Charlotte stood alone in her cavernous living room and stared at the bookshelves that lined every wall. She ignored the romance section and selected a bright green book with blue lettering from the humour shelf and turned to the first page. She laughed out loud at the third paragraph and reached into her deep skirt pocket and extracted a stationary scalpel and a ruler.
The tip of her tongue peeked out of the corner of her mouth as she put the book on the floor, placed the ruler on the page and drew a careful line with the scalpel along its edge. She continued shifting the ruler and the scalpel until she had neatly framed the paragraph that had made her laugh and then plucked it out, turned it over so the words faced downwards and opened her mouth. She had to suck hard at the piece of paper to release the flavours, but then…lemon, definitely lemon, sharp and fruity at the same time.
She sucked harder, rubbing the word wafer against the roof of her mouth. Cheese, most definitely cheese, possibly Stilton. And something else? A subtle hint of rhubarb maybe? Anything else? Satisfied that she had sucked the flavour from the words Charlotte began to chew. When the piece of paper became a small, hard sphere she swallowed, opened her eyes and glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. It was 9:55am, just enough time to get to her first customer.
Charlotte paused outside the door of Number 79 and examined her Bettaware order book. Mrs Greaves at Number 25 had ordered a mop head, a can of pledge and a pack of scourers. The lovely, but gay, Mr Meadows at Number 33 had ordered a bottle of bleach and a laminate floor polisher. Mr Ballard, however, hadn’t ordered or paid for anything for over two weeks.
She raised her small fist and knocked loudly on the door. A timid tap wouldn’t be heard above the roar of old Mr Ballard’s television.
In the doorway, in the place of the hunched elderly figure Charlotte was used to, was a tall man in his mid thirties. His hair was collar length, slightly greying at the temples, his body swamped by an oversized argyle jumper, his skinny calves poking out the bottom of a pair of long, khaki shorts.
“Wow,” he said. “Who are you?”
“Um,” said Charlotte, glancing down at her order book. No one had ever greeted her with a wow before. “Is Mr Ballard in?”
The man frowned and rubbed one of his feet against the skinny calf of his other leg.
“I’m afraid Mr Ballard passed away four days ago. I’m his grandson. I’ve come down from Leeds to house sit until the will is read.”
“Oh,” said Charlotte, turning to go. “I’m terribly sorry. I was rather fond of your grandfather.”
“Did he owe you money?”
“No, no,” she said. “It would be rude of me to…”
“Come in, please. Grandfather couldn’t rest if he thought he’d left a debt behind.”
Mr Ballard’s grandson had the most wonderful brown eyes Charlotte had ever seen but she felt immediately uncomfortable, as though she had spoken her thoughts aloud so she looked, instead, at the dark goatee beard that feathered the man’s chin. Old Mr Ballard did owe her £23.50 for a cat-shaped bird-scarer with glow in the dark eyes, she reasoned, and books were expensive to replace.
“I’ll come in,” she said, still looking at the chin, “if you don’t mind?”
The man opened the door fully.
“I’m Chris,” he said, “by the way.”
Yes, thought Charlotte, I thought you might be.
Charlotte sat on the edge of old Mr Ballard’s brown, cord sofa, a cup of tea cooling in her hands. Chris sat cross-legged in the armchair opposite her.
“So you don’t watch TV either?” he said. “That’s another thing we have in common – apart from a love of books of course.”
Charlotte smiled and looked down at her hands. Chris had told her that he thought books were magical. Her mother was the only other person to have told her that.
“You can almost taste the adventure,” she’d said to seven-year-old Charlotte.
Charlotte had laughed when her mother licked a page of “Five Go Adventuring Again.”
“It tastes like ginger beer,” said her mother. “Try it, you’ll see.”
Charlotte had licked the page tentatively at first and tasted nothing.
“Believe,” said her mother. “You have to believe.”
Charlotte licked with more gusto and the flavours popped on her tongue.
“So,” said Chris, folding his arms around his skinny knees. “Do you play a musical instrument?”
“No. I’m not very musical. My parents were though. They were both in an orchestra so we travelled around a lot when I was young. Mum played the violin and Dad played the trumpet. I used to curl up in a corner of the green room and read books.”
“Do they still play?”
“They died in a car crash ten years ago. I was seventeen.”
Charlotte jumped as Chris bounded up from his chair and threw himself onto the seat beside her.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Were you there?”
She shook her head.
“I was at the cinema, on a date.”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
Charlotte fiddled with the cover of her Bettaware book and forced herself not to look up.
“Not really,” she said.
“Would you like hear my mandolin?”
Chris shifted position and Charlotte felt his hand brush hers briefly before it was gone, reaching behind the sofa.
“I’d love to.”
“Aha,” said Chris, pulling the mandolin from behind the sofa. Charlotte thought it looks like half a brown pear. A pear, she mused. Would a romance novel taste like pear? Or would they be sweeter? Richer? Almost any flavour would be better than the paper nothingness of words with no taste.
“Ready?” asked Chris, pulling the mandolin onto his lap. “You’re going to love this.”
They stood, awkwardly, in the doorway of old Mr Ballard’s house.
“So,” said Chris, repeatedly running a hand through his hair, “I know you’ve collected your money now and everything, but I was hoping that you might…”
Charlotte looked up and caught Chris looking down at her with an expression on his face that caused an uncomfortable clenching sensation in her stomach.
“Come back. Tomorrow maybe?”
“I’d love to. If you’re sure?”
When he leaned towards her Charlotte closed her eyes. Oh my God, she thought, pressing her palms against the doorframe, oh my God this is it. When Chris’s lips touched hers she felt a momentary surge of guilt, swiftly followed by a swell of happiness. He likes me and he wants to see me again.
When the front door closed with a click Charlotte walked slowly down the pathway. As soon as she was out of view of Mr Ballard’s house she started to sprint. When she finally reached her house, panting and sweating slighty, she dropped her file and her handbag onto the living floor and rushed to the bookcase. She grabbed a pale-pink book with loopy writing from the romance bookshelf and flicked to her favourite part. It was the bit where Crispin goes off to war and Madeleine tells him she will love him forever.
Her hands shook as she put the ruler and the scalpel to the page. It won’t work, she thought as she lifted the piece of paper to her mouth. It’ll taste of paper, as it always does. I’m being silly. I’m just being silly.
She closed her eyes and placed the piece of paper on her tongue, word side down. Nothing. She sucked a little harder. Nothing. Oh, oh, oh. Strawberries. So faint but definitely there. And…and there was something else, something fizzy. Champagne. Charlotte laughed. She threw back her head and she laughed and she laughed, then she sucked on the words some more.
The next day Charlotte and Chris sat together on his grandfather’s sofa, two empty cups of tea on the coffee table beside them.
“Put your hand against mine,” said Chris.
Charlotte laughed as Chris bent the tips of his fingers over her much shorter digits.
“They’re tiny,” he said. “Teeny tiny fingers.”
“Is that good?”
“It’s lovely,” said Chris, removing Charlotte’s glasses and leaning in. “Just like you.”
An hour later Charlotte went home, her lips sore from kissing, her head ringing with the sound of the mandolin and the silly song she and Chris had made up to accompany it. She could have stayed longer but she knew that all the best romances started slowly so she’d made an excuse about some orders and jumped off the sofa as soon as Chris’s fingers had tentatively stroked the curve of her breast.
She picked up the pale-pink book. Her hand was more steady, more confident as she cut out another perfect rectangle and placed it on her tongue. Strawberries again, ripe strawberries bursting on her tongue and the champagne, the heady champagne popping and fizzing and oh, another taste, chocolate, rich milk chocolate, Belgian probably. The flavours, the richness, the saliva flood, the memory of the kiss, it was almost more than she could bear.
The next morning Charlotte turned up at Mr Ballard’s house again. She was a good thirty minutes early for her date with Chris, but she was unable to wait any longer.
“Hi,” said Chris as he opened the door. Charlotte leaned in, but he leaned back. “You’re early.”
He’s got a suit on, thought Charlotte, and he’s slicked back his hair.
“Oh,” she said, “sorry. Were you going somewhere?”
Chris leaned against the door frame and scratched his head . He looks uncomfortable, thought Charlotte. Will readings can be terribly hard.
“Been. I just got back from an early meeting at the solicitors. It’s all finalised now and Dad wants to get the house on the market asap. He’s got some clearance people coming round this afternoon.”
“I can come back tomorrow,” she said, “if that would be more convenient for you?”
“I won’t be here tomorrow. I thought I mentioned that I was only staying here until Granddad’s will was read out and that’s been done now.”
There was a pause and Charlotte felt a new lurch in her stomach. It made her feel like throwing up.
“I’ll come with you,” she said. “I’ll run home, quickly pack a bag. I’ve got some money, a small inheritance. I don’t need the house anymore. There’s nothing to keep me here, apart from my customers, but I’m sure they’d understand.”
Chris took at step back into the hallway.
“Come with me? Oh, Charlotte.”
“Is that a yes? I’ll be quick.”
“Charlotte we just met. It was great fun, but…”
“How about we go for a coffee at the station and you can see me off. I’ll just grab my suitcase and my mandolin and we can go.”
Charlotte swallowed and looked at her watch.
“Oh,” she said. “Sorry, I can’t. I forgot about something, a phone call from the Bettaware Regional Manager. I should get home or I’ll miss it. It’s been lovely meeting you Chris.”
Chris leaned in, but Charlotte ducked out the way.
“Have a safe trip,” she called as she walked down the path, away from Mr Ballard’s house. She paused at the gate and turned back. Chris was still standing in the doorway, his eyebrows slightly raised, his fingers twisting his wispy beard.
She walked back down the path, stood up on her tiptoes and placed her hand on Chris’s shoulder. When he leaned towards her and his lips parted as though he was about to speak, she kissed him hard on the lips.
Charlotte walked slowly through the front door of her flat and reached for her book.
She held a rectangle of words in her hands and read the paragraph over and over. Finally she lifted the piece of paper to her mouth, stuck out her tongue and placed the words on it. She sucked hard. Nothing, nothing and then… unripe olives, so strong, so sharp she shuddered. There was another flavour, equally strong. Coffee, strong, too bitter, overbrewed, like melting granules on her tongue. She thought about spitting out the piece of paper but decided to swallow them instead. I’ll taste something else next, she thought. I’ll wash these words away with different books.
She sat in the middle of her living room floor surrounded by books, all of them open, all of them missing a paragraph or two. She shoved words into her mouth, paragraph after paragraph. She sucked, swallowed and selected more, stuffing them in, always shaking her head.
The sweet-sour flavour of the thrillers had disappeared. The pungent, red-wine smack of horror, no more. Even the fruity, cheesy, rhubarb taste of humour was gone. Charlotte gathered the books around her, the books that filled in the gaps in her life between work and sleep. She worked quickly, stacking and sorting them, building them higher and higher around her until four walls of book surrounded her and bricked her in.
(C) CL Taylor 2008
(published by Australian literary journal Etchings in March 2008)