Fiction - Dropping Balm, The Absinthe Literary Review

Hard of Reading
a short short by John Gray

The Professor of Literature at Cornwell University once expounded the theory that “suicide is the truth and literature stinks.” He later demonstrated this theory, much to everyone’s surprise, when he threw himself off the old polytechnic tower block. The local headlines the next day were a facsimile of the Professor’s suicide note: “DON’T READ THIS, JUMP!” It was not long before a few glum students, fed up with their studies, their friends and the unheated corner of their compact flatshare, were following the old Professor’s example and jumping to an early death. When the number of additional suicides reached three (two students and one part-time administrator), the University authorities were forced to step in and prevent access to the roof with a series of well placed iron bars. No matter. The students then took to jumping from the eleventh floor, which was still high enough to cause the desired effect - frightened limbs, instant death. When this floor was shut down too, the students merely removed themselves and their suicidal efforts to the next one down. By the time they had all reached the sixth floor, the jumping had more or less tailed off, the summer holidays had almost arrived, and a new, entirely sane Professor of Literature had been appointed, one who required nothing more from the sick and the saddened than the reading of a few of the set texts.

To the second-year student, James Harmer-Strange, this was perhaps even more alarming than the previous Professor’s testimony, for Harmer-Strange was a particularly lazy and mischievous scholar who had never completed the reading of a set text in his life. Despite this, he never shied from achieving good grades nor, strangely enough, from recommending books he himself had not read. These often included the driest, vastest, and most unappetizing tomes in the entire Western canon. He recommended these books with such charm and enthusiasm that no one ever suspected what he was up to, that he really was just a liar, and that whenever he could he would take all the poetry options for the simple reason that there would be less to read. He even went about recommending books to the lecturers, books which they had already read and he had not. If it turned out that they had no interest in reading the text in question again, James would set about persuading them to give it a second shot. After all, he often said, was not great literature all about being given a second shot, a further, lasting look, the deep and complex treasures a stone’s throw from the surface; and when he locked their eyes into his, each time reeling them in as if along a magical thread, the frantic lecturer would return to his or her apartment and immediately set to turning the gray pages of that book just one more time, looking to disturb the shallows and see beneath the squalor of a first reading.

But not all of Harmer-Strange’s pranks were such harmless fun. For instance, when he was particularly keen on finishing a short relationship with a first year business studies student whom he found to be depressive and demanding, he sent round for her birthday a copy of Clarissa, recommending with all his love that it should be “devoured” immediately. The unhappy girlfriend then proceeded to bite off a good two hundred pages in one uncomfortably cold sitting, keen to show as much devotion to her lover as he had shown her in his presentation of such a sizeable gift. From then on though, she struggled. And as she went further through the book she stopped more and more, often in mid-letter to gain her breath, relax her aching hand and wrist, panicking at the number of pages she had left to read, the number of words rising before her, dry and endless. Here was a book that she just did not understand, a truly monstrous obstacle standing in her way, blocking the bridge to her heart’s cheer. She loved her boyfriend very much and spent many hours laboring over her task. She knew that he would not be impressed should she return to him with the book only partially completed, but it was now almost impossible and her brackish tears ran towards the trough of the half-closed volume, words rearranging themselves for every sentence, every cool, riderless barrage. He could not love her, she thought. Not with such a book. On the third day of this epic book-blitz, she awoke in the early hours of the morning and crossed the University green in her bare feet, taking herself along to the old polytechnic tower block. She climbed the cold steps in a trance, her arms light and useless by her side, her mouth dry from concentrating so much. When she got to the eighth floor she entered an old electronics lab, moved aside some ancient desks—flecks of mildew beginning to creep across their surface—and threw herself head first out the corner window.

James Harmer-Strange was not one to pass over a period of mourning lightly. As soon as he heard the news he locked himself away in his college room, refusing to speak to visitors, even to his late girlfriend’s parents, who came to return the copy of Clarissa after having read his loving inscription, thinking that this might help him in some way. When they were gone James put the book in the bag for a charity shop and went on attending to the sight of his bedroom walls. Occasionally he would beat his fists into the plaster so violently that the warden had to be called to restore a little order or at least persuade James that an attack on the outer wall would cause less disturbance to the girls in the next room. When he was finally seen to emerge, dressed from head to toe in black, including a pair of tight-fitting black leather gloves, which he never removed but which made it difficult for him to open his Spring Vegetable soup, he did not say a word to anyone. Confronted with either a question or a condolence, he shook his head mildly, ran a gloved finger back and forward along his lips and wandered off with a look of mute disdain. Back in his bedroom he lay with his head resting between a deep valley of the softest pillows, a dull neck ache in progress, the couplet of a poem he had started to compose running through his head : “All your faults become perfections/ And your errors are reversed.”

On the fifth day of this rather baroque show of grief, James began to hear a noise from the room above. Before now he had never heard anything from the room above and had assumed that it was either empty or that its occupant stayed elsewhere for a large part of term. This last case was confirmed when he realized that above him was room number twelve, which belonged to a student whom almost no one had met. The girl in this room had been sighted only three or four times in the entire year and was considered, probably unjustly, to be a bit odd. Opposite her door for instance, she had covered the bare brick wall with colorful wrapping paper. From time to time the rest of the house would creep upstairs to marvel at the madness of this installation, restraining their drunken giggles at the work of a girl more than half of them had never seen and yet who they all continued to obsess and bitch over, often emotionally investing, as if they were each her jilted lover. James always considered it a rather affecting display, and in the first term at least, took some interest in the absent householder. Now the forgotten tenant held his attention once more, though this time for far more tangible reasons. To him it was the most depressing sound in the world.

It was the middle of another bright summer’s day and the large college hostel was typically empty. James slowly lifted his head up on to his hand in order to catch the sound better. What he heard made him feel unwell. It was like hearing his name shouted in the street, an intense moment of panic and horror to follow, the bottom dropping out of his stomach and the anxiety causing him to double up. Only now the feeling did not pass; the intensity remained. What surprised and depressed him most was that he could not stop listening. He was mesmerized. And when he climbed up on to his wardrobe, his bare knees now covered in a term’s worth of dust, and pressed his ear up against the high ceiling and heard the rocking bed, the shifting linen, toneless yelps from a two man toboggan starting out on the course, he felt as if he was heading for the first of many seizures. A few days later and fed up with putting his ear against the cold plaster of the inside wall, James decided to venture out and see if he could catch sight of the girl in room twelve. No sooner had he stepped outside his room though, when he saw the elusive guest descending the stairs from the second floor. She breezed past, her white dressing gown billowing at the legs, a brief but friendly smile posted in his direction.

“Hello there,” she said.

James coughed up a reply along the lines of “good morning,” though it sounded nothing like “good morning,” and when he saw her doubtful look at his gloved hands he began to feel that he had not made a first class impression. He quickly slipped back behind his door and nuzzled his head into a pile of pillows.

For days afterwards James did not step outside his room. When he did emerge it was for food and toilet only, and to prevent any further contact with the girl in the room above, he chose to take his trips at the most unsociable hours. One reason for this stealth was a mild paranoia in which he believed that the girl above almost certainly knew of his eavesdropping. She had known from the unusual look on his face. His shock at seeing her meant he had no control over himself, no control over his features, and his face twisted to reveal his shame and guilt like an open book. Though he knew that the girl did not keep to the normal hours of a nine-to-five life of study herself, he chose to invade the ground floor at about three o’clock in the morning, when it was reasonably safe to steal everyone’s food and use the bathroom without being interrupted. He even took to drinking Newman’s milk. Newman had dropped blue food coloring into his milk to put everyone off drinking it. It tasted no different, but now that it was a rich sky blue no one wanted to have it with their cereal. James Harmer-Strange drank it with all-bran from a cupboard belonging to one of the art students—playful, though none too witty anarchic slogans and rude felt-tip drawings decorated the doors of the cupboard. In fact, in taking a small amount from each cupboard, little enough to avoid arousing suspicion, James was able to compose an entire meal. One night in the middle of the week, when the hardworking were safely wrapped up in bed, James stole down to the kitchens for some bread and butter. He was always careful to take the most plentiful items as he believed that such a subtle depletion would go by unnoticed, though he was aware that everyone was always suspicious of food theft, hence an unnecessary amount of nomenclatorial scribbles when opening the great walk-in fridge, as if naming items might prevent people taking them. He wandered into the kitchen, his feet instantly cooled on the uneven tiles. Ignoring the light-switch, he moved by moonlight to the cupboards, pulling them open to examine bread bags—amounts, dates, types. He finally settled on two slices of fresh, puffy white and one thick slice of whole-meal brown. He covered the white with “Angela’s” low-fat spread and the brown with “Ben’s” cottage cream. When he was done he began to fold each slice into his mouth, chomping the bread to a bland doughy mix and occasionally picking a trapped piece out from the back of his teeth. As he swayed in the pale light thinking about a tasty glass of foreign colored milk, he heard a noise. The sound was of someone switching on the hall light and heading in the direction of the smaller kitchen. As James was in the smaller kitchen at the time, knocking back someone else’s food and unprepared for a visit in which his face might be inspected for signs of guilt, shame, disgrace—he had them all—he turned quickly and slipped round the corner into the laundry room. There he squatted lightly between two broad tumble-dryers.

James still had bread turning in his mouth, unsure about whether the sound of swallowing would draw the attention of the couple now stalking round the kitchen.

“Look at this blue milk.” The girl from the room above spoke in soft, gentle tones as she opened the fridge door.

“Newman.” The only word from her male companion.

James swallowed, shifting a little to his left as he did so. What stares would they give him as they walked into the laundry and saw him cowering blithely in the shadows. He might go down on his hands and knees, scampering frantically in circles, pulling at the bottom of their trousers, stating he had a glove gone missing and that the laundry was clearly the most obvious place to look for it. Just as well they had come along, switching on the lights then, they might say, otherwise he might have been there for hours, crawling and creeping. Then they would observe the size of his features when he vomited the bread back up as they too went to the floor, endeavoring to draw the gauntlet into the light.

He lifted his bare hand to his heart. He felt its beat, which was somewhere near a hundred and twenty beats per minute, though he swore he was up to nothing sinister. He had pulled a cushion over his head as soon as he’d heard them, as soon as he knew what they were up to. With it being such a hot night now, he had come down to the kitchens, yes, the laundry, to cool down a bit, cool his head—they might have heard, he was in mourning. And as he struggled with his breathing, his hands looking to hide his face, undecided between eyes and ears, he eventually heard their departure, saw the lights extinguish, feet treading lightly across the hall and on up the stairs.

First he took his fist from his mouth. Next, he bent forward and spread his hands on the cold tablet stone. Finally, he breathed easier, though food continued to return to his mouth, undigested, and he chewed a while before crawling out from his hiding place. Back in his room he listened with some composure to the sound of moving boards above.

It was now his aim to lift the gloom hanging over his head. Initially, he had enjoyed his isolation, the frivolity of self-involvement, the attention of strangers as they came to knock at his door and ask after his state of mind. Some friends of his departed girlfriend had popped by, ones he had never met before, and liking the sound of their voices (he never opened the door), he’d taken their phone numbers, recommended a few books for them to read.

When the suicides were finished and the college had settled back to its normal life of running at trends that were not so life-threatening but perhaps equally evasive, James did not notice. He was still in the first stage of his act, an act which he improvised with curiosity and a little desperation—until he heard the agitating sounds of intimacy filter down from above. It was now his aim to lift the gloom hanging over his head.

He did this by going up to the second floor in the middle of the afternoon and knocking at the door of room number twelve. He tapped lightly on the floral design of the door’s paper cover and took a step back, preparing an open and friendly face for his visit. He was no longer wearing the funeral colors of the last fortnight but lighter, less frightening shades. “Would you like a cup of tea?” might be his ingenuous and hopeful introduction. He hoped that with this alone he might be invited into the room, as if this line were merely a procedure and that, recognizing the correct words in the correct order, she would lead him into a few minutes of formal pleasantries—he continued with his deep frowning—before they jumped into bed together. There they would develop a relationship of some understanding, in which she showed him that he need not seek approval for himself so often, or jump at the first sign of trouble; that he should look within less often but with more clarity, and in which he would worry continuously about the sound the headboard was making against the wall.

Nobody answered. “Hullo?” he said, stretching out and tapping on the door once more. The door moved forward a little. Nobody in. “Hullo?” he said again to make sure, then stuck his head round the door, quickly took in the condition of the room and snatched a book from the shelf. He shoved the volume into his pocket as best he could and ran back downstairs to the safety of his room. He didn’t know why he had taken the book but hoped that it would not be missed. The room had been full of them. James had not seen so many books in someone’s room for a long time, and he was no mean owner himself, though his stock was almost two thirds stolen and nine tenths unread.

The book he had filched from above was called The Story of Suicide and he now settled down to read it. Inside the front cover someone had written in pencil “DON’T READ THIS, JUMP!” James breathed a deep breath, quickly skipped the confusing introduction, which began to flag after only a few words, and skim read three to four chapters. Though he was amused by some of the anecdotal evidence for increased suicide rates in the late twentieth century and touched by a quote, from a novel he had actually read, about suicides having a stake driven through their unrepentant heart—“As if their hearts weren’t broken already”—he soon grew tired of the study and pushed the book off the end of the bed. Plath, Levi, Virginia Woolf.

A wasp charged into through the window, did two angry circuits of the room and spent the following hour looking for a way out of the wardrobe. The next book James stole from the room above was also about suicide. The introduction said it was a suicide note. James noted the scribbled comment on the inside cover: “He brings writing into existence.” He sniffed vaguely and began to read. From the very first he was entranced. It was quite some style, some writing. He had no words for it, had never read anything like it in all his life and wondered what had made him dismiss this author on so many occasions in the past. It was a total revelation and he could not help but think that his life was now changed in some way. He read about seven pages before giving up.

Over the next few weeks he went through many volumes of the upstairs library, returning each book, partly read, before slipping another down to his room. He thought at least that he might have something to talk to the girl about should she ever be in her room when he knocked. She never was though, and apart from the occasional disquiet from above he never heard a peep out of her, never saw her again, despite whipping open his bedroom door at every vague sound on the stair outside. And so, somewhat fed up with his enforced exile and looking forward to returning home for the summer holidays, James now began to go down to the living room, where his friends and housemates were pleased to see him, profoundly affected by his sudden recovery, stilled by his tract on the theme of suicide, and intrigued by the huge number of new books he was now recommending, as he spoke of second chances, new beginnings. He was annoyed to learn that he had missed their end of term dinner, if only because it had been attended, much to everyone’s surprise, by the girl in room number twelve. It turned out she was completely normal, rather charming in fact, though she gave no explanation for a year’s worth of absence and no one ever asked.

Close to the end of term, and returning a book to do with the revaluation of all values, James jogged upstairs, hoping as always that she might be there to invite him inside for a quick chat. He saw she had many books, some of his favorites, he would say, preparing to slide the volume out from under the belly of his shirt and back into the pile when she was not looking; and finally, once he had shown that he was suitable, she might indulge him a little by agreeing to have sex with him.

He tapped as usual and said his usual “Hullo.” It came as no surprise when there no response, so he slowly pushed open the door, continuing to mutter “hullo” in case the occupant was snoozing. He knew exactly where to put the book and was always smoothly in and out in a matter of seconds. Today though, as he put his head sheepishly round the door, he was shocked to find that the room had been vacated, emptied of all her belongings including the books. There were still a few days left till the end of term and he had not expected such a quick disappearance. It was all very sudden.

He sat down in the hard plastic chair opposite the door, saw the blank bricks across the hall, the remnants of cellotape and wrapping paper, the harsh corners of the cell about him now revealed, and he began to feel very depressed. It was as if he were standing at home on the day after the Christmas decorations had been taken down, a room with no future, little cheer—the lonely look of shop windows at night, all dressed up, nowhere to go. He slung the book onto the empty desk, moved towards the mattress. The bed linen lay clinically folded at the end of the bed and James sat down next to it, rocking gently with his trunk, testing a variety of positions to see what sort of sound they produced. And as he lolled up and down, he saw a piece of paper lying on the desk next to the returned book. He got off the bed and went forward to pick it up. On the paper he read in his own hand, his own words: “All your faults become perfection/ And your errors are reversed.” He noted that the s  had now been scored out at the end of “perfection.”

He sat down again in the plastic chair and lowered his head in thought. Had he used this piece of uncompleted verse as a book mark, and having left it in one of the books he had returned, had the girl found it, kindly corrected his clumsiness and left it out for him to discover? He didn’t remember leaving it in a book, didn’t remember using it as a bookmark, and often did not use a bookmark given that he rarely went back to a volume for a second glance. A further explanation presented itself. The girl in the room above had stolen it from him. While he’d been out on walkabout, chomping on breadsticks, pilfering dictionaries, the girl in the room above had come down to knock at his door, popped her head into his room, seen a few volumes from her shelf lying discarded on his desk and taken something in return. He couldn’t imagine that this was her normal response. She did not know him, probably did not know of his situation—though his black gloves may well have told her that he was up to something—and had any normal person come across their book in the room of a stranger they would have been along to the warden to complain. But why would she be knocking at his door anyway? None of it added up. Nevertheless, it remained that his work had fallen into her hands and that she had corrected his words, and so he was at least a little abashed and a little inspired. It caused his heart to leap when he imagined her late at night in the room above, leaning over her desk, thinking of his words, a thin blue light falling across her trembling hands.

Downstairs he did several excited circuits of his room, occasionally stopping at his bookshelf to pull out an unfamiliar volume, inspired to do some reading. He wanted to read every single one of the books on his shelf now, from beginning to end, and should his mind wander through a page or two he would go back over every word, absorbing the deep and complex treasures—it would not take long, he was a fast reader. And he knew he would start with Clarissa, which was as good as book as any, he hoped; he now regretted giving away his late girlfriend’s copy. He would have to go down to town now to buy a new one. It was not inexpensive. Could he afford it? A trip to town might expend too much energy.

He looked at his watch. Wavered. The shops would be closing soon. They might not have it. He looked at his shelf and considered reading something else.

No. It had to be Clarissa. There was no point in reading something as a stopgap. And so, because he was still enthusiastic about his rejuvenated interest in books and wanted to expend some of his energy in doing something about it, something other than actual reading, he spent a good hour going through his bookshelf and some two or three hundred volumes, arranging them first in order of size, then in order of color, and finally, and perhaps most satisfactorily, in alphabetical order. Once he’d finished, he had a cup of tea, standing to admire his work, and still with some energy to spare and a little agitation to run off, he decided to take his bike to the park.

How often in his childhood had he been given the wrong book, a book that his betters thought he ought to read, a book to beat all books, to put him off his reading, because as they told him, he did not want to read about homunculi, mad professors, magic words, but about the skeletal structure of whales, the edifying history of the Paris sewers. And it was for some years afterwards, when he was on the verge of therapy, that he often stood at the tapered end of the high street, his bruised hands aloft, recommending the great whaling book to passersby with a loud and challenging cry: “Go on! You’ll never finish it!”


© 2003 John Gray

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