I hadn’t realised how important my little shop was until the council tried to close it down . . .
IF you’d asked me before now, I’d have said seeing signs was very much for other people. I mean, how ridiculous an idea is it that the single magpie is for you?
As I tried to explain to my mother, it wasn’t the witch on a stick she’d got from a tourist shop that broke her things, it was the removal company. If you could call them that.
Still, you get what you pay for. I told her that, too. Not that she listened. She just waved that blessed witch in my face.
“It’s a sign,” she said, going all Mystic Meg on me.
That Wednesday, though, I was more than happy to see a sign – a proper big neon one – just for me.
Wild And Homeless Books is my baby and, like a proper baby, it took a few years before it stopped waking me up in the night.
Now it’s all grown up, it’s started waking me up again for a whole load of new reasons. Sure, I still like finding the right person for the book; a sort of literary Match.com, if you will.
But lately I just don’t think it’s enough. I’d like to find my own match.
Now, if you’ve any romantic notions about my shop matching people to people, you’d best just put them straight back in their little house.
Goodness knows, I love my customers, but most of them are better suited to a night in with a book than a night out on a hot date.
Suffice to say, I’m still waiting for Dr Lydgate to make it here from “Middlemarch”.
The general rule for my customers is: the more innocent they look, the more grisly they like their stories. But I do love our chats and it’s generally a nice crowd.
“Hey, Anna. Have you got the kettle on? I could murder a cup of tea,” Jimmy calls through from Crime, Vintage and Modern.
“Well, let’s see now, are you buying anything? Because if not you can make it yourself!” I reply and he laughs.
This is our usual opening gambit every Wednesday at ten, as regular as clockwork. I can hear him muttering. “Say again? I couldn’t hear you; I had the tap running.”
Well, it’s a poor do if you can’t make one of your best customers a cup of tea. I get the kettle going and go out to join him.
“I was wondering if you’d heard?” he says, waving the local paper at me.
“‘Town In Critical Hobnob Shortage’?” I say. “‘Man Forgets To Put Bins Out’? Go on, Jimmy, surprise me. What excitement have we got going on, or should I wait until I have a cup of hot tea to stop me falling into a faint?”
He looks pretty serious which is not like Jimmy. I mean, he’s clearly a clever bloke – a consultant in
architecture, I gather – but he’s always laid back and good fun in the shop. Though I do hide my feeble attempt at the cryptic crossword when he’s around.
“You know, Anna, I think maybe you should,” he says. “Sit down. I’ll make the tea.”
He hands me the paper. Now I’m worried. Jimmy firmly subscribes to the view that the only good cup of tea is one someone else has made.
“‘Council To Sell Market And High Street Frontage For Housing’,” I read. “Wow, so old Carruthers is finally going to do it.”
But Jimmy can’t hear me from the kitchen.
The town is a tourist hotspot – coach party heaven in the summer, or hell, depending on your viewpoint.
Councillor Carruthers, though, is firmly in the “living town, not tourist town” camp, which means housing rather than shops, because shops, apparently, are so last century.
Mind you, the local gossips will tell you there might also be the odd backhander passing to and fro. Now, I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny that.
The fact is, though, he’s finally pushed the deal through and I may just be the only person in town who wants this.
Jimmy brings me a mug of tea and sits down.
“Well, what are we going to do?” he asks.
Interesting use of “we”, I think. I’m pretty sure it’s just me who’s paying the rent on this place.
I’ve had the shop with an online agent for ages and there hasn’t been a sniff, apart from one strange couple who didn’t speak to me, they just started measuring up.
That, I could have handled, but, “I don’t think much of these shelves and the whole place needs a proper clean,” tipped me over the edge. They were firmly escorted out.
This sale would be the perfect reason for me finally to pluck up the courage to make a fresh start.
But there is strong local opposition to the whole scheme. They love this shop.
“Not much we can do.” I may as well go with the whole “we” thing, I decide. “The wheels of bureaucracy tend to turn at the speed of continental drift, so it may never happen,” I add, trying to jolly him along.
He’s having none of it. “I think you’re being naïve. This is your business and you’ve got to fight for it. Anyway, Wild And Homeless is so much more than a bookshop. It’s a vital part of the community and we can’t afford to lose it! Or you,” he adds quietly, looking down.
“Thanks,” I say, slurping my tea. It’s hotter than I was expecting.
“I know you’re not good with compliments, Anna, but this town needs you.” I’m blushing now. “This shop is a real hub. It’s not just the books; it’s all the events you put on. For loads of the regulars, it’s a lifeline.
“I know I really look forward to coming here and our conversations. Who else knows about 1950s sci-fi?” He looks a bit flustered.
This is beginning to feel decidedly uncomfortable.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I mumble, getting up and moving some books from one pile to another for no discernible reason. I almost run into the front shop when the bell rings.
“Have you seen this?” It’s my mother, paper in hand. “It’s a sign, I tell you, Anna. You can come back to Ireland with me.”
“What are you talking about, Mother? You haven’t lived in Ireland for years. Your home’s here.”
“I always thought I’d see out my days in the old country,” she says, looking into the middle distance.
“All right, Mother, let’s put the accents away, shall we? And by the way, you’re only sixty-four.” Like the Beatles song, I suddenly realise.
The words “Will you still need me?” come to mind. Well, yes, a bit. OK, quite a lot, I think, but I don’t need to live with her, and certainly not in Ireland.
She needs to stay here and then I can still take her to the new pizza place she likes, and we can get the train into the city where Jimmy has an office.
Where did that thought come from? Try again, Anna. We can get the train into the city and go shopping.
She can always pop into the shop so I can keep an eye on her, and she can bring my ironing and maybe something yummy to eat, just like she does now.
I do feel a bit bad about that. Mind you, she likes cooking, so I reason that I’m helping her by giving her a reason to make a roast with all the trimmings.
Her home is here. Our home is here.
“Hello, Mrs Mullins,” Jimmy says. “Are you here to talk some sense into your daughter?”
“I most certainly am. This is telling us, Anna, that it’s time to go back. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” I see Jimmy grinning. Finally I get it. I’ve spent the last six months wallowing in a sea of self-pity and whining on about finding myself, when I’m already here.
Jimmy’s right, I can’t lose the shop. Councillor Carruthers, I realise, is my very own Glinda, Good Witch of the North, sent from Oz (well, the really ugly new council offices) to remind me that if I’m looking for home, I need look no further than my own backyard.
Actually, that’s a bit icky and the thought of him in a pink meringue dress is not a pleasant one.
“What are you pulling that face for? You look like you’re sucking a wasp,” my mother says.
“Oh, it’s a lot worse than that,” I reply.
“You what? Oh, I don’t get you sometimes.”
“Only sometimes?” Jimmy says and I raise an eyebrow at him.
“You know what, Mother? I think you’re right.”
“Well, yes. Obviously,” she says, puffing herself up.
“I mean, obviously I’m far too rational for signs, but . . . well, being here in my lovely shop, it’s definitely where I’m meant to be. I’m going to do everything I can to stop Carruthers.” I’m squirming now, feeling a bit silly for delivering a speech like that, so I’m very grateful when Jimmy bails me out. “Hear, hear!”
“Be careful. You’re slopping that tea everywhere,” my mother says, rushing to the kitchen for a cloth.
“Sorry, Mrs Mullins,” Jimmy says sheepishly and we both try not to laugh.
Suddenly I realise just how much I like having him as my partner in crime, and how much I’d miss him if we didn’t have a reason to see each other in the shop.
The bell does one of its weary tinkles and then an indignant thump when someone lets the door close too hard.
Instinctively I jump up and charge into the front. It’s him. Carruthers. “Good morning, Ms Mullins,” he says, scanning the shop. For “Dastardly Deeds For Dummies”, I suppose. Though he’s probably already got that volume.
“Good morning, Councillor,” I say. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Jimmy has come out to join me, the paper tucked under his arm like a weapon.
“Councillor Carruthers,” Jimmy says in a clipped tone, sounding much posher than usual. “I see you finally got your way and you’re going to try to close this town down.”
He flicks the paper
This is beginning to feel decidedly uncomfortable
open and it snaps loudly like gunshot in a Western.
“Let me tell you, Councillor, we will not go down without a fight. I shall be scrutinising the paperwork very carefully and, as I’m sure you know, I have some pretty useful connections in the city I can call on.
“I’m sure everything is in order, but it’s always best to check. Especially when so much is at stake.”
I realise Jimmy is looking at me. This is Jimmy in professional mode – a man used to getting his own way. I think I like it just as much as his good-natured joshing. It certainly feels good to have him on my side.
“I’m sorry. Have we met?” Carruthers says, oily smirk in place.
He has to look up at Jimmy who is a good head taller. Why haven’t I noticed how tall he is before?
“I’m Jimmy Trewithin. I run Trewithin And Barfield Architectural Consultants with my partner. If there are any anomalies, we will find them and we will stop you,” he says dramatically.
Um, OK, a little bit Liam Neeson in “Taken”, if Liam had had to stop someone flouting planning regulations rather than rescue his daughter. Not very Hollywood, I’ll grant you, but I can work on that.
“Right, well, perhaps you’d like to join the steering group. We could certainly use someone with your experience,” Carruthers presses on, undeterred.
He picks up a rather tatty Stephen King. “Misery”, it looks like.
Jimmy looks furious. “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, Councillor Carruthers. The only steering group I shall be joining is the one to save Wild And Homeless Books and all the other shops you’re determined to put out of business for your own benefit.
“In fact, we have started our campaign and we already have the support of a number of prominent local business heads.” Have we?
“Very good. Well, I shall let you get on, then, Mr Trewithin. You’re clearly very busy.” Carruthers has the look of a man trying to stifle a snigger, but the meal he’s making of putting that book back tells a different story. He’s rattled.
“Let me do that for you, Councillor,” I say, gently taking the book from him. “Will there be anything else I can help you with today?”
“No, thank you, Ms Mullins,” he says, “though you should maybe consider the company you keep.”
“Oh, I have, Councillor, and I’m very happy with it.” I smile at Jimmy, who is holding the door open, beckoning Carruthers to leave. “Thank you for your concern and we’ll see you again soon, I hope,” I say.
“Oh, yes, Ms Mullins, you’ll be seeing me,” he replies.
To be honest, his flounce would have worked better if he hadn’t caught his coat on the door handle and been pinged back in cartoon style. But fair play to him – he tried.
“What was all that about?” my mother asks, appearing from the back, tea towel in hand.
“Oh, just Carruthers flexing his muscles,” Jimmy says. “I think we’ve well and truly got him on the back foot.”
“Yes,” I say. “Just one thing, though. What’s this steering group you were on about?”
“Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you about that,” Jimmy replies, grinning.
“Welcome to the inaugural meeting of Community First,” Jimmy says, balancing precariously on a three-legged panda stool from the children’s section, his head grazing the ceiling. “We are here to stop Carruthers selling the town to developers.
“Looking around I can see lots of familiar faces and regular visitors to Wild And Homeless . . .”
The shop is packed and I’m pretty sure those that are squashed into the Travel/biography nook round the corner haven’t a clue what’s going on, but I’m very grateful to see them just the same.
“And so, we shall show just how strong this great community is,” Jimmy continues grandly.
“Blimey, he’s enjoying it on his soapbox,” I hear June tell her husband.
“Jimmy,” I say. “Why don’t we break for tea and maybe get our heads together. I’ll bet there are loads of good ideas.”
“Oh, yes, my grandson is a whizz on the computer and can make us a website,” Kathy calls out.
“I can make a website, thank you very much,” her husband says, looking thoroughly miffed.
“Mum, have you got that kettle on?” I call through.
“Already on it,” she says. “Tea this way, coffee in the Crime section, and there’s cake, too. All donations to the Community First fund greatly appreciated.” My mother is in her element.
“I hadn’t finished explaining,” Jimmy says, looking put out as he comes to join me.
“I think they’re fine,” I say, looping my arm through his.
All around is the buzz of ideas from serious legal challenges through to making leaflets to hand out at a community fete to raise funds. It’s clear there’s a way for everyone to be involved.
“You all right there, Les?” I say to one customer as he surreptitiously stuffs a book down the back of one of the sofas.
“Fine, thanks,” he says, blushing. “I wasn’t stealing, Anna, I was just putting it aside for later and I didn’t want anyone else to take it.”
“It’s OK, Les. Why don’t I look after it for you?” I say, holding out my hand.
He fishes out a wellthumbed copy of “Cutlery Through The Ages.”
It’s good that we all like different things, I suppose . . .
Jimmy has been nabbed by Davie Byers, who is trying to get some advice on his new extension, and sends a desperate, “Help me!” look my way.
I tuck Les’s book into a corner and go to rescue my boyfriend. It’s funny but really rather wonderful to call Jimmy that.
“Would you excuse us, Davie? I just need to ask Jimmy something about our constitution,” I say, leading Jimmy to the door.
Who knew planning regulations could be so much fun?
“Thank you so much,” he says, looking worried. “You don’t really want to discuss the constitution, do you?”
“Let’s get out of here,” I say. “If you ask me nicely I might even buy you a pint.”
“A whole pint? You really are spoiling me.”
The door bangs on its hinges, rattling the bell, and I can tell that everyone is watching us. It feels good to be just a tiny bit wild and thoroughly at home. n