A SCORPION-TAILED ROMANCE

by

Christine Carmichael

I limped round the windswept corner, into Cumberland Place, at 8:46 a.m. To my surprise, the entrance-way to my bookshop, "The First Folio", was stacked with cartons. I hadn't been expecting a delivery that morning, and anyway it was too early in the day. Pushing my way past the unmarked lime-green boxes I unlocked the door. On the floor lay a long pink envelope. The enclosed letter read: Liathach Publications, Dear Customer, It is with great pleasure that we present to you our latest masterpiece, Dreams of Zelenique, a novel of sweeping grandeur, heart- rending emotions, and universal appeal. In certainty of your approval, we are sending you 100 volumes, and will bill you later at the low, low price of $4 each. Yours Faithfully, Colop Megg Never had in all my days had I been subjected to such crude business methods. The cheek of them! Didn't they realise that this was a select establishment selling only quality literature? I grabbed one of the cartons and dragged it through the doorway, never mind my bad back. I tore it open, inhaling the delicious aroma of fine leather and exotic printing volatiles, then gasped at the magnificent covers of books brimful inside. Lifting one gently from its resting place, I marvelled at the glorious colors. There was no dust-jacket, the brilliant artwork was emblazoned into a superb binding. The title shone and sparkled like molten jewels. Dreams of Zelenique by H. H. Tain. Almost without knowing what I did, I turned to page one. And read. I had reached page 73 when an elderly man in squeaky, polished shoes found me squatting there still, just inside the doorway, beside the unpacked carton. I staggered to my feet with cramped legs. It required enormous effort to focus on the shop. Reality seemed pale and insignificant after the splendours of the novel. The lives of the characters dazzled my mind, and seemed far more important to me than my little world. Their dilemmas and conflicts towered over the piffling trivia of my day-to day existence. I must have shown my bemusement, because the customer said, with concern, "You don't look well. Do you want a doctor?" "No, thank you," I replied, " I need to sit down for a minute, that's all." My head was swimming in pictures from the story, a fantasy set in a world of fabulous beings. The old gentleman assisted me to plush armchair behind the counter, then he found the anthology for which he had come in, and as an afterthought, he moved the box of books from the door to a position beneath the counter. He had a strange smile on his face as he picked up the top copy. "What a lovely book," he murmured, caressing it. "I must have it. I can't see a price. How much?" I calculated rapidly. "Seventy dollars," I coughed. "Worth it at any price," he said, with a satisfied smile. After he left, I brought in the rest of the cartons, locked the door from the inside, turned the sign to CLOSED, and retired to the chaise longue in my office to read. I was roused by a loud banging. Tearing myself away from chapter nine, I went into the front shop. Someone was knocking on the door. Reluctantly, I opened up. A crowd of people pressed inwards, shoving each other in their eagerness. "All the bookstores in town are shut. What's going on?" said a man in maroon knitted cap with matching muffler. "Where is it?" pleaded a fat woman with bulging tweed overcoat and shopping bag. "I want that new book!" demanded a lanky schoolboy, a row of pens stuffed into shirt pocket. Everyone was at me, vying for my attention. "Shut up," I yelled as I retreated to the safety of the cash register behind a four-foot high counter. In quick succession I dealt with each of the ardent buyers. I sold the contents of the first carton there and then, and the whole lot had gone by mid-afternoon. Then I took the rest of the day off, and hurried home to read. I was unconscious of the deserted streets of tatty greengrocers and hardware stores along my way. By dawn, I had not only reached the end of the novel, but read it through once more. Day after day, I stayed in the house, dreaming and re-reading Dreams of Zelenique. Lapsing into a depression, the like of which I had never experienced before, I wondered how could I continue with my empty, pointless existence. The decor in my home was a prime example of my mediocrity. Pathetic antiques and dowdy rugs, once a source of pride, were now as tasteless as soiled newspaper lining a hamster's hutch. Me, a decrepit spinster, long past her prime. Alone, and lonely. Far removed from the great movements in the world of culture. A nobody, of no significance, no influence, no soul. In that novel, the characters blazed with power and glory. Their ideas dwarfed the greatest philosophies of history, their humanity and love burned like a sun in my consciousness. Then, gradually, I turned my thoughts to everyday life. I forced myself to eat, although even the best of my cooking was ashes to me now. I built up my strength, as if recuperating from a long illness, absorbing the spring sunshine in my back garden, breathing in the fragrant scent of the mimosa. When I felt up to it, I ventured into the streets. It was strangely quiet, empty sunshine and shadows, like a Sunday in the 1950's. There was hardly any traffic on the roads, and not a single pedestrian in sight. Litter rustled in the gutters, and the pungent odor of decay drew my attention to the fact that all the garbage-bins were overflowing. A small boy with sticky streaks all over his face, ran down the path to his gate as I passed. "Hello," he cried, "Have you come to play with me?" "What's the matter, dear?" I asked, with concern. "Ma won't talk to me, anymore. She just stays in her room all the time." I went with him into his home, and stared aghast at the mess in the living-room and kitchen. The child told me he had been fending for himself for the last few days, living off jam sandwiches and whatever else he could find in the fridge. His mother had not come downstairs since Saturday morning, when she had returned from her weekly shopping and said he was not to bother her. Her shopping bag was still on the kitchen table, full of groceries. After tidying up a bit, I cooked him a meal of steak and vegetables from the contents of the bag. He was starved of both food and company, poor little fellow, and talked excitedly as I did my best to cheer him up. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the task. I had never been good with children, before. People used to avoid me after church, and I was never invited to babysit. I guessed what they thought about me. That bookish Miss Martin, with her old maid fussiness, hasn't a clue about people. Nathan didn't seem to notice my shortcomings, however. He rattled on happily, informing me that he was a single child of a single parent, and "never seen me Dad." "Ma works in a bank," he said proudly, "but she hasn't been there for ages. I'm supposed to be at Gia's house. She looks after me during the day, until Ma comes to fetch me. "Do you know the way to Gia's house from here?" I asked. When he had assured me that he did, I wrote a note for his mother and stuck it under one of the candy-colored alphabet magnets on the refrigerator. It was only a few blocks to the child-minder's place, and we met nobody along the way. A bus went by, empty except for the driver. A non-reader, I supposed. Gia was hanging out the washing when we arrived, five ankle-biters scrabbling in a sand-box. I explained the circumstances, and she agreed to take care of Nathan until his mother was back in circulation. "Half the kids have been here since last week, one more won't make much difference. I hope their parents don't expect me to keep them forever!" she joked. "Have you seen that book Dreams of Zelenique?" I asked. It seemed incredible to find someone normal, and I wanted to know how she had escaped its spell. "When do I ever get the chance to read?" she fumed. " With all this lot to look after I'm lucky if I get time to glance at the front page headlines, let alone the whole newspaper. But Terry, my husband, has been reading it, and mooching about in the garden shed for the last four days. He won't come in the house until the kid's are asleep, says they distract him too much." Nathan was playing with the other kids, happily racing up and down the yard on a battered tricycle. Certain he was in good hands, I left him and went down town to my shop. Horror of horrors! The place had been broken into and ransacked in my absence. Someone, presumably the police, had boarded up the broken panel in the door and attached a notice saying; NO COPIES OF Dreams of Zelenique PLEASE TRY ELSEWHERE. Actually, the shop wasn't too badly messed up. Only a few books had been damaged by falling off their shelf. The till was unbroached, so theft did not seem to be the motive for the break-in. According to the notice on the door, the burglars had only wanted to find copies of that book. The telephone was dead, so I was unable to call anyone to fix the door. No customers appeared during the hour I spent tidying up. In fact, not a single person walked past the shop. There seemed no reason to stay open. Like an addict deprived of narcotics for some hours, I felt it was time for another fix of the novel. On my way home, I saw only two pedestrians and one taxi. The Stoneywynd Crescent branch of National Bank was surprisingly open for business. I went in to deposit the money from my till. The teller was a crabby septuagenarian who I vaguely recognised. " Why, it's Mr Cooney. Didn't you used to work here, years ago ?" I enquired politely. "Dragged out of me well-deserved retirement," he hissed acidly through stained dentures. "Seems they can't manage without me. The country's going down the tubes, if you ask me." In a far off street, I heard the echo of an ambulence siren. There are plenty of non-readers, illiterates and those whose highest cultural experience is the latest episode of "Dallas". I presumed that they were the ones keeping the essential services running. All the same, I couldn't find a grocery store which was open for business, and had to resign myself to the prospect of canned food and stale bread for supper. At the end of my street, I noticed a collie chained up in a front yard. I had seen this dog on many occasions and I knew she was a friendly, young pup. But now she was decidedly unhappy, whining dejectedly and lying on her side on a worn patch of lawn, a blue plastic bowl empty beside her head. Cautiously, I opened the gate and walked up the path. The animal raised her head and gave a few, feeble thumps of her tail; a display of affection which, in view of the circumstances, brought a lump to my throat. I filled the bowl with water from a garden hose and brought it to her. She gulped it down rapidly, and I refilled it before trying the doorbell. There was no answer, but I had an uneasy feeling that the family were lurking inside in zombie fashion. "I'll bring you some grub," I told her, stroking her head as she slavered her gratitude all over my hand. It upset me that such a wonderful novel as Dreams of Zelenique could be the cause of cruel thoughtlessness and negligence. I managed to find a can of beef stew in the back of a kitchen cupboard, which I slopped into my largest mixing bowl and took back to the collie. Watching her gulp it down, I hoped that her owners would shoulder their responsibilities again before too long. I read a few of my favorite passages, but found I was ever so slightly bored. Could I possibly be getting tired of that wonderful storyland? I switched on the television. Incredible film of the crimson-skied cremation of Buenos Aires opened the evening news, followed by riots and famine from all over. Those countries which even at the best of times had only a few days supply of food for their populations, had run desperately close to starvation levels in recent days. From Iran there were reports of a tremendous upsurge in book-burning. However, no-one had seen the Ayatollahs since the day the forbidden books had arrived at the book stores. In Japan, with industry suffering unprecedented levels of absenteeism, elaborate provisions had been made to keep factories running by using Buddhist monks and nuns, the blind, and obedient, nimble-fingered children. Most of the essential services in this country had struggled on with skeleten staff, averting a breakdown of the magnitude that Argentina had experienced. Nevertheless, many deaths had resulted through neglect of the elderly and infirm. Now, as more workers returned to their posts, the situation was improving. Hospitals were accepting new admissions once more, and limited telephone services had been restored. There was a hopeful note in the voice of the anchorwoman as she suggested that things were almost back to normal. It was amazing to realize that Dreams of Zelenique had been distributed world-wide, in a hundred different languages. The organization and strategy in such an operation was staggering. Who was this Colop Megg to have managed such a publishing coup? Where was his centre of operations? Nobody seemed to know. The clink of milk bottles awoke me next morning. Ignoring the stiffness in my legs, I leapt out of bed. From my window I glimpsed the milkman, swinging his crate as he strolled down my path. Glory be! A trail of empty garbage bins dotted the gutter as far along the road as I could see. I tripped light as a girl, from my room to the back door. Fresh milk and the aroma of strong coffee. Ravenous with hunger after days of lacklustre appetite, I savoured the greasy indulgence of grilled bacon and tomato. I was free of the dreadful obsession of that novel, which had held me in its grip for the last two weeks. It struck me that I could scarcely recall the feelings I had experienced about the book. Sometimes I wake enthralled by a dream, yet moments later I can't remember a thing about it. This was a similar sensation. I could regard the period of absorption in Dreams of Zelenique from a different perspective. I had been trapped in an altered state of consciousness, one of madness and addiction. But how had it happened? Perhaps the author had incorporated into his writing some new form of hypnosis, or weird psychology, which wore off after a certain length of time. Perhaps the embossed leather cover exuded psychedelic vapors. Certainly, the symptoms were similar to a drug-induced delirium, not that I, a regular church-goer, had ever experimented with such substances. But one reads about it in the newspapers. Somewhere, somehow, someone in the publishing world had made a very dangerous discovery. There would have to be a national effort to track him down and stop him. After breakfast, I noticed that the kitchen had accumulated the inevitable dirt of two weeks neglect. Guiltily, I set about cleaning my house. I dragged out the vacuum cleaner to start in the hall. A long pink envelope lay on my doormat. I hadn't heard the flap on the letterbox rattle. Picking it up, I examined it with some degree of trepidation. No stamp, no postmark, no return address. Just my name and address. Inside was a letter of terrifying implication: Liathach Vanity Publishing Dear Customer, Please find enclosed bill for 100 copies of Dreams of Zelenique. We are delighted by the excellent response it received. Please deposit the $400 to our account at any branch of the National Bank. In the certain knowledge of your approval, we are sending you 10,000 volumes of assorted novels by a selection of our authors. They are most eager to exploit this appreciative market during the next few months, before the professional publishing houses move in, which in our experience always results in a drop in sales of our less sophisticated products. As this event is imminent, we would be grateful if you would commence to retail our merchandise immediately upon receipt. We look forward to a short but fruitful business association with you and all our customers on planet Earth. Yours Faithfully, Colop Megg (Managing Director - Galactic Division Three)
THE END


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