That Book By The Man Who Travelled
There is something right on the edge of his memory. He stands, forefinger extended, indicating the erratic beat of his thoughts. Eyes tight shut.
“Excuse me,” I say, about to call him sir, but I resist because a) sir is too American and b) calling someone sir is pompous, and then c) - although this could be included in b) - it implies actual or feigned respect. And I don’t respect this man or his silencing finger that has commanded my last few minutes while his thoughts come clear, just because I cannot immediately name a book from his description, ‘By the man who travelled.’
“Excuse me,” I say. “If you wouldn’t mind stepping aside.”
He opens his eyes. There, I’ve broken into his thoughts and his control of the situation, and I wave forward the next customer whose expression I cannot see behind her mask and whose eyes appear to be neither grateful for the acceleration of my service nor smiling to greet me.
The woman places her books on the counter, along with a knitted glove and her loyalty card. Her homemade mask has dropped beneath her nose and she doesn’t seem willing to pull it back up or even be aware of her PPE failure as she fusses over tugging a bank card from her pocket. I step back and scan the three books at arms’ length, two novels and a recipe book. Flat brown shoes, I tell myself. Elasticated waistband. Death in Paradise and BBC4 watcher. Messy hair, messy garden.
“Thank you,” I say, pushing the books back with the receipt on top. I don’t bother with the offer of a bag any longer. No one should have one. And if COP26 hasn’t convinced them of that, I point out the pile of Greta’s No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference I’ve placed next to the till.
The man searching for the book is about to step into the space messy-woman has vacated when I signal the next customer forward. Late teens, I guess, although I could have that wrong. Nowadays, with masks, everyone seems to be in their late teens or their thirties, like me, or over sixty. Just the three age categories. Late teens are usually after something with cliched sex scenes and vampires or witches, outcast characters they’ve convinced themselves are just like them, but instead she slides The Midnight Library and Das Kapital across. I look at her but she’s looking at the man who had his finger in the air, and I can tell that under her mask she is apologetic. He raises a hand in a no problem movement. Have I got him wrong? I glance over at the woman leaving the shop and see that she does indeed have brown, comfy shoes. Not so off then.
“Interested in politics?” I ask the probable teenager, wondering whether I should suggest an introduction to politics book of some variety as a more accessible alternative.
She returns her attention to me.
“Thought it might help me understand what’s going on,” she says.
In which case, and given these unprecedented times, et cetera, et cetera, why not Karl Marx? I shrug.
“If you manage to work it out, let me know,” I quip, and surprisingly her eyes crinkle with a smile.
No queue left but still the man waits to be indicated forward. To appear busy, I pull out the order folder. One order – Crystals and Gemstones Healing. Just the one in the past month and the book arrived for collection over a week ago. Not a hint of it being picked up. Probably bought it online by now. Or been healed. Maybe I’ll skim through the book before putting it out on the Alternative Health shelf or in Geology, just for a lark. How amusing. I restrain a giggle and return the order folder to under the counter. The man waits.
“Excuse me,” I say. I will not gesture. “Still pondering this travelling man’s name?”
Blue baggy anorak, scarf wrapped a couple of times, one end twitching at the back of his ear. Flecks of dandruff on his collar, no doubt.
“He’s dead,” the man says.
“I’m sorry,” I say, because death is a rather final situation.
His finger is back up and, with the shop empty, I have little alternative but to wait.
“Not COVID,” he says.
“How old-fashioned,” I say, but he’s not listening.
A wife. Undoubtedly a wife, probably one like the brown-shoed woman who’s just left, however this man’s garden will be neat, with roses.
“Died late 2019.”
“A man who travelled and died in late 2019,” I summarise and find, to my irritation, that I’m actually putting some effort into trying to remember who such a man might be. “Have you checked the travel section?”
“It’s not travel.” Now his head and finger are nodding in rhythm.
Homemade cakes, I decide. Lemon drizzle a speciality. Four p.m. stop for tea and cake, and a chat over the state of the black spot on the roses, and how thoughtless next door are for parking with two wheels on the pavement, and how outrageous ‘they’ are for not keeping their distance, or not having their jabs, and for wearing masks under their chins or dangling from one ear, and don’t start him on student parties or those yobs down the park! Why, in his day …
I realign the pile of shop-branded bookmarks, anything rather than be conducted by that finger.
“Wait,” he says. “Got it, got it.” His forehead is screwed right up now and I wonder if he realises how odd he looks. “James something.”
Should I repeat my earlier summary and add this new information?
“OK,” the man says. “I’m seeing trees and the sun.”
“Are they part of the title?” I ask.
The man shrugs. “Maybe,” he says.
I glance outside. Precious few people walking past. Yet another deserted week before Christmas and one man and a book by a dead author is all my entertainment. But at least I am not stuck at home and, for the time-being, have a job I moderately enjoy, so I type James and travel into the system.
“Clive James?” I suggest, and the man seems disappointed.
“Yes,” he says. “Clive James.”
“The River in the Sky?”
“Is that its name?”
“Yep, a poem. That’s right.”
“It’s in Poetry. There should be one copy. If it’s still there,” I add, although why anyone would want to steal a book of poetry, I have no idea. Not the sort of people who nick, poetry lovers. Children’s books, ok. Fantasy, sci-fi. Those, sure, in theory. Although we don’t actually get much of anything lifted from here. Just the odd one or two, and even then I imagine someone getting back to their beige hallway to discover, to their absolute horror, a copy of Jane Eyre in their shopper. Ah, the consternation. Should the felon take the nigh-on suicidal step of venturing back out just to admit to that strange-faced bookshop woman that she’s a thief? Perhaps she’ll leave it until the danger is finally over. Then, when she goes back into town, she’ll apologise for her oversight – never a thought that the shop itself might have become a COVID victim – and pay, and her conscience will be clear.
“Here.” The man returns, the book raised just as his finger had been earlier. He places it on the counter.
“Anything else?” I ask, slipping in two bookmarks to whittle down the pile that at the rate of three customers in a morning will outlive the shop.
“No, thank you.” The man unzips his coat to retrieve his wallet and underneath he has a crisp woollen jumper, not the one bagged and pilled by years of familiarity that I had imagined.
“Mind you, I don’t know if I’ll be able to read it,” he says, flashing his card across the payment terminal.
“A present then?” I suggest.
And he looks at me, that same expression of remembering he started out with. Ten minutes ago, I would have known if he was thinking of gifting the book to his aunt in Scotland, who has works by Sylvia Plath and James Joyce on her shelves, or to a brother in Canada, who always enjoyed Clive James’s Postcard From… and once said he liked a poem by Wordsworth. Now, I cannot be sure whether he’s considering which shop to brave next or what lunch he’ll have back home. Instead, I try to work out whether his mouth is neutral or tensed at the corners and what either of those might mean.
“You could put it on your pile of unread books,” I suggest, thinking of my own pile of far too many. Books that I have in mind to read as I lie on the sofa, blanket wrapped around me, fire blazing, while my cat sits on my shoulder, batting at the pages. Except my flat has no fire, and my landlord doesn’t allow pets, and my lumpy sofa would barely accommodate a sprawling five-year-old, let alone me.
He’s staring at me. Drat, my comment has disclosed that I have been making assumptions about him when all he is is another shopper braving a bookshop in the week before Christmas, and all I am is a rather abrupt sales assistant who is unable to instantly name a book from the description, ‘By the man who travelled.’
“I want to understand death.” He slides his card back into his wallet and the book into a worn Sainsburys carrier bag, which he places in his backpack. “But I’m half frightened it will become too acceptable to me if I do.”
Immediately the lemon drizzle cake evaporates, along with the wife and the neat garden, and the finger is no longer marking out my time, but this man’s.
“It’s OK,” he says. What he can see of my face must appear alarmed. “Just the Zeitgeist getting to me, I guess.” His eyes smile. “Where it’s taken my head.”
“That’s a relief,” I say and wonder if he can gauge the slight relaxation of my expression under my mask.
He tugs his backpack onto his shoulder. Stay, I want to say, stay and keep that finger held up. Count out as many seconds as you like while I show you The Nation’s Favourite Love Poems and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and, gosh, any number of uplifting and life-affirming books, none of which I can remember at the moment because, as you must have worked out, even if I could remember book titles, I’d still know nothing about people.
The man steps towards the door then turns. Perhaps he’s smiling. I think he is.
“Hey,” he says. “Stay safe.” He pauses. “And good luck to you.” He sort of indicates me, but it could be the empty shop.
“Thanks,” I say, wondering if adding, ‘I need it,’ would imply too great an intimacy, when all I have done is help him identify a book. “And a have a lovely Christ…,” I start, but he’s already left.
Ruth Brandt’s short stories and flash fiction have been widely published. She won the Kingston University MFA Creative Writing Prize, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Write Well Award and Best Small Fictions Award. Her prize-winning short story collection No One has any Intention of Building a Wall was published by Fly on the Wall Press in November 2021. She lives in Surrey, England with her husband and has two delightful sons. Twitter: @RuthABrandt Instagram: ruthabrandt