A Short Story
There was once a bookshop on the High Street of my town. It was called Barnaby’s but everybody knew it as Annie’s. The exterior was wooden; sanded and varnished without fail every year by Terry the local handyman and there were two big bay windows where books were always displayed by a meticulous hand and a huge spoonful of imagination.
Children’s books would be placed alongside candy canes and chocolate drops, once there was even a vertical tunnel whirling down from the ceiling decorated with crisp leaves and moss, a cardboard cut-out of Alice in Wonderland falling gracefully down. Children would stand for hours gazing at the displays. Adults too.
Annie, the owner, would always be sat at the back of the shop behind her big wooden desk, which was dotted with piles of books. An old sea green typewriter sat in front of her, a china cup of earl grey tea to her right. When you pushed the door the bell would ring and her face would peer over the silver rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. At first I always thought she looked stern but then a big smile would break over her face, the glasses would drop to dangle from the sparkly chain and all hard edges would fall away to reveal a soft, radiating warmth. You would always be welcomed with some anecdote or other about how she was just remembering the time when her father carved her a doll and “isn’t it peculiar that someone had just dropped an old copy of Pinocchio in to sell this very morning!”
I never knew if all her stories were true, she had so many of them, but I loved them all the same. Whenever anybody picked up a book and said “Annie, what about this one” she would always start her reply with “Oh, well you wouldn’t believe…” and her face would become animated, her cheeks rosy and her passion for life infectious as she recounted some part of her history that was linked to that particular book. Sometimes I would pick up something obscure or funny just because I loved to sit down and listen to her soft voice that had ever such a slight hint of a faraway accent. Over time I suppose Annie became the living book of her own bookshelves.
Years later the shop closed, without ceremony. Just one day the windows were empty and streaked with whitewash. For a few months some of us customers would bump into each other whilst we stood staring in disbelief, the loss of Annie’s so confusing and unexpected that we felt it like an open wound inside. Nobody knew what had happened to her. Some of us posted notes through the door hoping a relative would find it and tell us she’d retired to France and was living it up sipping champagne and reading to her heart’s content in a gloriously festooned garden. But nobody ever replied and instead, the gaping hole of our past connection just stayed gaping, all of us united silently in our memories.
The truth is, we all knew Annie. We knew her for the stories of travels through Italy, the Irish husband who left her running a farm, the Mongolian horseman who forever stole her heart, the mountain cottage in Germany where she lived as a child that she could never forget, the cat she called Orange on account of its love for citrus fruit. But really, we didn’t know her at all.
Annie’s is now a big chain coffee shop. I still sometimes stand in front of it lost in my memories; the smell of dusty book jackets and earl grey tea, wondering what she wrote on the paper in her sea-green typewriter. Occasionally I go in and buy a Mocha coffee. I stand expectantly at the till, my money suspended in mid-air. I guess I’m hoping that the girl with the nose piercing and stardust tattoo is going to tell me a tale about her adventures in Yemen, but she doesn’t, “that’s £2.50 please” she reiterates with an impatient roll of the eyes and so I smile, pay my money and walk away.
If you enjoyed this short story, you can buy my collection of nine—The Times We Had—directly from me via my online shops:
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