Touch

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.


 

For Emma

 

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.

Sure!”

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.

When

?” 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.

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