Cathy Vella’s New Short Story – WHY?

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Cathy Vella


I sit in my library marvelling at the splendour of its wall-to-wall dark wood shelving and its deep red plush pile.  As I look around, I take comfort in the fact that I am amongst the thousands of books I have collected over the years.  Not one inch of wall space is unused, even the door doubles as shelves, so that when closed, I am totally surrounded by my beautiful books.  I am sitting at my antique solid oak and leather desk with my arms stretched out above two opened books that rest on the leather inlay, my hands are pressed flat against the pages that lie open in front of me.

I close my eyes and take my mind to another place.  I can feel the coolness of the freshly opened book against my fingertips. I sit still until the page warms at my touch, and then I move my fingers ever so slightly to a new spot. I can sit like this for hours.

Books are not allowed into any other room of the house, only here, in my library, and then, only my books. Marion forgets this sometimes and it drives me crazy, it’s not difficult to remember.  Sometimes she’ll lie to me, she will deny vehemently knowledge of any books being elsewhere, when I know she has books in other rooms of the house. I won’t let her get away with it though; I have turned the house upside down before now just to let her know how serious I am about the matter.  Sometimes it isn’t her fault, Jennie will have left one of her college books behind a cushion on the sofa, and once the culprit was a local phone book that had been posted through into the porch.

Marion understood me at first. In fact, she positively loved my little idiosyncrasies in the beginning.  Even though I told her to keep it to herself, as some might think me a little unusual, she just couldn’t help herself.  I’d go along with her sometimes and play her little games of ‘hide’, or ‘guess the book’, as it kept her happy.  Then things changed and those cute little ways that you love at first began to rile me.  I wouldn’t cause a fuss; I’d just escape to my library.  My library was my sanctuary, Marion wasn’t allowed in, even though she occasionally tried to bring me cups of tea or sneak in to clean when I wasn’t there.  So I got a lock fitted and that solved the problem once and for all.

“Why the hell won’t you let me in Leo?”  She would whine, on and on.

“You know why.” I would tell her for the millionth time.

“What difference does it make?”

“I just need my space, can’t you understand that?”  She used to understand, back in the beginning.

I am sure that sometimes she provokes me just for a reaction. I don’t know why she bothers, because I end up angry and she ends up in tears. Then I spend even more time in the library to keep away from the damn woman.  She’s not been so bad lately though, she doesn’t bother me so much.

I have noticed that I need to spend more time with my books; I can understand that Marion might get upset and may be a bit lonely.  Sometimes I feel bad for being so short with her, but it won’t last. I’ll make it up to her soon, when this has passed.  She just has to understand that I need my books right now.  It’s worse now than it’s ever been. I don’t want to burden her with the details. It will pass as it always does. Although this time it feels different.

I have always been unusual. When I was little, my mum and dad struggled with me. I was disruptive. We saw numerous doctors and we also tried counselling.  Being different in school was difficult; being different meant you were bullied.  I tried to fit in but it was exhausting.  I managed to make it through school despite its hardships. I even went onto college and then to university. University was torturous.

The root of my problem was pinpointed when I was about thirteen.  It was my own discovery and I chose not to tell anyone, as I didn’t think anyone would understand, least of all my mum.  I was strange enough in her eyes to start with.

My revelation was probably the one thing that stopped me from going insane.  I can remember the moment clearly.  It was a Saturday afternoon and mum had dragged me out to the shops, despite my pleas that I would die of boredom.  She said the trip would do me good, and I suppose in a way she was right. She was looking for new wallpaper for the dining room, and as Dad was working, I had no choice but to go with her.  I wandered around the shops as she looked at the sample walls.  I saw a huge book full of different types of paper and I suppose boredom led me to open it and touch the pages.

Then something strange happened.

The voices in my head quietened.

I hadn’t noticed they were there until they were gone. I lifted my hand back off the book and waited, slowly the voices returned; whispering voices, overlapping voices, different tones and dialects, different languages all chattering away at the same time, but very quietly.  The voices crept back up on me and returned to their normal volume.  I put my hand back on the tome of wallpaper, it was almost instant, a deafening silence.  I remember looking round to see my mums reaction, I must have thought she could hear it to, but she was busy chatting with the shop assistant.  I put my hand back on the book and stayed like that till my mum prised my hand away to leave the shop.  The voices took all the way to the top of the High street to return.

From then on I developed an obsession with paper. Clean paper, lined or unlined, it didn’t matter, but there could be no words tarnishing the lovely whiteness of the page.  All of my pocket money went on paper.  I found an art shop in town that sold different types of bound jotting books; I would spend hours in there.  Flicking through the smooth white pages of the books made me calmer than I had ever felt before in my life. I would pick up each book in turn, open it, run my hands along the smooth empty page, hold it up to my face and breathe in the newness.  The storekeeper thought I was strange at first but as I became his best customer he didn’t really care about my little quirks anymore. I would leave the shop having bought armfuls of books; I would buy one in each colour.

I would rush home up to my bedroom and flick through the pages again.  The smell of fresh clean paper was intoxicating to me.  Once, after a particularly fruitful journey to the artists shop I rushed home and placed the books out on my bed end to end, each one opened dead centre where the seam lay, and I climbed gently, so as not to crease the pages, on top of them.  My mind took me away and I fell into the deepest most refreshing sleep.  I eventually woke up when my mum barged into my bedroom ranting and questioning as to whether I intended spending the rest of my life in bed. I had been asleep for fifteen hours.

The voices stayed away for a week.  I decided to keep my new discovery a secret.  It stayed a secret for many years until I finally confided in Marion, three days before we got married.  She said that she understood and would stand by be no matter what.  She found it quite a novelty that I could tell her what book she was reading without her showing it to me.  This novelty didn’t wear off for some while for her, for me it was tedious from the beginning.  It used to keep me awake at night when she read, she might as well have been sat next to me reading out loud.  Eventually she agreed to not read her garbage novels in bed.  Then I wouldn’t let her read in the same room, she pretty much gave up reading all together, which suited me.

Everything seemed to be going along just fine, then things changed.  The voices intruded more and more, and I found it harder to concentrate, even holding a conversation with Marion was like being in a crowded bar.  She suggested that I go see a doctor, but I had seen enough doctors.  It would pass; it had done before.  But this time the voices were different, whereby before they would intrude into my life telling me tales of romance, instructions on how to use a mobile phone or how to assemble a shelving unit, the voices now seemed to focus on me; what I had been doing, where I had been, my temperament, even what I had for tea.  I had never been the topic of discussion before and it unnerved me.

So, I escape to my library and sit amongst my books, my sanctuary, my safe cocoon. Surrounded by hundreds of my books, the perfect sound barrier, blocking out the narratives of others lives, cheesy romances and clichéd fiction.  Surrounded by my blank books, collected since my childhood.  I still have the very first one that I bought in the art shop all those years ago.  All my beautiful books, sitting in silence, waiting for the etch of a pen, waiting to be brought to life.  I still take them out in turn and brush my hands across the pages, smell them to see if the aroma of newness has managed to cling to the pages.

I pull out two books from the shelf and take them over to my desk; I open them up and place them in front of me.  I get myself comfortable in my chair and then I place my hands flat on the pages. I close my eyes and take my mind to another place.  I can feel the coolness of the freshly opened book against my fingertips, I sit still until the page warms at my touch then I move my fingers ever so slightly to a new spot.  Normally I can sit like this for hours.

why..why..whywhywhywhy…. began the whispering in my head.

I turn the pages and place my hands down again.

….WHY WHY WHY…, round and round the voice moves inside my head, I can feel the words bouncing around behind my closed eyes. I pull my hands off the pages and I can still hear the low repetitive moan,

– w  h  y?……

I throw the books to the floor and rush to the shelves to get two more, but the voice has its grip and it’s not letting go.  I can almost recognise it. I pause to listen, but as I hold my breath and concentrate, it stops.  With every book I pull from the shelf the voice is there mocking me


I frantically grab at each book in turn, my beautiful books that have provided me with solace over the years, NOW they turn against me.

whywhywhywhy they whisper over and over and over and over whywhywhywhy.

I run around the room listening for a glimmer of hope but my books offer me nothing. I find the first, my very first book, now battered, the pages no longer perfectly white, the smell of newness is long gone and has been replaced with mustiness. I flick through the pages searching for the answer, then I spot it,

a single word,

tiny, in black ink,

I recognise her handwriting instantly.

My head feels as if it is about to implode and the room closes in on me… I run to the shelves to hold on… to touch my books…I am off the ground scrambling up the shelving… books fly past my face and everything collapses around me as I hear the solitary word pass my lips.


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