Steven was regarding his reflection in a battered old mirror which was fixed on the wall in the corner of the shop. He was holding an old rolling-tobacco tin filled with tarnished keys, and not so much feigning interest in the tin and its contents, but using them as props, to allow himself this opportunity to peruse his own face. He tuned into the saleswoman’s voice: ‘…she gets them from Indonesia. Oh, and have a look at the books over there. On that table.’ He turned. The woman was pointing a long finger, with an immaculately-manicured nail, lacquered in orange, to a pile of about twenty slim notebooks on one of the long wooden tables. It was surrounded by other objects: bowls of unidentifiable metal pieces, old padlocks, rusty tins, vintage pairs of scissors, spectacles cases.
He picked one of the books up. It had Japanese characters on the cover. He opened it. More Japanese, with very small characters, densely handwritten. He flicked through. The paper was thin and light – soft, like cream-coloured tissue. Written on, all over. It had a faint exquisite smell, perhaps from having been stored for years in an expensively-scented space, such as a wardrobe.
‘Isn’t it lovely?’ she said.
He looked over at her. She was like a blonde ex-hippie. Her face had a dual quality, young-old, and only the lines around her eyes, and at the corners of her mouth, revealed her maturity. Everything else about her – the hair, body, and voice – suggested youth. Earlier, when he’d first come in, prompted by a mistaken observation of hers concerning his accent, they’d begun talking about Europe, and she’d told him that she’d lived in London and Paris in the seventies, for two years, perhaps three. She couldn’t recall exactly. It was all shrouded in haze.
‘It’s Japanese, isn’t it?’ he said. He held the book with both hands, as if it were a religious tome.
‘They all are. We had them looked at,’ she said. ‘By a scholar. Of Japanese. He looked at them, and said they were all academic.’ She was chewing gum, and she played with it at the front of her mouth, with her teeth, for a moment. ‘We had to be careful. We didn’t want someone’s diaries getting out there. Who knows, these days?’
‘So that’s all they are,’ he said. ‘Schoolbooks?’
‘Or university notes. Or tuition notes. Something like that.’
‘Did he read them all?’
‘The scholar that checked them.’
‘I don’t know.’ She looked away. ‘I don’t know. He must have done.’
‘It must have taken him a while,’ he said.
‘It’s all about the paper,’ she said. ‘Susan is wonderful. She has an eye. She goes to Europe and Asia, looking around, three times a year. Picks up some marvellous stuff. She tells me…oh shit.’ The music had stopped. She got off the stool. ‘I hate these things,’ she said, fiddling with the controls on the CD player. ‘I picked this up in the supermarket. I was sick of sitting here in silence. Music is so important to me.’
‘Is most of this stuff salvage?’ he said, meaning the whole shop, and glancing around. She was fussing at the CD player. He picked up one of the books again. It did have a quality to it, the way the paper felt in his fingers. He imagined that if he were to buy one of these books, and he could see that happening, then there’d be a satisfaction to be had from owning it, and having it in his room.
‘Salvage? Yes,’ she said, settling again on the stool, which was too high for her, although she seemed tall. ‘Things that might not, at face value, have anything meaningful about them. You could say that people these days will buy anything. But, in reality, it’s about learning to see the qualities that objects have. Overseas, you could pick a lot of this up for next to nothing. All of it, possibly. Next to nothing, or nothing, even. But Susan’s done all the work, paid the airfares, spent the time, going from place to place, looking around. She’s a searcher, very patient. I can’t say it enough, how it’s all about looking, seeing, and getting a feeling for how an object will translate into a different setting. A domestic setting, for example. I can get carried away, talking about this stuff.’
‘What would I do with one of these books?’ he said. ‘If I bought one, what would I do with it?’
‘Well, the idea really is that you buy a pile of them, and just let them sit around in the living room. If you like. But you could just buy one of them. You’d just have it, and do whatever you want with it.’ She cocked her head. ‘I love this song. It’s from a musical, isn’t it?’
He bought two of the books. He made the decision to buy them before he even knew the price. The price shouldn’t matter, if he really wanted the books. She asked if he wanted them gift-wrapped. He said no, they were for him. ‘I thought so,’ she said. She put them into a beautiful brown paper bag, with the name of the store along the edge in large dark-grey capital lettering. The lettering was patchy, and faded, as if stamped with an old ink block, using effete ink that had thinned and wearied with age. Then she folded the top of the bag down. ‘Well enjoy the books,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I will.’ He felt there was something more to say, or more to ask, but he left the shop, and took the books home, and put them on top of Michael’s book, forming a pile on his desk. It was a satisfying arrangement, and he looked at it for some time.
© Barry Lee Thompson and ‘Stories, by Barry Lee Thompson’, 2013.