At one point in my life, I couldn’t stand the written word; I wallowed in disgust at the stale, sticky characters that seeped through the synapses like syrup. It was a strange affliction to be sickened by the alphabet in its endless forms, but I learned to live with it.
The truth was I had an axe to grind. I wrote a book once, and I poured my heart into perfecting every period and comma, balancing each sentence, scrapping paragraphs, unspooling my considered thoughts over two hundred pages.
Around that time, I had only one close friend, Christine, a pretty girl with purple dyed hair, ocean blue contact lenses and a megawatt smile.
I wasn’t just attracted to her; I genuinely enjoyed her company. We had a great time people-watching as we sipped Frappuccinos in artisan coffee shops, or practising our Siamese accents at the local Thai restaurant. However, I kept my work in progress a secret from her - I didn’t think she could grasp the complex exploration of themes and motifs woven into the subtext. But finally, I cracked. I was desperate for approval, so I emailed her a .docx file attachment, labelled the subject, “Exciting Project”, and asked her for feedback.
Days later, she sat me down in my drab one-bedroom apartment as light struggled through the stiff net curtains and landed on the dusty ornaments. She placed a hand softly upon my knee and said, “It’s good, definitely good, but it needs work.”
“You don’t like it,” I said, flatly.
“I do, I do. But it’s just…it’s uneven. You need an editor. I think. It’s a bit too long?”
“Who do you think you are?” I said, finally. “Have you even read the book? I really think you’re full of shit. You want me to fail don’t you? It would give you pleasure.”
Christine began to sob, her body heaving and shuddering like a dying fish, “Why are you being so mean?” she said.
Reluctantly I hooked an arm around her shoulders and muttered some empty words into her ear.
The truth was I knew she was right. I had already submitted manuscripts to over fifty agencies by post and online, and I was rejected at every turn. The situation was hopeless and I had no idea how to redraft my manuscript to make it connect with those that mattered.
I stopped caring, however, when I made a move on Christine, just after she had trashed my book and started bawling. Seeing her so weak and helpless - her nose red raw and dripping with tears - made me think I could easily seduce her. But I was wrong.
Her rejection hit harder than I had expected and in a split second I decided I didn’t want her friendship anymore.
I was free - no need to listen to her drone on about Swedish literature or silent film, wasting all my phone minutes. No more texts at midnight about her decade long feud with her twin brother.
I deleted every file connected to my manuscript too - my synopses, cover letters, excerpts from chapters. Then I soaked my Kindle in dishwater and dumped it in the food recycling bin just to make sure I could never use it again. Without reading and writing I had no intricate plots to follow, no need to indulge myself in over-elaborate descriptive passages. I could simply let myself rest.
Yet despite banishing every thought of Christine and my old books from my mind, l was still pestered by their ghostly presence - the hard-boiled detectives, the strands of lilac hair tangled in my carpet.
So, I filled the void by reciting words like a child at a spelling bee while slumped in my bed, or I took long walks into town quoting Roth and Pynchon under my breath.
I’d made a big mistake. I needed my books back, Christine as well.
When I turned up at her front porch, I stamped my feet on the uneven concrete to ward off the freezing cold.
“I miss you,” I said, as she swung open the door. “And I want my books back. Wouldn’t it be fun if we rebuilt my library together, as a couple? You’d be lying if you said you didn’t.”
Christine gave me a condescending frown, “You don’t love literature and all you’ve ever done is tolerate me. You just like to be seen reading a good book on the train and have a nice girl on your arm. I’m sorry if you’re feeling bad but I don’t have the answers for you.”
After she closed the door I went for a hike around the neighbourhood, pacing in concentric circles until I collapsed on a park bench miles away from Christine’s property, dizzy and breathless.
Without Christine I’d have to build a library twice the size of my previous collection. If I couldn’t have one, I’d have to have more of the other. It was only logical.
Christine was right though, losing her was collateral damage, I didn’t need her. But I did need an image, and books provided that, no matter how phoney.
I’d have to retrieve my old manuscript from my PC’s junk box and start the arduous process of rewriting everything.
What I really needed to do was take every book I’d bought from the local second hand book store, stack them in piles around my flat and then read them with a ruthless dedication, creating a Teflon identity that would truly endure. I was ready to dive into literature once again.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Eunoia Review, Menacing Hedge, Maudlin House and elsewhere. He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal. Twitter: @TimFrankquill. Tim recommends ActionAid.