Community Stories. Get Inspired, Get Underlined

Page 105

By @E_W_Hemmings

One

You’re almost there, Nichol. Just ten steps more, ten more steps through these crowds of mindless people, ten more steps past that busker by the guild hall who thinks she’s Adele, and you’re there.

As I am shoved to the side by yet another thoughtless shopper in the High Street, I realise how weird that thought sounds in my head. I sound like I’m going somewhere more important than the bookshop – like somewhere I’ve dreamt of going all my life, or the station just as my train’s just about to leave. And you can call me as weird or as eccentric as you want – to me, this great red brick building sticking out like a hardback book on a shelf of paperbacks among the rest of the shops is more than just a landmark on the High Street. It’s my second home.

As soon as I walk in through that door, the outside world feels meaningless, more like fiction than any of the books lining the shelves. It feels immersive in here. It’s one of those buildings that’s old enough to still have that pleasant kind of charm that you don’t get in the soulless buildings built more recently, but at the same time it’s new enough to feel modern rather than dated. The ground floor feels spacious even though half of it is taken up by gleaming mahogany shelves which look almost friendly in a way, and grand too. The books colour the air with the glorious smell of woody, fresh new pages – if I could bottle it and keep it somewhere for a rainy day, then I would. All the trendy new adult books are kept down here on gleaming mahogany shelves that are definitely not new, but seem ageless, and another shelf of non-fiction is stuffed into the corner near the tills. Located on the other side of the shop is what I call the Stairway To Heaven: a gigantic coil of stairs leading to the first floor, and I confess, on a quiet day I like to run up them. It’s too busy for that today, so I’m forced to walk.

Up here on the first floor, it feels more spacious than it does downstairs, with great big windows at one end that capture every ray of light from the sun and throw them out into the rest of the shop. In the summer, it’s so light that they never bother to stick the lights on, and it’s the warmest part of town in the winter.

They have so many more books up here too: the same mahogany shelves line every wall and fill every corner, stuffed high with a whole rainbow of books, not just a rainbow of colour, but one of size and genre too. God, there must be thousands of them in here, each a unique portal to a fictional world more exciting than the real one. Yet wherever they take me – Hogwarts, the Capitol, Cairnholm – I can always forget myself for a little while. Sometimes I find answers to my problems inside them too, and even when I don’t these books can teach me lessons more valuable than any teacher could give me.

Naturally, when there are so many books up here reaching out towards me, trying to pull me towards them, it can be pretty hard to just choose one. Anything looking vaguely romantic is a no-go for starters. I often pick up a couple of books, turning them over in my hands, reading the blurb and then the first page or two. Sometimes I come back for one the week after if something better takes my attention.

Eventually, I make my mind up. The book that comes with me to the counter is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I’ve wanted to read for ages. But while paying for the book is pretty mundane to most people, for me it’s almost as special, thanks to the person waiting for me behind the counter.

Rileigh got so used to seeing me at the same time on her Saturday shift that we started talking about stuff like books and why we hate the Conservatives. Eventually, our chats went on for so long that I’d be kind of rude not to call her a friend. She is two years older than me, in her first year of uni (studying English Lit, of course) and this is the only time in the week I can see her in person. If I come into the bookshop and can’t pick out the shock of her bleached blonde ponytail when I get up the stairs, my Saturday feels kind of incomplete.

“What have you got this week?” she asks when I get to the counter. I push the book towards her. “That is basically you in book form.”

“Excuse me? Did you just mistake me for a thief?” I say, raising my eyebrow. “I put good money into this bookshop. It helps pay for your food and your tuition fees! Be grateful!”

“Ooh, is Nichol getting feisty again?”

“You bet I am.”

“Fine, I won’t complain about it then.” Smiling to herself, she scans the barcode on the book. “Seven ninety-nine, please.”

“You sounded extremely businessy when you say that,” I remark.

“Alright, you,” says Rileigh as I hand her a tenner. “You don’t come here every week just to roast me. Mind you, I could definitely call you out for using a word that doesn’t exist… ‘Businessy’? Really?”

“Come on, you know what I mean. Don’t be the one to scare off the shop’s most loyal customer.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t. You love me too much.”

“Fine, maybe I do.”

“I couldn’t see you getting books anywhere else, even if you can get them all for free at the library…”

“Libraries just don’t really compare to this bookshop,” I explain. “The books are never truly yours; you can’t just re-read one whenever you like. They have those weird plastic jackets on too and unless they’ve just been ordered in they never have that nice new book smell. Sometimes they can be in a pretty gross state actually. Once I found one with mould in the spine.”

“Ewwww,” says Rileigh.

“The library over the other side of town’s just not as nice as here either. There’s always one screaming child there that never puts a sock in it,” I add. “You know my feelings on small screaming children. And that, Rileigh, is why I will always choose the bookshop.”

She gives me a quiet, joking applause. “That was very inspiring,” she says. “It makes me proud to work here.”

Hem hem.” A man in a tweed jacket has appeared behind me with what looks like a crime novel in his hand, looking bored. I’m pretty used to this actually; it always marks the end to our conversations.

“Sorry sir, I’ll be with you now.” She lowers her voice as if speaking to me is now completely forbidden. “I’ll see you at closing time if you’re still here. Enjoy the book.”

“I will.”

And that is the extent of my non-family interaction for the week. Yep, I’m serious.

There’s always something I like people to know when they meet me, though often I show them instead of telling them. It’s my secret superpower: being invisible. When I hear someone say, “I’m not a people person,” I feel like telling them: “You want to see someone who’s less of a people person than you? Yep, she’s right here, in front of you now. You wanna see what a misanthrope looks like? This is it. How good are you at building walls around yourself? Try knocking mine down; breaking past yours will be an easy task, I guarantee it.” In fact, I’ve done such a good job at building walls around myself that most the people in my year have forgotten I exist. And yes, I’m unlikely to listen to you if you try to tell me to let people in (I hate that phrase; it sounds like too much of an innuendo) and open myself up (which also sounds like an innuendo). I’ll just tell you to take your hippy ******** (and innuendos) somewhere else. This is the way I work, and I’m content like this. Best of all, I am also very safe.

Okay, I’m sick of talking about myself now. Unlike most other customers, I never leave as soon as I’ve bought a book. Instead, I stay and read for a while, sometimes until they kick me out, curled up in one of the chairs on the other side of the first floor. There are some leather seats sat around a coffee table by the window, often empty, but because the window’s so big they get especially hot in the summer.

Nobody ever sits in ‘my’ chair – it has my name written on it in invisible ink and you have to embark on a little quest to find it, tucked away between the fantasy and historical fiction shelves. It’s kind of old, bu**** aged well, made of dark wood, and the dark green cushions on it smell slightly of cedarwood and old people. I curl up in it with my legs tucked under my chin and my knees acting as a convenient book rest, so I’m now comfy enough to crack open the book and let the world dissolve into the one Markus Zusak created.

I don’t know much time passes, but after a while I hear someone say my name. That’s when Rileigh appears, looking kind of flustered.

“Closing time already?” I ask.

“Not for like an hour yet,” she says. “I need a favour.”

Reluctantly, I dog ear page 105 and close my book. “Yeah?”

“My boss has given me all this stuff to do, and I’m already flapping, and then this customer asks if I’m actually going to do something because he’s been waiting so long – well, he was politer than that, but…”

“First, calm those **** of yours…” I begin.

“My **** are very calm, thanks.”

“But the rest of you isn’t,” I point. “Second, what is this favour?”

“Well, he asked if there were any books I could recommend, but because I had a million and one things to do I may or may not have referred him to you… I mean, you are good with books.”

“Rileigh…”

“Sorry, but I have to get a move on. I’ll talk to you later, alright?”

I need a table to hit my head on really, really hard. God, I hate her right now (though if she heard my thoughts I’d apologise immediately). She knows what I’m like. I’ve warned her countless times. She’s past staging any sort of intervention.

And there’s no way I can make myself invisible now either. I wish that sort of magic existed in the Muggle universe.

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