Edward Appleton (University of Chichester, UK)
When I met her, she told me she hated him because he died, but that was the only thing she had ever hated about him. Correction: She’d also hated his stubbornness, the way he ate peanuts, the way he scratched her legs at night with his toenails, and the way he, even at sixty-seven, couldn’t fold a shirt correctly. She had hated a lot of things about him, but what she hated him the most for was certainly dying.
I got a job in the bookshop down South Street several months before we met there. It was what I had always imagined as a part-time job for myself. I had tried supermarkets and bars, but I couldn’t stick with them. The bookshop was owned by a woman named Jenny, and most days it was her and me alone. On the second floor was a small box window that looked out into the street, and sometimes I watched people going by, wondering what they were thinking about. I wondered if they were in the process of wondering what someone else was thinking further down the street, and then that person was doing the same, so there were unknown threads linking everyone silently together—beginning with me.
I re-shelved things. I ran through the alphabet in my head over a million times a day till it drove me half-insane. I dusted shelves, sorted books out for online orders (the most business we got, which annoyed the romantic side of me) and sometimes just sat behind the counter and sipped tea, waiting for the next customer.
By November I had been working there four months and felt I could do the job well. I no longer had to ask what was required of me. I came into the shop in the morning and saw the things that needed attending of my own accord. Yet, while my work-life was improving, my relationships were not. I was both pitying and becoming frustrated with my parents, like a rope was being pulled in two different directions in my head. They were aware that I was working to move out, and that upset them. In turn, it frustrated me, as I couldn’t help but feel they were attempting to make me feel guilty about leaving. Then I pitied them, because their son wanted to leave them.
Iris and I had been dating for just over a year, and I had made peace with myself that we would split, officially, soon. I was right. On a drizzly Tuesday evening she rang me and said there was no point prolonging the inevitable; it was for the best. I didn’t argue. I slept for two or three fretful hours, then left early for the bookshop on Wednesday morning.
Jenny was in, organising the quick-buy basket, mostly filled with mass-market paperbacks. It had rained at six in the morning. I had heard it, awake in bed, unable to sleep but equally unable to cry. It had stopped before I left the house. The world had a different weight to it—a world that I inhabited still, but a world I inhabited without Iris.
‘It happened,’ I announced, taking my coat off and shutting the door.
Jenny looked up from the basket. She knew what I was referring to because despite telling myself not to, I had spent the last few weeks venting my worries about Iris and me.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘At least you were expecting it.’
I conceded to that. I was, which was possibly why I felt heavy, but not upset.
‘There’s plenty to do, keep your mind off things. If you ever want a break you can just stop, have a read of something, or get a cup of tea.’
‘Okay, thanks,’ I said. ‘Is it okay if I go upstairs and do something?’
She nodded. ‘There are some big piles of fiction books that need to go on the shelves. Just shout if you need anything.’
There was no one in the street when I looked out the box window, so I set to work. My thoughts about Iris were quickly replaced with singing the alphabet as I filed the books where they belonged on the shelves, wondering if Proust came before Plath.
My phone buzzed in my pocket around eleven, and despite trying to resist the urge to look at it, I did.
Hope you’re okay.
And that was all. Its insincerity hurt more than the situation. As I began to type a reply, an elderly woman shuffled into the room. I stuffed the phone back in my pocket.
‘More interesting than the old books?’ she asked. Her voice was soft, youthful, in a strange way.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Books are far more interesting. It’s my girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend.’
The lady looked uninterested. Her eyes were roaming the shelves, her head was slowly tilting, like a trebuchet, to read the spines that lined the shelves.
‘I wonder who decided that all book spines should be read from the left,’ she said.
I looked down at the Proust in my hand. ‘I’ve never thought about it,’ I admitted.
She took a book off the shelf and then returned it without looking at it. ‘Are you heartbroken?’
The question stunned me a little, but I answered, ‘I think I’m doing okay. It happened last night. Over the phone.’
‘Cowards were overjoyed when the phone was invented.’
‘She’s not a coward,’ I replied instinctively, and she laughed.
‘Well if you were heartbroken, I would tell you that I am too.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘He’s done the worst thing he’s ever done. I hate him for it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever hated him for. He’s died.’
She went on to tell me that she also hated his stubbornness, the way he ate peanuts, the way he scratched her legs at night with his toenails, and the way he, even at sixty-seven, couldn’t fold a shirt correctly.
Upstairs, in the fiction area, there was a small wooden chair. Most people took one look at it and decided, rather aptly, that it was not safe to sit on. But she sat right down after telling me about her dead husband. I almost winced as she painfully lowered herself. Did it wobble? Did the legs bow?
‘I think I still see him sometimes,’ she continued, once seated. ‘But I never hear him. Do you think that’s strange? Everywhere is so silent. Why do we see people after they’ve gone, but not hear them?’ She peered down as if noticing for the first time how thin the legs of the chair were, but she didn’t get up.
‘I suppose conjuring their voice, the sound of it, the tone, is harder than just the image of them?’
‘You might be right,’ she said, as if I wasn’t at all.
I sighed. Her mind had gone, wandered off inside her head to consider something else. Her eyes were fixed on a darker patch of carpet which I myself had wondered about when I first started. I went back to sorting the books around me. Every now and then I looked over my shoulder at her stooped in the little chair, but she said no more. Once all the surnames starting with P were filed, she suddenly stood up and smiled at me.
‘Thank you for the company,’ she said.
‘See you soon.’ She shuffled from the room, and I heard her slow footsteps descending the stairs. It took her a long time to get down them.
Halfway up the stairs, where they doubled-back on themselves, were two bookshelves. Jenny and I had often discussed what books should go on them.
Downstairs were hardbacks, first editions, signed books, and a selection of poetry and children’s books. The top floor was fiction at the front, and non-fiction in the back room, away from the street. Everything was accounted for. The stairs were a strange place in between: not fiction, not non-fiction, not first editions or signed, but a place that hovered between all the genres and categories. Jenny had a trial period before I joined where the shelves on the stairs held books about the city, but she soon realised no one bought them, and they were removed. Now, the shelves were empty—climbing and descending the stairs became a sad act, passing the void shelves as they gathered dust.
Once the woman was gone, I took out my phone again and read the message twice more. Hope I’m okay. The worst part wasn’t the message, but the fact that it prompted me to dissect myself: how was I feeling? I opted for a diplomatic reply, which would provoke nothing, and give away nothing. I typed:
I’m fine. Hope you’re okay too.
There were no surnames beginning with Q, so I moved onto R.
Jenny bought pasties for lunch and we sat at the desk downstairs eating them. She had flipped the sign on the door to Closed for Lunch.
‘That lady who came in,’ I said, ‘told me that her husband died. And she hates him for it. She just started telling me.’
‘Strangers do that. I was on a train once, and this woman just told me her whole life story. It went on and on. Her daughter was in Spain with a gold-digger, her son hated her, and her husband had left her. I started off feeling sorry for her.’ She laughed and sipped some tea. ‘But in the end I thought, maybe you’re the problem, love, if everyone around you hates you and leaves.’
I laughed with her. Jenny was an easy laugher, which made her comfortable to be around. Even when something wasn’t funny, she was the type of person who laughed when someone expected her to; it made people like her.
‘I didn’t know what to say to her,’ I said. ‘What do you say to someone like that?’ Before Jenny could answer, I barrelled on: ‘She sat in the chair!’
‘And it didn’t break?’
‘You didn’t see the ambulance, did you?’
‘Maybe we haven’t been giving that chair enough credit.’
I was going to do an impression of the woman, make it wobbly but confident as her voice had been, and talk about how her husband ate peanuts all wrong, but found I couldn’t quite recall what her voice had sounded like. Only a snapshot of her on the chair, eyes on the ground, little back stooped and round, remained.
Iris rang me at 5.45. She knew my schedules still; she had remembered that much. I had just made it to the car, which I parked behind a nearby restaurant. I considered letting it ring and driving home without answering it, but knew, at the same time, I never would.
‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ she asked immediately. ‘I’m worried about you.’
I concentrated on her voice, so I could store it—so in a time of silence, I could hear it again if I chose to.
‘Honestly, I’m fine. I’ve just finished work.’ I got in the driver’s seat and shut the door. The sky was grey, and rippled with almost black.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘Well, I just wanted to check up on you again.’
I wanted to shout at her. She had dumped me, and here she was, checking if I was okay. I wanted to ask her what she wanted from me. Did she want me to say I was lost, confused?
‘I’m going to drive home now,’ I said, instead. When I hung up, I saw her lying in her bed, her purple curtains in the background, Bruce Springsteen playing, and her face, smiling. For a moment, I imagined I was nestled there in her arms, where I now no longer belonged.
I whispered over the wipers. The rain had broken. I whispered, ‘I miss you.’ When I tried to picture her saying it back to me, I couldn’t. The sound of her voice was wiped away as fast as the raindrops falling on my windscreen.
The calls stopped, and so did the texts. Work continued with the steady determination of a bee. I worked as if it was the only thing I knew. My day comprised of silences. Sometimes sound invaded my world: lunch with Jenny, a brief talk with my mother at the bottom of the stairs at home, the clopping of book spines on the wood of the cases, the pattering of rain … These sounds were only interruptions to my new-found appreciation of, and dwelling, in silence.
She also lived in silence. He had been loud at times. Not obnoxiously so, but he had a certain energy about him. When she was younger, she had loved it. A man so sure of himself, so devoid of self-consciousness. My longest moments of emergence from the thickness of silence were with her, when she sat in that rickety old chair and talked to me. Now, it was habit to give her a cup of tea. She watched me work with mild bemusement, stacking slowly, flitting from case to case, like a bee again, flower to flower.
‘It’s always so quiet up here,’ she said one Friday morning.
South Street was never busy with cars. Despite threading through the city centre and curling out again like a lick of hair, hardly any vehicles used it. Sometimes a loud group of schoolchildren passed by underneath the window, but on the whole, the bookshop felt as if it were underwater.
‘It’s nice,’ I said. We’d had a new batch of Penguin Classics come in, and I was back to the familiar and comfortable job of sorting them alphabetically. ‘Before this job, I had no idea how much I enjoyed the silence of solitude.’ What I really meant was, before Iris broke up with me, I had no idea how much I enjoyed the silence of solitude.
‘Solitude doesn’t always have to be silent.’
‘True. There’s music.’
‘And books,’ she said.
I smiled, and shook the one in my hand. ‘Well, books are silent.’
She shook her head and the chair creaked under her. ‘Hardly. They’re like little whispers in your ear.’
My pockets of silence were equally safe and self-destructive. My brain wandered through labyrinthine thoughts as I worked. I found that not only did I replay old memories of Iris and I, I also invented new ones. Sometimes my days were made afresh by her presence: I imagined her waiting outside for me at the end of the day in an anorak, or I imagined picking up a bottle of wine to surprise her. I still had these thoughts of ways to surprise her, ways to make her happy. I knew what someone would say to me if I shared these things—I had heard it all before. Make yourself happy first. You are the priority in life, no one else. If everyone made themselves the priority, then everyone would be like a pocket of silence—self-contained, thoughtful, sad. Only together did we escape it. Alone I was just another element of silence, and so was the old lady, but together we became free from it. To stay alone forever was to stay in silence forever, as far as I was now concerned. To live with just the whispers of books in your ear. I tried to make sure that the old lady was never in silence for an entire day. On the days I wasn’t working, I walked in the park with her, or took her shopping. Together, we were eradicating the quiet from our lives. It was bizarre, but it was only after months of talking to one another that we shared names. I told her, I’m Tim. She told me, I’m Emily.
The reason Emily kept seeing her husband, Roger, was because he hadn’t gone to wherever he was going yet. Heaven, or whatever, she said. He was in the space between. Gone, but not quite. There, but not. I pictured him on the stairs in the bookshop, maybe tiny, like a mote of dust, on the shelves between floors.
‘He’s floating nearby,’ she told me one lazy February afternoon. We were in the park, crossing the grass; Emily didn’t believe in walking on the path.
Iris lingered in my mind, but with every passing week, with less feeling. She was becoming like the fond memories I had of foreign places: Iris was now like France in the summer, swimming in the river. She was a vague memory of happiness, remembered, but accepted as having passed.
Roger was gone too, slid from life silently one night in his sleep.
So, there was a level of symmetry to the world when Emily’s heart stopped beating in the middle of the night. I pictured it lurching, staggering, failing, and finally coming to a halt. Her body frozen and quiet.
Everyone at the funeral whispered. The hearse glided over the hot tarmac. I was standing near the front of the service at the crematorium. When the curtains were finally drawn around the coffin, I expected them to screech, to cry, one final outcry at the unfairness of life. But they didn’t. They came together softly as wings.
A week later I returned to work. Jenny made me more tea than normal and let me read Tennyson when there were no customers. Upstairs, I could hear her footfalls moving softly about and the familiar clopping of the spines being put in place.
I finished reading ‘Ulysses’ and put Tennyson back. ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,’ I repeated as I wandered upstairs to the empty shelves.
Using my sleeve, I wiped them, sending dust motes scattering like ash.
Edward Appleton is twenty-three years old and last year graduated from the University of Chichester with a BA in Creative Writing. He lived in the city for two years of the degree’s duration and now resides in Worthing, where he grew up, as he completes his Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the same University. He is currently working on his first novel.