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From the author: The opening chapter of my debut novel, THE LESS THAN PERFECT LEGEND OF DONNA CREOSOTE, published by Bluemoose Books. (http://bluemoosebooks.com/books/less-than-perfect-legend-of-donna-creosote)
Nobody had ever accused Donna Crick-Oakley of being adventurous.
A slut, yes. A thickie. A dreamer. A quiet one. A fat bitch (before she lost weight). A skinny bitch (after). A nutter. A swot. A stick-in-the-mud. An accident waiting to happen. A cry-baby. A silly cow. A giant waste of time.
All of the above, but never adventurous.
The fact was, when given a choice between real life and books, Donna Crick-Oakley chose books every time.
Of course, she hadn't sprung forth from the womb being able to read, and had never devoted the entirety of her days to the practice. It was more the case that when real life disappointed her she selected certain stories as her preferred location of retreat.
The other kids hadn't liked that she always seemed to get more fun from paper than she ever did from them. And other adults didn't seem to like it, either.
At least, Kirk hadn't seemed to.
But she kept on choosing books.
She chose books because they never left her lonely the way that Kirk had left her lonely. Because company was often nothing of the kind, whereas a good book always was.
She chose books for the smell of fresh-pressed pages, or for the yellow-brown musk of library mould. But always for the breathy kiss of paper rustling. She chose books because some of them held prose that made her weep, or poetry that winded her, and words that made her heart skip beats.
She chose books because some came ready-made with characters that seemed like perfect versions of herself, all of them little proofs that somehow, somewhere, it might just be possible for her to be better: to be popular, powerful, sexy and smart.
She chose books because they lied to her with more conviction than real people ever had.
Her flat, in a tower block, was full of them.
Three thousand, four hundred and seventy-two of them.
Mostly fairy tale, fantasy, medieval romance and myth.
There were three rooms -- an open-plan kitchen-cum-lounge, a bedroom, and a bathroom -- and she kept at least two tall bookcases in each. Even in the bathroom, much to the surprise and amusement of her occasional guests.
To stop the books getting damp, she'd fixed shower curtains to the front of the bookcase by the toilet and the one by the sink. She'd hoped to find transparent ones but had settled instead for an opaque beige, so whenever she reached behind them she was never quite sure which book she'd get.
She'd read most of them before, of course, but she still enjoyed surprises.
So long as the surprises didn't involve an ambush set by bandits, Vikings, highwaymen or dinosaurs.
In her bedroom, the bookcases and wardrobe that covered the walls were packed solid, and she'd resorted to storing her surplus in less regular ways.
At painstaking length and effort, she had gathered all the works in her collection that were the same depth: roughly three-fifty pages, from front cover to back. And then she'd covered the floor with a kind of erudite rug.
She may have been at the highest level of the tower block but, in here at least, she had the lowest ceiling.
When Kirk had first visited, he'd scoffed at this system, dedicating whole minutes of the evening to asking why she had so many books, why she had books in the bathroom, why she had books like a big cardboardy carpet spread out across her bedroom floor.
The sex, when it came, wasn't impressive.
As a single girl, she didn't spend her time on social networking or dating sites searching for her next potential beau.
She didn't cycle through her Friends list, studying the profile of each boy on there -- the ones with whom she hadn't already had some kind of encounter -- wondering if they were likewise lonely, if they'd be up for a bit of fun. And, if so, what they'd be like, and if they too would refuse to remove their socks on account of book covers being sticky.
Not any more.
She certainly didn't stand on her balcony, staring down across the rooftops of Huddersfield, telling herself: My prince is out there. Somewhere. Before bursting into song.
She just read.
It was her father, an English teacher, who started her with that.
Ever since she could remember, he had come home from school ranting about the rising rate of illiteracy, and about how kids these days were, mostly, stupid fuckers. Every night since she could remember, her mother had reprimanded him for using foul language, they'd argued for half an hour, on average, and the fights had generally concluded with her father vowing: No daughter of mine is going to grow up like that: as a… a thickie!
After that, almost every night she could remember, he had come into her room and ordered her to read something to him, for at least another half an hour.
This, he claimed, had the dual benefit of helping her intellectually, and calming him down enough that he could stomach whatever slop your mother's going to put on the table tonight.
There had been a few breaks in this practice, of course, a litany of small defections: to geography, for about a week; to history; to an after-school hockey club, on and off for several years. A few times, she had even thrown herself wholeheartedly into mathematics, discovering an unexpected aptitude for figures and fractions. An affinity for algebra, once she got to that level.
But something in the turn of textbook pages always brought her back.
And so, rather than redoubling her efforts and vowing to rid herself of everything to do with such stories as soon as she was able, Donna Crick-Oakley simply climbed further in. She had found in them the most effective evasion, the most delightful deliverance from the turmoil that was, until her parents' inevitable divorce, her family home.
Two months after that divorce, and five years before today, her father had decided that she, just like her mother, was a giant waste of time, and that he had no interest in seeing either of them any longer. He'd moved away. Down south at first, and then out of the country.
Before he left, however, he had been mandated by the court to pay them both a sum in lieu of maintenance. He was given the option to either pay the sum in advance, or deposit it in monthly instalments.
He chose the former option. Another kind of surprise that Donna didn't like.
Despite her mother's vicious and repeated questioning of how he'd managed to keep such an amount squirrelled away, no explanation was ever provided.
He just stayed quiet, expressionless, and signed the court papers.
Left a six-figure phantom in place of a husband and dad.
Two weeks later, as an acknowledgement of some lingering paternal bond, or debt, he sent her a letter, along with the sizeable cheque:
If you still want to take your daddy's advice, I would suggest using this to get the hell out of Huddersfield and never looking back. There's nothing even close to good enough there for a daughter of mine.
What's left of my love,
But Donna used the money instead to build a life out of books.
A modern fairy tale from the inner city, where the mundane becomes fantastical and the everyday ethereal, but where living happily ever after is often easier read than done.
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