There was something about the smell of vintage paper; worn and yellow and dog-eared corners that had been flattened out and then creased again. The ink that stained the pages with words that couldn’t become unsaid once spoken aloud. She drifted through the aisles, this wisp of a person with hair that was blacker than the nights in the depths of winter when even the silver penny of a moon is obscured by clouds. She was everything that writers would romanticize in the stories she was browsing.
You wouldn’t believe me, but she was even in a dress, one of those flowy silk ones that cinch at her waist and then wash around her ankles. So, I watched her, in a silent envy because she could filter her way through the aisles plucking at books with broken spines and sift through their gorgeous, delicate pages. She was the sort of woman that the saying ‘love at first sight’ was invented for. She was the sort of person that you would fall so hopefully, irretrievably in love with that you wanted to just be her because being with her wasn’t enough.
There’s a fake snow coated Christmas tree in the corner, its long limbs stretching out like they’re trying to catch in her hair, but she ducks away from the corner where the smell of pine merges with the smell of paper and dilutes the aroma that’s meant to wrap you up in here.
‘Astrid.’ My manager taps her finger impatiently on the counter work top, her too long acrylic nails glossed with blue and white streaks.
‘Can we get rid of the Christmas tree?’
‘No, have some Christmas spirit for god’s sake.’ She flicked at her brunette hair that was split into chunks by the blonde highlights that coursed downwards from her scalp. Everything about her was vaguely streaky.
She didn’t belong here, not in my bookshop with its smells and warmth and towers of books that protect you from the outside with its army of fictional characters. She belonged in a story about a pub where there’s a fight and beer is thrown because obviously she drinks beer rather than martinis and now she’s messing this up just by being here.
‘Are you shitting me? You’re actually daydreaming again?’ Her voice dripped with annoyance. ‘Pepper please.’ I pleaded with her, more because I needed her to stop talking and yes, her name actually is Pepper.
The woman I was meant to love, with the swashy dress, was drifting further away from me, her feet in basic white trainers were walking away into the next aisle and when she turned down that section into the ‘R to V’ authors I wouldn’t be able to see her anymore.
‘Moira.’ Pepper clicked her fingers at a denim clad 20 something female with the sort of blueish green eyes that you normally see on huskies. ‘Swap with Astrid, will you?’
Glancing at the floor so I didn’t trip over my shoelaces, I drifted past high wooden bookshelves, each one encasing history in its blemishes and chips. The grain and knots in the wood promising a good narrative. And now I could pretend I didn’t actually work here but I was just someone who found comfort amongst pages and ink. Inhaling I pulled a hardback from the shelf with a cover showing a sun setting over the slowly raging sea and continued my gentle stride because she was definitely the sort of girl, no woman, who would love a book about sea and sunsets.
She was there. She was there with her dress and white trainers with a smear of rain on them and a phone balanced precariously between her shoulder and ear while she tried to hold four books together in a tower in her arms. ‘Cadence please can you not scream, I’m in a library.’
Anger pierced my gut the way hot knives slice into butter. I’d already written us a script for how this was supposed to go and then she called here ‘a library’ when it was in fact a bookshop and the two were so vastly different. And how can you fully appreciate the bookshop you’re in if you’re going to be on your phone? You’re meant to be unplugged from the rest of the world in here.
‘Cadence come on, I’ll be home for dinner, and we can talk about it then.’ Yes, put the phone away because you really are ruining everything. ‘Honey it’s just cocktails with the girls; I’m hardly going to break the bank…oh yeah well then maybe I shouldn’t be buying you so many books.’ Her face screwed up in annoyance, the lines creasing her forehead in a most unattractive way. ‘It’s my money, it’s not like a joint account I’m running dry. You’re my roommate for god’s sake not my mother.’
In that instant she turned, and she saw me. Her with her phone and her books. Me with the sunset and the sea in my hands. She looked away from where our eyes had locked momentarily. ‘Well maybe you should stop calling and skyrocketing our phone bill or taking ridiculously long showers… yes I do like baths…no that’s not the issue that we’re focusing on. Cadence I am hanging up now.’ She clicked the red circle that largely resembled a cherry, but she seemed to somehow make everything less aesthetic. Why tell someone you were hanging up? That took all the oomph out of it, just freaking hang up if that’s what you’re going to do.
I couldn’t love a girl like this; a girl who called bookshops libraries and spoke too loudly on the phone about water bills and a girl who looked at me the way she was looking at me.
‘Can I help you?’ She asked. That was supposed to be my line, I worked here, and she just tarnished the place with her disregard for novels.
‘No.’ I responded, blunt and brittle.
‘Okay.’ She turned back to grappling with her leaning tower of books. God, she didn’t even see that we were meant to be something remarkable, but she ruined it by just being her.
‘Do you want this?’ I held out the book in my palm, suddenly feeling like I was being scalded. I wouldn’t read this, this book with its reviews rather than blurb. I wasn’t shallow enough to buy a book based on the photograph and swirly font.
She stepped forward and gingerly took it from my fingertips, eyeing the front warily before her mouth stretched into a smile. ‘Thank you! It’s just what I wanted.’ She sashayed off in her dirty white trainers, with a dress that caught at her ankles, to buy a book she’d only just glanced at.
I blinked the eyelash out of my eye and succumbed to the uninterrupted silence of being amongst books who are ready to be appreciated and journeyed through. The girl with a roommate called Cadence handed over a crumpled note for a book that hadn’t even touched her skin 2 minutes ago.
There was something to be said about those who judged a book based on its cover.