Like any normal person, one of my greatest pleasures in life is the smell of a new book or magazine. For me, sticking my snout in a freshly unwrapped copy of Closer must be how it feels for a deprived junkie to snort coke from the cleavage of a model whose breasts are made from cocaine.
The problem is that I find even greater pleasure in ‘self-improvement,’ i.e., finding ways to be less like myself, and there is no greater means of self improvement than the complete absence of pleasure. You only need look at history’s legends like Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and Adolf Hitler to see that nobody ever built character whilst enjoying themselves. Clearly, if you want to be more like Jesus or Hitler, you’ve got to snuff out a pleasure as soon as you feel it coming and stifle its source. This is why I started buying second-hand books.
It was tough to begin with. Granted, my wallet was heavier, but what I gained in extra pocket money came at the greater expense of withered pages that stank like your gran’s linen basket or a recently divorced willow tree. My experiment in misery was going perfectly, until it stopped going perfectly…
It started last week, when I received my third second-hand book through the post. It was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, whose poetry is harder to stomach than a bottle of bleach (but remember: character-building). With all the enthusiasm of a husband identifying his wife’s body at a morgue, I turned the cover. That’s when I stumbled on this inscription: Dear Rich, Happy 18th Birthday. Love, Shaz xx
I was immediately perturbed. Sure, seeing my name could’ve been complete chance, but combine that ‘chance’ with the fact I’m 24 years old and that, by definition, I once had an 18th birthday. Clearly, this was no coincidence.
Was this a present that never made it to me? I doubted it; the only Shaz I know is my long-term hairdresser, and she always remembers my birthday. So, the question is who in Tidmouth is this Shaz and why the hell is she trying to make me re-celebrate a birthday from six years’ ago?!
I was troubled, but I was able to put the worries out my mind. Until the next book arrived…
God is a Massive Paedo…but it’s Okay Because he ain’t Real. I was really looking forward to Richard Dawkin’s latest book, but I can’t deny the dread I felt when I turned the cover and read the inscription: Dear Dick, I don’t know why you’re making me sign this book. Nick Bakay.
I reviewed the evidence. Whoever sent this obviously knew my name; some of my closest friends greet me affectionately as ‘Dick’, as do complete strangers when I step out in front of their car. And while I’ve never made Nick Bakay sign anything, I often fantasise about holding his hand and forcing him to sign some marriage papers.
What did all this mean? Could this stranger reveal my plot to kidnap and elope with Nick Bakay? Tormented, I ordered a fifth book. Even with my depraved mind, I couldn’t possibly have imagined what was about to unfold.
The fifth book arrived and my hands shook as I read the message: Paul, another year on the wagon, and two years since our last AA meeting. Here’s to your new lease on life. Cheers, Al Toast.
The masochistic side of me was disappointed: I’ve never been an alcoholic, I’ve never been called Paul, and, since I was born, I’ve always had the same lease on life. Slightly disappointed that this spooky but exciting mystery was over, I went to put the book down, before noticing a folded piece of paper, lodged like a bookmark between two pages.
I unfolded the paper and gasped. Printed on the paper were my full name, my address, some seemingly arbitrary numbers, and, most chillingly of all, the very title of the book I had just purchased.
My thoughts scurried round my head like a handbag full of otters. What did this mean? Who was trying to reach out to me, and where from? I thought maybe I was being stalked and felt slightly aroused before I read the message printed at the bottom of the paper: If there are any problems please contact us.
So, someone wanted me to make ‘contact’, eh? I’m not at all a superstitious person, but I couldn’t deny the evident fact that some spirit from the afterlife was trying to breach this mortal realm and communicate with me. But the question remained: was the spirit good? Or was it evil? Or was it something in between, like Rolf Harris petting a cat with cancer on Animal Hospital.
I knew there was only one way to find out.
It’s surprisingly easy to break into an Amazon warehouse. And once you’ve picked the perfect spot – like hiding behind some dusty racking sagged with albums by X-factor winners and Duffy – it’s a piece of piss to set up the Ouija board. But that was as easy as things got.
For starters, I’d forgotten the ‘no’ card, so I was pretty buggered unless I got some ghost who always answered in the affirmative and presumably died after being dared to fellate their KA’s exhaust pipe.
There was also the issue of how to communicate with the spirit. Did I offer polite pleasantries as we do in our mortal conversations, like asking your friend ‘How’s work?’ when you neither remember nor care about what they actually do.
Furthermore, I suspected there was some kind of spiritual ritual required to begin the séance, but I had no idea what that might be. Since I neither knew whether this ghost were good or evil, I decided to hedge my bets. First I prayed to God (the Christian one, obviously) and offered my devout attendance to every other Sunday service if He would let me have a dead friend to play with. In case the ghost was a bit of a bad egg, I also prayed to Satan, and bargained that he should protect me from the evil spirit if I promised to marry an overbearing wife and have a dysfunctional relationship with our future offspring.
I put my finger on the glass. ‘Is anybody there?’
The glass didn’t move. ‘Yeah, me.’
I turned toward the voice and there stood a human–like body. It carried a package in its ghost-white hands. It asked, “What the hell are you doing?”
‘I’ve received messages from spirits in my online shopping. See,’ I said, showing him one of the inscriptions.
He read the note and looked up at me as if I were the maddest man on earth. “You crazy moron,” he said. ‘Second-hand books are sold through third party sellers. You need to take your Ouija board to one of their distribution centres.’
I felt like a complete twerp.
As he escorted me from the building, we walked past a woman posing for a photograph. She wore a green t-shirt and a cigarette hung from her smiling lips. Beside her stood a naked man with a bag over his head, and she pointed at his genitals. I asked whether this was for Amazon’s Christmas calendar, and the no-longer-ghostman started babbling on about Amazon HR policy, Iraqi soldiers, and Watchdog or call the police or something or other, but I got bored and started wondering who would win a war between the ancient Romans and dinosaurs.
I don’t know why No-longer-ghostman was crying, but when he finally stopped he did decide to tell me something useful: apparently Amazon actually invented a name for the note that comes with the goods you receive. Now, I can’t remember what they call them, but basically what’s important is that they contain one crucial piece of information: the seller’s address.
It was time to pay Shaz a visit.
It’s surprisingly easy to break into a residential home, so much so that I began dreaming of a new career as a burglar. But my bubble quickly burst like a catheter bag when I stepped into the living room and was slapped by the stench of stale urine.
I assumed Shaz was either relatively immobile with a weak bladder or threw some real filthy parties, but then I saw her bookshelf. It was caked in cack and leaking with urine, presumably because the shelf housed not books but numerous cages, all crammed with beavers.
Each beaver had two pieces of A5 paper clearly torn from books and crudely sellotaped to their back. I approached a beaver and started reading one of its wings. ‘I know that I shall see my fate/somewhere among the clouds above.’ I began to wonder what sort of sick son of a bitch would tape Yeats poetry to a semi-aquatic rodent when I heard thuds coming from the backgarden.
I opened and quietly admired some just lovely Georgian patio doors before noticing numerous Beavers dotted around the patio. Most lay still, whilst others twitched their paddles. Suddenly, one thudded at my feet, getting blood on my suede shoes. I looked up to the source of falling beaver and saw, from underneath some yellow-stained netting, a woman with wavy, white hair holding a beaver out a window. Rearing the rodent back, she shouted ‘Make Richard Branson proud!’ and threw the beaver into the air.
For all the horror of the scene, the beaver looked thoroughly bored and unmoved when it silently collapsed into itself like a broken, furry accordion.
I rang the police and explained where I was and why. ‘Hurry, else it will be the beaver’s blood on your hands.’
The officer was silent. Then he said, “Wait, so you were holding a séance with a dead beaver?”
Then the woman started hollering “7…4…7!” in a painfully cheesy impersonation of Len Goodman.
“We’ll be right over.”
I think it was probably when I was leaving Shaz’s house to the sound of tasers that I decided never to buy second hand books again. They’re a lot more trouble than I thought they’d be, although I’ve started to suspect I was never actually communicating with the dead via Amazon.
Still, I can’t deny I was tempted to have some fun and start sending people messages through my own second-hand book sales on e-bay.
For the most part, I’ve resisted the temptation, except for the one time when this really excitable guy called Chandler contacted me about the first edition copy of The Velveteen Rabbit I was selling. He said he’d been searching every bookshop in Manhattan for it, the perfect gift to give to his friend’s girlfriend, Kathy, who loved it when she was a child. He was so desperate he’d give me anything I wanted for it.
I thought this character smelt iffy. He kept trying to be witty and cool, but I know I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be friends with someone so damn eager to please my Mrs. So I said no problem, Chandler, hell I’ll even gift-wrap it for you and I sent him the book.
I only wish I’d been there to have seen Kathy’s reaction when she opened up a pristine 2012 edition with every illustration of the velveteen rabbit crudely covered with random images of Matt LeBlanc’s face cut up into Swastikas.