Callum McGuigan (Oxford University, UK)
Steve loved to collect books. Reading was fine for him, and he did it to ensure maximum value for money, but it was the collection—leaning towards tsundoku—that riled him up and got his juices going. It was his collection that got him out of bed, and caused him to speak furiously to anyone who expressed a passing interest in his shelves.
His wife, feeling neglected, or at the very least cluttered, had once delved down into his psyche, trying to read between the lines of the lines, and had dug up something he’d never intended on telling her. Sexuality: it was more fluid than she’d realised. He didn’t see it as important to her, or to anyone. Innocently enough, she’d asked him when it all started. This hobby.
Predictably, stereotypically, Steve had filled his first shelf because of Chase, the bookstore employee who would beam and wave, stopping just short of fanfare, every time Steve entered. At first it had just been for coffee on his way to work at the local college, where his students had grown to expect lateness. The joke about Chase’s name and their recurring meetings popped up after a week and lingered like the hand giving the receipt, or the eye that signalled her till was free. To flatten the curve, a gold wedding band was waved, flaunted, in Chase’s face; it prevented their little tryst from going further, but ignited the inevitable light of lust within Steve.
Bisexuality was just a bolt-on. He loved his wife with tunnel vision, and did not feel especially compelled or motivated to explore intercourse with another man. Apart from in the occasional video online or dream, that is. He shared that perspective with her after she’d asked, and it had washed over the shore of her apathy and left with the tide. As if an interest in a different, inaccessible genre of music, it sat on the edge of their relationship Venn diagram and grew dust, referred to occasionally with a shrug or comment monotonous both in sound and emotion, never worthy of disagreement or conflict.
Instead, it was parasitic bibliophilia that prickled them and edged its way into other aspects of their relationship. When she first noticed his burgeoning compulsion, Andrea added a few books herself. She even came along to his monthly book swap meetings, down at The Duck, for support, and then afterwards, for interest. From there they flourished, found common interests in writers, and frowned with grins about who would get to read a highly sought-after novel first. Leaving it at that, letting that tick over and continue, would have been better for everyone. But just as one more drink or line or bet or shag sounds harmless, one more book seemed to carry the lethality of a kitten. So on he went. Holidays, increasingly infrequent, became opportunities to buy travel guides or foreign language editions, coupled with empty promises to practise phrases, at least. A promotion at work gave him the opportunity to stock up on textbooks, and Andrea’s idea to try vegetarianism provided them with a lovely cookery section. Thus, Steve’s first bookcase was filled. Though, as with any addiction, more were sourced, until more was all there was.
That post-Christmas haze, when days are dough and new year is the only icing in stock, called her to action. In the months leading up to this, Steve had gorged on the competition of rival stores and bought whole series by authors he’d never heard of, buying books as presents only to decide he was unable to part with them, always itching for just one more. It had, by this point, gotten to the stage where he would stash books around the house. On top of a kitchen shelf, at first, just next to the sink in the bathroom, or in the cabinet at the top of the stairs, temporarily. Inevitably, inconspicuous and acceptable places that would be ignored by others filled up until Steve had to become creative. Devious, even. Thankfully, he had a book for that.
Andrea lost her patience when, in one day, completely unprompted and signalling to her that she now occupied a house brimming with neglected paper, she found books: on the shelves in the shower; in the glove compartment of their car; in the cookie jar and bread bin; and in their family safe—previously reserved for passports and savings. And so, Andrea installed nanny cams around the house. She put them in the places she thought his addiction was most likely to manifest, and, because why not, she put one in the bedroom, too. She explained to him, providing Steve with a further dose of the self-loathing that period brings, over the last of the Christmas ham, with eyes pricking and sincere, that she was doing this for his, for their, own good. They had sex that evening and watched it back. Some of it, at least. It was never arousing to see, in exploitative light, oneself laid bare in the regrettable lucidity of sex’s refractory period. It did, though, seem to be enough to calm Steve’s nerves about being caught stashing.
A few bumps in the road—inevitable as with any addiction—popped up in the following months. He thought he found blind spots, but she proved him wrong. He protested, arguing reasons for his collection of reference books on the American civil war, but was met with periods of silence broken only by the flick of a page or the clap of covers. When conversation died, and they took to sitting in separate rooms or falling asleep on the sofa at night accidentally, they began to notice things about each other—observation having replaced communication; voyeurism over interaction, pornography over sex.
When Andrea noticed that Steve had, only subtly at this point, begun to work books or any sort of word and paper combination he could obtain, her feeling of replacement eclipsed all else. It came to a head when Steve walked into the kitchen in a hurry one Sunday, and a pamphlet on the MMR vaccine fell out of his shorts. As he crouched and folded himself like a deckchair to retrieve this literature, she noticed more, varied in colour, rammed in along his waistline. He had become his own final shelf.
But Steve noticed things too. One morning, studying himself in the mirror as he tried to fit Stephen King’s The Stand to his person, Steve noticed a new Apple Watch and some expensive looking trainers next to Andrea’s side of the bed. They certainly weren’t for him, and they had agreed to save money for a new house, which, in the secret part of his mind, meant more book space.
‘Trust: Your Blanket’, previously used as a coaster in the garage they never went in, occupied his evening and placated him enough to lower his shoulders, and his suspicions, for a night of unsuccessful hints at intercourse with Andrea. The guide had advised against the creation of unnecessary or unfounded conflict, so there was no question that Steve would adhere to its rules and seek out civility; a disciple of not one, but a house full of bibles, each offering wisdom and solace. He had no choice.
It became more difficult, though, when it continued.
Clothing was next, spotted not in shopping bags but in the first time worn, proving she’d hidden it. The footage caught her red handed, entering the empty house meekly and discarding the packaging evidence in the neighbour’s wheelie bin the day before collection. Never one to ignore his reality, he acknowledged his parallel culpability and found no discernible difference in the financial effect of their vices. Vices could be much worse, much more damaging to their health or wallet, so the only topic he deliberated over, while alphabetising his bathroom poetry and kneeling on some soft children’s editions, conscious of his need to continue collecting and then of his desire to keep his wife, was whether their respective collecting vices would hold them together, or crush them.
Their respective and cooperative dance lasted the summer, in spite of the omerta they shared, but, as with all illusions, the magician’s curtain did eventually fall.
It happened one evening when Steve was settled in his most comfortable chair; the plush, charcoal upholstery so enveloping it felt like the womb, but firm enough to support the posture and lolling neck of a dozing middle aged man. It was Tuesday, and Andrea was out at a spin class. As had become his routine he lowered his trousers and clicked onto his adult website of choice, safe in the knowledge that the curtains were closed, the door was locked, and he wouldn’t be disturbed for another 30 minutes, traffic permitting. Perusing options as if selecting a bottle of wine, he stumbled upon a choice that would do just fine. Entitled ‘Athletic Man Enjoys Himself Next to his Book Collection’, it provided the familiarity one needs to assimilate into porn, along with the escapism of homosexuality for that ever-essential risk factor.
He waited, flushed and transfixed as it loaded, then a rainbow of shelved titles appeared on the screen and titillated Steve; Hemingway, Faulks, and Welsh. It was a warmup, near as good as the main event, of beautifully organised spines that he knew, cherished, and recognised. Really recognised.
Pan across to a medium shot of what might have been the laptop’s front facing camera, albeit with the actor in a different shirt. Then the wave broke, and he realised he was enjoying himself to a video of himself enjoying a video of someone else. He was watching porn vicariously.
Needless to say, Steve had questions, and the uploader, ‘DayAndream’ had the answers.
The growing nuggets of anxiety told him to stop, to zip his pants up and have a drink, or take a walk, to gather his thoughts before Andrea returned and the inevitable confrontation began. But he couldn’t stop, by some compulsion continuing his self-flagellation, paralysed as video after video played. He saw himself on the screen in every room of their house, always hunched in clear view, unable to deny his starring role in any of them. It was like he’d kept a wanking diary, a jerking journal. Searching through the rooms of that house of horrors, confronted with a host of all too familiar demons, ghosts, and vampires, grabbing for an exit that wasn’t there, Steve noticed one more constant, one more reliably present feature aside from himself. A username, listed as the top supporter and benefactor of his videos, littered their details and donations on every part of the page that would allow it. Then it fell into place; he had paid for the watch, and the trainers, and everything else. Then the second penny dropped. This username, his top fan, who left comments ranging from the salacious to the literary, all immaculately punctuated, read: ‘ThethrilloftheCHASE’.
Callum McGuigan is a student from the UK, currently working towards his MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford University. He teaches English and, aside from weird fiction, enjoys board sports, triathlon and indie.