In the bookshop

by Dominic Blackwell

Emma flicks her eyes down to her watch then away from it quick. That makes time go slow. Half an hour to lunch. That’s something at least.

Time doesn’t drag too much in the shop today. But even on a day when trade is not slow time doesn’t move very fast. Some random people come and go. Some buy some books. But most of them come in, they browse and they walk out again. Of course now and then, they ask her: Where is this book from the school’s list? Does the shop stock this book that they’ve just done on TV? She always tells them what this book is, they buy it and then they’re pleased.

“Hi.”, Emma says, with scant thought. She sees the man in front of her. He holds a book. He hands it to her. Not special. One of that series of thrillers which many people like at the moment. She gives him the price. He puts in his card and his PIN. “Thanks” She smiles in the way she the shop taught her to. Their fingers touch as she gives him the bag with his book in it. For an intense flash their eyes meet. Then he smiles. “Thanks. Bye”

“Bye!”, she calls after him as he leaves the shop with a sprung stride.

He had been in here before. He had just looked. She couldn’t picture him in any particular section. When her work bores her, she makes up stories for the customers. Does the middle-aged man in the Cookery section need ideas for a romantic meal? Or has he kids and wonders what he’ll cook them for dinner? Did the woman in the Self-Help section just break up with someone? Or does she just she hope she will spot a good book her friend showed her only last week? And even on a slow day, a subtle drama plays out for her. A woman who checks out a man she likes when she thinks that no-one watches. An older woman who glares with hard eyes at a young mum who doesn’t curb her wild kids as they play in the Children’s section. At least it fills the time.

But the last customer she couldn’t place. If he came in before, she didn’t make up a story for him. It’s just a casual interest of hers and if the story doesn’t come to her quick, well, there are messed shelves and piled stock. Like that heap there on the counter. That task will fill the time until lunch.

A few days later, she sees him there again. The Art section this time. He’s like a tourist who steps off the train in a new city, not sure of how the locals behave. A lot of time goes by while he scans the shelves, then he flicks through a few of the books. He checks the contents pages. Are they what he looks for? What’s his story? For some cause he thinks he’ll paint or he’ll draw or something like that. Does he hope he’ll look good to someone? Could be, but she doesn’t think so. She’s more sure of this when he puts back the books and leaves. He doesn’t take the quick and easy route. He doesn’t buy one of the popular how-to books. He’s on a quest. But why?

“These ones please.” Emma muses no more. A woman with a pile of kids’ books. She smiles. She scans them in.

Then weeks go by. The man doesn’t come back. She hadn’t noticed him much before, but now she wants his story but he’s not here so she can see it in him. And that brief time their eyes met. Something she couldn’t work out. Some customers look at her when they pay. Others don’t meet her gaze. It doesn’t shock her that a bookshop brings in those who look at their shoes. He had looked at her, but as if he saw something he didn’t expect. Maybe all in her mind. Boredom makes strange things from the mind.

And then one day after lunch she sees him there. In the same place. Still nothing he wants. A few books off the shelf and then back again. No clear story pops in her head. Then he goes once more. Of course, sometimes customers leave and don’t come back. Sometimes, Emma will build up a long many-times-laid-on story for someone who just came into the shop once and never came back. And sometimes, she builds up a story over time, a simple one when the customer first comes in, and more details when he or she comes back.

Weeks pass, and he has all but gone from her mind. It goes slow in the shop now. The voice of her radio wakes her with talk of downturn and job cuts. Maybe her job will go. Only if they close the shop. She’s one of the most versed staff in the shop and several less ranked will go before she does.

Then, one day, she walks down the road on her lunch break and she spots him. He crosses the road and then heads down the street ahead of her. And something makes her act out of character. She goes after him. He walks fast and she goes after him, her feet soft and quick on the ground. She keeps him in sight as he weaves through the small crowds in the town at lunch. And then to the beach. She hangs back as he crosses the road and then waits until she can cross it herself. More traffic. She can’t see him, but then she spots a gap in the traffic, she crosses and sees him as he goes down to the beach.

She can’t go after him on the stones, where her steps would be heard, so she stands on the prom and she looks at him. He walks down to the sea and sits down. He looks out at the point where the sea and the sky meet. Then he pulls a pad and a pencil out of a bag by his side and starts a drawing. She grabs hold of herself and goes back to the shop.

What was that? She’s cross with herself as she walks back. She just watches customers in the shop. This stalker thing isn’t her, is it? Back at the till she gets herself lots of jobs. She used to have those she works with check the stock. Now she does it herself, and she hurls herself at the task. By the end of her shift, she’s shattered herself and she walks home happy.

But she lapses. She lies to herself and goes to the beach at lunch. She stares hard at the Art section in the gaps between the time when she serves one customer and when she serves the next. A pair of her colleagues lose their jobs as head office cuts costs. And one lunch, she goes down to the beach and sits on the spot where she saw him and looks out to sea. What did he look at? What did he look for?

She needs a break. On her next day off, she jumps on a train to London. She catches up with some old, good friends. It’s nice. It’s normal. And of course she says nothing about it all to them. How would they look at her? She has a good day. She has calm as she goes through the gate where she slots in her ticket so she can get on the train back.

The train has come in and she walks down the platform. She skips the packed carriages by the barrier. She pushes the button and goes into the carriage. And she sees him there. And she can’t stop herself. She walks down the carriage and sits down across from him.

His eyes do not flick up. He has his headphones on and his eyes are sunk in a pad on his lab. Emma can’t deal with this. She can’t speak to him. Not now. What would she say? Hi, I’m your useless stalker, remember me? Yes that would go well. She glues her eyes to the window.

The train pulls off. It heads out of the city and into the country. Emma’s neck locks up. She has a cause as she gets up. A wrapper sits at the bottom of her bag. She plucks it out and dumps her bag on the seat and walks down the gangway to the bin. She rolls her shoulders. Her neck frees up a bit. Why did she leave her bag? She could have gone straight to another carriage. She’d stand if she had to, but it would be worth it if she could end this. Oh well, she’ll go and get it now.

He still sits there and he doesn’t see her. She comes up behind him. Her plan is clear. She’ll grab her bag and then she’ll go.

But she can’t stop herself. She looks down, over his shoulder down at the pad in his lap. And she sees her own face staring back at her.

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