Roger had found the letter inside an old book that he’d picked up at a car boot sale. It was a little browned with age but generally well preserved. And now, as he sat, with the book – a tatty old copy of Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder Is Easy’ – on his lap in the front room of his terraced house, he just couldn’t believe his luck. His heart beat so fast he felt it would explode. He wanted to open the book again, take another look, but he daren’t, in case the letter wasn’t there and the whole thing had been a figment of an overactive imagination. As he sat in a state of the most pleasurable shock he played the whole incident back in his mind.
Roger had been at the car boot sale for about half an hour and this had been his second visit to this stall. He always looked at the stalls at least twice. The second time, that’s when you get your hands dirty. His attention was taken immediately by the large cardboard box filled with books. There was a woman Leaning over the box, she was wearing a long coat with it’s hood pulled tight around her. As Roger tried to muscle in to get a look, the woman moved around making sure that she finished what she was doing before letting him near. Roger eyed the rest of the stallholder’s wares whilst he waited. There was a small brass coloured kettle, a stack of children’s games, each individually wrapped in Cling Film, and three or four pre-opened tins of paint, trickles of colour spilling down the sides. Pride of place was taken by an old bicycle that looked as though it had been dropped from a great height and left to rust where it landed. This was leaning precariously against the front of the stall. Roger glanced down and the woman in the coat had now gone so he moved in.
The box was filled mostly with paperbacks, John Creasy, the odd James Bond and lots of Mills And Boon. The same old stuff. Roger ignored the paperbacks and went straight for the hardbacks at the bottom of the box. He’d had some good finds in the past, a signed P.G Wodehouse and a first edition of Brighton Rock. Then he spotted the Agatha Christie, ‘Murder Is Easy’. Early Christie’s can fetch a lot of money. He opened the book and looked at the title page; second impression, not worth bothering. He thought about buying it for his wife, she enjoyed thrillers, but the thought quickly vanished. He allayed any feelings of guilt that he may have had by convincing himself that she probably had this book already.
But he knew that the truth was a little more brutal, and their gift exchanging days were well gone. After twenty three years of unnatural dreaded bliss, it was now habit, rather than love that kept them together.
Roger casually flicked through the pages. He instinctively did this in case a book was signed, or somebody had left something in it, people leave the strangest things in books. In the short time that he had been selling he had found anything from a condom to a photograph of mother Theresa hidden between the pages. Then, he saw it, The Letter. It was the address in the top right hand corner that caught his eye and he recognised it straight away, ‘Clouds hill, Bovington, Dorset’.
Rogers pulse began to race and his chest became tight. He glanced up and saw that the man behind the stall had been watching him. He had seen the way Roger had scoured the book and he knew that your average book reader doesn’t pay that much attention, they just look at the title, or the blurb on the wrapper and if they fancy reading it, they buy it. Only dealers bother to look in such detail, and stallholders are wary of dealers. We all watch the Antique programmes, we all know what treasures there are just waiting to be found, but nobody wants to be the fool who lets the treasure go.
“You alright mate? The stallholder said.
“how much is this?” Roger had replied, trying as hard as he could not to sound as if he had just found a winning lottery ticket.
“Let’s see it. The stallholder asked , holding out a hand that looked as though it had not seen soap and water for a number of days.
Roger reluctantly handed him the book, as if he were handing over his first born.
The way the stallholder snatched the book from Roger said, ‘I don’t read books’, it said ‘books are a waste of good toilet paper’.
The stallholder tried desperately to focus on the faded gilt lettering on the spine, his face contorted into a grimace. Roger did not reveal to the philistine that he was holding it the wrong way up. But then… Oh, no. He’s opened it. He’s looking desperately for the source of pleasure that he had seen come across Roger’s face. As his dirt-ridden fingers clawed at the pages the veins in Rogers’s head pounded. Then Roger got a tremor of that pain in his chest again, the pain that he had been warned about. A pain that said,
“Don’t get stressed Roger, you must take it easy”. With every page that was turned Roger had felt the world around him get less and less real. The field, the cars, all of the people became just a blur. All that mattered, all that could be seen, was this monster of a man and his filthy, talon-like fingers turning page upon page towards this piece of gold dust, that had become Roger’s reason for being.
“Ow much for the bike, mate?”
Roger landed back to earth with a bump, as another prospective customer pointed to the rusted bicycle leaning against the decorating table that was the stall.
“The bike?” the stallholder stopped his scrutiny of the book. The most prized item of his stock had been enquired after.
“It’s a good bike that, just wants a bit of work on it – 50p for the book mate.”Roger quickly snatched the book back, tossed the man his 50p and disappeared into the crowd back towards his car, where he drove home with his jacket protectively wrapped around his find.
And now, here he was, with the book, safely in his hands and the letter still inside. Roger took a deep breath and opened the book for the first time since leaving the stall. His hands shook as he parted the pages… He couldn’t see it. It wasn’t there, the letter was gone! No, no, there it was… He gently lifted it from its home and placed the book on the carpet alongside his chair. Then he stared at the address on the letter, but this time with more pleasure, more time. He was a gourmet, enjoying the greatest dish in the world,
Prepared by the greatest chef’s. ‘Clouds Hill, Bovington, Dorset. To have something that had come from that address was thrill enough, but to have something written by the man himself!!! And it was written by him, no doubt about it. Roger stared, unblinking at the tiny distinct handwriting that he had seen so many times in reference books, and never dreamed that he would see in the flesh. Then, after wiping his hands of any moisture on his trouser legs, he carefully, gently, unfolded the letter. Excitement tingled through his fingers like electricity. He gently eased it out of its creases. It was difficult; it couldn’t have been opened in years, he could feel the resistance. The paper was thick, almost like parchment, oh! There it was… his signature, T.E. Shaw. Roger’s head didn’t belong to him. He was in a state of higher consciousness, total euphoria, and complete satisfaction. World war three could begin outside number 14 Steeley Street, and he wouldn’t even know it. Tears trickled down his cheeks. He looked around the room, he needed someone to tell. His wife was at work; she wasn’t due home for at least an hour. Not that she would have appreciated it anyway. As Roger always told people, she wasn’t cultured in the way that he was, and anyway, she didn’t share his enthusiasm for his “little hobby”, as she called it. He stood up. He didn’t know where he was going but he walked around the room, he had to do something. He looked out of the window. The street was empty. He needed to do something! But what? Roger went into the kitchen and filled a kettle with water, but before he could plug it in he was back in the room again, his prize back in his hands. He held the letter up to the window, two sheets of A5, paper handwritten on all sides.
What to do? he thought aloud. “Read it, read it”, a voice
replied from deep inside his head. Roger went back to the armchair and made a deliberate effort to calm himself. His heart was not beating as fast now, but his chest had a heaviness that wasn’t usual. Finally, he began to read:
And Roger was lost, lost in world that was gone, a special world, a world of romance, a world of espionage, a world away from the sad excuse for a life that he was now living. He read of people whose names you see on library shelves. Of Forster, Hardy and Shaw. Of Graves-” I’ve spoken to Robbie Graves about a possible project, I’ve arranged a meet the week after next… and Churchill. “The Churchill’s have asked if I would come to a surprise party for lady Astor…” He was taken on a special tour of that little cottage called Clouds Hill- “My gramophone still isn’t working properly, I’ll have to get it looked at. I cannot be without my music…” And further afield, to Aqaba, Damascus, and Aden- “They still ask about Aden, it makes me so depressed. Aden is safe, I sorted it when I was at colonial office…” He was pillioned on the Brough Superior that was to be the death of Lawrence. And he was privy to the final thoughts of the great man that ‘was’ Lawrence Of Arabia. “Why won’t they leave me alone? Do I have to change my name again? They will be the death of me….”
The letter was dated Sunday 12th May 1935. Lawrence was to die on the 13th May. The following day.
Roger sat, staring into space. His heart was a steady beat, but he felt exhausted by the days events. Since the onset of his heart condition he had been forced to take things easier, change his life.
“A gentle hobby, stress free”, the doctor had recommended. Hence the bookselling. Roger has always been a great lover of books and now he has catalogues delivered from dealers all over the world.
But this was the ultimate. Lawrence was his absolute hero, and Roger was somewhat of an expert on him. What he didn’t know about the life of T.E. Lawrence wasn’t worth knowing. This tour de force of a letter is his ultimate goal. Museums would cry out for a letter of this quality. Roger looked at his watch; it was 11-30 the library closed at 1-00 on Saturdays. He must get there as quickly as possible, get everything they have on Lawrence, photocopy the letter and then take it from there. He carefully folded it back into it’s crease, trying desperately not to let the sweat from his fingers mark the paper, and placed it carefully back inside the book. As he got up from the chair he felt a sharp pain that seemed to shoot from his chest up through to his shoulder. Roger steadied himself against the high back of the chair, then another pain, sharper this time. The force of this made his arm spasm and the book and the letter dropped to the floor. “No. Not now!”, he called out, but there was nobody to hear him. His heart thumped in his ears and with each beat came a picture; the boot sale, the letter, the box of books, the woman leaning over the books. The woman, the woman… What was it about the woman? Her coat, her smell? Roger tried to bend, to reach for the book but his chest was in a vice. He had to reach for the letter, but the pain, the pain… and he toppled, cracking his head loudly against the coffee table. He landed awkwardly on the floor his head resting on the book. A thin trail of blood from a small cut on his temple made its way down the spine of the book, and through the faded gilt lettering that spelled out ‘Murder Is Easy’.
Some time later a key entered the lock of number 14-steeley street and the front door opened. A large lady, carrying a bag walked in. She came into the living room and stepped over Rogers’s body, paying as little attention to him now, that he had shown to her over the past twenty years. She placed the bag onto the table and took out a black hooded coat. She placed it across the arm of the chair and walked over to where Roger was laying and without so much as a glance at him she picked up the letter from the floor. Roger’s eyes stared on lifeless as she then sat down at the dining table, placed the letter into an envelope and proceeded to write:
I thank you for the delivery of item 201 the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ letter from your catalogue, This was to have been a gift for my dear husband, but sadly he has very recently passed away. I do hope that you understand my returning it to you and I am thankful for your time.
Yours sincerely. Mrs Roger Banks.