The Book by Chris Green
When I was growing up in the nineteen-sixties, I was surrounded by books. The bookshelves in Grey Gables, the big old Gothic revival house in Gloucestershire where we lived, were full. Fiction and non-fiction, there were books from all around the globe. There were books of every classification. but there was one book I was told I must never read. The one with the plain black cover. Whenever it was subsequently mentioned, it was referred to not as the black book or the book with no title, but simply as The Book. Under no circumstances must I ever take The Book down from the shelves. No explanation was offered, but it was drummed into me that there would be grave consequences if I transgressed. There were many house rules back then, which as I saw it were there to be broken. But I understood this rule to be less negotiable.
I managed to establish that it was not The Clavicle Of Solomon, The Book Of Honorius or one of those grimoires of note. Although my parents were collectors of antiquarian books, they did not go for that sort of thing. Nor was it The Bible. They would hardly forbid me to read the Bible. They were regular churchgoers. Three times a week sometimes. They practically threw Bibles at me. Sandwiched between old copies of The Compleat Angler and Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, The Book looked like an ordinary Morocco-bound volume. The difference was there was nothing on the spine, nothing to suggest what might be inside. It was a tantalising mystery.
On the occasions my school friends came round to visit, they too were curious about what it might be.
‘Maybe its pages are black too’ Adam might say. Adam was the smart-aleck among us.
‘Wouldn’t that make it difficult to read?’ Roger might say. Roger could be on the slow side sometimes.
‘Not as hard as Silas Marner,’ Dave might say. I would have agreed with Dave here. It was ridiculous to expect fourteen-year-old boys in modern times to become interested in a long meandering tale of a Calvinist weaver in the pre-Victorian north of England.
‘Or Othello,’ Pete might say. ‘What a load of wank that is.’
‘You think Othello is tough going,’ I might say. ‘You will find Coriolanus unfathomable. You might as well be reading a bicycle repair manual in Welsh.’
In the B stream, we had trouble with all the required reading. It also seemed a prerequisite that the books we were given were both difficult and boring. We passed Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics around in English to relieve the tedium. No-one could ever accuse us of being studious.
Back at Grey Gables, there were times when we were tempted to have a peek inside The Book. If we had a look and put it back carefully in the same place, surely no-one would find out. It was not as if the books on this shelf were read often. But each time temptation arose, an invisible yet powerful force held us back. Each of us had the strange intuition that opening the book would be crossing a line that must not be crossed. It would be ….. dark on the other side.
It was not that we were faint-hearted. We did all the things that rebellious Grammar School boys were supposed to do. Smoked cigarettes behind the Science block. Smoked weed behind the science block. Smoked weed in the science block. Grew weed in the science block. We got bolder and bolder. We constantly dared each other to go one step further. We stole push-bikes. We stole motorbikes. We even stole Ugg Stanton’s car. Ugg taught us History. When I say taught, I use the term euphemistically. He was a hopeless teacher, second perhaps only to Fritz Klein, who euphemistically taught us German. But despite our insurgent proclivities, The Book remained a no-no.
In my later teenage years, I did not give it much thought. I was not around the house often. I had no interest in entering into lengthy discussions with Pater about the nature of sin or whether there was life after death. Clearly, you wouldn’t find out if there was a Heaven or Hell until the time came. With hormones racing, there were more important matters to attend to. Emma, Rachel and Sophie for example. My wild oats were there to be sown. What else could I do? There was a reputation to be established. Burgeoning adolescence gave no quarter.
Sometime later, on a rare home visit from university, I slipped into the library, as my parents referred to the room. I noticed The Book was now bookended by Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment. I couldn’t be certain, but it seemed to me that it was also on a different shelf.
I asked my father about this.
‘The cleaner must have moved it, son,’ he said. ‘But she’s ….. no longer with us.’
‘Been gone a while now,’ said Mum.
Oh well, I thought. Getting rid of home help was one of the few hobbies they had. They had to have some pleasures to brighten up their dull lives. Or did no longer with us mean something else?
Pops meanwhile got back to berating me, with renewed vigour.
‘You need to get a hair cut, lad,’ he said. ‘And do they let you wear those ridiculous clothes at Leeds? You look like a pansy. What bloody good is Media Studies, anyway? What are you planning to do, be a gopher at Thames Television?’
I wasn’t going to be spoken to like this. I decided to take a time out. There was a good pub in the next village. Over a couple of pints of Old Bastard in The Gordon Bennett, I got to thinking, if the forbidden book had been moved so unceremoniously, maybe it was not so dangerous after all. The temptation to take a look became stronger than ever. By the end of the second pint, it had become all-consuming. I would finally discover what had been hidden from me for all these years.
After a frosty dinner, trading insults, I excused myself and sneaked off to the library. I took a deep breath and braced myself. Whatever dark secrets The Book held would soon be revealed. But just as I was about to take the book down from the shelf and examine it, an invisible force took hold. It felt like I was reaching out into dark and empty space with a thousand watts of electrical current pulsing through my flailing limbs. My whole body became numb, and I collapsed in a writhing heap on the floor. I was petrified. The paramedics could not work out what had happened. I kept quiet about the book. If you are going to face ridicule, it is best not to do so in your own home.
I did not go near the library for the rest of my stay and did not visit my parents again for some years.
After university with my hard-earned Desmond (2:2), I got a job at Thames Television as Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Regional Promotions Editor. It was at Thames that I met Sarah. Sarah had a job title similar to my own, but then Thames employed about forty thousand people at the time. There were lots of errands to run. There was a lot of tea to make. Sarah and I got to know each other quickly and moved in together into a small flat in Hammersmith, West London. In the seventies Hammersmith was the very cauldron of change, as with the empire striking back, London became truly international. Within a square mile, you could find families from every corner of the globe.
I mentioned The Book once or twice to Sarah after a few drinks. I couldn’t help it. It was something that just came out now and again. Regrettably, she began to show a keen interest in it. I could sense that she was eager to see what all the fuss about. I stood my ground. I resisted. I did not want to go back home yet. I was not ready.
‘There’s no point in going to see it,’ I said. ‘Unless we are going to take a look inside the thing.’
I imagined that when it came down to it, the book would work its arcane magic and keep her at bay, as it had with me and with my school friends. I was just saving her the trouble of finding this out.
‘Then perhaps we should take a look inside,’ she said. ‘This mumbo-jumbo about the bloody book is probably all in your imagination. Have you thought of that? You do get worked up about little things sometimes.’
There was another objection. My trump card, I felt.
‘My parents and I don’t even speak,’ I said, hoping that this would seal it. ‘You know I haven’t been home in years.’
‘Then you definitely should,’ she said. ‘Look! Your Mum has to my knowledge phoned at least half a dozen times, and you’ve not got back to her. And even your dad phoned once and left a message, and you didn’t have the decency to call back. It’s time to lay those ghosts to rest, Clive. Time to put your petty vendetta to bed and start behaving like an adult.’
‘I shouldn’t have let them have the number.’
‘In any case, we’ve been together for three years. Don’t you think I might like to meet your parents?’
‘I can’t think why you would,’ I said.
‘Do you never think about your inheritance, Clive?’
‘So this is what this is about, is it?’
‘No, but one day …….’
‘I never think about the future.’
‘Then you should. You can’t run away from it, because it is going to happen.’
Little by little Sarah used her guile to persuade me to take the plunge and renew my severed ties.
‘We’ll go in the new year,’ I said finally, hoping that over the festive period she might forget.
Sarah didn’t forget. Over the Christmas holidays, her insistence became stronger. So, on the second Friday of January, we drove across the country to the family pile. The snow we had earlier in the week was beginning to thaw, but not so much that it spoiled the picture-postcard views of the rolling Cotswold hills. Perhaps I had become used to driving in London, but for once there was little traffic on the road. We passed a joint back and forth and listened to a cassette of Kaya, Bob Marley and the Wailers new album. We had been fortunate enough to see them play at The Plaza de Toros in Ibiza earlier in the year. They were spectacular.
As we drove through the rural idyll, the winter sun shone and the sky was an azure blue. The wealth of the wool towns and villages of West Oxfordshire set against the frozen landscape offered a bounty of chocolate box views. In the Windrush valley, we watched a red kite swoop down from a great height. I had not seen one for years. I took the sighting to be a good omen. I began to think that I might have been wrong in my decision to keep the family at a distance. Sarah’s family had always been close. She saw them every week. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have taken my father’s comments so much to heart. After all, he had always been a cold fish. I shouldn’t expect him to change now. That he had actually phoned and left a message, albeit quite a sour one was as much as I could reasonably expect. In fact, that he had left a message at all could probably be described as progress. Perhaps too I had been mistaken about the perils of The Book. Imagination could be a powerful force. Maybe there was nothing to fear.
From a distance, I could see Dad’s grey Rover 3.5 parked on the drive, along with the green Morris Traveller that Mum drove. You don’t expect to see a lot of changes to Cotswold country houses, but it was clear that there were no concessions here to modernity. No double glazing. No extension. No vine-covered pergola. The house was exactly as it always had been. Before going in, we took a look round the back. Maybe this was my way of delaying the reunion for a few more minutes while I got used to the idea of being back. The garden too was unchanged. The borders were exactly as I remembered them, the lawns carefully manicured as they had always been. The trees were the same size. Five years, and they appeared not to have grown an inch. The shrubs were the same size. Even the ornamental statues and the rustic water feature were weathered to the same degree. The summer house was still in the same state of crumbling decay as it was when I left.
Eventually, we went into the house and I introduced Sarah. She made a joke about all the number of layers of clothing she was wearing. This helped to break the ice. The frosty reception I might have received had I come alone was averted by Sarah’s bubbly personality. Mum and Dad were able to focus on a conversation with her and thus able to completely ignore me. This suited me just fine. I listened to them making small talk and watched the hands of the grandfather clock as they moved around to quarter past three. I recalled all the times it had woken me up throughout the night, chiming as it did every fifteen minutes. Surely there must have been a mechanism to prevent this.
By about four o’clock, the conversation seemed to have run dry. They had brought up all the embarrassing facts about my childhood that they could remember and Sarah had filled them in on the latest blockbuster that would be going out on ITV. They offered to give Sarah a tour of the house. They wanted to start by showing her her room, my room, our room. I knew that the room would be frozen in time. The posters for Superfly and 200 Motels would still adorn the walls. Pater would make some snide remark about one or the other. I saw this as a good point to sneak off to the library. It had the familiar musty smell of old books. There were probably close to a thousand of them in all. I could not spot it at first, but there was The Book, on the top shelf now sandwiched in between Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and Bertrand Russell’s Has Man A Future? Had the cleaner again been responsible for the rearrangement, I wondered. Had she too since been dispatched?
I reached up and carefully took The Book down from the shelf. For the briefest time, I held it in my hand. Then all at once, time became ……. suspended. One moment I was breathing, with blood running through my veins and thoughts going through my head, albeit what if thoughts, soft and foggy thoughts, slipping away thoughts, the next moment there was nothing. No-one, nothing. Like there never had been anyone, anything. Don’t expect a tunnel of light, or St Peter waiting to greet you, when it happens. It’s not even like waiting for a bus that you know is not going to come along, as someone once described it. There is just an empty hollow void. Silence forever. Eternal nothingness.
I wonder who could be writing this story.
Whoever it is instructs you to leave The Book on the shelf. You should not take it down until it is time ………
© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved