[Wrote story. To be filed among the annal(s) of Journohaus, cross-referenced under the sub-sections 'adventure', 'strange', 'odd' and 'impossible'. Read on ... ]
A strange thing happened to me today. Or rather, a number of strange things happened to me today, and in so rapid and consistent a fashion that I have barely had time to determine whether or not the strange things have ceased happening. I half expect that, any moment now, some new puzzlement will raise its head above the parapet of mystery and charge straight through the doors of Journohaus – this infamous, much-maligned abode of my housemates and myself.
But I am getting ahead of myself. You see, it all started when I went in to my local Oxfam. I walked in during my leisure time (Wednesday) and listened, with a smile on my face, to the hollow tinkle of the broken bell on the door. I had barely begun to say “Hello, Simon!” when I looked up to discover that Simon, the regular Oxfam boy, was not at his post. There was some other person – a giant in dungarees, who was assaulting stacks of Patricia Cornwell with a pricing gun, and riveting them with price stickers in an almost hypnotic manner.
I didn’t think much of it, except that it was a very hot Wednesday to be wearing dungarees. Like every visit to my local Oxfam second-hand book shop on Streatham High Street, I perused the collectibles section with a silent, focused verve and it wasn’t long before I found a first edition of Kendra Redford’s excellent debut ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’. I hope I do not shame myself too much when I admit that I had still not read those illustrious words. Though Redford is possibly the most lauded literary woman of the past three decades, within certain circles, I had been thwarted by chance and laziness when it came to sitting down to read her works. Well, no longer, I thought. For the fair price of three pounds sterling I was certain to finally enjoy this much-honoured story of Miss Valerie Fore, impoverished child entrepreneur, who becomes an eminent flautist and gentlelady, before being laid low by society’s fickle whims, then brought back to her previous station (and then laid low again). I had heard so much good about this stormy narrative that, in my enthusiasm, I leapt over the piles of paperbacks toward the checkout desk, forgot all about the giant in dungarees, and shouted, “Simon! Look!”
“Simon’s not in today,” said the giant, as he went on stamping Patricia Cornwell books with an invincible rhythm.
“Oh, yes, of course,” I said. “Well, in any case, I’d like to buy this, please.”
I handed him the copy of ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’ and he held it in one hand as he peered down at me over the rim of the hard, brown cover. All the while the stamping of the plastic pricing gun continued, like the tick-tock of some terrible pocket watch.
“Three pounds sterling, please,” said the giant.
During the exchange which followed I would see, at separate times, each of the giant’s hands as they individually engulfed various coins and calculated change. But the plasticated hammering of the pricing gun never ceased its once-a-second pattern. Very strange. It was only afterward, when I stepped outside the Oxfam and examined the tough, threaded texture of my newly-acquired precious first edition, that I realised I had not even inspected the inside of the book!
In a panic I clawed open the volume and as I flicked through, searching for the exploits of Miss Valerie Fore, her upbringing in rural Hampshire, her musical awakening with the gypsy spoons band, her abduction by villainous landowners, the correction of her posture by successive schoolmistresses, the distressing episode with the otter-men and the eventual rescue by a well-meaning fisherwoman – all this, as I flipped through searching for all this, I saw instead printed, on each and every page, the words: ‘This Product Is Pre-Owned. Please Purchase Full Book For £7.99’, followed by some vague encoded instruction on how to buy the 259,751 missing words.
Well, you can imagine how I felt. I was overcome by a fury so intense that it was a full ten minutes before I could express myself in English to the giant without resorting to huge roars and calamitous belches.
“This book has no words in it!” I said.
The giant looked inside and held the pages open with his non-pricing hand.
“Yes it does,” he said, “but I can see they are not very interesting.”
I breathed deeply and suppressed a furious screech.
“No,” I said. “They are not very interesting at all. Where are the chapters? Where is the story? Where is the part with the Walrus trainer that I read about in the Guardian Online Review Supplement? I paid three pounds sterling for this!”
I held the book aloft and slammed it violently against the counter, before immediately regretting it and cradling it apologetically to my chest.
“I can arrange a refund, if you like,” said the loathsome, helpful giant.
“I don’t want a refund, I want my book!”
“I think you might have to follow the instructions inside then, sir.”
“But but but…”
My fury was fading, replaced by a sense of falling. I was succumbing to the worst of all possible modern afflictions – consumer despondency. I could feel myself crumbling into a state of tearful helplessness.
“But… but… listen, where’s Simon!? He’ll sort this out, he always knows what’s what. Why isn’t he working today?”
“Simon has a new job now, sir.”
My lip began to quiver.
“A new job? But Oxfam boys work for free,” I said, comprehending less and less of the dungareed creature’s continued pleas for calm.
“Yes, exactly,” he said. “He got a job and now he gets paid. It’s something to do with books as well, I think. Look, I will write down the phone number for you.”
The giant looked around for a pen and found nothing. When we had both exhausted every corner of the counter and had lifted every askance copy of Patricia Cornwell in our search, he decided that there was no pen or pencil available. It was then that he took the rickety plastic pricing gun and, after a few adjustments to the dial, began to stamp the stickered digits of a telephone number onto my arm. With an affirming, synchronised nod we both agreed it was an ingenious workaround and in that way we made our peace before I left the Oxfam to find the part of the pavement with mobile phone reception.
A few dozen women with Caribbean accents had crowded the three slabs where the reception in Streatham is brightest and were talking excitedly into their phones and to each other about the latest Patricia Cornwell release. As a result I was isolated to the outside of the receptive zone, where I would get only a single bar of phone service. I crushed up against a large Polish lady with a tremendous grin and a pram full of tiny human fingers and called the number on the stickers, which were by now beginning to peel off in the bright Wednesday sun. As I idled and waited for my call to be answered, I opened ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’ and shook my head accusingly at the words which had enraged me so. ‘This Product Is Pre-Owned’. Indeed! ‘Please Purchase Full Book For £7.99’. Well! ‘For Purchasing Queries Please Call…’
Wait! This number in the book… Why, it was the number I had been given by the giant in Oxfam, to phone Simon. The very number I was now calling. What was going on here? Who was doing all this? The Polish lady and all the other Caribbean-voiced women saw the consternation and terror in my face and began to laugh beautifully and boldly.
“Hello, you’ve reached Uberbooker, my name is Simon, how can I hel –
“Simon!” I cried down the receiver. “Simon, it’s me!”
“It’s me, the man who comes and buys the collectibles at Oxfam. Where are you? I need to speak to you urgently!”
“Oh… Oh no, listen. Listen,” he said, lowering his voice, “You need to not call here. They’ll be listening! Don’t chase this up. Please, collectibles man. If I know you, you’ll be trying all sorts and messing this all up!”
“No, listen! You’ve got to trust me on this. Don’t. Worry. I’m fine, really it’s ju – shit! I have to go.”
It was too late. He had hung up on me. I tried calling back several times but I could only get through to an automated switchboard which read out several business haikus and asked me to press the number on my keypad which best reflected how many kilos of Patricia Cornwell books I wanted to be sent to my nearest Uberbooker warehouse. I pressed nine-zero-zero to see what would happen and the automated switchboard told me: “Thank you. You have ordered. Nine. Zero. Zero. Kilos of. Patricia Cornwell. To. Nineteen. Broadswamp Avenue. Soho. London. If you would like to review your order, please press. One.”
I hung up, looked up at the burning Wednesday sky and memorised the address. Simon was in danger, and I was sure he didn’t even know it. Whoever this shadowy Uberbooker company was, it was certainly not going to cheat me out of my first edition Kendra Redford. As I stormed towards the bus stop I found myself clutching the book and wondering what Redford herself would do – a woman so courageous and mighty that she would have stopped at nothing to save her local Oxfam. A woman who had not once but twice won the Colman Watts Literary Prize for Feminist Ghost Fiction. In truth, I thought as I stepped on the bus and swiped my Oyster travel card, she is the strongest lady of them all, and simply would not stand for this.
“Lobster card, please.”
The bus driver had called after me. I walked three measured steps backwards to face his booth and said, “L-l-l-lobster card?”
He sighed and pointed to a row of bright card-reading machines that ran along the gulley of the bus’ interior, like a row of tiny bongo drums, each bearing a different colour and strange symbol. The bus driver swivelled as best his twisted spine allowed him and pointed to each machine in turn.
“Lobster card. Mussel card. Urchin card. Prawn card…”
“Wait wait –
“… King Crab Card. Krill card. Deep Sea Anemone Card…”
“But an anemone isn’t a crustacean! That doesn’t even fit the pattern!”
The bus driver sighed again and closed the bus doors. He pulled away from the bus stop and drove on, impatiently. He glanced once or twice at me with a glare informed by years of customer hatred. When he saw me still standing there looking hopeless after three stops of professional card-swiping passengers he took a deep breath and, still driving the red monster into the centre of the city, began to explain the new technical intricacies of London Transport.
“The Lobster Card is like the Oyster Card,” he said, “in that it deducts from your sum. But it uses Travel Points instead of cash. The Mussel Card is like the Krill Card, which is an iterative card that adds Travel Bonus Points, except that the Mussel Card is for Travel Credit Points. The Prawn Card and the Urchin Card are similar, in that they both deduct AND subtract from your Extraneous Stationary Credits, with the only difference being that the Urchin Card takes a higher proportion of Contemporary Creditable Reserve Travel from the users, in accordance with TfL guidelines. The King Crab Card, well! That’s for banking Creditable Travel Credits and the Deep Sea Anemone Card is simply for cashing Travelable Crediting Points.”
I blinked and said, “Yes, I see now. Where can I purchase these cards?”
“You can purchase these cards,” he said, “at any reputable Crustifarian outlet, or in TfL stations.”
“Thank you,” I said. And with that we both spent the rest of the bus journey ensconced in a thoughtless silence until the bus arrived in Soho, under the blistering mid-week sun. I hopped off and walked up and down the crowded street until I discovered a distended TfL Crustifarian logo hanging outside a small alleyway newsagents. I approached and saw that the sign – the silhouette of a subspecies of Brazilian ghost crab, if I was not mistaken – was drooping and melting in the heat, so that it no longer resembled the transport trademark but a long-limbed yellow alien. I went into the newsagents and promptly collected all seven travel cards, happily paying the £7.99 deposit for each.
“Would you like the new Scampi Card?” the woman behind the counter asked in a broad Punjabi accent. And she grinned at me in such a matriarchal and knowing way that I instantly answered that I did, and would be very glad for it. “It is in beta,” she said, smiling. “So there may be a few minor issues.”
I paid the extra and left, forgetting to ask exactly which type of currency the Scampi Card functioned on or what was the card’s particular rate of deduction, retraction, complementation, or sub-addition.
I consulted a map stand and discovered that Broadswamp Avenue was nearby. Finally, I would discover who exactly was behind all of this and what they had done with my friend Simon, who was surely under strict observation and subject to any amount of infernal tortures. If I wanted to alleviate his pains, I had to hurry!
“Oh, yes please.”
I took the pasty and napkin from the travelling pasty salesman and began to chew as I mulled over which direction I should walk in.
“That’ll be £7.99 please, sir.”
“By feh gloreh uff feh Almighteh!”
“I know, sir, I know. But it’s inflation you see.”
“Thiff pafty if RULLY HAWT,” I said, handing him the money.
“I know sir, I know. But it’s taxes you see.”
I got my bearings and started to run down the streets of Soho, regaining some of my former urgency. It was only when I reached the corner of Broadswamp and started to waddle purposefully down the dreary cobblestoned avenue that I began to suspect, chew by chew, that the pasty I had bought contained no meat or vegetables, only a thick brown sauce that had substituted flavour for an intense heat. I simultaneously began to sweat and regret my purchasing decision.
I looked up and saw that I had arrived at number nineteen, the entrance to which resembled the backstage door to some clandestine theatre. I finished off the sauce pasty and wiped my hands on the napkin, then made my way inside. After travelling through several ill-lit corridors and passing three creatures I can only assume were urban foxes made good, I arrived in a wide-open warehouse floor densely packed with dark blue, dark red and dark white paperbacks. They all bore the name ‘Patricia Cornwell’ in bold, stark lettering, apart from a small stack in the corner which was written by Glen L. Feol and titled: ‘The Complete Patricia Cornwell Companion’. I looked across the books and saw that they continued into the horizon, where my eyes dimly perceived some movement. There were several more of the fox-like creatures scavenging among the volumes, trotting atop the piles with nimble, long-limbed strides.
I rolled the legs of my jeans up to my knees and began to paddle through the books. But soon the tide was up to my waist, and then my wading through the endless warehouse became not just difficult but frightful, as a rollicking storm began in the rafters overhead and shook loose several of the lamps. I thought I heard the ‘beeep-beeep-beeep’ of a reversing lorry. Suddenly, the waves of books began to crash over my head and I was in danger of drowning. Out from the gloom I saw an oncoming swell – a huge crime thriller tsunami. It impacted my body like the force of a bomb. In the resulting tumult I saw two of the animals from before helplessly dragged into the pulpy depths. I saw too late that they were not urban foxes, but the South American Maned Wolf, a rare and beautiful species, known for its timidity and intellectual prowess. I felt, in that moment of papery jeopardy, an odd kinship with the drowning wolves, who were surely investigating the warehouse with the same aim – to discover what unassailable malignance had defaced the inimitable works of Prof Kendra Redford BD MPhil OBE MEP. Why else would the Maned Wolf clans be here? Patricia Cornwell, prodigious as she may be, was not to that species’ particular taste – as everyone knows.
I fought through the tempest and, miraculously, reached the opposite shore of the warehouse just as the squall in the rafters subsided and the lamps dangling from the ceiling began to reassert their former dimness. I shook off the dry leaves of crime that clung to my body. My arms, neck and face were the victim of countless tiny slices, none of which I had noticed until I stopped to inspect them on the way through the warehouse door.
Someone shouted at me from a steel staircase in the concrete hollow on the other side of the divide.
“You there! Come here!”
I walked towards the shadowy figure. His torso was held taut as he leant on the railing of his staircase. As I came closer, I saw his hands grasping the rail. The left hand was fat, with fingers like Cumberland sausages, and the right hand was thin and riddled with angry green veins. He lifted the thin hand and I saw the shine of a spittle-glistened smile break through the glum surroundings.
“Hello!” he said. “You must be the fellow who has come for the klaxon, yes?”
I nodded and tried my best to reign in my gasping. I was still tired from the book storm and thought it would be best not to interrupt this man’s order of thought.
“Yes,” I said. “Where is the klaxon?”
“Thank the Heavens,” he said. He grinned and wiped his nose with the thumb of his fat hand, then motioned for me to follow him up the steel steps to his boxed office. The sign on the door said: ‘Gregorio Trimble, CEO – Uberbooker, UnLtd’.
“Take a seat,” he said, waving at a bean bag in the centre of the room. I rested myself as graciously as I could into the flump of cushion and polystyrene while Gregorio went to the cupboard and took out the following objects: one pen, one sheet of paper, two small cups without handles, one bag of ice, one bottle of courageous purple absinthe, one large beanbag, and one blue hand-sized object of undeterminable origin. He threw the beanbag into the empty space opposite my own and bombed onto it with such force that several of the beads inside popped out and pinged past my head like stray bullets in a warzone.
“I apologise!” he boomed. “Now, here is the klaxon.”
He gently handed me the blue object of undeterminable origin.
“Could you sign for it please? Be careful.”
He reached over with the pen and paper. I saw the ink dripping out of the bottom of the pen’s nib, like blood, and the legalese on the sheet and it was at that moment I saw my chance and took it. I grasped the klaxon by the handle and shook it as fiercely as I could.
“Wh-what are you doing?” Gregorio said. He stood up, aghast.
He began to cover his ears and sweat. “Please, let’s talk about this!”
“No!” Gregorio yelled, “No! Please stop!”
“Anything! I’ll do anything!”
“Will you help me with a customer service problem!?” I shouted, over the noise of the fearful klaxon.
“Yes!” he said. “Yes, customer satisfaction! Complaints! Queries! Anything!”
“Okay!” I said brightly. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” said Gregorio, sitting down on his beanbag again and wiping the yellow sweat from his lips with his thin hand. “Jesus.”
I felt bad about making him take the Lord Our God’s name in vain, so I gave him a sympathetic look and poured us both a glass of the purple absinthe. I put three cubes of ice in his glass, to be sure of his refreshment.
“Let’s get our breath back,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, looking grateful and somewhat more cheerful. “Yes, thank you.”
We took a drink and talked about the week’s markets, mostly in vague, base terms because of my comparative lack of stock broking knowledge. When he saw that I was happy with the situation and was waiting for him to become comfortable again, he remembered why I had come and diplomatically changed the subject to helping me with my problem, true to his word.
“But you have come because of a customer service query,” he smiled.
“Yes. You sell books, correct?”
“And you sold this book once, correct?”
I took the copy of ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’ from my back pocket and held it out to him. He took it and squinted at the blurb.
“Oh yes,” he said, “that’s undisputable.”
“Well, I bought this book for three pounds sterling.”
“Oh yes, that’s beyond doubt.”
“But it’s asking me to pay £7.99 now to read.”
“Oh indeed, that would be the case.”
I was puzzled.
“But I have already bought the book for three pounds sterling,” I said.
“Oh yes, you bought the book, of course.”
“So the book is mine.”
“Oh no, the book is ours, of course.”
“But I bought it in the Oxfam shop second hand.”
“Oh yes, you bought it certainly.”
“So that I could read it whenever.”
“Truly so. Whenever you like. Now, even!”
“So it’s my book.”
“Oh no, it’s our book, you see.”
I sat and mulled this over. A few minutes passed and he hummed an Uberbooker patented tune as he waited good-humouredly for my response, which came within six minutes sharp. I put my fingers together, crossed my legs and pursed my lips, and was generally very careful to get my words in the correct order. I began.
“But… when one buys something… it becomes one’s own… so, I bought the book, therefore I own it. Because of the law.”
He looked astounded. As if I had accused him of the most shameful robbery.
“Oh no, we don’t own the book! That’s yours, of course!”
“You see!” I said, lying back in the bean bag and smiling gracefully. I had finally explained things to him.
“We just own the ink.”
I sat up straight.
“The book is, of course, your own. You can pick it up, put it down, put it on your shelf…”
He held up the book and moved it around as he mimed these various actions, glassy-eyed with wonder and business acumen.
“…you can feel the spine, feel the cover, flick through the pages, and even smell the pages! Everything like that, it’s all yours, yes! We wouldn’t try to take the book away from you. Goodness gracious, no. We’re not monsters!”
He smiled and breathed out a deep relief.
“We just own the ink, that’s all.”
He handed the book back to me with his thin hand and stood up. “Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”
“Simon,” I said, standing up to meet the canopy of his bulbous outstretched arm. “Do you know where my friend Simon is? I think he is working here.”
“Yes, but it is a mistake. He is an Oxfam boy.”
“Oh, I see. Well, if he is here, he will be on the factory floor. This way!”
Gregorio, with his arm on my shoulder, took us out into some damp concrete corridors where the halogen lights threw down two distinct shades of luminous violet with such potency that it gave our eyesight a kind of bluish double-vision. All at once there were four persons webbed together walking down the corridor – two Gregorios and two myselves – and every one of us clasping their glass of absinthe, which emitted an icy rattling, as we tramped down the quadruple hallways of the Uberbooker warehouse.
We left the violet-lit labyrinth and looked down from a railing onto a factory floor where five figures, surrounded by wooden crates and shiny books, typed feverishly at refurbished Dell laptops.
“This is the factory floor,” said Gregorio, swaying. He fanned his fat and thin hand out in a great salute to industry and told me several facts about the procedure.
“This branch focuses on Patricia Cornwell novels,” he explained. “She is by far the most popular author in Christendom, not to mention one of the most desirable women in the northern Hemisphere.” He paused. “No, every hemisphere. I make no apologies for the lustful indignities I would subject her to, were she to arrive here in person to plant her voluptuous seal of approval on our operation – which she is indeed certain to do, once she hears of the success of our Patricia Cornwell Apprenticeship Scheme.”
“Quite. These books of hers are the most valuable paper objects in existence this week, with the singular exception of the newly issued Sterling Bank Note, which is doing swimmingly good things for the currency on the stock exchange, as we have already discussed.”
“Yes, of course,” I said, taking a sip of absinthe.
“Did you know, for instance, that only today we have received orders exceeding nine hundred kilograms of Patricia Cornwell? And that is not an irregular amount. We have averaged twenty-five thousand kilograms every week since the beginning of the Apprenticeship Scheme. Each of these young men and women, you see, is a participant. Why, they are pumping out more Patricia Cornwell with their fingertips right now than you or I could read in a lifetime.”
I peeped down at the five workers, tap-tap-tapping away at their machines. When I saw the humble, mousy hair that I recognised as belonging to my good friend, I blinked three times.
“Simon!” I called.
I saw the figure beneath us freeze and twitch, then continue to type. He was ignoring me.
“Simon!” I called again. “Simon, I’ve had an absinthe!”
“Yes!” Gregorio cried. “Absinthe for everyone!”
The other four workers, dressed like Simon in custard-cream-coloured overalls, looked up and stopped typing. They hollered an inside joke to each other and made their way to a well-varnished crate in the corner of the room, sodden with webs and derelict spider eggs. “If you say so, Gregorio!” one of them said with a wink as she fished a bottle out of the crate. They sat down on a single damp pallet and began to pour out the purple liquid, singing songs about the old country.
“Well, the old country’s glum,
the old country’s sweet,
the old country’s smells of teak oil and peat!
The old country’s bright,
the old country’s cold,
The old country’s in-con-tro-ver-tuh-bly OLD!”
The workers began to laugh and clink their glasses.
“Damn the old country!” said Simon. He had still not moved from his Dell laptop, and now he raised his head to look at Gregorio and I, before thrusting an accusatory finger our way. “And damn you, collectibles man! This is the fifth job you’ve ruined for me!”
Gregorio looked at me, clearly shocked by the revelation.
“It’s true,” I said.
“Well, that does it then,” screeched Simon, his throat choking up with distress. “I’ll have to just leave this one as well, shall I?”
“Damn it all, Simon,” I yelled, smashing my glass against the railing in rage. “You’re an Oxfam boy! You know other jobs affect your performance at the bookshelves! What about Oxfam? What about your integrity?”
“What about my blasted bills, collectibles man? What about those! The gas and electricity board alone are charging £7.99 a day! It’s contemptible. I need to support myself as well, you know.”
“Don’t talk to me about support, you charlatan!” By now I was fuming at his consistent betrayal. He was always doing this, swanning off to earn money. “Where was my support when I was rushing here to rescue you from your corporate shackles! Where was my support when I burnt the roof of my mouth on a hot saucey pasty? Where was my support, I ask you, when I was on Streatham High Street, searching my guts out for Kendra Redford’s seminal work of romantic crypto-modernity!? WHERE WAS MY SUPPORT WHEN I OPENED IT TO DISCOVER THIS.”
I threw the book down at him with as much might and purpose as I could muster, and found myself breathing heavily, facing the shocked and thoughtful faces of Gregorio, Simon and the other Apprentice Patricia Cornwells. Simon picked up the frayed book at his feet and inspected the insides. His face dropped and within a second his expression had morphed into one of abject terror. He looked up at Gregorio, who shifted uneasily in his immaculately pressed trousers. Simon stuttered as the sorry conclusion calcified in his mind.
“You… you’re… you’re behind this!?”
The other Apprentices began to gather round the book. I could see their lips move as they silently read the internal message. ‘This Product Is Pre-Owned. Please Purchase Full Book For £7.99.’ Eventually, every one of them looked up in disbelief and disillusionment.
“I… I’m sorry,” said Gregorio. “I didn’t think it would come to… you weren’t supposed to find out like this… it just got out of hand…” He began to sob. “I’m sorry. My sweet Patricias, I’m… I’m so sorry…”
I found myself pitying the old CEO, but before I could console him he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his pocketbook. With his shaking thin hand he gave me a single £7.99 Bank Note, sniffed and began to walk back the way we had arrived. “I know it won’t make up for all I’ve done… but at least it will cover the price of the book,” he said. He slunk toward the double-visiony glare. His frame moved with the slow limp of a gentleman disgraced, one who had learned all too late the virtue of humility. Gregorio Trimble stopped only once to say quietly over his shoulder, “I am truly, deeply ashamed.”
I heard a door slam behind me and turned to see that the other workers had already grabbed their coats and left the warehouse in disgust. I was alone. Even Simon had left without saying a word – an act I have since forgiven, knowing as I do the trauma and disenfranchisement he must have undergone upon reading those words. I still think about him, and I wonder if he will ever come back to Oxfam – if he has the will to, if he has the hope. Something was taken from us all that day, you have to understand, something of our innocence, our sincerity, our simplicity. I hope, not for my own sake but for Simon’s, that we will be able to find that lost something once again. I trundled down a few steel steps and picked up my copy of ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’ from the dusty floor where Simon had dropped it in his grief.
Leaving the warehouse by the employees door, I could hear faintly the sound of that terrible klaxon coming from beyond the violet vale and I knew that Gregorio, in his profound contrition, had taken it upon himself to exact his own punishment.
It was still quite light outside, but the blaze of the Wednesday sun would soon die behind the towering London pubs. I stepped into the doorway of my bus and waited behind a man wearing an outfit comprised solely of black leather, ready to pass every one of my Crustifarian Travel Cards across the reader. The man in leather had stopped in his tracks. The bus driver thumped his Oyster Card reader with his open palm.
“It’s broken,” he said. “I think it’s these new Scampi Cards. One moment.”
The crowd behind me swelled to a state of enormity and the pressure of that growing herd willed the leathered man to take tiny incremental steps further into the bus, yet at the same time he was vigilant not to cross the invisible demarcation that separated the paying part of the vehicle from the Double Decker proper. The bus driver slapped and cajoled his Oyster machine, his eyes flickering worryingly between the growing crowd and his inside mirror, through which he could see the red lights of the other Crustifarian machines – red lights which indicated that they too would fail to function. The crowd grew. And grew. And grew.
Suddenly, the driver’s eyes glazed over, as if he were focusing not on the visible world but on some distant, dormant instinct. I recognised at once the look of philosophical epiphany. Without a second thought, the driver lay back in his seat, breathed out a huge sigh and laughed. Then he waved the leathered man past.
“Never mind,” he said. “Just go through.”
The leathered man was confused. He suspiciously put one toe across the threshold, then a foot, then his whole leg, and eventually he leapt with his entire body into the passenger area without paying a single £7.99. The crowd was silent. Everybody looked to the bus driver (who was still shaking his head with embarrassed laughter) and then to leathered man. The leathered man turned around to address the tense and silent crowd, which by now must have numbered in the thousands.
“I’m O.K!” he cried.
All around us a huge cheer broke out. Confetti rained from the rooftops and people began to hug one another and pass onto the bus giving warm handshakes and broad colourful smiles to the bus driver. One young beautiful woman with a baby in her arms brought the gift of red wine, and another young mother the gift of gold. The bus driver took the wine but refused the gold, saying: “Spend it on the child, and I will consider that the most thoughtful of gifts I have today received.” As I walked onto the bus (paying nothing!) I could see him still waving people past and shaking his head and laughing his embarrassed, happy laugh. I pondered why it seemed that he had the wisest most human look to him and I realised that he was a man who had stopped his work, briefly considered the consequences of a broken rule, and saw that they were non-existent. He could now live forever in a state of wise and embarrassed bliss, knowing that a thousand tiny rules could each day be broken, and nobody – not a single human soul – would be any worse off.
I sat down on the top deck of the bus next to a pensioner who was smiling benevolently at the confetti snowing down through the sunset and opened my copy of Kendra Redford’s magnum opus ‘This Heart Which Once Was Owned’. I slipped the £7.99 Sterling Bank Note in between some pages, as one would do a book mark, and watched as the message I had been worrying about all day faded away, replaced by the authentic words of the magnificent woman herself. It would be a peaceful ride back to Journohaus. I found the beginning of the book and began, finally, to read.
‘This heart, once owned, will not fade. Nor will it grow with passion and fill when faced with greater loves, nor empty and wither when faced with lesser ones. It will instead become perfumed with an inexpensive history, whereupon it will afford each successive owner a sense of victory, until the day comes when the heart, and all its attendant freedoms and desires, will sadly cease to be. And although this heart, which once was owned, will be poor in strength that day, it will be rich in history, and rich in liberty, and rich in love.’