Com­mu­nity Spirit

I hadn’t re­alised how im­por­tant my lit­tle shop was un­til the coun­cil tried to close it down . . .

The People's Friend - - 8 - by Mar­i­anne Har­man

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

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