Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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Bookworm

by Jim Mountfield




A hand landed on the tattered shoulder of my jacket. “You again!” raged a voice. “I’ve told you this isn’t a dosshouse. Yet you keep coming back!”

As was my habit on those wet winter afternoons, I was sitting in the room that housed the gallery’s café and bookshop, taking infinitesimally small sips from a cup of coffee I’d managed to make last for two hours already. And I’d been reading a story in a magazine I’d borrowed from a rack, a report on how New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had agreed to sell a fabulously valuable painting by Paul Cezanne to one of the world’s biggest corporations. Then this man from the gallery’s management accosted me.

He yanked me up from the table and grabbed the manuscript that I brought with me every afternoon to work on but, invariably, I’d abandon after a few minutes in favour of a magazine. He stuffed the manuscript into my satchel. I protested, “Be careful! That’s the book I’m writing!”

He flung the satchel into my arms. “Yeah, right. Time to go, Thomas Pynchon.”

The girl on duty came out from behind the counter. “He’s been fine, Mr Elrick. He hasn’t been a nuisance.”

“Have you smelt him? He’s upsetting the other customers just by being here. Stinking the place out.”

“Yes,” I said, “I was only reading. A fascinating story. You know that giant media and IT company that’s bought up the paintings over the last few years, the Gauguins, Klimts, Picassos and Lautrecs? They’ve struck again. One of The Card Players by Paul Cezanne.” The man, Elrick, pushed me towards the doors that opened onto the street. I kept speaking, hoping I might escape ejection if I involved him in a conversation about art. “You know what it reminds me of? The sci-fi film Children of Men. When humans are dying out and they’re trying to preserve their legacy by assembling an Ark of the Arts. It’s as if this company is doing something similar – ”

“I really,” snarled Elrick, “couldn’t give a shit.” And he propelled me out into the cold drizzly street.

I summoned my last shreds of dignity, turned around and faced him. “You shouldn’t treat people like that. My father always told me to be nice to the people you meet on your way up. Because you might meet them again on your way down.”

Elrick didn’t slam the gallery door on me as I expected. He stepped onto the pavement beside me. “I won’t meet you again on my way down because by then you’ll be dead. Long since expired in the gutter.” He pointed along the street. “Start walking. I’m waiting here until I’m sure you’ve really gone…”

His voice trailed away. He realised he was accidentally pointing towards a beggar who crouched a few yards from us. The beggar had an upturned baseball cap, so far empty, on the pavement in front of him and despite the absence of sunshine he wore dark glasses over his unshaven, skin-and-bones face. The spot he’d chosen was between the gallery’s last street-level window and a doorway at the top of some stairs descending into the railway station, which was the main occupant of this block.

“Christ, another one! Hey, beggar boy!” Forgetting me, Elrick stomped along to the man, grabbed the hood of the stained cagoule he was wearing and hoisted him off the pavement. “I’m not having you pestering my customers, either. Go on. Scat!”

The beggar looked dazed. While Elrick dragged him onto his feet, his head cranked from side to side and his arms flailed, as if he sensed he was under attack but was unable to identify from where. Once he was up, Elrick reacted to those flailing arms by assuming that the beggar was trying to hit him and threw a punch himself. This struck the beggar’s jaw and he reeled back with a bewildered cry.

“Hey,” I shouted, “stop that! Leave the guy alone!”

I used a weapon – my satchel. I swung it on its strap so that the canvas bag thumped against Elrick’s head. The bag contained the five-hundred-page manuscript and he was already off-balance after throwing the punch. That was why he reeled too. He reeled from the pavement, through the doorway and into the station, then tipped over the top stair and fell with several thuds and cracks down the metal staircase to the station’s concourse. I rushed in after him. I was in time to see him tumble past the lowest stairs, flinging his arms and legs about as if he was dancing a crazy spinning jitterbug. Then he landed in a tangle on the concrete floor at the bottom.

Luckily, he hadn’t met anyone on his way down.

The beggar appeared at the top of the staircase beside me. “What happened,” he mumbled, “to that mean old guy who hit me?”

Elrick’s body didn’t move. I wondered if his plunge down the stairs had killed him – and if it had, who’d be blamed for it? I doubted if the police would pay much heed to our side of the story.

Grabbing the beggar’s arm, I shouted, “Come on, we got to leave! We got to run!” I towed him back out of the station, across the road and up the hill. We climbed a series of narrow winding alleys that thankfully kept us out of public view, though they contained an exhausting number of stone steps. We reached the top and emerged onto the high street, but I didn’t let us pause to get our breath back. I dragged him to the street’s far side and into another warren of alleys. We came at last to a pub that I knew, a rundown pub unfrequented by tourists or office-workers, whose landlady didn’t mind the presence of two homeless scruffs if they stayed quiet and inconspicuous.

I sat the beggar at a corner table, ransacked my pockets, managed to find just enough money for a half-pint of beer and went to the counter. The other customers ignored me because they were engrossed in a football match playing on a large LCD screen on the wall. Inscribed in the screen’s bottom-right corner was the name D-REKT, which I recognised as the corporation I’d read about in the art magazine. I wondered if D-REKT owned the sports channel showing the football as well as having manufactured the LCD screen. It was possible. I knew that in addition to hoarding masterpieces by Gauguin, Picasso, Klimt, Lautrec and Cezanne, they produced countless entertainment and communication devices and they operated a glut of TV channels.

I bought the half-pint, returned to the beggar, took a sip of beer and pushed it across the table-top to him. He didn’t react. Because of the dark glasses concealing his eyes it was difficult to know what the matter was, if he was in shock after being punched or if he was just drugged up. Then I noticed something about his right shoulder. It’d looked normal before the tussle with Elrick but now, compared with his other shoulder, it was twisted and misshapen.

I studied his face again and said, “I know you. You’re Clive, aren’t you?”

The beggar came out of his stupor. “How do you know my name?” he demanded. “Who are you?”

“It was a long time ago. Maybe you don’t remember. A shop called Canvas Books in the late 1980s. You were a kid then.”

I waited for his face to show a glimmer of recognition. When the glimmer appeared, I asked, “How’s Derek these days?”

His voice was sorrowful. “Derek? Oh… He’s gone.”

The beggar removed his glasses and I saw that one of his eyes was missing. Where he should have had a right eye, he had an empty socket. Meanwhile, around the rim of his remaining eye, there glistened a tear.


*****



Canvas Books was on the bottom floor of a strange building that was shaped like a slice of pie and tapered into a corner between two converging streets. It was strange too because its frontage along one side, overlooking one of the streets, was almost entirely made of glass. Through that glass I’d people-watch for much of the time I was there. I’d occasionally see someone I’d known from university walk by dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase. This made me feel relieved that I’d escaped the drudgery of a nine-to-five desk job. It also made me feel depressed because they were surely earning a decent wage while I survived on dole-money topped up with the illegal earnings of a once-a-week, cash-in-hand job in a bookshop.

I worked there every Wednesday, filling in for a staff-member who was officially on the pay-roll but, for some mysterious reason, was unavailable in the middle of the week. The bookshop’s owner, a laidback and un-bureaucratic guy called William, was happy to pay me at the end of each Wednesday with a few notes from the till.

It was easy work because the bookshop was rarely busy. It sold expensive hardbacked art-books and its clientele consisted of a few well-to-do art-lovers and a few staff-members from the History of Art Department on the nearby campus. When I wasn’t people-watching, I’d sit behind the counter and write in a jotter – starting the first draft of the novel that, thirty years later, had become the five-hundred-page manuscript in my satchel.

I was alone in the shop that afternoon when a boy came through the door. He wore a faded green parka jacket that looked several sizes too big for him. The hem of the jacket was around his knees and the hood, with a fringe of dirty fur, swallowed his head. This apparition glided past like a submarine periscope cutting through sea.

“Good afternoon,” I said warily.

“Afternoon,” said a muffled voice from the parka-hood.

He prised a tome about Vincent van Gogh off a shelf, cradled it in his right arm and with his left hand started leafing through its pages. I watched dumfounded. No kid had ever entered the bookshop on the Wednesdays I’d worked there. And this one, in his scruffy parka, didn’t look like a precocious kid who might be interested in art-books. I felt tempted to walk over and tell him to leave. But he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was only browsing – which was what most visitors did for most of their time in the shop.

Nonetheless, from the counter, I demanded, “That a good book, is it?” My voice was gruff. I tried to transmit the message, “Bugger off!”

He seemed oblivious to my tone. “Oh yeah,” he replied. “Very good.”

He browsed strangely. These books were beautifully illustrated. People took their time turning the pages because they wanted to admire the paintings reproduced on them. This kid took a maximum of two seconds to turn from one page to the next – though he methodically went through every page. After a few minutes, he’d skimmed the entire book. He returned it to the shelf, moved a few steps along and picked out another book, one about Monet. Then he was off again, going through the book page by page at a crazy pace.

After a half-hour he’d got through a half-dozen books. I felt increasingly uncomfortable. I watched him begin to leaf through yet another book, again making sure he saw every page but not giving himself time to process what was on those pages. Then I emerged from behind the counter, approached him and took a deep breath.

“I have to ask you to buy something,” I said. “If you’re not going to buy anything, you need to leave the shop.”

The boy turned and looked up at me and I saw a thin, pallid face within the furry hood. When he replied, he sounded frightened. “I’m just reading. Not doing any harm. Not damaging your books. See?” He held up the current book to show how pristine it was. This one was about Caravaggio and just now was open at a page containing a reproduction of Judith beheading Holofernes.

“Well, it’s great that you haven’t damaged them. But I’m afraid time’s up. This is a bookshop, not a library. If you’re not buying, you have to go.”

The boy backed away, brandishing the book in front of him like a shield. “But I haven’t finished reading this one! Just let me finish it and I’ll go. Okay?”

I advanced on him. “Reading? How can you read six books in half-an-hour?”

Then in a completely different tone the boy said, “Caravaggio is a fascinating artist, isn’t he? How he translated the violence of his existence, of his personality, onto his canvases. And of course, how he used lighting to heighten their physical and emotional intensity.”

I thought someone else had spoken. I even glanced behind me to check if a lecturer from the History of Art Department had entered without me noticing. No, we were alone. Unnerved, I decided I wanted this boy out of the shop – now. I shouted, “Just give me the bloody book and clear off!” And I lunged at him and grabbed the book and tried to wrench it free of him.

“No,” he shouted back, “let me finish!” Then there was a ripping noise and he did let go of the book and it was fully in my hands, but with the page showing Judith beheading Holofernes torn down the middle. The page-half with Judith flapped away from the half with Holofernes, so that it looked like a pair of disembodied hands were sawing his head off his body. Realising what’d happened, the boy squawked “Shit!” and dashed towards the door.

But I dashed for the door too, reached it the same moment he did, shouldered him and knocked him into the corner. Then I seized him with my free hand – I still clutched the Caravaggio book – and bundled him into the space behind the counter and forced him down on the chair I’d been using.

“Sit still!” I spat.

He babbled. The weird authority with which he’d discussed Caravaggio had vanished. “I’m sorry, mister, I didn’t mean to tear your book, it was an accident – ”

“Just,” I roared, “fucking sit!”

I checked the book’s dust-jacket and shuddered when I saw the price. Then I reached for the shop’s telephone, on the counter, and dialed the number William had given me for emergencies. I got no answer. Occasionally, through the glass, I’d see businessmen walking along and talking into big brick-shaped gadgets with antennae. But William, the most lackadaisical businessman in the city, hadn’t got around to buying one of those new-fangled mobile phones yet. He wasn’t at home and I had no way of contacting him.

As I put down the receiver, the boy said, “Look, mister, I’m sorry. I really am. But just let me go, will you? Please. Please.”

I considered the options and decided I couldn’t let him go. The book cost a fortune and it was ruined. I was worried that if I didn’t have the culprit at hand, William would deduct the book-price from my wages and for weeks afterwards my finances would be decimated. And I couldn’t call the police because I was employed illegally. The more I thought about it, the more I felt I had to keep the boy here until I raised William. Then perhaps William could get onto the boy’s parents and make them pay for the book.

In the meantime, I had a shop to run.
The boy started talking again. He’d found the jotter in which I’d been writing and glanced over its first page. Now, with no hint of the panic he’d exhibited earlier, he said: “Heavily influenced by Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. And Graham Greene too – that reference to Catholicism gives it away. You need to work on your prose style, though. Weed out the adjectives and similes and generally avoid using ten words when two or three would suffice.”

At that, I seized him again and frog-marched him to the other end of the shop. I couldn’t let him leave, but neither did I want to be in the same room as him, a creepy little monster that was half-child and half-cultural critic. The building being triangular, the sidewalls tapered to a point opposite the counter. Just before the walls met, a door opened into a tiny room, really a cupboard, that occupied the triangle’s apex. The door had on its outside a bolt and padlock and if William had any books of exceptional value on sale he’d keep them locked in the little corner-room overnight. The bolt would suffice for now.

Only later did it occur to me that, both times I’d grabbed the boy, he’d twisted around so that I ended up holding him by his left arm, not his right.

I pushed him through the doorway. He spun and faced me and, again in the child-voice, demanded, “What are you going to do?”

“You stay here till I find the shop owner. Then you can explain everything to him.” I slammed the door and slid the bolt into the hole in the door-frame.

Immediately a wailing noise began on the door’s other side. Realising he was crying, I almost unbolted it again and told him to clear off. But I resisted the impulse. I returned to the counter, lifted the phone-receiver and redialled William’s number. Still he didn’t answer.

When I gave up on the telephone, I heard that the boy wasn’t crying any more. Instead, I could make out his voice behind the door. He was talking to himself. Talking a lot – and worryingly, what I was hearing didn’t sound like a monologue. It sounded like a dialogue.

I crept back the door, placed my head against it and was able to discern his words.

“We should have stuck to the library!”

“I’m bored with the library, Clive. I need something new. And this place is delightful. Van Gogh, Monet, Klimt, Warhol, Pollock, Caravaggio – so many things I hadn’t known!”

“Never mind the books, Derek! We’re in big trouble. What if they find out about you?”

“Don’t panic. At least that asshole shopkeeper didn’t call the police. Didn’t seem to want to call the police. And he hasn’t been able to find his boss. We still have time to think a way out of this.”

“We? You, Derek. You have to do the thinking!”

“Yes, Clive. Leave the thinking to me.”

I removed my head from the door and wondered if it was a psychiatric hospital, not William, I should be trying to contact. Then I leant against the door again. The second voice, the intelligent one – Derek – was talking. “It’s hot in this little room. I can’t be so hot. Take off your coat for a minute.”

“Bad idea, Derek. Not with him outside.”

“Yes, but he’s outside. Go on. He won’t see us.”

“I said, bad idea!”

“You want me to overheat? You want me to die? Like I nearly did that time on the bus?”

There was silence while, presumably, the boy inhabited by two personalities removed the huge faded parka. And then something made me yank back the bolt and wrench open the door and burst into the room.

The boy was still taking off his coat – underneath which, his torso was bare-skinned. What was slowing him down with the coat was that his arm didn’t enter its right sleeve at the top. Rather, there was a slit in the coat’s side and a corresponding slit in the lower part of the sleeve. His right arm was inserted into the sleeve through the slits. This was physically possible because the boy’s right arm grew straight out of his side and not from his shoulder. Indeed, he didn’t seem to have a right shoulder.
I could only think of the thing he had instead of a shoulder as a nest. To the right of his neck he lacked a collarbone and shoulder-blade but had a bowl-shaped depression whose rim was formed by an upper rib. Being a nest, it had something nesting in it. At first, I thought it was a big pale worm or slug. But then the thing stirred and raised an end towards me and I saw it possessed a head – and a face.

It was a very small and approximate face. On one side was a hole, bump and crack equating to an eye, nose and half of a mouth. The other side was a tangle of slimy tubes and strands, including ones sprouting from the other eye-hole and from the mouth’s other half. These hung with their bottom ends rooted in a spot at the base of the boy’s neck.

Meanwhile, the boy looked at me. His left eye was wet with tears, but his right eye was dry and glaring. In the second voice he said, “Perhaps you’d like to let us go now. Yes?” As he spoke, the miniature head protruding from his shoulder nodded and the connecting vessels squirmed like sentient spaghetti.

I cried out in disgust and batted a hand at them. I suppose I was aiming at the boy’s face, but it was the head of the ghoulish worm-thing that I struck. The boy screamed – though possibly the scream came through him and not from him – and staggered back.

When he steadied himself, he looked at me furiously with both eyes. It was surely the child, Clive, who spoke next: “You bullying bastard!” Then he charged, punching and kicking. His right fist, at the end of that low-positioned, branch-like right arm, impacted against my crotch. I howled, fell on my knees and vomited explosively across the little room’s floor, maybe less because of the pain than because of the revulsion I’d felt during the last moments.

It took me a while to recover. When I managed to lift my gaze from the floor, I saw that the boy was still in the room. He was making sure the parka was fully in place again before he stepped into the main shop-room, visible from the street because of that glass frontage. His right arm wriggled through the slit in the coat-sleeve and his right hand emerged from its cuff. Minus the coat, I’d seen how skinny he was. No doubt it was tough finding enough food when he had to eat for two.

As the worm-thing disappeared again under the coat, Derek’s voice said, “I’m sure we can rely on you to keep quiet. Tell tales about us and people will think you’re insane. Besides, you may not believe this, but we can make your life difficult. I read a lot, you see. I know a lot. And as they say, knowledge is power.”

Then, the coat properly on, the boy walked out of the shop.

When William dropped by at the afternoon’s end, I gave him an edited version of what’d happened. Someone had tried to shoplift a book, I’d wrestled it from him and the book had got torn. Then he’d punched me in the balls and run away. William harrumphed and inspected the damaged book. “Caravaggio,” he sighed. “Never liked him anyway. Too much light and shade. Too much intrigue. Too much fucking violence.” Then he paid me my normal wage from the till.


*****



In the pub, Clive pressed his misshapen shoulder back into a more regular form. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s just padding now.” Then he raised his right hand. “Same old trick with the sleeve, though. You know, with the two slits.”

Gently, I asked, “When did he… leave you?”

“About ten years ago. There was an operation with top surgeons, the best money could buy. By then we could afford them. Derek was right. If you have enough knowledge you can do anything and earn anything, no matter what disadvantages you have. And he knew so much.” His voice cracked. “Derek said I was a drag. Being attached to me was a burden. He wanted free of me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“There’s been good aspects, of course. Having Derek around could be very limiting. Especially when they invented the Internet. All I ever did then was sit at a computer screen while he read stuff. I mean, Derek’s a fast reader, but you know how the Internet is. It has a lot of reading, even for him.” His head hung down and a tear leaked from his remaining eye. “But I miss him. We had great times together. And as you can see, life hasn’t been wonderful for me since we parted.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeated and reached over and clasped his right hand. Then something occurred to me and I asked, “Clive, what’s your surname? You and Derek’s surname?”

“Tate,” he sniffled.

“As in the Tate Gallery?”

“Yes.”

I looked around and noticed that the landlady was taking advantage of a quiet moment at the bar to check something on a smartphone. I stood up and approached the bar-counter again, thinking to myself: Derek… Derek Tate… Derek T… Derekt… D-REKT…

When I asked to borrow the smartphone for a couple of minutes, I told a lie. “I heard someone say there’s been a serious accident at the train station. And a friend of mine works there. I want to check if there’s been any news reports.”

In a few minutes, I’d discovered all manner of interesting things about D-REKT – not just about their media and IT businesses or about their mania for buying up the world’s great paintings, as if they were assembling an Ark of the Arts. I learned about the institute they’d set up to study diseases that were spread by mosquitoes, like malaria, dengue fever and the Zika virus, and how they also ran a genetic laboratory whose main research, allegedly, was about insects. I learned how they had a strange interest in exhuming long-dead animal carcasses, possibly infected with long-extinct diseases, from the thawing permafrost in the Arctic Circle. Nowhere did I read anything to confirm that these projects were beneficial, that they were necessarily conducted with the good of humanity in mind. Furthermore, I read rumours – denied of course by D-REKT – that they were secretly working with countries like Saudi Arabia and North Korea on new generations of ballistic missiles and chemical and bacteriological weaponry.

I returned the smartphone to the landlady. It couldn’t possibly be him, I thought. Even if he had read a lot and did know a lot. Even if knowledge was power.

I remembered striking his grotesque little head thirty years ago and wondered if the rest of humanity had reacted to him any better than I had. Probably not. And I recalled my father’s warning about being nice to the people you meet on your way up because you might meet them again on your way down.

I suspected we might all meet Derek on our way down.



THE END


© Jim Mountfield

Bio: Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, was educated in Scotland and currently lives in Sri Lanka. His work has appeared, sometimes under pseudonyms, in Blood Moon Rising, Death's Head Grin, the Dream Zone, Flashes in the Dark, Hellfire Crossroads, the Horror Zine, Hungur, Legend, Roadworks and Sorcerous Signals.

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