Attention, miscreants! This is something on which I've been working. Read it!
(All typographical errors and slips of style are intentional.)
(All typographical errors and slips of style are intentional.)
Similarities between Jonathan’s girlfriend and his bookshop:
(These are not unreasonable observations for he often compared the two.)
Both were small.
The shop was built to sell newspapers. In the 19th Century, a family named Fox established the town's only newsagent. In 1982, a WH Smith’s opened and the great-great-great-grandson Fox sold up. Between 1982 and 1993 (when Jonathan's father bought the place with inheritance money) the walls had supported a flower shop, coffee shop and butchers. Jonathan imagined, especially in winter, he could smell dead meat. It wasn't an unpleasant smell. Jonathan enjoyed the sweetness, even though he was unsure of his nostrils.
The space remained as it was originally designed - the ideal dimensions for selling papers. When full of bookshelves, it became oppressive and Dickensian. On the occasion that two customers passed between the shelves, they were forced to turn shoulders and decide the best combination of back/groin. Relationships had been formed as a result of such manoeuvres.
The trapped smell of browning pages was overpowering for the casual visitor. The smell was an alarming anachronism, a scented poltergeist. But not for Jonathan. It relaxed his nerves and summoned images of lazy summer teenage reading. Nothing is as evocative as scent. (And nothing is as reassuring as the scent of a newly printed book.) During miserable morning shop openings, as he breathed the musty air, the pain of modern living melted. He forgot terrorism, flu epidemics, the economic downturn and Anna. He was 17 again, listening to Morrissey. Behind the counter, there could be nothing more urgent than ordering stock and paying rates. He owned an old computer. It possessed an Internet connection that was more likely to fail the greater Jonathan’s need. On a shelf above the cash register was a kettle. Stored in a tin shaped as an old-fashioned red phone box were tea bags. He wanted for little but space.
Jonathan once half-loved the shop, but now resented it.
Similarly, the relationship between Anna and Jonathan was based on mutual convenience rather than the profound spiritual connection found in books. They were of the same age. They had attended Wellington School at the same time, but had not been friends. Anna had been sporty and pretty. Jonathan: not so much. When Jonathan returned to Somerset to take ownership of the bookshop, she was one of the first customers. Providence, they once laughed, as she had little interest in literature.
(He hadn't wanted to move to the West Country because he was scared of becoming a cliché. But he had no job and his father was persuasive.
"We have already lost Mother. Don't let us lose the shop. Shape the business as you wish.")
Anna was a notable first customer as she was female and under thirty (although she looked as if made from iron painted the colour of skin).
"You don't have any Candace Bushnell," were her fist words, veritably spat. Jonathan didn't know whether it was a question or a statement. She quickly added: "Are you Jon Keats?"
“Jonathan,” corrected Jonathan and, initially, found Anna’s unnecessary aggression attractive. She was a woman. He didn’t meet many women. They arranged a drink and so fucked. He introduced her to friends. The moments when she asked ‘what do you do?’ with disdain were embarrassing (she wore her law degree with the subtlety of a Chelsea Pensioner’s medal collection), but the sex was ample compensation. Jonathan had been resigned that his move to Somerset would mark a new chapter of chastity. He had been wrong.
There came a succession of dates. They walked on the Blackdown Hills with hands held and took alcoholic lunches in Taunton and drove to Exeter to amble along the renovated docks, ignoring the water for each other's eyes and lips. They acted like this because it was how young couples were meant to act. Soon, because there was little else to do, Anna moved into Jonathan's pretty terraced, just-off-the-town-centre cottage (bought by father). From the building’s exterior, you might imagine its inhabitant as a scatty middle-aged woman taken to flower-pressing, but when stepping into the house there was no mistaking the domain of a fading bachelor. Packed bookcases and discarded newspapers stood where vases and pretty sideboards should rightfully be.
What did Anna and Jonathan have in common? They enjoyed not being alone. They spoke of buying a Labrador.
Shit loads (Anna abhorred swearing).
Both shop and Anna were attractive in a paint-peeling, seen-better-days manner.
Neither shop nor Anna was stunning and both required a level of considered engagement before their esoteric charm could be discovered. But it was there - definitely - in both cases. Problem and most people's first observation: Anna's face appeared deflated. In six-month cycles, she grew rapidly in weight and then punished her indulgences with extreme exercise, dumb-bells and all. As a consequence, her skin had adopted a Clingfilm malleability.
The most attractive thing about her, all agreed, was her laugh. It sounded as high notes from a piano made of gold or stardust or poetry. Or a platinum harp. Thing was - she didn't much laugh. Not in company, anyway. Not since moving in with Jonathan.
Consider one trip to London in the good old days:
There was no rain and it was one of those London nights where all pubs displayed flowerboxes and those people lining the pavements only wanted to smile and make new friends. At Fulham Broadway underground station they met with ‘planned engineering works’ and, leaving the carriage, Anna spoke of work, looped arms, pulling Jonathan close. Like a proper couple, they walked the platforms. Anna spoke. They moved to change lines. Stepping from the top of an escalator, Jonathan turned to dance for his new girlfriend as the silver steps descended. He thought it funny (they’d drunk and he once had a weakness for silliness) but his shoelace ran ahead to become caught in the descending steps. With one hand on the metallic alarm box at the top of the stairs, he strained muscles as the force of the machinery tightened the lace, foot and leg. His body formed a star shape. As his flesh grew tight with tension and his lace refused to snap, Anna pointed and laughed. She cupped her hands over her mouth and bent her back and nodded to passers-by who asked if Jonathan were OK. You could see by the taut muscles of his face that he was not.
The lace broke. Safe at Anna’s feet, Jonathan fell to his knees.
Their relationship would fail regardless of the Factory test or Anna’s death. The bond had run its course. As Woody Allen says in Annie Hall, relationships are like sharks. They've got to keep moving or else they die.
Anna reminded Jonathan of a basking shark.
Although his father offered money for the bookshop to be decorated, Jonathan hadn't bothered. He half-enjoyed the routine (and solitude) of opening and closing the place each Monday to Friday, but possessed a vague hope that Internet custom would eventually destroy the need to own any premises other than a stockroom. An artful friend had created an attractive website worth visiting in its own right. There were colours and swirls and text of such compulsion that Jonathan was sure he remembered a traffic report stating one in every ten visitors bought a book. As far as numbers go, this was an impressive statistic (if true). The nebulous plan, considered every Sunday evening: shut the shop, move back to London, and do nothing but administer the website. He would not own an alarm clock or a suit. He'd don tracksuit bottoms and t-shirts and drink orange juice straight from the carton just like Anna hated.
Painting the shop's exterior or erecting a new sign did not enter into this vision of the future.
A final point of comparison:
Neither the bookshop nor Anna would survive the year.