“At last”, he said. “We have been waiting for you for a long time.”
The woman felt a chill run through her. The events of the past few minutes had thrown her world upside down.
Recognising the woman was looking a bit perplexed, he offered her a cup of tea. Deciding the bookseller was eccentric but harmless – and hearing the torrent of rain continuing to lash down outside – she accepted.
Considering its age and fragility she thought it safest to leave it on the cash desk for the time being. She found a spare spot on the desk amongst the plethora of paperwork and books of every age, shape and size. With a sigh, she sat in a straight-backed chair upholstered in worn velvet that was placed next to the desk, and watched as the man shuffled back in to the dark alcove. The clink of cups and the rolling boil of the kettle prompted the dog to wander over to the woman, probably in the hope of a stray biscuit.
Books were everywhere, even stacked on the floor to relieve the overflowing shelves. She looked around her trying to find a place to set her wet umbrella where it wouldn’t get anything else similarly soaked and ended up stashing it under the chair, giving herself a mental note to remember to pick it up on her way out. The dampness of the weather outside added to the intensity of the mustiness in the bookshop.
Her handbag rested on her lap, and she reached in to retrieve her phone. A missed call, three texts, a few emails and social media notifications. She was about to open one of the apps to write about what had just happened but she paused, finger paused over the screen.
What would she write, and what was the point anyway? She had confided in only a couple of her closest friends when she joined the Society. Friends she knew she could trust, those who would not judge, pry, or ask too many questions. They knew she would give them updates, little snippets, when the time was right and she was ready to talk.
Everyone else? Well, they wouldn’t take it seriously, thinking she was just having a laugh, hence the secrecy.
With a frown, she locked the screen of her phone and popped it back in to her bag. Her hands tightly clenched the bag’s strap while her feet tapped up and down in a combination of excitement and nervous anxiety. The book – the book! – sat just a couple of feet away on the cash desk.
The dog nudged her for another fuss as the man reemerged with a tray bearing a tea pot, cups, a milk jug and a sugar bowl.
The crockery was old-fashioned bone china, delicate cups and saucers with a pink and green flowery print. Beautifully kept, with not a chip the china was clearly kept for best.
As he poured the tea, she leaned forward eagerly – but what to say, where to start? It would all come blurting out in a right old muddle – best to let the man start by saying what he knew.
A cup was set in front of her; the proffered milk was added, and sugar declined. “You might want some anyway,” he said. “You’ve had quite a shock.” After a moment’s hesitation she realised how light-headed she was and sweet, sugary tea always helped with that.
With shaking hands she picked up her tea; some of it spilled in to the saucer. Embarrassed about her lack of grace, especially during such a momentous occasion, she took a deep breath and told herself to get a grip.
With one hand on her tea cup and the other fussing the dog’s head, she watched as the man finally stopped fussing with the tea things and sat down on the other side of the desk.
The book sat between them. Both looked at it, cup of tea in hand.
Remembering the grunt of greeting she had received when she entered the shop, she realised she might have to start the conversation.
“I have been wanting to read about the origins of the Society for a long time. There are so few people involved in the Society, and not much is written down. There is so much hearsay, verbal history passed from member to member, so it is difficult to know what to believe.”
The man gave a barely perceptible nod, which she took as a prompt to continue
“I can’t believe I found the book here. I mean me! All these years, so many people looking for it, and I found it! Surely people must have looked? Most of the meetings are held in a place only down the road.”
Placing his cup back on his saucer with a gentle tap, the old bookseller gave a wry chuckle.
“That is because they think they know what they are looking for. You, by contrast, kept an open mind.”
“The book finds you.”