They Leave Their Mark

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Old dust has a magical smell.

Old books collect old dust.

I never wipe away old book dust, I just let it sit there, on my fingertips.

Obviously, books hold the memories of the person who wrote them, but there are other kinds of memories there as well — those that are deposited by the people who have owned, handled and loved these books.

They leave their mark.

Sometimes as notes in a margin, or the creasing of a page corner, a coffee stain or a small tear. Some books have handwritten dedications, and some have names inscribed.

‘To William, on the occasion of his ninth birthday.’

‘To Penelope, Christmas 1958. Love Uncle John and Aunt Mary.’

I was fourteen when I discovered that books held secrets. I thought that everyone knew how to unlock those secrets, but I soon found out that I was wrong.

Billy MacDonald was my best friend — still is in fact, but the reason I refer to him is he was the first person I mentioned it to.

When I had finished my description, he looked at me as though I had beaten his cat to death with a large, fat South American banjo player.

He asked me if that really happened or was I just making it up, as usual. I quickly opted for just making it up as usual. This decision had a lot to do with the look in his eyes.

I never told anyone about it again — until now.

I did well at school and at university, but studying in the library made things difficult, as you can imagine. I often had to set an alarm because I was unable to detect the passage of time. If the alarm didn’t work, I could always rely on the librarian to jolt me back. She rarely asked me what I was doing or why I drifted off. I guess librarians see a lot of weird stuff and one more crazy guy didn’t make that much of a difference.

In the end, I had to resort to wearing gloves.

The plastic disposable kind was useless and made me look like I was permanently in an episode of a police procedural.

Winter was easier because no one took any notice of gloves, but the rest of the time I spent a lot of time saying, “Sensitive skin. The paper sets off my Psoriasis.” In the end, I had a sign made, and I would hold it up or simply point to it in a disinterested way.

Pretty much everyone thought I was weird, and the gloves were the least of it, but no matter how weird you may be there is always someone who will love you.

Catherine Margaret Lanier, or ‘Cat’ for short, thought that I was mildly handsome and strangely interesting.

For my part, I thought she was way too beautiful to be interested in anyone like me. At least four points separated us on the attractiveness scale.

She had cool friends and my friends all felt that she was too good for me and should instead, be with them. I had a sneaking suspicion that they were right and I resolved to make the most of my good fortune while it lasted. She was incredibly good at lovemaking, and I hoped that she would not notice that I was always running to keep up. Amazingly, she didn’t get sick of me or find out how inept at life I am, and she hung around — for a very long time.

We both graduated from university, and she went on to carve out a successful career in medicine.

Despite my qualifications, all I ever wanted to do was work around old books. Cat understood, which was just as well because working in secondhand bookstores never paid the rent. It barely paid for the petrol to drive to the job. It got a bit better when I got jobs with a succession of Antiquarian booksellers, and my current job, which is at the top of Collins Street in Melbourne, means that I can leave the car at home and catch the number 112 tram to work. It takes less than an hour, and I always get a seat. I carry a book with me and rarely am I asked why I am wearing gloves.

The boss thinks that I approach my work very professionally because I supply my own white cotton gloves. Most of the books that we sell are not that expensive, and only a few are museum quality, but the gloves do add an exotic air to the establishment.

Back in our university days, we did what most students did at that time — we experimented with all sorts of substances, but Cat and I agreed that nothing compared to the experience of touching an ancient book.

Cat does not have my ability, and to be honest, I haven’t come across anyone else who has. That’s not to say that there isn’t someone out there, it’s just that I haven’t come across them as yet.

I can take Cat with me by simply holding her hand — without gloves, of course.

When I was a child, my parents considered me to be very easy to look after. I was self-entertaining. I played in my room for hours at a time, or in my father’s well-stocked library.

My father had inherited his father’s book collection, and some of the books went back even further than my great grandfather. I doubt that my father had read many of the books, but I have. The books in that library are no more magical than books in any library, but I didn’t know that.

The truth was that I’m the magical one, but I guess that word magical gets worked to death so let’s say, insightful.

If I touch a book with my bare hands, I am transported to the world and time of the author.

Sometimes I am whisked off to the world that a previous owner of the book inhabited.

I’ve found myself in Dickens’ study and the Bronte’s drawing room. Wells wrote most of his books while sitting in his garden and I’ve sat right next to him. These days no one remembers much about Anthony Trollope and he is best remembered as the bloke who invented the post box. He wrote most of his vast collection of novels while travelling to work by train in Victorian England. I sat next to him on those trains on many an occasion.

Sometimes I simply see a story unfold in much the way that you do at the cinema, but often I am right in the middle of the action. It does not seem to matter that I am not dressed appropriately, no one appears to notice. The authors and the previous owner always greet me as though they have known me all their lives. I feel loved and accepted — what more could any man ask for?

There are times when it is tough to break the bonds and return to the here and now, and if it were not for Cat, I think I would be tempted to stay far longer than would be good for me. But, I always return to her, and she seemed to understand my need to travel in this unique manner.

I took her to spend some time with Napoleon Hill when she was feeling a bit down. He’s an awesome bloke, and after talking with him for a few hours, Cat was feeling much better, and we returned home happily.

I could continue on for ages and ages describing the adventures I have had and the people I have met, but now it is time for you to get some sleep. It’s your birthday tomorrow, and I’m pretty sure that you will find some beautiful, dusty old books among your presents. I remembered that you said you liked stories about Egypt.

Turning eighteen is still a big deal, even in this ultra modern world. I have tried to treat all my grandchildren equally, but you know that you have always been my favourite. Your parents would never let me tell you about my ability and I had to respect their wishes until now. You are all grown up, and you deserve to know that your ability is a gift and not a curse. What you do with it is up to you, but it is your right to choose. If I had the right, I would say, go out and find someone you can share your life and your abilities with. Someone who will love you and travel with you through life.

That’s my story, and now I have to go back and sit with your grandma. She doesn’t always know who I am these days but when we travel she is always her old self and I’ve got a particularly good book set in Scotland, and we have always wanted to see Scotland.

Good night my darling granddaughter.

Be well, be happy and don’t forget to be awesome.

Favourite Day of the Week

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Until recently, Thursday was my favourite day of the week.

When I was a kid, it was Friday — only half a day in a classroom and sport all afternoon with the sweet promise of the two-day weekend stretching out into the delicious distance.

Then I grew up, and Saturday was my day to love and be loved. The movies, a romantic dinner, and maybe, just maybe, a long night with a willing warm body.

I’m losing my love of Thursdays — it may come back, but today the aura is ruined.

“Senior Sergeant, you mentioned that the victim was aged 50, worked as a Real Estate agent and was found on the side of the road. Is that correct?”

“Yes sir, exactly as it says in my report.” The bloke asking the blindingly obvious questions, and ruining my Thursday was Inspector Verago.  Or ‘Verago the Impaler’ as he was lovingly known to all those who loathed Internal Affairs.

“The Lexus was located, but not for several days,” he said.

“We were operating under the assumption that the victim was struck by an angry husband and it took a while to eliminate him from our enquiries.” I hate the jargon, but when you are speaking to a duck, it is best to quack so that you know you are being understood.

“Why did it take so long to track down the car?” he said.

“It took three days because we are a small country station and all our forensics are handled by Melbourne Central, and the case was not considered to be a high priority at that stage.”

“Why didn’t you consider it to be a high priority Senior Sergeant? More important things to be getting on with?”

The sarcasm was to be expected. The Police force runs on sarcasm in the same way that politicians run on bullshit — and besides, he wasn’t here for a friendly chat, he was here to see if he could hang this cluster-fuck on me, and thereby take some of the heat off his masters.

“It was our number one priority sir. I was referring to senior management in Melbourne, sir.”

“It doesn’t say that anywhere here, Senior Sergeant.” He pronounced Senior Sergeant as though he felt my rank was honorary, or at least temporary.  If I didn’t find a way to get out from under this mess, he was going to be right.

“Your report doesn’t say where the victim was heading, were you able to ascertain that?” he said.

“Away.”

“Away from where?”

“From what we can piece together, mostly from Mrs Simpson. He thought her husband had come home unexpectedly, and he legged it out the back door and over a neighbour’s fence where he commandeered a bicycle. He proceeded to peddle in an easterly direction for approximately 10 kilometres before being struck from behind by a Lexus four-wheel drive. So, in answer to your question — away.”

There was that jargon again — quack, quack.

“All of this should have been in your report Senior Sergeant,” he said.

“Most of it is sir — just not all in the one place.”

Precious minutes of my beloved Thursday were ticking away, and I was no closer to working out if this half-wit had already decided that I was to be the fall-guy.

“I noticed that you included in your report that the victim’s dog howled at the precise moment that he was killed. How did you know that, and why did you include it in your report?”

“The victim was a real person. A flawed one to be sure, but a real one nonetheless. He had a wife and kids and a dog, all of whom, presumably, loved him. The detail about the dog came from his wife, and I thought that it was unusual enough to include in the report.”

The cold truth — the dog was the only creature on the planet who loved this bozo, so I thought it deserved a mention. When the facts were printed in the newspapers, it was evident that the victim was a self-interested arsehole who made a speciality out of servicing lonely wives, but rarely did the same for his own. His kids thought he was a loser, and the community felt that he was a typical Estate Agent — always out to do his clients out of their money. On the other hand, his dog loved him unconditionally, and to his credit, he treated the dog well. Any bloke who was kind to his dog deserved to get one positive mention in a sterile Police document.

The inane questions continued for about two hours.

I made a pretty good job of answering them, and I knew that my report was thorough and there was little room to accuse me or my team of negligence. But only time would tell.

If his job was to fit me for the role of scapegoat, then that is what I will be. If he has any integrity left he will know that time will show that I did my job well and I’m hoping that he won’t want to put his signature to a lie.

Early in the afternoon, he buggered off in his shiny official car, and everyone in our tiny country station breathed out.

I told the team that after shift we were meeting at The Royal — the only decent pub in town. The drinks were on me which meant that everyone would be there.

We knew that the future of our station was tenuous before the slightly bald, philandering Real Estate agent got knocked off his bike. Now it was positively precarious. There was only one thing for it — enjoy the days we had remaining. Heaven, and a bunch of brass hats, only knew where we would end up, but we knew we had done our duty, and no one can do more than that.

I proposed the toast.

“May the black dog who howled when his master left this world find a warm bed and a happy home, and may the bastards who are splitting us up find cold comfort and a broomstick up their arse.”

There was that jargon again — quack, quack.

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This story is now part of two of my books —

TRUST

SLIGHTLY SPOOKY STORIES