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Nov 04, 2020

Fiction Friendship

“It doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat.” Well, that’s the kind of thing I’m used to hearing from my cousin Loretta. Cousins by birth, friends by choice, as she is wont to say. I don’t contradict her. It would be cruel. Like kicking a particularly ebullient puppy. But the fact remains that though puppies are, of course, adorable, it is their purpose in life, and kicking one would be an unspeakable act, beyond even me on my grumpiest days, there are still times when you wish they’d just simmer down a bit. The cousins by birth is true, of course. It’s the friends by choice that I question. The thing about Loretta is she’s one of those people you tell yourself that you couldn’t dislike and yet, deep down, sometimes you do.

     Anyway, basically (that word that you’re supposed to avoid like the plague) I have made three mistakes lately. The first was entering my little bookshop in the Window of the Year competition. The second was telling Loretta that I had. And the third was letting her know that I was beginning to wonder if it was a good idea.

     Although books are, of course, the most marvellous and wonderful thing in the world, when it comes to window displays, bookshops have automatic disadvantages compared to, say, craft shops, or florists, or jewellers. A book is, well, a book. It doesn’t come with much variety of shape or texture. Now of course it is possible to use the imagination and incorporate a book somewhere, if you look hard enough, in a fancy and witty window display. Sort of Hunt the Book. But to my mind, that’s cheating. I’ve nothing against a little imaginative advertising, but, well, quite frankly, anyone who thinks books are boring and has to be persuaded has come to the wrong place if they darken the door of Barbara’s Bookshop. I didn’t even feel inclined to think up any witty puns. My name. Its purpose. That would do nicely. Okay, the alliteration is handy, but if it didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have invented it.

      Loretta, I have concluded, is one of those people who likes everything about reading except, well, actually reading. Oh, she’s perfectly literate, of course, and always takes a couple of paperbacks on holiday, and is an enthusiastic supporter of the local Primary School’s book fund, and was an equally enthusiastic supporter of the Save the Library campaign – which we won, though I always feel compelled to add the word temporarily. But she does not, I suspect, feel a sense of genuine panic when without a book on a long journey (I only ever let that happen once and NEVER AGAIN) or nurse a notion that if heaven existed, but have no books in it, she’d prefer the other place.

     I wouldn’t mind, but I didn’t say it in a grumpy or what Loretta terms a downmouth sort of manner. I was almost cheerful about it, saying it was a relief that I had accepted I wasn’t going to win one of the Window of the Year awards, probably not even an honourable mention, and I could get back to doing what I loved, running a bookshop.

     “Well, no offence,” said Barbara (who has a habit of prefacing remarks with no offence as if it automatically excuses her from any accusation of causing it) “but with an attitude like that you might as well not have entered in the first place. I mean, it doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat.” It was as if the rest of her remark had been a preface for that parting shot. It makes me wonder which particular book of affirmations or manual of positive thinking she’d lifted that particular one from, or if by now she’s more than capable of making up her own.

     We parted on perfectly amiable terms, but it was plain she thought she’d given me food for thought, and I would realise the wisdom of her words, and might even call on her to help. Mind you, she’s aching to help out anyway. She fancies herself as a window dresser, or at least, she has ever since this competition started, and (this is pure conjecture, of course) I can imagine her putting out feelers of her own at work and being politely, but firmly, told that an insurance brokers just doesn’t lend itself to a whimsical window display. She’s still sulking – or would be, if she did sulk, which she makes a point of not doing – because she wasn’t allowed to spray fake snow on their windows at Christmas, though they did have a tree. 

     My assistant – except we’re really more partners, and I like it that way – Anita, has returned from the bakery, laden with gloriously unhealthy goodies. “I see the Cousin from Hell has been in,” she says. “ Our paths crossed on the market square! My treat.”

     “Don’t call her the Cousin from Hell,” I say, automatically, whilst thinking that you truly can’t be cross with someone who had just treated you to a chocolate shortbread muffin. Who says fusion food doesn’t work? “She’s a very nice person.”

     “I know, and isn’t that just the worse thing about it?” she asks, as we retreat to the little table behind the counter. I’m a person of few rules, but sticky fingers and books don’t go together whether you’re staff or a customer. “And what particular gem of wisdom did she treat you to today?”

     “Apparently it doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat,” I inform her. 

     “Ah, so she has it all sussed. You’re sitting up until the wee small hours, complete with spreadsheet, your mission, and you obviously have accepted it, being I will Plan my Defeat.”

     “Don’t be facetious,” I chide, smothering a giggle. “I mean – it would be nice to at least get an honourable mention, and I’m not denying it. “But not at any price. This is a book shop and I’m proud of the fact.”

     “And rightly so,” Anita nods, enthusiastically. When Anita nods, she means it. “I mean - I rejoiced as much as anyone when we kept the library open, but when I saw they had colour co-ordinated displays of books, well, that made me wince.”

     “I know, I’ve seen it. And not even on titles. Just on the predominant colour of the sleeve.”

     “I wonder what Mrs Reeves would have had to say,” Anita ponders. Mrs Reeves was the previous owner of the book shop, and she was a stickler. If she as much as suspected that anyone was sucking a cough sweet they’d be shown the door, and though admittedly they weren’t a “thing” as much as they are now, no ghost-written celebrity biography ever found a place on her shelves. Yet to book-loving children like me, she was a fairy godmother in a Fair Isle cardigan and with a tight perm. She was endlessly patient hunting out books from my favourite writers, and often said, oh so casually, “You may as well take that one as well, on the house.” I don’t delude myself I was the only person to be thus honoured. “I doubt if she’d have even bothered entering the contest,” I say. “But we could always ask her!”

     Because I hope I haven’t given the impression that Mrs Reeves has gone to the great book shop in the sky. She’s still very much with us, and runs the reading group in the Briar Lodge Retirement Village. We quite often pay her a visit, and it’s always a joy, though she has never displayed any intent of becoming a sweet old lady.

     “Ah yes, the Window of the Year competition,” she says, gracefully stirring her tea, and pronouncing it as if it’s some item of food that she’s sure tastes very nice, if you like that kind of thing, but she’s not sure she’d be tempted to try. “Quite the topic of conversation here. Mary’s granddaughter works at the Bean and Bar” (that’s an upmarket coffee shop and confectioners that sells lovely but highly expensive stuff!) “So you’re entering the book shop.”

     “Well, that was the plan,” I say, “But now I don’t know what to do.” Mrs Reeves is the kind of person it’s easy to confide in precisely because she never seems to force you or expect you to. I tell her about what Loretta said.

     “A pleasant enough girl, if I remember,” she muses. “Not that I saw nearly as much of her as I did of you! But, saving your presence Barbara, as I know she’s your cousin, the kind of person who can be rather tiring. I won’t say tiresome, that’s another matter, but they’re far too bouncy for their own good. We have a few of that sort here, too. Well, my dears, whether you enter for the Window of the Year competition is entirely up to you. I don’t need to tell you that I’ll be rooting for you if I do – even if Mary and I have become good friends! – and that I wouldn’t blame you in the least if you didn’t. But one thing does occur to me. Maybe I’m just reading too much into exact wording – well, as you two know, it’s an occupational hazard! But think about what Loretta said. She said it doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat.” There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with her memory! “It sounds to me as if she’s the one who’s planning your defeat, not you. And that’s not right. Win or lose, enter or not, it should be on your terms, and not hers. Mind you,” she pauses, and it’s what I recognise as a thinking pause. “There’s never a thing wrong with asking for advice or help, just the opposite. Though it strikes me you didn’t exactly ask for it! Still, it wouldn’t be the first time the bookshop has been involved in a competition like this. I heard Mary’s granddaughter talking about it, and looked it up on the web.” Mrs Reeves doesn’t have her own laptop (though I’ve been let on a Christmas present plan from her son!) but they have a well-equipped computer room at Briar Lodge. She has an entirely pragmatic attitude to the online world. It can be useful. It can be interesting. It’s probably better there than not there. But it should always be the servant not the master. Curious as we are, we know better than to suggest a trip to the computer room, let alone looking it up on a smartphone while we are visiting. “Back in the 50s.” she says, “Only it had, in my view, a far nicer name and remit. It was for the most welcoming shop in town. You’ll find it on the local history section of East Coast This Week. I could wish it was a bit longer but it’s quite interesting.”

     Yes she had piqued our interest and no mistake! And now we’ve found out. As she says, the article was small, but told us enough. And it told us that Reeves’ Readers Emporium, as it had been called then, had won the first prize! There was a lovely picture of Mrs Christina Reeve, wearing the billowing skirts of the time, and her smile could not have been more welcoming – but a sincere, slightly impish smile, not one of those plastered on ones. The front window of the shop – we still have the same bay window now, though the glass has been replaced – was made to look like a lounge or a library in one of those old-fashioned country homes. There was a little table and desk – too big to be in a doll’s house, too small for regular furniture, and Anita, who is a devotee of the Antiques Road Show is of the opinion that they may be apprentice pieces. And there is a big (well, small, but to scale!), old fashioned standard lamp, just at the right position to make the light fall on the pages of the book, and everywhere, books, in a bookshelf, on a pile on the floor. A lifelike doll is sitting on the chair, which could be spooky, but isn’t at all, and she is wearing a billowing skirt that looks very much like Christina Reeves’. At her feet, and you could almost swear you could hear him give a contented little woof as he nuzzles up to his mistress as she enjoys her book, is an equally lifelike little Yorkshire terrier.

     There are practical issues, of course, but – and my Goodness, I’m starting to sound like Mrs Reeves with wise words (at least, at the risk of sounding mean, I hope I sound like Mrs Reeves and not like Loretta!) I sometimes think that once you have an idea, unless the problems really are insurmountable, practical things have a way of sorting themselves out, and this is certainly one of those occasions. True, if we had required rocket science or gourmet cuisine it might have been another matter, but Anita’s uncle is a keen wood-worker, and has said that while they might not be such works of art and carpentry as on the original, he can certainly “bodge” some miniature furniture. At first I was a bit worried by the word “bodge”, but gave me one of those, “I’ll explain later looks”, and subsequently told me that in her Uncle Jack’s vocabulary, “bodge” didn’t mean to cobble together, or to make a rough fist at, but described an ability he thought all men – and all women, come to that – ought to have – and one sadly neglected in a world that made out it cared about the environment – the capacity for making and mending and re-using. We have agreed that though the original will certainly be the inspiration, we won’t produce an exact copy, but nor will we “studiedly” update it in an intrusive way.

     We’re still wondering about the figure, though. The dog, ironically, is easy enough – there’s no shortage of cute and lifelike plush dogs. But somehow, even though we’ve managed to find dolls that might be the right size, they just don’t have the right “feel” – and I can give words my own twist, too, and that doesn’t necessarily mean to do with touching, though there’s not going to be a “Do Not Touch” sign – as Anita says, unlike some of the displays, nothing in ours will be actually breakable!

     We went to visit Mrs Reeves again today. For the umpteenth time she said she wished we’d call her Christina, and we try to remember, but in an odd kind of way, there’s something more affectionate about Mrs Reeves as it takes us back to our childhood! She was glad to hear that it was going well, but we admitted to our problems with the figure – somehow saying doll didn’t seem quite right. She nodded, “We had problems with that, too. In the end, someone made it for us, but otherwise we’d just have to have made the best of a bad job, too. After all,” and there was that impish grin, “Haven’t you said all along yourselves that it’s the books that count!”

     She was right, and we settled for a doll that wasn’t too bad, though not the ideal. 

     The day before the judging – and to be honest, neither Anita nor I is especially interested. Last night we had a phone call from Briar Lodge and heard that Mrs Reeves had passed away peacefully in her sleep. No matter how much you try to persuade yourself, and no matter how much it’s true, that it was exactly what someone would have wanted, it still hurts. But we also know what she would have wanted is for us to go ahead, so we will.

     We are looking at our window display now, just after the winter dawn has broken. And there is someone sitting in the chair that Jack “bodged” for us, and, in fact, is lovely, and could give the original a run for its money. Not the stiff-legged doll that we struggled to pose in a half-way lifelike way, but a young lady, wearing a billowing skirt, and with an impish grin on her face. And there’s nothing scary or weird about it. 

     Credit where it’s due, now we have won the First Prize, Loretta was one of the first to congratulate us!

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