I am a writer and shopkeeper, living and working in the beautiful city of York. Over the past twenty years, I have been working on my debut novel, currently being submitted to agencies. In the past couple of years, I have also been writing short stories and have been placed runner-up in two Writing Magazine competitions. I co-write a fortnightly serial, which is published in a Midlands newspaper. I worked in the commercial world for many years, but trained and worked as a teacher, before becoming a shopkeeper. In the past couple of years, I co-founded York Buddhist Centre. I write under the name Jon Markes.
Casting Long Shadows – a novel currently being submitted to agents. The novel deals with the repercussions of a defining moment for the protagonist as a 10-year old, (hence the title), who makes discoveries when returning as an adult to the place of his childhood that challenge everything he has believed about his family and, ultimately, himself.
The latest episode of the serial, Leeford Village. I co-write the serial with Michael Braccia, a Midlands-based author. We write alternate episodes and are not allowed to discuss plot details!
This is a short story that came about following a writing.ie 5-day challenge earlier this year:
The old bookseller has long since passed caring whether there will be any custom; the less he has to do with people, the better. There is the odd local that still passes, knowing better than to engage the bookseller in anything more that polite conversation, who might take a moment to browse in the vain hope that there will be anything new on the shelves. His preference is to sit outside his shop, clothed in layers, whatever the weather. If you were to ask him why (though no-one ever does), he would say it is because the damp oozing from the walls within the shop penetrates his fragile bones. Though this is certainly true, the truth is not absolute.
These days, it is difficult to distinguish between his own smell and the sour, musty odour of the books piled up on every shelf, occupying nearly every inch of floor space. Redundant books, to be read no more if they were ever read at all. The bookseller knows that one day it will be left for someone, God knows who, to pick their way through the chaos, to arrange, to catalogue, to dispose. To discover.
It will be the same when his life is over, maybe soon, and he takes great comfort in knowing he will be dead and no longer answerable. No longer the witness. But he is not thinking those thoughts right now. Right now, he is wearing the look of a man who knows so much, but who says so little. And that is how it has always been, ever since the day he made his escape, taking with him secrets that books are unable to tell.
He reluctantly turns down the corner of the page he is reading, Calvino’s Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, as fascinating as it is impenetrable. The customer who had slipped into the shop from the street ten minutes earlier is flicking through a box of dust covered pamphlets.
‘Can I help you?’ says the bookseller, wearily.
‘You’re the shop owner?’ asks the customer, with a raise of eyebrows. He looks the bookseller up and down.
‘Yes,’ is the resigned reply.
‘Then you might be able to help.’
The bookseller tips his head.
‘I’m looking for a book called Der neue Gesellschaft. By Friedrich Schreiber.’
‘I don’t know the book,’ says the old man, his voice firm. He turns away from the customer and shuffles towards the front of the shop.
‘Perhaps you have a translation? The New Society?’ says the customer.
The old man shakes his head.
‘Do you know the author?’ The customer is following. He has the appearance of a mature student, thinks the old man, or an accountant.
‘No. I have not heard of him.’
The customer frowns.
‘They say he was responsible for the execution of thousands of Jews towards the end of the war.’
The bookseller stops.
‘The Nazi Hunters. They believe he could still be alive. Der neue Gesellschaft is his only work.’
‘”Die”! It’s “Die neue Gesellschaft”!’
‘I thought you didn’t know the book?’
The bookseller walks to front door. He holds onto the frame, looking across the street.
‘Gesellschaft is a feminine noun. It requires die.’
He returns to his seat outside the shop and picks up his book. The customer notices a slight tremor in his hands as he flicks through the pages until he tries to find the one he has turned down.
‘Well, if you do come across…’
The old man waves the customer away, as if he is an irritating moth.
‘Thank you, anyway, sir.’ The customer crosses the road. The bookseller looks up briefly, but the customer is gone.
Later that day the bookseller unlocks a cupboard at the back of the shop, takes out a book, it’s pages yellowed, the cover sun-bleached and torn with only llschaft remaining of the title and drops it in his briefcase. He switches off the lights and turns the sign to CLOSED. He sighs and steps into the street, closing the shop door behind him for the very last time.
He arrives home and drops his briefcase in the hallway. The house is cold. He almost installed central heating some years ago, but decided against it, as he spends most evenings in one room listening to music, or reading before falling asleep in his armchair until the next morning. He flicks the switch of the one bar fire, just enough warmth to take the chill out of the air.
The customer who had come into the shop earlier, enquiring about Die neue Gesellschaft, has unnerved him and, for the first time in forty years, he feels he is in imminent danger. They still think Friedrich Schreiber is alive, he had said. They. The Nazi Hunters. As far as he is concerned, Schreiber died many years ago. He died the day they asked him to record the names of the lines of people filing out of the trains. But he still carried out his duty. He cannot think about them now.
He reaches into a cupboard and takes out a record. He puts the tip of his finger on the face of the lady pictured on the sleeve. She is dressed in an evening gown, just as she was the last time he saw her. He switches on the Dansette and waits until the valve inside glows orange. He puts the record on the turntable and drops the needle. The orchestra plays for sixteen bars and then she sings. And, when she sings it is as though she is singing only to him. The notes soar into the air and, for a moment at least, he is a young man, full of hopes for the future. A writer about to change the world.
The song ends. He can listen no more. He wipes the tears from his eyes. They can take him now. They can take all he has. But they can’t take away the memory of his only love.
He picks up the record sleeve and puts his hand inside. At first, he can feel nothing and a surge of panic rises up into his chest. But the letter has become stuck in the fold and, with a little persuasion, he pulls it out. Zu Friedrich Schreiber, it says on the envelope, addressed to the camp where he was first stationed, near Riga, far away from his home. Far away from her. How she found him, he does not know. He looks at the neat script, the way the ‘i’ curls a little over the top of the adjacent letters. This was the first time she had written to him and it was to be the last. He had hidden the letter underneath his bunk when it arrived, only daring to read its contents when he could be sure the other men were out in the yard, waiting for the next train to arrive. With trembling hands, he had taken out the single sheet of notepaper. After he had read the contents, he sat on his bunk and wept.
He looks at the envelope for a few moments, then replaces it in the record sleeve. He does not need to read the letter. He knows that she, a prominent Jewish singer, would not have survived, but he takes a little comfort in knowing he was not directly responsible for her death. Nor the death of his child, the sex of which he never knew, the existence of which is only recorded in the letter he has kept hidden in a record sleeve for fifty years.
The book lies on the floor. He cannot remember taking out of the briefcase, but he can’t be sure. He’s never sure of anything, these days. He picks it up and puts it on the low table and goes to the kitchen to make himself a drink. It could have been so different, he thinks. Die neue Gesellschaft, the New Society. The whole world might have listened, if only he had published it earlier. Was he naïve, or visionary? Over the years he has vacillated between the two. He still has the dreams for a new society that he had back then, the dreams that were shattered the day he recorded the first person stepping off the train. An old man. Like he is now. Polish. He can no longer remember his name, though he wrote it down, carefully, as it was to be the last record of the man’s existence. He remembers the look of hatred in his man’s eyes. But that is all in the past now. The ability to change the world for the better fell to others, who have been less than successful.
He is about to pour his drink when he hears a knocking. He looks at the clock on the kitchen wall then shuffles to the door. He opens it a little and catches a glimpse of the visitor. It is the customer from the shop, earlier.
‘Mr Schreiber?’ the man enquires, through the gap.
The old bookseller shakes his head.
‘I know who you are, sir. I’m not here to cause you harm. Please let me in.’
The bookseller opens the door and the man steps into the front room. He looks around, as if taking an inventory. He shakes his head as if disapproving of the state of the room, the shabby furnishings, the ill-fitting curtains, the pile of newspapers stacked up against one of the walls: Bild, Die Welt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He sees the record sleeve on the table and picks it up.
‘Don’t touch that!’ shouts the bookseller, reaching for the man’s arm.
‘It’s OK, Friedrich. I know all about her,’ the man says, calmly pointing to the singer on the cover.
‘What do you know?’ asks the bookseller.
The man puts the record down gently on the low table and turns to face the old man. He smiles.
‘I know that this lady is my grandmother.’