January 27th 2010
I scythed through the crowd and ducked into the warmth of the bookshop, basking in the jet of reheated air from the fans above the sliding plate glass doors, pulling off gloves and stashing them in my satchel.
Picking up books on reputation. Jon McGregor, reasonably cool but accessible. Nabokov because it made you look like you read Russian literature because most people haven’t worked it out yet, and more books set in New York. Don DeLillo, Americana.
I bought books quicker than I could read them then, almost invariably three at a time, more usually from charity shops or the rare, surviving independent secondhand bookshops. There was one just a moment’s walk from my front door, which I passed twice a day. It was stacked with dusty, yellowing paperbacks marked up in pencil and sold by a man who clearly lived above his little kingdom, letting his personal collection spill over into the shop stock. Indeed, were one to come across a book without a price carefully pencilled into the top corner of the first page, it was best not to take it to the counter for fear that it was indeed his; business was usually so poor that the man could hardly refuse an offer of money, but the crestfallen look that bestrode his features sucked what was left of the joy out of the experience for the buyer. This particular browser liked to formulate what I thought of as Bookshop Man Paradox; being a man who ran a bookshop (substitute “ran” for “sat behind the counter reading Calvin, Hobbes and Calvin & Hobbes) it was impossible that such a man had not at least come across Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, yet having done so, it seemed equally impossible that he could not have seen himself reflected in it, become horribly disillusioned and at the very least felt moved to go outside occasionally.
This, however, was the glossy high street alternative. Books piled high, books as commodity, 3 for 2 deals and ambient lighting arranged to a single, nationwide policy distributed in document wallets from an office in Kettering, or Slough, or some such anonymous grey hole. Little cards stuck to the shelf edges bore messages supposedly from the staff, extolling the virtues of particular books in a personal, chatty tone too consistent to have been written by anyone working behind the counter at this place.
I was spending other peoples’ money, an undeserved, guilt-inspired Christmas present voucher. Just killing time.
An hour or so later I was flicking through the first pages of the most accessible of the three tomes that had eventually made their way to the till with me, sat at a table with a view of the doors to the coffee shop. Her lateness was good in a way. I could finish my coffee before she arrived. All the benefit of appearing to have enjoyed it without actually having to do so. This way she wouldn’t see me wince slightly with every mouthful.
Twenty minutes, four text messages later, she arrived. A sudden influx of cold air, swept in from the slushy streets by the swing doors, heralded the event.
Gingerbread latte. Even a pretend coffee snob could look down on that, right? Tall, milky and full of cinnamon, this was what the western world had done to coffee
It was impossible to actually have an awkward silence, and in that sense I was relieved; each potential pause was steamrollered by another thought voiced straightaway without moderation in the purgatorial chamber of the mind as one or other of us, high on caffeine and having come in from the cold, neglected to rein in our narrative tendencies.
Conversation about how terrible the world is nowadays. Reality TV. And, when the girl came round to shoo us out the door at 6pm, another rant. Why don’t coffee shops stay open late? In America… Ice cream parlours… Perhaps if there were places to go, we opined noisily to no-one in particular, obliquely referencing unspecified dark events in our generation’s collective teenage past.
Instinctively I walked her through the beautiful parts of town. The bits lit up in the dark to try (in vain, naturally) to discourage the gatherings of teenagers in pools of ambient light. Even the Winter Gardens were closed, forcing a detour round a high-rise hotel built, it seemed, purely to spite those who wanted to take a more direct route towards the station.
Even before we reached the plexiglass cocoon of the bus station I knew that it would be a stilted farewell.
The doors slid open again and the full extent of the coldest winter since the mid-nineteen-sixties resumed battle with my overcoat. I walked quickly, avoiding eye contact and looking furtively over my shoulder for an unspecified threat.
Coming in, I stamped the snow off my boots and shut the door behind me, easing my shoulder into it to encourage its damp, swollen form back into the frame before locking it and pocketing my keys. I stuck my head around the door of the front room.
After a silent moment’s observation I turned away, peeled off from the back of the standing crowd around the television and backed away slowly. The crescent of figures obscured the flickering glow from the screen, sending jack o’lantern shadows onto the ceiling. Stopping by the kitchen I picked up a glass, filled it at the tap and retreated upstairs. I sat down at my desk and turned on his computer. I looked up at the news.
Salinger was dead.