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Clement's Corner: The Blank Page

… I simply cannot imagine someone going to all the trouble of carefully inserting an old yellowing blank page between two sheets of cardboard, wrapping it in brown paper and finally adding an obscure quote from who knows where and then posting it…. An author is puzzled by the arrival of a mysterious package in this intriguing story by Owen R Clement.

It arrived addressed to Selwyn Jones, a blank page yellowing at the edges placed carefully between two stiff sheets of cardboard and wrapped in brown paper. It was posted from somewhere within Australia.

Who sent it? Why? What did it mean? These questions fascinated, intrigued and, most of all, frustrated Selwyn.

Carefully taking the brittle sheet between his fingers and thumbs he held it against the light. Apart from a faint indistinguishable watermark, it was clear. He rewrapped it and placed it in the bottom drawer of his antique roll-top desk.

Taking out his address book he checked every entry trying to ascertain who could be the sender.

After much consideration, he decided that the most likely candidate was his publisher, Maurice Standish. Maurice was a notorious practical joker and more importantly, he had been pressuring Selwyn to take up his mystery writing again.

As it had been a while since they had last been in touch, Selwyn’s wondered how he could present a valid reason for making contact again, apart from asking him straight out, if he was the person responsible.

Selwyn paced back and forth across the room rubbing his chin and stopping occasionally to mull over a possible course of action. After more than an hour, he finally picked up his telephone and invited Maurice to dinner the following Sunday.

Maurice arrived looking dapper in his white linen suit, royal blue business shirt and white bow tie.

Embracing Selwyn warmly he said, “Well my boy, what have you got for me?”

Anticipating this Selwyn replied, “It’s nothing like that Maurice. Why don’t we eat first?”

Maurice shrugged his shoulders, “Of course, if that’s what you wish”.

They chatted about day-to-day matters while Selwyn prepared a simple meal of grilled steak and salad followed by strawberries and cream.

The meal over, they moved to Selwyn’s study carrying their half-empty glasses and the unfinished bottle of a well-matured Cabernet Shiraz.

Inviting Maurice to sit on one of the two red leather armchairs opposite the unlit fireplace Selwyn said, as he moved to his desk, “To satisfy your curiosity, a rather odd package arrived addressed to me earlier this week”. He retrieved the parcel and handed it over.

Maurice took out the sheet and examined it carefully. “Is there no note or any indication of what it could mean?” he asked.

Selwyn shook his head, “Nothing, no name, no note, no return address – nothing.”

Maurice then examined the two pieces of cardboard and saw that in very small hand-written text at the bottom corner of one of the sheets were the words, “If there is no wind, row”. He pointed it out to Selwyn.

“Oh, I didn’t notice that. What’s it means though?”

“I believe that it means precisely what I have been trying to say to you over the last few months. By the way, you think I sent this don’t you?”

“Well; as a matter of fact, I did wonder. If it wasn’t you, then who?”

Maurice stood up, putting down his now empty glass.

“You’re not going are you?” Selwyn asked.

“Now that you’re certain that it’s not me –“

“I never realized that you would be so damn touchy.”

Maurice gazed down at the still seated Selwyn.

“I’m sorry, Maurice,” Selwyn said standing up, “for some reason I find this very disturbing. Believe me; I didn’t want to offend you. I merely hoped that you may have some idea of who might have sent it.’ He sighed, “Of course if you want to leave, then you must.” He offered his hand. “Thank you for coming. If at any time you can come up with an idea, I would be very grateful if you would let me know.”

“Why on earth do you find it disturbing? It’s only an old blank sheet of paper.”

“True, but I simply cannot imagine someone going to all the trouble of carefully inserting an old yellowing blank page between two sheets of cardboard, wrapping it in brown paper and finally adding an obscure quote from who knows where and then posting it. No, I think there’s much more to it. Let’s look at the possibilities; stay a little longer, please. “

Maurice slowly shook his head but sat down nevertheless. Selwyn reached over and refilled his glass.

Selwyn continued, “The sheet is old, it has a faint watermark, which may provide a clue, or it could refer to something I either wrote or had written about me. Don’t you find it mysterious, I do? I have even thought of having the page analyzed in case it’s a poisoned letter.” He sighed again, “I’ve been wondering whom I could have offended. I don’t know if my imagination is flying high but… It’s such a bizarre thing to do.”

“You really are letting your imagination run wild. Okay, let’s be rational for a moment. Try and think of anyone, except for me, who has been trying to get you to take up your writing again – another publisher maybe?”

“I have no other publisher” Selwyn said angrily.

“Well then, you know what I think you really fear?” he continued without waiting for a reply, “the Tabula rasa, the blank page itself, waiting to have its virginal surface inscribed, that’s what. “

He drained his glass and stood up. “Try and not to worry too much”.

Selwyn followed Maurice to the hall.

Grasping both Selwyn’s hands in his, Maurice said, “Sorry I was no help. If I do come up with an idea I’ll call you”.

Selwyn thanked him and apologized for taking up his valuable time on such a trivial matter.

Maurice assured Selwyn that he glad that they had made contact again.

Waving the agent off Selwyn returned once again to examine the hand written comment and rewrap the parcel before putting it away.

The next day he began to write.

The parcel that arrived over ten years ago still sits in the drawer, its origin a mystery to this very day.

© 2005


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