Sally Hardy

The Cull

It was quiet at first. Quiet in the deserted book shop, while the thousands of stories and their billions of words waited to see if the humans had definitely left for the night. It had happened before you see, where just as the books began to relax and ease out of their jackets, a pesky shop assistant had burst back inside to retrieve a forgotten bag, or to phone a boyfriend who was late to pick them up. It was always better to be safe than sorry.

But tonight there was an edge to the silence – a tension not usually present in the peaceful darkness of after hours. For somewhere deep in the spines of every book, was a painful awareness of what lay in wait for them tomorrow …

It was Cloudy who spoke first – or perhaps whimpered would be a better word. From where she sat on the second shelf of ‘Gift’, she stared straight down onto the spectre of the empty trolley waiting far too eagerly in front of ‘Fiction’, like a Hearse awaiting a funeral. She knew she ought to be strong, that they were depending on each other for strength to get through the night … but it was all she could do to keep from leaping off the bookcase, and a gentle sob escaped from her soft, unturned pages.

Almost instantly, a round of soothing words came to comfort her from a family of Mother’s Day books on the shelf below. But somehow the reassurance that “everything would be alright dear” just wasn’t ringing true for Cloudy tonight. The fact was, come the morning, every book with a price tag indicating it had been on the shelf for three months or more would be culled … ripped from the shelf, piled ignominiously onto the trolley and taken upstairs to that mysterious place from which no book ever returns.

All sorts of rumours abounded about exactly what fate laid in store for those unlucky enough to join the ranks of the culled. Generally accepted as the worst of these possibilities was the rumour that they would be recycled – a euphemism for torn to pieces, shredded, mulched and combined with other mutilated books from every genre, to create a new story.

Though it was not politically correct to acknowledge out loud, Cloudy had long suspected that what scared the books most about this particular idea, was the prospect of blending with the other genres. There was a definite class system and an extraordinary level of intellectual snobbery in the microcosm of the bookshop – it was simply humiliating for a 700 page, high-brow book about Post Modern Aesthetics, who had spent his whole life on the top shelf of ‘Non Fiction’, to realise that in the eyes of the human seller he was no more nor less than a tawdry paperback fiction. No matter what the book, if it hadn’t sold, it was worth only as much as the paper it was printed on.

For Cloudy the nightmare was different. The worst eventuality she could imagine was simply to be packed back inside a box, and kept there in a state of permanent storage for an eternity of nothingness. To her this would be a fate worse than death by recycling, for it would mean that her story would never, ever be told.

The desire to be told was an overwhelming passion that only new stories like Cloudy understood. Classics of literature, poetry and academia alike, took this simple joy for granted. Books such as Oliver Twist and Lord of the Rings were born with a story memory – an unwavering sense of identity and raison d’etre, borne of having been told for generations already. The worst a new edition of a Dickens novel would ever have to put up with would be an impatient set of illustrations, or an overly eager introduction.

In any case, Cloudy never worried about mixing with the other genres, for they were all foreign to her. And to them, she would always be an outsider. As it stood, she had spent time in four different sections of the bookshop already. The humans simply didn’t know how to classify her. Of course, partly this was due to her beautiful but ambiguous title – her full name being: If clouds have edges, then maybe love that rains does too, or maybe just like mist it drifts away … (Though to be fair, the latter half of this was more of a sub-title, and written in a much smaller font).

When she was initially priced and received, by a part-time employee who had not read a book since she was sixteen years old, Cloudy was classified as a Romance – without so much as her blurb being consulted – simply because she had the word ‘love’ in her title. She had spent a long and trying month among the flashy members of popular fiction, with their gaudy covers and incessant chatter (most of which she found to have no foundation whatsoever in truth) … after which a well-meaning manager had moved her to ‘Self Help’.

Having found her fallen to the floor and open to a page bearing a somewhat inspirational passage, he had made the instant assumption that she was one of the new wave of self-motivating books flooding the market at the time. And so she had spent two weeks immersed in American accents, which constantly gave her unwanted advice about how to realise her full potential, or how to become a best seller in six easy steps.

Ironically, the pushiness of the various books urging her to assert herself on either side of her shelf, had ultimately sent her over the edge … and so a kindly customer had found her, once more fallen to the floor.

This time it was the occasional rhyming in her words to which Cloudy owed her misdiagnosis. When the sweet old lady read on her thirteenth page …

I live to love,
I live to lie on beds of roses spilt
In petal rain upon the silk of Earth’s green grassy quilt,

naturally she had assumed that Cloudy belonged in the poetry section. (Although she did think seriously about the Gardening Section for a good couple of minutes before that.)

And there she had remained, on Poetry’s one crowded shelf, until such time as she was moved to make way for a big stack of Shakespeare’s Sonnets – newly released in a leather bound edition. For want of somewhere else to put her, it had been decided at this point that Cloudy should be moved to her current home – the ‘Gift’ section.

‘Gift’ was the home of every book that had ever suffered from a genre-identity crisis, or a multiple-genre disorder. There were feel-good books with photographs of animals doing ridiculous and adorable things. There were funny, pocket-sized books with fart jokes and people pulling fart faces in the most inappropriate situations. There were books of meditations, books of quotes, books of ideas for wedding gifts … and then there was Cloudy.

It was no wonder that the humans didn’t know what to do with her. Cloudy was a literal outpouring of one person’s thoughts onto paper. It was as though her writer had been turned upside down and shaken, his words and images landing on pages at random. Sometimes they had landed in simple statements that sat smack bang in the middle of the page – such as “People like him look ridiculous in suits” (p.24). Others took the form of poetry, prose or even beautifully hand drawn illustrations. There was no more rhyme or reason to Cloudy’s pages than there was to her writer’s subconscious – which is precisely what made her both impossible to define and a story well worth telling.

On the eve of this particular cull, everyone in Gift was quaking with fear. For while most other sections had at least some classics, immune to culling because of the constant demand for their stories, there were no such folk in ‘Gift’. And so Cloudy spent what she felt sure to be her last night on the shelf, sobbing in harmony with the hotch potch of souls surrounding her, who shared her plight.

Some attempts to comfort her were made from throughout the store. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, for instance, pleaded for calm and acceptance of the natural order of things. Being culled, he said, was as normal and natural a part of life as being printed … but somehow neither that, nor the calls from The Life of Che Guevara about the honour of martyrdom, did anything to ease their pain.

And then, when the morning finally arrived and brought with it the workers for the day, any last glimmer of hope the books may have had for survival was extinguished. For they discovered it was Sally – the most ruthless of all the full-timers – in whose hands their precarious futures lay.

Sally had not always managed to evoke fear and trembling in the books – there had actually been a time, long ago, when this young lady had been a friend of theirs. In fact it was her love of stories that had brought her to work in the bookshop in the first place.

In the beginning she had seemed like an angel, always singing Simon and Garfunkle softly as she shelved, and making a point to familiarise herself with every story before finding a place for it to stay. She had loved nothing more, in those days, than seeing the right book go home with the right reader.

But that was a long time ago now. There had been six months and Christmas shopping since then, and Sally was a changed person. Gone was the sweet girl with the romantic notion that working among books would inspire her to her own literary heights. In her place was a woman whose endless hours on her feet, and constant dealing with customers who were never right (but who invariably wanted complimentary gift wrapping), more often than not left her too drained of energy to write a single word of her own.

Sally was bitter. The books that surrounded her every day were a constant reminder of what she had not achieved, and she held them entirely responsible. And whereas the first time she had been forced to cull she had fought to give every book extra time on the shelf if she could, now the months of retail and trying to squeeze new books onto already overcrowded shelves had taken their toll … now Sally actually enjoyed culling. The thought of this made Cloudy and the others sick to their bindings.

But right from the moment she walked in the door singing, there was something different about Sally today. Normally the first thing she did was to yawn, slumping in her shoes as she made some exasperated comment about the number of books waiting to be put away. “It’s endless”, she would say. Or, “What’s the point? People will just buy them and then we’ll have to put more away … ” But today she actually skipped to the counter and called out to every individual member of staff, wishing them a good morning, and virtually shouted about how beautiful the day was. Something was wrong.

For a very brief moment Cloudy actually let herself believe that this might be a good sign – until the horrible realisation set in. Sally was this happy because she knew that today, instead of squishing books onto the shelves and constantly rearranging stacks to make them fit, she would be tearing them off and sending them to their mysterious deaths.

Cloudy felt like a fool. What had she been thinking? That this bitter bundle of frustration might by some miracle have become a booklover again overnight? Hardly likely. No, Sally was just showing her true colours by delighting in the anticipation of what she was about to embark on.

Yet even for Sally, Cloudy thought, this was almost too horrible to be true. Especially now that she was actually sitting on top of the trolley, swinging her legs like a little girl in time to the music she had playing.

And what was this? From what Cloudy could see, peering out from her tightly closed covers, it looked like Sally and the dreaded trolley were headed straight for ‘Gift’ … This was unheard of. Culling always began in ‘Popular fiction’.

“Not yet!” thought Cloudy. “I’m not ready to go yet … ”

It was too late. Not only had Sally and the culling trolley scooted straight to what was normally the last section to go, but also she had made a beeline for Cloudy herself, and with one swift pluck Cloudy felt her slender self whisked from the shelf for the very last time. Closing her covers so she could not see what was going to happen to her, she tried to be strong. She prayed and prayed that Harry Potter, sitting perched all high and mighty on the top shelf of ‘Top Ten’, would see fit to cast a spell and save her. She grit her leaves and waited to be plonked on the trolley of death.

But what was this? Cloudy knew this feeling – it was wonderful! For the first time since publication she felt the glorious, tingling sensation of her pages being turned … and not just being turned, but being touched, tenderly and with a curious affection. As the fresh air breezed through her soul from cover to cover, Cloudy almost overflowed with pleasure. If she wasn’t mistaken, she was being read … by Sally!

Everything happened so quickly from that point, it was all a bit of a blur for Cloudy. The next thing she knew, she was in Sally’s hands and standing by the front counter. She had no idea what was happening, but she tried as hard as she could not to get her fragile hopes up too far.

And then it happened. Cloudy heard the magic words she had been waiting to hear since the day she was published, and knew that the Mother’s day Books had been right. Everything would be all right! In fact, everything would be perfect.

“I’m going to buy this book”, Sally said, beaming at her middle-aged workmate. “It’s beautiful, and I deserve a treat.”

“Why’s that?” the disinterested woman replied, counting bookmarks into piles of twenty-five. Cloudy could not believe what she was hearing.

“Because I got in! I finished my story on the weekend. I got into that writing course … I’m going to be a writer!”

And with that, Cloudy felt the exhilaration of her price tag being removed, and waited with joyous anticipation to begin the next chapter of her life. Finally, she was going to be told.

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