Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

The Book of Unretractable Compliments

Zoe heaved a sigh like a punctured balloon and collapsed onto her bed. The navy cocktail dress she had worn for her date with Jack lay crumpled and discarded on the floor, cast off in favour of her comfiest pyjamas. It had taken all her self-control not to raid the fridge the moment she got in. The idea of eating strawberry jam with a spoon was an undeniably appealing one given what had just transpired, but she knew from experience that the subsequent sugar crash would only make her feel worse. So instead she made herself a hot chocolate and shuffled off to bed. Booting up her ancient laptop, she spent the best part of five minutes perusing Netflix for something to watch. The opening sequence of Notting Hill had barely begun playing when her phone rang.

Zoe knew without even looking at the screen that the caller was her mother.

‘Just checking in,’ Suzanne said in her breezy phone voice. It didn’t matter that Zoe was twenty-seven and had been living on her own for the past four years; Suzanne still rang to make sure she was okay whenever she had been on a night out.

‘Hi, Mom,’ Zoe said, doing her utmost to inject a note of cheeriness into her voice. Suzanne wasn’t fooled.

‘What’s happened?’

‘Oh nothing, it just didn’t go the way I planned.’

‘Do you want to talk about it?’

‘Not really. Suffice it to say I won’t be seeing him again.’

‘I thought you were keen on this one,’ Suzanne remarked. She had a knack for coaxing information out of her children despite their initial shows of reticence.

‘I am. I mean I was. But he’s not keen on me so that’s that.’

Zoe forced the words out as quickly as possible, as if doing so would somehow prevent the memory from surfacing. She didn’t want to think about that moment outside the restaurant when Jack had cut her off mid-sentence to say he was sorry, but he just wasn’t ‘feeling it.’ She had been halfway through saying what a lovely evening she’d had. Mercifully, she hadn’t got as far as saying they should do it again some time.

‘Well in that case he wasn’t for you,’ said Suzanne matter-of-factly.

No, but I wanted him to be.

Any more negative thoughts Zoe might have had were curtailed by an interjection from her father. His booming foghorn of a voice rang out in the background.

‘Tell her he’s a tosser and an idiot and she’s better off without him!’

Zoe had heard this refrain, or variations of it, many times over the years. Every time a relationship ended, or a guy messed her around, or even just failed to reciprocate her feelings, her father was there, armed with brutally succinct character assessments and an arsenal of choice descriptions. His gruff protectiveness never failed to make her feel better, if only for a moment.

They talked a little while longer about less consequential things, until Suzanne felt her daughter had been suitably distracted from her woes. Somewhat comforted, Zoe hung up, pressed play and pulled the duvet up to her chin. For twenty minutes she was engrossed in the film, spirited away from her small flat and floundering love life. Then, just as Rhys Ifans came striding down the stairs in a red wetsuit with a pair of goggles on his head, Zoe rolled onto her side and felt something sharp digging in her ribs.

Throwing back the covers, she discovered that the offending object was a book, and not one she recognised. It was A5, bound in brown leather with a gold foil border, and embossed on the front in swirling gold letters were the words The Book of Unretractable Compliments. It was a title Zoe had never even heard of, let alone purchased.

Her first thought was that her best friend, Samantha, must have left it when she came over a few days ago. It did sound like the kind of thing Samantha would read, and she was forever leaving things behind in her lovably scatter-brained way. It must have found its way into the bedroom while Zoe was tidying. She had probably scooped it up with an armful of clothes and dumped it unceremoniously onto the bed. It wouldn’t be the first time she had found random objects in random places.

But her theory fell apart the moment she flipped open the cover. There, in the centre of the first page was the inscription, This Book Belongs to Zoe Christina Wootton. An inch below that, in the same looping calligraphy, was another inscription which read:

A compliment, once given,
And if gratefully received,
Remains yours forever,
And can never be retracted,
Regardless of subsequent events

Zoe stared at the words, wondering how the little book came to be in her bed. Was it a gift? That seemed the most plausible explanation, in which case it was most likely placed there by Samantha or her mother. She was reaching for her phone to call Samantha when her stomach gave a sickening lurch. What if someone had been in her flat? What if it wasn’t a gift at all, but something far more sinister?

Launching herself off the bed as if it were on fire, Zoe snatched up her bedside lamp. She spent the next ten minutes switching on lights, opening cupboards and checking behind furniture, all the while keeping the lamp held aloft. If an intruder did come lunging at her, she planned to bring it crashing down on their head with all the force she could muster. Other than the appearance of the book, there was nothing to suggest that anyone had been in her flat, but Zoe had watched too many crime dramas to run the risk of not checking. When she had checked once, she checked again. She even inspected the door and windows for signs of forced entry. To her immense relief, she found nothing. Satisfied that there was no intruder, and with the first theory now looking far more likely, Zoe crawled back into bed and set about examining the book.

It was, as the title and inscription suggested, a book of compliments. But not generic compliments. They were hers. Almost every compliment Zoe could ever remember receiving was there. They were grouped together in sections according to their nature and listed in chronological order. Zoe smiled at the first entry in the Childhood Memories section. It was a comment made to her by her old friend and playmate Ben when they were about four years old.

You’re the most beautiful girl in the world, apart from Princess Diana.

At the time Zoe hadn’t been at all happy about the addendum, but in hindsight she found it both sweet and poignant.

The next section contained pages and pages of compliments from her teachers. There were comments from her old art teacher, Mr Ferguson, praising her style and technique. There were quotes from every one of her English teachers, lauding her ability to analyse literature and imitate Dickens. Every good report, every high test score and piece of positive feedback-it was all laid out in the little book. It was like looking through a catalogue of all her academic achievements, from primary school right the way up to university. Even now, almost a decade after leaving school, reading them filled her with a warm ember glow.

Next came a section of work-based compliments from her colleagues and employers. This section wasn’t nearly as thick, nor did its contents produce the same sense of satisfaction. As much as Zoe liked her marketing job and the cosmetics company she worked for, she had always regarded work as a means to an end as opposed to a lifestyle. While it pleased her to know that people admired her organisation and creativity, it was a fleeting, insignificant kind of pleasure. As a result, she skimmed through this section quickly.

The following chapter proved much more satisfying, as it contained all the lovely things said to her by her friends over the years. Some she was still in contact with. Some drifted in and out of her life periodically, and others had fallen off the radar altogether. It didn’t matter. The effect of reading their words was the same. It buoyed her up, enveloping her in a feeling as warm and comforting as the duvet beneath which she was snuggled.

I miss you and I think about you all the time.

That was from her friend Marissa, who she had met at university and who had since gone back to her native country of Portugal. It had been the sign-off to a message that came after three years of silence, and reading it had made Zoe’s month.

That house party was one of the best nights of my life and it was all because of you.

Zoe had forgotten about that remark, made by her friend and former colleague, Aimee. It had been Aimee’s first proper house party. She wasn’t going to stay over initially, but Zoe had persuaded her and the two of them had had a blast. Aimee’s parents hadn’t been happy, but Zoe could never quite bring herself to feel bad about it.

Some of the compliments were from friends of friends, or proxy friends, as Zoe sometimes referred to them. One such example came from her sister’s friend Sally. Zoe and Sally had met a few times, but didn’t really bond until Meg’s hen weekend. It was the end of the first night, and only the last few stragglers were left awake, their filters disabled by alcohol. Sally had looked at Zoe over the embers of the campfire and said in her beautifully blunt way:

You know, I didn’t think I’d like you initially, but you’re actually awesome.

Choosing to ignore the barb at the beginning, Zoe had responded with, ‘Aww, thanks.’ Sally wasn’t the first to feel this way. There were several comments in a similar vein, including one from Zoe’s friend and former colleague, Hannah.

How you seem initially is so different to how you are.

Reading the words back, it occurred to Zoe that it wasn’t strictly a compliment in and of itself. What made it a compliment was the way it was intended. When they first met, Hannah had drawn the same conclusions that many people drew: that Zoe was reserved, withdrawn and not very personable. Then they got talking, and the more comfortable Zoe got, the more Hannah discovered that her first impression had been entirely inaccurate. Long text conversations and wild nights out ensued, and for a while the two of them were extremely close. Then Hannah had got a job elsewhere, and Zoe hadn’t heard from her since. It was a shame, but the compliment still stood.

The next entry was the last of the section. This time there was nothing veiled about it. No subtext, no inferences to be made, just beautiful simplicity. It was five words long, and Zoe recognised the speaker immediately as her friend Eloise from university. She had said them back in their second year, when a bad breakup had left a sizeable dent in Zoe’s self-esteem. They were exactly what Zoe had needed to hear back then, and they were exactly what she needed now.

I love you so much.

Five little words, short in length but enormous in magnitude. It was the best compliment of all, and provided the perfect segue into the next and final section.

These were the romantic compliments, given to her by former partners, old flames and admirers. Zoe was surprised by the sheer number of them. Page after page telling her how pretty she was, how gorgeous she looked in a certain dress, what an amazing person she was and how glad they were to have met her. If only her desperately insecure teenage self could have seen this book. It would have bolstered her confidence and spared her years of agonised worrying that no man would ever find her attractive. Not that Zoe needed compliments from men in order to feel fulfilled. She didn’t, or at least she didn’t anymore. Experience had taught her that validation was something you only stopped craving once you had had plenty of it. The little book of compliments was proof that she had indeed had plenty of it.

It didn’t escape Zoe’s notice that the remarks in this particular section were becoming more explicit with every page she turned. Some were only explicit when placed in the context of her memories-comments like Your back is perfectly smooth and You’re looking very sultry. The latter was particularly satisfying, for the very simple reason that Zoe did not consider herself remotely sultry. With her pale skin, green eyes and light brown hair, sultry was not an adjective she ever would have used to describe her own appearance. Having someone gift the word to her had been a delightful surprise. After all this time she still treasured it, smugly carrying it around with her like a locket secreted beneath her clothing.

Other comments were unabashedly explicit whichever way you turned them. There were several compliments from former partners about how nice her backside was. It was ironic; Zoe had spent her entire adolescence wishing she could shrink this particular part of her body, only to discover it was the very same part the men in her life liked the most.

Some of the remarks were so intimate that Zoe had never repeated them to anyone. Not even Samantha. There was no way she or any other person could have compiled this collection of compliments. Even if all her friends and family had banded together, there were things in this book that none of them could possibly have known. Desperate to get to the bottom of the book’s mysterious existence, Zoe did what she always did when she was confused and in need of guidance: she picked up the phone and called her mother.

Suzanne answered on the first ring.

‘Is everything all right? What’s happened?’

‘Everything’s fine, Mom, I just have something to ask you.’

‘Oh, that’s okay then.’

The tension audibly left Suzanne’s voice, and Zoe felt a tinge of guilt for having caused her mother a moment of panic.

‘Ask away.’

‘I found a book in my bed just now and I don’t know where it’s come from.’

‘Is it full of compliments?’

‘Yes. How did you know?’

‘All adults have one. I was wondering when you’d find yours.’

‘I thought maybe you or Sam had put it there when you last came over.’

‘Us? No, it’s nothing to do with us. The books aren’t made. They pop into being when you need a boost and then they’re yours forever.’

‘You mean like magic?

‘If that’s what you want to call it, yes.’

Zoe looked down at the book nestled on her lap. The idea that it had simply popped into being was beyond ludicrous, and yet there appeared to be no rational explanation for its existence.

‘You’re not winding me up, are you?’

‘No, darling. When have I ever lied to you about anything?’

It was a good point. For as long as Zoe could remember, her mother’s approach to child-rearing had been one of unflinching honesty. Zoe had found out much younger than most that Santa was not real, that the Tooth Fairy was a fiction and the Easter Bunny a fantasy. Suzanne never had been one for indulging flights of fancy. If she said the book was magical, then it was.

Zoe read the little book from cover to cover two more times that night. She let Notting Hill tick over in the background, looking up every now and then at notable moments, but otherwise ignoring it. On her second reading she noticed that not every compliment she could remember receiving was recorded. If it was at all backhanded, or came with the words “for a woman” tacked on the end, then it was not there. If it had been given by someone whose opinion she did not respect or hadn’t welcomed, it was not there. If it was an unsolicited comment made by a weird guy in the street or in a nightclub, it was not there.

‘I guess those comments weren’t gratefully received,’ Zoe muttered to herself, recalling the words of the inscription on the first page.

She fell asleep shortly before midnight with the hum of her gratefully received compliments fizzing in her blood like champagne bubbles. The Book of Unretractable Compliments was tucked safely beneath her pillow, where it seemed to emit a warm glow that Zoe could feel against her cheek even after she drifted off. She had been so engrossed in its contents prior to falling asleep that the night’s earlier proceedings seemed oddly distant, as if they were a scene in a forgettable movie she had only half paid attention to. It had not escaped Zoe’s notice that there were no compliments from Jack in her little brown book. Her last thought before she slipped irresistibly into dreams was that she really didn’t care.

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.

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