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Like a great many people, Hester Levine thought she had modest means and could cope with that perfectly well and without any trauma, until she really did have modest means and discovered she wasn’t coping well at all, and if trauma were perhaps a tad melodramatic,, it was no walk in the park.

    What she’d thought of as modest means meant the second holiday of the year being a cottage in the Lake District rather than going abroad, and the meal out being at Pizza Hut more often than the cute little Bistro, not buying as many books, shoes, and plants as she’d really have liked, and not updating her phone the minute a new one came out. She might sometimes refer to being “strapped for cash” or “having to tighten her belt a bit after that splurge” but there were no empty fridges and no bailiffs at the door.

    Hester was a teacher, and though she wouldn’t have claimed she had a deep vocation or unfailing charisma, she liked her job, and was good at it. She had a wry sense of humour that made her pupils laugh,  sometimes despite themselves,but helped drive home a point she was making. If Middlemere Academy wasn’t a hotbed of achievement occupied by studious angels, it functioned well, got good results, and was chugging along nicely. 

    There were two things that derailed it, and they came in fairly rapid succession. Well, three really. It was discovered that the governors had not been averse to creaming off some of the funding for their own desires and diversions, and the books didn’t balance. Even worse than that, the headmaster, Mr Prince (with whom Hester had always got on rather well, though now she told herself she must have suspected something) turned out to have been rather too fond of one to one interviews with pupils that weren’t necessarily for academic or pastoral purposes. A couple of the sixth form girls had vigorously defended him saying he never made them do a thing they didn’t want to, and if anything, he was the victim. They were listened to with condescending patience and heads sympathetically tilted on one side, and duly ignored.

    And the third? Well, rumour got about that Ms Burton, who had been the “Superhead” on a highly successful TV documentary, was transferring to a school in the next town. That school’s rolls rocketed, though not everyone who (or whose parents) wished to get a place there could, and Middlemere’s pupil numbers plummeted in almost perfect symmetry. 

    The inevitable came fairly quickly. “With regret” Middlemere Academy was being closed as of the start of the Autumn term. 

    Hester was never going to be pleased about it, certainly not given the reasons, but tried to be upbeat. She would open a little bookshop with her redundancy money and some savings she had. She’d always loved the idea of owning a bookshop. She was decidedly miffed when her bank manager, who, if not exactly old school, was not what you’d call new school either, told her that she didn’t feel able to give Hester a business loan. “Look, nobody loves reading than I do,” she said. Hester had learnt that sentences involving Nobody loves (insert activity) more than I do inevitably let to a “but”. 

    “But what with the internet, and the charity shops, and most of the supermarkets selling books – in the real world, Hester, bookshops are closing, not opening. If you come to me with some other plan, then I’m more than ready to hear it, but in all conscience I couldn’t give you a loan for this.”

    Hester was studiedly polite, and at least she hadn’t spoken of “saving her from herself”. There was more than one fish in the financial sea. The trouble was, apart from one lender whose rates really were exorbitant (and I haven’t quite taken leave of my senses, no matter what Bossy Boots thinks) she thought, others seemed to agree.

    Well, she weighed up her finances – and with her redundancy money, and her savings, and the tutoring work she could probably get, even if she couldn’t afford to buy a bookshop she could certainly afford to rent one. More than one way to skin a cat, she thought, apologetically guilt-feeding her truculent Persian, Pericles, a piece of salmon. 

    She found a shop that if not perfect, would certainly do, and had once been a clothes shop, in one of the back streets off the high street. The official stuff was soon seen to. She put down 3 months rent in advance, and had no trouble getting glowing character references. 

    The thing is, Hester was no wide-eyed rookie when it came to running a business. Her late father had been a sub-postmaster for nearly five years, and a cousin of hers had run a convenience store. True, both of these were in the past tense, but in the former case, a mixture of her father’s failing health and a reduction on the number of sub-offices had led to the closure, not the business being non-profit making or ill-managed, and in the latter – well, (and Hester was no hypocrite and used out of town supermarkets herself) with a few exceptions in out of the way villages, small independent convenience stores had had their day. 

    She was the first to admit that the erstwhile Marie Modes was not the most obvious building for a bookshop, but decided to make a virtue of a (near) necessity. Most folk in town remembered it as a clothes shop. So why try to hide the fact? Obviously, she would renovate and innovate a little, but was quite happy to leave shelves that had plainly not been originally conceived as bookshelves, and there was no earthly reason why little cubicles could not be used for reading and making one’s choices. True, she struggled to think of a way of reusing the rotating hangers, but still kept them, thinking she’d work it out. Even though Marie herself, in her late 70s, was very much alive and, if not exactly kicking not requiring a Zimmer frame either, she elected to change the name, but make a definite nod to the former use, and call it A Fashion for Reading. Out of courtesy – and a degree of nosiness! – she went to visit Marie, who was a charming old lady, bright as a button, and wished her well, saying she was a bookworm herself. Hester made a point of establishing her reading taste, and brought her a present of a parcel of rural memoirs and forensic investigations. “My dear, that’s so thoughtful,” she said, “And I appreciate it – but you should still watch the pennies!”

    There tends to be no happy medium with new businesses – they either sit empty and ignored, or attract a flood of interest. Hester was gratified that A Fashion for Reading was most definitely the latter. The local newspaper did a most gratifying piece about the opening. Businesses that had closed (and though it hadn’t technically been boarded up, somehow it felt as if it had) re-opening always made for good news stories, though Hester wasn’t to know that some of the more cynical of the paper’s staff laid bets on how soon it would be before these new start-ups closed again – the quickest being the craft shop next to the butchers that had lasted two months. 

    Hester had even commissioned a friend of hers, who was a talented artist, to design a series of postcards and bookmarks making visual puns about books and clothes. Her own personal favourite was a rainbow pleat skirt with pages instead of pleats. So she was already, in her small way, helping other local entrepreneurs. Not that she liked that word much, but she could live with it. 

    A Fashion for Reading spent its first two weeks full of customers and chatter and kind words. They even sold some books. A little nagging voice told Hester that after that first day, she wasn’t selling enough books, but that would come, and she was building up goodwill. Her father had always spoken of the importance of goodwill, and how you couldn’t put a price on it. Though he had also said that goodwill doesn’t pay bills …..

    She prided herself on listening to her customers and appreciating their feedback. Though she preferred personal conversations, she understood that not everyone felt easy about that, and had a suggestions box. After a month or so one suggestion said that it was time she altered her displays round a bit. She agreed, and obliged, only to have another suggestion, a couple of days later, saying that it would have been better if she hadn’t “messed around” with things. She smiled and reflected on that little fable where the men end up carrying the donkey, proving the point that you can’t please everyone all of the time.

    But she managed to keep her head above water, and the business wiped its face, and all those other handy phrases. Or so she told herself, though she was dipping into her savings more than she would have liked. After all, you had to speculate to accumulate. She was genuinely sorry when the little cake shop across the road closed, though she knew she was being a tad hypocritical as she’d not used it that much herself beyond an odd guilty treat when she couldn’t be bothered going out to the supermarket. She hoped it wouldn’t stay empty for too long, but changed her opinion rather rapidly when it re-opened as a charity shop for the British Heart Foundation. Hester had never been one of those people who complained about charity shops on principle, and was a keen customer of them herself, and she most certainly had nothing but respect and (that word again!) goodwill towards the British Heart Foundation – her father had had heart trouble. But the thing about charity shops was that (as the bank manager had pointed out) they sold books. Lots of books. Lots of cheap books. And all for a Good Cause. 

    There was never any bad feeling between the two shops. Hester knew the manager of the Heart Foundation shop and though they weren’t bosom buddies, they got on well. There was no immediate migration of her customers to them, either. But surely, and not so slowly, it happened. And why shouldn’t it? Across the road they could get the book they had wanted AND a good as new top AND a very nice cushion, still have change from what they’d have paid Hester, and come out with the warm glow of helping a Good Cause. 

    There was only one day when she had no customers whatsoever, and to be fair the weather was absolutely vile, and the Heart Foundation Shop was hardly busy either (she couldn’t help looking across the road and told herself it would be better if she couldn’t see it through the windows of A Fashion for Books, for as long as she could, it had an awful fascination) but there was something symbolic about it. Well, you could weather something symbolic. But the trouble was, it wasn’t just symbolic.

    The first time she didn’t pay her rent, the letter she got was very polite and even vaguely apologetic, insisting they were sure it was an oversight – after all, it was a first warning and a first offence. But that was the first time she felt a stab of panic. At that stage it was only a dull, bearable panic. She still had some savings, and luckily Easter was early that year, and she could do her Easter window displays, though she was quite determined that though there would not be a total absence of chicks and lambs, books would still play the prominent role, though there was nothing wrong with highlighting ones with spring-related themes and yellow covers. Everyone agreed it was a lovely display, and some even took photos of it, but she couldn’t say that it had especially boosted sales.

    She knew in her heart – or more to the point, in her head – that the sensible thing to do would be to cut her losses, admit that the Bank Manager had been right, and it had been a lovely idea, but a bit of a pipe-dream. She supposed she still could get a job as a teacher – her references were excellent, and though Middlemere itself was damaged goods, nobody would take it out on one of their teachers who was utterly blameless – would they?

    But she’d give it the summer. Though the town wasn’t exactly a holiday resort, they had day-trippers from the coastal towns not too far away, who were in the mood for a morning or afternoon of “quaint”. It would have been better if the shop had been on the Market Square itself but – she had a little sign made, hoping it was tasteful and noticeable at the same time.

    Summer worked no magic spell. Profits, if anything, were down, and her savings were dwindling at an alarming rate. And by now it was too late to put in for most teaching jobs, as any vacancies had already been filled.

    Hester didn’t know, when she looked back, if the following months seemed, in retrospect, like a blur, or whether she could remember every little detail with an accuracy and precision that were like pinpricks. Both she supposed, depending on her mood. She could not even remember the exact day, though she did remember the exact feeling, when she realised that there was only downhill and would never be uphill. 

    Her savings were all gone. She decided, though it was something she had always thought others unwise for doing, to remortgage her house. She was far too young (though she didn’t always feel it) for one of those equity release schemes, but there were other ways of doing it. And they never refused, did they?  They did. It was quite an old property, and they’d tightened up on such matters since the economic crisis. 

    So here she was. Still living in her old house, which she supposed was a mercy, though she didn’t know how long even that would last, eking out her Jobseeker’s Allowance and trying to persuade herself that she didn’t mind the cheapest brands of coffee, and not being able to go on holiday, and having to wear shoes that let water in at least until the next cheque came, and even then having to go to the charity shop – and there was a world of difference between choosing to and having to. She continued to apply for teaching posts, but became less and less hopeful of finding one, and at the gentle prompting of her work coach (she got on well with her, but knew who had the upper hand) widened her Jobsearch. She hated the way that was written as one word, though she knew she had more to worry about.

    She didn’t exactly put a brave face on things, because she hated the way they were, but had learnt that it was in her own interest to at least look as if she had a good mental attitude, or she might be sent on the Mindset Course. I’d sooner scrub toilets, she thought, than be brainwashed! 

    It was hardly an earth-shattering coincidence that she thought that as she was cleaning her toilet. Perhaps she was being a shade over-vigorous, not out of any especial energy or work-ethic, but to try to work off a few tensions. Anyway, cheap plastic toilet brushes don’t always stand for rough treatment, and the handle broke. 

    Hester let out a howl that turned to sobs and curled up in a little ball on the bathroom floor. She wasn’t quite sure at what point her sobbing turned to laughter, and at what point it ceased to be borderline hysterical and she found the situation, admittedly in a bleak way, rather amusing. The bog brush that broke the camel’s back.

    She told the anecdote to a friend, though leaving out, or at least glossing over the bit about the howl and the sobbing and her friend laughed, too. “You certainly have a way of telling things, Hester – I don’t know WHY that’s so funny, but it just is. You know, Zach often said you were the funniest teacher he’d ever known, and I’m pretty sure he meant it in a good way! They’re having an open mic comedy night at the Miller’s Daughter next week – why not have a go?”

    “That’s not my scene at all,” Hester said. But the idea was like one of those catchy and irritating “ear-worm” tunes, and wouldn’t go away.

    There are worse things in life than making other people laugh, she thought, brandishing her broken bog-brush to the appreciative audience in the Miller’s Daughter.

October 04, 2019 06:47

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1 comment

Tony Hall
15:23 Oct 10, 2019

Some minor grammar errors. I like that the plot gets gradually tense as the story progresses. Could easily relate to your character. Nicely done.


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