“Hello, give me a shout if you need anything in particular!” came a cheery voice from the corner, hidden behind a perilous pile of newly priced books and wedged in at the side by a stack of tomes awaiting pricing: a dog-eared copy of Atonement incongruously perched on a mountain of red board hardcovers.
Laura peered between the piles and found the voice belong to a short, round, red-haired woman with a welcoming smile and a book in one hand.
“Have you been in before?” she asked, gesturing vaguely with her free hand. “There’s an upstairs as well. Looking for something in particular?”
“Nothing in particular,” Laura smiled politely, “I just love old bookshops like this!”
“Oh, I know, me too. That’s how I got this job. Just hung around long enough until it was less annoying to employ me than have me hovering over them every day! Feel free to pull the door to, by the way, there’s another pile behind it,” she flicked a wry smile at Laura, “Don’t worry if the door shuts. You’ll never leave. But then, you won’t want to!”
They both smiled. Although Laura’s was slightly unsure. ‘Todmorden’s always a bit weird,’ she thought. After pushing the door almost to, she realised it was a children’s section and turned to go up the stairs. The steps were packed with yet more teetering piles and as she crouched down awkwardly to look at the lower titles, she heard the door click shut behind her. Looking back, she couldn’t see anyone. She could just hear the red-haired girl singing some folk song under her breath (The Dowie Dens of Yarrow?). The branches of the trees were dancing across the road though so she put it down to the wind and went upstairs to spend a few pleasant hours among the shelves. From downstairs, there was the occasional sound of voices chatting, although she couldn’t hear the door open, but no-one came up to disturb her.
She came down with a single book. An old anthology of Algernon Blackwood’s.
“Find something you liked?” said the cheery voice. Laura handed over the book. “Great choice!” was the verdict. “Have you read him before?”
“No, but I came upon his name in that Lovecraft essay.”
“A Lovecraft fan?” she asked as she wrote up the book with a barely functioning biro in a black accounts book full of similar entries.
“Not really if I’m honest.”
“Here you go!”
“Thanks so much. Lovely shop!”
“We think so! Bye.” Again, the smile came out before the book was raised to reading level.
When Laura reached the door, her hand passed through the handle. She tried again, sure she’d misjudged it but her hand went straight through. She tried to use her wrist, her brain imperfectly attempting to deal with the situation.
“Oh dear,” said a male voice from behind her.
Laura looked round and found herself looking at a middle-aged man in heavy cord trousers and a thick knit cardigan. Hardly appropriate clothing for a warm summer day.
“What is it, Mark?” came the voice from behind the book pile.
“She can’t get out.”
A sigh. “Oh dear.”
The woman stood up and came towards Laura. “Can’t you get out?”
“No,” said Laura hesitantly. “Is there something wrong with the door?”
“It’s an interesting question,” said the woman, “but not entirely helpful right now. I’m afraid you can’t leave.”
“You can’t make me stay!”
“No, indeed. I can’t. I’m sorry that you have to. But there’s everything you could want here you know. Nothing that you can’t take from between the covers of a book and nothing they can take away from you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ll see. Mark, could you explain?”
Mark didn’t look keen.
“Mark, come on, really. You have the rest of ever to read that book. I have to cash up. Could you please explain it to her!”
And he did. Laura couldn’t leave. The bookshop took people sometimes. It kept them trapped or it kept them safe (if you listened to Mark) but it didn’t let them go. There’d been another man when Mark first turned up but he’d grown old and died a year ago and just…disappeared. Laura wondered if there was some sort of quest involved. A riddle to solve before it freed you. A certain number of books. A bit of self-realisation. A ghostly intervention… But no-one could see her or Mark except the people who worked in the shop. Besides the red-haired one (Sam, she called herself and the hair didn’t stay red – after a ‘month of madness’ it was allowed to return to mousey brown), there was another man Paul, who never acknowledged them. Mark thought perhaps he didn’t see them but Laura thought he simply didn’t want to. There were also the owners Colin and Kate who were both kind and would always answer when addressed but avoided Laura and Mark as though they were slightly embarrassed. It was only Sam that spoke to them regularly and then largely to Laura. Mark didn’t really want the interruption and ignored both the living and the lost as much as possible.
It’s amazing what you get used to and Laura forgot in a matter of years about any life that existed outside the covers of a book. She had started systematically in the Antiquarian section nearest Sam’s corner but over time she had started to ignore her system, letting the bookshop take her where it wanted and taking recommendations from Sam. They talked about little beyond the covers of the book. Laura found the world didn’t really matter to her in here and Sam liked to forget it. The one book she could never bring herself to read was the Blackwood. One day though she found it back on the shelf and finally picked it up. She devoured each tale and thought how fitting her choice had been. Perhaps the book itself had taken her to this behind, beyond place.
It became her favourite book and she reread it every day for a week. She read it at Mark and read it with Sam and even talked at Colin and Kate about it while they politely smiled and kept her in the furthest periphery of their vision. She read the stories to Paul and thought that even he was interested. ‘The Willows’ caught his attention, she’d swear to it. And then, one day, someone bought it. A teenager with blue hair and ripped black jeans took it down from the shelf where it belonged and carried it off. “Great choice!” said Sam as it was thrust unfeelingly into a rucksack. Laura held her breath as the teen headed for the door but it had remained open and they left without a glance back. But as they left Laura felt a twinge of pain. Looking down, she saw only three fingers on her right hand. She blinked. Still only three fingers and a thumb. Sucking in a scared breath, she turned to Sam and showed her the hand.
“What? What does Hmmm mean? Mark, Mark, have this happened to you!?”
Mark begrudgingly put down a book. He looked at her hand.
“Not a finger,” he said.
“Then what?” she snapped, exasperated.
“Yes, when they took that collection of Addison essays. It was one of my favourites. Must have read it 40 times.”
“One of your favourites?”
He nodded. Laura met Sam’s eyes.
“Best not to have favourites,” said Sam.
And Laura tried but sometimes you love a book and you can’t help it. She hid them though. Hid them behind other books, in the cellar storeroom, in the wrong section. And years passed and only once did someone buy a favourite and steal another finger – on the left hand this time.
One day, as she guiltily read through a Catherine Cookson for the tenth time (a Sam recommendation), she heard her name called. She put the book down, pried herself from the reading chair upstairs and descended. Everyone was there. Paul, Colin, Kate, Mark and Sam. And it looked like Sam was close to tears.
“We have news for everyone,” Colin declared, “We’re closing the shop, time to retire.”
Laura stood in shock. What did that mean?
“What about Laura?” said Sam. “What about Mark?”
Colin and Kate both shifted uncomfortably. “We don’t know. We can’t get rid of the books quickly. We’ll shut up the shop and sell the rest online or by box or…”
Kate interrupted, “We think they’ll stay with the books. Or with the Shop. Or some combination of both. But there’ll be time yet. It’ll give them a few more years. Mark will be so old then anyway…” She stopped, embarrassed.
There was little more to say. What was said was said and Laura simply sat thinking. After everyone had left, Sam came and sat with her and took her hand. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
The last day came. They let Sam lock up. She was the only one who wanted to say goodbye after all. Mark shook hands and headed to the storeroom, looking for gems as quickly as he could, packing in as much as possible before nothing was certain anymore. Sam and Laura sat quietly. “One more story,” said Laura to end the silence. And she picked up a collection of gothic fiction and found the Algernon and read it out loud and watched as Sam cried as she listened to the familiar words of ‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved.’
“I wonder if they didn’t love me,” she said when it was finished. “I wonder if that’s why I can leave.”
“They didn’t take me from you, not like the story. They gave me to you, in a way, at least for a while.”
“For a while. I would stay if I could.”
“I wouldn’t want you to. Everything is so…unsure.”
“I would still say. Let me stay. Make me stay,” she said fiercely, rubbing her hand along the spines of the books. “Let me stay with her.”
“You have to go.”
And they held each other for a moment, the living and the lost, and Sam gathered her bag, and coat, and keys and turned toward the door for the last time.
“I won’t forget,” she said out loud and under her breath, “Let me stay.”
And she turned to the door, and lifted her hand…and it went straight through the handle.
(This story sprang from the bookshop where I work and is dedicated to the people who work there, not one of whom would ignore a friendly ‘lost’ person)