Not for the first Tuesday in your life, you are making circuits of the park in search of an acceptable bench. Your criteria is modest but complicated: the bench must be empty, it can’t have any rainwater on the slats, it mustn’t be too close to the road or a bin or the entrance or the playground or those noisy office workers, and it should provide a decent view of the sloping green that would have entertained your lunch break if only it hadn’t rained earlier. It is not too much to ask for, you think.
The sandwich in your bag provides a sense of purpose that has otherwise eluded you all day, and soon you find a decent bench. As you unwrap tinfoil with one hand you attempt to hold your book with the other. You haven’t read enough for the pages to be evenly distributed, however, and the unread mass pulls the book out from your fingers, whereupon it falls to the ground with a wet thump. Suppressing a sigh, you tuck your head between your knees and look beneath the bench.
Apparently your book has made a friend, as another book sits beside it. You retrieve both items and turn your attention to the interloper. There is little to go on: no dust jacket, no credited author, no blurb, no indication of when it was published or even by whom. You briefly wonder if it’s a prop or a fake book from a furniture store when you locate the title page. The book, it says, is called Life and How to Live it.
With your curiosity piqued and your sandwich liberated from its aluminium prison, you decide to read the first paragraph. To your astonishment, it describes the exact circumstances of your birth. The opening chapter, in fact, covers the period up until your first day of nursery school. The book shakes in your hands as you skim ahead. It reads like a biography but includes details held only by you – sharp, fleeting embarrassments that no-one else would remember and that you can’t forget.
The years sprint by, a blur of anxiety, laughter and inclement weather, until you reach a passage in which you enter a park at lunchtime and look for a bench. As a gasp gets no further than your throat, you slam the book shut like a demonic spirit is about to escape from it.
Maybe this is apt: you have no idea how the book came into existence but feel certain that you weren’t meant to read it. Even your vague awareness of how far through you are seems like life-warping information to possess. How many more chapters are there? How does it end? You push the thought away but others take its place. What if you were to read ahead? Not the whole thing, perhaps, but it might be comforting to see what’s just around the corner, or to find out whether you will get to where you want to go. You scrape a thumb across the breadth of your life, your sandwich forgotten and already starting to stale.
What is the title of the book’s current chapter, and what do you do next?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four.