At the beginning of April, during an extremely rainy spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented in Hampstead, walked out to Waterstones, and slowly, as if indecisively, slipped a copy of Crime and Punishment into his bag.
He paid for it, mind (What do think he is, a criminal?), but he safely avoided anyone he knew noticing, or telling anyone he’d bought it – the last thing he needed was people asking him nosey, needling questions (Ah, haven’t read it before, eh?). After all, why shouldn’t he read a lovely bit of Dostoyevsky? He was a clever lad! Maybe he’d be laughed at, though: Who do you think you are, Mr Ivory Tower? Or, maybe, Mr Ivory onion dome. In his torment, he reckoned they’d make clever Russian architecture references at his expense.
It was in this state, which lasted for the young man a great many days, that he found himself in a pub garden, surrounded by friends, at the convergence of fateful happenstance: his mind aflame, and left without any other conversational anecdotes, social or otherwise – scarcely, during the last year, had literally even one single interesting thing happened, and he’d already mentioned his “big Sopranos rewatch” like that was news – he blurted aloud that he’d purchased Crime and Punishment.
An eyebrow raised here, and there one of the young man’s friends opened their mouth to speak. The young man anticipated a response, of course, but suddenly, awash with guilt at having never read one of ‘the greats’, he was unable to bear it. Without thinking – and in a searing flash of haste and recklessness, like the devil himself had possessed his tongue – he bludgeoned them over the heads with a sharp fib, whetted and heavy like an axe: that he hadn’t just bought the book but read the thing, too. The whole thing.
And enjoyed it, he said: “A masterpiece, obviously.”
No sooner than he’d committed the regrettable deed, the young man felt a stifling sense of scepticism suffuse the table, like hot, crimson blood pooling. Two of the friends looked impressed. Another smiled and leaned forward: “I love that novel. Isn’t it such a keenly observed descent into madness? You feel like you’re right inside his mind.”
The young man paused. Was that sarcasm? It was hard to tell: that friend was always taking the mick, but he was a literature student, too. A real bookworm. “Right”, the young man replied, adopting a wise, knowing tone: “Because of the crime.”
“Er.. yeah. What did you make of the horse dream, eh? In part one – the old mare?”
“We were talking about Crime and Punishment,” merrily persisted another friend. “Have you read it?”
“I haven’t,” the roommate replied, gesturing to the young man, “but you just bought a copy last week, no? How is it?”
The young man’s head was swimming now.
“How was it,” corrected the same friend. “He’s read the whole bloody thing already! He was just explaining an important dream scene.”
The young man felt a bead of sweat, which had been collecting on his forehead, roll hotly onto his cheek. The table had turned to him in oppressive anticipation. Maybe he should just come clean? He’d wanted to read the book, he really had, but now fate seemed to be swallowing him whole, delirium setting in as his circumstances worsened and his pale lip began to quiver.
“I thought–” he started, the edges of his vision blurring. “The dream, it’s… Dostoyevsky, he… it’s not the crime the character commits, per se, but the punishment… I don’t know. I don’t know. I couldn’t I haven’t I didn’t–”
And then he blacked out.
The young man came to moments later, the table leaned in around him, their faces slackening in relief, turning from worry back to mirth.
“I haven’t read the book,” the young man gasped, a confession. He felt a lightness course through him, or at least the blood returning to his brain. “I just bought it. I lied. I lied!”
“Yeah, we know,” the friend who had read the book laughed, tossing the book’s receipt across the table. “You bought it three days ago. 5.23 p.m. Waterstones. This fell out of your pocket, so we thought we’d wind you up.
“And anyway, look mate, it’s just a book – it’s not like you murdered someone.”
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Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin