KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 5: Spring 2016
Tanka Tale: 987 words

Two Storeys

by Claire Everett

It could be him. Make no mistake. The mousey hair. (She never did like that description, but yes, it suits her; she’s not one to stand up for herself, after all.) The same build as her, about the right age, too.

She pretends to tidy the counter, her glasses perched on the end of her nose so she can peer over them and study him. He’s clutching the book like a jockey under starter’s orders, holding fast to the reins of a feisty colt. What’s he reading, anyway? She edges a little closer, notebook and pen in hand, appears to jot down an ISBN. Brave New World. Good choice. Just what she’d have imagined him to be reading right now. He’s engrossed in the heart of it. Is he skimming it, deciding if he wants to buy? There’s about five-and-a-half hours’ worth of pleasure to be had for the average reader (250 words per minute). Of course, to a discerning reader, the imprints left by those words, are indelible. Huxley wasn’t merely a writer, he was a scrimshander and his ivory was the human mind. Yes, the boy would devour Flaubert, Huxley, Kafka, Melville, Steinbeck, Vonnegut...she was certain of it. She had dreamed of a three-year-old him clambering into her lap to listen to The Little Prince and that’s where it had all begun. She had dreamed it, so it must be so.

But. It always came to this. But. The burnt-out stub, the dog-end of a dream. Miriam, you think this almost every week of some boy, or another. She clears her throat, hoists her glasses back up the bridge of her nose in a bid to compose herself, and gestures to her colleague that she’s just nipping into the stockroom. The stacks are blurring, the whole shop is swimming. She’s Virginia Woolf giving herself up to the Ouse. Come on, Miriam, let it go, let it do its worst.

She sits on one of the boxes from this morning’s delivery, rests her back against the wall, breathes deeply. Behind closed eyes, she’s coming back home, empty-armed in early spring. The world is a bud about to burst and she has nothing but the scars that say he kicked for the first time when the fields were wound on bales of gold and her mother found out when the leaves were rust about to flake into the wind. And when she could no longer hide the truth, her father packed her off to that place and told her there she must stay until the whole mess was done and dusted. And it was he who took her back when she tried to walk home in that blizzard, after the matron had raised the alarm. It was never spoken of after that. None of it.

a lifetime trying
to fill my sieve with sand
this hiraeth
for a home I’ve yet to know,
the books I’ll never read

It’s the first time he’s been warm all day. He almost broke out in a sweat when that sales assistant kept watching him. Perhaps he’d better shake it up a bit. Not come in here for a few days. The library was perfect, but since it’s closed for refurbishment.... There is another bookshop on the other side of town. But will they have a copy? Oh well, make the most of it. It’s great in here. Veritably toasty upstairs which happens to be where all the fiction is. He wonders what’s for tea. Probably soup, or stew. Something warm and wet that can feed a small army.

If she comes back any time soon, she’s bound to ask him if he’s going to make a purchase. She might say it’s tantamount to stealing. Would Huxley actually mind, though? Don’t writers want to be read more than anything? Does it matter if those words come free or by virtue of a credit card? Most of it’s dirty money anyway. Isn’t that why he fell out with his new stepdad in the first place? If you don’t like how I get the money to pay for the roof over our heads, then you know what you can do! And his mum just sat there, knocking back the Merlot, planning their next getaway in Portugal. She cried a lot. Said it was the miscarriages she never got over. One time he had to ask, What am I then, Mum, Scotch Mist? He supposed some things are just no substitute for a longed-for dream. That’s when he knew it was time to go. At least books make sense. There’s always the dog-eared copy of Fahrenheit 451, though. He sleeps with it under his pillow, not that any of the guys are going to be looking to trade; he has nothing they want.

This is his favourite part of the day. Everything else is just the preface. Yes, sometimes you want to skip over it, get to the main story, but then you might miss something. Just because he’s on the bones of his backside doesn’t mean he can’t make the most of the hours and hours at his disposal. There’s nearly always a pretty market researcher he can chat to. He wouldn’t call it flirting per se. He’s not exactly looking the best he ever has. But these days, at least he can get a shower, wash his clothes.

And so he’s reading at a mad dash. He feels it in his fingers, his pupils, his eye-sockets, the energy that burned in the brilliant minds of the writers whose books he homes in on like a heat-seeking missile. Three more pages and then he will return it to the shelf until next time, making two fists around as many words as he can hold, before carrying them like closely guarded flames in his pockets, out into the dark street and back to the hostel.

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