Extract from A Courtyard Romance
Li-Hsien sat at the entrance to the “Endless Bounty” courtyard off Nanking Road in Shanghai. He was long, like a wrinkled snake-bean, with squinty eyes and bushy brows. Each morning he would arrive before dawn just as the nightsoil men began their collection, bawling for the sleepy-headed residents to hurry up and put out their “honey pots” before the opportunity passed them by. Li-Hsien would wave to the night-soil men as they trundled away with their pungent carts to the distant green haze of farm fields, then he would settle in for his working day.
Li-Hsien lugged a bamboo pole across his shoulder from which swung a pair of collapsible wooden frames, built from old orange crates and stuffed with books tied into tight cubes with hairy string. As the sun rose to warm the wall behind him, he would arrange his racks and display the well-thumbed publications – covered in soft, pastel-hued rag paper and hand-stitched along the spines –waiting for the day’s enthusiastic readers to wander by.
For a few square-holed, bronze cash, the working-class literati could borrow a book and return it the next day; if Li-Hsien deliberately cut his wares down into individually-bound chapters, then that was simply good business: readers would always come back to find out what happened next.
Bun-Chao ran a smallgoods stall across from the entrance to the courtyard. He was bald, middle-aged, as well-filled as a steamed pork bun, and brown from the sun. He sold everything from cigarettes to chopsticks, and even – although he would strenuously deny this if pressed – Japanese goods, which were proscribed by the Municipal Council. These were usually such things as playing cards or umbrellas, the occasional tin of pomade, or a box of detachable collars. Only those of long-standing acquaintance knew that he had these items to sell and there were complex codes that would cause them to materialise, safely hidden from view in brown paper and string.
Not that Bun-Chao was a criminal in any sense of the word; it was simply that there was a need for these things and he felt it only proper that he should meet that demand.
As the smells of frying breakfast noodles and river breezes tangled with the booming of ship horns and the chime of the Customs House clock over the Bund, Li-Hsien and Bun-Chao would catch each other’s eye across the street and nod: the silent greeting of mutually-respectful entrepreneurs...
Extract from Henshaw's Descent
The thunder was booming regularly when he reached the lower end of Albion Street. Rain had choked the gutters and the streets near the new Wentworth Avenue flowed with water a foot deep. Henshaw waded slowly uphill, dragging his sodden coat and wincing over the state of his shoes. White flashes of lightning silvered the runoff and illuminated figures huddled in corners and doorways, some of them bailing water from building entrances. Soaked through to the skin, he struggled uphill away from the dark of the retail district into the brooding, watchful night of the derelict terrace housing, clinging like shelly sea-life to the steadily rising hills. Eventually, the street levelled off and Henshaw began to slip less often on the slick cobblestones. Along the street to his left a long fence of sodden boards appeared, against which figures huddled, singly and in pairs, craning curious eyes from under hat brims and broken brollies. A predatory tone in the scrutiny made Henshaw trot quicker, watching for the cross street.
Suddenly, a flash of lightning flared off a sign of gold letters on a blood-red background running with rain: Chang’s Fortune House. A sense of relief flooded over him as he grasped the shop door’s bronze knocker – a pendulous ring gripped in the fanged maw of a pop-eyed beast – and pounded vigorously. As the echoes died away in the throb of thunder, Henshaw studiously tried not to notice that a single shadow had detached itself from the wall across the way and now stood, expectant, in the middle of the road behind him. He reached for the knocker once more but the door suddenly swung open in a tangle of roaring storm-light, to reveal a hideous visage looming over him:
The face was Oriental, however this fact was low down on the long list of qualities that seared themselves on Henshaw’s consciousness. One cheek displayed the shiny coarsened flesh of an ancient burn, a mark that Henshaw vaguely registered as a Chinese symbol, forming a hideous island in the black wiry hairs that comprised the wearer’s beard. A halo of blue-black hair shot with silver-grey seemed alive from the storm and whitely-pale lips, slightly parted, revealed the dagger-tips of cruelly-filed teeth. Worst of all, though, was the livid, purplish scar that tore through the right side of the face from hairline to collar, stripping away all human features to leave an echo of violence in which a moon-dead, cold, white eye shone with sinister lustre. That this grotesque mockery of a face was perched atop a smart white shirt and tie, nested within a pressed dark suit, only underscored the dreadful savagery of its effect. Stunned by this revelation, Henshaw recoiled from the doorway and the grim vision slipped by him into the drenching rain. Almost missing his opportunity, Henshaw barely stopped the door from slamming fast in his face once more...
Extract from Hott Hedz
He spent the next several weeks at the base camp with Miguel, flying circuits over the jungle and along the wide belt of the river. Occasionally, they hiked into the rough forest, making tentative inroads with the Shuar natives and, just as often, having to flee from them in fear of their lives. On one occasion Miguel returned from a conversation with a remote chieftain with a grisly token.
‘Here,’ he said squatting down by the campfire over which Carl was busy cooking dinner. He tossed a dark object over the flames: it curled through the air, spiralling like a black shuttlecock. Carl caught it in his off-hand and looked closely at it, angling it to catch the light from the fire. It was a shrunken head, eyes and mouth sewn shut, overlarge nose pushed forward in a porcine pout. It sported feathered earrings and an abundance of glossy black hair.
‘Ugh,’ grimaced Carl, his gorge rising, ‘that’s an ugly customer.’
‘You remember the sorcier who brought you back from death? That’s him,’ said Miguel. ‘The warrior I get this from? He says that the old man’s muisak is too powerful for him to hold. So I get this for you, in exchange for a machete.’
Aghast, Carl dropped the head, and it lay on the dug earth at the edge of the fire, its burnished teak-coloured skin shining warmly in the golden light. The rising heat caused wisps of the hair and the garish feathers to stir idly; Carl recognised the pointed bone that speared through the flesh above the mutilated mouth.
‘Christ,’ he gasped, ‘that’s hideous!’ Miguel, helping himself to beans from the pot, shrugged while he chewed.
‘Here, it is normal,’ he said. ‘For 25 Yanqui dollars, you can have one; this far up the river though, they prefer something more useful, like a good knife, or a gun.’
Carl picked the head up by the leather cord that sprouted from amid the hair at the top of the crown. It wobbled slightly, tilting face upwards from the weight of its glossy locks, giving Carl the full force of its oversized features crowded onto a too-small face, a hollow, dried-leather ball no larger than his fist. He put it back down gingerly, away from the danger of the flames.
‘What makes them do that?’ he said turning to Miguel. The tracker shrugged again.
‘They think everyone has a spirit; some are more powerful than others: this means they become big men in their tribes. If you are in another tribe and you want to be a big man, you come and take the spirit of this tribe’s big man: you take his head; then his spirit and your spirit, together they make you more powerful.’
‘That’s insane,’ objected Carl. Miguel, intent on his supper, shrugged dismissively.
‘This is the native way to do things,’ he said...
Extract from Love Song
There is an appeal about working with books. Books are honest; even the tricky detective novels that try and catch you out with their twisty, turning plots. They never change their stories afterwards and their gift is to surprise and delight you. They might fool you once but they remain true ever after.
People, on the other hand, are stupid. They misread things; they deliberately misunderstand things; they make things up. Not only do they fool themselves, they try to fool you too.
‘Hey! I’m looking for a copy of a book my friends told me about - The Girl with the Rose Tattoo; it’s a vampire story set in Germany. Do you have it?’
‘I think you mean The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo...’
‘No, it’s definitely “Rose Tattoo”. It’s really popular: I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it...’
Dusting is important, but so is lifting. People seem to think that working in a bookshop is a life of coffee and reading Dostoevsky with your feet up. Let me tell you it’s not. Books need to be organised; no bookshop worth the name gets by just letting the books fall where they may. Some places claim that they present “eccentric clutter; great for browsing”, but I’m here to tell you that that’s the best way to go out of business fast. Books have to be ordered and arranged, like diamonds on a square of black velvet. You put out the best books; then you fill the spaces with a supporting cast – cheaper editions; vanity press editions; nice copies of other works by the same author – and you must categorise. Once a punter locks into your organisational frame, they are customers for life. I’ve worked places where the “stack ‘em high, watch ‘em fly” belief predominates and, let me tell you, it’s an heretical faith.
Books, fundamentally, despite their content, are heavy. Working in a bookshop you cart them around by armfuls, by boxloads, by the pallet. You disassemble shelves of stock in order to replace those books with newer titles, fresh ideas. Working in a bookshop is about dust, and it’s about sweat; and it doesn’t stop until you do. And all the time there are people:
‘Hello. I wonder if you can help me? I’m looking for a book but I can’t remember the title.’
‘Who is it by?’
‘‘Not sure; but it was very good...’
‘What was it about?’
‘You know, it’s funny, I can’t quite remember. ‘Very nicely written though: I loved the style of it. I think the cover was green...’
The main problem with dealing with people in a bookshop is that they automatically assume that you’re their best friend, that you understand them. They want a book; you find them the book; they think that you’re soul-mates; that you’re both on the same wavelength. There is a comradeship of reading; a meeting of minds in the discovery of a cherished author: it doesn’t mean I want your firstborn. I’m just the facilitator...