By Sian Norris
She turns to her husband as he slams the boot shut, her small tapestry holdall balanced over his elbow; an old-fashioned chivalry that she’s always half-grateful for, half-resentful of. She keeps quiet about the latter. That’s marriage, isn’t it? Compromises. Only on the small values. The ones that don’t matter quite so much.
"What?" he says, looking over her shoulder. "Oh. Fuck."
The front door hangs open. Gaping obscene, their hallway indecently exposed. The Yale lock is smashed in; wood splintering against the damaged paintwork. The double-lock is unharmed.
"You didn’t double lock the door,’ she states. She swears again. For fuck’s sake, this time under her breath. How many times has she told him to double lock the door? This last, muttered only in her head.
He pushes past her, shoving her bag into her arms. "Don’t touch anything," he calls behind him. "The police…"
She follows him in, reluctant. There’re splinters of wood on the carpet, crunching under her feet. She holds her bag close to her chest; shielding her MacBook within it. Her iPhone nestles safe in her pocket.
"Shit," she hears him say from the living room.
She stands in the doorway. The room is a mess. CDs have been pulled from their square shelves and scattered over the carpet, DVDs spread out among them. Light dances off the silver discs, reflecting his distorted body in their glittering eyes. His wallet lies open on the table; her jewellery box has been shaken empty. The bracelet he gave her. Her mother’s necklace.
"What’ve they taken?" she asks. Her voice sounds far away. She remembers when she was burgled before, as a child, finding the hammer in her room. She’d been frightened. That blunt and alien object lying on her bed. Meant for her.
"They must’ve taken something," he says, scratching his head. ‘Not the TV, or the DVD player. Maybe some of the CDs?’ He picks one up, stares at the vacant-looking woman on the cover as if he’s never seen her before, and puts it back on the shelf. It looks out of place.
"Money?" she says.
He pushes his hand through his hair, clenches his fingers into the back of his neck. "No," he says, shaking his head. "Money’s still in the wallet. Your jewellery too, I think. Can you see anything missing?"
She looks at the chaos of the living room, the shiny plastic piled on the carpet like landfill.
"We’ll have to put them all back," she says slowly. "Otherwise we won’t know what’s gone." She laughs. "Maybe it’s a comment on our music taste."
He ignores her latter remark. "We can’t do that," he replies, "until the police’ve been."
"The police?" she echoes.
"In case they come back," he insists. "It doesn’t look like they’ve taken anything…" He looks around the room again, his eyes focusing on the blank screen of the TV, as if by staring at it he can magic it out of existence. A missing TV would make sense. It would be a problem that could be resolved. "They might be scoping it out… to come back."
"Then why not take the money?" she asks.
He shrugs, and she can see a dangerous tension forming in his shoulders. He’s angry – angry at the drama that has resulted in this, this odd lack of drama. After all, what kind of burglary is it if nothing is burgled?
"Do you think it’s a hate crime?" she says, and instantly regrets her words. A hate crime would mean shit smeared on the couch, piss soaking into the carpet, graffiti emblazoned on the walls. Not this mess – not this litter that can be quickly picked up and alphabetised.
"No," he replies. "I’m sure of it. They came to look at what we’ve got. They’ll be back to take it."
"But why do it like this?" she says, pushing the edge of Pulp Fiction with her big toe. "If they were just checking us out, why not be discreet about it? Not…" she gestures weakly at the mess. "Not this."
He doesn’t respond.
"I’m tired," she says. "I need…I’m going to have a lie down."
He’s not listening to her; he’s already busy unlocking his phone, dialling the police, preparing how he’ll explain to the insurance company that he didn’t double-lock the door. Would they even need the insurance company, she thinks. If nothing has been taken?
Muddy footprints mar the cream of the bedroom carpet. Relief that it’s not shit is replaced with a shudder – the hammer again. She lies down on the bed and rests her forearm over her eyes. The long train journey from Edinburgh is catching up with her.
She wants to forget. She puts her hand out, reaching blindly for her Kindle. It’s not there. She props herself up on her elbow, sinking slightly into the too-soft mattress (compromise), looking under the dressing table where she sometimes leaves it. It’s definitely not there. The charger, which she’d left hanging from the socket, is gone too.
"Shit!" she says.
She returns downstairs, giddy with the power of discovery. She knows what’s missing. She’s the only one who does. She can give him the answer, present it to him, her gift.
"My Kindle," she says to his tense back, her voice slightly breathless. "They took my Kindle."
"What?" he says, swerving around to look at her, his shoes crunching on clear plastic, band names and movie star faces crushed under his feet. "Your Kindle?"
She nods. "It’s not in the bedroom."
He stares at her, incredulous. "You didn’t leave it in Edinburgh?"
She shakes her head. "I didn’t take it," she says. She goes out to the hallway where she left her bag, comes back holding a much-thumbed copy of Forever Amber. "I took this instead. Trash, for train journeys."
"There’s no where else you could have left it," he said, moving towards her.
She shakes her head again, annoyed by his distrust of her brand-new knowledge. "No, I didn’t take it with me. Whoever they are, they’ve taken my Kindle."
"Why would they take your Kindle?" he says, the confusion and the upset of the last half hour contorting his face.
"I don’t know."
"Well, you’ll have to close your Amazon account," he says. He’s back in charge of the situation, catching the opportunity for action that she’d chucked in with her surprise revelation. "He could be rinsing your account right now."
"Oh come on," she begins. "How much money can he spend on a Kindle?"
"No," he cuts in. "You need to close it down."
Later on, and the men who have traipsed in and out of her home throughout the day have all left; their muddy footprints merged with the original intruder’s. There’s a new lock on the door, the key stiff with newness. He’s angry with the police who, he claims, were no help at all. They can’t help it that nothing really got stolen, she’d said, trying, and failing, to make him feel better.
Allowed at last to tidy up, she starts filling the shelves with rows of CDs and DVDs, white dust sticking to her fingers.
There’s something so old-fashioned, she thinks, about burglary. There’s no money in stealing CDs anymore, or even the big ticket items. Not when you can buy a DVD player for a tenner.
She wonders how much a new Kindle will cost. All her books will be saved on the Cloud, she presumes.
The last CD is filed into its place. She steps back, her eyes checking that each one is in alphabetical order. But it looks wrong, somehow. It doesn’t look how it did before, when she left the house for Edinburgh.
"Oh," she says out loud. She’s combined their music collections, her selections pressed up against his. This annoys her more than it should.
That night she finishes Forever Amber, her impetuous heroine chasing her man across the ocean and into the prairies.
It’s a few weeks before the first email arrives.
Your Amazon order of Great Expectations has been downloaded to your Kindle.
"Shit," she says.
She hadn't closed her account; hadn’t done as he’d asked. She could pretend that she’d forgotten to, but that wasn't it. She’d been curious. She’d wanted to know what the thief would do next – she wanted to know what they had wanted with her Kindle. Now she knows. The thief wanted to read Dickens.
In this revelation, a closeness exists between them that hadn’t been there before.
It makes her uncomfortable. And yet, in that hint of intimacy, is a demand for more.
She opens the email. It isn’t just Great Expectations. Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, Vanity Fair and The Moonstone. None had cost her a penny; no money would be leaking out of her account. A considerate thief, only choosing books that were out of copyright. Good books too. The classics.
She deletes the email, and with it his new proximity to her disappears. Good luck to him, she thinks. He should really read Bleak House.
A month goes by before she hears from him again. This time he’s bought Paradise Lost.
Ambitious, she thinks. What else?
Shakespeare. Chaucer. Gulliver’s Travels. Wuthering Heights.
Nothing modern, she thinks. I guess the modern books aren’t free.
He reads fast. Another month passes, and this time she’s pleased to see he’s reached Bleak House. "It really is Dickens’ best," she announces to the screen.
Still, she thinks. It’s a shame he can’t read the modernists. That he can’t read anything new.
A thought flashes into her mind. She could… But no. Would he take offence? Would he think she was intruding?
"Oh for fuck’s sake," she says out loud. "It’s my Kindle. If he didn’t want me involved, he shouldn't have stolen it in the first place."
She opens Amazon in her browser, chooses In Our Time, Mrs Dalloway and, for something more up to date, Wolf Hall. Then, using the drop down menu, she selects her old device, the one with the old name, and hits ‘Buy with one-click’.
They’re conversing through books. She sends him a play by Beckett and he responds by downloading Ben Johnson. After she provides T S Eliot, he selects Shelley and Keats. A novel is met with a novel; a short with a short.
In the beginning, she tries to choose books that reflect the taste she detects from his downloads. She doesn’t want to put him off reading by sending something he hates. She picks post-modern classics, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse 5. She has a vague feeling that these are the books men claim to like. Richard Ford’s Canada. She even sends The Corrections; a book she’d never bother to read herself.
But more and more, she starts to abandon the books she thinks he might like. Instead, she sends the books she loves; the words that have pleased her; the new discoveries that give her pleasure today. Plath, Angela Carter, Doris Lessing. The well-reviewed Junot Diaz. A collection from the UK’s hottest new poet. It’s through these books, she thinks, her books, that he will learn to know her.
Day after day, seated at her desk, her mind drifts to what she’ll send next. She wants him to like what she chooses for him; she wants each gift to bring a look of joy to his face. She imagines a smile. The features of his face blurry, but the smile she gives him is rich and real. When she buys a new book for herself she reads it for him, judging it through his eyes. What colour are they, when he reads?
She doesn't tell her husband about any of this, of course she doesn’t. She’s aware of a line being crossed, and of something else too. Some things are better left unspoken. Unspoken, so the gaps that words might reveal remain unseen.
Months pass. Her Gmail account is clogged up with Amazon notifications – each email representing a chapter of their conversation. So she doesn’t notice at first that each new notification is only informing her of the book she’s purchased for him. Caught up in the fever of deciding and selecting the right book, she failed to spot he’s no longer making his own choices.
She keeps on going. The Booker winner. A Moveable Feast. Orlando, followed by the Bailey’s Prize shortlist. She waits to see what he chooses in response to the gifts she keeps on offering. But there’s nothing. She sends him another Vonnegut, a collection of plays by Brecht. She waits for an email, a notification from Amazon telling her that he’s downloaded A Tale of Two Cities or Hardy. She waits for something. Anything.
But nothing. And with his silence, a part of her heart finally breaks.
Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman, and is a regular book reviewer at Open Democracy. She co-edits the Read Women project. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue, is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on Kindle. She is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein, which in 2016 was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Prize. Follow her on Twitter @sianushka
Copyright © 2016 by Sian Norris. All Rights Reserved.