The Museum of Literary Souls (A Short Story)

BOOK: The Museum of Literary Souls (A Short Story)
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John Connolly

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2013 John Connolly

All rights reserved.

No part of this work may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by StoryFront, Seattle

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and StoryFront are trademarks of
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eISBN: 9781477869437

Cover design by Inkd


Let us begin with this: to those looking at his life from
without, it would have seemed that Mr. Berger led a dull existence. In fact,
Mr. Berger himself might well have concurred with this view.

He worked for the housing department of a minor English
council, with the job title of closed accounts registrar. His task from year to
year entailed compiling a list of those who had either relinquished or
abandoned the housing provided for them by the council, and in doing so had
left their accounts in arrears. Whether a week’s rent was owed, or a month’s, or
even a year’s (for evictions were a difficult business and had a habit of
dragging on until relations between council and tenant came to resemble those
between a besieging army and a walled city), Mr. Berger would record the sum in
question in a massive leather-bound ledger known as the Closed Accounts
Register. At year’s end he would then be required to balance the rents received
against the rents that should have been received. If he had performed his job
correctly, the difference between the two sums would be the total amount
contained in the register.

Even Mr. Berger found his job tedious to explain. Rare was
it for a cab driver, or a fellow passenger on a train or bus, to engage in a
discussion of Mr. Berger’s livelihood for longer than it took for him to
describe it. Mr. Berger didn’t mind. He had no illusions about himself or his
work. He got on perfectly well with his colleagues and was happy to join them
for a pint of ale—but no more than that—at the end of the week. He contributed
to retirement gifts and wedding presents and funeral wreaths. At one time it
had seemed that he himself might become the cause of one such collection, for
he entered into a state of cautious flirtation with a young woman in accounts.
His advances appeared to be reciprocated, and the couple performed a mutual
circling for the space of a year until someone less inhibited than Mr. Berger
entered the fray, and the young woman, presumably weary of waiting for Mr.
Berger to breach some perceived exclusion zone around her person, went off with
his rival instead. It says much about Mr. Berger that he contributed to their
wedding collection without a hint of bitterness.

His position as registrar paid neither badly nor
particularly well but enough to keep him clothed and fed, and maintain a roof
above his head. Most of the remainder went on books. Mr. Berger led a life of
the imagination, fed by stories. His flat was lined with shelves, and those
shelves were filled with the books that he loved. There was no particular order
to them. Oh, he kept the works of individual authors together, but he did not
alphabetize, and neither did he congregate books by subject. He knew where to
lay a hand on any title at any time, and that was enough. Order was for dull
minds, and Mr. Berger was far less dull than he appeared. (To those who are
themselves unhappy, the contentment of others can sometimes be mistaken for
tedium.) Mr. Berger might sometimes have been a little lonely, but he was never
bored and never unhappy, and he counted his days by the books that he read.

I suppose that, in telling this tale, I have made Mr. Berger
sound old. He was not. He was thirty-five and, although in no danger of being
mistaken for a matinée idol, was not unattractive. Yet perhaps there was in his
interiority something that rendered him if not sexless, then somewhat oblivious
to the reality of relations with the opposite sex, an impression strengthened
by the collective memory of what had occurred—or not occurred—with the girl
from accounts. So it was that Mr. Berger found himself consigned to the dusty
ranks of the council’s spinsters and bachelors, to the army of the closeted,
the odd, and the sad, although he was none of these things. Well, perhaps just
a little of the latter: although he never spoke of it, or even fully admitted
it to himself, he regretted his failure to express properly his affection for
the girl in accounts and had quietly resigned himself to the possibility that a
life shared with another might not be in his stars. Slowly he was becoming a
kind of fixed object, and the books he read came to reflect his view of
himself. He was not a great lover and neither was he a tragic hero. Instead he
resembled those narrators in fiction who observe the lives of others, existing
as dowels upon which plots hang like coats until the time comes for the true
actors of the book to assume them. Great and voracious reader that he was, Mr.
Berger failed to realize that the life he was observing was his own.

In the autumn of 1968, on Mr. Berger’s thirty-sixth
birthday, the council announced that it was moving offices. Its various
departments had until then been scattered like outposts throughout the city,
but it now made more sense to gather them all into one purpose-built
environment and sell the outlying buildings. Mr. Berger was saddened by
this development. The housing department occupied a set of ramshackle offices
in a redbrick edifice that had once been a private school, and there was a
pleasing oddness to the manner in which it had been imperfectly adapted to its
current role. The council’s new headquarters, meanwhile, was a brutalist block
designed by one of those acolytes of Le Corbusier whose vision consisted solely
of purging the individual and eccentric and replacing it with a uniformity of
steel, glass, and reinforced concrete. It squatted on the site of what had once
been the city’s glorious Victorian railway station, itself now replaced by a
squat bunker. In time, Mr. Berger knew, the rest of the city’s jewels would
also be turned to dust, and the ugliness of the built environment would poison
the population, for how could it be otherwise?

Mr. Berger was informed that, under the new regimen, there
would be no more need for a Closed Accounts Register, and he would be
transferred to other duties. A new, more efficient system was to be put in
place, although, as with so many other such initiatives, it would later be
revealed that it was less efficient and more costly than the original. This
news coincided with the death of Mr. Berger’s elderly mother, his last surviving
close relative, and the discovery of a small but significant bequest to her
son: her house, some shares, and a sum of money that was not quite a fortune
but would, if invested carefully, enable Mr. Berger to live in a degree of
restrained comfort for the rest of his life. He had always had a hankering to
write, and he now had the perfect opportunity to test his literary mettle.

So it was that Mr. Berger at last had a collection taken up
in his name, and a small crowd gathered to bid him farewell and good luck, and
he was forgotten almost as soon as he was gone.


Mr. Berger’s mother had spent her declining years in a cottage on the outskirts
of the small town of Glossom. It was one of those passingly pretty English
settlements best suited to those whose time on this earth was drawing slowly to
a close and who wanted to spend it in surroundings that were unlikely to unduly
excite them and thereby hasten the end. Its community was predominantly High
Anglican, with a corresponding focus on parish-centered activities: rarely an
evening went by without the church hall being occupied by amateur dramatists,
or local historians, or quietly concerned Fabians.

It seemed, though, that Mr. Berger’s mother had rather kept
herself to herself, and few eyebrows were raised in Glossom when her son chose
to do the same. He spent his days outlining his proposed work of fiction, a
novel of frustrated love and muted social commentary set among the woolen mills
of Lancashire in the nineteenth century. It was, Mr. Berger quickly realized,
the kind of book of which the Fabians might have approved, which put something
of a dampener on his progress. He dallied with some short stories instead, and
when they proved similarly unrewarding he fell back on poetry, the last resort
of the literary scoundrel. Finally, if only to keep his hand in, he began
writing letters to the newspapers on matters of national and international
concern. One, on the subject of badgers, was printed in the
but it was heavily cut for publication, and Mr. Berger felt that it made him
sound somewhat obsessive about badgers, when nothing could be further from the

It began to dawn on Mr. Berger that he might not be cut out
for the life of a writer, gentleman or otherwise, and perhaps there were those
who should simply be content to read. Once he had reached this conclusion, it
was as though a great weight had fallen from his shoulders. He packed away the
expensive writer’s notebooks that he had purchased from Smythson of Mayfair,
and their weight in his pocket was replaced by the latest volume of Anthony
Powell’s roman-fleuve,
A Dance to the Music of Time

In the evenings Mr. Berger was in the habit of taking a walk
by the railway line. A disused path not far from the back gate of his cottage
led through a forest and thus to the raised bank on which the railway ran.
Until recently trains had stopped four times daily at Glossom, but the Beeching
cuts had led to the closure of the station. Trains still used the line, a noisy
reminder of what had been lost, but soon even the sound of them would disappear
as routes were reorganized. Eventually, the lines through Glossom would become
overgrown, and the station would fall into disrepair. There were those in
Glossom who had suggested buying it from British Railways and turning it into a
museum, although they were unclear as to what exactly might be put in such a
museum, the history of Glossom being distinctly lacking in battles, royalty, or
great inventors.

None of this concerned Mr. Berger. It was enough that he had
a pleasant place in which to walk or, if the weather was conducive, sit by the
lines and read. There was a stile not far from the old station, and he liked to
wait there for the passing of the last train south. He would watch the
businessmen in their suits flash by and experience a surge of gratitude that
his working life had reached a premature but welcome end.

Now, as winter began to close in, he still took his evening
strolls, but the fading of the light and the growing chill in the air meant
that he did not pause to take time with his book. Nevertheless, he always
carried a volume with him, for it had become his habit to read for an hour at
the Spotted Frog over a glass of wine or a pint of mild.

On the evening in question, Mr. Berger had paused as usual
to wait for the train. It was, he noticed, running a little late. It had begun
to do so more and more of late, which led him to wonder if all of this
rationalization was really leading to any kind of improvements at all. He lit
his pipe and looked to the west to witness the sun setting behind the woods,
the last traces of it like flames upon the denuded branches of the trees.

It was at this point that he noticed a woman passing through
the overgrown bushes a little further down the line. He had noticed before a
trail of sorts there, for the branches of shrubs had been broken in places, but
it was a poor substitute for his own path, and he had no desire to damage his
clothing or his skin on briars. The woman was dressed in a dark dress, but what
caught Berger’s eye was the little red bag that she carried on her arm. It
seemed in such stark contrast to the rest of her attire. He tried to see her
face, but the angle of her progress concealed it from him.

At that moment he heard a distant whistle, and the stile
beneath him started to vibrate. The express, the last train of the evening, was
approaching. He could see its lights through the trees as it came. He looked
again to his right. The woman had stopped, for she too had heard the train. Mr.
Berger expected her to pause and wait for it to pass, but she did not. Instead,
she hastened her steps. Perhaps she wishes to be across the lines before it
comes, thought Mr. Berger, but that was a risky business. It was easy to
misjudge distances under such circumstances, and he had heard tales of those
who had caught a foot on a sleeper, or stumbled while rushing, and the train
had been the end of them.

“Ho!” he called. “Wait!”

Instinctively he stepped down from the stile and walked
quickly toward her. The woman turned at the sound of his voice. Even from a
distance, Mr. Berger could see that she was beautiful. Her face was pale, but
she did not seem distressed. There was about her an eerie, unsettling calm.

“Don’t try to cross!” he shouted. “Let the train pass.”

The woman emerged from the bushes. She hitched up her
skirts, showing a pair of laced ankle boots and a hint of stocking, and
proceeded to climb up the embankment. Now Mr. Berger was running, but he
continued to call to her, even as the express grew louder behind him before
passing him in a flash of noise and light and diesel. His saw the woman cast
aside her red bag, draw her head between her shoulders, and, with her arms
outstretched, throw herself on her knees before the train. Mr. Berger flinched.
The angle of the line meant that he did not witness the moment of impact, and
any sounds of distress were lost in the roar of the engine. When he opened his
eyes, the woman was gone and the train was continuing on its way.

Mr. Berger ran to the spot at which he had last seen the
woman. He steeled himself for the worst, expecting to see the track mired with
gore and body parts, but there was nothing. He had no experience of such
matters, though, and had no idea whether a train striking a person at such a
speed would leave a great mess or none at all. It was possible that the force
of it had sent fragments of the woman in all directions, or even that it had
carried her broken frame farther down the track. After searching the bushes by
the point of impact, he followed the line for a time but found no blood and no
sign of a body. He could not even find the woman’s discarded red bag. Still, he
had seen her—of that he had no doubt. He had not imagined it.

He was now closer to the town than he was to his home. There
was no police station in Glossom, but there was one in Moreham, some five miles
away. Mr. Berger walked quickly to the public telephone at the old station
house, and from there he called the police and told them of what he had
witnessed. Then, as instructed, he sat on the bench outside the station and
waited for the patrol car to arrive.

BOOK: The Museum of Literary Souls (A Short Story)
2.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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