Angeline cursed the fate that required her to seek employment. Through no fault of her own, her parents had discontinued her allowance when she was only eighteen, and she had not yet found a suitable husband. In the three wretched years since then, she began to despair she never would, and dreaded the prospect of becoming an old maid. She took work briefly as a governess, hoping to make beneficial social connections, but found the children to be overly excitable, loud, and even profane. They refused to treat her with the proper respect, and their parents refused to discipline them. She was much better suited to her current position, in a shop selling tea and used books.
Even so, it chafed. Her salary was such that she could barely afford to let a small set of rooms overlooking a dreary alleyway. Its sole asset was a cozy sense of privacy, due largely to the large blackberry bush that proliferated outside her windows. Every year it stole a bit more of the precious daylight as its creepers wound their way across the glass. Every year, at least twice, she donned heavy leather gloves and took up her shears to trim out little portholes through the thicket. Despite this, she had come to love the delicate perfume of the blossoms in the spring, and the heavy syrupy smell of the berries in late summer. Even in winter, when the vine was little more than a thorny jumble, she enjoyed the fancy that it entwined her chambers like the tower of some enchanted princess.
The most frustrating thing about her poverty was that it made finding a husband so much more difficult. She doubted her parents would offer her groom anything in the way of dowry. She felt sure they would be more than delighted to have someone take her off their hands, yet they did nothing whatsoever to further that aim. So, it was left to her to attract a beau through her beauty and bearing. She therefore took great care with her appearance, although, sadly, her choices in clothing were dismally limited. She tried to sew her own wardrobe, but it was yet another useful skill her mother had failed to pass on to her. She had to hire a local seamstress to make things for her, and it was frightfully expensive.
She had a simple frock for everyday. Additionally, she had two skirts, four blouses, and two jackets that she creatively intermixed to wear to the shop and hoped the variety would prevent potential suitors from guessing at her penniless state. She had splurged on one opulent emerald green velvet gown and matching gloves to wear to a particularly special occasion. That dreamed-for occasion, unfortunately, had yet to arrive. She had one pair of boots, which she polished once a week, and one corset which she washed every day and hung to dry every night. In winter it was often just slightly damp in the morning. Every time she was forced put it on in such a state, she berated herself for spending money that ridiculous, unworn gown instead of practical underthings. But on the other hand, if she did receive an invitation from a potential suitor, and did not have an appropriate evening gown, then she would berate herself for that. Poverty created such impossible choices.
Tuesday and Wednesdays were her free days, so she always felt she was at her most appealing on Thursdays. She was able to dress in a blessedly dry corset, with her hair freshly washed and painstakingly set. Before she headed to the shop, she checked the hall mirror and carefully combed smooth her pompadour, pulling an artful curl loose at her temple. She laced her boots, buttoned her jacket, and set her hat as determinedly as a soldier might shoulder his rifle. These were her weapons, feeble though they might be, and she would wield them as best she could.
One other benefit to her rooms is that they were located only a few minutes’ walk from her shop. She found the journey trying. The sheer volume and hubbub of the city streets were distressing for her, as she moved between the silence of her rooms to the hush of the bookshop. But within moments, the din of the streets disappeared as the shop door whispered shut behind her, and the familiar smell of musty books and Earl Gray enveloped her.
The shop was a pleasing warren of twelve-foot high wooden shelves, heavily laden with books on every subject. Enormous skylights pierced the ceiling in the center of the space, and rays of light sparkled off thick clouds of dust that swirled wildly every time the door let in another gust of wind. Angeline spent half her time dusting, it seemed, yet the dust swirled unabated, perhaps hiding within the pages of these old books, rising in little puffs whenever customers opened their battered covers. Every row of shelves had rolling ladders attached, though Angeline had become wary of unscrupulous men requesting volumes from the top shelves, requiring her to climb to the top of the ladder. Once, she had been quite sure she had caught an older man peeking at her ankles.
In the corner of the shop was a crackling fireplace and a few charmingly mismatched overstuffed chairs where patrons could sip a cup of tea and peruse their chosen books. Angeline had pointed out that perhaps more customers would buy the books if they were not allowed to read them over tea. But the owner, an eccentric older woman whose late husband, Angeline could only assume, had left her with a comfortable estate, cared more for the collection of rare volumes than turning a profit. Her name was Colette, or at least she called herself that, and she sat now curled up in a throne-like pink brocade chair sipping black coffee writing in a notebook on her lap. She was brusque, even mannish, but her heart was kind and she had offered Angeline a position when not many others would do so.
She looked up from her work and smiled, “Bonjour, mademoiselle. How was your weekend?”
Angeline bobbed a perfunctory curtsey, “Bonjour, Madame. I finished Anna Karenina, finally. So, as you can imagine, there was much weeping in my little rooms. But the best sort of weeping, because it wasn’t for my own sorrows, but someone else’s.”
“Ah. Anna Karenina, that whore!” exclaimed Colette with relish, “the Russians really know how to write a fatal flaw, don’t they?” Angeline looked away, embarrassed by the foul language. Colette sighed and gathered herself. “Well, I need to catch up on some correspondence. Can you manage things out here if I spend some time in the back?”
Angeline glanced around the empty bookstore. “I can manage things quite well.”
Alone, Angeline hummed a tuneless melody as she looked over the books that had come into the shop while she was away. Most of the titles held little interest for her, but one contained instructions on complicated knitting patterns. She had mastered the scarf. She had miles and miles of scarf. But she would love to be able to make herself some mittens. She found knitting a pleasant way to spend the evenings. She had few friends, and those she had seemed to be drifting farther away. Solitary pursuits loomed large in her future. She grimaced slightly as she put the book behind the counter to take home with her. If she was going to be a proper old maid, she should probably learn to knit properly.
She was engaged in the interminable dusting when the telltale burst of street noise and gust of wind announced someone new had entered the shop. But Colette had clear protocols for addressing patrons. Namely, don’t. Leave them free to wander, and only offer tea if they had been in the shop for several minutes. So, Angeline did not turn from her task until a voice spoke suddenly from so close behind her that it made her jump.
“Damn, girl, you EXTRA!”
Angeline’s hand flew to her throat, “You startled me!”
“My bad,” the young man raised his hands placatingly, “I just, you know, didn’t expect to find, like, a Bronte sister up in here.” He appraised her frankly, eyes running up and down her body impudently, “You got a costume party or something?”
“I always dress this way when I’m working in the shop.”
“For reals? The boss makes you? Like a gimmick or something?”
Angeline’s brow furrowed in annoyance. “I’m sure it’s not proper to comment on how other people dress. Is there a book I can help you find?”
“Oh damn, nah, you on fleek, girl. Like all this,” he gestured wildly at her, “this next level. This like rock star shit.” He smiled appreciatively. Angeline noticed that despite his rough manners, his clothing was top quality, his hands were clean and well-manicured, and his eyes were quite a fetching hazel color.
“Oh. Well, thank you.” She murmured.
“Yaaas.” He nodded to himself, “Tonight I’m doing this spoken work thing. You should come out. It’s gonna be lit.”
“Poetry?” her eyes lit up in pleasure. There were not many invitations that could entice her to leave the cozy and comfortable confines of her rooms, but an evening of poetry – on the arm of a handsome poet, no less – was a temptation she found difficult to resist. And it appeared the young man could perceive this. He grinned impishly and reached into his pocket.
“I’m finna text you the deets. Can I get your number?”
Angeline froze, staring at the device in the man’s hand. He paused, hand outstretched expectantly. Angeline stood just a beat too long, and he looked up at her in confusion. “Wait.” She blurted, and ran behind the counter. She picked up her little embroidered handbag and reached in, pulling out an iPhone6. “Give me yours.” Her fingers flew over the screen.
There was a chime from the young man’s phone and he looked down as his screen lit with new information. “Angeline? That’s a beautiful name.” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers, looking into her eyes. “Until tonight, then, Angeline.” Then he turned and left the store.
She walked dreamily back behind the counter, checking her phone as it lit up with a notification. It was the details of the spoken word event, and the young man’s photo. And his name. Darcy. She smiled softly to herself. A definitive prospect. She would wear the emerald velvet gown. At last.