How did Jonathan remember Anna and the bookshop, now that they were gone?
Both were small.
The shop had been built to sell newspapers. In the 19th Century, a grand family named Fox established the town’s only newsagent. In 1982, a WH Smith’s opened in town and the less-grand great-great-great-grandson Fox tired of subsidising another loss-making business and sold up. Between 1982 and 1993 (when Jonathan’s father bought the place with inheritance money), the walls supported a flower shop, a coffee shop and a butcher’s shop. Jonathan imagined, especially in winter, he could smell dead meat. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell. Its sweetness was comforting, even though he was unsure of his nostrils.
The space remained as it had been 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 amused/awkward shoulders and decide the best combination of back/groin. Jonathan had witnessed relationships born as a result of such manoeuvring.
Most of the stock was new, but the trapped must of the browning second-hand pages could be overpowering for the casual browser. The smell was an alarming anachronism, a scented poltergeist. But not for Jonathan. It stayed his nerves and summoned images of lazy summers’ teenage reading. Nothing is as evocative as scent. (And nothing is as reassuring as the scent of a book.) During miserable morning shop openings, as he breathed the stuffy air, the pain of modern living melted. He forgot terrorism, flu epidemics, mass suicides, 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 a computer. It possessed an Internet connection, which 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.
Anna had been five foot five. He’d once called her pocket-sized.
Jonathan once half-loved the shop, but grew to resent it.
Similarly, the relationship Jonathan and his girlfriend was built on a mutual convenience rather than the profound spiritual connection found in his books. They were of matching age. Their ages matched. They had attended Wellington School at the same time, but had neither been friends nor pals. Anna had been sporty and pretty with blonde hair and netball skirts. Jonathan: not so much. When Jonathan returned to Somerset to manage the bookshop, she was one of the first customers. Providence, he once laughed, as she had little interest in fiction and fantasy.
Anna was a notable first customer as she was female and under thirty (although when naked she appeared as if constructed from iron painted the colour of skin).
‘You don’t have any Candace Bushnell,’ were her first words, veritably spat. Jonathan didn’t know whether hers was a question or a statement. She added: ‘Are you Jon Blake?’
‘Jonathan,’ said Jonathan and initially found Anna’s unnecessary aggression attractive.
But she was a woman and he didn’t meet many women. They arranged a drink to ‘catch up’ and so had sex. Theirs was no love-making, no soft-focus, no white sheet covering. Their sex was ruthless and hungry. Hyena sex. The sex of desperate lovers, conscious of their world’s impermanence. Anna would habitually eat fruit immediately afterwards.
He introduced her to friends. The embarrassing moments when she asked ‘what do you do?’ with such disdain grated (she carried her law degree with the subtlety of a Chelsea Pensioner’s medal collection), but the sex was some compensation. Jonathan had been resigned that, after university and London, his move to Somerset would mark a new chapter of chastity. He had been wrong. Happily wrong. In doubting moments, he thought of the sex and he smiled and he tried to dismiss the accompanying images of fruit.
There came a succession of dates. They walked on the Blackdown Hills with sweaty hands held and took alcoholic lunches in Taunton and didn’t speak as they ate. Anna drove them to Exeter to amble along the renovated docks. They ignored the stagnant water for each other’s eyes and lips. Places and moments. They acted like this because it was how the young couples of which Jonathan read acted. Soon, because there was little else to do, Anna moved into Jonathan’s pretty terraced, just-off-the-town-centre, cottage (bought by his father). From the exterior, you might imagine the house’s inhabitant as a scatty middle-aged woman taken to flower pressing, but on entering there was no mistaking the domain of a fading bachelor. Packed bookcases and discarded newspapers where vases and pretty sideboards should rightfully be. Vinyl LPs, scattered around the thick, black and ancient hi-fi unit.
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, past-potential manner.
Neither shop nor Anna was stunning and both required a level of considered engagement before their esoteric charm might be uncovered. But it existed - definitely - in both cases. Problem and most people’s first, silent observation: Anna’s face appeared deflated. In six-month cycles, she grew rapidly in weight and then punished her indulgences with extreme exercise, ridiculous dumb-bells and all. As a consequence, her skin had adopted a Clingfilm malleability over the hard bone structure. Mind you, she was prettier than Jonathan. He had his father’s face.
The most attractive aspect to Anna, all secretly 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 after moving in with Jonathan.
Consider one trip to London in the good old laughing days:
Rainclouds had been exiled and it was one of those London nights where all pubs displayed bright flowerboxes and those lucky people lining the pavement only wanted to smile and make new friends. At Fulham Broadway underground station, they met ‘planned engineering works’ and, leaving the carriage, Anna bitched about work and names that grew familiar and they looped arms, and she pulled Jonathan close because she’d seen a couple ahead do the same. Like boyfriend and girlfriend, they walked the platforms and London spread out around them.
Stepping from the top of the station’s escalator, Jonathan moved across to the descending set of stairs and turned to moonwalk for his new girlfriend as these silver steps forever continued downwards. He thought his actions funny (they’d drunk wine & he’d got silly) but his impatient shoelace flicked behind to catch in the descending steps. With one hand on the metallic alarm box at the top of the stairs, he strained ineffectual muscles as the force of the machinery tightened the runaway 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 cruel hands over her mouth and bent her spine and nodded joyfully to passers-by who asked if Jonathan were OK. You could see by the taut muscles of his face that he was not, even though he enjoyed the fine-glass beauty of her laugh.
The lace broke. Jonathan collapsed to his knees, safe at Anna’s shoes.
Their relationship would have failed 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 was a basking shark. A bastard iron basking shark.
Although his father had 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 Internet custom would eventually destroy the need to own any premises other than a stockroom. An artful woman remembered from university had created him an attractive website worth visiting in its own right. She’d done him a favour with the price. There were colours and swirls and text of such compulsion that, Jonathan was sure, a traffic report stated one in every ten clickers bought a book. As far as numbers go, this was an impressive statistic (if true).
His nebulous plan, considered every wine-dulled Sunday evening: shut the shop, move back to London, and do nothing but administer the website. No owning of an alarm clock. No suit. Tracksuit bottoms and t-shirts would be worn and orange juice drunk straight from the carton just like Anna hated. He would visit art house cinemas in the evening. Occasionally, he might take Anna to expensive restaurants.
He never did tell her about the plan.
A final point of comparison:
Neither survived the year.