The Reader

It was completely unexpected, something he never thought he’d see. 

For some obscure reason it reminded him of occasions when he’d expected to see something but hadn’t.  Like the time when he’d spent three days being driven along dusty tracks in a safari park, gazing into parched scrubland expecting to see tigers, but none had appeared.  Or that time in an art gallery when he’d expected to see a painting by Albrecht Durer only to be confronted with a notice explaining it had been removed for restoration.  Or when he’d visited St Thomas’s Hospital expecting to see his friend who, an hour before, had been transferred to a hospice.  Or when he’d gone to the cemetery, equipped with a bucket and scrubbing brush, ready to clean his great-grandfather’s headstone, only to find it had been removed to make room for an extension to the church.

Why, he wondered, when suddenly confronted with something that he’d never expect to see, was he reminded of things he had not seen?  He supposed it must be his mind playing silly tricks.

She was conspicuous, not because of her oriental features, but because she was the only person reading a book.  Everyone else, opposite and on either side of her, sat gazing at the screens on their smart phones. 

He’d spotted the distinctive cover immediately when, having settled in her seat, she’d produced the book from her rucksack.  For a while it lay unopened on her lap as she scabbled around in search of a pencil.  Then, with what he thought was probably a sigh, she settled down to read, occasionally underlining a word and making a note in the margin.  

He was taken aback because the chances of ever encountering anyone, let alone this young oriental woman, reading that book must be close to zero, perhaps even less than zero.  The book had not been a success, long since remaindered and out of print.  What, he wondered, was her interest in reading it and, even more intriguing, what was she jotting in the margins?  He was too far away to see.  Criticisms perhaps?  Nothing she noted seemed expansive, just an occasional word here or there.  

He considered his options: leave her to her labours or interrupt her?   A binary choice, the former straightforward, the latter perilous and full of unknowns.  Anyway, what could he possibly say that wouldn’t seem banal or, even worse, patronising?

He recalled other occasions when he’d struggled to find the right words.  The time, for example, when he’d been tongue-tied when Prince Philip demanded to know what the hell he was doing as the only bloke in a dance class — the implication being that he must be some sort of pervert.  Or the time when he’d made a complete hash of asking his Pilates teacher, distractingly clad in a skin-tight leotard, out for a date.  He wasn’t sure she’d even twigged that’s what he was doing.  Or perhaps she had, but thought it kind to pretend she hadn’t.  Then there was that job interview when he was asked about his weaknesses.  Totally thrown, he’d managed to mumble something about being indecisive.  He didn’t get the job, consoling himself that at least he’d been honest.

What could he say to the young woman?  It was awkward.  He’d have to get up and walk over to her, then stand while everyone else was seated.  Should he bow or put his hands together in greeting?  The situation wasn’t conducive to having a quiet word.  Everyone near her would inevitably overhear whatever he chose to say.     

Suddenly she looked up, her pony-tail bobbing, and gazed out of the window.  Fields flashed past.  What was she thinking?  Perhaps pondering something thought-provoking she’d just read?  Or wondering whether it was worth continuing?  Hard to tell.  She looked at her wrist watch, gave a stifled yawn, wriggled in her seat, stretched her legs momentarily and then resumed her reading. 

She looked a studious type.  He wondered how old she was.  Early thirties he guessed.  Probably single, maybe a mature student or a professional person finding her way in life.  But why that book?  Pessimistically he assumed she must be reading it under sufferance, not voluntarily.  A set text perhaps?  Background reading before embarking on a project?  And where, he wondered, had she acquired the book: from a library, from Amazon, perhaps a chance find in a charity shop?  He longed to know.

He knew full well that he shouldn’t be watching her like this, but he couldn’t help it.  He recalled the last time he’d got himself into a bit of bother on a train.  He’d become mesmerised watching a young woman doing her eye makeup.  He was quite convinced a sudden jolt would result in an accident, but somehow, swaying gracefully, she absorbed the jolts and continued to apply her mascara without mishap.  Whilst he’d been lost in admiration, marvelling at her dexterity, she’d suddenly snapped shut her mirror, leant forward and told him to fuck off.  He was so shocked that he couldn’t think of anything to say in mitigation as she pointedly gathered up her things and moved to another seat.

Then there was that incident when a young, athletic black man had belligerently demanded to know why he was looking at him.  The question came as a shock because, for once, he hadn’t been looking, he’d merely glanced up as the young man sat down opposite him.  Despite this, the young man had become increasingly agitated and repeated his question.  When no answer was forthcoming, he’d leapt up with clenched fists and, dancing like Muhammad Ali, shouted, ‘You’re scared, man!  Yeah man, shitting yourself aren’t you?’ before collapsing back into his seat guffawing with laughter.  

He’d been seriously shaken by the incident, reflecting afterwards that he could easily have been mugged or stabbed.     

The young woman rummaged in her rucksack and fished out her smart phone, the book remaining open on her lap.  She keyed in a word, looked thoughtful, then made another note in the margin of the book.  He could hardly contain himself.  What was she doing?  What had she looked up?  An obscure word perhaps?  Probably something he could easily explain.       

She turned down the corner of the page she’d been reading and closed the book. He didn’t really approve of people who turned down corners, always preferring to use a book mark himself.  Neither, for that matter, did he approve of people who annotated books.  But he knew it would be churlish to reproach her. 

The book lay on her lap and she leant back in her seat and closed her eyes. 

He watched her.  Had she stopped reading because she was bored, finding the book a hard slog?  Perhaps she’d had a late night?  He gazed at her and wondered.

Then, without warning, she stirred, opened her eyes and looked straight at him.  Embarrassed, he immediately looked away, feigning disinterest.  Had she sensed he was staring at her?   Perhaps now was the moment to say something, to come clean, to allay her fears, maybe even offer to sign the book?

But, in the familiar grip of indecision, he did nothing, wrestling to suppress an overpowering urge to take another look, just a fleeting glance.  He decided he’d permit himself to do so only after counting slowly to ten, a delaying tactic he’d employed to good effect on a number of previous occasions.  But, he wondered, would that provide a long enough interval?  To look up and find she was still looking at him would be impossibly embarrassing.  In his confusion, he opted to busy himself cleaning his spectacles — a displacement activity that bought him a bit more time.    

When eventually he dared to glance in her direction, there was a space where she had been.  She’d gone! 

He reflected ruefully that now he’d never know why she was reading that book and she would never know how close she’d come to meeting the author.         

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