Did the blonde woman in the bookshop throw the dice? Or was it the brunette student who set the chancy luck coins a-turning? Where does the story start? You might choose to begin here. Or here. Or here. I choose to start at the beginning. Or at a beginning, anyway. 1975 New York The book called Rabbit Boss sat quietly on the shelf, waiting for someone to pick it up, turn its pages, read it. The bookshop was quiet on that Thursday afternoon, but as the clock struck the half hour, there was a small rush and flurry through the door. Workers, on their way home, wanting something for the subway, something to take away the winter blues, something to escape into for a little while. The blonde woman (small, neat, with hair in a dancer’s chignon) stopped in front of the shelf, reached out, picked up the book, stroked its silver dustjacket, took it to the till, paid for it. It was just the kind of novel she liked—full of edgy, interesting prose and the issues of a broken people. When she got home, she did what she always did with new books. Turned to the inside cover, wrote her name and the year neatly in strong black ink on the top right hand corner of the page. Then she settled down in the old comfy armchair, hooking a cat onto her lap as she sat. The book belonged to her properly now, and she could read it with the satisfactory sense of ownership which putting her mark in that particular place always gave. “The Washo watched. The Washo watched through the trees…” it began. Soon, within weeks, she would lend the book to a feckless friend, against her better judgement and in a rush of enthusiasm for sharing the story. It would not return to her. But she would remember it. 1981 Edinburgh The tiny university office was stuffy, smelled of student armpits, stale coffee and the dust of academic tomes. But the brunette girl (round, rosy-cheeked, intense) didn’t notice any of that, too focused on listening to the female tutor’s voice telling the small group about the book they wouldn’t now be studying. “We couldn’t get copies from the USA,” she said. “Bit of bad luck, but it can’t be helped. It’s out of print, so no chance.” The brunette girl sighed. She’d been looking forward to reading Rabbit Boss all summer. The two tutors had really hyped it up and it was one of the reasons she’d chosen American Literature as her major. The course was still going to be interesting—there were Joseph Heller and Philip Roth and Emily Dickinson to read after all—but she had an odd sense of being short-changed somehow, as if that particular book would have made a difference to her life, as if she’d lost some important opportunity by not having it in her hands. The not-having niggled at her for years afterwards, popped into her brain at odd moments, leaving a sour feeling of dissatisfaction and yearning every time she remembered. But she never did anything about it. 1989 New York The Virgin Upper Class lounge at JFK was like some tacky men’s clubhouse—all sombre ‘wood-look’ panelled walls, faux-leather chairs and a shelf of dog-eared secondhand books. The brunette woman (no longer a girl) was on her way home from a two year New York posting. She looked at the books as soon as she walked in. She always looked at books—they were her living, after all, and knowing what other people read seemed important to her. The shelf held left-behind paperbacks mostly—airport trash reads. Just what she’d expected. But there was one hardback. It had a silver cover with red lettering, announcing proudly that it was Rabbit Boss by Thomas Sanchez. The dark-haired woman snatched it up greedily, and immediately, furtively, glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Then, very swiftly, she bent down and slipped the book inside her carry-on. It wasn’t truly stealing, it was serendipity, karma, luck, destiny, providence, kismet. She knew that absolutely. And anyway, an abandoned book is anyone’s. It was eight years late, but this one had finally come home to where it rightly belonged. 11th September 2001 New York The blonde, no-longer-neat woman runs uptown from the dance studio on West Street in flimsy ballet shoes, hair wild and escaping from its chignon, pursued by roaring dust, wrapped in screaming and noise and chaos. There will be no dancing today, only death and more death and fire and doll bodies falling small on the world’s TV screens. She is, quite literally, running for her life. 11th September 2001 rural England The brunette woman is writing a poem about funerals. At 4.51pm that day, just as she is wrestling with a difficult rhyme for crematorium, the phone rings in her office. It is bad news. Her sister—her long-estranged half-sister to whom she wrote and sent a letter of reconciliation only yesterday (not even knowing if it would be read or opened)—is dying of cancer. There is forty years of catching up to do, and almost no time, because Death is riding a fast horse towards one of them. The past is another country now, where the sins of the father no longer matter. 20th September 2001 London The brunette woman opens the door of a house in Ealing. There is a stranger—a small, neat person with blonde hair in a dancer’s chignon—standing there. She has come from New York to visit her oldest friend. Who is also the brunette woman’s half-sister, and who will be dead and buried by Christmas. But sorrow sometimes bears a gift—and a new friendship will be born out of that day, which will keep the memory of a good woman alive with tears and talk and poetry and dance and long chatty emails—and letters signed in strong black ink. 2010 rural England The brunette woman takes down Rabbit Boss from the high shelf where she keeps her American novels. She hasn’t read it since the days when she could afford to travel in style on aeroplanes. The days before she became a writer (which she has since learned doesn’t really pay enough to travel business class). She opens the inside cover and notices, for the very first time, the neat, black-inked signature and date in the top right hand corner of the page. She looks more closely and feels icefeather fingers stroking down her spine as she recognises both name and writing. Surely it is an impossible equation of fate that the name of her dead sister’s oldest friend should be written here, in this particular book.
The book which had been liberated from that sombre airport lounge in New York twelve years before the brunette woman had ever met the blonde stranger.
The book which the brunette woman had only stolen in the first place because that long-ago university tutor failed to procure her a copy. The book which the blonde woman had bought, read, lent and lost. But it is not. The algebra of luck and chance is correct. It all adds up exactly. “The Washo watched. The Washo watched through the trees. The Washo watched through the trees as they ate themselves…” begins the book, just as it did in 1975, when the blonde woman (small, neat with hair in a dancer’s chignon) read that first sentence in her comfy armchair, stroking the cat on her lap. The Gods of Luck and Chance often weave strange tales. This one is true. © Lucy Coats 2010