Blesok no. 57, November-December, 2007
The First Dialogue
Excerpt from the novel “The Twelfth Dialogue”
Another six-aspirin day, concedes Sonya Gore, owner of the second-hand bookshop BIBLIOPHILE. Grimacing, she reaches for a slim paperback from a pile on the counter. Early in the morning she drove to a market on the other side of town, where, compulsively selecting from the vast range on offer, she filled two large suitcases almost to bursting. She considers the paper-back for a moment, a collection of poems. Does it have any worth? What price should be set on it? She confronts the same dilemma over each book: how to reconcile intrinsic worth with a realistic price. As though a sixth finger, the cigarette in her right hand releases a line of smoke that curls and twists and spirals into a cursive script, covering her face with its uncoiling before drifting away to infiltrate the pages and add meaning to books pressed hard against each other on the shelves. If only this were an ideal world. Books would be free, or at least of equal worth. As it is, she must view them as commodities and appraise each for its resale value. Poetry! she now admonishes herself, scratching away the fossilised remnants of a silverfish on the title page. If only she had seen the circular coffee stain on the back cover. What possessed her to buy it? She knows only too well that poetry does not sell, particularly self-published work. Was she perhaps drawn by the cover, a charcoal sketch of a burnt tree with its roots in the sky? Or by the sound of the author's surname, Pepel? Turning pages almost as brown as fallen oak leaves, she notices an old train ticket, the sort that disappeared years ago. She is about to throw it away, but is checked by a whimsical thought: the book has travelled through time on this ticket, and is perhaps yet to reach its final destination. How far and how much longer will it travel on this ticket? she muses, replacing it precisely in its outline on the page.
In the chilly pre-dawn dark, as stalls were being set up and vendors of all sorts playfully cursed each other, the sentiment of several poems appealed to her and, without thinking, she dropped the book into her suitcase. Prudence, she now counsels herself. Be more circumspect in what you bring into the shop. This business requires an intuitive feel for prevailing tastes and trends, a sixth sense for books that flit from hand to hand. To survive the present recession you must be resolute with books crying for sympathy. Avoid pity that offers long-term shelter to self-published authors. The downhill road to bankruptcy is littered with good intentions. And this book of poems? It will find a place among the established poets and remain there until it is culled and taken back to a market – a painful but unavoidable practice necessitated by a chronic shortage of space.
Three years ago, when Sonya leased the vacant building between what was then a butcher and a bank (both now vacant), there were few second-hand bookshops in this part of town and business was brisk. At thirty, after seven years of teaching English to adolescents who were more interested in McDonald's food than Macbeth's words, she resigned, took out a second mortgage on the house she had bought the previous year, and became self-employed. The change was just what she needed: a spark to a withering life. Miserable in teaching from the very outset, she had doggedly persevered not in the hope that things would improve with promotions and seniority (in fact, she never applied for positions of responsibility), but more from the grim reality that she possessed no other skills or talents. Apart from the obligatory meetings and exchanges about unruly students, she had little contact with the other teachers, preferring to spend the lunch hour at her desk bent over a novel, or strolling the elmed paths of a nearby park, her face concealed by the covers of a book. Who knows, she may have endured another thirty years of quiet misery, but for the sudden and random attacks of panic she felt at the approach of her thirtieth birthday. Each attack triggered a shower of white stars that shot into her field of vision, and when they subsided a headache struck its spike between her eyes. The attacks culminated in a feeling of burnout, which made the very thought of packing her black briefcase a nightmare. Stress, her friends said. She ought to take a holiday, be more outgoing, meet someone who would sweep her off her feet. To Sonya, a holiday was nothing more than a temporary escape; as for a man, she much preferred the company of books. And that was precisely where her cure lay.
Within a week of resigning, the panic attacks stopped and she felt ready for a new life. Methodical by nature, she had studied a number of likely suburbs and shopping strips, researched the demographics of the area, spoken to shopkeepers, and settled on a single-storey building with a large front room, a smaller back room with an open fireplace, and exposed brick-work on the internal walls. The landlord, Lev Simkin, was a seventy-year-old tailor whose own shop was nearby, on the same street. After they had agreed on the terms and conditions of the lease, Simkin offered Sonya a few words of advice, speaking with a lisp. In business your best friends were paper and pen. The devil's haunt was the human mouth. Black on white, he said, venting his anger at the previous tenant, an accountant who had been charged with embezzling clients' funds and sentenced to four years' imprisonment, leaving Simkin considerably out of pocket (though thankful the fellow had not set fire to the building in a desperate attempt to conceal the evidence of his crimes).
As the shop was being painted and fitted with shelves, bookcases and a glass counter, Sonya exchanged her car for an older-model van and set out to learn her new trade. Taking notes all the time, she quickly made contacts and got a feel for the buying and selling price of different types of books. Her sources of supply were advertised in newspapers or picked up by word of mouth: markets, church fairs, second-hand stores that sold everything from clothes to furniture, garage sales of people shifting house, estates of souls who had moved from this world to the next. Having completed her homework, Sonya went about indulging her passion for books in a way she had experienced only in dreams. She bought two large, sturdy suitcases from a nearby church-run welfare store and embarked on an exhilarating shopping spree, filling the shop with cartons of books. Over several nights, losing all track of time and sustained by coffee and cigarettes, she arranged her purchases on the new pinewood shelves, transforming her life in the process. On the day the signwriter smoothed the final brush-strokes to BIBLIOPHILE on the front window (she had studied his list of scripts and decided on Gothic in gold, set in a crimson block), she stood behind the counter, happy and proud at what she had accomplished in such a short time. The smell of pine, paint and paper mingled in the shop. Neatly arranged on the new shelves according to subject and author, her books were ready for business. When the signwriter came in for payment, his -white overalls spotted with colour, he complained that his was a dying craft. Computers, he said, as she counted the notes into his palm. Sure they could laser print peel-off-stick-on signs for half his cost, but such signs were impermanent, their letters wrinkled and cracked, lacking not only the body of paint but the human touch. The sign on her window would last a lifetime and draw customers, he said.
With turnover increasing each month in the first year, Sonya comfortably met her outgoings, made her repayments on the bank loan, and still had enough left over as clear profit. Comparing this to her life in teaching, she could scarcely believe her present happiness and capacity for work. Work? The word had all kinds of unpleasant associations. Her present activity was a pleasure, a passion – the profit was quite ancillary. Immersed in the business, surrendering herself to the charm of books, she felt no need to socialise with her small circle of friends. Books, novels in particular, had always been her joy. Whenever she recalled an important event or a defining moment in her life, it was always in terms of the book she had been reading at the time; not just the title and text, but the very texture of the pages, the feel of its weight, the smell of its paper. Now, surrounded by the objects of her desire, there was no need to seek happiness elsewhere.
The honeymoon lasted nearly two years, and then, almost overnight, the country's economic climate changed: the air became heavy with recession, while the more gloomy forecasters were warning of depression. Suddenly second-hand bookshops were springing up everywhere, proliferating like mushrooms in damp conditions. Two others opened on the same street, not more than a few hundred metres from her. Takings declined, falling to a level where she barely made a wage. Investigating the larger of the two shops, she was disgusted by what she found. The bearded, dishevelled proprietor had no feeling for what he sold, or he would not have housed books in such a dismal place. The fellow had no doubt taken advantage of a cheap lease (the only things flourishing in the city were the FOR SALE and FOR LEASE boards on once-thriving premises, with an obvious sale in every lease), knocked together some rough shelving, and taped a sign on the window announcing BOOKS BY THE KILO. Her disgust turned to anger. Books were not cabbages: they were not meant to be bought, consumed and discarded. A voracious reader from an early age, Sonya had always cherished her books and as a child would spend hours arranging and rearranging them on a plywood case her father had built. The permutations of colours and titles seemed endless, and each arrangement was like a new collection. At times she would read the titles aloud, as though that particular arrangement of sounds were the key to a world of adventure, the 'Open Sesame' of a story yet to be written. This place would not last long, she consoled herself. The fellow was obviously an opportunist, cashing in on the misfortune of people caught out by the recession, forced to sell not only their books but all they owned. He did not have her love of books. Her view of the shaggy proprietor was vindicated by a pile of comics in a corner of the shop. She detests them and refuses to sell them, despite their present popularity as collectors' items, and the fact that a few have acquired something of a cult following. Her dislike goes back to childhood: even then, possibly because of her advanced reading level, she considered herself above comics. They were intended for those with a feeble imagination, for whom illustrations were needed to flesh out the text and make the wonder of words come to life.
Straightening up from writing in a notepad, the fellow rotated his head a few times, jerked it this way and that, accorded her a thoughtful look, then returned to his work, scribbling as though inspired. A writer, she thought, and her antipathy toward him subsided. As an avid reader it was only natural that she had also wanted to be a writer, but her one serious attempt ended in failure. She was twenty-one and had just completed her first placement as a student–teacher. The three-week experience had gone well, at least on the surface, with an encouraging report from her supervisor; on a deeper level, however, she felt as though she -were being inexorably drawn toward an abyss. Desperate, she suddenly saw writing as her means of salvation. The outcome, completed in six months, was a turgid Lolita-type novel in which a teacher was seduced by one of his students, a mischievous girl who, disliking school, decided to test the power of her newly-awakened sexual prowess m a destructive game against him. Devastated by four or five rejections from publishers, she gathered all the copies of the manuscript together with the intention of burning them. She put them in a tin drum and, wanting a quick end, sprinkled them with kerosene. But she recoiled from the match's impish flame, terrified by the finality of fire, as though she were about to cremate part of herself. Instead, she took the manuscripts and buried them in a compost heap, beneath rotting leaves, fruit and vegetables. A week later, when the paper had putrefied without trace of a word, she forked the stinking refuse into the flowerbed, amongst the flourishing roses and rhododendrons.
Sonya stares at her reflection in the O of the shop's name on the window. She has already taken four aspirin, the last two at lunchtime, and she is determined lo overcome her headache through intense work. Mind over matter, she thinks, turning to the suitcases. For the next three hours, she wipes each book with a soft cloth, feels the texture of its paper, inhales its particular mustiness, flicks away the remnants of the odd insect, and blacks out the names of previous owners and prices. Then, using all the experience gained in three years of buying and selling, she prices each with a small yellow sticker on the spine.
Finally, she pushes aside the last pile of books, crushes her cigarette in the overflowing tray, blows a few flakes of ash from the glass counter, and slips the packet of aspirin from her jacket. Now, as the winter evening tightens its grip on the city and rain begins to fall, darkness presses against the front window, enhancing the reflection of ceiling-high shelves that appear not quite perpendicular, Sonya rubs her left temple and gazes at the white tablets in the hollow of her palm. Tiny eggs in a nest of wrinkles, she thinks. After a deep sigh that seems to take the stuffing out of her, she tosses the tablets into the back of her mouth and swallows them with a gulp of cold coffee. Soon the tiny eggs will hatch in her knotted stomach, releasing two angels of mercy that will spread their wings, flutter through her veins, hum their way through the labyrinth of her brain and silence the merciless demon chiselling at her temple.
A fire engine screams past, gleaming under the orange streetlights. Inside, chewing casually, a young fellow in the back seat is buttoning his coat. Stepping over books piled on the floor, she goes to the doorway, drags in the stand marked BARGAINS and locks the door. She stands there for a while, staring now at her features circumscribed by the O, now through them at the street glistening with misty rain. The two parallel lines across her forehead have become more prominent in the last year. Splashes of orange, red, green colour the bitumen. A truck groans past, shaking the front window. The reflected shelves sway, as though about to topple and bury her in books. Her eyes are a haunt for purple shadows. A cherubed clock behind the counter chimes six. Simkin will be here soon. Across the street a brightly lit FOR SALE OR LEASE board stands on the veranda of an empty shop. Next to this, the once-fiery sign PLAMEN'S GRILL has been almost obliterated by smoke. The restaurant burnt down last month, and through the gaping upper-storey windows the blackened roof-beams stand out against the night sky. The other three businesses in the row of two-storey terraces appear to be faring better. There is no shortage of customers to the betting agency; in fact, the number of gamblers appears to have increased in direct proportion to the depth of the recession. Punters are always loitering around the entrance, littering the footpath with tickets and cigarette butts. The bread shop is also doing well, providing punters with crispy French sticks and a little fresh hope between races. Last summer a body piercing salon opened in the building on the end. An artist worked on the front window for days, painting an eagle and a snake caught in a ferocious struggle.
From the gathering dark a face appears and presses between the letters on the window, smiling crookedly. Sonya turns the CLOSED sign outward. A claw with numerous rings clatters on the glass. Sonya recognises an old woman 'who comes to the shop from time to time to sell books and exchange gossip. Tonight, though, with the headache becoming sharper, Sonya rattles the sign at her. The woman points to an old-fashioned shopping trolley with which she roams the streets and lanes in the area, rummaging here and there, collecting anything that might be of value. The books she brings are generally of no interest to Sonya, though she is sometimes pleasantly surprised by the offering. No, she now exhorts herself. She bought several hundred this morning and sold about forty. The woman opens the trolley's cover and invites Sonya to look inside. What has she found this time? Perhaps a classic long out of print? Chastising herself, she opens the door. The woman pushes her four-wheeled trolley inside, complaining that winter was not this cold when she was a girl. She was sixteen when she got her first overcoat. Now she wears two and still cannot get warm. Chuckling, she dips into the trolley and places the books on the counter. The odour of marijuana rises from them. She found them in a back lane, all in a rubbish bag. The young people who have invaded the area respect nothing, she complains. What with their pink hair, torn jeans, and pins through their noses there is no telling boys from girls. They live like gypsies. Six months here, six there. And every time they move, out go half their belongings. They have it too easy, she scowls. Things were different back in the old days when honest families lived in this area. People had respect in those days – respect for work, for their appearance, for their belongings.
Rubbing her temple, Sonya inspects the offering at a glance: novels, books on the occult, three or four battered texts on mathematics. She already has several copies of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and one of Tolstoy's Resurrection. Should she buy the ones on the counter? They are in good condition. The woman smiles and adjusts her unevenly buttoned overcoat. A few drops of rain flick onto Sonya's hands as the woman shakes a red umbrella. She selects seven or eight titles and pushes the others back. Her wrinkled face contracting in disappointment, the woman tosses the unwanted books into the trolley. Sonya rings open the cash register, scrambles out a few coins and drops them in an extended palm that closes like a mousetrap. Outside, the woman opens her umbrella, waits for a break in the traffic, and hobbles across the colourful street, where she straightens her overcoat and enters the betting agency.
Sonya removes the day's takings from the register and goes to the back room. She prods the dozing fire and throws in a few scraps of black, damp wood. Thank heaven for aspirin: the pain in her head is not as strong. Simkin is due any minute. Sitting in a faded armchair with protruding springs, she prepares the rent money. A few dollars short. She should have listened to reason and not opened for the old woman. Now she will have to squirm in explaining the shortfall to Simkin. She lights a cigarette, leans back and closes her eyes. No sooner does she feel a tingle coursing through her body than she starts and sits upright. Voices again. Is it due to the headaches she has been having? Is it her imagination playing tricks? Or the fact that business is slow and she is spending more time alone? It has happened a few times in recent months. At first, nothing more than the rustle of a page, as though someone were leafing through a book on the other side of the shelves. Had a customer entered without her knowledge? It turned out to be nothing more than a draught sneaking in through the gap under the front door. Then the sounds became a whisper coming from the back room, where she keeps drama, poetry and religion. When she -went to check, the whispers gave way to sap wheezing in the fireplace. She began to play classical music when things were too quiet. This dispelled the sounds, but only temporarily, for they returned with more distinctness than before.
She goes to the front – nothing. Cars swish past on the wet road. She checks the door and finds it securely locked. But slipped under the door is a large gold envelope with her name handwritten in a neat blue script. No address, no stamp. Is that what made her start, the sender shuffling at the door? She is about to open it, when Simkin appears and taps on the window with the handle of his umbrella. Pressing the envelope to her breasts, she opens for the old tailor, with his familiar measuring tape around his neck. As they walk to the back room, he inspects the shop, darting glances from under eyebrows well overdue for a trim. At their first meeting he informed Sonya that he preferred to deal directly with his tenants, rather than relying on agents, who more often than not did very little to justify their commission. And so at six, on the sixth of each month, he came not just to collect the rent, but to judge for himself the state of his tenant's business. Sonya recently exercised her option and signed a new lease for a further three years, though not before Simkin interrogated her at length about her ability to meet commitments. Times were bad, he said. Businesses were closing all over the place. Things would get worse. He had seen it before in his fifty years since coming to this country from Bulgaria. Business was like musical chairs: while people were running around, happily wheeling and dealing, there was a seat for all. But when bankers and politicians pulled the plug and the music stopped, people found themselves not only without a chair, but without trousers and backsides. He had been burnt a couple of times himself: a tenant's once-thriving business fails, they declare themselves bankrupt, and the poor landlord is left with an empty building and a lease not worth the paper it is written on.
They sit in front of the fire and exchange small talk about winter's sudden onset. They have missed out on autumn this year, says Simkin, playing with the end of the measuring tape. It is his favourite season. The sound of maple leaves scuttling over bitumen reminds him of Bulgaria. As a child in Sofia before the Second World War he would run through the quilted blanket of poplar leaves covering the cobbled streets. From their numerous chats, Sonya has learnt that Lev Simkin was born in Sofia, where his father and grandfather, who had originally come from Salonika, were also tailors. His ancestors, Spanish Jews, or Sephardic Jews as they were more commonly called, had been forced by the Inquisition to leave Catalonia. Knowing of their talents as craftsmen, merchants and scholars, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid the Second invited the refugees to settle throughout the Turkish empire. His grandfather had a prosperous business in Salonika, making fezzes for Jews, Muslims and Christians. In those days if men wanted to advance in their trade or profession, they had to show their loyally to the sultan, which meant wearing a fez with a black tassel. The fez-making business declined with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. When the Turks were driven from Salonika in 1912, grandfather Simkin moved the family and settled in Sofia. He must have had a sixth sense of what would happen thirty years later. In 1943 the large Jewish population of Salonika was rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the concentration camps. For some reason the Bulgarian government, an ally of the Germans, interceded on behalf of its Jewish citizens and saved them from the gas chambers. When the fascists were defeated and the communists took control of Bulgaria, the Simkins left for France, from where, with only a bundle under his arm, the twenty-year-old Lev Simkin came here.
The springs squeal as he sits more upright. And business? he asks in a deeper tone. Are books selling? They are moving, Sonya replies, giving him the rent. He licks a finger and flicks deftly through the notes. The envelope on her lap, Sonya studies the handwriting, but is unable to put a face to it. Simkin's eyebrows fall, his lower lip glistens. The rent is short. She is quick to apologise. She will make it up next month, or tomorrow if he prefers. He frowns. A calendar month is a long time in business. Anything could happen in this uncertain climate. Would he like a few books instead? Simkin closes his eyes and raises his chin. Is business really all right? he asks, twisting the ends of his eyebrows. Her right palm raised to the fire, Sonya swears that books are moving, not as well as she would like, but enough for the outgoings. Simkin nods and reminds her of his losses from the accountant. Sonya tells him that her takings have suffered a setback due to other bookshops opening in the area. They will not last long, she assures him. They are nothing more than fly-by-nights. He nods, unconvinced. How is your business faring? she continues. He points out that times of recession benefit him. People cannot afford new clothes so they alter and mend what they have. Not only this, the young people now moving into the area are very fond of buying recycled clothes, which of course require mending and alteration. Our businesses are similar, says Sonya. You clothe the body and I clothe the soul with ideas. He muses a moment, then takes out a receipt book, scribbles a few things, tears out a page and extends it to her. The shortfall? It can wait until next month, he says, standing. At the front door he wishes her good night, with the hope for a better month to come. She clicks the lock, checks it several times, turns off the lights in the front of the shop, and hurries to the back room.
Opening the envelope with a paper knife, Sonya counts nine handwritten sheets. On the first, in capitals executed by a hand sure in the use of a fountain pen, she reads, THE FIRST DIALOGUE. She turns quickly to the last page - neither an author's name nor an explanatory note. Perplexed, she sits and prods the fire. The textured pages are unlined, but the writing sits perfectly horizontal; the words have a gentle forward slope, while the spacing between them is uniform. At arm's length the script might easily be mistaken for the work of a computer - a printout of an italicized font. Examining the first page under the bare overhead bulb, she can discern the texture of ink in each letter, the movement of the nib, the slight tremor (revealing as a fingerprint) in the hand of the anonymous author. It suddenly strikes Sonya that the writing is so meticulous the author could not possibly have produced more than one copy. But why send the original? And in such a way that it might easily be irretrievably lost? A serious writer would have used a word processor and sent a printout, or at least a photocopy. Has the author mistakenly sent the original in place of the copy? Will he or she realise the mistake and come to the shop first thing in the morning? Enough speculation. She lights a cigarette, draws deeply, and blows the smoke aside. The answer to the mystery might lie in the work itself. And suddenly she feels the familiar tingle of excitement at the knowledge that the front door is locked and she is deliciously alone, without commitment, free at last to enjoy the voluptuous pleasure of reading, to surrender fully to the body of the text resting on her lap.