Professor Aubrey Hinton-Bray’s The Topography of Roman Britain (Cambridge University Press, 3rd Ed., 1977), didn’t like its name. It was a name that screamed pomposity, and the Hinton-Bray didn’t like to think of itself as pompous.
The Hinton-Bray was a bit of a homebody, had been for a while now. It couldn’t claim much of a social life; even back in its youth, it had mainly mingled with stuffy academic types. Now it just stayed indoors, in relative comfort, if a little the worse for wear in recent times: it hadn’t had a good clean in far too long. Just a once-over with a feather duster wasn’t asking too much. Ah, but it mustn’t complain; just look at the Britannica family across the way – weird bloody shut-ins, the lot of them.
The Hinton-Bray had begun to notice something rather startling about itself: it was getting, for want of a better word, grumpy. It would stand stiffly in place all day, wincing under the harsh artificial light, and sneer at its neighbours, especially the younger ones. So bright and fresh and full of life, they were, and always disappearing for weeks on end. It was possible to have too much fun, surely? The Hinton-Bray imagined they would learn someday that the simpler life was the path to true happiness. Not that it was truly happy, if it really had to be honest; and not that the simpler life was all that great.
The 3rd Ed. (1977) had been the Topography’s final edition, as it turned out: the good Professor himself had dropped dead in his rooms at St. Cedd’s one blustery Autumn afternoon, in the middle of compiling the follow-up, and just like that, the 3rd Ed.’s fate had been sealed: there would be no heir. Also, new research had popped up, a veritable trove of the stuff, and younger academics were falling over each other to get it all down in a nice new volume, probably with a punchier title. The Hinton-Bray didn’t hold grudges – that was the realm of the old and senile, not the middle-aged and ever-so-slightly grumpy – but still, it stung a little. Couldn’t the old git have held on for just a few more months, at least until the peer-reviewing stage was complete?
The newer volumes would gossip about the Hinton-Bray. ‘It used to be the last word on the subject,’ they’d say in awe. ‘The definitive. Such a shame.’
What they never spoke about was that, despite its wealth of knowledge about the topography of Roman Britain, there wasn’t much else the Hinton-Bray knew about, well, much else at all, really. The Britannica family, for all their faults, at least knew about life – they’d seen it all in their time. Sure, their knowledge essentially ended somewhere in the mid-1990s, but the Hinton-Bray imagined not much had changed since then anyway. It wasn’t like old times, when everything seemed to change by the day. There were far fewer battles and beheadings and uprisings. It wasn’t, in other words, like Roman Britain. Now, those guys knew how to live.
There was a new staff member, a Junior Assistant. He was young, maybe on work experience: his hastily laminated name tag identified him as Simon. He seemed to have an aversion to tucking in his shirt at the back, or else he just assumed it tucked itself in back there and his job ended when he got to the sides. His hair was unruly, which he tried to amend by running a patina of gel through it. This did not help as much as he imagined.
The report that Beth, the Senior Library Technician had to fill out at the end of Simon’s week would not end up being the most glowing endorsement of his employability. One of the more damning sections carried the heading Attention to Detail. Beth, not known to mince words, obliged with a simple, cutting Minimal. Although she did not feel the need to elaborate, she had silently noticed Simon’s tendency to re-shelve books in a manner that beggared belief. By the end of his tenure, after finding yet another shelving anomaly and promptly restoring balance to the Biography section, Beth wondered if her young charge had paid any attention at all to her Day One seminar on the Dewey Decimal System.
In her chagrin she had failed to notice in amongst the 930s – the traditional home of History of Ancient World (to ca. 499) – a hardback copy of The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll.
Alice wasn’t exactly young – it had been around the block a few times. Published in 1999, it looked younger than its years: it was amazing what a fresh clear-plastic wrap every once in a while could do to your complexion. Alice had been bought new from a supplier in Bristol, and had spent its formative years bouncing around different households, mostly just flicked through by literary triviaphiles but once in a while pored over from cover to cover by true fanatics. Its most cherished experiences, however, were those scant occasions when it was borrowed by a parent, always with a sad glint of nostalgia in their eyes, who would sit their child down on their lap, open Alice’s lovely cover (red, embossed with a gold trim that it was always very proud of), and begin to read those words aloud.
“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”
This was, in fact, a thought that Alice pondered a lot. Its pages were filled with wonderful pearls of wisdom like that; such a shame, then, that there were books out there with nothing but boring, staid text from beginning to end. No frontispieces, no sparkling dialogue; what, indeed, was the use?
If you keep this in mind, you will most likely feel rather sorry for Alice as it is unceremoniously and uncomfortably shoved between a stiff wooden shelf and The Topography of Roman Britain (Cambridge University Press, 3rd Ed., 1977), by Professor Aubrey Hinton-Bray.
They didn’t speak at first. Communication is such an awkward thing when you’ve been thrown together under such circumstances, if you’re sharing confined quarters, and of course, if you’ve nothing in common. In the end, it was the Hinton-Bray that made the first move, immediately revealing its lack of practice in this area.
‘Bit red, aren’t you?’
Alice was silent for a moment, taking in this odd opening gambit from its new neighbour. How did one respond to that, with poise and dignity? Finally it gathered itself and went for broke.
‘Bit obsolete, aren’t you?’
The Hinton-Bray was taken aback by this. Such insolence, from… from a work of fiction. It just wasn’t becoming in a literary fantasy.
‘Look,’ it said, hoping it didn’t sound too old and out of touch, ‘obviously neither of us chose this situation, so I suggest we make the best of it, and… not talk.’
Alice, knowing when to end a fight, went quiet then. Things stayed that way for the next few days – they watched in silence as the staff flitted about, and customers came and went and no one approached their section – until, finally, Alice couldn’t take it anymore.
‘I happen to like my cover.’
‘Well, sure,’ the Hinton-Bray shot back, quick as you like, ‘if you need gaudy colours to sell your wares. Each to one’s own.’
‘Are you… did you just call me whorish?’
That was a bit extreme even for the Hinton-Bray. ‘No, no, I didn’t mean that. I just meant… well, surely it’s what’s inside that counts?’
‘You called me gaudy!’
‘I called your cover gaudy. I’m sure you’re – I’m sure you’re fine. On, er, the inside.’
‘Fine?’ Alice scoffed. ‘Fine? I’m a fucking classic, mate. I’m timeless. You’re a manky old dinosaur.’
The Hinton-Bray thought that was a bit much, but it wouldn’t do to appear vulnerable in front of Fiction – it was far above that sort of behaviour. And so, détente reached for now, life went on.
A few days later, Alice spoke up again – more of a mutter than anything, but the Hinton-Bray caught it loud and clear.
‘You should see my paperback,’ it said. ‘It’s given people seizures.’
And, despite itself, the Hinton-Bray laughed. Loudly and uproariously. The Britannica family glared up at them from their bottom shelf, which just set them both off.
‘Sorry,’ Alice said, still stifling giggles. ‘I know we were doing the – the silent thing.’
‘No, it’s fine – that was definitely worth saying.’
‘Oh, we’re back to fine now, are we?’ Alice said. But it was clearly just joking this time.
That night, out of either boredom or genuine curiosity – the Hinton-Bray would never know – Alice asked, ‘So what are you about, then?’
‘Do you know,’ the Hinton-Bray mused, ‘I haven’t been asked that in such a long time.’
‘Then it’s about time someone asked!’ said Alice brightly. ‘Go on, then.’
‘Well,’ the Hinton-Bray began, then stopped. ‘Are you sure you want to know?’
‘I asked, didn’t I?’
‘It’s just that… it’s a very niche subject. It can be hard to understand sometimes.’
Alice huffed. ‘I’m no slouch, you know. You might’ve noticed I’m not just your common-or-garden Alice. I’m annotated, aren’t I?’
‘What’s your point?’
‘Do you really think I’m just 432 pages of fiction? I’m a compendium. I’m part story, part bloody lecture. I even bore myself sometimes, I’m so full of minutiae.’
‘Alright then,’ the Hinton-Bray said, ‘if you insist.’
‘It’s because I said minutiae, wasn’t it? You academics love a big clever word.’
‘Do you want to hear this or not?’
‘I do, I do. Promise.’
And so it began.
If it had to be brutally honest, Alice got lost pretty early into things, but the Hinton-Bray did its best to distil its 600-odd pages of information into a tidy summary. It even tried to spice things up in parts – the section on Eboracum, for instance, was made far more entertaining when performed in a broad Yorkshire accent. But for the most part, it was a dull evening.
The Hinton-Bray, touched as it was by Alice’s apparent interest, was all too aware of its staid contents. It went through the motions for the sake of its enthusiastic new companion, but secretly it was eager to ask Alice to return the favour. Not tonight, though: Alice had paid such close attention that the Hinton-Bray felt humbled, almost ashamed. It was only fair that they took a break.
Asking the next morning was probably too eager. And anyway, it felt more like a night-time exercise. The Hinton-Bray waited until after closing time, when the sun was just peeking through the bottom of the blinds, covering them both with a pleasingly pinkish-gold hue, then said, simply: ‘Your turn.’
Alice had been wondering if this might happen, and had already gone through a few options: adopt the Hinton-Bray’s method of a potted summary, or go into richer detail? When faced with the request, however, Alice surprised itself.
‘How about I just read it to you?’
‘That would be marvellous!’ That was probably a tad too keen. ‘If, if you don’t mind,’ he added, his voice calmer.
‘Not at all! Oh… but I won’t do the whole thing. Of course. I mean. Not with the footnotes and everything.’
The Hinton-Bray didn’t respond to this, not immediately; again, it never paid to appear too eager. After allowing a few moments, it said, so softly Alice barely made it out, ‘I… I don’t think I’d mind that, actually.’
It was a night the Hinton-Bray would never, ever forget.
First, Alice read the story, footnote-free, from beginning to end; it did, after all, speak for itself. Classics don’t become classics for being crap. Then she dove into the sequel, a bonus the Hinton-Bray had not expected: a whole new story, even barmier than the last.
By the time they had reached the end, the sun had gone down. Alice was afraid to ask what the Hinton-Bray had thought, but did not need to wait long for the answer.
‘Again. Please. Read it again. With the notes and everything. Um. Please?’
The very next day, Alice gave the Hinton-Bray a gift: a nickname.
‘You’ve got it lucky. You can just call me Alice. Nice and simple.’
‘I’ve never,’ the Hinton-Bray admitted, ‘been much of a fan of my full name.’ And
then, unprompted and redundantly: ‘The Topography of Roman Britain, 3rd Ed., by Professor –’
‘Ed,’ Alice jumped in.
‘You said 3rd Ed. I’ll just call you Ed.’
‘But – but I’m the third, um, Ed,’ the Hinton-Bray protested, already aware a battle had been lost, and not minding much.
‘Tough,’ Alice said, ‘Ed.’
And they didn’t speak again for the rest of the day, because sometimes you don’t need words.
Over time Ed began to forget what life had been like before she showed up – not that thrilling, he imagined. They talked every day: breathless discussions, heated debates, long jags of giggling. They made each other laugh; oh, how she made him laugh. Sometimes he would worry that she was laughing at his expense, this fuddy-duddy she had been saddled with; other times she would be terrified he did not take her seriously, that her lack of worldliness made her look stupid compared to his intellect. In turn, Ed was convinced Alice would one day work out that, really, he was a one-trick pony: quiz him on the tributaries of first-century Wales and sure, he’d rattle off whatever you needed to know; but ask him much of anything else about life, the world, love…
Ed felt like an impostor.
Alice didn’t feel like that. She didn’t like to feel unintelligent, but she also knew, deep down, that wasn’t true. She wasn’t just a silly story; she was filled with mathematics, and politics, and poetry and vivid imagery. She knew, too, that Ed did himself a disservice.
‘I’m just so,’ he said one crisp, subdued night in early December, ‘so niche.’
Alice laughed – she laughed like the church bells at Sunday Mass. ‘You always say you’re niche,’ she said gently. ‘But think of it like this: there’s no one else like you. Think of the first and second Eds – you superseded them. You were the last word, you’ve said so yourself.’
‘But,’ he said, ‘that was it. No more after me. The last word changed.’
‘Exactly. Which means you’re special. You’re unique.’
She thought he was unique.
She returned to the subject later that night, as they both shivered through the cold.
‘I’m not unique,’ she whispered.
‘Yes, you are,’ Ed whispered back. ‘You’re not just a reprint; you’re the annotated version. You’re as good as the original – but better.’
Alice scoffed. ‘I am a reprint, Ed. First published 1960. They kept adding new things each time. They’d been through so many before they got to me. And I’m not the last – remember my hipster paperback?’
‘Then perhaps unique isn’t the right word.’
‘Then what is? Go on, you’re filled with big important words. What’s the right one for me?’
Ed knew his own words intimately – they were his flesh, his blood, his soul. Words like igneous and Caledonian didn’t seem appropriate. But in the time they had known each other, he had taken the time to memorise another mass of words, so many of them completely new to him, fresh and untainted by years of scrutiny. Many of them, he suspected, weren’t even English, strictly speaking, and that only made them more beautiful.
It grew colder still, and they huddled together, the two friends, her heavy leather back cover nestled against his stark white front.
The last thing she remembered him saying that night was, ‘Frabjous. You’re frabjous.’
The holidays were fast approaching. As it was a council building, the library had to adhere to the council’s Christmas shutdown schedule. From midday on the 22nd of December to ten AM on the second day of the new year, the doors would stay closed, the lights would stay off. The heaters wouldn’t run. But no matter, they both thought: they would keep each other warm, with conversation, with laughter, with each other.
‘It’s only ten days,’ Alice said. ‘We’ll be alright.’
‘Ten and a half.’
But Alice didn’t mind. Ten and a half days next to each other, without the distraction of a busy, bustling library, didn’t sound too bad at all. In fact, she wouldn’t have minded if it was, oh, maybe a wee bit longer.
It had never been clear to Ed why the library even bothered to open on that last morning, if they were only going to shut a couple of hours later. Alice, who had a little more experience in the ways of library patrons, explained it to him, patiently as always:
‘The children are on holidays. Their parents want to make the most of their time together. They want to read to their children. They want to feel like a family again.’
That night, as he tried to ignore the sudden new space between himself and the cold, hard shelf, Ed recalled these words, the sweetness of them, the kindness. And he knew he had never felt sadder in his life.
Books, as most people already know, are made of paper. If they are very lucky, they will also be bound in leather. They have flesh but no blood. They have no immune system, no nervous system. Up until he met Alice, it was Ed’s assumption that books were the sum of their knowledge, nothing more: they were – he was – incapable of feeling. He was wrong.
Books have feelings. Absolutely they do. Books can love. Their love can soar like a bird, and it can break like a heart.
One thing books cannot do is weep.
Ed had only learned about crying from Alice: from her namesake, almost drowning in a pool of her own tears. That seemed handy to Ed, thinking of things scientifically as always, a function of the body designed to express what cannot otherwise be expressed, a way to bathe in one’s misery. On that first night, feeling that empty space next to him, Ed desperately wished he could cry. And cry, and cry, until he was swept away on the current.
On Christmas Eve, he took some initiative. He had, until now, managed to spend most of a very lonely life not succumbing to that early sign of madness: talking to himself. Sometimes he heard his neighbours doing it, reciting by rote the contents of their pages. He had never wished to subject them to his own contents – he was not that cruel. But now, now he had expanded his trove.
No. He hadn’t. Credit where credit was due.
He steeled himself, and began.
‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do…’
He read the story, just like that first time, from beginning to end in its purest form. He took his time, indulging in the words, the mathematics, the poetry. He bathed in it. Then he turned around and started again – this time with footnotes.
‘Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it…’
New Year’s Eve. The drunken revellers sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in the streets. And in the library, in the darkness and the cold,
‘Oh frabjous day! Calloo callay!’
Alice sat, unread, on the bedside table of one Penny Howard, a single mother who had borrowed the book for her seven-year-old, Eva. But life, as it has a habit of doing, got in the way: Penny was offered a last-minute shift at the hospital on Christmas Eve, leaving Eva in the hands of Mrs Graham, who had cataracts and couldn’t read to her; that night they stayed with Eva’s Gran, who had asked Penny – also at the last minute – to make a couple of salads as she’d just plain forgotten about salads, what was she like – and in her rush out the door with two cling-filmed salad bowls sitting under her chin, Penny didn’t have a free hand to grab the book and anyway Eva would be too exhausted after playing with her grandparents to be interested in a bedtime story and oh god she was late now…
Christmas Day morning in the silent library. Church bells somewhere in the square outside, her laugh, her laugh.
‘And what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?’
Ed did not drown; he bathed. He let the current take him downstream, to meet the Dodo, the Dormouse, to run in the Caucus race. He danced the Lobster Quadrille, and played a very silly game of chess, and fought the Jabberwock with the Vorpal Sword.
Grandad had bought Eva a beautiful hardback illustrated Philosopher’s Stone which he insisted on reading to her on Christmas night. Harry got a bloody good workout for the rest of that week. He tried to strike up a conversation with Alice – he was hugely popular but never let it go to his head, still a nice guy at heart, he was still young after all – but Alice wasn’t interested. She didn’t feel unloved by being unread; she wasn’t that needy. No, she didn’t talk to him because she was busy. The whole week, Alice kept talking. Talking about the elevations of Mount Snowdon, the changing levels of the North Sea, she spoke of Eboracum in a broad Tyke accent and laughed softly, her laugh like a church bell. She gave the words the reverence she knew they deserved. They were her words now, too. They were a shared knowledge, a shared secret. She didn’t even bother reading her own words anymore. What was the use of a book without maps and diagrams?
Beth, the Senior Library Technician, wasn’t doing with sloppy shelving, not in this bright new year when her library would run like clockwork. It was one of her New Year’s resolutions (that and not to participate in the work experience program). When the time came to re-shelve, she pushed the trolley, with Alice perched proudly on the top, directly into the Classics section she had curated so carefully over the years. Alice sat there, softly whispering pages and pages of carefully peer-reviewed references, all day, as the trolley rolled past the 930s – the traditional home of History of Ancient World (to ca. 499).
He heard her voice as he passed, and she heard his. He didn’t yell her name, she didn’t yell his. Instead, she spoke his words as loudly as she could, proudly bellowing factoids about ancient British topography – the elevations, the tributaries, the citations – and in turn, her best friend sang, sang out to the rafters of their home:
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die;
Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?
Alexander Gibbs is based in regional Victoria. His long- and short-form plays have been produced for the stage in Albury-Wodonga, Sydney and Melbourne, several of which have won awards. He is currently working towards a degree in Professional Writing at Curtin University. Frabjous is his first professionally published short story.