Mr Read was preparing to pull the shutters of Books on Wheels and was looking forward to a quiet evening with a drop of brandy. Moving stiffly and avoiding any twists, he managed to pull down the side door of the van, locking away its contents.
Books on Wheels used to be an ordinary white Ford Transit. One day it fell into the capable hands of an inspired senior and its fate shifted.
When Dave was 9 he landed his first and best job - delivering newspapers. He often pondered on these memories as the days that shaped his life. He loved the feeling of the paper, fresh out of the press, folded nicely and ready to be creased by someone’s strong grip and later thorn to pieces by a toddler or chewed by a puppy. The best part was that he could do it while riding his brand new bike. His father only agreed to get it for him if he would take on the job. He remembered the happiness that filled his chest as he was blasting through the early morning freshness. Dave wasn’t much interested in school but he loved reading. He managed to graduate but only just and never continued his education. Then, using his gift for stubbornness, he got a job at a small library and stayed there for 48 years. His only children and lovers were his books. People knew him as the one always carrying an open book in front of his eyes and repeatedly stumbling due to incapability to put it down. Naturally, people started calling him Mr Read and the name stuck to him like a melted chewing gum.
Everything went out of hand when he retired and found himself with too many bills and not enough life worth living. He kept on thinking about his childhood bike and the freedom it gave him. This is how, just after his 70th birthday, Mr Read took the impulsive decision to sell his parents’ home, where he had lived all his life. He only kept his books. Then he bought his new destiny in the form of a Ford Transit.
Mr Read was a bookworm but he was also a very capable handyman. He didn’t believe in paying people to do what he could do and thus, slowly, despite his bent back and shaky hands, changed the side door of the van. He imagined how it would open right up and would display all its treasures to the public, while at the same time providing a cozy shade for all. The inside of the van was transformed into bookshelves and Mr Read made sure he had something for even the most capricious of tastes.
He removed the useless passenger seat and opened a passageway between the front and the back of the van. There, on the floor, among all his favorite paper friends, he would lay out his sleeping bag and would have the best dreams of his life. His small amount of possessions were all neatly stored in boxes above the bookshelves. Under his driver’s seat he had a couple of mugs, some cutlery and a tiny travelers’ gas stove.
Mr Read found himself thinking about people and their houses full of possessions and wondered why they needed them. They probably thought of him as a hobo. But no, he was no hobo. He had his home right here.
The white Ford Transit metamorphosed into Books on Wheels. Mr Read was proud to own the smallest public library in the region. He wished to think that it was the smallest one in the country, but he had heard of a boy who turned a phone box into a library. He had to admit that it is probably smaller than Books on Wheels.
Mr Read had a strict schedule that he followed each week. Every day he would spend at a different location so that the whole town had a chance to borrow a book. He had a small box for donations but he didn’t really rely on them for much. He still had quite a sum left from the house and he didn’t plan to ever use it up completely. In the evenings he would take out his thick diary and write a few sentences of how the day went. He would put down all the borrowed books and all the returned ones. Mr Read didn’t approve of using pens, because he disliked that ink couldn’t be erased. A pencil and a rubber was a lot more sensible, Mr Read believed.
Tonight was Friday and right on schedule, Books on Wheels was resting in the car park of the big ASDA supermarket just outside the city center. All knew who Mr Read was and no one minded him staying there.
He had just climbed into the van when he saw Big Tim approaching the van. With his broad shoulders and impressive height, Big Tim used to be a promising rugby player back in the day. After suffering numerous head injuries, however, he decided to invest in a teaching degree and became a PE teacher. When that part of his life was over, he had to retire. He never got used to the quiet life afterwards and so nowadays he found his contentment by being the local supermarket security, and often after his shift has ended - Mr Read’s brandy companion.
Tonight, however, Big Tim had a dark look to his stride, his shoulders were slacking and the lines on his face looked like deep cracks in dry soil. He walked to the side of the van and opened the passenger door, without saying a word.
“A glass?”, Mr Read offered.
“Please,” Big Tim croaked and climbed inside.
“You seem a bit off, tonight”
“Aren’t you? I am devastated. What would her kids do now? Who would take care of them? Will they go to their grandparents or what? They can’t stay with that moron.” Big Tim was rushing with words while opening up a small foldable chair.
“Who are you talking about, Tim? I am tired and you are making no sense.”
“Have you completely lost your marbles? Beth, I am talking about! Beth!” Big Tim sank down onto the chair. “Dead Beth. It was all over the news.”
Mr Read felt the ground pulling him, felt he was falling even though he was sitting. He accidentally spilled his drink and started shaking all over.
Beth was a persistently tipsy middle-aged housewife on the constant verge of a midlife crisis. Having four kids by the age of 35 and no work experience, she was now in the vicious circle of always relying on state benefits and never having enough to invest in higher education. She liked a drink, that much was true, but she loved a good read as well. She was one of the regulars at Books on Wheels and Mr Read had unintentionally started thinking of her as his not so fortunate but very fragile daughter. He always looked forward to Saturdays, when he would park Books on Wheels by the gardens and would spend all day with her and her children. The youngest ones made him smile with their silly ways.
Big Tim was holding him now by the shoulders.
Mr Read didn’t have many friends even though everyone knew him. At the age of 79 his friends and lovers were still his books. Except for Big Tim. Except for Beth. Dead Beth.
“Dave, don’t die on me, old boy!”
He was now shaking him.
“What do you mean Beth...”
Mr Read was looking forward to tomorrow. It would have been Saturday and Beth had promised him to return some really overdue children's’ books. He would then surprise her youngest kid with a brand new The Gruffalo’s Child hardback. Then they would drink tea while the kids played around them.
“This morning, Dave, don’t tell me you didn’t hear”
“All day I was here, it was quiet...” Mr Read had indeed spent the whole day at the car park with only a couple of short walks to the nearby portable loo.
“For fuck’s sake, stop shaking me, Tim!”
Big Tim pulled back
“I thought you knew.”
Then Big Tim told him all. Beth had a few drinks last night and just like always, she had a loud argument with her man. A useless waste of space, not a man, if you asked Mr Read. A poison, not a father, if you asked Mr Read.
Big Tim told him how she was still a bit tipsy in the morning when she went to the nearby bakery to get something for the kids. The police had concluded that she never saw the big Mercedes that went through her. She died before she knew anything happened. She had hit her head on a pavement edge, and it had resulted in an instant death. Her blue scarf soaked in bright blood. The Mercedes driver was a young woman, gone hysterical. She had repeated over and over that the woman came out of nowhere. And Mr Read knew that she probably did. She was tipsy and careless, angry at her moron of a man, worried about money and god knows what else.
Mr Read’s lips were trembling now, his vision blurred by tears not quite falling yet. He swallowed painfully and tried to down the immense pain in his chest, the stinging salty drops, the impossible sense of end.
“When’s the funeral?” he couldn’t think of anything else to ask.
“Don’t know, these things take time. Such a loss. She was alright.”
More than alright, Mr Read thought. She was capable of making him feel like a father and a grandfather without being either of these things.
There was not much to talk about afterwards. They sat and stared through the windscreen, taking slow sips of brandy and not once saying Cheers. There was nothing to be cheerful for when a young person has found a premature end.
Some time later Big Tim left. Mr Read continued to stare through the window, incapable of comprehending anything that happened tonight. Life seemed so peaceful recently and he guessed that was a sign that something would go down abruptly.
Mr Read took out his diary and stared at today's entry. Not a single book borrowed or returned. A day wasted. He took out a rubber from his front shirt pocket and erased today’s date. He wanted to erase the whole day. He closed the diary and continued sipping his brandy.
Mr Read had lived a calm life and it was a happy life. Mr Read wanted the same for Beth. Or at least to get the chance of having one.
Mr Read woke up early on the driver’s seat. He must have fallen asleep here. His phone told him it was Friday again today. This was a curious thing that has never happened before.
Mr Read had a little idea. He went over to the supermarket. It was the only 24 hour shop in town and he thought it was just so handy right now. He bought a few doughnuts and croissants and returned to the van.
Mr Read started the engine and went straight to Beth.
She opened the door, while wrapping a blue scarf around her and getting ready to go out. When she saw him her smile was bright even though her eyes told a drunken story of arguments and tears.
Mr Read passed her the breakfast, together with The Gruffalo’s Child.
“No need to go to the bakery, now”, he told her and returned to the van.
She asked him to come in for a cup of coffee.
Mr Read waved at her with polite refusal. He felt content.
Mr Read knew there was a Mercedes somewhere waiting for him and he didn’t have much time left to find it.