He looked tired and signed book after book. Sometimes he'd look up to give a wry smile to an eager reader. I have been an eager reader but I was not in line to have any of the books signed. I was on the second level of the Crossword store and felt bemused at this person who signed books, it seems, with effort and exhaustion.
I remember reading his books and feeling so close to him. His stories had this 'gather around' vibe and every time I read a story, I gathered around. My favorite stories of Jeffrey Archer are:
1. The Prodigal Daughter: There is a part where the stern governess is returning to her hometown after having taken care of Abel's daughter, Florentyna, for many years. The governess has been stern and distant in the early years, softening only to drive Florentyna to be better read and better groomed. Yet, the when the train pulls away, this governess says a proper goodbye, goes inside her coach, and sits down. Outside Florentyna runs on the platform or is weeping profusely or waving hard or something like that. The governess doesn't look out. She just feels tears trickle down her cheek as she sits with legs and hankies folded.
I also loved Archer's short stories. In fact, I preferred them to his novels. I don't remember the names of the stories now but here are some of my favorite ones.
2. Old Love: Okay, this is the name of the short story that I do remember. It's a story of two people who meet in Oxford and fall in love. They become professors in the same college. They can't have children. They spar and smile and life goes on well in the idyllic campus life of Oxford. (I think it's Oxford. May have been Cambridge.) They have a steady ritual of solving crossword puzzles together. They compete to see who gets it right first. I think the woman dies of cancer. The man, after having lost a friend, partner, and lover of many decades, continues life as before. Apparently, one of the last things the couples had fought over before the woman passed away was what a particular crossword clue meant. One day the man's friends come over to see that he had killed himself. He had found out what that clue had meant. He'd left a note behind that read, "Sorry. Had to let her know."
This story is special to me for so many reasons. First, the story itself is comforting. Even though there is suicide and death, even though there is childlessness and the hazy sheath of 'What-if's - even though there’s all that, the story is plain, simple and comforting...like toast with butter and sugar.
The other reason this story is really special to me is because I read it when I was a teenager or had just started working. My mom and I were having difficulties communicating or just being civil to each other. I remember having vowed that morning when I left home to never ever talk to her again. In the train, I had read that story and loved it so much that I wanted to tell Ma. I rushed home and since the ego was still in place, I didn't actually tell her to read it. Instead, I stuck a post-it on the relevant page and scribbled: "Read this." And left it on her pillow.
The next morning, I had breakfast in the cold, alienating 'Me-against-the-world' silence of the dining table. My mom came in with some food and plonked it on my plate. She ruffled my hair and said, "It was a beautiful story. Had to let you know."
It wasn't me against the world then. And breakfast was good.
3. There's a story of a man who is sharing a cup of tea with a stranger at a tea center. He knows a lot about London. He describes the streets, the senses, the history, the people, the food, the phobias of the city so vividly that the stranger, a Londoner himself, is impressed. Only when the book ends do we come to know that the man talking about London is blind and he has never been to the city. He has only heard about bits and pieces from others and has had people read out about London to him.
4. There's another story of a middle-aged British couple who take a trip to Turkey. They are not very rich but they have always wanted to visit Turkey. They use up their lifesavings to get there only to be befriended and paired up with a loud, rich American couple. The Americans want to spend all their time with them. As a result, the couple are anxious because they are running out of time and money on their trip which literally is once-in-a-lifetime. On the last day before they leave, the British and American couples visit a store to buy Turkish carpets. Now, carpet stores mainly sell two kinds of carpets. Some are overtly colorful and very florid for the tourists. Some are in subdued shades with sparse detailing for the people who know and the travelers who research. The American couple bargain loudly for the most vibrant carpet and come home. The British couple return later and go through the rituals of a typical Turkish bazaar negotiation - they sit on the floor, share cups of tea with the carpet-seller and choose a carpet in ochre and sweet designs of trees. The carpet-seller is pleased with their research and brings down the price for a valuable carpet so that the couple can afford it.
Those were the stories of Jeffrey Archer that have stayed with me over the years. And until that day that I saw him at the bookstore, I had felt very close to him. Like we were related. He was an uncle who'd come visiting and share the very best stories with me. He knew what I'd like and I think I was his favorite. But that day, he was so far away. I saw him in flesh and blood but he could very easily just have been a photograph on one of his paperbacks. That is exactly what I was afraid of before I landed up at the store. Still, I guess it was good I went. There has to be some way to thank the author the young girl in me is so grateful to. One of his stories had brought me closer to my mum one morning many years ago.
So, thank you, Mr. Archer. Thank you for the tales. Just had to let you know.