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Dying to know you, p.1
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       Dying to Know You, p.1

           Aidan Chambers
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Dying to Know You


  The Kissing Game

  This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn

  Postcards from No Man’s Land

  The Toll Bridge

  Now I Know

  Dance on My Grave



  The Present Takers

  Seal Secret

  PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for and may be

  obtained from the Library of Congress.

  ISBN: 978-1-4197-0165-8

  Text copyright © 2012 Aidan Chambers

  Book design by Robyn Ng

  Published in 2012 by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher.

  Amulet Books and Amulet Paperbacks are registered

  trademarks of Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

  Amulet Books are available at special discounts when purchased in quantity for premiums and promotions as well as fundraising or educational use. Special editions can also be created to specification. For details, contact [email protected] or the address below.

  115 West 18th Street

  New York, NY 10011



  “You’re a writer?”


  “I need your help.”

  “You see the sign on the door?”


  “What does it say?”

  “No visitors without appointment.”

  “Have you an appointment?”


  “Then I suggest you make one.”

  “Could I make an appointment?”

  “When for?”


  I couldn’t help laughing. Anyway, there was something about him, an indefinable quality that instantly appealed.

  “What sort of help do you want?”

  “With my girlfriend.”

  “I don’t know anything about you, never mind your girlfriend.”

  “I can explain.”

  “Young man. I’m seventy-five. Happily married for over forty years. What would I know about girls these days?”

  “You write about them.”

  “You’ve read my books?”


  “So how do you know?”

  “My girlfriend told me. She’s a fan. And I looked you up on the internet.”

  “Really? Well, at least you’re honest. But in any case, the girls in my books are fictions. I made them up. They don’t have minds of their own. Real girls do.”

  “The help is just for me, really. Not my girlfriend.”

  “Look, if we’re going to continue this conversation, which it seems we are, you’d better come inside.”

  Rooms are a fixed size, which can’t be altered without pulling down walls and building new ones. They should be unchanging in shape and proportions. But sometimes they do change depending on who’s in them.

  I led him into the sitting room. He was tall, well built but not bulky, not overbearing. I was surprised, because the room didn’t shrink as it usually did when visitors came in. It got larger.

  When we’d sat down, he on the edge of the sofa, leaning forward, elbows on knees, eyes looking at his hands clasped as if in prayer, me in the armchair facing him, I asked again how he thought I could help.

  “My girlfriend wants me to write about myself,” he said.


  “About myself. Inside.”

  “What? You mean your feelings?”

  “My inner secrets, she said.”


  “She quoted something at me.”

  “Can you remember it?”

  “‘How can you call them friends when they do not know their mutual feelings.’”

  “That’s good. Did she say who said it?”


  “Aristotle? She’s read Aristotle?”

  “No idea.”

  “Maybe she picked it up from the internet.”

  “She does read a lot. She’d like it here,” he added, looking at the shelves of books.

  “How old?”


  “She’s some girl, if she’s read Aristotle.”

  “Well, yes, she is.”

  “Or maybe she’s just good at finding quotes.” I let that sink in before I said, “So what do you want me to do?”

  “Help me write the stuff she wants.”

  “Why can’t you write it yourself?”

  “Hate writing.”

  “Then don’t.”

  “She says she’ll only go on with me if I do. She’s made a list of questions she wants me to answer. And I have to do it in what she calls full-dress English.”


  “Yes. Proper punctuation, spelling and stuff. And printed out. I hate doing that. It’s torture.”

  “Not that bad, surely?”

  “Yes, it is. And, anyway, I don’t know what to write.”

  “What do you want me to do, then? Make it up?”

  “No! … But that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, come to think of it.”

  He looked at me and smiled for the first time and said, “Only joking. But still …”

  “Still what?”

  “Dunno … Well, I do, to be honest. There’s a problem.”

  “Which is?”

  He examined his hands again, fiddled with his fingers, took in a breath, and gave me a defiant look.

  “I’m dyslexic.”

  “Ah!” I said. “I see.”

  Defiance turned to apology. “I have trouble writing. Not reading so much. But writing. Things get jumbled. Not just letters and words. The sentences and the thoughts as well. Something happens between what’s in my head and what comes out when I try to write it down. It’s torture.”

  “Your parents know about this, and your teachers, of course?”

  “My parents, and the teachers did when I was at school.”

  “You’re not at school?”


  “How old are you?”


  I’d have said sixteen.

  “What do you do for a living?”

  “I’m training to be a plumber.”

  “I see. What’s your name, by the way?”

  “Karl. Karl Williamson.”

  “Haven’t I seen you around?”

  “We did some work in a house up the road not long ago. I used to go past your house. You were in the garden a couple of times.”

  “I thought I’d seen you. And your girlfriend, what’s her name?”

  “Fiorella. Fiorella Seabourne.”

  “Fiorella. Unusual name.”

  “Italian. Her mother’s Italian.”

  “And she understands? About your dyslexia.”

  “She doesn’t know.”

  “You haven’t told her?”


  “Then tell her.”

  “Not yet.”

  “Why not?”

  “Don’t want to.”

  “That’s not good enough. If I’m going to help, you have to level with me.”

  He sat back, deciding, I think, whether he wanted to go on
with this, after all. Then:

  “Like I said, she’s a big reader. And a big writer as well. Always at it. She wrote to you once. An email.”

  “Really? Did I answer?”


  “You’ve read it?”

  “No. Fiorella told me about it. She said she asked about being a writer and you told her that real writers read a lot of the best stuff ever written and write something every day, it doesn’t matter what. You said writing a book was the most difficult thing you had ever tried to do and told her to do something else unless she was passionate about it.”

  “Did I? I can only say, if I did, I am in complete agreement with myself.”

  He laughed.

  Karl was no glamour boy. But even during this first meeting I discovered he had something better. The kind of intelligence that’s more attractive than physical beauty.

  “Let me guess,” I said. “You’re afraid Fiorella will give up on you if she finds out you’re dyslexic, because she’ll think you’re stupid.”

  “Something like that.”

  “In which case, why bother? She’s not worthy of you.”

  He ignored the criticism and the compliment. I’m always interested in what people ignore in a conversation, especially when talking about their problems. The question is: Did they take in what was being said? Or didn’t they want to hear it? This time, Karl’s eyes shifted from mine, and looked down at his hands, now clenched between his knees.

  “So why don’t you tell Fiorella about it?”

  “I don’t want to tell her till she knows me better.”

  “How long have you been seeing each other?”

  “Three months.”

  “Not long.”

  “Long enough.”

  “Long enough for what?”

  “For me to know I want to hang on to her.”

  I let that pass. I knew exactly what he meant.

  “She’ll be bound to find out sometime. What then?”

  “Dunno. I’ll deal with it when it happens.”

  Not wise. But I needed time to think it over.

  “What do you do in your spare time?” I asked.

  “Fish. Play rugby. Play chess. Cook.”

  “So,” I said, “you like facts and doing practical things, but aren’t too keen on talking about your feelings.”

  “Something like that.”

  “OK. Let me sum up and you can tell me if I’ve got it right. You’ve met a girl you admire and would like to keep her as your girlfriend. She fancies you and she wants to know about your private life, your intimate self, because she believes that real friends—let’s say, lovers—tell each other about their secret selves. And she insists on you writing this. But you don’t even like talking about yourself, and writing would be torture because of your dyslexia. So you’ve come to me, who you know nothing about except that I write books Fiorella likes. And you want me to help you by writing for you what she wants you to write for her in proper English. Is that it?”

  “That’s about it, yes.”

  “Good. Which leaves us with a couple of questions. One: Why should I help you? And two: If I help you, what is it you want me to write, exactly?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “You don’t know what?”

  “The answer to both questions.”

  I laughed.

  “You must be desperate.”

  Karl laughed too. “I am!”

  There was one of those pauses when neither can think what to say next. In the silence, an intuitive shift, felt rather than thought, occurs in knowledge of the other.

  Karl looked awkward. In the silence, this moment of sudden awkwardness was like a door opening just enough to allow a glimpse into a room meant to be kept secret. I saw that what it kept hidden was shyness and that Karl’s brusqueness was a front, a carapace against discovery.

  I knew this was true because it was like looking at myself.

  And this, combined with the attraction of his intelligence, gave me the answer to one of the two questions that Karl couldn’t answer. Why should I help him?

  Because helping him was like helping myself when I was his age and helping myself with my own difficulties now.

  I wondered what Karl was thinking of me.

  “How about a coffee?” I said, to break the impasse. “Or something else?”

  “If you like,” he said, torn, I guessed, between the impulse to cut and run and his overriding need to obtain what he’d come for.

  I led him to the kitchen.

  Rooms change their shape according to who is in them, and there are rooms in which you feel more comfortable than in others.

  For me, there are two. My workroom, the only place where, when I am alone, I am entirely myself, and because of this is a sacred room where I take very few people. And the kitchen—another workroom, now that I think of it—where I can be at ease when talking to visitors.

  Karl sat at the table while I made coffee, asking him no more than the ritual how strong, with milk or without, sugar or not, and would he like a biscuit? I was pleased to see that he visibly relaxed. Another kitchen man, perhaps?

  “You say you cook?” I asked as I gave him a mug of coffee and a chocolate ginger biscuit.

  “Yes,” he said. “You?”

  “It relaxes me after a day’s work. People think writing is what my father used to call head work. And it is, partly. But it’s gut work as well. You live in your guts everything that happens in the story. Or at least I do. After a day of it my guts are tied in knots. Cooking helps to undo them. Who taught you?”

  “School. Took it as an option.”

  “Lucky you. Boys weren’t given the option in my day. What do you like most about it?”

  “You don’t have to write anything.”

  We laughed.

  “And,” he went on, “it’s useful. You’re making something people need and they like. Or they do if you get it right and do it well.”

  “You like getting things right and doing them well?”

  He gave me a shy glance.

  “Don’t you?”

  “Yes. And you know what I like about cooking? The tools. You don’t use many tools as a writer. Pencils, pens, paper. A computer, of course, though I never think of it as a tool, only as a machine. My father was a joiner. Very skilled woodworker. He had lots of tools. I loved to watch him use them. All sorts of hammers, chisels, saws, awls, screwdrivers. He had some special knives. He had drills and clamps and punches and files. All of them with their own places to be, hanging on the wall in front of his bench or in his toolboxes. Planes, for instance, rasps, pliers, spanners, a set square, rulers. Lovely. All of them a bit worn and shiny from use. I thought they were beautiful. Still do. Not to mention the wonderful smell of wood. Well, cooking is a bit like that. Plenty of attractive tools to play with, and, as you say, something useful to make with them.”

  He nodded.

  “Sorry,” I said. “Carried away by nostalgia.”

  “Copper pans,” he said with a grin. “I have a thing about copper pans.”

  “I can see why.”

  “I’ve a couple of saucepans, an omelette pan, and a copper bowl. I’d quite like some gratin dishes. Did you know that copper was the first metal used for making tools? That’s because you can find it naturally, in the ground. It doesn’t have to be made like iron or steel. It’s the only metal that’s like that.”

  “Really? I didn’t know.”

  “And it’s good for cooking because copper heats up quicker than any other metal used for cooking, and it heats up evenly all over the surface. The best pots are thick and heavy. Which is nice as well.”

  “They look lovely too, don’t they? A beautiful colour, and shiny.”

  “But you have to polish them to keep them shiny. We use a lot of copper pipe in plumbing. I like bending it and soldering the joins.”

  He became aware of himself and shrugged.

  We smiled at each other and were silent.
  Another shift had happened.

  I was beginning to see what Fiorella might see in him.

  “Getting back to Fiorella,” I said after a while.

  He frowned.

  “Have you written anything to her? You said she gave you some questions. Have you answered any of them?”

  “Yes. But I tore it up. It was crap.”

  “Pity. Look, if I’m going to help you, I have to have something to go on. I can’t make it up, now can I, seriously?”

  “No. I know.”

  “The best I could do is turn what you’ve written into proper English—punctuation, grammar, spelling, that sort of thing—and maybe help you with the expression. But if I do more than that, well, we’d both be perpetrating a deception, wouldn’t we? A lie.”

  He nodded.

  I could see Fiorella’s problem. Getting anything out of him was like squeezing juice from a stone.

  I tried another tack.

  “How often do you see each other?”

  “Once a week mostly. She’s studying for exams, and I do quite a lot of overtime. In my job you have to go to people’s houses in the evening when they’re at home from work. So it’s hard for us to meet except at weekends.”

  “Doesn’t live near you?”


  “You have transport?”

  “Only a bike. Don’t have a license. Keep failing the theory.”

  “Why? It’s not that difficult, is it?”

  A blank stare.

  “Ah yes. Of course. Sorry!”

  I cleared the mugs away, and leaned against the kitchen bench while I thought what to say next. I’d had enough for today.

  “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you bring Fiorella’s questions to me tomorrow? I’ll look through them and we’ll talk some more. Maybe I can work out what to do when I see what she is asking. How does that sound?”

  He took a moment before saying, “OK. What time? I’ll be at work till sixish.”

  “Would eight suit you?”


  “Eight tomorrow, then, with Fiorella’s questions.”

  He followed me to the front door.

  “Thanks,” he said, as he went past me. But stopped on the doorstep, and said, “Could I ask you something?”


  “Why are you helping me?”

  I gave him a wry look.

  “Because you asked.”

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