Black is black

He sidled round the edge of the door just before closing time. His face was waxy yellow, the tightly-stretched skin giving him a cadaverous mien. Wisps of white hair clung to a dandruff-dusted scalp. His bony arms dangled out of an over-sized sports coat and he shuffled into the office on heavy, highly polished brogues.

“Eh, we’re closed, mate.”

He advanced to my desk as if I hadn’t spoken and placed a cheap, plastic bag in front of me.

“I think you’ll find there’s exactly five hundred pounds in there,” he said. “Is that enough to print my poetry book?”

It’s not every day you get a bag of money dumped on your desk, so I rethought my attitude.

“Well, that very much depends on how many pages you’ve got and how big the print run is, Mr …?

“Cooke. Mr Cooke.” He proffered a bony hand, the knuckles shiny with sweat. I knocked a few sheets of paper off my desk and exclaimed in annoyance as I bent to retrieve them. Somehow, in the fussy little moment, the handshake was avoided. 

I straightened up to find a small blue exercise book had joined the bag of money.

“This is my complete collection,” said Mr Cooke. “I leave it entirely in your hands, except to say it must be a hardback with a dust cover; the paper should be heavy and cream coloured and, most importantly, the ink must be black. Shall we say a week today for proofs?”

With that he gave a slight bow and glided back out of the door, pausing only to add, “I trust you will let me know if you need any more money.”

I said to the empty room, “Wait, you need a receipt,” but he was gone, leaving only a faint trace of Old Spice in the air.

It was going to be a very slim volume indeed. The exercise book had one short poem on every page, written carefully in pencil. There twenty four in total, and a note to say the author’s name was Malcolm Joynes and the publisher’s name was Smythe Productions.

The guys in the studio did their best with it and I had to admit it was a decent job. Elegantly set out in Palatino and with a few well-placed glyphs on the half title and imprint pages, it was more than I had hoped for.

Exactly on time, seven days later, Mr Cooke reappeared, again carrying a plastic bag. He remained standing as he gave a cursory look at the proofs I had laid out for him, plus an abstract design for the dust jacket. 

“That’s all very satisfactory,” he said as he turned to go. “I’ll be back in a week to pick them up.”

I was a little quicker than him this time and managed to place myself in front of the door to stop him leaving. “Mr Cooke, you haven’t said how many books you want printed or what colour the leather should be.”

“I told you I would leave everything to you but, if you insist, blue leather and just two or three dozen will be fine.”

“Two or three dozen? Our minimum run on something like this is about 500 to give you a reasonable price per unit.”

He laid one hand gently on my arm to nudge me aside. “I will bid you good evening. Please remember, the ink must be black.” And, again, he was gone.

I selected an expensive, heavyweight cream paper, we printed the book in black ink and had them bound in a dark blue leather, finishing them off with a cream and blue dust jacket. As I waited for Mr Cooke to arrive, I felt quite proud of the elegant little tomes.

He walked in, carrier bag in hand, and picked up the sample copy I’d left out for him on top of the boxed books.

“Very nice.” He flicked the book open. “Oh, dear.”

“Something wrong, Mr Cooke?”

“I’m afraid the ink isn’t black enough. I did specify I wanted black ink.”

“I assure you …”

“No, I’m sorry, they won’t do. Can you print them again, please.”

The customer is always right, so I swallowed my words. Besides, the five hundred pounds he’d left with me was enough to cover a reprint.

“Very well, Mr Cooke.” Before he could speak again, I added, “We’ll see you again next week, then?”

“Precisely. Will you see that these books are destroyed, please.” He placed the carrier bag on my desk. “Your remuneration for printing the books again.”

With that, he performed his usual vanishing act, leaving me with another five hundred pounds. I locked the money in a drawer to keep it safe until I returned it to him and we set about reprinting the books.

I stood by the press, pen in hand, ready to sign off the print, which was over-laden with black ink. Just about to OK the sheet, praying the ink wouldn’t set off on the other side of the paper, I stopped to read one of his poems.

His hands were cold

And his nose was runny,

The old man who left me

All his money.

“Have you seen this?” I asked the guy running the machine.

“Oh, yeah. They’re all like that.”

Mr Cooke was very happy with the second print run. There were fifty books in the box and he very carefully extracted thirty of them and packed them into two carrier bags he removed from his pockets.

“You can dispose of the remainder,” he instructed me. “I find quality is much more important than quantity, don’t you?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

“I’ll bid you goodbye, then.”

“Before you go, I’ve got your money here. You’ve already paid in full for the work we did.”

“No.” One long, narrow hand was raised deprecatingly. “One must always pay one’s way in life.”

All right, I’ll be honest, I didn’t protest too much.

Occasionally, I catch sight of Mr Cooke in the street. He always has a carrier bag in his hand and I always wonder what’s up to now with the old man’s money.