Outside, it was dark. Country dark. Washed by a pale half-moon that peered through ragged holes in wispy cloud and, once my eyes had adjusted, I had no need of the torch I carried. The main street was deserted. A ghost town. Then, on a bitter night like this, only a fool would set foot abroad, without good reason. Perhaps, I was that fool. Yet there was an old-world charm about the place that reminded me of my youth, brought up in a Cotswold village. No square cut blocks of offices and apartments like where I live now. A gentle curve in this road leading to soft silhouettes of rounded hills and stands of woodland trees.
The few shops were shuttered and dark, with only an odd cottage window showing light, but down one narrow side avenue, I could see an inviting glow across the paving. Instinctively, I turned towards it, passing between a row of terraced cottages and a high estate wall, to arrive at a bookshop. The white card hung from string, behind a Georgian style glass paned door, still bore the word OPEN. At this late hour? Had the shopkeeper forgotten to turn it to CLOSED? Inquisitively, I pushed at the door and it swung back with a creak of the hinge and the jangling of a bell. Stepping inside, it felt barely warmer than out, and there was a musty, dusty aroma of old books that pervaded, although volumes on the shelves looked pristine.
I closed the door behind me, to shut out the night’s iciness, and the light above me flickered slightly. Looking up, I saw that I was standing beneath an ancient pendant gas lamp – the real thing, not an electric imitation. There was not a sound in the shop, not even the whistle of wind that you might expect from an old door in ancient timber. I hesitated, before venturing further in, but felt drawn to explore shelves to my right and, as I stepped across, I heard footsteps coming down the wrought iron, spiral staircase at the rear of the shop. Turning, I saw an elderly, grey-haired man, smartly attired in white shirt, deep blue paisley tie, grey waistcoat and trousers, his black shoes polished to a soldier’s shine.
‘Good evening, sir. Come right in.’ He welcomed me with a warm smile and gestured to the books on the right. ‘You’ll find all the geology books along there, sir, and further back a splendid treatise on hydraulics.’ He must have noticed my bemusement as he continued. ‘I believe you must be the engineer staying at The Star. A Mr Jack Rawlings, is that right?’
Of course, he was. Brought up in a small village I knew how fast the grapevine worked: the same in a small town, like this. Not many visitors would arrive mid-winter, unnoticed; and hoteliers and shopkeepers were especially good at sharing knowledge. Yet I was intrigued he was aware of the two subjects of my immediate interest. I was on my way to a site designated for geothermal power.
I nodded in affirmation, smiled, and said he seemed very well informed.
‘Small town, Mr Rawlings, small town,’ he smiled back. ‘I believe you are the man hoping to make good of the fires of Hell and bring such power up for the good of the people. Not that I believe that will bring any moral reward. Man has tried before, by other means, and reaching down to Satanic depths usually has fatal consequences.’
Amused by his archaic take on driving deep into the Earth’s crust, to harness the natural heat held in layers of granite, I quickly replied that we had no intention of drilling quite that far. I was sure the hellfire of old must lie much further down than the two and a half miles I envisaged.
‘On the contrary, sir, Hell is within touching reach at all times. How else do you explain the darkness of conflict around us, the thuggery of big cities, the gluttony of corporate empires? But let’s not dwell on such doom. Browse these shelves. And should you prefer some fictional respite after a long day, you’ll find much good reading on the far side. Dickens, Scott, Thackeray, Wilde, Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Gaskell or, should you want to reach away from our everyday life, we have the “The Time Machine” by H G Wells or a darker view in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”.
I was intrigued by the age of his listing. Not one modern writer mentioned. I looked closer at the volumes around me and noted not one was of contemporary authorship. So, I asked him if he specialised in antique and ancient literature. ‘No, sir. Though I do keep a few. I just prefer to avoid the frippery of popular romances and such like, in favour of the more literary inspired novels and well-regarded technical works.’
I was beginning to wonder if I had stepped out of time. Then he offered me his hand. ‘But let me introduce myself. Albert Coyne. Proprietor of this small book emporium, and by chance, an archivist of the town’s history.’
As I shook the proffered palm and felt frost-cold, hard fingers squeeze mine, I commented on the late hour he kept his shop open. He told me that in an agricultural town, like this, there were many who didn’t finish their day until late and would wander in to find a book for evening entertainment, after supper at The Star or a few drinks to warm their souls. ‘And I’m sure you, sir, could take benefit of a little hot beverage, this wintry night. Pray join me in my chambers. I am in want of a little cheer, myself, as custom has been slow, today.’
With that Albert Coyne stepped behind me, slid a bolt across the door and twisted the OPEN sign around to CLOSED, before beckoning me to a side door, half way down the shop, which led into the kitchen of the adjacent cottage. It was dimly lit, by just one portable oil lamp hanging from a bracket near the door, until he lit another, larger one, on the kitchen table, which cast a little extra light about the room. About to ask if he had had a power failure, he said, ‘I enjoy the gentle glow, when I’m not reading, so I will forgo brighter illumination for now, if that does not displease you.’ I decided he might be the town’s eccentric. Looking around, there was no sign of any electric fittings, but a gas pendant, similar to that in the shop, hung from the ceiling. A grey cat, curled up close to the kitchen range, raised its head, gave me a disdainful look and went back to sleep.
On the table was an ornate Victorian copper tea kettle and spirit burner, plus two rose patterned china cups and saucers, with silver teaspoons, and a matching sugar bowl and milk jug. My host proceeded to pour the tea and offer me sugar and milk, the first of which I declined.
‘You probably think I’m some sad old widower, whiling away my last years, but books have always been my life and always will be. A writer’s imagination comes from deep within the soul and as long as the words can be read, the soul survives. I like to think I keep their eternal flame burning. It’s much the same when we keep a loved one’s letters. Especially one who has departed. Is that a hope that is in your heart, too?’
This last sentiment struck deeply home. I was still grieving from the loss of my wife, some years earlier, and kept many of the letters she had written to me, while I was serving with the Royal Engineers, in Afghanistan. She had been killed in a hit-and-run incident on Moggs Mead when crossing from Bepton Down. The driver was never traced and I bore a deep-seated hatred that could not be resolved while no justice prevailed. Albert, as he’d now asked me to call him, noticed my change of expression.
‘I see that I am right. And I expect you carry one such letter with you.’ His insight was becoming spooky. ‘You read it and she is near. But that is not as good as seeing her for just one more time. That is what your heart craves.’
The back of my eyes started to burn with brimming tears. Oh, what I would give for one last embrace. To know she was in a happy place. My lasting memories of her alive are overshadowed, by the cold grey image of identification, at the mortuary. He lent forward across the table and the same musty scent of the shop, tinged with a sulphurous odour, suffused around me. His eyes were deep set and coal black: his expression serious. ‘You are closer than you think to the one you lost. She is always at your side, in spirit.’
A chill draught passed across me, as he leant back and shadows seemed to form in the corners of the room. I felt nakedly exposed to his intent gaze. ‘Drink your tea, Mr Rawlings, before it goes cold. You have the pallor of a man who’s seen a ghost and we need to restore the warmth inside you. Now, tell me why you stopped over in this town? You have a connection perhaps: a distant relative from a bygone day and you felt the call of one sadly separated?’
He seemed to know as much of me, as I knew myself. I had, indeed, chosen the town because it was visited by my late wife, before we were married, on regular stays with her grandmother, Nan Price. She always spoke of it as her place of peace, a town she would one day return to, when older years beckoned. But she never had that chance, mown down so early in life. So, I had come for her.
‘Or have you come for her,’ Albert softly spoke, implying I wished to find her here. The place she would want to be. And perhaps, deep down, he was right. ‘I know the name,’ he continued. The grandmother that is. Miranda Price was a great woman of charity and her granddaughter, Miriam, a perfect jewel. Do I have the right family?’ Indeed, he did. ‘Before you depart, tomorrow, visit the churchyard and turn up the path opposite the middle buttress on the south side. A short way to the left you will find her headstone and you can pay your respects. More tea Jack, if I may be less formal?’
I accepted the second cup. The tea was strong and warming in the chill atmosphere, with little heat seeming to come from the kitchen range, yet Albert sat happily opposite me in his shirtsleeves. I asked him about Miriam. She didn’t come often, he told me, be she always entered into the spirit of town events and helped Nan at various charity events. Some wanted to make her Carnival Queen one year, when they knew she was coming, but the meaner of the townsfolk wouldn’t agree. It had been meant as an honour to her Nan more than Miriam, herself. She was a Flower Girl that year.
‘You must believe in an afterlife if you still seek solace,’ he continued. ‘You are right to carry that hope. There is so much more to this universe than any mortal man can understand. That’s why we need belief, in the absence of proof, for what is most important to us. You may or may not believe in spirits, but there are books on my shelves that come close to proving they exist. That they can reach through time. Though, of course, there are preposterous tales, too, from the deranged and the charlatans. But I can bring you one step closer to your dream. Come with me, Jack, back into the shop.’
Albert led the way, and took me to a deep mahogany cupboard behind the spiral staircase. He opened the wide double doors and pulled down a large writing desk, inset with dark green leather, tooled around the edge with gold ivy leaves. Yet the content on these shelves was of an entirely different age, brightly lit, as if in a portal to a separate place.
He took down a plastic-bound album and opened it out. Thumbing through a number of pages he stopped at one that had news cuttings of Carnival Day. There were three photographs with Miriam prominent. Reaching up for a slimmer volume in green card, he smiled. ‘This was from her last visit,’ he said, ‘while you were in Afghanistan.’ There was a captioned print showing Miriam standing next to her Nan, who was cutting the ribbon to open a new social centre. It was taken a few months before her Nan, well into her nineties, died. It was the happy Miriam I had loved for so long. The face I longed to see again, though I knew I never could. A photo she had sent me while I was on tour and which was lost, with most of my belongings, when a rain of Taliban shells ripped through our forward barracks, luckily with only one fatality.
I was fighting to keep control of my emotions and so made my leave, thanking Albert for his hospitality. He closed the door behind me and the shop light quickly faded, as I turned to make my way back to The Star.
A couple of late drinkers passed me as I returned, waving their flat caps and offering a cheery greeting to match their well fuelled merriness and it was then I realised how late the hour was and how long I must have chatted with Albert. Arriving at The Star, all was in darkness and the front door locked, but the hotelier had given me a key to a side door, just in case, as he put it, ‘you lose yourself on the moor’. Not that I would have ventured that far out of the town.
Letting myself in, I quietly climbed the stairs to my room and felt the welcome warmth left from now cooling radiators. Sitting on the bed, my eyes filled up with tears, but my heart felt lighter for seeing that happy image of Miriam, so different from the last one I recalled. This still wasn’t closure to my grief, but some of the heaviness had been lifted. That night I slept well and dreamed of happier days of sunshine and meadows, soft sand and rolling waves and the comfort of loving arms around me.
I was early down to breakfast, wanting time to visit the churchyard before I returned to my business journey. The waitress joked that they had thought I’d been lost to the wolves, when I wasn’t back by closing time. I was certainly as ravenous as one, as I set about a Full English. I told her I hadn’t wandered far, but I’d found unexpected hospitality down at the bookshop. She gave me a curious look, perhaps thinking I was covering for hospitality of a different kind. Then she walked over to the breakfast chef, who stood by the kitchen entrance and said something that made him frown.
I settled my bill and packed everything in the car ready for my continued journey, before making my way up to the old church and its surrounding graveyard. Albert’s directions were good. I spotted the tall, white marble headstone easily and also a figure crouched down beside it, placing fresh flowers in a chrome topped, round glass vase. She stood and turned towards me and my heart gave a double beat. There was Miriam’s soft smile, her bright, blue button, eyes, the dark brown hair, though grown a little longer. She spoke first. ‘Hi, it’s Jack, isn’t it? How kind of you to come on Nan’s birthday. I’m Joanne. Remember? Miriam’s cousin from the sticks. We met at your wedding… and, of course, at the funeral. It was so sad.’ I remembered. I’d called her the secret twin. My whole body shivered, and I’m not sure whether it was with disappointment or relief.
I told her it was by chance I’d come on this particular day and looked down at the inscription on the stone. “Miranda, devoted wife, so sadly missed, of Arnold Price and beloved daughter of Albert and Patricia Coyne”
I told her it was an Albert Coyne at the bookshop that sent me and asked was he related. She gave a little start. ‘The bookshop? There hasn’t been a bookshop in all my time. But Albert Coyne, Miriam’s dad, did have a bookshop. It burnt down in Victorian times. Rumour had it that his old cat tipped over one of the oil lamps he had dotted around his house. Fire spread to the books in the shop and though he tried to save them, it became an inferno, consuming poor Albert in its flame. There’s a narrow avenue at the bottom of the main street and the locals say that once a year, about this time, you can see the glow from the old bookshop, across the paving.’
I went back to the avenue, before leaving the town. There was a terrace of seven properties. None sold books.