"THE End of the Alphabet," a sad and sweet debut novella by CS Richardson, starts with a death sentence. Well, more of an expiration date. Ambrose Zephyr, a mild-mannered ad executive who's just turned 50, goes in for a routine checkup and learns he has a month to live, "[g]ive or take a day." He's afflicted with a vague but virulent illness, the doctor tells him, one with no known cure. Time to make arrangements.
Until now, Ambrose has been content to live a small life. He shares a nice "Victorian terrace" in London with his beloved wife, Zappora "Zipper" Ashkenazi. His tastes run to quirky watches, French-cuffed shirts and the occasional kir royale. "He believed women to be quantifiably wiser than men," Richardson writes. "He was neither a breast man nor a leg nor an ass man; hair could be any length, any color. Ambrose preferred the complete puzzle to a bit here, a piece there."
Zipper, meanwhile, works as an editor and columnist at a popular fashion magazine. She's an accomplished cook, a voracious reader and owns a lot of great earrings. Ambrose is the love of her life, a life now destined to outlast his.
Ambrose's plan for his final month on Earth turns out to be an A-through-Z tour of the world, something he's been planning since he was a child. Zipper doesn't quite get it, but, desperate and in shock, she packs for the journey. The couple work their way through Amsterdam, Berlin and Chartres, from Deauville to the Eiffel Tower. In Istanbul, Zipper persuades Ambrose to give up his alphabetic hegira and return home. There, the book winds to its tender and tragic close.
The prose, often taut as a spider's web, occasionally falters. Here's Zipper, recalling midnight sex in Paris in language that would read well in the pages of Cosmo:
"She looked down at her body and thought of his hands.
"In Place des Vosges. His hands on her. In the dark beneath Victor Hugo's window, her hands on him. Breathless mouths, wordless tongues, losing themselves. Under the plane trees in the middle of the night. . .
"She buried her face in her hands. You cannot have it, she screamed through her fingers."
Then Richardson rallies with something as rhythmic and funny as this:
"In all the years we talked about Venice and pictured Venice and dreamed of Venice, did we ever once imagine it might smell?"
Richardson's a book designer by trade, and the A-to-Z theme, from the characters' names to their lettered journey, reflects it. His love of the 26 building blocks that prop up the entire English language bleeds into the text. Letters have heft and dash and vigor. They lurk as plot points in antique stores and serve up visual trills in alliteration. They turn the 120 pages of this slight book into a tear-stained goodbye note and a heartfelt love letter.