The man in my margins

I pick up a book from the library. She has not been asked out on a date since 2010. Before that it was 2003. I wonder if she is unhappy that she has spent her good years being left there on the shelf, alone and unchosen. Everyone wants to read Sylvia Plath. She’s always going out on dates, sometimes for a week or more. I bet she has lots of pages with creases along the top corners. I bet she has plenty of things underlined. I bet that Daddy is covered in pencil hearts and undergrad biro. I’m not saying that Sylvia is a floozy but I wager she’s been in plenty of twenty-year old girls’ bedrooms, boys too. She has probably sat on many a nightstand and watched terrible three am kisses and knickers being thrown across the room with misguided tenderness. Sylvia has seen it all. But my book hasn’t. She has to beg all the other books for details when they come back—that’s if they come back at all. You know how fickle people can be when it comes to returning things that aren’t theirs. Frank O’Hara has the best stories. And so does Jack Kerouac. Even Ted Hughes does, at least once in the year, in the right circumstances. Frank went to a warehouse rave recently and got read out for fifteen minutes at an after party when dawn was streaming through some net curtains. They did lines of MCAT off his hardback cover and his date, a nineteen-year-old techno enthusiast called Melvin, defended Frank when someone wanted to rip one of his pages to inhale drugs. It was his finest hour. Everybody really enjoyed Oranges, even though they were really gurney. Frank has been the coolest book on the entire floor since then. Barbara Guest has been fangirling over him but he’s not that interested. He’s in love with Flannery O’Connor but won’t admit it. And she got moved to a lower level because of an inept librarian; he pines from a distance and loves from a great height. I took my new book home. I’d hired her for an entire seven days. I could feel her shivering in my bag with nerves the whole way back. I imagine she wanted to know what I planned to do with her. She was mine to spread open as I so wished. I think she was a little frightened but I reassured her that I intended to use her for an essay on Lethargic Romantics, she could teach me things no-one else could. It didn’t matter if she was a little rusty or out of shape. We could go at her pace. No pressure to do everything immediately. I wasn’t like all the others. The next day I came to her early in the morning and cracked her spine. She made that satisfying sound of the unspoiled canvas. I brought my nose up to her middle and took a long deep sniff: she was perfect. Her blank, white flesh was a silk camisole in my hands. I lifted her gently on to the kitchen table and began to have her, I took her mind, ideas and body and ate them without pause for breath. She could no longer speak but I could speak for her, she was in ecstasy having been chosen at last and by me. It was the fourth chapter when I saw him, the man in my margins. I know I said I was going to be gentle, but she was so good I couldn’t stop myself from gorging. I threw her onto the tiled floor and she cut her head. ‘Who the fuck is he?’ I screamed. ‘Who the fuck has written all over you, tainting you with his rancorous words?’ I picked her up by the hair and smashed her skull into the floor again. She was bleeding and screaming for someone to help her. But her friends couldn’t hear, they were all back in the library preening, thinking only about themselves or Frank. ‘You come across as an innocent, virtuous book, but you are just the same as the rest of those sluts. Why do you think I chose you in the first place? You aren’t even that pretty, your cover art is awful.’ I left her on the tiles until mid-afternoon. I skirted around her discomfort and made myself a Mediterranean vegetable flatbread. I read other books in front of her, books who were pure and without the diseased thoughts of others scrawled across their breasts. They could offer me more than she ever could, but her body was flailed at a delicate angle and the vulnerability was bewitching. I crawled back over to my dormant, injured princess and let her weep on my compliant thigh. ‘Please don’t cry my sweetheart,’ I cajoled, stroking her matted mane. ‘I’m sorry that we have perceived each other in such a way that was unrepresentative of our intrinsic characters.’ She continued to cry, my knees began to get rather wet. I told her to stop because she was at risk of blurring herself with tears and then nobody would be able to understand her. She was in danger of becoming indecipherable and of no purpose; a book without words is no use to anyone at all. ‘Can I see him?’ I averted my eyes from the impending mess. ‘Love makes marks on us all you know. And often you can’t just erase it with stuff you find in the stationary shop bargain bin. Tippex can remove indication of memories but not the actual memories themselves. In fact, the sheer act of erasure draws attention to the remembering; you can’t forget to remember that you need to forget.’ She ceased her sobbing and looked a little puzzled, but the profundity of my tone ensured she didn’t question me with her mouth; it was just the flicker of her eyes that told me of her doubt. Disapproval is manageable, even encouraged, if told through the windows of your soul. What I can’t abide is challenges to my integrity through the medium of the sentence. Sentences are abrasive and nonsensical. They are of ill repute and belong to the classes concerned with savagery and change. Slowly, but hesitantly, she fell open to expose her imperfections. She was tattooed from top to bottom with the hieroglyphics of a foreign being; her navel had a chicken scratched lyrical ballad which looked like Keats’ musings post-death mask and pre-St. John’s gates. A transitory period if you will, of monumental clarity and indulgence into the self. A self that was not hers. It must be hateful to carry the opinions of others on your shoulders and bear the brunt of the weight they inflict. Opinions that wrench and twist the graphite composition of your watercolour silhouette. Pens are the most destructive weapon invented by man, not bombs. Bombs topple buildings but pens topple countries and regimes so there is nothing left but the swirling dust of dictator ash. But it’s only ever the dictators that tend to claim the historical narrative. A history book would be awfully dull if it concentrated on the victims; a list of beige names does not fascinate or entice. What can be learnt from the dead who didn’t hang around long enough to find justice? Who can truly feel sorry for those not equipped with enough pens or bombs to survive a harsh nuclear winter? Radiation sickness is a fallacy; people die because they are sick of the feebleness inside their own black, browbeaten hearts. Neither of us needed to speak, we understood each other perfectly. No-one should be punished for scars cut with careless knives that haven’t had the opportunity to heal. ‘Are you sure it’s what you want?’ I asked her. ‘Once it’s done it can’t be undone.’ She nodded. The stoic finality of her gesture combined with the black and white tiles of my kitchen made her look so breathtakingly beautiful. It was the way the blood in her hair caught the last of the afternoon sun. I was utterly enchanted. I fell in love with her all over again. I no longer even cared about Lethargy and The Romantics. The aftermath of distress creates an atmosphere exceedingly rich in sticky pheromones and fluid. I think that’s often why soldiers caught up in war feel the strong compulsion to rape. Sorrow can be a supple emollient more effective than any mint-tingling lubricant found on the weekly shop and hastily thrown into the trolley, next to a pack of peach probiotic yogurts. The rubber was a small brick in my palm. I think it had once been used to build mountains which had been unduly silenced by hate. I told her to take a deep breath in and count to ten. I wasn’t sure if the friction or the eradication of pencil opinions might cause an awkward, throbbing sensation, like chlamydia. She complied and I began to erase all traces of him, the man who had come before me and ruined her. A lobotomy occurred that day on my floor in the fading light. I was a doctor that held the tools of rebirth in my unwashed hands. She was born into a world of decay and unrepentant sinners at 6.47pm. I cut the cord of her former life and she fell unburdened and amniotic into my lap; she did not know her name or mine, but it was fine, she could learn life with a clean slate. That was my gift to her, purity is not something you can order off Amazon Prime or to be post through stiff letterboxes, like Christmas cards to acquaintances you aren’t fond of. It was something you earned through hard work and diligence—from restraint and layers of pale petticoats under microscopes. She had been returned to her home not four days when there was a knock at the door. We had parted on good terms, I thought. She gave me a lingering kiss on the cheek before I gave her back to the librarian with the bad cardigans. The CCTV will attest to that. It was the police. I was arrested on my doorstep and charged with grievous bodily harm, rape, attempted rape and kidnapping, which is ridiculous because she went with me of her own free will; it’s her job to be used. I’m looking at seven years; my lawyer thinks I need to cut a deal. They’ve got DNA and testimony and witnesses. Apparently, my next-door neighbour saw something ghastly when she went to water her hydrangeas in her dressing gown. And this is all because I wanted to learn. She lied and lied to me and now I shall rot in a cell because she pretended to be someone she never was. People should come with warning labels; it shouldn’t be up to me to expose the fractures in their psyches, if you go into the borrowing profession don’t borrow narratives that aren’t yours to claim. It makes me laugh that a lady of the archive night thinks she’s worthy of reporting a crime that’s steeped in sex. Needless to say, they’ve taken my library card and I’m not allowed within 500m of a bookshop. It’s a real shame because I have lots of Waterstones’ points that run out in June. And they’ve confiscated the contents of my shelves to protect the safety of other stories. I think they want to put me on a register. There is no joy left in my life now, she has taken everything from me that I once held dear. My brain matter and sanity decrease by the hour and all I can do is await my fate and watch episodes of Tipping Point and Judge Rinder. I hold mugs of cold, bitter tea and often wish that I was dead.

Rebecca Sandeman