'To John From
It was written, exactly like that, in the front of a book I'd just bought. I hadn't even realised it at the time; I was in the charity shop, one of a few nearby, with a couple of friends who were looking for furniture. I'd wandered into the book section and spotted something unfamiliar by Brian Aldiss in amongst the crumpled kings, the coverless Crichtons and the forgotten romance novels. The title was unfamiliar, the spine undamaged and it didn't smell of smoke, so I picked it up on a whim. It wasn't until I got home and checked when it was released that I noticed the dedication, scrawled in blue biro.
Had anyone else bought this, they wouldn't have thought twice about it, and might even have been glad of it as it might have lowered the price a fraction. But I'm not anyone else. I'm part of a book club, the Woodpulp Irregulars.
Well, that's what we call ourselves, anyway. It's really not as cool as it (hopefully) sounds, it's just a few guys and girls who meet in the back of a bookstore called Woodpulp every week or so to watch movies and talk about books. Woodpulp is a great little store, but it's slowly losing ground against chain stores and the internet. As for the Irregulars... we started out when the store's owner, Mike, put a few regular customers (me included) in contact with each other, and over the past couple years the five of us have become quite close friends.
The book I'd purchased from the charity shop stayed in my pocket for a few days, along with a few crumpled receipts and used train tickets (I do a lot of travelling for work) and a little loose change. It was still there on Tuesday night as I walked into Woodpulp. Mike, the owner, was just closing up as I arrived, and followed me through to the back, taking his usual seat in the slightly worn leather chair. Looking around, I saw the others were all here, so I pulled out the book, stuffed some of the debris that came with it back into my pocket, and set it down on the table.
'Ooh, that's a good one,' said Mike. 'Aldiss has some excellent poetry.' Mike knows his stuff about British authors, and I was even more glad that I'd picked it up.
'I never much cared for that one,' added Eliška, who was sitting cross-legged in front of the dark blue sofa. This didn't surprise me; she and I had superficially similar tastes, but to her there was a clear distinction: I preferred western works, the likes of Bradbury, Vonnegut and Le Guin; she preferred the works of Lem, Zematyin and Karinthy.
'There's a dedication,' I said. '"To John From Frank." Written in biro, and with "Frank" on a new line.' There was a pause as Lockwood (he insists we use his surname, and if I had a surname like that I'd probably want people to use it as much as possible) picked it up and examined it for any other marks, any other signs of a personal touch.
'So?' he eventually concluded.
'Well, don't you guys wonder who they were? Why the dedication is so curiously impersonal?' I asked.
'I wasn't,' said Eliška.
'But you are now?' asked Anna, leaning forward in the smaller of the two armchairs. Eliška nodded.
'The way I see it,' started Anna, the two of them were in the military...'
'They were on tour together, holed up somewhere in the middle east. John was a career military man, an officer but a fairly low ranking one, and Frank was an enlisted, the kind of guy who joins out of boredom more so than anything else, passes the physical and heads out there. They served together; saw the worst of humanity and the best of humanity and a whole lot of sand. Then everything turned sour.
'Something happened to Frank. He got hurt in the field and ended up losing a leg. He shipped back home, but remembered his old comrades, John in particular.
'John was a good guy, but he tended to refer to people by rank rather than name if they were in his unit. That was his only real character flaw, but he had a sense of humour about it. So, when Frank picked this up, he referred to his old comrade tersely and by name, reasoning that he was no longer in the military and therefore no longer had to.
'A few days after he sent it, of course, he received an invitation to the funeral of one Frank Something-or-other. The book was sent out and returned by the others he knew after a night of reminiscing, and ended up in the possession of his family. The owners ended up taking it to the charity shop, not knowing the significance, and it came into your hands.'
'So? What did you guys think?' She finished.
'You've been watching too much M*A*S*H,' Lockwood quipped. 'But in all seriousness that does make sense... no loose ends, and I suppose the military is like that?'
'Come to think of it, my frame of reference is outdated,' Anna replied.
'Yeah, I don't know anything about that kind of thing,' I said.
'Does anyone know anything about modern military life?' asked Mike. There was an awkward silence as we sat there thinking, broken after a few seconds by a knock on the front door. Mike left, returning with a few boxes of pizza. There was a rush to grab slices of the meat feast, and as we sat devouring Italian food Mike spoke up again.
'What if,' he said between mouthfuls, 'they were stepfather and stepson?'
'Frank wasn't John's real father, and their relationship was always strained because of it. He never quite knew how to act around the youth, and before he knew it John wasn't a youth at all. Birthdays and Christmas were always awkward, boiling down to an exchange of socks, cards and awkward silences.
'Eventually, John's mother took pity on her lover, and gave him something to give the man she considered to be their son (as John's real father hadn't been around much). He had one job: to write some kind of dedication, something meaningful, and he wrote what we now see before us, really not knowing enough to write more. John was mature enough to appreciate the effort, but he found the book to be underwhelming. He blamed Frank for this, not really knowing it was his mother who bought it, but kept it out of respect for his mother more than any goodwill towards Frank. He read it once or twice, being careful to keep it in the best possible condition, and then it stayed on a shelf, untouched, for years. Then things turned sour between his mother and Frank, and they moved out in a hurry, leaving a few things behind... the book included. Frank read it and didn't much care for it, and decided to sell it.
'John, a few weeks after all this, in fact after his mother moved on, happened to see it in the very charity shop you bought it from. He looked at it, considered it... and ultimately left it behind, deciding the time he spent with Frank was best forgotten.'
We all sat staring at our pizzas for a moment. Anna looked like she was about to cry; that said, she's the kind of person who cries at the end of most movies, no matter how many times she sees them. Lockwood looked a little more composed, and Eliška was nodding politely, deep in thought.
'Yeah, that's possible. Nice touch with the ending, with John finding it and leaving it, I wouldn't have thought to do that,' I said.
'Maybe not, but I've had a couple more years of writing experience. Keep at it and your plot sense will start pointing this sort of thing out to you.'
'What if they were in a cult?' Eliška asked.
Now, this may take a little explanation. Eliška was raised on the likes of Yefremov and the Strugatsky Brothers, from a young age. While other kids fell asleep to bowdlerised retellings of Grimm, she nodded off to Roadside Picnic, uncut and uncensored. As a result, she... tends to make connections others don't.
'Interesting idea,' I said, eliciting a chorus of nods. 'Care to elaborate?'
'Frank was the founder; John was one of the first members. They slowly grew in membership, and--'
'What did they worship?' asked Lockwood.
'They don't have to worship anything,' replied Eliška.
'Sure they do!'
'Project Mayhem didn't worship anything, and they were a cult,' argued Mike.
'That was fictional,' Lockwood responded.
'Well, so is this, for all we know,' I added.
Presently, Eliška continued.
'So, as I was saying, they slowly grew in membership to the point where they had their own little community, somewhere rural... maybe near Cornwall. Frank set things up there out of convenience, but John grew to like the area. So, they expanded, ending up with their own little shanty town in the middle of the countryside. John really looked up to Frank... and then things turned sour.
'Frank wanted to change things. They'd amassed a fairly sizeable following, and he wanted to go from Fight Club to Project Mayhem.'
(Eliška looked pointedly at Lockwood.)
'So, Frank wanted to make a statement, but his most trusted men, John included, might not be open to the idea. So he decided to butter them up a little, buy them a few gifts over a period of a couple weeks, make them a little more open to his cause.
'The very book that now sits on Mike's coffee table is one of these gifts.
'But John wasn't won over, unlike the others. Frank and his veritable army of cultists marched south, and left John behind. Had it been anyone else, they might not have lived to tell the tale; Frank still cared enough for John to let him out.
'So this left John alone, in a shanty town somewhere near Cornwall. He took the few possessions he had with him, but a few months later, he re-read this, forgetting where he originally got it.
'He read the dedication, and his time with Frank came flooding back. It was a part of his life he didn't want to be reminded of... and so he took it to a charity shop, to a new owner who wouldn't have such memories to associate with it.'
'Yeah,' said Anna, 'I can see that.'
'But why the terse dedication?' asked Mike, smiling.
'Frank wrote that after handling several other gifts for his other trusted, over a period of a few days. Give the guy a break; he was tired after all that,' Eliška explained.
'Okay, maybe... but I'm still not so sure about the cult thing,' stated Lockwood. 'Still, I can't help but notice...'
'Yes?' asked Mike.
'All three of our stories so far have had John and Frank in a father and son dynamic of some sort,' Lockwood said. 'Allow me to offer my take on it.'
'We may be in for another Classic Lockwood Moment here, guys!' said Eliška, feigning excitement.
'What if John and Frank were gay?' asked Lockwood.
'Told you!' said Eliška cheerfully.
'Okay, the Artful Dodger? Maybe. Iago? Very probable. Dorian Grey? Naturally. Christian Grey? You were quite convincing about. But John and Frank? I don't see it,' Mike explained.
'Wait, Christian Grey?' asked Anna.
'Oh, yeah, you were on holiday for that one,' I said, thinking back to a night full of awful whiskey and even worse literature. 'What was your reasoning for that again, Lockwood?'
'Oh, let me think...' he started.
'His abusive relationship with the novel's not-actually-all-that-bland protagonist is his sublimation of his negative feelings towards women in general and symbolic of his repressed sexuality,' stated Eliška.
'Ah, cheap shots at an easy target,' I mused.
'You remembered all that?' asked Lockwood.
'Sure I do!' she replied quietly, blushing a little.
'Actually, I think Lockwood may be onto something with this,' stated Mike, reaching for the last slice of pizza. 'Does anyone mind?' he asked, and was met with a chorus of 'not at all' and 'go ahead.
'Anyway, back to the point I was making,' Lockwood started.
'John and Frank met somewhere up north. John lived out that way; Frank was up there on business. So Frank, after a long day at work, walks into a bar, not even bothering to change out of his suit first. John is sat at a booth by himself, a bottle on his hand and four empties on the table. Now, Frank is smooth, and a couple years John's senior. He sidles up, takes a seat and effortlessly strikes up a conversation, waiting for him to buy another drink and asking if that's his only 6-pack. John isn't taken in by this just yet, but he laughs at it, a little drunkenly.'
'A little?' asked Eliška.
'Not all of us are as much of a lightweight as you are,' replied Lockwood.
'Lightweight? I'm half Russian, I can handle more alcohol than the rest of you put together!'
'Well, I'm assuming you usually choose not to.'
'What do you mean?'
'I've seen your drunk texts, Miss Novaček. I don't know what "Ypu are my Londsah-sjaoed frienx" means, but I'm assuming you do.'
For the second time this evening, Eliška turned red.
'So, Frank had a few drinks of his own, and they get to talking. Turns out John is having one last night out, alone, before he moves over to right here, same neighbourhood as Frank, one of those cheap student-y houses.
'So Frank sees his chance, and he takes it, offers to give John the grand tour. Moving day comes and goes, and Frank gets an invite to John's housewarming. The two of them get drunk, Frank meets John's family and they get along great. Ending up together like they did was sort of inevitable.
'Everything went great for a few months, but then John starts to want Frank to be around more. Thing is, Frankie boy still has to travel for his job, and Johnny boy isn't so keen on that.
'Frankie boy and Johnny boy?' snorted Eliška.
'Throw a little variety into the syntax; I find my work reads better when I avoid repeating the same words and phrases every single time,' Lockwood responded.
'You tend to get a little carried away with it,' Anna giggled. 'That one about the sprinter, I had to start keeping a list of names. It worked out at five per character!'
'Okay, okay, maybe I do get a little carried away sometimes,' blushed Lockwood.
'So, anyway, things turned sour, and they parted on good terms. They tried to stay in touch, but Frank's work kept taking him further and further from home, and the short, awkward text messages, the missed calls, the emails without responses just kept piling up, and eventually...
'John's birthday was coming up. Frank remembered him talking about Aldiss, and picked up the book, hoping it would make a good present.
'So, the big day arrives. John and Frank both get a little tipsy, and... Relive the good old days, so to speak. So the next morning, they wake up beside one another, surrounded by empty bottles. Frank is the first up, and he starts cleaning the place, not really remembering the night before... but then John gets up, and their eyes meet, and everything comes flooding back to the both of them.
'And so their neighbours, both sides, are woken up by a spectacular row, Frank leaves, never to return, and moves away with work. So, John is cleaning up, picking up where Frank left off, and he comes across an unopened gift. Nothing big, about the size of a paperback book.
'Excitedly, he tears off the paper. Aldiss isn't his favourite author, but he's been meaning to pick this up. So he opens it... and he sees the dedication.
'He leaves the house a mess, heading for the charity shop that very morning. With those words still in the house, with the legacy of Frank hanging over his head, he just couldn't focus. He returns home, his mind clear, to finish cleaning the place up.'
Once again, Anna was on the verge of tears. Eliška handed her an unused napkin, just in case, before she spoke.
'I admit you might just have something there... Lindsay.' Lockwood turned to her and scowled. He wasn't all that embarrassed about his first name, but he still didn't like it being used.
'Well, the way I see it all this is about offering a completely different take on things, isn't it?' he asked.
'That's a good way of looking at it,' Mike replied. I nodded, seeing the others do the same.
'So,' I said, 'I suppose that just leaves my version of events, yes?'
'John and Frank had grown up together; done everything together; even gone after the same girls at times. Not a day went by that they didn't wish they were twins, just so they could switch places for the fun of it. Frank was the older of the two, but only by a year or so. He wasn't actually planned, but he never found out.
'So, there's this girl, right? They both have feelings for her, but neither of them have the confidence to say anything this time, to her or to each other. Each of them notices the other avoiding the issue whenever girls are brought up, and they end up spurring each other on, driving each other to try and impress the girl.
'But John realises something. He hates to admit it, but he realises Frank is better for her; he can't drive, but Frank can, and the girl isn't as local as she once was. So he backs down, she chooses his brother over him... and Frank is uncharacteristically harsh about it, rubbing John's nose in it at every opportunity.
'But while Frank spent the weekend in this woman, this wonderful, perfect woman's arms, he realises how much of a jerk he's been. He leaves early, during the night, and buys John a gift, writing a short dedication, not quite knowing what to say. But the night is dark, the roads slippery... and his little car rolls. Nobody finds him until morning, out on those country roads... John is called, as is the girl; the latter gets there first, but there's no life left in him now. She sees John, but... she can only think of Frank, and so she decides to move on to someone new. The book went unnoticed, stashed away under the passenger seat, and was donated carelessly to the charity shop. They didn't even know the meaning behind the gift; the emotions behind the dedication.'
It was a good thing Anna had those napkins.
'Wow,' Eliška said bluntly.
'That was a harsh one,' murmured Lockwood.
'Not my best work,' I said; 'It doesn't really pass the Sexy Lamp Test.'
'The word I'd use was Moffat-esque,' said Lockwood. 'The girl was a little one-dimensional, and someone we cared about died.'
'And there's your cheap shot of the evening,' Eliška mused.
'Wait,' I said, 'we care about them?'
'We've just spent the evening talking about them, Connor,' said Mike. 'Of course we care about them!'
'Anyone else want to know what really happened?' asked Eliška. We all sat there silently for a moment, considering it.
'Yeah, I'm curious,' I said.
'I wasn't before, but I am now,' added Eliška.
'I just don't want it to end like your version of events, Connor,' Anna replied.
'Honestly?' asked Lockwood. 'I'm happy not knowing. The important thing here isn't what's true and what isn't; it's what we choose to believe about them.'
'I'm with Lockwood on this one,' finished Mike.
Three for and two against. I went back to the charity shop the next day, asking about the book. The cashier seemed disinterested, until I told them about the dedication.
'Interesting,' she said. 'I can see why you want to know more... although I'm afraid it'll have to remain one of life's little-- hold on. I think...'
'Yes?' I said, excitedly.
'I remember this! It came in about a week ago, in with a box of various other things. I probably wouldn't have remembered it, if it wasn't for the label gun being empty when I tried to put a pricetag on this one. The guy who brought it all in seemed to be real broken up about it...'
'Thank you so much, I think that's enough to work on,' I said. 'One more thing, though: Do you remember when it happened?'
'Oh, let me think... a couple weeks ago, give or take a day or two?'
'Brilliant, that should save me a lot of time!' I exclaimed, practically running from the shop.
I entered the library, and went looking for the records section. It took me a whole afternoon of searching through the papers before I found it: an obituary for one Frank Carter, survived by two people identified only as John and Millie.
After that, it took me a little longer to track them down. But I did it, ended up standing outside a house in a fairly out-of-the-way part of town, not quite student-y but within the same price range. I knocked, and the door was answered by a little girl, no older than six. Could Frank have been her brother? Could they have been father and son after all?
'Who is it, Millie?' boomed a voice from within.
'I don't know him, daddy, but he looks real sad about something.'
Presently, an ageing man stepped into the doorway, placing a hand on the little girl's shoulder.
'John?' I asked hopefully.
'How do you know my name?' he replied.
'I know Frank. Sort of.'
'I... I suppose I have some explaining to do,' I said.
'Well, there's no sense in doing it out there in the cold, lad! Come on in, I'll put the kettle on,' he said, still sounding cautious.
He put the kettle on before asking me to wait downstairs while he put Millie to bed. I sipped at my scalding hot tea as I heard him read her a bedtime story (bowdlerised Grimm, not Strugatsky). After a few minutes, I heard the words 'happily ever after,' followed by the sound of footsteps.
'So... how did you know Frank?' he asked.
I talked through the events of a few nights ago, both of us on the verge of tears for most of it. Finishing finally with my return visit to the charity shop, he asked, 'Do you still have the book with you?'
I laid it on the table by way of response.
'My, my...' he said. 'I never expected to see this again.'
'Why did you...'
'Give it away?'
I nodded. 'Yeah, that's what was puzzling us.'
'Ah, and what solutions you found. Frank would've liked that... he was always such a storyteller. I don't know whether you heard me earlier, but I... I just don't compare to him, and Millie knows it. She doesn't let on, though, but... a father knows these things.'
'Frank was always more of a poet, though... That's how we met, you know. He used to perform at a little cafe in the middle of London. I was a regular there, and we started talking after his shows, and... slowly, it became more than that.
'Oh, I'm so sorry, the book. Well... Frank... it was the big "C". He willed all his possessions and most of his money to a cancer charity. He left Millie and I plenty enough, of course. The book got mixed in with his possessions, I suppose. He was always more of an Aldiss fan, was Frank.'
'And the dedication?' I asked hopefully.
'Ah, yes... Frank's poetry flowed beautifully, but he could never find the words around me.'
'Thank you, by the way,' John said. 'For taking the time to find me, for sharing this with your book club... Millie, bless her heart, isn't old enough to fully understand all this. It's been good to have someone to talk to about Frank.'
'Did he not have a family?' I asked.
'Maybe somewhere, but they never got on. Not since he came out to them... poetry started out as his escape from all that, and it became his life. He never made much money, but I loved him all the same.
'Well, it's getting late,' he concluded. 'I hope I'm not keeping you from anything.'
'Actually, I have work tomorrow,' I said, standing up to leave. John rose to his feet, picking up the book, and made to hand it to me.
'Keep it,' I said. 'However much it means to me and my book club, it means so much more to you.'
I thanked him for the tea, he thanked me for listening, and I left for home.