The books in the Window
The books in the window have caught my imagination since the first time I saw them. They're in the front window of a house I pass on the way to work, parallel to Brighton seafront.
People never keep books in their window, at least not with the titles facing passers-by. It is a) impractical, as in order to retrieve a book you would have to go outside, locate the book, and return inside hoping you have correctly remembered where it lies; and b) revealing. Letting every passer by see what books you read is like leaving your personal diary open by the photocopier. Anybody who wanted to could find out the books you’ve read, or want to read, or want to be seen to have read.
There are over 200 books in the out-reaching porch window, just piled up one on top of the other, like a scatty academic’s desk, or an untidy but bookish child’s bedroom. Usually they're layered in order of size, i.e. small one’s on the top and wide ones on the bottom, though occasionally a recently fingered larger tome is plopped lazily on the top of the pile. It is a unique window display, heart-warming almost.
But what fascinates me so about the books in this particular window is that they change every day. I don’t just mean that they change position, but that the actual books change every day, a rotating library, and every day I gaze at the new collection, amazed at the diversity and strange juxtapositions of artists.
I woke up to the sound of the burglar coughing. I didn’t realise it was a burglar at first, I was still covered by the shadow of dreams. Discreetly shifting aside the sheets that were covering my eyes I could make out a dark figure at the end of the room by the window, back to me, seemingly searching through my bookcase.
The figure must have felt my gaze. It turned to me, face covered by a black mask, but eyes working through a thin slit. The eyes focussed on me, head tilting to the left as if to see me more clearly. The figure moved towards me, until it was towering above me. I was alone, sprayed out, naked and helpless in the bed. I could feel my own body shaking in fear. I clamped my mouth shut, held my breathing in check and closed my eyes, hoping it would go away, or at least take what it wanted and leave me alone. But my curiosity got the better of me, my eyes slowly crept open, only to find the figure bent right over me, peering right into my face. My body contorted as another shiver spasmed through it. There was silence, a pause, as if time was waiting for the Gods to decide my fate. Then the figure spoke.
“I made you a cup of tea,” the figure said. It was a woman’s voice. At a guess I’d have said about my age, early 30s, or perhaps a bit younger. Looking at the figure again I could see that it wasn’t as big and threatening as I’d imagined. True it was towering above me, but that was because it was standing up and I was lying down. It couldn’t have been more than about 5 foot 3 tall, it was slim, though with large breasts, and a distinct smell of perfume. The figure turned away from me, as if it’s job was done, and returned to the task of studying my bookcase.
I was still in a sleep-ridden state. Though I was conscious that she’d spoken, and that it was a she who had spoken, I hadn’t quite understood the meaning of what she’d said. As if aware of my ignorance she repeated her words, “I made you a cup of tea,” and this time lifted up the mug of newly brewed Earl Grey from the bedside cabinet. Its fresh aroma awakened something within me, I felt more alive and aware, and the room somehow looked brighter.
I had two choices; to drink the tea or not to drink the tea. I pushed my nose towards it and sniffed – it smelt good. Sure, it could be poison, but my nose told me otherwise, and my memory, which was just about awake enough to be telling me useful information, was fairly certain that there were no recorded cases of burglars poisoning their victims with an early morning cup of tea. Of course, my memory couldn’t think of any instances of burglars making their victim a non-poisoned cup of tea either, but it was slow supplying this information, by which time I had already taken my first sip.
It was a very nice cup of tea. Nice and hot, and with a hint of freshly squeezed lemon, no milk. Just the way I like it in fact. I puzzled over the burglar’s voice, not one I recognised, but someone that knew how I took my tea all the same.
“Is it nice?” the figure asked. I nodded ascent. “Good”. I thought you’d need a cup to wake you up, difficult to talk if you’ve just woken up”.
So saying the figure pulled up a chair and sat down next to me. “Earl Grey, no milk, with just a hint of freshly squeezed lemon. That is how you like it isn’t it?” I nodded. “I thought so. I’ve been watching you for a few days,” she added matter of factly. You soon find out someone’s habits, someone’s routine.” I said nothing, I didn’t think she wanted me to speak yet, she was just letting me know that she was in control of the situation, as if that wasn’t obvious already, she clearly knew enough about me to choose a day when Sarah was on her early shift.
The burglar said nothing more, but I could just about make out the smell of coffee brewing downstairs. She did know me well.
Her black-gloved hand reached into the black pocket of her black jacket, and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a golden lighter. The room was silent as she took a cigarette from the pocket and lit it, the flame of the lighter illuminating the black mask of her face, before it was snapped away. “Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Okay,” I said.
She sighed slightly, holding the cigarette beside her, as if about to make a major decision. Smoker’s dilemma! Then, her body shrugging easily, as if a decision had been reached, she pulled of the mask and took a long drag on the cigarette. There was, I realised, no mouth piece in the mask. Was I in the presence of a really stupid burglar, or a total nicotine addict? She puffed a huge cloud of smoke over me and I coughed. "Sorry,” she said and turned her head to the window to blow her next puff. It was still dark, but for the slightest glimmer of light from fag and moon. It was in this side profile that I realised for the first time that I was in the presence of the most beautiful woman I had ever met.
With the nicotine of the cigarette in her system and the tannin and caffeine of the tea in mine we were ready to talk. She tapped dead ash into the litter the bin and spoke. For the first time I had the combined sensory experience of seeing her face as she spoke, and felt by body stirring with emotion as she did so. “Why have you been standing outside my house?” she asked.
It was a dream. The only possible explanation! The most beautiful woman in the world, breaking into my house, making me tea, and accusing me of stalking her. But I took another swig of tea and it seemed real enough, and she seemed real enough, and the cigarette smoke was real. “I’ don’t understand,” I said.
She laughed unexpectedly. “What don’t you understand? You spend two consecutive days standing outside someone’s house and are then surprised when they ask you why. What do your victims usually do, ask you in for a cup of tea?” She paused to laugh again and take another drag of cigarette. Again that profile shot as she turned to blow the smoke away.
Then it clicked. I realised who she was. “The house with the books in the window,“ I said.
She nodded, and laughed again. “Ah, so it was my books you were after, not my body. I don’t know whether to be relieved or insulted”.
As she laughed her long, dark hair swivelled carelessly around her black-clad body. The cigarette illuminated her face, a pale white face, elfin, slim, slightly bony cheeks, protruding nose, dark brown eyes, large but shyly shielded by eyelashes.
As if aware that the conversation had reached a turning point she spoke again. “I’ll just go and make the coffee. Strong white, no sugar.” she said, as a statement, not a question. I was left alone with my thoughts, half a cup of tea, a unique situation and an erection.
She returned with my Eyeore mug, brimming full of lovely, strong, steaming coffee. She slung me a T-shirt that was hung over the back of a chair. “Don’t get cold,” she said. I pulled it on, feeling her eyes assessing my body as I removed the sheets from my top half to don the shirt. The bottom half remained resolutely covered up, though I could feel her eyes resting on the point where my erectile tissue prodded the sheets upwards.
“I’m a burglar,” she said. “but I only steal from people I don’t like,” she laughed again, as if savouring my embarrassment, my inability to deal with the situation. I took a sip of coffee and waited for her to continue.
"Of course, you're a book thief," I said, suddenly realising why she had an ever-changing supply of books for her window display.
“Well I do steal books, but it’s not the books that pay the rent. I take the valuables as well."
At this point she lit another cigarette, so I took another swig of coffee. I had mixed emotions about her. I had an undeniable sexual attraction towards her, I liked her book collection, and she made really good coffee. On the down side however, her books weren’t hers at all, and, on a professional level, stopping to chat with her victims over coffee and leaving a contact address was a surefire way of getting caught. I couldn’t see her making a successful career out of the burglary business.
“I don’t usually do this.” She laughed loudly. “In case you were wondering. When I say I’m a burglar I do mean I’m a burglar, I do do it properly. I don’t make coffee for everyone.” She paused for a drag, it was a very beautiful face, you could see why she had to cover it up behind that mask. “But I wasn’t sure about you. Usually someone who hangs around your house for two nights is a trouble-maker, someone who deserves to be burgled. But I thought I’d give you a chance to prove otherwise, see what you were like, if I liked you I’d introduce myself, if I didn’t I’d just loot the place”.
“So you like me then?” This was my erection speaking I’m afraid, I must have sounded a bit vain, or a bit stupid. But she laughed again, which was a good sign. “I liked your book collection. You were sound asleep, body completely hidden by bedclothes, there was no you to judge. But I like your books, always a good sign in my opinion. Have you read all the Thomas Hardys or are they just to impress?”
But she wasn’t interested in my answer. She continued her story. "I started stealing when Mike left me. This was a couple of years ago, and I’d quit my job to go out with him, he told me he wanted a full-time girlfriend, he didn’t want to share me with my work. I didn’t mind, it gave me plenty of reading time. But then he left me, changed the locks on his door and moved a blond bimbo in with him. I was suddenly alone, without someone to love, someone to pay my rent. I could have gone back to work, but I did what any sensible girl would do in my position. I broke into his house, took every valuable I could find, smashed all of the CDs I didn’t like, the bloody Dire Straits he’d tormented me with for 2 years, smashed everything of hers of course, and then, on a whim, took a couple of books I’d always meant to borrow.
“I was surprised how easy it was to break into someone’s house while they slept, or while they fucked, I don’t want to think about that really, and take their possessions, their wealth, their personal history, part of them. I realised that I could make a living from it. Not only that, I could enjoy it. It was exciting, it was a challenge, it was dicing with death, it was breaking taboos, but mostly, and this is what I really enjoyed about it, it was getting revenge.” With that overlong sentence out of the way, spoken, ejected from her lips, she paused to think, or possibly to catch her breath.
She continued her story as my coffee started to become cold in my hand and as I gazed at her, looking up at her from my prostrate semi-naked position on the bed. The clouds outside must have shifted because the room was becoming brighter and I could see her face more clearly, I could see the red of her lips as she spoke, I could look into the cavern of her mouth and see the tongue moving in her mouth as she revolved it around the words she spoke.