thank you,” I murmur chastened and abashed. The whisperers behind continue to do so as I shuffle through the automatic doors, past the heavies who are braced and ready to crush my skull without a care.
How terrible the haggle is, when you’ve forgotten how to win.
I wish I owned an umbrella - one that keeps me safe and dry. I might even give it a name - Engelbert or Alfred or something similarly warm, absurd and reassuring. It wouldn’t matter too much I suppose - as long as it did its job.
I wouldn’t use it all the time - just when clouds brew. When the sun shines, I’d leave it at home, safe in its corner by a shelf. Even as summer bleeds into autumn, if the day holds promise and the sky blue enough, it could remain there propped resolute and proud. Ready for use but no offence taken when deemed unnecessary - a resilient umbrella, it would be.
There would always be days when I need it. When the rain beats down hard and ceaseless, or when the clouds themselves press you down and in, oppressive drudgery, watery slush.
Any tool, umbrella or otherwise, can’t fully protect you from those moments. You’ll still feel the wet and the grey. Puddles as you walk, mud up legs, wet socks, breath short. But you don’t succumb to the rain. It slows you down, dampens your morning - but it does not stop you.
I can’t predict the clouds. They come and go. Sometimes from a distinct source - a long-simmering storm numbs the base of your skull, a quick and violent hurricane assault.
Other times, they are more subtle, gliding in stealthily overnight. They settle on your chest mockingly, push you down when you try to get up.
This is when I could use an ultra high-tech umbrella, radiating light and heat, burning the clouds to a higher form of vapour and becoming a beacon to all those similarly afflicted.
“Back, you devils!” I would cry, brandishing my trusty weapon skywards as it emanated blades of flame. Afeared and scornful and robbed of their grey, the clouds wisp off, never to return.
I’d sell such umbrellas by the bucketload but I don’t know where I’d find them.
Maybe the best you can hope for is a sturdy and colourful umbrella. One that protects you from daily bombardment. It won’t insulate you or eliminate the elements, the pure cold facts of rain, sleet, snow and sludge. But it keeps the worst off.
Then, on a morning, it may dawn on you that the storm has passed. You can leave your umbrella in its resting place - it is content to have been of service. And you are lightened by its absence, no longer clutching its handle as you go outside and taste the air - the sun and the light, a glow on your skin and a quiet thrill in being alive.