My First Pair by Lauren Aspery

A Lost Shoe by Victoria Holt, 2017

My first pair were patent red

with pink laces and fluffy lining –

the only thing to remind everyone

that I was a girl and not a boy.

I’d wear them proudly in my pushchair,

not ready to christen the ground just yet,

and kick them off with every tantrum.

Now they sit in a box in the loft

gathering dust among finger paintings,

school photos and glittery pasta,

ten sizes too small.



*Winner of the Terry Kelly Poetry Prize 2018, all rights author’s own.


About the Author:

Lauren Aspery is a 22-year-old student from the North East of England and is currently undertaking a research Master’s in British children’s poetry at Newcastle University. Lauren is a two-time winner of the Terry Kelly Poetry Prize and has since become the award’s coordinator. She placed second in the Young Poets Network Carol Ann Duffy poetry challenge and performed her poem at the British Academy’s celebration of Duffy’s Laureateship. Her work takes inspiration from her experiences growing up.

Introducing Roger Bloor

There are quite a few people in the British writing community who are familiar with Roger’s successful poetic output. His print-making may come as a surprise but we love this blend of verses with an image, both presented as a piece of art. Today’s prompt: CONNECT.


About the Author:

Roger Bloor is a poet and print maker from North Staffordshire. He has been published in a number of anthologies and magazines including Magma. His poetry pamphlets , ‘A Less Clear Dream’ and ‘Aldgedeslegh’ were shortlisted for the Arnold Bennett Book Prize 2018 and 2019 respectively. He has had poems commended in the Hippocrates Poetry Competition in 2017 and 2019.  He was poet in residence at Trentham Gardens 2018/19. He won the 2019 Poetry London Clore Competition.  His poems also appeared in the Bridges anthology, published earlier this year.









Access by Mike Fox

004 enh
Bridging by Stela Brix, 2018

She’s still trying to do the same things she has always done, it’s just that she can’t do them anymore. I look on. I know all her habits. When you live in the same house you share the habits of others no less than you share the same air, the same atmospheres, the ambient realities of domestic life.

I understand now. We need to view each other in a certain way. It reduces chaos. We learn what to expect and then are shaped by those expectations. But I have left. Today I return only as a visitor. I observe the same habits but they are no longer mine to share: they are no longer part of me.


It has taken the sight of our dog, our joint custody dog, scratching confusedly at the rug she uses for sleep, to make me realise I’m in exile from my immediate memories, from my immediate history, from the small items of existence that have formed my recent, and not so recent, identity.

She scratches, and circles. This has always been her ritual before settling. But previously there was focus, intent. The scratching, the circling, invoked a sense of comfort and security. It gave her satisfaction. At a certain point she would know she had created her own inviolable space for rest. Now I can see she is denied that certainty. Both her own habits and the habits of others are deserting her. In that respect we are similar.


I still have the key. I still have access. But it is access to something that only resembles what once was: a sameness that conceals irrevocable change.

Joint custody of a scruffy, much-loved fox terrier. Mollie is now my conduit to a former life, and she is old and struggling with the simple, embedded behaviours she has repeated many times a day over the last twelve years. Her body remembers them but is hardly able to carry them out. I visit her at agreed times. I watch her. I blame myself.


Loss, evidently, is no-one’s sole legacy. The abandoner is also the abandoned, by the simple daily reference points of life, the default behaviours, the fallbacks. Marriage grows into an eco-system, it absorbs the quirks and fallibilities of its participants then proceeds on the basis they dictate. It was never designed to endure in an attenuated form. You don’t know what leaving is until you’ve left.

We all want to be part of something – isn’t that true? We are what we are part of. When you leave a relationship you also leave the parts of you that belonged to it. Mollie was a big part of our marriage. Now she is the only link remaining. But, of course, I have left her too.


She settles. There is something resigned about the way she subsides into a curled position. The old lambswool fleece is both her bed and her camouflage. Apart from the patch of black on her flank and of tan on her muzzle, her fur blends perfectly. I would like to stroke her, but I don’t. I can see her fragility. I’m afraid to disturb it.

I wish she could talk. I wonder how many people who’ve found themselves in these circumstances have wished their pet could talk? Or more importantly listen: to the apologies, the explanations. Pathetically, I crave my dog’s absolution.


I get up and go to the kitchen. Everything in it was once made or fitted by me – we find so many ways to invest in the future, don’t we? I see a cupboard door is working loose and my immediate instinct is to repair it. Until recently that would have typified my role, my response to household dysfunction. We each had our ways of keeping things going.

I return to the living room. Mollie is sleeping. There is something in the rise and fall of her ribs that reminds me of those rare moments of tenderness and peace that could break through, even towards the end. Tiny episodes of hope, beguiling, misleading. I remember how that hope felt. It felt like quietness, but not the quietness I witness now. This is the quietness of absence, of soul flown elsewhere, of the void when conflict ends.


I’m thinking this, feeling it in every part of my body, when I hear a key turn in the lock. Instantly I feel like an intruder, although I’m here within the agreed times. I hear the door close, the tread of carpet-muted feet, and our neighbour, my ex-neighbour, Sara comes into the room.

‘Hi John,’ she says. She doesn’t seem surprised to see me – she has always looked in on Mollie while my wife and I were at work. She knows what has happened. She has been through a break-up herself. She gives me one of those smiles in which the corners of the mouth turn down, that somehow acknowledge that confusion and ambiguity must play their part in everyone’s world. Then her attention turns to Mollie and she goes over and kneels, very quietly, by her rug.


For a moment we both watch her sleeping form intently, and then, without being conscious of the intention, I find myself kneeling beside Sara. We say nothing, just witness what is before us: how each breath is a measure of life, how life, its duration, its meaning, is defined by its simple continuance. After a short time, I feel sure, our breathing has synchronised. We breathe together, as if doing so allows us to maintain something, to hold on to what pieces of life are still ours.


About the Author:

Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness.  Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, published by Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story Blurred Edges, published by Lunate Fiction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020. His story The Homing Instinct, first published by Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. or @polyscribe2


Introducing a New Team Member

Rue Collinge

We are happy to introduce a new team member, Rue Collinge, who is joining us as Creative Consultant. Rue’s main focus will be books, which means she will also work on our first poetry anthology with us.

We know Rue very well and have worked with her before.

She is a linguist-turned-storyteller living in Gateshead. She is a slam-winning poet, fascinated by the power that stories have on us: those we tell ourselves, and those we tell about the world around us. Raw and lyrical, she has performed across the North-East and on the radio, and was shortlisted for the Terry Kelly Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. She has extensive editing experience, including a charitable anthology for the National Literacy Trust, and another celebrating new voices in the North-East. She works with young people to help them find a voice in an increasingly noisy world.


We look forward to working with her! It also means that we, Natalie Crick and Natalie Nera, have to clarify our roles as Head Editors, with the main focus on poetry and prose respectively.


Two Poems by Lorraine Caputo

Amy McCartney- Blue lagoon
Blue Lagoon by Amy McCartney, 2019


I awaken from the garúa

of deep dreams

Pale drifts along the side

of a road

the taste of brine

on the night air


& the sea heaving

the froth of riptides

the wash around rocks

& upon the beach

Phantom white

under a waning moon




From one store, pasillos echo down narrow

streets. In Saint Francis Plaza, a young

girl feeds dozens of pigeons huddled around

her. As they rise in flight, her

pink chiffon dress billows. Those birds circle

the egg-shell sky & bright sun

& the cloud-capped sierra ringing Quito.


About the Author:

Poet-translator Lorraine Caputo’s works appear in over 180 journals on six continents; and 12 chapbooks of poetry – including Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017) and On Galápagos Shores (dancing girl press, 2019). She also authors travel narratives, articles and guidebooks. Caputo has done over 200 literary readings, from Alaska to the Patagonia. She travels through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels at:


The Alchemy of Writing by Rue Collinge

Writing by Kasia Grzelak, 2019

I miss the physical act of writing [ELLIPSIS]… The world has always made sense as soon as I have my notebook [COMMA], and I miss it with a belly-wrenching [INSERT DASH BEFORE WRENCHING END OF LINE COMMA], world-turned–sideways [INSERT DASH AFTER WORLD INSERT DASH AFTER TURNED END OF LINE] kind of hurt [FULL STOP]. There is no other part of my body I would notice missing more than my hands [COMMA], and now somehow I am on an awkward first date in a long-term relationship [INSERT DASH AFTER LONG END OF LINE COMMA], and I’ve forgotten how to do it all [FULL STOP].

6 September 2017, 8:17 AM

This is what’s left of one human being,

this thing on a slip of gauze;

but the rest of me, scattered across

continents, calls

screams for its face.


from the Japanese poem ‘Revelation’, Koichi Kihara, 1922[1]


If you had asked me what a writer looked like a few years ago, I would have spun you a tangled web of impressions. They wore glasses (probably). Their office was a coffee shop, or a cluttered library, or a tree trunk from which they could watch the world go by. My exposure to the writer’s process was also pretty shallow. I parroted editors such as Crowe and Oltermann who ‘wanted to tear down the invisible wall between us readers and them writers and see what’s really going on behind the page’[2], but was still secretly convinced that Book Was Always Better. Writing was a tangible act of creation. I felt a writer was more akin to a potter than anything else – unless they had their hands on the raw material, they couldn’t shape it.

My writing process is starkly different to that rosy image. Nearly three years ago, I was diagnosed with a health condition which severely limits the use of my hands and wrists, so I write with my hands in my lap, with a headset, and a computer bristling with dictation software. Writer’s cramp is no longer the issue – instead, it is the possibility of losing my voice! I can be speaking for up to ten hours a day, depending on the task at hand.

My relationship with the software has not been an easy one. Dictation is imperfect, but so is the person dictating. I struggled to translate what I was thinking into good content, punctuated as it was with the voice commands necessary to navigation and editing. It wasn’t possible to maintain a creative stream with this constant attention to the “nuts and bolts”. Words were reduced to building blocks. Vocalising my thoughts was a stilted, unnatural process. Before, I had been able to condense those first flashes of thought into a coherent sentence, with my keyboard or pen. Now, I was frustrated by their disconnected nature. They spilled onto the page and I tried – unsuccessfully – to connect the dots. In my inability to translate myself properly, I stopped trying to innovate. I did only as much as was required to complete my undergraduate degree, but I didn’t write outside of it. I was too busy grieving for what I had lost.

By the time I began my Masters degree, I had a better facility with the software, but there was still a yawning chasm between what was in my head, and what ended up on the page. Perhaps, as Brande put it, I hoped ‘to hear that there was some magic about writing, and to be initiated into the brotherhood of authors’[3]. She might have been writing in 1934, but her words resonated. I felt challenged. As we studied the different facets of creative process I realised that I needed to train if I were to better translate my thoughts. My difficulty was that I had yet to perceive dictation as anything more than a crude tool with which I could still approximate my old creative process.

As Hall points out, often ‘Our minds are musclebound, not by intellect, but by formulas of thought, by clichés of both phrase and organisation’[4]. I was constrained not only by the usual array of issues which plague us as writers, but also by my choice to suffer rather than celebrate the unique possibilities of dictation. I slowly became convinced that I could achieve as much, if not more, with this new technology as when I had used traditional methods. But how could I do so?

The same simple advice appeared wherever I looked: write often, in quantity, and without editing as you go. Brande compares the mechanism of writing to exercise, to which we can become better accustomed as long as we practice[5]. This stamina grows as writing becomes a habit which we cultivate. I was writing a journal at the time, and realised (with a tone of surprise) that:

It is brilliant and useful to write rubbish. Probably most of this is. Sifting through – mining for the gold – is part of the process. Writing for no one but myself is the goal here. I am not trying to find the shape of the finished product. I am not considering my audience. I am not writing for applause or adulation. I am writing because in order to get better, I must.[6]

I practised. I couldn’t just create nonsense, because the effort of editing it all later was too lengthy. I had to learn to distil it. Dictation has forced me to organise my thoughts differently, to know what I want to say before I speak it aloud. How can I best translate what I’m thinking? Which words will best capture the story I am telling?

I began to see parallels in the challenges of translation – of works from another language, especially those with a very different aesthetic. The anthology Japanese Poetry Now has been, according to the translator, ‘remade into English’[7], not translated. This choice of language is spot-on! The phonetic differences and its logographic nature alone are a huge contrast to any European language, and when cultural aesthetic is taken into account, the task is monumental. As Fitzsimmons approached each poem for the collection, he tussled with how ‘to preserve rather than reduce mystery’ whilst still trying ‘to make poems in English… with fidelity to pattern and whole, the human vision vibrant there’[8].

I wanted to remain faithful to the mental catalyst which inspired me, but wanted increasingly to render it in ways appropriate to the new language I was learning. And as I have bent my will to doing so, I have developed a greater precision with language. I have also developed a greater appreciation for the relationship between form and content, especially in poetry. As formatting my work must be achieved by voice commands, detail needs to be worth the time expenditure. A poet is less distracted by form for form’s sake, or gimmicky concrete aspirations, when it is painstakingly achieved.

I had previously experimented a little with form, but this growing awareness of sympathetic form led me to study other poets in a new way. As Knowles explores in her study, the visual element of poetry is hardly a new phenomenon[9], but we owe our modern inheritance to poets such as Mallarmé, who ‘turns spatial values… into a signifying force in their own right’[10]. He marshalled both the forces of ink and the white spaces between words with equal weight. It is this new understanding, a more imaginative wielding of dictation, and long hours of practice which have allowed me to develop a writing process which is far more robust than it ever was.

In this process of digging, I have found I am excavating self, piece by piece. I am coal-smudged, dirty and grinning with new callouses on my hands from this work mining words. Not all of my forays are successful or productive. I cannot pretend that I bring back gold with every trip, nor that I don’t sometimes groan from the strain or shrink from the labour, but I am learning the tunnels and trying new parts of the rock face.

I am mining for gold. Look – how it gleams in the dirt.





Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934)

Donald Hall, Writing Well, 6th edn. (Illinois: Scott, Foresman/Little Brown College Division, 1988) pp.18-23

Crowe, Dan, Philip Oltermann, eds., How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, (New York: Rizzoli, 2007)

Knowles, Kim, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ulrich Weger, & Andrew Michael Roberts, ‘Reading Space in Visual Poetry: New Cognitive Perspectives’, in Writing Technologies, 4 (2012), 75–106

Fitzsimmons, Thomas, ed. and trans. Japanese Poetry Now, (New York: Schocken Books, 1972)

[1] Koichi Kihara, Japanese Poetry Now, ed. and trans. by Thomas Fitzsimmons (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), p.36

[2] How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, ed. by Dan Crowe & Philip Oltermann (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), p.4

[3] Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934), p.22

[4] Donald Hall, Writing Well, 6th edn. (Illinois: Scott, Foresman/Little Brown College Division, 1988) p.19

[5] Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934), p.71

[6] Process Creative Journal, 16/10/2018, Appendices p.2

[7] Japanese Poetry Now, ed. and trans. by Thomas Fitzsimmons (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), p.iii

[8] Japanese Poetry Now, ed. and trans. by Thomas Fitzsimmons (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), pp.11-12

[9], 10 Knowles, Kim, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ulrich Weger, & Andrew Michael Roberts, ‘Reading Space in Visual Poetry: New Cognitive Perspectives’, in Writing Technologies, 4 (2012), p.76


About the Author:

Rue Collinge is a linguist-turned-storyteller living in Gateshead, UK. She has performed across the North-East and on the radio, was  shortlisted for the Terry Kelly Prize in 2018 and has had her poetry published in several magazines and anthologies. 

Camera Shy by Carl Scharwath


Camera Shy Short Story
Camera Shy by Carl Scharwath, 2020, model Yasmin Acosta

The camera sat alone on top of the bar soaking in the liquid history of past confessions, as a photographer took his place on a rusting bar stool for the first time in many years. Late at night he was the only one to join this lonely party hosted by a simpering bartender. Before ordering his drink, the photographer witnessed the bottles in the mirror presenting themselves as a photo opportunity. The image was engulfed in a fluorescent light revealing imperfections and great subtle contrasts of colors.

‘You look like you could use a drink or two,’ the bartender said in a cliché greeting.

Somehow, he was able to read the photographer who seemed occupied in the scene ready to unfold that evening.

‘Yes, most definitely, please make it a Martini.’ The photographer’s face took on the aura of a man with a story that needed to be told to anyone who would listen. As the bartender turned to mix the liquid therapy, the photographer surveyed his surroundings. In the corner sitting alone was a beautiful dark-haired woman. He hesitated. He had done this in the past, approaching a beautiful woman with his  camera as a prop. A crutch of an excuse to start a conversation and telling her she  looked like a model, which even he thought was creepy but every once in a while, the line  worked and he found a new muse for his art.

The drink was placed on the bar with a question from the bartender, ‘I guess you are a photographer? I saw you take a picture of the bottles behind the bar.’

‘Yes, but not for long, there have been strange things happening to my photos,’ the

photographer said.

The bartender leaned forward on the bar thinking of all the stories he had been told, but this one had drawn him in. ‘Strange things? Now you have my attention.’

The photographer took a deep sip, looked around at the woman again and began, ‘As a photographer old buildings always amazed me. The colors, the patina and the history were intriguing.  I often thought of the people who once lived or worked in these abandoned places and how they came to be what they are today, empty forgotten decrepit structures.’

The bartender unsure if he should interrupt asked, ‘This doesn’t sound strange to me, I can see how you can find beauty where others may not.’

‘My friend you have great insight, however let me tell you what has been happening. I first started to notice something strange after I took the photos and visited the buildings again. They had transformed within months after the photos.  Either the buildings were destroyed, and a new structure replaced them, or they were razed, and a weeded empty lot remained. I know this does not seem strange in itself but the events happened so quickly.’

The bartender had this look when you know someone is ready to say something prophetic or funny. Smiling he said, ‘You can take a picture of my house then I will simply wait for a better newer home to replace it right?”

‘Right you are brother, that would be something and I wish my photos could do that for you.’ The photographer looked impatient and continued, ‘My dear friend who helped me with modeling recently passed at the young age of fifty-four She was the one who originally got me interested in photography and I have missed her every day since her death.’

The bartender began to look around for any other customers who might need help as a way to ease himself out of this conversation. He had heard many alcohol-induced stories and this one was the strangest, so he answered, ‘I am so sorry for your loss and I understand how you think you might have been at fault just because you took her picture, but you know that is not the case, right?’

‘I want to agree with you but there was another girl.’

The bartender was stunned and in a weird way felt like not knowing what to say when someone knocks on your bathroom door.

‘Did she die as well?’

‘Yes, just recently so no more models in my photography ever. I also just want to give up this art as it has cursed me and all I have touched. I will never use this camera again.’ With that declaration the mournful photographer and his past memories would probably be too much to overcome. Was it an admonition that some dark force had overcome either his camera or him?

The camera on the bar was looked at for the last time. The final photo of those bottles in the speculum held a surprise. With the angle of the shot, the photographer noticed a mistake and his face was in the photo from the mirror reflection. This final photo held an ominous future for him. Horrified and looking down, anxiety overcame him. His own image from the camera of doom seemed to be mocking him. Would his future now be forever changed by this apparatus?  His obsession that somehow, he was responsible for the death of others had haunted him, had clouded his thoughts and turned back on him in his subconscious beliefs.

‘Are you ok?’ the bartender asked.

In a rush the photographer slapped a 20-dollar bill on the bar and as he quickly got up and said, ‘Thank you for listening to me, I do not feel well and have to go.’ As he was leaving, he heard, ‘Hold on, you forgot your camera.’


About the Author:

Carl Scharwath, has appeared globally with 150+ journals selecting his poetry, short stories, interviews, essays, plays or art photography (His photography was featured on the cover of 6 literary journals.) Two poetry books ‘Journey To Become Forgotten’ (Kind of a Hurricane Press).and ‘Abandoned’ (ScarsTv) have been published. His first photography book was recently published by Praxis. Carl is the art editor for Minute Magazine, a dedicated runner and 2nd degree black- belt in Taekwondo.










Three Poems by Alison Jones

collage India
A Collage by India Hibbs, 2019





We walk past that house every day.

The ‘To Let’ sign, a frequent warning bell –

people ghost on through and never stay.


Nothing is the same, everything will decay.

Cloud castles rise and fall with twisting time,

as we walk past that house every day.


Taught tape shouts more than words convey,

lines stretched tight to keep our prying eyes out.

People ghost on through and never stay.


5am murder scene, all hope run astray,

both bodies blue lighted all too swiftly away.

Still, we walk past that house every day.


Who knew what circumstances were at play,

the actions frightened neighbours could not delay.

People ghost on through and never stay.



Now Ruz (Persian New Year)


The air is sharp with the hyacinth’s blue insistence-

cloth heavy with treasures that hold new year’s promises –

coded, familiar, all seven must be there to make it sweet.


Sumac, apple, garlic, greens, a book of poetry.

The bauble of an orange, keeping sunlight bound,

within its body’s jewels. Buds, coins, painted eggs.


The table bends her legs and braces her back,

burdened with goodness. Jewelled rice towered high,

the golden secret revealed, tahdig a crisp vow of crust,

here is everything new, and  as old as starlight.


We light candles before the mirror and reflect how we always

begin again –  like grains placed the night before,

elongating in a watery pan, gently opening, reaching for the sky.

Reminding us of journeys from field to table, what it means to be home.


The Architecture of a Salad


She stands in a borrowed kitchen, in borrowed light,

forty years ago, making green foundations.

I stand in a borrowed kitchen, in borrowed light,

forty years later, less concerned with geometry  than speed.


She tears iceberg lettuce, peels cucumber in hexagonal pieces.

She shapes radishes with deft artist’s fingers, paring knife shines confidence.

I dissect feta, messily. Fish olives from their briny sea. Quarter tomatoes.

I leave the cucumber safe in its skin, to me it tastes better with green edges.


Her salad is perfect symmetry, aligned north of south,

a knot work summer wonder.  It is a thing of beauty, to eat is seems offensive.

My salad is more about pace than presentation, I have never been as stylish

as a daughter  could be, according to all the books that have been written.


So we stand, forty years apart, in borrowed kitchens, in borrowed light,

considering the construction of leaves and buds that capture sunlight.

Shape the season’s sustenance on borrowed plates, contemplate meals.

Now, I stand in the kitchen, and she waits at the table, and I ponder how


I could never make anything as beautiful as her creations,

yet, when the time comes, her plate is always clean.


Sometimes I think I am becoming my mother,

a midlife woman with a feeling for old recipes and charity shop treasures.

I keep within me her handed down shrewdness

that a good salad brings us together, and wisdom is held in deep dark loam.



About the Author:

Alison Jones is a teacher, and writer with work published in a variety of places, from Poetry Ireland Review, Proletarian Poetry and The Interpreter’s House, to The Green Parent Magazine and The Guardian. She has a particular interest in the role of nature in literature and is a champion of contemporary poetry in the secondary school classroom. Her pamphlet, ‘Heartwood’ was published by Indigo Dreams in 2018, with a second pamphlet. ‘Omega’, and a full collection forthcoming in 2020.

Alison Jones – Indigo Dreams


Introducing Ida Saudková




Ida Saudková‘s portrait photos are a rare breed today: taken on a classic film, they reference photographers and styles of the past. The Czech photographer discovered pinups long before the rest of the world remembered they had ever existed. She deliberately plays with kitsch and pop art to create a new image, often with a dash of irony and self-deprecation. In her most recent projects she creates collages from her photos, going even farther back in history of art, recreating images of saints. Her highly-regarded work has been exhibited nationally and internationally.  Her photos also decorate the walls of one of the famous Prague cafés, Café Louvre on Národní třída. More information may be found here.

Today’s prompt: A View Point

Old Books by Robert Boucheron

New Life by Ida Saudkova, ca 1997

Old Books

While clearing the house to move, Nora Devereux found some cardboard boxes in the attic. Sealed with tape and covered with dust, the boxes were marked “Old Books.” Did her ex-husband carry them up there, or one of the children? Ten years or more had passed, enough for someone to claim their property.

If some of her books were mixed in, Nora hadn’t missed them. She didn’t have time to open the boxes and sort through them. And boxes like ships might carry stowaways. She dreaded a poignant reminder of the past—an old photo, a letter, a child’s art project.

Nora telephoned a dealer listed online. She tried to sound sweet and desperate. Mr. Lumbar sounded old and tired.

“I’ll take the boxes off your hands, sight unseen, sell what I can and dispose of the rest.”

Nora wondered what “dispose of” meant. The county landfill or a charitable cause? To be rid of them was the main thing. A panel van arrived, blank and windowless. Like his voice, Mr. Lumbar was gray and overweight. Medically unfit to lift and carry, he paid Nora a small amount in cash, while an athletic young assistant whisked the boxes downstairs. The van drove away to an undisclosed location, and she got on with decluttering.

After the move, in the course of her daily walk, Nora passed a shop for old books. A sign in the window read:

Rare, Leather-Bound, Collectible

Buy and Sell, Appraisal on the Spot

Irregular Hours or By Appointment

Could the shop belong to the same dealer? The shop was hidden away from the bustle of Main Street, far from the boutiques on Mulberry Lane. Near the former railroad depot, it looked much like the deserted ticket office. A dim electric light was on, and the door was unlocked.

“Hello!” Nora called to the empty space. “Mr. Lumbar?”

No answer. The owner might be deep in the maze of shelves, unable to hear, or busy in some remote corner, unaware of the outside world. Libraries and bookstores have that effect. Like a jungle of print, they suck you in and make you forget the passage of time and daily life. To work there day after day might lead to madness. How do librarians keep their grip on reality?

Nora scanned the titles nearest her. Virginiana, Civil War, and Genealogy were popular subjects hereabouts. How was the shop laid out? Was there a section on Literature? She began to explore. Travel, Geography, and Current Events were woefully out of date. Cooking, Gardening, and Home Improvement were no longer relevant. Biography consisted of former celebrities and forgotten politicians.

The books were filled with marks and notes, which Nora considered vandalism. Musty smells, water stains, and cracked spines were endemic. Some books led a hard life, while others suffered from neglect. Pressed in their pages she found receipts, index cards, lists, notes, flyers, and brochures. Leaves, flowers, and insects turned up, squashed flat and dried, reduced to two dimensions, like engravings of their former state.

The narrow aisles were blocked with piles of books on the floor and cardboard boxes. Open at the top, the boxes were full of more books. Nora had to bend awkwardly in the tight space and scrabble. Treasure might lie hidden among the trash. Or it might stare you in the face.

After an unknown length of time, brief or the best part of an afternoon, Nora picked out a title that looked familiar. Had she read this book years ago? The opening paragraph was fresh, yet the story was one she already knew. A girl comes of age, defies convention, and achieves a personal triumph. Had Nora retained the gist, or was the story common? In all of literature there are only a few plots, some spoilsport critic said. Nora flipped ahead, read another paragraph, and had the same sensation, a mix of relish and predictability. She turned to the fly leaf and was startled.

Her own name was written there, or rather her maiden name, Nora Cheadle. The penmanship was formal and careful, a schoolgirl’s hand. Looseness and fluidity came with experience. The name summoned a previous existence, the way some people claim to be reincarnated. Some people are so downtrodden they have to invent an ancestor, or make the glamorous past their own. All that aside, in this life was it possible to travel beyond yourself, to become another person?

Nora decided to buy the book. Or buy it back, or redeem what had slipped away by mistake. Maybe she would chat with the dealer, explain what happened, and share a laugh. She could tell him how happy she was in the apartment.

She worked her way back to the street door, where a battered wooden desk crouched among the tall shelves. No one sat at the desk. During the whole elastic period of browsing and book-gazing, she had met not a living soul in the shop. She looked for a bell to ring, a button to press, some means of attracting attention. Was there an honor system, instructions for what do in the absence of personnel?

Nora grew impatient. The book was already hers, she reasoned. She could simply walk out. It did not count as shoplifting. If challenged, she could point to her name. But her credit cards and driver’s license bore her married name, Devereux. An indignant Mr. Lumbar might huff and puff and ask with exquisite scorn, “Who are you really?”

The situation was getting more absurd by the minute. Why linger? Nora dropped the book in her bag, composed a face of innocence, and regained the street.


About the Author:

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.