Innocent and Vain


One summer afternoon. Sky dark with heat, sun still high and white; a world defined by shadows. In empty streets thick air shimmered over silvery mirages in the roadway. Air conditioners howled – trapped banshees foretelling their own doom. Jason the bookseller, squatting by the gardening section as he checked his stock, glanced away from the clipboard and ducked his head to squint under the shelving as a shadow flitted across the mat by the door. Which did not open, its bell un-rung. A moment that will live forever in Jason’s mind. Whoever had been out there had walked by not knowing that they might have shared a quiet few minutes of their life with another.  What for the passing stranger had been couple of steps along a long hot street had served to strike a spark of hope for Jason. A rare spark on such a day.

Tuesdays are always slack, in summer they, and the town, are almost empty. It was a good time for a stock check, while nothing moved out there in the still heat. Jason returned to the clipboard. Gardening books were not selling just now, but with autumn trade would pick up, so he must place his orders soon. All he could hope for today would be a romance or a thriller, to be read sitting with a beer or six under a cold vent, waiting for the promised storm. Or a biography; of a rock star, an explorer, someone who has done something real. On a day like this you can read such a book and pretend that if it were not for the heat you could go and do that too. A bookshop is full of lives, real and imagined, waiting to be lived. All you have to do is open the door.

Jason had lived some lives of his own, but they would make dull reading. Sometimes he would rewrite his story, starting from one of several points at which he could have chosen a different path. If he had realised that they were branching nodes, not just passing phases, if he had made those not so very daring choices, he would not be here, having passed a decade or so in another life. He would be someone else, with other memories, other skills, another wife, perhaps unmarried, divorced, richer, poorer. Fit and tanned or sick and depressed. Dead maybe, of drink and drugs, burned out, his potential forever unrealised.

In the distance a car passed, radio booming rhythmically. How could anyone bear heavy bass in such heat? The bell rang. The door was open and feet tapped daintily into the shop. The door swung shut, ringing the bell again, quietly. The feet, Jason could see, were young, with painted toenails framed by thin gold sandal straps. A romance, maybe, or a pop biography. Or even a street map, on such a day she might easily be from out of town, and lost. Curiosity as to what she looked like struggled with curiosity about what she might do, and lost. Jason stayed where he was, but leaned back a little so he could see the convex security mirror.

Legs curving endlessly out of sight, hair swinging pale and free as she moved about the shop. Golden brown arms and back, a little white dress covering no more than it needed to. She had stopped at the science text books. Well, he was wrong. Perhaps a student studying for next semester, suddenly realising she needed that horribly expensive book after all. Jason eased himself slowly to his feet. Now he could see her undistorted. Even if she bought nothing she made the day worth while. He could not see her face but the grace of her movements, the glow of her skin, the bend of her neck as she turned the pages of a thick volume; these were enough to fill Jason with, what? Joy, desire, lust, and despair. Such as this was not for him. He was married, and short bald men with glasses are not much of a turn-on. Even for his wife. What had she ever seen in him? Come to that, what had he seen in her? Possibilities, that was what. They were very different people but for a while they had seemed to complement each other; people said they made a good team. But nothing came of it. Not even children. It had taken a few years, but the grim realisation that they had little to give each other became an unspoken truth for them. Neither dared break the silence, scatter what remained of the dream.

The girl closed the book, turned abruptly towards the cash desk. Jason moved after her, anticipating the sight of her face. Perhaps narrow, hard, reptilian. Or bland and droopy. Round, smooth, rosy, warm. Elegant and noble; angelic, unworldly. Oh, anticipation! She was not stopping at the desk, but heading for the door. Jason leaped after her, and reached her as she passed under the lintel.

‘Excuse me, you haven’t paid for that book.’

She turned. Taller than he had supposed, she looked straight at him. Lashes fluttered over dark eyes; full, glistening lips parted moistly. It was a face out of time, from a Victorian print, aloof and calm. Patient, refined. Jason gently placed his hand in the small of her naked back and propelled her into the shop. He took the book from her. Organic chemistry, postgraduate stuff, only just published. He had wondered if it would find a buyer.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice husky and close. Intimate. Trusting ‘I can’t have been thinking. Let me pay for it now.’ She opened her tiny suede handbag. ‘Oh dear, I didn’t bring my cards! Will you put it aside for me?’

‘Young lady, I have just caught you stealing a book, a very expensive book. I have been in this business long enough to know all the tricks, and you are not getting away with it!’

Jason locked the door, laid the book on the cash desk, and put his hand on the phone. ‘You have committed a crime. It is my duty to call the police and have you prosecuted. If it turns out you make a habit of this, you will go to prison. They like pretty girls in prison, a bit of fun for the others, if not for you.’

The girl paled. ‘No! Please, I’ve never done it before! I need that book. I spent too much on holiday and my car blew a tyre but I need that book next semester. Oh, please, I’m sorry, it was very wrong. Oh dear, this is so horrible!’

Jason sighed. ‘I can’t just let you walk out of here. Perhaps if I talk to your mother, she can pay for it, and you can pay her back.

The girl pulled a tissue from her bag and blew her nose. ‘Not my mother, oh God, she would never let me forget it. She would stop my allowance and I would have to drop out of my course. I think the police would be better. But, look, I’ve got twenty dollars, take that and put the book away, I’ll borrow the rest and come back.’ She smiled, and subtly put back her shoulders so that her breasts, already plainly outlined and partly exposed, parted and pressed forward eagerly towards him.

‘Twenty dollars to buy me off and get out of a fine of five hundred, or worse? I don’t think so!’ Organic chemistry, Jason thought, she is temptation itself. Vulnerable, ashamed, wide-eyed, she stood before him as before her executioner. In his mind’s dark corners he would bind her hands, tie her to a post, strip her naked and whip her severely. Then, heeding her tearful pleas for mercy he would loose her and lead her sobbing to the bed. Where in gratitude for her salvation she would give herself to him willingly, eagerly. No, he told himself, these things do not happen to little men like you. But there was the basement, the stock room. It had pillars and beams, no bed of course but a strong packing bench.

‘You are a very wicked girl, I cannot let you go unpunished. But I can see how much harm telling the police or your mother would do to your future, so I shall take matters into my own hands. If you agree to to do whatever I tell you, your crime can be kept as a secret between us. Nobody need know, ever, if you do as I say.’

She looked at him. Did she guess something of what he had in mind? Was that a fleeting smile, a brief twinkle? She would not be smiling long if he could once get her down into the basement!

‘OK,’ she said, a trifle uncertainly. ‘What did you have in mind?’

‘Just come with me, I have some work for you to do in my stockroom.’

‘Great!’ she said, and followed Jason down the old dark stairs. He ushered her through, turned on the lights, and closed the door. She wandered into the centre of the room, where the packing bench stood below a strip light. She sat on the bench and swung her legs.

‘Well? Now you’ve got me here what are you going to do to me?’ She put her finger in her mouth and sucked it, looking him in the eyes.

‘Go and stand against that pillar.’

She swung her legs up, reached under her dress and slid off her panties. She twirled them on a finger before sending them fluttering over her shoulder. Standing then, she walked slowly, slinkily, to the fat brick pillar and pressed her back to it, held it with the flats of her hands, her hips thrust forward. ‘Come on then tough guy, punish me.’

‘Turn round, face the pillar and hold your hands over your head.’

She gave him a searching look, and did as he said. Jason picked up the packing tape dispenser and stood behind her. Reaching up, he began to tape her hands to the pillar. But the bricks were dusty and the tape did not stick. She pulled away. Jason tried to wind the tape round her wrists but she was too quick and tore herself free.

Jason found himself standing holding the heavy dispenser like a tomahawk, crouching with arms spread, watching the girl as she watched him from behind the packing bench. The door, he ran to the door and stood before it.

‘Come on, do as I tell you. We did agree, didn’t we? Accept your punishment and I will do nothing worse.’ What had he said? What had he threatened? More than he had intended, more than he wanted. He could not stop now. He must do it, do it all, and she must submit, willingly or otherwise.

She was coming. With the light behind her she seemed tall, lithe, and alert. She stopped an arm’s length from him. ‘Let me out,’ she said, softly. ‘Now.’

Her eyes were in shadow, her face oddly sculptural and somehow inhuman. Jason was aware of her breasts, trained on him like the guns of a battleship, no more the wondrous, softly inviting symbols of femininity that had helped lure him into this absurd situation, but now instruments of dominion.

Jason laughed, briefly. ‘Kneel!’ he yelled, ‘Slut!’

At which she reached out her left hand. It held the boxcutter knife that he kept on the bench, and it stopped at his throat. Jason shuffled aside to let her open the door, his face twisted in a grin composed of fear, fury, contrition, and adoration.

The door shut, her footsteps rattled the stairs, and Jason slid down the wall to the concrete floor. He was shaking all over, heart battering away at his ribs as if it were trying to tell him something. But the counsel of his heart had ever been ambiguous and obscure, a poor foundation for his emotional house of cards, now tumbled, his innocence exposed. There had been a song, once, about innocence and vanity, disillusion and violation, that Jason had adored but never understood. Instead of accepting that truth lies in mystery for all to behold he had faked up a mechanical fantasy, and without the absurd constraints of this he could perhaps have taken what she had offered, there on the packing bench. But that simple consummation the vanity of his prosthetic passion could not permit. So now the Goddess had departed leaving him with nothing but regret and a pair of panties lying somewhere amongst the piles of books.

Jason pulled himself to his feet and made his way slowly back up into the shop. By now the sky had darkened, a wind blew up dust from the gutter and there was tension in the air. The book, of course, was gone. The till was untouched. He looked around hoping that she had perhaps left the twenty dollar note somewhere. Not for the money, but as a sign of forgiveness, a hint that she might return. But why should she? Either forgive or return.

Nothing to be done but pick up from where he had left off, as if she had never come through the door. Jason retrieved his clipboard and wandered back over to the gardening section. Passing the music books he paused, perhaps he could track down the lyrics of that song, for now he felt he could touch – not just sense of the song – but some part of the truth about himself.

A low lightning flash stuttered across the sky, bathing the shop in bleak white light and casting unfamiliar shadows. Jason waited. And then from the far distance the thunder staggered in, as thin and as fractured as its creator.