trout [ 6 ]
Bill Direen 
Smoke the Book 

A woman worked for a finance company, and she could swing anything you wanted. If you wanted a loan, she could swing it. If you wanted a swing, that too. She was what you call a professional, available, effective, never too proud of her success and never in financial trouble, no way! Her diet was an impeccable balance of the caught and slain, the sown and harvested, the pure, the refined and a bit of the fermented; she exercised her mind on brain teasers and her body on an exercycle. Strange then that she was a swing specialist, for a more stable person you could not imagine, until the day her boss wanted to exercise himself on her and when she floored him with a right hook the company had to 'let her go.'

During the first months of unemployability she was her old self, job-seeking with bumptious verve, quite certain she could swing another one. She didn't. The boss had told other bosses that Martha was uncooperative and the mud stuck. 

Shut out of the finance houses she rolled up to the No Work? Centre. She stood in the queue along with young old rich poor chic and shabby, some with diplomas and some with aromas.  There was a poster of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp on the wall. He was sitting in the middle of the street where he had just been booted and the caption read PERSISTENCE BRINGS SUCCESS. 

She called companies again and again, but lately the receptionists recognised her voice and gave her short shrift. Inspired by Charlie, she did not let up. With her dwindling funds she subscribed to job magazines. She had photographs taken by professionals and advertised herself as a target achiever. She sent her C.V., her image and her credentials to every possible employer. No go. Her old boss had spread the dirt on the Internet and everyone believed it was true. No go today, no go tomorrow. She vowed she would one day see her old boss swing, though she was not naturally malicious, quite the opposite; in her free time she helped other people in her building, bringing to bear her skill at making wishes come true. She even organised a little Christmas concert for the kiddies. She was just being neighbourly, but everyone loved her for it and they would surely have helped her in return if they only could.

Dejection set in. Her savings ran out, she phased out job applications and the 'Thanks, but no thanks' replies slowed to a dribble. One morning she found herself so down she just couldn't get up. She sat on the floor in the middle of her room and sobbed helplessly.  She was thinking people would be a lot happier if she would just snuff it when her blustery neighbour dropped by, Mrs Hattie Windzaw, chain-smoking mother of fifteen boisterous girls. And did she smoke! She smoked before she went to bed, she smoked when she woke up, she smoked getting dressed, dressing the food, and addressing the talk-back; she smoked when she was having a drink, in company or alone; she smoked when she was happy with her widowed life, or when she was reminiscing on the fruitful years with Mr Windzaw. And were they fruitful! Mr Windzaw's principle that pregnancy is the best form of contraception brought their fifteen daughters to the light in as many years so she now had a million things to do to bring them up alone!

Her visit this day was, as ever, just a pop-in to say hello. But when she saw Martha in tears Mrs Windzaw brewed up a pot of tea and made helpful suggestions. Perhaps Martha could use the free time to read a good book: she heard on the radio talk-back that everybody has a book they always wanted to read but never had the time.

Martha was surprised. What a good idea! Actually, she had always wanted to read The Castle of Echoes, a tale of Transylvanian monks and candle-lit rituals. She asked what Mrs Windsaw's preference would be, but Hattie scoffed and said she hardly had time to read her cigarette packet. 

"Yes, but if you had the time, Hatt... what would it be?"

"Oh ... Les Miserables, I suppose. If I had the money I'd go to Sydney and see the real thing.


"Yes, I like that song, you know the one..." Here she hummed a melody which, truth to tell, belonged in another musical altogether. 

"And I just adore that cute cat on the tee shirt!"

The new library had won an international architecture prize for its generous open plan. Onec critic had called it a lofty monument to public information. Martha stood in the entrance way and admired its sliding and hinged panels and its bicultural motifs. She singled out its Questions? desk which gave the impression it would supply immediate answers. She asked about The Castle of Echoes. They asked a lot of questions in return, name, address, and occupation. After she had completed the necessary forms she was given a membership number and was redirected to the You'll Find It Here desk. The You'll Find It Here people suggested she try the Couldn't Find It There? section and the Couldn't Find It There? assistant sent her to Weird Stuff. Weird Stuff told her it wasn't possible, showing her the computer screen which was blinking On-line Failure Please Get Off. When she looked disappointed the assistant said there was no shortage of books on the shelves, perhaps she could try one that was on display? Remembering Charlie, she asked ever so sweetly if they could try again for Castle, so the assistant said he would look up Hermes, an old musty catalogue in two hundred and thirteen leather bound volumes. Half an hour later he returned looking excited. There was indeed a Castle of Echoes, and he would be happy to go below for it. The old books took up fifty shelf miles and were badly catalogued. It would be better if she came back tomorrow. 

Martha felt she was making progress. It was the first time in months she had come close to achieving what she had set out to do. Next morning as she climbed the steps of the library she felt a thrill. She was sure she would succeed. As she rose on the escalator she felt as if she were flying. At Weird Stuff she asked for the assistant but he had thrown a sickie and no one knew anything about a Castle of Echoes. She was about to give up, when Martha noticed a paper bag with a name and a number on it. Martha's name! Martha's number! It contained a book. The book. She was given immaculate gloves and a dust mask along with a clump of paper-clipped sheets about the care of rare books. The replacement librarian pointed to the paper clip, "The person who thought that up became a millionaire." Martha carried the dusty tome to a table by the window and in the brilliant harbour light she discovered one of literature's best-kept secrets. 

It was set during the peaceful years of influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Everyone had a ball of a time unless some tyrannous sheriff-type burned you alive or the hooded one with the corn scythe pointed his crooked finger at you and you copped the plague. The book was amorous, poetic, exciting. And did she feel good after reading it!

That was when it struck her. Why hadn't anyone thought of it? She would have to move quickly. She rushed to the nearest pay phone to called directory. 

"A cigarette company!"

"There are twelve companies currently listed."

At that moment one of them was declared bankrupt and it disappeared from the  operator's screen. "Eleven. Which one would you like? You'd better be quick!"

"Ah ... I don't know. It doesn't matter! 

"Well, there's the one with the cowboys and horses. Marderburra. Do you want that one?

"No, not cowboys and horses. Isn't there one with working women?"

"Working women ... Yes, that must be ... Suffragette!"

"Yes, Suffragette, give me that one."

Martha dialled as if her life depended on it. 

"I can revitalise your industry!" she shouted at the telephonist who cut her off, but, remembering Charley again, Martha called again and again, changing her voice each time, using varying degrees of politeness and nastiness until she found just the right approach, coldly neutral, with a sort of cruel, worldly-wise inanity, and the receptionist put her straight through to the managing director. Within a year she was raking in the millions. How did she do it?


People were already getting used to the idea of reading their cigarette packets for warnings. It was Martha's idea was to increase the number of words on each packet till there was a chapter in each pack. Sentences could be written on the actual cigarettes and the tobacco was impregnated into the packaging so the readers could smoke the packet if they wanted. Simple! Like the paper clip! 

SMOKE THE BOOK became the motto. The company board came up with a new name, Bookabacco. It became a household word, and no government dared outlaw it, after all, wouldn't that be a bit like censorship? She had it, success! The wonderful world of reading, an effective remedy for mania and depression! It rescued the tobacco industry and got her a job again. As for the health risks, Hell, she thought, they were going to die anyway! 

In order not to appear hypocritical, the governments re-defined Bookabacco as a health remedy with side effects. "All medicaments have side effects, don't they?" the Health Minister's rhetoric was flawless, 'Side effects are just a regrettable part of any cure!' NO CURE WITHOUT CANCER was the theme of the second advertising campaign. Bookobacco was marketed as a wonder wedding between relearning and relaxing. TV ads showed knights and maids of a bygone age reading by candle-light and then smoking the pages with satisfaction. It could have been a scene straight out of Castle of Echoes. In fact, Martha commissioned Stilton John to make a musical of Castle of Echoes, which became a smash international hit. Hattie and her children were in the VIP box for the premier, where they destroyed five of the vermilion velvet armchairs.

Martha's success dominoed. She ruled Bookabacco. She bought up the rights on other substances which were being threatened with litigation and found that many of them cured illnesses which were more lamentable than the side effects. She turned them into literary vehicles as well. Some were saying that tinned meat, genetically engineered corn and English beef were undesirable, but didn't they cure starvation? The international courts upheld their medicinal use, "to be sold only at pharmacies", and soon she had control of all the harmful substance and intoxication industries. The old doctors were redundant but they were given new jobs behind the counters of her Literary Cures shops, as long as they swore by a revamped version of the Hippocratic oath. Martha's company became bigger than Microsoft. 

But life as a managing director proved dull. She needed a challenge. She would bring down the Stock Exchange! She figured the old exchanges had been bluffing for decades, artificially depressing and inflating prices, purposely spreading misinformation in order to seize an advantage from naive liberals. She would put an end to this profiting from other people's suffering. She would spread the truth. 

And that is exactly what she did. Board members could be seen staggering about the footpaths with a dazed look in their eyes. There was a run on the banks and a collapse of the finance houses. Soon the Exchange itself was up for grabs, and watching for financiers leaping out of the upper windows of their mortgaged towers became a favourite past-time. In fact, one day her former employer dived into skyscraper canyon. It was the next best thing to seeing him swing.

And so we have Martha to thank that we have all rediscovered reading real words on real paper. It is because of her that we once again live and love as if these might be our last hours, which is often the case. We live, we love, we strive, sometimes we succeed, we read the label, and afterwards we smoke the book if the spirit takes us. 

© 1999

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