Mrs Johnson’s brownish 19th century literature book
Mrs Johnson's brownish 19th century literature book
A realist short story
It was a chilly yet sunny Wednesday morning and Group 2 was attending Mrs Johnson’s literature class in room E104, on the first floor of the faculty building which looks like a comb. The atmosphere in the classroom was quite studious. Most of the students were taking an active part in the class, asking or answering questions, while taking notes at the same time, some with the old-fashioned pen-and-sheet method, some others on their laptop.
Suddenly, Mrs Johnson threw a piece of chalk at a girl sitting in the front row. She explained that it was the illustration of a quote in Lord Jim by Conrad: “Facts, facts, as if facts could explain anything!”.
“If I asked you to describe what just happened, you would say what I did, but you wouldn’t be able to explain why I did it. So the question remains: are facts really relevant?”
What she did not tell the students, though, was that in the previous hour Group 1 had been very hard to manage and she just felt the need to punch a student in the face... Throwing a piece of chalk at one and covering the reason with some half-literary half-historical justification seemed the best she could do about it right now.
The student Mrs Johnson thus used as a scapegoat was Sophie Delormes. Sophie was a very little girl, a little plump, with round cheeks like a hamster’s. She had blond-ish hair – the result of not taking care of her ginger colour. That morning, she was wearing a short black skirt under an orange sweater which had belonged to her mother in the 80s. Her hair was loose and kept behind her ears with a polka dot bow. She knew people would think she had no sense of fashion whatsoever, but she could not care less about other people’s opinion about her clothes. Or rather, she did not want people to think of her as a fashion driven person. Sophie loved clothes but hated fashion. In general, she liked to have things her way and almost made it a life motto to be slightly different from other people. She always had to be the girl with the strange clothes. She always had to be the girl who cooks or bakes things nobody had ever heard of. She always had to be the clever kid at home, and of course, the student professors love best.
When Sophie felt the piece of chalk hit her shoulder, she was a little surprised. But was then totally satisfied with Mrs Johnson’s explanation, which she hastily and ostensibly wrote down and underlined twice with her sparkling-pink pen. “Mrs Johnson is a wonderful professor” she thought. “I absolutely have to ask her to be my dissertation advisor. But a lot of students probably ask her every year. Maybe I should wait a little and show her what a great student I am!”
At the end of class, she went to the professor’s desk.
“Mrs Johnson, I have done some research for my oral presentation, and there is a book which could, I think, be very useful, but it is not in the university library and I couldn’t find it online either. Would you happen to know where I may find it?”
Of course, Sophie knew Mrs Johnson owned a copy of the book. One of her friends who attended another of Mrs Johnson’s classes had told her.
“Well, Sophie, it so happens that I have it in my office. I guess I could lend it to you... on the very strict condition that you take great care of it! As you said, it is very hard to come by nowadays.”
Sophie followed Mrs Johnson to her office, took the book, and then joined her friends for lunch at the cafeteria. When she arrived, the place was awfully crowded. She bumped into three students and two cafeteria staff before spotting her friends, and then again into two other students before managing to reach the table. The last collision resulted in her losing balance and falling down on the floor. Tiffany, Sophie’s best friend – a tall brunette on very high heels –, helped her gather her things and they finally sat down. As the others had already bought and eaten their lunch, Sophie decided to skip lunch and just take a hot chocolate – because her friends all took a coffee.
After lunch, Tiffany and the other girls had an English history class, but Sophie had a free period – why take all the mainstream classes when she could wait two hours to attend a seminar about the introduction of western furniture, such as the chair, in early modern Japan, and its consequences? She decided to go to the library and work on her literature oral presentation. She was so absorbed by this task, that she almost forgot about her early modern Japan class. When she looked at her cellphone, it was only two minutes before the beginning of the next period. She hastily put the books back on the shelves – not necessary on the right ones – and rushed out of the library.
After class, Sophie met with Tiffany at the tramway station. They were invited at Valentin’s party. Valentin was in Tiffany’s class. He always wore black clothes and makeup, but insisted on the fact that he was not a Goth and did not listen to metal music. Sophie had a soft spot for him.
As the tramway arrived, Sophie exclaimed: “Wait! I have to put on some makeup before we arrive!” and rushed to the nearest toilet. Indeed, while she usually did not wear makeup – as most girls do –, she always drew a beauty spot at the corner of her eye with eyeliner. She thought it made her look different and cultivated, as beauty spots were particularily fashionable in the 18th century. Needless to say that at such an hour, the toilets were very crowded. Sophie elbowed her way through the crowd with some difficulty to the mirror. She then put her bag on the edge of the washbasin and tried to draw the beauty spot, but she had to erase it and draw it again three times before it was perfectly shaped and located. At that moment, Tiffany burst in and angrily pointed out that they were going to be late, and that for once, she was not to blame, since she had not even tried to rearrange her makeup, as she always did – and as usually made them late. She unceremoniously grasped Sophie’s bag and burst out.
When they finally arrived at the party, there was nothing left to eat already, but a lot left to drink. After two beers, Tiffany spotted a man she felt like flirting with, and Sophie was left alone with her diet coke in a corner. Valentin passed by. “Nice bow” he winked at her. That is how they got to talk. After twenty minutes of passionate chatting through which they discovered that they had so many things in common, Valentin asked Sophie her phone number in order to invite her to his friend’s band’s concert.
“Ah, but I left my phone somewhere...” he said.
“Never mind” she replied. “I’ll take your number and text you mine. Let me get my phone”, and she started to rummage in her bag. After thirty seconds of unsuccessful search, Sophie started to panic – she might lose a one-time opportunity to have a date with someone who understood and resembled her so much that it might be the start of a lifetime relationship – and turned the bag upside down, scattering books, pens and snacks on the floor, until she finally found her phone and entered Valentin’s number.
When Sophie got back home, at around 2 o’clock in the morning, she was very tired but very happy. She had finally talked to her crush, and even got his phone number and a further invitation. She lay down on her bed and tried to remember the entire day. Her good luck had started when she had had the marvellous idea to borrow Mrs Johnson’s book. She reached for the book in her bag... and did not find it. She turned the bag upside down again, but the book simply was not there. Sophie instantly started to panic, but almost immediately calmed herself down. She must think rationally. Where might she have lost it? Retracing her steps backwards in her head, she remembered the first turning upside down of her bag. She must have left it at Valentin’s!
Feeling releaved, she texted him “Have you found an old brownish 19th c. literature book? Sophie”. The answer came straight away. “Nope. But I have found your pocket mirror. Meet me at 8:25 in the students’ hall.” Very disappointed, Sophie mechanically replied “OK”. In any other circumstances, she would have been jumping throughout her apartment with happiness and even calling Tiffany to brag about Valentin asking to meet her, but now, all she could think of was the lost book.
Lost book... books! The library. She must have put the book on the shelf along with the others. Feeling releaved once again, she decided to go to the library first thing in the morning and went to bed.
The following morning, she arrived in front of the library at 8:20. The library opened at 8:32. Sophie rushed to the second floor, rack 23, and looked at every book. She had indeed misplaced some of them, but Mrs Johnson’s book was not there.
Sophie could feel panic coming again. She decided to skip her first period – she was already very late anyway – and went to the lost proprety desk. On the way, she received a text message. “If you couldn’t make it, you should have told me. I was late in class because of you. Valentin”. Of course, because of the lost book, she had totally forgotten about Valentin’s rendez-vous, and she was still so concentrated on her problem that she did not even answer him. When she arrived at the lost property desk, they told her they had found no such book. She left her phone number and waited for her next class – British civilisation, a new course about the Brexit.
During the following days, the lost book became an obsession for Sophie. Every morning, she would skip her first period to go to the lost property desk, although they assured her they would call her right away if they heard about her lost book. When she attended class, she could seldom concentrate on her work and got several reprimands, both because of her failing work and her non-attendance. After a week, she finally lost all hope of finding the book again. The whole plan was originally designed in order to impress Mrs Johnson so that she would agree to be Sophie’s dissertation advisor. Admitting losing her precious book would put an end to Sophie’s hopes in this regard. Therefore, she had to find a way not to tell Mrs Johnson. She had to find another copy of the book.
Skipping her second period as well as the first one, Sophie went to the computer room and started to browse all types of online shops. She remembered that she had found no copy of the book on the internet when she had searched for it one week before, but desperation gave her more determination. However, the task was even harder, because she now had to find the exact same edition as the lost book. Afer three hours of search, Sophie clicked on a link on the twentieth page of her original google search, and there it was. Finally. Not only the book, but the exact same book. Sophie almost cried out with joy but remembered at the last moment that she was not at home. Then, her eyes went up to the price – 800€ – and her heart sunk. Not only did she not have 800€, but she highly depended on a scholarship to attend university – scholarship she was on the verge of losing because of her frequent non-attendance.
Sophie had no choice. The book might be sold at any moment. She had to earn a lot of money in a very short time. She had to find a job. She opened a new google search and spent two other hours browsing adds, until she found this:
Fast-food cashier wanted ASAP
possible overtime work
Sophie rushed out of the room without even turning the computer off and called the fast food company. Luckily, the manager did not want to spend time interviewing people and really needed someone as soon as possible for this job, so Sophie was asked to come the next morning for her first day at work.
Of course, Sophie was supposed to attend two classes on the following day, but she would have to skip them, notwithstanding the threat of her losing her scholarship. When she got home that night, she checked the location of the fast food and her heart sunk again. She would have to take two buses – at least one hour drive – to go to her work. She texted her friends to ask them to take notes in class on her behalf, and went directly to bed.
The following month was very hard for Sophie. She would wake up very early every morning, take two buses, work in a filthy and noisy fast food all day, take two more buses in traffic hours, get home, read her friends’ notes about the day’s classes, eat Japanese instant noodles or a burger from work and go to bed. She was more and more exhausted and depressed.
After two weeks, the dean summoned her in his office.
“Miss Delormes, you have skipped almost all your classes in the last three weeks. I know you attend Montaigne university on a scholarship based on your low income. The scholarship board has reached out and wants to cancel your scholarship. I asked them to wait until I met you. Miss Delormes, Sophie, what is wrong with you? Your record shows that you were doing perfectly well until three weeks ago.”
“Mr Dean, sir, I promise you I would never skip class if it was not for a very urgent matter!” Sophie exclaimed. “I have come across some personal difficulties, which led me to skip some classes, but I am confident that everything should be back to normal within one week. Do you think the board would consider giving me one more week?”
“Well, I can’t promise anything on their behalf, but considering your straight-A profile, I will do my best to convince them. But Sophie, hear me out, one week, not one day more.”
Quite oddly, the next week, Sophie actually started to feel better. By then, she had grown accustomed to her routine. She now used her commuting time to read her friends’ notes, so that she could have some free time before going to bed. She had also grown accustomed to her work, which became less and less tiring. And most importantly, she knew that it was only a matter of days before it all went back to normal. At the end of her third week of work, she had earnt enough money to buy the book online. She asked for her money, quit her job and purchased the book, and went back to class the following day.
At the beginning of literature class, Mrs Johnson addressed her:
“Ah, Sophie, I’m glad to see that you are back and well. Just in time for your oral presentation next week”.
“Yes, of course” she mumbled with a forced smile. She had been so focused on finding the book back that she had totally forgotten about the oral presentation. And about her big plan to impress Mrs Johnson. When she got back home that evening, she started to work on the topic at once. If she worked hard every night, she would certainly be ready by the following week. But there was still a problem. The book had not been delivered yet. And since Mrs Johnson knew that she was supposed to have it, she would notice it if Sophie did not use it.
Sophie therefore spent the week panicking about her oral presentation and frenetically checking the mail, sometimes five times a day, just in case. The book was finally delivered the morning of the day before her presentation. One might think it was just in time, but it actually was a very big and dense volume, written, of course, in the smallest letters Sophie had ever seen. She would never have time to read it entirely and add a few extracts in her presentation in only one evening. She must stay home all day. She even stayed awake all night and finished her preparation five minutes before she left for school.
During her presentation, Sophie was very tired and stressed. She kept mumbling and making mistakes. When it was finally over, Mrs Johnson said:
“Well, Sophie, I am sorry to say that this is very far from your best work. You, who are always very confident when speaking in class, could not get one sentence right. And I am a bit disappointed. I thought you would base your work upon the book I lent you, but you only used it in a very anecdotal way. I am aware that you have had some serious troubles, lately, but if you were not ready, you should have asked me to reschedule your presentation. Really, I am disappointed in you.”
This was a big blow to Sophie’s spirits. Not only had she spent a tremendous amount of time on a presentation which did not deserve better than an average grade, but she had also lost her chance to impress Mrs Johnson. Even more depressing was the news that Mrs Johnson apparently was already very impressed with her work and would have probably agreed to work with Sophie on her dissertation without further need for Sophie to prove her worth.
But this was not the last disappointment in Sophie’s day. As she was crossing the students’ hall, she came across the dean. When he caught eyes on her, his face instantly turned as red as a tomato. He changed his direction and rushed towards her, obviously very angry.
“Miss Delormes! I just got a call from your scholarship board. You missed class yesterday! After all my pleading, they had finally agreed to wait. But you did it again! And you got what you deserve. They just told me they cancelled your scholarship. I really hope it was worth it.”
And he went away as quickly as he had come. Sophie was astounded. How could she have forgotten about the threat of the scholarship board? How could she have risked her whole curriculum for one presentation? This was all because of Mrs Johnson’s book. A book she had not really needed. A book she had borrowed only to impress her professor. Because she could not stand to be mainstream. Because she felt a pathological need to be different, to be better than the others. Because she could not bear to exist without existing in other people’s eyes. And the more she reflected on it, the clearer it became. She still did not know how or where she had lost the book, but everything she had done that day was because of her compulsive need to be special. She had lingered in the library until the last minute before class to give herself the impression of being very studious. She had laid her bag in plain sight in a public toilet because she could not go to Valentin’s party without her 18th century beauty spot – which he had taken no notice of. She had frenetically turned her bag upside down at the party because she absolutely had to get the number of the boy who was different. And during all those moments, never had she thought about the precious book in her bag being within easy reach of anybody around. She had clearly lost it because of her attitude. And not only the book. She had also lost her opportunity to have a good grade for her literature class. She had also lost Mrs Johnson’s respect. And she had also lost Valentin’s friendship, since she had never texted him back. And she had even lost – quit, rather – the job that she was now going to need to pay her bills.
And yet, the more she thought about that cursed day, the more she wondered. Where had she lost the book? She could remember vividly the image of her things scattered on Valentin’s floor, because he had helped her pick her stuff up, and the book was not there. She also could clearly remember that she had never lost sight of her bag in the toilet, because the girl behind her was a little scary and she did not trust her entirely. Actually, that was the reason why she had to draw her beauty spot three times, because she kept concentrating on the bag instead of the eyeliner. Going further backwards, she tried to picture her study desk in the library. She could picture five books opened on the desk. And then, she could picture exactly where she had put each one back. But none of them was the book.
Sophie reached in her bag for her research sheets. As always, she had conscientiously written down the titles of all the books she had used that day, in order not to forget anything in her bibliography. And the book was not there. She had forgotten to use it.
Sophie was still astounded, but the reason for it had changed. She was not reflecting about her behaviour anymore. She was genuinely wondering: “Where did I lose the book?” At that precise moment, she heard a high pitched voice calling out to her.
“Sophie, Sophie!” It was Tiffany’s voice. Tiffany reached her and handed her a plastic bag. “Finally I see you again!” She exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you in weeks! Where have you been? And you didn’t answer most of my text messages. I was dead worried! But I hear that you’re back to class and such, so I’m glad you finally got everything alright. By the way, look what I found in one of my purses yesterday. It’s an old book about 19th century literature. I’m not taking any literature class, so it can’t be mine. And it took me some time to solve this puzzle, believe me. But I said to myself: ‘What would Sherlock do? Observe and deduce.’ And that’s what I did. The purse I found the book in, I have not used it once this month, because it does not match my leather jacket. So, when was the last time I used it? I remember it very clearly, because Mr Dawson complimented me on my shoes that day. The shoes that match the bag. Aren’t you stunned at my deduction skills? And then I remembered that I helped you gather your stuff on the cafeteria floor at lunch time, and I must have put it in my purse by mistake. Mystery solved! I hope you found a way to manage without it...”
Tags : realist, humour, short story
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