Leather

 

R E J E C T I O N   A N T H O L O G Y

 

 

A J   A S H W O R T H

 

 

L E A T H E R

 

This is how the story begins: with a woman – we don’t know her name or what she looks like but we assume she is the heroine of the story – browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop in York. The sky is grey through the bookshop window:

pewter, ragged with cloud.

 The woman is in the city for a short break but the reason for the break and also why she is there alone are never explained. Words such as rip or torn are used. More significantly (perhaps), when she leaves the bookshop later, she catches sight of herself in the glass of the door, almost expecting to see:

a reflection of David there behind her, his watery outline.

But we are never told who this David is and he is not mentioned again in the rest of the story. We assume then that she and David have split up or that, possibly (his watery outline, for example), he has died. Either way, it is left to us to decide.

It is November. There is the threat of rain. The woman has entered the bookshop on this, her first day in the city, after remembering she has forgotten to bring a book to read in the evenings. The bookshop is described:

the dictionaries, the Dickens; mustiness in her nose, grains of dust on her fingertips.

There is also:

the thrill of leather, the promise of old ink on thin paper.

There is a slight shift in time as the woman thinks over the parts of the city she has already seen as she wandered around before entering the shop: the Minster, the medieval city walls, the Shambles:

that old street once a flesh market home to butchers, and where meat hooks and shelves still hang outside its shops and tearooms.

We wonder about the reference to butchery and if this will mean something as the story progresses – especially as the title of the story is ‘Leather’. There is a growing sense of unease although we are not entirely sure where this is coming from. It could be from the language, although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how the writer is doing this.

We read on, wondering when the inciting incident is going to take place. And it happens then just as the woman picks up a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is sticking out from one of the shelves. She flicks through the novel and finds a rectangle of leather tucked within the pages. It is described as being the same size as the woman’s thumb and has two stamped initials on the bottom of it: M. B. We do not know what the initials mean and neither does the woman. We are left with the image of these as well as an image of the woman as she rubs the leather – a bookmark, she presumes – between her thumb and fingers. We are told that she wonders about slipping the book into her bag without paying for it but that she doesn’t; instead she goes to the till and then leaves. The light outside the shop is a strange light as she walks out into it. It is the kind of curdled light that comes before a rainstorm, the writer tells us.

*

The action moves to a coffee shop. The woman is holding the bookmark as she reads, absent-mindedly rubbing the leather between her fingers again. There are sections of text interspersed with the story – text from The Picture of Dorian Gray:

If thought could exercise its influence upon a living organism, might not thought exercise an influence upon dead and inorganic things?

We may be starting to feel more unsettled because of the references to dead things, leather, butchery. And also because of the fact that the book the heroine is reading is Dorian Gray: that story of the young man who sells his soul to stay young, whose sins are recorded on a portrait in a locked room. All of this contributes to the atmosphere but, even though we are a way into it now, we are not sure where the story is leading us.

We are told then that a man at the table next to the woman stands and his wallet drops out of his back pocket. As the man walks away, the woman feels:

a dark bloom of push and spark.

A feeling, we are told, that she has never experienced before. But instead of shouting for the man and telling him what has happened, the woman watches him leave and then leans forward, picks up the wallet and puts it into her bag. She glances around to check she hasn’t been seen and she hasn’t. We are told then that she has never done anything like this before and so we wonder why she would do this now. We see then that she is still holding onto the leather bookmark, her thumb rubbing over its creases. We start to wonder what exactly this piece of leather is and if, perhaps, it might be more than just a bookmark. But we do not know. All is conjecture.

*

There is a section break then and we next see the woman eating her evening meal at the hotel she is staying at. The book is open beside her plate, the pages weighed down by antique salt and pepper cellars, silver and blue glass. She is eating lamb chops, carrots and potatoes. We are told the lamb is a little bloody. There is another quotation from the novel the woman is reading:

… Dorian Gray sat beside me. Some subtle influence passed from him to me…

The woman finishes her meal and picks the book up. There are couples at some of the other tables but she doesn’t want them to feel sorry for her, eating there alone. That is why she has brought the novel along with her. We think of David again and what that earlier reference to him might have meant but we do not know; we can only guess at who he was and what might have happened to him at some point before the story started. When the woman comes to the end of a section, she looks for the bookmark that she has placed in the back of the book, and her breath catches in her throat. The bookmark has grown; it is no longer the size of her thumb:

It skirts the bottom of the page, the initials on it red and sore as brands.

The woman thinks of the wallet and how she was holding the bookmark when she stole it. She starts to wonder if her bad deed has somehow given life to the leather and encouraged it to grow. She dismisses the thought though. Perhaps she has just imagined it has grown. Perhaps she has just imagined the change that she can see in the initials now. Still, she closes the book more forcefully than she intended to and the people on the other tables turn and stare at her. She smiles at them, picks up her book and goes to her room. As she walks up the stairs, we are left with the images of the leather bookmark, the stolen wallet. It is possible we might be starting to see at this point why the writer has chosen Dorian Gray as the text within the text. Even so, we are beginning to understand that the story is metafictional rather than realist: the writer is trying to make us aware that what we are reading is a fictional construct. This is especially in evidence when the woman catches sight of herself in a mirror on the stairs and the description of how she looks matches that of the author of the story (we may have seen photos of her on the internet). And, then, when the character chastises herself, she uses the author’s name as her own name:

Andrea, stop being silly. It’s only a bookmark. You’re letting your imagination run away with you.

We are impressed by the writer’s cleverness – or, at least, we think we should be impressed – but part of us may also be annoyed at having been pulled out of what might have been an interesting fictional dream, if only we had been allowed to stay in it.

*

We are shown it is night then and that the woman is struggling to sleep. We see her turning from side to side, then getting up and going to the window. There is a lone star in the sky like a speck of glitter on black cloth. She wonders if it might be Jupiter or Venus or Saturn but she doesn’t know. We are told the sky was not her particular area of interest. Maybe this italicised her implies it was the interest of someone else – David perhaps. But we don’t know: we are left to our own imaginations once more about this.

The woman goes back to the bed and switches on the lamp. The book is there on the bedside cabinet. She picks it up and finds where the bookmark is. It is no bigger than it was. It has not grown from the last time she saw it. She wonders if she really did imagine the change earlier. She wonders if this dark city in the north of England is having an effect on her mind. Perhaps she should have gone somewhere else on holiday, somewhere warmer, brighter, instead of:

A place that is already starting to bruise and turn towards winter.

The woman starts to read and after a while notices that feeling of push and spark is there once more. She sees that she is rubbing the leather again between her thumb and forefinger. She hadn’t even been aware she was holding it. She puts the book down and gets up. There is a feeling of electricity inside her. She has to do something. She can’t just sit there and carry on reading. She has to move, we are told. She has to follow the push, the urge.

The woman walks out of her room and goes downstairs. She goes into the dining room where she remembers having used those attractive salt and pepper cellars with their:

twists of silver and blue glass.

She finds a huddle of them on a cabinet at the side of the room and takes a set. She carries them back upstairs with her and hides them in her case. She is breathless, darkly thrilled by what she has done. She sits on the bed then. She stares at the bookmark. She wants to see if anything happens to it, if it grows and spreads. By the next sentence we realise it is no longer night-time though. The morning light is described, the sounds of birds in a nearby tree. The woman has failed to stay awake and she is angry at herself for having done so. She looks at the book next to her on the bed. It has fallen closed sometime during the night, perhaps as she tossed in dreams. But even without opening the pages she can see that something is not right; some change has taken place as she slept. The woman sits tall and picks up the book, blinking against the light:

seeing then how the leather is spilling out from beyond the confines of the book, the skin brighter, more alive – the initials burned into it, vivid as fresh scars.

She had not imagined the earlier change to the leather, we are told. It had grown in response to her misdeed that first time (the wallet) just as it has done once more (the salt and pepper cellars). She feels sickened, churned to the core. She doesn’t know what she should do. The section ends with the woman sitting on the bed with the book in her hands, the leather protruding from it like a pouting lip. Outside, birds skrike and circle in the grey sky through her window. They swoop and rise in such a way that it makes the woman feel light-headed, as if she is spinning a little, losing her balance.

*

In the final section of the story, the woman is back in the dining room, her breakfast untouched before her. The fried eggs:

broken and bleeding yellow onto the plate.

She is thinking of the bookmark, how it is up in her room, still inside the book but no longer contained by its pages. She is wondering what to do, whether she should get rid of it somehow or just keep it, hide it away somewhere – perhaps in a locked room. There is a part of her, perhaps a large part, that is wondering what might happen if she continues. Also, we are told, she quite likes that feeling of push and spark that comes with rubbing the bookmark. It is delicious to her. She wouldn’t like to think that she might never feel that again.

The woman becomes aware of a conversation at the next table then. The husband is reading from a book about York – its stories and mysteries. He is talking about a woman called Mary Bateman.

‘The Yorkshire witch,’ the man says. ‘Criminal and poisoner. Hanged near York Castle in 1809.’

She listens to the man explain how Bateman thieved and swindled over the years, how she was eventually caught after giving poisoned pudding and honey to a couple in order to rid them of a curse (when in reality what she wanted to do was rid them of their possessions and money). The wife died but the husband did not and it was then that Mary Bateman was found out by the authorities and executed.

‘After she was dead her body was put on display and two thousand people paid to see it,’ the man says. ‘Her skin was removed and tanned like leather. It is thought pieces of it were used to bind books and make trinkets.’

By this point we know what the leather bookmark is, what the initials on it mean. But the woman doesn’t, not just yet, not until she sees a spot of blood in the egg yolk, not until the man’s words start to swirl inside her head like ink in water. In the dining room, the logs on the open fire are crackling and spitting. The woman feels too hot suddenly, too damp on her brow and the back of her neck. She stands and runs upstairs to her room. She picks up Dorian Gray, opens the page where the oversized bookmark is. A line of text catches her attention:

Every moment that passes takes something from me, and gives something to it.

The leather feels warm, as if there is hot blood running beneath it, veins pulsing with life. The woman hurries back downstairs. She passes the man and his wife on the landing as they return to their room after breakfast, the York mysteries book still in his hand. She goes into the dining room. It is empty now. There is nobody there but her. We are told the fire is crackling even louder now, the flames licking at the logs as if they are tongues. The woman throws the leather onto the fire, watches it catch at its edges and then she leaves. She cannot stand there and watch it burn. She has done what she wanted to do and now she will go.

The woman goes upstairs, makes her bed and packs her case. She is going home. She doesn’t want to stay there any longer. She doesn’t know what she might do if she does. The last image we have of her is when she walks past the dining room on her way out but does not look in. She knows the leather is burning. She can smell it. She does not need to look in again to check that it is.

The story is at an end. We are almost at the final sentences now. What the woman does not see, we are told – and therefore what we do not see until now – is that the log the leather was resting on has tumbled in the grate, tumbled so much that the leather has been pushed from the flames and is now sitting and cooling beneath the fire, on a slab of stone. The fire has made the leather shrivel though; the initials have shrunken back to the size they were. The final piece of dialogue in the story comes from the cleaner who has come into the dining room to begin to tidy up after breakfast.

‘What’s this?’ she asks, and bends down to pick up what looks like a leather bookmark.

And she puts it in her pocket to take home to her daughter – her daughter who loves to read as much as she does and will appreciate a little gift such as this. It is a beautiful colour of leather, she thinks: the colour of honey, like skin tanned under a Mediterranean sun. The story finishes with the woman patting her pocket where the leather is and starting to tidy away the breakfast plates and cutlery, noticing as she does that there seems to be a set of salt and pepper cellars missing now that she has placed them all back on the cabinet. She counts them again in case she was wrong but she isn’t. She will mention it to the owners as she mentions all irregularities, we are told. She will tell them so that they can replace them, if they can be replaced at all.

Later, in one of the rooms, the cleaner finds a book on a bedside cabinet – a book that she recognises from the title but has never read: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. She picks it up and sits on the end of the bed and starts to read it. She is enjoying it, too much perhaps, and now she must get on with her work. She should give the book to the owners, as she does with all items left behind, but she is not sure she wants to: she would like to carry on reading it. She notices then how her other hand has found the bookmark in her pocket and is rubbing it between her fingers. Yes, the bookmark – she had almost forgotten about it but she can use it now to mark her place in the novel before taking it home later to continue reading. The owners don’t need to know about any of this: the book and the bookmark. No harm could come from taking them, she was sure of that. No harm could come from it at all.

And that is how this story ends. With the cleaner hiding the book on one of the shelves of her trolley and beginning to spruce up the woman’s room, the cries of the birds through the window outside as hard and sharp as the edges of cleavers.

 

 

 

 


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