Selma’s Birthday Present
Mark Barrow hurried along busy Porter Street. It was nearly closing time and he just had to get to the bookshop before five o’clock. In this town shops always closed exactly on time.
He had forgotten to buy his wife, Selma, her birthday present. He had been in the bookshop at lunch time and had seen the book, but in his hurry to get back to the office had forgotten it. This was the busy time of the year and he hardly had time for lunch. As head accountant he had to keep everything running smoothly and he could not take extra time away.
The bookshop was a new idea; a bookshop and coffee shop combined. There were signs advising customers to browse and read and perhaps buy if they found a book they liked. It had become one of Selma’s favourite haunts and it was there that she had seen the book she wanted. It was a large hardcover book entitled A Romance Omnibus and was a collection of books written by Selma’s favourite romance authors.
At the thought of his wife, Selma, Mark felt a slight panic. Selma was a person whose birthday you never forgot. Selma got everything she wanted and she wanted everything now. He could not face the tantrums and tears if he forgot her birthday present. There had been the time when he booked theatre seats and they happened to be behind two very tall people. Of course it was Mark’s fault and Selma had sulked for days. There had been the time when she had got hayfever from the flowers he bought her – but he’d rather not think about that.
Fortunately the shop was still open. It had two entrances, one on Porter Street and another on Castle Street. Between the two doors the shelves ran along the side walls, something like an arcade. You could order your coffee at either entrance, drink it and read at tables in the middle, then take your book if you found one and pay for book and coffee together. The shop had a cosy, foodie, bookish smell and was doing a good business.
Mark rushed through the Porter Street entrance, and almost ran to the shelves labelled Romance. There was the book with a cover design of an ecstatic couple swooning in each other’s arms surrounded by pink roses. At first he was not aware of another man who hurried through the Castle Street entrance and rushed to the same shelf. When Mark did notice him he saw that the man was reaching for the very same book – and there was only one copy.
In his determination to get the book, Mark pushed in front of the man and took the book from the shelf. The other man gave Mark a push and tried to pull the book from his hand.
What followed was a brief tussle. The other man was bigger and stronger than Mark and it looked for a moment that he would be the winner.
Mark was not a fighter; he was a Clark Kent kind of person, with his dark-rimmed glasses and his mild manner. He was known as a gentle soul and the staff at the office respected this. He was always the peace maker. On this occasion there was no peace making; he would have that book, no matter what.
The tussle lasted for a couple of minutes. The other man held up a fist but Mark ducked, regained his footing and pushed his assailant. The other man staggered back and reached again for the book but after a quick glance over Mark’s shoulder he let go of the book. The action was so sudden that Mark staggered backwards. As he regained his footing he saw his assailant running headlong towards the Castle Street entrance – or exit, depending on which way you were going.
Still slightly shaken, Mark clumsily dropped the book. It made a most unusual noise at it landed on the floor. You would expect such a large hard cover book to land with a heavy bang, but it fell softly with a gentle thud onto the polished floor.
Retrieving the book, Mark approached the cash register and made his payment. The cashier smiled at him as she dropped the book into a bag and gave it to Mark. Somewhat shaken but relieved, Mark strolled out to the street. Oh happy day! He had Selma’s birthday present.
He walked straight into a policeman who was standing at the shop entrance. Another policeman grabbed Mark’s arm and said, ‘Bought the book, didya mate?’ Before Mark realised what was happening both policemen were waving their identity badges and advising him they were taking him to the police station. As one held his arm the other took the book in its bag.
On the way to the police station Mark demanded to know what was happening. The policeman who was not driving said, ‘We’ll ask the questions, matey. You can give us answers at the station.’
At the station they typed all his details into the computer then took Mark into a room, which he supposed from watching television was an interview room. The atmosphere at the station was surprisingly relaxed and almost cheerful. Mark looked around the room. There was no recording equipment and there wasn’t one of those mirror things which are actually a one way window so people can look in. It was just a plain room, painted a greenish-yellow puke colour and with a couple of filing cabinets and uncomfortable chairs.
Of course it would be plain; it was not as though they were charging him with murder. In fact, they had nothing to charge him with.
The book was placed on the table and a policeman said, ‘Do you recognise this?’
‘Of course I do,’ replied Mark. ‘It’s a book I bought from the shop where you found me. You have no reason to keep me here. I don’t know much about the law, but I must have some rights.’
The bald headed policeman whose name was Sergeant O’Mara said, ‘You’re admitting it’s yours, so you won’t be surprised when we open this book.’
With a smart-arse grin Sergeant O’Mara opened the book. It opened wide like a box to reveal that a neat oblong hole had been cut in the pages. The box-like middle of the book held two small packages containing what looked like a white powder.
No wonder the book landed on the floor with a soft thud, Mark thought. He guessed that the white powder would weigh less than the weight of four hundred pages.
For Mark it was proving to be an afternoon of shocks. All he could do was gasp and stare. The shorter policeman, Sergeant Berry declared, ‘You were very anxious to have this book with the drugs in it. You almost knocked another customer off his feet.’
‘I wanted it for a birthday present for my wife,’ Mark protested.
‘Hm, she’s into drugs too is she?’ asked Sergeant Berry.
The mild-mannered side of Mark’s character began to fade in his reaction to the sarcasm. ‘She wanted the book.’ His voice rose by about a decibel. Trying hard to control his anger, he said, ‘We are not into drugs, or anything else.’
Sergeant O’Mara said, ‘They all say that. How can you explain why you wanted this very book; the one with a prohibited drug concealed in it?’
‘It’s the book she asked for.’ Mark reminded himself he had to remain calm. Shouting would only make him look guilty. The questions and the sarcasm continued, the policemen finding it hilarious that the drug should have been hidden inside a book with an obviously drugged couple on the cover. Sergeant Berry joked about the book having roses on the cover. He remarked with a chuckle that poppies would be more appropriate. Mark refused to acknowledge the joke.
They allowed him to ring his wife. Hardly knowing what he was going to say, Mark dialled the number. When he told Selma he had been delayed she spoke sweetly and reasonably. She understood perfectly. Mark knew from her voice that she was expecting a surprise. That was the cause of his lateness. He always provided a surprise and a present on her birthday.
The police interview was interrupted by a knock on the door. A young policewoman put her head in. ‘Can I see you for a sec, Sarge?’ she asked.
Sergeant O’Mara rose and left the room with her. When he returned his stern look made Mark feel even more nervous – and angry.
‘Mr Barrow, they got the other bloke. The one you had the tussle with. Of course you’re the one with the evidence – he’s empty handed – but another copper watching the place recognised him. No, don’t look relieved yet, Barrow. There’s a lot more investigating to do. Here’s the story: we saw the dealer who planted the book with drugs in it. We’d had a tip-off but the bloke slipped away. We knew that the person who got the book off the shelf would be a user but also a dealer who would be selling at a huge profit.’
It took another hour for the police to establish that the other man was a known offender and had been on drugs charges. Mark had no police record; he’d never even had a parking fine. The general atmosphere at the station was one of relaxed toughness, as though they were all thinking, ‘We’re so clever and smart that we can be relaxed’. Mark felt extremely out of place and almost wished he’d been drunk and disorderly at some stage of his life. He did not mention that he had stolen two packets of Lifesavers from Coles when he was twelve.
There was a lot of typing into the computer and lot of checking his details and a great deal of laughing at the cover of the book.
Towards eleven o’clock Mark finally staggered out onto the street. In a daze he walked towards the car park. He badly needed a stiff drink, or a strong cup of coffee, or something.
In the deserted car park, he got into his car and settled into the driver’s seat. He leaned back and closed his eyes. He would be glad to get to his comfortable home and fall into an easy chair. He sat up and opened his eyes. Selma! The police had kept the book of course. He almost wished he could go back to the police station; better to face sarcastic police than Selma. At the end of this terrible night he was going home – without Selma’s birthday present.
He turned the key in the ignition. Well Selma would just have to get over it. He had had a great adventure and Selma with her tantrums could go to hell.
Bio: Winsome Smith has always written short stories. She has written eleven books. Her latest book, Tales the Laundress Told will be released later this year.