A Story From Long Ago

The bell over the door let out a musical chiming, disturbing the muted stillness of the book-lined shop. The keeper glanced up from the half-turned page, waiting to gauge her customer. A peruser, happiest left alone? A muser, who needed a nudge, a well-placed recommendation? Perhaps a family with excited little readers, who required a keen eye for half-trained hands? Gillian had known all types, and was quick to interpret their preference.
The man by the door, however, had Gillian sitting up a little straighter, and anyone who knew her well would know that the small line at her brow meant that she was watching shrewdly. The man was tall, solidly built, but his demeanour was that of one who wished to go unnoticed. His eyes shifted through the store, and it seemed he quickly realised the shop was empty but for him and Gillian. He turned slightly, as if to go.
“Can I help you?” Gillian asked, her finger poised on her page, her voice closing the distance between them.
The man hesitated, his hand still on the door. “I’m looking for a book,” he said, in a voice much smaller than he was.
Gillian raised her eyebrows, but caught herself before she replied, ‘just any book?’ Instead, she asked, “What was it called?”
“I don’t remember,” he said unhelpfully. She let out a quiet sigh, but she refrained from rolling her eyes. So that was the type of customer he was. She put down her book, resigned, and her page settled back to disappear amongst the rest. “Do you remember what it was about?” she asked, beginning the familiar script.
“It was a picture book…”
“Okay. Do you remember the colour?”
“Blue, I think.”
“How old were you when you read it?”
“About three.”
She registered something in his tone, some earnest longing. Her voice softened as she continued her questions. “How long ago was that?” “Was it wider than it was tall?” “Were there many words to a page, or only a few?”
To most, he only said, “I can’t remember.”
Eventually, she held up a finger, then disappeared between book-laden shelves. The store was silent around the solitary figure of the man. Just as he grew restless, Gillian reappeared. She held forth a book. The man’s eyes grew wide, and he approached, his hand extended. He took the book as if it were made of glass. Gillian watched in silence, giving the man his moment.
“My mother…” he said thickly, “died recently. When I was a boy, we came to this shop, and she told me to choose a book. But I was,” he cleared his throat and swallowed, his voice trembling, “angry. I can’t remember why. But she forced me to choose a book. That night, she read it to me, and I hated her the whole time. When she finished… she said, ‘hate me all you want, little one. I can’t help but love you.’” He blinked rapidly, and wiped a rough hand against his cheek. He stared at the book’s cover, then looked at Gillian, whose hand rested softly against her lip. He gave a weak smile. “Thank you.”

Posted in EWG Bookshop Competition Entries.