Opening lines. There’s a significance to them. A weight. An ethereality that often carries them unseen, unheard, yet deeply infusing and informing through the years, the ages, of a particular connection or feeling. Take literature, for example. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ Surely everyone knows the immortal opening line to the even more immortal Dickens novel A Tale Of Two Cities. Surely? Of course they do. It’s a line that explains, that carries, that resonates. It’s one that at once hints at dichotomy, at conflict, but yet allows the reader to clamber and will a further explanation. It’s one that nearly two centuries later allow lazy pseudo-philosophisers to speak of it whilst using the world ‘immortal’ only to then suspend disbelief and reason in the very same sentence by wilfully ignoring the essence and finality of the whole idea of immortality to utter the excruciatingly lacklustre phrase ‘even more immortal’.
I’m rambling. Forgive me.
In fact, no. A ramble usually has a purpose. A ramble by its nature is a deviation from an agreed, or intended, path. But a deviation that is, nevertheless, almost always, still wedded to that same original path or thought. Very rarely does it deviate so far as to completely obliterate the understanding or grasping of the original point or path. As in this case.
Once I again I’m rambling. Allow me to beg for your forgiveness once more.
You see, it’s this subject of opening lines. As I say, a great opening line trickles down the ages without losing its power, its prominence, its significance. And by the nature of its own significance it becomes likely, in and of itself, to spawn a thousand pale and cliched imitations. Such is life and the apparent limitations of language. But even these cliched imitations, these pale staid uninteresting opening lines, can in time be forgotten if the story itself stumbles onto greatness, yes? The opening line itself buried under the weight of unimportance in the grander scale of the finished piece. But those great lines. The ones that we remember. They hint at greatness, they ultimately grasp greatness. Take Tolstoy’s opening line to Anna Karenina; ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. There’s a special kind of greatness attached. A grander scale of thought and theme. You can sense it. One that attaches these novels, these lines, above the rest. Something worth striving for.
Which leads me onto the other kind of opening line. The one not wrapped up warmly in the realism-bending embrace of literature. The real life opening line. Often a formality, often a tick box accompanied by a handshake or a vaguely disinterested nod or smile. Yet what happens when you know this is different. When you know, or rather believe, that a first line will mean something. That it will carry weight, however positively or negatively, though a timespan however brief. That each syllable you utter will find itself bogged down by its own significance. You may be thinking of a job interview perhaps. Fine. Or the first day of said new job, even. Again, fine.
But how about when you find yourself standing, bereft of conviction, in the bookshop you’ve been coming to for at least a few years now, without incident, only to find yourself distinctly lacking in the ability to find the words to utter to the new girl in the bookshop. The one now working behind the counter. Her pleasant, easy, distracted air adding to the entangled knots tightening and tightening in your stomach. You find yourself a man experienced and yet so at odds with composure. The knots created and strengthened by that glimpse you had of her smile. That radiating, welcoming smile. Knots further given life by the blonde hair falling effortlessly from her head, gently caressing the perimeter of her glasses. The woolly jumper she’s wearing telling you that this a girl who desires comfort over style, one of simple, calm evenly-paced moments rather than the chaotic, harrowing, exhausting unpredictability that seems to have clambered to you over the years like a venomous moth to an unsuspecting flame. The woolly jumper that then immediately tells you that your previous thought was so far removed from logic and reason that it questions why you would attach such meaning and reverence to a piece of clothing in any case. But nevertheless the words, usually so devoid of relevance or significance, stick in your throat before dissolving and disappearing back into the murky abyss of anxiety-riddled contemplation thanks to the sight of this very girl. A very, very specific and niche example I grant you but one that, at this moment in time, lays claim to the reason for this muddled and jittery stream of rambled consciousness.
That’s why the I’m lingering, perhaps mind-numbingly so, on the theme of literature. There she stands, behind the counter, seemingly (hopefully!) unaware of my travails. A girl alone. And yet she’s not alone. Certainly not to my failing ambitions. Behind her, beside her, ahead of, surrounding her; books. Literature. Words. Characters. Prose. Tales. Themes. Declarations. Of love. Anger. Fear. Desperation. Lyrical torment, soul-crushing heartache, life-defining romance. All contained in those words, those stories, those books that surround her. It both enhances her beauty, her attraction, my perception of her character and, at the same time, forces me to cower, to bend, to shrink away from the power that it brings. The power of literature. With all its intelligence, its life, its vigour. Beneath its all-encompassing shadow how can I deign to forge a light of attraction, to carve and shape myself as a character worth knowing, as one worth committing to. One more than the strength of its opening line. Yet, that opening line…that all important opening line…
I could use Melville’s approach in Moby Dick. ‘Call me Ishmael’. It’s short, it’s abrupt, it’s formulaic. All of the above, yes. But it gets to the point, lays the foundation and allows the story to build from there. Easy. Unobtrusive. Simple. After all, maybe that’s what she would want. But then again maybe not. Then again further, maybe she just wants this man lingering awkwardly at the back of the bookshop to just either up and leave or make a decision and stop furtively glancing at her. Well, probably yes but no, let me think…
Passion. Something infused with romance, with a searing passion that can’t be ignored or forgotten in a hurry. A Nabokov line for instance; ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins’. Yes. That would make a statement. An impact. Of course it would. Well…of course it would. Although well, given the subject matter of that book and the love interest’s age maybe it’s best that we steer clear of that kind of thinking all together. Jesus. That’s the danger of rambling.
Erm…oh how about more wholesome passion, as it were. A respectful, romantic declaration. Once with passion yes but without the extremities of a ‘fire of my loins’ phrase, a phrase that, let’s be honest here, would undoubtedly lead me to being asked to never darken this bookshop’s doors again. Rightly so I would think. The same, I would think, applies to Joseph Heller’s ‘It was love at first sight’ from Catch-22. Ok, that was about a chaplain who, the protagonist of the piece, Yossarian didn’t actually love in a romantic sense but still, a forthright declaration of love may seem slightly off as a response to a ‘would you like a receipt?’ question. Don’t you agree? Ok good. No, why shouldn’t I follow the ‘classic’ example of a Jane Austen. Speaking properly, infused with reverence, with all the recognised traits of a literary love interest. Strong, polite, chivalrous. The type that makes women of a certain class fall under your spell. A Fitzwilliams from Pride and Prejudice for example. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. We’ll leave out the wife part of course. Bit much for a first conversation. And the ‘good fortune’ section, that can go. For someone that buys most of his books from Amazon I don’t think that would chime a realistic tone.
Or perhaps not that, perhaps even…
Oh no. She’s looking. There’s that smile again. Damn, erm, oh damn. Quick, grab a book. But which should I grab, I mean I want her to think of me as someone with at least some sophistication, with intelligence, with a degree of…JUST GRAB A BLOODY BOOK! Ok, ok…erm…oh…ok…ok…oh….K. Kafka. Metamorphisis. Well I read that years ago. Is she still looking? Maybe if I just subtly glance towards…yep, she’s still looking. Damn. And there’s that smile still. Oh Christ. Maybe Kafka can help, erm, eh, first page, first page. Here we are. ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect’. Nope. Useless. I mean it would probably pique her interest I’m sure but I doubt it would fire up the embers of a glorious romance would it! Back that goes. K. K. King, yes. The Gunslinger, Stephen King. ‘The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed’. Yep, that’s even more useless than Kafka. Damn.
I’ll have to go up. Or walk out. It’s been too long. Is she still…damn, she’s still smiling at me. That same, casual, welcoming smile. That same warm, beautiful, story-inspiring…no, I have to go up. I’ll just, well I don’t know, should I, or, I’ll just…you see, rambling. Rambling through poor grammar and disconnected thoughts, this can’t do, this won’t do, this…
Three-for-two. Three-for-two. The new paperbacks. By the counter. I’ll edge over slowly. I’ll…ok. They’re usually award-winners of shortlisted for awards or…just grab some for goodness sake. Ok. There. Three. Any three. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter…but it does doesn’t it? That’s the whole point, this is me trying to portray myself as…and what about the opening lines!? I mean, no, I’ll take a step back, she’ll understand. The opening lines are important, aren’t they? Isn’t it? Maybe if I just say…no, I could leave it this time and think of something witty and…no, that’ll render it robotic, planned, creepy even…or if I could just…I could just…I could maybe…
‘Is this everything is it?’
She’s smiling. Her eyes fixed on mine. That smile. Those eyes. The warmth. The spellbinding beauty that she exhibits solely through that smile. She looks nods towards the books trembling slightly in my unsteady hand. Still smiling.
The opening line.
Here it is. The moment. My moment. All the weight, the significance, the importance, the…
The books. Surrounding her. Surrounding me. Infusing all within the shop with the courage, the intelligence, the personality that one seeks from literature. An entry into different worlds, new realities, an escape. Every book an entrance to a new start. Time and again. Each word a new beginning, each new chapter a story yet to be experienced.
I look at her.
And those eyes.
The knots loosen. The weight shifts.
‘Yes’ I reply. ‘Yes, I think it might just be.’