We’re celebrating Independent Bookshop Week with this short story by author Salley Vickers, exclusively on the Penguin blog.
The Bookshop at Lower Wyke
There was general consternation in Lower Wyke when Alfred Hales died suddenly. The sad event, it was widely reported, was a consequence of his attempt to shift one of the heavy mahogany bookcases that he had inherited from his grandmother along with the little bow-windowed premises on the village square. It appeared that he had also inherited his grandmother’s susceptible heart.
Lower Wyke was, in general, less well endowed with cultural distractions than its sister village, Middle Wyke (if there had ever been an Upper Wyke it had never been recorded). But it was superior in a couple of respects: the bookshop and Vanessa Parson’s ‘Craft Centre’ where local art was displayed and handmade pottery was sold. In the view of Lower Wyke’s more intellectual residents the bookshop was, of the two, the greater asset and the unexpected loss of its owner a matter for concern. Alfred was well liked as a man and respected as a judge of books. He had the true bookseller’s gift of knowing what book, however seemingly bizarre, would appeal to whom. He was in the vanguard of booksellers who recognised the potential in a book by an unknown first-time author, about a retired spinster’s trip to Venice and her encounter with an angel, which had become an unexpected best seller. He had suggested the novel to Jen Truelove’s book group, who had acquired prestige by becoming early fans and recommending the book in turn. As the grateful author liked to say, without booksellers like Alfred Hale her writing career might easily have died an early death.
It was Alfred who had slyly offered Fifty Shades of Grey to the younger Miss Leggat, whose tastes hitherto had been almost exclusively for P. D. James. And it was thanks to him that the Madame Pamplemousse books by Rupert Kingfisher became so popular with the village’s younger school children.
And now Alfred had left them and gone on to run the ‘greater bookshop in the sky’ as the new curate, Tim Sparks had put it, attempting, as was his unfortunate tendency, to put a ‘humorous’ gloss on the grim. The incumbent, Father Terry Truelove, who had tried in vain to wean the curate of this regrettable habit, had phrased it more tastefully when, at the funeral, he had spoken of Alfred’s ‘abiding love of literature and unstinting desire to share it with others’. The vicar himself, a committed Ruth Rendell fan, had been the first among the bookshop’s regulars, at Alfred’s encouragement, to sample a Stig Larson.
It was the vicar’s wife, Jen, a devotee of Joanna Trollope with a penchant for Sarah Waters (laced with the occasional shot of Ali Smith) who had asked, the funeral safely behind them, ‘So who did he leave it to then?’ For Alfred, unlike his grandmother, had no known family or obvious heirs.
The shop was freehold. Alfred’s grandmother, Alice Hale, an early feminist and a self-educated blue stocking, who had left her ‘county’ husband for poking fun at her intellectual aspirations, had bequeathed the shop to her grandson along with the flat upstairs. Alfred had held bookshop parties, where good wine and cheese straws, supplied by Pat Freeman, who ran the local playgroup, had encouraged Christmas and Easter sales. But no one, to Lower Wyke’s knowledge, had ever been invited upstairs.
It was some time before it was discovered what was to happen to the shop and there was cautious optimism when it transpired it had been left to Alfred’s second cousin’s daughter, Alfreda.
‘I assume it was the name,’ Janet Derby opined to Viv Jensen in their bed over their morning Earl Grey tea. Janet was the retired head of Middle Wyke’s primary school. Since her retirement she had openly lived with Viv, in a liaison that allowed the Lower Wykians to feel smugly liberal in their sexual attitudes. Viv was not a reader but out of affection for Janet had attempted Jane Austen alongside the useful handbooks on DIY and dogs that Hale’s Books had supplied. ‘Alfreda’s quite a monicker. I wonder if she was named out of deference to him.’
In fact Alfreda Hale was named for the great great grandparent whom she and Alfred had shared. The first Alfreda Hale, Alice Hale’s grandmother, was what was once called ‘an original’; that is to say she had strong views on life and how she in particular should live and didn’t give a damn what others thought about this, or anything much else if it came to that. She was, among other things, a herbalist and was famous for her ability to cure apparently fatal aliments that had resisted more conventional medicines. In fact, from what Alfreda the Second could discover, her great great grandmother was something of a medium and had the reputation of owning certain occult powers.
It was rumoured that Alfreda planned to move into her new premises over the first May bank holiday weekend and it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the shop, under its new directive, was to open on the bank holiday Monday.
At first glance, the regulars were pleased to note, nothing about the little bookshop seemed to have had changed. The departed Alfred’s stock was displayed on the fatal mahogany bookcases, which gleamed with an appearance of self-satisfaction that might have struck an observer, informed of the manner of Alfred’s death, as insensitive. On the old, pleasantly scarred tables, books were stacked promisingly, inviting the potential purchaser to browse. There were, however, small additions. A couple of leather armchairs, of a suitable shabbiness, had been placed by the fireplace, which hitherto had been a matter of ornament rather than practical use. The customers’ use of the armchairs was, however, limited thanks to the presence of a large grey cat, which had enthroned itself regally on one of them. The fireplace itself was now ablaze with burning logs and coals, causing Meredith Parker to warn her son Jamie sharply against approaching too closely. ‘Is that wise?’ she asked her friend Louise. ‘With all the paper about.’
Louise was turning over the books on meditation. ‘She should get a fireguard. I expect she will. But it’s a nice idea. It’s so cold after all.’ And the general feeling was that the fire in Hale’s Books made a pleasant refuge from the weather, which with the peculiar perverseness of a bank holiday had turned to a dispiriting scattering of wet snow.
As a further antidote to the inclement weather, the new owner of the bookshop had provided mulled wine, served in glasses of a random shape and size. Along with the wine, young Janey Hamilton was passing round some canapés, having been courted into service by a smiling Alfreda. While the shop’s ambience had not noticeably altered, Alfreda’s smile was in contrast to Alfred Hale’s. Alfred’s demeanour had always been the essence of predictable sobriety.
What with the fire, the comfy chairs, the wine and the canapés the consensus of the customers was that Alfred’s relative was going to make ‘a go of it’ and might prove a very fair substitute for Alfred himself.
It was a little while before people began to notice something odd about the books they purchased from Hale’s. As writers unhappily learn, most people are poor readers. They read not what is written but what they think – or hope, or fear, or are told by other, allegedly more knowledgeable, souls – is actually on the printed page. Most writers will have had the depressing experience of seeing their carefully chosen words quoted out of context, with quite another, often ridiculous, meaning attached. Or will have had their books judged by the standards of some critic riding a hobbyhorse, or bent on establishing him or herself as a wit at the expense of the hapless writer’s reputation.
Luckily, to every three score of careless readers there will be one or two of independent and open mind. And one such was Viola Knox, a distant relative of the once famous Knox family and with something of their reputation for intellectual vigour.
Viola had not in fact herself bought the book that first invited questions. It was a gift for her sixtieth birthday from the vicar’s wife, Jen. Jen and Viola were part of the Lower Wyke book group and were on cordial if not intimate terms. That Jen had not fully grasped Viola’s tastes was a consequence more of Viola’s tact than any failure in Jen’s perspicacity. She bought her book group colleague a new novel by a writer better known for his savage attacks on other writers, which had been praised immoderately in a Sunday broadsheet.
Viola had read the review and had privately decided that the source of the reviewer’s generous praise came more from fear of ensuing retaliation on his own work than any genuinely positive response. Reading between the lines, Viola’s guess was that the book, dealing with the mores of North London middleclass society and its unexciting manifestations of infidelity, gossip, wine snobbery and tawdry ambition, was both parochial and conceited. These were not subjects to remotely interest her in life; less still in literature. But she was fond of Jen and felt sorry for her with the handicap of being a vicar’s wife. Jen bore her cross good humouredly. It would be impolite not to say a few grateful words about the book, however much Viola might conceal her true views.
She was surprised, therefore, on flicking through the book to discover a number of pages were quite blank. And on those where there was discernible print there were a host of visible omissions, as if some hungry word moth had devoured holes in the paragraphs.
Viola’s first thought was that there had been an error in the printing. But closer inspection suggested an intentional design. Certain words, generally adjectives from the look of the sentences, had been apparently excised. Complete sentences were missing as well as whole paragraphs and pages. Puzzled, but without wasting on it much more thought, Viola persevered enough to gain an impression she could authentically offer (‘graphic’ was, she decided, the description she would apply) and then gave the book away to the ‘Save the Ponies’ charity shop.
Dr Neil Henderson, who prided himself on being something of a cook, was the next to experience something untoward. He had bought a new recipe book by the very latest of the ‘of the minute’ chefs, whose TV show ‘What’s Trending in the Kitchen?’ provided a point of comfort each Saturday night, during which Dr Henderson regularly regretted that he had allowed his mother to persuade him into medicine. He bought the glossy book, with the jacket picture of the unshaven chef, and was looking forward to perusing it in search of some novel ideas for the dinner party he was planning for his wife June’s fiftieth.
So it was a shock to open the pages and see, beneath the section entitled ‘Smashing Starters’, the following words in bold type. ‘If you really need a cookbook try Elizabeth David.’ Nothing else. No accounts of any starters, ‘smashing’ or otherwise. Mystified, Dr Henderson turned to ‘Seconds to Send Them Wild’. Here were the stern words ‘Food is not for turning diners wild. It is for savouring like ladies or gentlemen.’
Dr Henderson was a moderate man but the TV cookery programme was one of his few outlets for the strain caused by working in the NHS. To be upbraided in this way by a cookery book struck him as grossly unfair. Placing the book angrily back in its brown paper Hale’s Books bag, he marched across the square.
Alfreda was in the shop with the grey cat seated magisterially beside her on the counter when Dr Henderson entered, his slightly cabbagy face aglow with righteous indignation. ‘It’s this book, Miss er-‘
‘Sorry, Alfreda. I wasn’t at your opening though I heard it was fun.’
Alfreda demonstrated her proficiency at acquiring the names of her customers. ‘What can I do for you, Doctor Henderson?’
‘Well, it’s clearly some joke. There’s nothing but rude comments inside. Look, see here.’ His hands trembling a little from the effects of a lifetime’s over-consumption of alcohol and present irritation, Dr Henderson extended the book with the first page open.
Alfreda took it and read aloud, as if for the benefit of the cat, rather than the other customers, who had begun to cluster around sensing something afoot, ‘ “Smashing Starters, Honeyed beetroot and oven-crisped kale” I grant you that doesn’t sound terribly tempting.’
‘Wait a minute.’ Dr Henderson thrust out a large hand and almost grabbed the book from her. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I don’t either. I don’t care for kale and I detest the way they put honey with everything these days.’
‘It said something quite else when I read it before.’
‘What did it say?’ The cat was looking at him with considering blue eyes. Its expression, and the peculiar shade of blue, resembled that of its owner’s quite remarkably. It made Neil Henderson uncomfortably wonder if word about his drinking habits had reached the new bookshop owner’s ears.
‘I can’t remember. But there was nothing about beetroot, I assure you.’
Alfreda visibly prepared to soothe. ‘Let me give you a new copy.’ She took back the offending book and wrapped a replacement in brown paper. ‘There. I hope that proves more reliable.’
Dr Henderson was relieved. He had feared an implied accusation of some alcoholic delusion. ‘You must come across and dine with us some evening. Sample the recipes. Not kale, of course.’
Alfreda smiled not entirely comfortingly. ‘Of course.’
The following week Josephine Leggat shyly pushed a book across the counter and with it a ten-pound note. It was in fact, though she hoped that this was not apparent, a book from the new range of erotica inspired by the commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey. She snatched the brown parcel nervously from the hands of Janey Hamilton, whom Alfreda had taken on as part-time assistant. Josephine’s sally into erotica was recent and she felt awkward exposing her newfound tastes to a young girl. But, she comforted herself, Jane Hamilton seemed more preoccupied with Rob Stanley, who was next in the queue and waiting to buy a handbook that priced used cars.
Josephine had not exactly planned to hide her purchase from her elder sister. But she felt she would rather sample it first. Lavender, she knew from experience, was more narrow-minded than she and could be stinging if she disapproved. Josephine greeted her sister, who was listening to The Archers, from the hallway and smuggled the book upstairs to her bedroom. As a further precaution, she slipped it under the candlewick bedspread.
It was a shock, then, to enter her bedroom an hour or so later – she had run upstairs to fetch a coat for the dry cleaners – and find Lavender standing bold as brass absorbed in ‘Dawn Rises to Desire’.
‘I thought I’d read it first-‘ Josephine began to apologise but was interrupted by a curt, ‘I’ve read it.’
This was a whole new kind of shock. ‘You’ve read it?’
‘Long ago. I’m sure you did too. But they seem to have altered the title. Heavens knows why. This one is not at all suitable’
Taking the book from her sister’s hand Josephine read
When Marilla took Anne up to bed that night she said stiffly:
“Now, Anne, I noticed last night that you threw your clothes all about the floor when you took them off. That is a very untidy habit, and I can’t allow it at all. As soon as you take off any article of clothing fold it neatly and place it on the chair. I haven’t any use at all for little girls who aren’t neat.”
“I was so harrowed up in my mind last night that I didn’t think about my clothes at all,” said Anne. “I’ll fold them nicely tonight. They always made us do that at the asylum. Half the time, though, I’d forget, I’d be in such a hurry to get into bed nice and quiet and imagine things.”
“You’ll have to remember a little better if you stay here,” admonished Marilla. “There, that looks something like. Say your prayers now and get into bed.”
This was surely a prelude to some sprightly doings akin to Shades of Grey. Josephine read on.
“I never say any prayers,” announced Anne.
Marilla looked horrified astonishment.
“Why, Anne, what do you mean? Were you never taught to say your prayers? God always wants little girls to say their prayers. Don’t you know who God is, Anne?”
“‘God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,'” responded Anne promptly and glibly.
‘But – isn’t that Anne of Green Gables?’ she exclaimed
‘One would have thought you knew that since you bought the book. I didn’t expect you to go through a second childhood quite yet, Jo. But there was no need to hide it from me. I’m perfectly accepting of your juvenile tastes.’
When her sister had left the room a flustered Josephine leafed through the pages of ‘Dawn Rises To Desire’ but found nothing more spicy than the homely children’s’ tale of the red-haired Canadian orphan.
At about this time unexpected goings on in the flat over the bookshop were noticed. Lower Wyke was a village that customarily kept early hours. But those who for whatever reason were out late heard wild and raucous laughter, punctuated by the yowl of cats, emanating from the lighted upstairs windows, which were open in all moods of weather. ‘Sounded like a coven of witches, my Martin said,’ Meredith Parker confided to Jen Truelove.
‘Ought you to investigate?’ Jen asked her husband.
‘A coven, darling?’ Father Terry was not one of those Anglicans given to spiritual speculation. ‘Not terribly likely in Lower Wyke. Meredith has been watching too much American TV.’
‘It was Martin that said it, not Meredith.’ Jen was prosaically minded.
‘Martin, then. For heaven’s sake, either way it’s a nonsense.’
But Viola Knox, who had heard the sounds herself, was of a different persuasion. She had once investigated Lower Wyke’s history and had discovered that in the seventeenth century a Wise Woman called Noll Hallows had lived in the cottage that was now Hale’s and been famed for her supernatural powers. There had been rumours of witchcraft and midnight sorties. Alfreda, she felt, with her Grey Malkin and bewitchingly blue eyes, had certainly something unearthly about her.
It was after this that the bookshop purchases began to reveal more startling tendencies. Some publications, books on gardening, for example, DIY, reference books read as they were supposed to. But others were quite bizarre. Most notably disfigured were books on philosophical subjects or the latest novels. Whatever it was that had had got into Hale’s Books clearly had a down on modern literature and philosophy.
One new offering, The Ethical Atheist, from a philosophy populariser, advised the Bishop, who was visiting the parish and fancied himself as a free thinker, to ‘go and fuck’ himself. While the favourite for the Man Booker Prize, a six hundred-pager taking a revisionist position on Ghandi, was found to have had the complete text altered to Don Quixote. A book of Disney Princesses was miraculously transformed into the Brothers Grimm. A self help book on IBS had been rewritten as the Book of Common Prayer, and copy of Tristram Shandy, bought out of Roger Kennaway’s desire to impress a bookish girlfriend, was itself improved by being converted into Damon Runyon. Most of the major classics, however, remained innocent of change. Only books that aimed at some pretention were, Viola Knox decided, victims of the wanton bookshop spirit.
She was confirmed in this view when the book which she had discarded came back to her via Lavender Leggat. Unalike as they were, the congruence of their names – both floral – had fostered a congeniality between the two women. Lavender had missed Viola’s birthday, which had left her mildly guilty. Coming across a pristine copy of Get Real in the charity shop, and knowing it was ‘just up Viola’s street’, she called by with the book bedecked with a card with a photo of a Labrador, the slogan ‘Never too late for a walk’ on its collar.
‘Sorry about the dog and the Christmas paper but it’s all I had and I knew I’d forgotten your birthday so….’
Viola averred that it was too kind of her neighbour and quite unnecessary. She unwrapped the parcel and felt a stab of guilt herself over Jen. Flicking through the pages again, to assure herself that her adverse judgement had been justified, she observed that there were now additions to the patches of missing text. Comments had been appended to various sentences and paragraphs. ‘Nonsense’. ‘Illiterate’. ‘Phoney’ ‘Utter Tripe’ were some of the milder exclamations. Turning to the back, she saw that a sharp critique of the novel was now printed there. It concluded ‘It might be best for this writer to abandon his literary aspirations and become an undertaker before he succeeds in burying the English language with his tuneless prose and shallow view of the human condition.’
Alfreda herself seemed not to be unduly put out when the incidence of transformations in the books sold at Hale’s was recounted to her. She smiled with her speedwell eyes and made vague mention of her grandmother and her grandmother’s grandmother. After a few months she announced that she was taking a holiday and another Hale, another cousin of Alfred’s, Colin Hale, would be overseeing the shop. Colin was a large pink young man with ginger hair and a line in jaunty observations and ties. Under his auspices, the stock behaved quite normally.
Most of the village were relieved when word came that Alfreda had decided to visit Mongolia and Colin would be permanently taking over Hale’s Books. Only Viola Knox was really sorry. It was her view that the standard of the village’s reading had markedly improved under Alfreda’s literary curacy.
Salley Vickers’ latest collection of stories, The Boy Who Could See Death (Viking) is out now. Let us know how you’re celebrating Independent Booksellers Week on the Penguin UK Books Twitter using #GiveaBook.