I wish I could remember exactly where I had heard the phrase, but I know I definitely did, and it wasn’t my imagination, I do know it was either an overheard conversation, or something on the radio or TV, not something I was talking about to a friend. One of those phrases that is funny but in certain circumstances, can make you uneasy. Everyone thinks they want to own a bookshop, until they own a bookshop.
Okay, technically I don’t own the Readers’ Rest. I rent it. But I have still invested a lot of my time and energy and – no point to denying it – money – into this bookshop on the street that is simply and accurately called Steep Hill in a city in Eastern England that is only a city because it has a cathedral, and a magnificent one. I can see it from my bedroom window, see its gothic glory in the glow of a sunrise when it seems the rest of the city is sleeping. And sometimes when I drink that in, and then I go down to the shop, hours before it is open, and not so much look at as breathe in the stacks of books and the millions of words, I feel as if I am the luckiest person in the world and there is nothing more glorious or wonderful than life in this bookshop on Steep Hill. I love each illogical corner and each nook within it, love that sense of being slightly disoriented even in a building that couldn’t be more familiar to me. I love the smell of old books and the smell of new ones. How could I even think of giving it up?
But then there are the days when there is no satisfying customers, whether old or new, and the days when there are not enough customers, old or new, days when I have to hold my tongue, and days when I file bank statements away unopened for all I know where THAT can lead.
It all started with misfortune. And that’s a euphemism. I was involved in a very nasty accident, not life-threatening, but perilously close to, to use that other euphemism, being life-altering. I was on an escalator in a department store that malfunctioned and didn’t just come to a steady halt the way it was supposed to. I don’t think I exactly have PTSD, but can still, as Mrs Metcalfe, the fan of crochet books and accounts of serial killers says, come over all odd thinking about when I was trapped by that inanimate metal monster. Well, my left leg was badly broken, but eventually it recovered, and let’s be honest, I was never one of life’s marathon runners. To this day I sometimes have to pause on the Hill, but so do plenty of other people. I was bruised and battered all over, but emerged from it just about intact – and considerably richer. The store settled out of court, and generously. And voluntarily. I don’t know what I’d have done otherwise. It’s easy enough to be sarcastic about “compensation culture” until you spend weeks in hospital and months in pain yourself because someone hasn’t kept things properly maintained.
They kept my old job open for me at the law centre, but even though I don’t suppose I’d actually had a brush with death, I’d had one of those experiences that makes you think about what you really want, and I decided, on discovering that the previous owner had gone to live in Cyprus, was that what I wanted was to put down a deposit on the Reader’s Rest and use my compensation money to pay the rent.
I was treated in the contradictory way that those who have recently had a nasty accident often are. On the one hand I was indulged and humoured and nobody thought to tell me the plan was questionable, but on the other hand, earnest people who meant well asked in that tone of voice, “Are you really sure about this, Rowena?”
Yes, I informed them in just about polite no uncertain terms. I was sure about it. Inevitably there were the fretful warnings of those stairs, that hill, your leg. I pointed out that my leg was now healed, and the doctors and physios themselves had said that exercise was the best thing for it. Admittedly they had inserted the adjective “moderate”, but that was open to interpretation.
I am not exactly a person who is disapproved of, but wonder how much I am allowed more latitude because of my “infirmity”, as Marcus terms it. And even allowing for that (oh how those long-ago governesses would have disapproved of my starting a sentence with “and”!) I am treading, or hobbling, a tricky line. I am most certainly disapproved of at one removed. My friend Cassandra, who prefers to be called Cassie, just as I prefer to be called Alex, though in her case it is generally respected, though not by Marcus, is most definitely disapproved of. In fact so far as some people are concerned, most strongly disapproved of. Needless to say, Marcus is amongst her detractors, and it is entirely mutual, for all they are studiedly civil to each other. “I don’t care what you say, Alex,” she said, “But there’s something that’s at best thoughtless and at worse downright perverse about moving into a property on this hill, with those stairs with your leg!”
I sighed. I am sighing rather a lot lately. “I wish you’d make your mind up, Cassie. You also say my leg is absolutely fine.”
“Now that’s not true!” she exclaimed – truthfully, I must own. “It was badly hurt in that motor car accident, they can be mightily dangerous things, for all I wouldn’t be parted from my own. What I said and what I maintain is that broken legs heal, given half a chance, and you’re still relatively young and have never been delicate. I’ve known at least two people who broke a leg and were as good as new – my friend at college Catherine, and my Aunt’s housekeeper, Mrs Mountjoy.” I have to smile at her inclusion of at college – as if I didn’t know that a couple of decades ago she was one of the first women to go to Nottingham University.
“But by definition of it being at college, Catherine was younger than I am, and Mrs Mountjoy is ….well….” I broke off, realising I had blundered my way into faux pas territory so far as Cassie was concerned. She didn’t let it pass. “Is what?” she demanded. “A servant? And we have more delicate bones than they do?”
“Of course not,” I said, hoping she would let it drop. To my relief she did, at least for the time being. “But about this property, Cassie – it was too good a chance to miss, it’s ideal for the book-binding business and he’s even talking about opening a bookshop. Anyway, he wants to be near his mother – she’s ailing, you know.” It’s awkward for Marcus and I to speak of it as it is a “woman’s problem”, but I do know it is genuine enough and as my own Mother used to say, she’s probably not long for this world. We’ve never exactly been close, but never been enemies either, and she’s bearing this with great fortitude.
Cassie has never been mean, and she nodded, “I know that’s true, and she has my sympathy. But I wish he showed as much consideration for his wife as his mother.”
“You won’t drive a wedge between us, Cassie, and you shouldn’t try!”
“I know, I know! But please, won’t you at least try to get more of your independence back? Try walking around the property a little without your cane – obviously I don’t mean the stairs, at least not yet.”
“Marcus carries me up and down the stairs,” I said, blushing a little. “He does love me, truly love me!” Did my tone sound rather needy and clingy. To my surprise, she said, “I know he does. Even though he and I have never taken to each other, yes, in his way, he’s a good husband. But it would be an absolute crying shame if he turned you into an invalid when there’s no need for it. I know you have the wheeled chair he got you and he takes you to the park sometimes, or at least to the cathedral close – tell him you’d like to get out and have a gentle walk round for just a few minutes!”
I know in my heart she is right, and wonder if this is as much my own fault as Marcus’s. But a walk in the cathedral close would be wonderful. Even though, unlike Marcus, I’m not a native of this city, I love it dearly and even in my darkest moments – and yes, they come, no point to pretending otherwise – seeing it through my bedroom window, especially when it is silhouetted against a bright or rainbow sky, or in the soft tones of twilight, can raise my spirits and calm me down.
Oh please don’t let me be turning into a literary snob. It’s not as if my own literary tastes are universally good ones. I wasn’t proud of the nasty sneery feeling I had when someone referred to Evelyn Waugh as her today, nor of how I told the hopeful looking gentleman with the pile of old books that I wasn’t interested in buying any of the collection of books he brought along for inclusion in our second hand (I determinedly refuse to use that expression pre-loved ) room. I mean, okay, I had to say no. Why on earth do people think that anyone on this earth is going to buy books about what your star sign will bring you in 1997, or dog-eared paperbacks with half the pages missing? But perhaps I should have let him down more gently. True, I didn’t go so far as to say he was wasting my time or I wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole, but I might as well have done. I could have at least made a token gesture and taken a couple of the old childhood annuals – but then again, they were the ones it would probably have hurt him most to part from! Thinking it over, though I’m not 100% sure, I think he may once have been employed at the bank that closed down last year. He was a polite, shy, somehow old fashioned chap, the kind of man often condescendingly referred to as harmless though I can’t help knowing that quite a few of the serial killers in Mrs Metcalfe’s books have been referred to as harmless looking little men. But I’m not getting that neurotic. I am pretty confident that he won’t return in the small hours with an axe!
But today wasn’t a good day AT ALL. I finally opened at least a couple of the utility bills and didn’t like what I saw. I’m also certain that they go from regular to “caring” to threatening far more rapidly than they used to. I’ve felt vaguely out of sorts all day, too – nothing serious, just a bit of a headache, a bit of an uneasy tummy. Both seem to have abated now. And at least my leg didn’t start aching, which it still does, sometimes, though it’s mild and tolerable now.
I suppose I should make some effort to put on a display, do some window dressing, that kind of thing. Oh, I keep the property clean, and relatively tidy, though I maintain a bookshop was never meant to be too tidy, but it’s hardly imaginative. Still, I’m quite determined in my mind that any displays or windows or whatever will always have books as their focal point. This is the Readers’ Rest, it is a bookshop and has been for nearly a 100 years, and was a book binding business before that, and books will never be incidental, apologetically half-camoflauged among mock-ups of beaches or hearts and flowers or fake Christmas trees, dependent on the season.
Maybe about the history of the shop, or at least what I know, and I may be able to find more out. That has possibilities. It’s only been rented for the last five years. But the agents will probably know something. Sadly, I can’t ask the previous manager, Tom Miller, as he died only a couple of months ago. I know it actually dates back to the 16thcentury, but don’t know if I’ll go that far back!
Well, I can hardly believe this! I wasn’t really hopeful as I looked in the old cupboards, thinking they had probably been totally cleared out. But right at the back of one there was a book – not a printed book – with a plain brown cover, now faded and greying. I opened it, with an odd sense of being intrusive, as I realised it was a diary, and I don’t mean just the kind where you make notes of a supplier calling or the gas bill being due (even if you don’t always pay it!). This was a personal diary. And the odd thing is, even after reading most of it, I still can’t make up my mind if it’s writing that looks neat but is actually hard to read, or looks untidy, but is easy to read. I think it may have depended on the mood of the writer. And I know her name! Alexandra Gibson, and it was written 100 years ago in 2021.
Some of it gave me an almost uncanny pang of fellow feeling.
I still feel strange and sick when I think about the accident. I know I was very lucky not to lose my leg, but sometimes think I might as well have done for all the use it is to me.
Been that, done that, got the plaster cast and crutches, I thought, ruefully, almost involuntarily flexing my leg as I spoke to assure myself it was most definitely there and most definitely functioning.
I wonder if Cassie is right. Well, the fact of the matter is, she may very well be. Today I DID take a few steps around my little living room without using the cane I have got used to leaning on, though some would say I was cheating as I was using the furniture for support. But there was something symbolic about it and I was rewarded with a view of the cathedral that was even more lovely than usual, as a rainbow was in the sky above it. But I will guard against reading too many fancies into such matters. Tomorrow, if it is fine, Marcus will push my wheeled chair along the cobbles and out onto the cathedral close, and I will pluck up my courage and stick to my resolve and say that I want to walk a few steps, leaning on his arm of course. I am pretty sure he will ask me, “My dear, is that wise? I don’t want you hurting yourself again!” And I will say yes, it is wise, and I will stick to my guns.
I did not sleep well, but am not sure if it was too restless or too deep. I had a strange dream, though only one part of it was frightening. I saw a vision of an accident, of a terrible accident, though not one like mine, and it was as if some mechanical monster had caused it, but I heard a woman screaming in pain and whispering, “My leg, oh god, my leg!” She was very strangely dressed, and surrounded by people and noise. I thought it was some vision of the past, perhaps, as she was wearing the strangest clothes, but not like any I had seen in my history books! But that horrid and scary bit passed, and almost as if they were images in a magic lantern, it flickered onto the next one – and it was a place that was familiar to me, as familiar to me as it could be, though things were rearranged and there were some things that were most definitely not familiar to me, some odd machines that whirred and flashed and made pictures, sometimes, on square screens. And the same woman was there! The woman who had been screaming in pain. But she was walking around the room, even standing on a step ladder, and was not an invalid though I was sure her leg had been hurt just as badly as mine.
I will not tell Marcus this, of course, though I don’t generally like to keep things from him. I may tell Cassie. But the weird thought is that for once they may be in unison as saying that I am being fanciful – the only difference being, perhaps, that Cassie would think it meant I should get out more and Marcus would think I needed protecting more.
And at that moment, it was as if time both stood still and rushed forwards and backwards, and Alex got to her feet, and Rowena stretched out her hand, and a brilliant shaft of sunshine illuminated the cathedral.