Just like Zoe’s story, this one was written with the encouragement of Scissors Paper Pen and presented at their night of storytelling, Something Else (monthly at Smith’s Alternative Bookshop in Canberra – go!). Every Something Else has a theme and this time it was ‘A touch of…’, so this is a story about a certain sort of touch. It is loosely structured and rambly because it was written to be read aloud, and for this I hope you will forgive me.
You know the story, of course. There was once a king in a far-away land who loved gold above all things. And the gods, being the gods, being capricious and prone to cheap tricks, gave him all the riches he could ever want – whatever he touched became gold. And so, goes the story, he touched his beautiful daughter and turned her heavy and golden and silent, and refusing in his grief and his pride to be fed, died of thirst and starvation in his bedroom, which was all gold.
Of course, the gods love hope above anything else, even above teaching men lessons, and in another world, Midas plunged his hands into the icy waters of the river Pactolus, and his golden touch was cured.
Or perhaps ‘hope’ is inaccurate. What the gods love most of all, their very favourite thing, is a good story. Hope and loss will always come from a good story. And this is a story about a very different touch.
Outside it is spring and dark and golden, and I have not touched a person for six months.
The last person I ever touched is now a bestseller. I don’t hold it against him – or I shouldn’t hold it against him; after all it is my fault, or my blessing, or whatever, but–
Let me begin from the beginning.
A year ago I got my hand trapped in a book. This happens often, books are things with minds of their own, and hungry. I forget the book now, but it was a dull read and I was not giving it my full attention, which is something books desire almost obsessively. In this way they are like very literary cats. When you’re reading every word, the plot gets bored and slinks away to lie in the sun, when you’re drinking coffee and glancing at the TV at the same time, they come and sit on your face. Or eat your hand, as mine did. As I absent-mindedly turned a page, my hand fell through, into the spine, then the book closed with a self-satisfied thump, and there I was, with a smarmy-looking paperback attached at my wrist. Emergency wouldn’t see me – apparently this was a problem not worthy of the triage system – as the woman explained, I could still do things with my book hand, couldn’t I? So I had to go to Officeworks, and the clerk, after much grumbling about people who waste his time (as if he was doing anything more important than filing empty filing boxes), fetched a pair of industrial scissors and cut my hand out.
And that was the end of that, I supposed.
Then, a week later, I met a girl. I’d been riding the bachelor train for a while, and it had just recently derailed and spun into a gorge with all onboard, so I was very glad for this girl. We courted the traditional way, over Facebook, then agreed to meet. And that’s when this whole thing began.
It was a cold winter evening and the sky was made of cityfumes and starlight. I was standing outside a pub, waiting for her. Before too long, she appeared from around the corner, looking lovely. At moments like these I always falter. Is a hug too much? Does a handshake say ‘I am looking forward to signing a business deal with you?’ Should I let her do it first? What if we both get confused and end up staring blankly into space? This went through my head in a second, and I ended up giving her a quick, almost flawless hug.
“Hi,” I said. “Nice to meet you at last!”
“Hi,” she said. So far, so good. She opened the door and we went into the sudden warmth and noise of indoors.
“Want a drink?” I asked.
I motioned to the barman in the most Humphrey Bogart-esque manner of which I was capable, with the effect that he didn’t notice me at all.
“I’ll get them,” she said.
“No, I will!” I pulled out a note and for a second, across the tight space between us and the bartop and the people around, our hands brushed.
And it happened.
Where there was a girl, a lovely girl, a real live breathing talking person golden under golden light, there was nobody. I started backwards. A drunk looked at me in amusement. I ran outside, and I didn’t stop running until I got home and locked my door and sat under it, confused and asthmatic. I assumed something had happened of such astonishingly cosmic proportions that there was no point trying to understand it. A quantum glitch. A relativity bug. Something that would puzzle Austrian scientists in need of haircuts for decades to come. I assumed I would never see her again. I felt dumped in the worst possible way – pre-emptively, and by physics.
But I did see her again, and I didn’t even have to wait long. She was in the bookshop as I went by the next morning. Not as a person, you understand. No, she was a book. She was being sold, in the new releases section. I don’t know how I could tell it was her from that distance, but I just knew. I walked inside and picked her up, and felt uncomfortable upon discovering that there was another copy of her underneath, and some more in a box by the counter. There was no author on the cover or the copyright pages.
“That’s a good one,” said the clerk.
“Is it,” I replied, acidly.
“It’s about this girl who has this pretty average, quiet life, and stuff happens, you know – she writes a book, there’s all this drama, she goes to Melbourne, gets famous, builds an aviary, anyway, but yeah, the way it’s written – I couldn’t get enough of it. Words just– bam!” He made exploding signs in the air with his hand to illustrate.
“You’ve read this book?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said.
?” I said, rather more loudly than I needed to. The clerk looked slightly puzzled.
“Uh… recently, I suppose,” he said, and trailed off self-consciously. I turned away and read the blurb. It sounded exactly like he’d described it. It also sounded exactly like how this girl had described her life to me, albeit more detailed and not on Facebook. The girl I had touched was a book. She cost $25, so I bought her and read her on the bus home. I felt like it was the least I could do.
After this, I’m afraid to admit that it took me a number of incidents before I fully realised what one touch from me would do. This wasn’t some power that I could switch on or off at will. It wasn’t something that happened only at night, or only with people I liked, or only with the opposite sex – no. It happened with anybody I touched with my right hand, my book hand.
It happened to the middle-aged woman who sold me a bus ticket. She turned into a Mills and Boon, one of those ghastly pulpy ones with bodices just bursting from the pages. According to one of my friends who read it, it was surprisingly engaging.
It happened to my friend Jason, who turned into an exhaustively comprehensive guide to playing Magic: The Gathering, with tips and tricks. This made me feel very sorry for Jason, for a variety of reasons, and I spent most of my food money for that week buying the bloody book, even though I didn’t play Magic: The Gathering and probably never will.
It happened to a stranger who I bumped into on the street – a businessman. He appeared the next day in all major booksellers, a thriller worthy of Dan Brown, which made me somehow very offended at my own subconscious talents.
After this, I realised what was happening. I started wearing gloves. And still, as if fate and luck were conspiring against me, I managed to turn people into literature. I absent-mindedly took them off when I went into a café, and the girl at the cash register became a dense philosophical treatise on how Hegel’s personal misery compounded his ruminations about the topic into something greater than the sum of its tears. After this, I stayed at home for a week, feeling ill and lost.
I began to feel like a serial killer. I was assembling an esoteric, but fascinating collection of victims, who I stored on a special bookshelf. Occasionally, late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I would read them. Ghoulish, you would be quick to say, but somehow it calmed me and coaxed me into dreams and darkness. I quickly realised that the writing was mine – the style, the words, the dialogue – everything was me. Sometimes a turn of phrase, a way of looking at the world, something only I could have ever picked up, made me feel like I was reading myself. It was a strange feeling, like looking into warped mirrors. If even this did not help me get to sleep, my thoughts wandered to places where I was not exactly comfortable allowing them to wander. Was this not the dream of every author, said my thoughts? To write so effortlessly that books literally spilt from my fingers? To write, and be published immediately, with great reviews, with hordes of admiring readers? To write anonymously, in complete safety, with nobody ever finding out who I was? And never to worry about the hell of agents, editors, emails and calls bearing disappointing news, never again to pour my heart and soul into something to watch it get tossed aside, unread? I pulled my mind away from this brink many times, and eventually came to the conclusion that I was, in the end, cheating.
And then, this happened – the final straw. It was on the bus. It was a month or so since my first book. I had stopped wearing gloves because I couldn’t bear the feeling of being trapped like that, and had learnt simply to not touch anybody – not anyone. I was forgetting how warm skin felt. And there I was, on the bus, jolting my way through the grey suburban morning which was all clouds and stale coffee, and one of those crazies came on. The sort you don’t feel sorry for. On drugs, or drunk out of his skull, he smelt rank, he waved away the driver’s plea for a ticket and stumbled onboard, grasping at the yellow rails, muttering loudly and incoherently to himself. The other passengers shrunk away from him like flowers wilting.
Oh god, I thought, he’s coming straight for me. And he was. Or I think so, anyway. He trained his pale hollow eyes onto me and moved up the aisle, bringing with him the smell of vomit and rotten vegetables. The bus pulled out, and his hands spun in the air as he grasped at the poles. And that’s when I thought, I could just do it. I have this power. What’s stopping me from just reaching my hand out and–
No, said what I assume was my conscience. He’s a person. This wouldn’t be an accident.
I know, I replied. But it’s not murder. It’s not a death. He gets turned into a book. Nobody would know. Nobody would even realise. I’d get off scott-free. It’s a public service.
That’s how the Nazis saw it, said my conscience.
You always have to bring Nazis into these serious ethical discussions, don’t you? I asked. My conscience shrugged and vanished. And all this while, the man was approaching – slowly, in a haze of repulsive smell and pointlessness. It really would be a mercy kil– booking, I thought. I wouldn’t feel guilty. Isn’t that what matters, in the end? I reached out my hand. He was almost upon me. His muttering was a drone, a terrible ceaseless noise. I touched his veined, shaking hand. He vanished.
I fell back into my seat and looked around quickly. Nobody had noticed – somehow, nobody ever did when this happened. I wrenched open a window, and soon the air cleared. I had done good. I didn’t feel guilty or terrible – I felt fine. This man, I further reasoned, was addicted to something awful, something that was destroying his life. As a book, he didn’t have to suffer any more. Was that not better?
And until the next day, I was entirely sure it was. The next day, walking past my local bookstore, I glanced inside, but didn’t see anything new.
Hah, I thought, his life must’ve been so pointless that he didn’t even get made into a real book. Maybe he was a pamphlet, or an ebook. That’s what I thought until I got to the city, and saw the front of the chain bookstore there. There was a line. I wondered if there was a new J.K. Rowling out. And then I saw the posters. “The Fallen”, they said. “The Revelatory Bestseller.” My name – my actual name – was underneath, taking up most of the posters. I came closer, feeling terrified. There were quotes from reviews. “There is the urgent sense of a life lived in this novel … the experiences of the author amount to nothing more than a sensation”, said one. “An inescapably powerful work from the most grimly realistic writer today”, said another. It was a shoe-in for the Booker. Oprah loved it. The line stretched out the doors and along the wall and into the grey expanse of the winter morning.
Suddenly, somebody pointed at me and raised a shout.
“The author!” he yelled. The line turned as one and began to break up, to move towards me. A sudden, terrifying clamour of voices swelled up.
“Did all this really happen to you?” someone shouted.
“Can I get your autograph?”
“Didn’t you die at the end? He’s a fraud!”
I stumbled, fell to the ground, jumped up as the crowd surged towards me, and ran. I pelted down the cold streets, past the buses and cars, past the bookshops and cafes. I kept running until the shouts behind me grew distant and finally faded altogether. I had reached the lake shore. Without thinking, I stepped in, and slipped, almost thankfully, on loose shale, and fell bodily into the icy water.
I slammed my hand against the surface, but nothing happened, no revelation. This was no River Pactolus. I felt terrified and naked. I sat and thought, and only one thought revolved in my head like a black marble, No matter what, no matter who, I would never touch anybody ever again.