“You’ll find the poetry three rows up and at the end of the Classics section, can’t miss it, past History, before Cookery.”
He follows an aisle of shelves. Most are moulting chipboard flakes. The quality of their carpentry annoys him. Filaments of paint run over flecked linoleum tiles. They dribble down the aisle of the bestseller section – the quick reads snatched at duty-free or borrowed from a summer guesthouse, holiday sand still snug between a racy plot. Here, bookmarks are gravestones. He fingers out a laminated verse – a water-colour reminder of God’s eternal love – complete with a dove winging its way towards a cumulus cathedral. Other books offer Happy Birthdays in cursive, ballpoint flowers, hearts and “I love you” messages behind covers bandaged in Sellotape. “Darling Thomas, Our best wishes on your 10th birthday, love from Mommy & Daddy, 1971.” Handling the books leaves a roughness on his fingertips; not quite dust, more like a fine colourless sleet – the tidal residue of half-memories and forgetting.
There are whole shelves letting go of childhood – spineless bedtime stories, illustrated books of knowledge and soccer annuals. A shamble of comics – sun-brittled, buckled and sticky thumbed – lie in a shopping basket. Sunday afternoons of slow clocks and tea in lighted rooms surface and then dip back into memory. There are the books of the sick, the dying too, trawled from the reading trolleys of convalescent homes, and lamp tables of curtained sea view flats. Black and blue hardbacks that have shed their gold leafed identities. Emerald encyclopaedias infused with mothballs and salted air dream of mahogany shelves in sun-trapped hallways.
He wonders – how whole worlds can be buckled into suitcases or taped into wine cartons. There is no Poetry section, except a coverless Paradise Lost. It smells of burnt toast and carries the signature of a cup. The finger marks of its last reader have gathered on the bruised edges of its cover. He holds the book for some time and looks outside towards the wet street and its glistening current. He shivers and wonders why he feels as frail as a bird’s leg – and then sneezes.