Grace Rawlins had worked in the same bookshop for twenty years, but not one of those trendy impersonal places, O’Brien’s was a proper old fashioned shop full of dusty well-loved second hand books.
She started there straight from school and now it was hers.
It wasn’t her chosen path, she wanted college and university and to write books of her own.
But on the eve of her bright future, life got in the way of her plans when firstly her father was killed aboard the RFA Sir Galahad during the Falklands War when she was 15 and then on the day of her 16th birthday her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
In the beginning Grace worked part time at the shop in between grieving for her dead father and caring for her mum and also limping her way through two years of college.
She had no siblings to share the burden and no Cousins or Aunts and Uncles to turn to she had to cope with it all on her own.
Then in 1984 when she finished college she watched all her friends go off to Uni and she went full time at O’Brien’s.
With each passing year, of days spent in the shop and evenings and weekends caring for her mother drained the very life from her and by the time her mum finally succumbed Grace was as dry as the pages of the books she tended.
After the funeral, in order to fill the void, Grace gave herself totally to the shop, which is why five years later on her death Maureen O’Brien left the shop to Grace.
Year by year her life consisted of the shop, book auctions and house clearances other than that she had no human interactions outside the bookshop so as a result, at the age of thirty six Grace was a cold grey dowdy frump.
She was not an unattractive woman behind the spectacles and the tweed suit if anyone chose to look that closely, but they didn’t.
When she first took over the running of it the shop was struggling to stay afloat in a sea of apathy in which the world seemingly fell out of love with quality literature.
She did make one concession to the modern publication by giving over one window and a corner of the shop to new titles.
Also, over the years she developed the internet side of the business, which she rather liked as she didn’t have to face human beings.
It wasn’t so much that she wasn’t a people person it was just they were a constant reminder of what life might have been.
One rainy Friday afternoon in May a rather tall gaunt looking middle-aged man in an ill-fitting rain coat entered the shop and stood dripping on the doormat for several minutes before he ventured further, although it was 2002 the place felt much older.
Harry Edwards took no more than three steps and then stopped, he looked around at the rows of shelves full of old musty tomes and sighed with resignation at the enormity of the task ahead.
“Oh hell” he muttered
“Can I help?” Grace said flatly with a weak smile
“I do hope so” Harry replied brightly
“I’m looking for a leather bound copy of “The Coral Island” by R M. Ballantyne”
“We have several copies of that” She said “Did you have any particular date of publication in mind?”
“Anything from the 19th century” He replied
“I have a nice clean late Victorian copy that might suit” Grace said and went off to retrieve it
“Here we are 1890, red leather binding, very good condition”
“Excellent” he said handling the book “How much?”
“£150” She said without emotion
He thought she was probably overcharging him but it was exactly what he was looking for and it was well within his means.
And it was his Uncle’s birthday the very next day and he didn’t fancy going in search of another bookshop in the foul weather.
Also there was something about her that he liked behind the mannish spectacles and frumpy tweeds, he wasn’t sure what it was but there was more to her than the cover suggested.
“Great I’ll take it” he said
Harry Edwards had lived and worked in Brassington all his life and after getting his Law degree he started working at his Uncle Henrys firm of solicitors where he was now a partner.
It was fairly unexciting work involving quite a lot of conveyancing but he liked it.
Incidentally Barrowman, Clarke, Braithwaite and Edwards were the executors of Maureen O’Brien’s will.
Not that that has any relevance to the story but it adds a certain symmetry.
Harry was forty five years old and had himself suffered tragedy in his life, his father died suddenly when he was at University, his mother was struck with early onset Alzheimer’s and was now in a care home and the previous year he had lost m his wife Celia to breast cancer, but unlike Grace he didn’t lock himself away from the world but then he did have a network of family and friends to draw comfort from.
On the Monday morning after a big family weekend to celebrate Uncle Henrys seventieth birthday Harry was feeling a little jaded and in truth was almost relieved to get back to work for a rest.
By lunchtime however he was feeling a little more with it so as it was a bright warm spring day and as his office was only a ten minute walk from O’Brien’s the notion popped into his head to pop in and tell the proprietor how delighted his uncle had been with his gift.
He wasn’t quite sure why the notion entered his head nor where it came from but he still thought it a good idea.
The shop door opened and sunlight spilled deep into the shop, Grace was at the back cataloguing some new acquisitions while Karen and Iris, students from Brassington Uni, were putting the new stock on the appropriate shelves.
She relied heavily on students to staff the shop as there was only her and Graham in the shop on a permanent basis.
She had inherited Graham from Maureen’s time but now he was slowly cutting down his hours as he headed towards retirement, while she was cataloguing Graham was out the back packing some books for delivery.
She looked up from what she was doing and briefly studied the new arrival.
Grace recognized the man instantly as the man who paid over the odds for a copy of “The Coral Island”
The ill-fitting (borrowed) raincoat of Friday had gone and he was now sporting a well-tailored double breasted blue suit.
She had thought about him a lot over the weekend and had felt more than a little guilty at fleecing the dripping wet untidy looking man but now she saw him in his handmade suit that guilt melted away.
“He’s quite a handsome man though” she thought to herself, shaking her head at such an unaccustomed thought.
He walked further into the shop and was surprised at just how big it was, it had seemed much smaller in the gloom of Friday afternoon.
He could see there were three or four other customers milling around and a couple of young girls stacking shelves and then he caught sight of the young frumpy woman at the back of the shop and strode off towards her.
“Oh God he’s coming this way” she thought to herself. “He’s going to complain about the book”
She hurriedly replaced the book she was holding and tried to slip away but she had inadvertently trapped her foot and as she tried to extricate herself he was on her.
“Hello again” he said
“Oh hello” she said abandoning her escape attempt.
“I just wanted to say my Uncle loved the book” he said
“Well that’s what we do” she responded flippantly and then inexplicably giggled
“In fact he was so impressed with it, he has a request” Harry said fishing in his jacket pocket and removing a piece of note paper which he handed to Grace.
“My Uncle collects book from his past, they are like special memories to him”
On the paper was written The Pathfinder by James Fenimore Cooper. (Third book of the Leatherstocking Tales pentalogy)
“That shouldn’t be too much of a problem” she said “I know we don’t have one in stock but if you come back tomorrow I should have it”
“Excellent” Harry replied “I’ll see you tomorrow then”
“What name should I reserve it under?” Grace asked
“Harry Edwards” he replied “Miss…?”
“Rawlins” she replied “Grace Rawlins”
After he left the shop she chastised herself for lying, she knew very well that she had a copy of “The Pathfinder”, and it would definitely have suited.
Why on earth had she lied, what on earth had gotten into her.
As Harry walked back to the office he had an unaccountable spring in his step and he was actually glad she didn’t have that book in stock as it meant he didn’t have to make an excuse to go back the next day.
On Tuesday he found the morning passed by interminably slowly in fact at one point he thought the clock had stopped.
But eventually the morning passed and the moment the clock struck twelve he was out the door.
“I’m taking an early lunch” he said
“Ok Mr. Edwards” his PA said
He walked briskly along the street towards O’Brien’s and was surprised by the presence of butterflies in his stomach.
“How ridiculous” he muttered to himself
Grace had been kept very busy all morning as she was alone in the shop on a Tuesday morning but she was well aware that lunchtime was approaching.
She had her back to the door and when she heard it open she took a deep breath and turned around with a smile.
“What are you looking so pleased about?” Graham asked
“Oh no reason” Grace replied “it’s just such a lovely day”
“You don’t normally smile when the sun shine’s” Graham said “come to think of it you don’t normally smile”
“I smile” Grace said defensively
“Not often” he answered as he went to the back of the shop
“I do smile” she said to herself crossly as she turned and watched him
“I know” Harry said
Grace was speechless when she turned around and saw Harry standing there and for a moment felt like she was fifteen again.
Before she stuttered and stammered her way through a sentence.
Harry laughed at her discomfiture before saying
“I’m sorry if I startled you”
“No its fine, really” she said
Harry left the shop half an hour later minus the book that he’d gone in for but he didn’t care he was just pleased to have seen her again.
It was the first time since his wife’s death that he had even noticed another woman and as he enjoyed the spring sunshine he was blissfully unaware just how significant that was.
Grace had told him the book wouldn’t be in until the next day and didn’t even feel guilty for lying to him this time as it meant she would see him again.
Then she realized she’d have to give him the book eventually or he’d stop coming anyway.
For Harry the rest of the afternoon was spent very unproductively as he tried to reason in his mind why he was so drawn to a dowdy young bookworm.
“Well younger than me” he said out loud
She wasn’t even his type at all and she had cheated him on that copy of “The Coral Island”.
The next day Harry couldn’t make it to the shop as he was at the magistrate’s courts in the morning and had two funerals in the afternoon.
Grace however was unaware of the reason for his failure to appear and thought herself a fool and chastised herself for lowering her guard, she didn’t smile at all that day.
On Thursday morning Harry left his office about 10 o’clock and ran through the rain in his borrowed ill-fitting raincoat to the shop.
He had not mentioned his movements the last time he was in the shop and had no reason to think his absence would be noticed.
But strangely it meant something to him that he had missed seeing her.
At O’Brien’s Karen, Iris and Graham were bemoaning the return of the unsmiling Grace who had awoken that morning with fresh resolve to return her life back to its previous unadventurous course and not allow herself to be disappointed again.
Having reached the shop Harry just stood outside and stared at the rain streaked windows wondering what the hell he was thinking.
Why would this young woman see him as anything more than just another customer?
“You’re being ridiculous” he said to himself and turned around and started back towards work.
But he only took a few faces before he stopped and returned to the shop.
He stood again looking at the shop and taking a deep breath he said
“Nothing ventured nothing gained” and pushed open the door
Grace was feeling wretched and made everyone’s morning miserable.
She had placed the copy of “The Pathfinder” by the till and resolved that should he come in again she would give him the book and that would be an end to it, after all he was just another customer.
Grace sighed and headed towards the back of the shop, Karen and Iris kept their heads down as she passed them and when Graham appeared from the store room and saw her coming his way he performed an immediate u-turn.
Then she heard the door open behind her and she sighed again and prepared to deliver a withering look upon the person responsible for the intrusion.
“Harry” she said when she saw him and instantly her sternness melted away “er Mr. Edwards I mean”
“No please Harry is fine” he replied and returned her smile
“I have your book” Grace said producing it like an exhibit in a court case.
“Oh great” he said “I’m only sorry I couldn’t come in for it yesterday Miss Rawlins”
“Please call me Grace,” she said coyly
He then went on to explain in depth all the ins and outs of his previous day and why he hadn’t come to the shop.
All this was done in her inner sanctum over a mug of coffee.
“She’s never had a guest in her office before” Iris whispered as she and Karen listened through the door.
“And she’s laughing” Karen said in disbelief
An hour after he arrived he left the shop and walked back towards his office with the book tucked under his arm and more importantly than that a date with Grace for the following evening.
So it was on a bright Friday evening just one week after his first rain soaked visit that he walked into O’Brien’s bookshop and found the dusty tome that was Grace Rawlins had been rebound and the dowdy bookish young woman was transformed.
Harry took her hand and led her from the shop.
And she stepped out from the narrow confines of her stale and musty domain and rejoined the world of infinite possibilities with her heart full of hope and not a little trepidation.
It was now her turn to live life rather than reading about other peoples.