She was exhausted, buried by her tweed school uniform, waiting for the tram. The heat was stifling, early summer. That was the fateful day it first happened.
After two sleepless years of cramming, expensive lessons and university-level textbooks, the exam for a Year 10 scholarship was over. Alice’s brain felt dissected. Alice, along with six hundred other anxious girls, pushed through the three-hour ordeal, prudently shading in bubbles on an answer sheet that would determine their future.
Things were black and white in the world of exams. Things were black and white in her parents’ world too. If Alice was accepted into the leafy suburb college, she’d be considered worthy. If she wasn’t, she’d be considered a failure, not as smart as so-and-so’s daughter. It seemed there was no in-between.
The tram was delayed and the heat was scorching, so Alice walked into the air-conditioned Carlton bookstore. Her eyes widened, the store was bigger than her entire home and there were books from floor to ceiling. She circled past the new-releases, memoirs, adventures, classics. Alice picked up a Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel and winced at the $32.00 price tag. She placed the novel where she found it, but a wicked little voice whispered inside her mind. Do it, this can be your secret, you deserve it. No one has to know.
Novels were forbidden at home, an unnecessary frivolity, a hindrance to exams, chores and homework. Novels were for indulged, lazy girls, according to her mother. Novels could fill her mind with silly ideas; fray away all the years of moulding a perfect student.
Yet, the scholarship exam was over and Alice thought she deserved a treat for all her efforts. She looked over her shoulder, the sales assistant was gabbing on the phone. Alice carefully peeled the book’s barcode and slid the book in her blazer. Her heart was thumping; she had never felt so wicked. She felt wicked, but alive. She was defying her parents, she was rebelling against order. In that moment, she was everything she had never been: brave, a rule-breaker, a criminal. Cavalierly, she walked out, alarms were not raised, and no one stopped her.
She returned to the tram stop, climbed aboard and once the tram started rattling, retrieved her prize from inside her blazer. She caressed the embossed sepia cover and dove into post-war Barcelona, a realm where her anxieties did not exist.
Alice devoured the book in two days, tucking it under her mattress as if hiding love letters. Knowing the forbidden item was with her made her giddy, in control of her destiny.
Yet Alice could not keep the novel. That was never her intention. She would read it, copy out her favourite lines and memorise them, allow the words to seep into her soul. Then she would return the book back to the shelf. Her guilt would lessen; she wouldn’t be a thief, just a book borrower.
Returning to the bookstore, Alice placed the book where she found it, careful not to leave any creases or marks on the pages and covers. She was not spotted, so Alice browsed the other shelves, her eyes mesmerised by a book of poetry by Lang Leav. Her hands twitched and she licked her lips. Within moments, the book of poetry was inside her blazer. Alice returned home ecstatic.
As the last term of Year 9 trickled away, Alice’s book acquisition continued. The bookstore was sleepy during the 3pm slump. In the summer months, she read Nabokov, Orwell, and Emily Brontё. She read the words of rebels. She plunged into a pool of vibrancy. Alice felt alive, unchained in those final days of freedom.
Two months after her first book acquisition, Alice received a letter. The prestigious inner-city college accepted her to start Year 10, the following year. She was one of the lucky eighty girls. Her stomach was in knots. This was all she ever wanted, wasn’t it?
That afternoon her parents showered her with attention, they phoned overseas and boasted, bought Alice mud cake and balloons. Yet, the same words flooded her mind: law, engineering, medicine, Maths Methods, Physics, and Chemistry. She was returning to the world of black and white.
The new school year dawned and Alice’s book acquisitions did not recommence. There wasn’t any time to read for pleasure. She was drowning under the weight of glossaries, formulas and scientific journals. She was gasping for air. Her hair fell out in clumps. Her nights were sleepless, with purple rings circling her eyes. Alice carried a mountain of pressure on her back.
The year passed, so did others. Alice’s days were full of academic responsibilities. She seldom thought of the novels she once read and her desire to read others waned. The prospect of reading was exhausting, not worth her limited time. Weekends were spent revising or consulting frazzled friends on their assignments.
Alice’s hard work paid off. She finished high school with immaculate grades and was accepted to study medicine at Melbourne University. Another six years passed in a blur.
One rainy morning, Alice walked past the familiar bookstore. She has just returned from her first serious job interview at a goliath medical research centre. She was offered a salary that doubled her parents’, a neat little office too. She walked home with a spring in her step. Yet a familiar itch found her. After a long break, she walked into the bookstore. The familiar smell met her, but the displays were all different. It was like returning to a home you once grew up in. Alice prowled around the best-sellers, fingering a wartime romance which had been adapted into a film. Her parents no longer cared if she read novels. For once, she had a bit of time to spare. This time, she could easily afford to buy the novel, she had the money.
Yet she wanted to do it again, for old time’s sake. After years of hard work, she deserved a naughty treat. She wanted the thrill, the ill repute. Alice wanted to secretly rebel after over two decades of obedience. She took the risk, sliding the book in her handbag. She exited the bookstore with the same adolescent bravado.
But Alice was rusty. She did not remove the security tag on the book. The alarm was triggered. “Miss, excuse me,” the sales assistant pointed and stomped towards Alice.
In a state of panic, Alice ran. One moment of foolishness could unravel all that she had built. She would be handcuffed and dragged to a police station, her parents would be mortified. Channel 7 would flash her face, a would-be doctor caught stealing books. Who would hire her? She ran in her uncomfortable heels, jostling past people on the footpath. The sales assistant did not slow down. Alice retrieved the stolen book and threw it. She lost the evidence. She looked back and saw the sales assistant stop and pick it up.
Alice ran across the road, not bothering to look out for traffic. A Volvo’s tyres screeched, but it was too late.
Maggie Jankuloska is a Macedonian-born and Melbourne based teacher, writer and book hoarder. She writes short stories and is currently working on her debut novel. She was the winner of the 2015 YPRL Write Now! short story competition and was featured in the 2016 Award Winning Australian Writing collection. Find her on Twitter @maggiejank