Archive by Author

mrs. johnson by pjrob

16 Jan

“Here we are, Mrs. Johnson. Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems, 1963. I knew I had some of hers somewhere.”

Janet held the volume to her chest as she descended the rickety wooden stepladder. “Do you know, it’s been years since anyone has asked for American poetry. That’s why I’ve kept it on the top shelf all these years, next to the Ancient Greek.”

The bookshop was Janet’s world, with its uneven floors, low lintels and handwritten signs. There had been a bookshop belonging to her family in the building since 1786. It was spread over nine rooms and two levels, with many more shelves in the corridors and staircases between. She lived above the shop, her flat delineated by a thin chain across the stair.

Janet made her way to the counter and opened the book to find a price. “That’ll be £2.20, please. I’ll rub the price out for you,” she said, searching the counter.

“Thank you dear,” Mrs Johnson replied. “I know I must have asked before, but you don’t sell stamps, do you Janet? Since the Post Office shut last year I haven’t found a good source on this side of town.”

“I’m afraid not. Apart from a rather ill-conceived foray into selling notebooks and Post-It notes in the ’90s, I’ve always been strictly books. It was awful that they shut the Post Office. And the council seem determined to shut every public service they can. I heard they’re even going to shut the leisure centre next year. Anyway, mind you you go, Mrs. Johnson.”

Mrs. Johnson was something of a regular. She was quite thin, in her early eighties, and walked with a stick. She kept herself tidy and her face was nicely made up, but her clothes were somewhat worn and faded. She still lived in the house that she used to share with he late Mr. Johnson. She came into the shop every few days, but mostly just to browse the shelves before leaving empty handed. Occasionally she would ask for something specific, and sometimes she would buy it.

As Mrs. Johnson left, a peculiar shape under her coat caught Janet’s eye. She was horrified to spot the corner of a paperback as Mrs. Johnson turned into the street. For a few moments, Janet stood in shock. Although Mrs. Johnson’s visits had got a lot more frequent since her husband’s death, she had been coming to the shop every now and then for thirty years. Janet regarded her as a friend, and was one of very few customers whom she would offer a cup of tea when she felt in conversational mood.

She had never known a theft in her shop, and was sure her father had never mentioned one. It wounded not because it was a breach of the law, or of etiquette, but because it was a breach of trust. After all, the bookshop was her home.

For the rest of the day she could think of little else. When she closed the shop at half past five, she decided to check the thick ledgers that contained the records of her stock. They were organized by section and shelf, and contained every book that had been for sale since 1995, when they were last replaced. Against each book was the price and date at which it was bought and sold, which she used when assigning prices to new stock.

Over the next six hours, she meticulously compared her records to her shelves. As would be expected, the ledgers weren’t exact. Meticulous though she was, occasional mistakes had been made. She found sixteen books that were missing from the shelves, and three that were missing from her inventory. Of the sixteen, twelve were old stock that were most likely to be mistakes, but four were only added to the shelves in the last month. There was no way that any of these four could have been sold without her remembering.

The twelve older books were spread fairly evenly across the shop, and so were mostly non-fiction. The four recent books were all fiction. She wrote “MISSING” against the twelve old entries, and hesitated briefly before writing “STOLEN” next to the other four. After spending the afternoon thinking about the hundreds of visits by Mrs. Johnson since her husband died, she was extremely relieved to realize the thieving must have started quite recently.

Five days later, Mrs. Johnson visited again. Janet’s heart lurched, but she managed to conceal her emotion and make light-hearted conversation. When Mrs. Johnson started browsing, she suppressed the urge to follow her around the shop, and instead distracted herself with a crossword. Some eight clues later, Mrs. Johnson left without buying anything.

Janet waited ten minutes, then shut the shop early to check the inventory. The non-fiction remained the same, but she had only got as far as “C” in the fiction before she had to write “STOLEN” against a Catherine Cookson. And ten minutes later, next to a Carola Dunn.

When she reached “H”, she realized she had made a mistake. One of the books she had marked as stolen last week was present on the shelf. She double-checked herself, and rubbed out the “STOLEN” from the entry. By the time she had finished, there were four books marked as “STOLEN”, but an entirely different four from last week. She broke into a broad grin as she went back through the ledger changing them to “ON LOAN”. The council had a lot to answer for.

sufferance by paul j. roberts

14 Nov

Marsha sat in the ceremonial tea house, staring into her glass of water while her mother talked.

“It isn’t right, with all I’ve spent. I said to the steward, I paid a lot more for this than for the flights, and you wouldn’t expect an aeroplane to drop from the sky just because of an engine fault.”

Marsha was not listening to her mother, but instead was concentrating on the gaps between the words, hearing the distant music that was carried on the breeze from further up the Carnival Splendor.

There had been a fire in the engine room yesterday morning, which had immobilised the ship. They spent the day yesterday without toilets or running water, and even now the air conditioning, hot water and telephones weren’t working.

“I thought the last time I would ever use a bucket was in that tent in Wales. It’s not seemly, squatting over buckets at my time of life. I go on cruise ships and stay in hotels in order to avoid buckets.”

The last time that Marsha had cruised was half a decade ago, after her mother had bought her two tickets as a Christmas present. She had hoped to take a good friend of hers along, but the naïveté of this plan soon became clear. The subtle hints quickly ceased being so, before turning into nags, and finally threats. There are some things that one just cannot fight.

After the last cruise, they were offered a discount if they booked another at some point over the next five years. Of course, her mother accepted. To an outsider, the previous cruise would not seem to be as disastrous as the current, inasmuch as it was not reported in the national press, and the coastguard were not involved to any great extent. Nevertheless, it did turn out to be a supreme feat of endurance. Of all the places she could be with her mother, she felt that 2,000 square meters of boat on a very large ocean did not rank highly.

“And the food! I mean, really. I ask you, of all the things to eat on a cruise, who would’ve thought you’d ever get sp—”

Marsha pushed back her chair noisily and walked away. The second-most vexing thing on her mind was the knowledge that her mother was enjoying herself. After gossiping, moaning was her favourite pastime. The most worrying, of course, was the promise of compensation by Carnival Cruise Lines. A free cruise.

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