Our hands clasp warmly, despite our mutual cold, as we push through the narrow door. One small tinkle of that familiar bell signals our arrival – our place as refugees in a town of crumbling faces and grey buildings, where rusted cars compete for supremacy and hearts are broken against nightclub fire escapes.
Behind the counter a lady with a pair of beaming teeth and a row of yellow eyes bows cordially to us, her long black hair running like an oil slick down her shirt. We release our grip and scan the shelves – column upon column of strip neon cuddled between deep brown wood. Lone figures stand solemnly here and there on the fetid ugly carpet, noses deep in words; still wrapped up against the outside but here full of colour, glowing from their shoes to their foreheads. Some corners have sickly lights, some have asthmatic candles dancing unsteadily on their wicks, but mostly the aisles are drenched in warm shadow – the kind of place you want to get lost in.
The Bookshop was our Sanctuary from a race that didn’t read, from a society that burned things it didn’t understand and a generation that preferred to stare at their own faces warped and reflected through tinted shop windows. Inside this time capsule were the collective imaginations of thousands, gathered from the experiences of millions; an endless galaxy of connections and hearsay, of meanderings and meanings, of feelings and fears. Inside The Bookshop there existed no fast right or hard wrong; you just simply were, and the words simply existed to be absorbed by those with the right eyes, or jumbled by those with the wrong ones too. It didn’t matter. As long as it happened, as long as a dusty page got to see light again, who cared what it meant long term? What is any story without the tale and only the teller?
She nods her head and we descend into the cellar, down a steep, swirling and crackling wooden staircase. In comparison to the warmth above, the cellar was always cold and reeked of damp. But, with the exception of the coffee machine burbling away in the background, everything here was old and waiting to be found; a collection of orphans in their Sunday best with tags on their coats. Second hand and classics, antiquarian and raggy vinyl. The ceiling hung oppressively low, the wallpaper brown and ragged with war stories to tell. Even the couches looked both homely and yet distressed.
We split up and scanned the titles; so many names who had made it, who had broken free. Thomases and Annas and Gerards and Eves, names that would have otherwise been carved into a stone slab one day, and condemned to being weathered out of existence. Here those forgotten names shone out in gold plated ink from tattered sleeves and shoulders. Their bodies might lie in grey now, under overgrown and forgotten mounds, but I can pick apart their thoughts, run my finger over their words and kiss the dust from the tip of my finger.
I picked out something from an Augustus Ligier. On Temperence And The Common Man. I opened up the yellow pages, taking a deep sniff of the stale air. Halfway down a page about the rucks of old navvies, how one beserker had taken hostage of an alehouse in 1855 with a coal scuttle and nineteen pints of mild because the landlord called time, she calls me over with pink cheeks buried somewhere between a hat and a scarf.
“This is filth” she tells me excitedly. “Proper Edwardian smut.” I follow her finger as it traces a wonky line. She reads aloud to me. Her pendulous bosoms left me in a daze as I mounted the footstool and awaited distinction. She approaches me and, heaving away, I buried my lips over a single nipple like a barnacle attached to the hulk of Nelson’s Victory.”
Snapping the book shut with a puff of fibres, she asks me. “Do you ever mount a stool before you suck on a tit?”
‘I don’t think so? Then again it has been a while…’
Her hands pinched my cheek through her fingerless gloves. Awww.. you little barnacle.
I swatted her hand away. ‘Are you pendulous? Have you ever compared your breasts to Royal Navy frigates?’
She cupped herself thoughtfully for a moment, scrunching up her nose. “It’s weird you should ask me that…”
“No reason” she smiled. “It’s just weird. You fucking weirdo.”
We take the shortcut through the cemetary home. She points out her ‘favourite grave’; a coupled called Rita and Tom who she thought were called Ita and Tom on account of the ‘R’ going missing. They died on the same day in 1973. I hope they were holding hands when it happened, even if it was during a car crash, she always used to say.
We sit down on some old stones, having checked to ensure they didn’t have names carved into them, and compared our finds. I had a small yellow and purple book with maps of Sub-Saharan Africa (just because I liked the hand-drawn maps), a copy of Mirabeau’s The Torture Garden, and a dog-eared flaking edition of Little Women bought just for the inscription on the inside cover – To Millie, with love from Mummy, Christmas 1901. On page 65 I found a photo used as a bookmark; it was the top half of a distinguished looking gentleman in woodland, wearing a tin hat and a thick black moustache. On the back, someone had written Alfie Ypres Nov 1914.
She put her rucksack down at her feet and pulled out her haul. Lucia Berlin, Elizabeth Gaskill and… I put my head in my hands… oh god…. she’s clearing her throat.
“No seriously, read this bit…
Clarissa’s buttocks massed before my very eyes. I could only see the enormous mounds of jiggling flesh backing towards me relentless, like pale tides. Trying to gather my senses, I mounted the stool and awaited her on…”
She tweaked my nipple. “Don’t interrupt me. I am trying to read you literature.”
She gestured with her hands. “Lit-err-ah-chure darlhhing!”
‘How many stools! Seriously!’ I tried to fight off her squirming hands, fumbling for my chest. ‘Does this cunt not know that other furniture exists!? Stop it!’
Her hands reached under my jumper as her fingertips grabbed at me. Shouts and cries, boots kicking into the cold air, rolling off the stones and across frozen brown leaves. Our laughter echoed around the cold stones, and those cold faces, as the rest of the world passed us by with indifference.