I own a small bookshop called Baskerville Books. I sell good quality fiction, poetry, art books. It's in a quiet part of town, tucked away in a small corner beside a tavern and a music shop. I don't really have the money for advertising so rely upon word-of-mouth. I try to make it the kind of place that people want to come back to; nice music, pleasant booky smells, a friendly smile...
One rainy afternoon, a woman with shoulder-length black hair came in. She wore black horn-rimmed glasses, a grey shirt and skirt, black pumps, had a mauve bag slung over her shoulders. I watched her as she perused the shelves. I couldn't put my finger on it but there was something unusual about her. She was like Barbara Gordon. You expected her to remove her glasses, pull off her clothes and reveal her lilac Batgirl outfit underneath.
She chose a Margaret Atwood novel. I had just ordered afternoon tea from a local shop: Earl Grey tea with two pistachio cakes dusted with icing sugar. As I processed her payment, I watched in quiet amazement as she reached over and picked up one of the cakes and lifted it to her mouth, biting a piece off. She put the rest back on the plate and wiped her lips of powdery sugar.
Stunned, I handed her her change and she smiled a tiny smile, then walked out of the shop with her book under her arm. I looked at the cake, bitten off at one end. I laughed. Well, that was a first, I thought.
She came back. It was a week or two later. She was wearing the same clothes. She didn't look at me as she walked in but headed straight for the poetry section. It was pouring down outside but she was bone dry, even though she wasn't carrying an umbrella. She was humming a little tune; something from West Side Story I think.
Eventually, she came over with a volume of Seamus Heaney poems.
"I'd like this book, but I haven't any money. Could I take it anyway and pay you later?"
I have no idea why but I said:
"Sure. Just write your name on this piece of paper."
I pushed a notepad across the desk and she bent over and wrote her name. Then she looked at me over her black glasses with her grey eyes and said "Thank you," then turned and left.
I looked at the notepad. She had written: "You'd like to know my name, wouldn't you?"
I thought I'd never see her again. I didn't understand why I had let her leave without paying for the book. I put it down to my hormones. She was an attractive woman and I had allowed my attraction for her get the better of my good judgment.
However, a few days later, she came back in. This time she looked at me and smiled as she entered. I thought she might be coming in to pay for the book but she headed for the shelves and ran her fingers along the spines of the books in the drama section, pulling a book out every so often, then sliding it back into its spot.
One of the things which I like about my job is the order. Everything is in its correct place, thematically, alphabetically, in order of surname.
I remembered who she reminded me of now. Ms Amos, the librarian at my high school. She wore glasses like hers, had straight black hair that curled up at the ends in the same way. I fancied her when I was a kid. I had imagined marrying her when I was old enough. I had taken a fancy to the shape of her hips in her grey skirt as she climbed the little ladder to reach the top shelves of the book cases.
She came over with a Harold Pinter play. The Dumb Waiter.
"Now, I can't expect you to let me go without paying a second time," she said, "but (opening her black handbag) if you'll let me leave you with this?"
She pulled out a single white rose. She placed it carefully on the desk.
"A token. I'm not leaving you with nothing, after all."
I didn’t know what to say. She didn't wait to hear whatever I might have said anyway. She smiled, slipped the thin book into her bag and turned to leave. I watched her open the door and walk down the street. I looked at the rose. It was perfectly shaped, not yet open.
Why was I being so acquiescent in this nonsensical affair I wondered? I stood up. I decided to follow her. I closed the shop, putting a 'back in ten minutes' sign on the door and looked up and down the street. I couldn't see her but walked in the direction I had seen her take and soon saw her a little way in the distance.
We walked through the main retail section of town, past hairdressers, CD shops, DVDs retailers, tailors, dressmakers, shoe shops. She turned a corner and I quickened my pace, not wanting to lose her. We walked down an alleyway, past some Chinese and Japanese restaurants, then around another corner.
We came to a part of town I was not familiar with. The shops were bright and cheerful: flower shops with colourful displays in their windows, an art shop with gaudy paintings on display, a shop which appeared to sell nothing but brass statues of lions.
She slipped under some eaves and into a little coffee shop. I stood in the road, hesitating. Then I followed.
Inside it was warm and smelled of cinnamon buns. I saw her sitting at a table near the counter, with her back to me. I took a seat at a table near the front of the shop. She was perusing the menu. I picked up a menu and opened it. Why was I following her? I should be back at the shop making money not out following a woman I didn't know. It was as if I were under some form of spell.
A woman with orangey-red hair came up beside me and asked what I would like to order. I looked at the menu. Everything was a little odd. Chilli and almond cakes; vanilla and tangerine buns with basil; apple and avocado milkshake; cherry and coffee potatoes. I chose hot chocolate with peppermint and plum brandy. The woman smiled kindly and left.
The woman with dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses was reading her play now. Why the hell had I let her take a book worth $23 for a single white rose?
Her food arrived. She had chosen a sandwich and what looked like a cup of coffee. She ate delicately, very carefully, sipping her drink slowly. My drink arrived. The woman with red hair wore lipstick the same colour and had skin as pale as cream. She smiled a wonderful smile, which revealed little creases at the edge of her mouth, then left my drink and the bill beside it. I sipped my drink. It was hot, aromatic and deeply choclately.
I sat watching the woman with horn-rimmed glasses, drinking my drink, feeling it warm the insides of me. Then she rose. I looked away, not wanting her to see me following her. I heard her clothes swish beside me as she passed, then a rush of cold air as she opened the door. I looked at the bill. $5. That was a bit steep, but I pulled a five dollar note from my pocket and, my drink unfinished, got up to follow her, but caught my trousers on a nail and ripped a large tear in one of the legs. The sound of the ripping fabric was loud and people looked over. The woman with red hair came over.
"Oh dear, we should do something about that."
"No, it's OK. Thank you."
"No, no. It was our fault. Please."
"I insist. I can't let you leave in that state. Come out the back."
Reluctantly, I followed her and she brought me a gown then told me to remove my trousers. Embarrassed, I did as I was told. We were in a back room with a little open fire. Underwear was drying on a clothes wrack. She took my trousers and invited me to sit in an armchair, where I sat drinking my spicy hot chocolate while she went off to fix my trousers. In the comforting heat, I dozed off.
I dreamed the woman with red hair was dancing with me. We were happy, laughing. We were the best of friends. We had known each other for years and years. And then the woman with horn-rimmed glasses came in through a door way carrying some books and I was immensely happy; we kissed. "I wondered how long you'd take," I said, 'I always miss you so much when you go out."
Then I woke up. I wondered where I was for a moment. The dream had been so real. My trousers were folded neatly beside me on the arm of the chair. I looked at my watch. I had been asleep for over an hour. I looked at my trousers. Incredibly, there was no sign of the tear, none whatsoever. Surprised, I slipped them on and headed out into the shop. The woman was behind the counter. She smiled when she saw me come in.
"Thank you. You've done a wonderful job," I told her.
"That's OK. Did you have a nice little sleep?"
"I'm sorry about that."
"You looked very happy. I didn't want to disturb you."
"I don't know why I fell asleep. I'd better go. Thank you."
She laughed, as if a little amused. I headed off out into the cold. I walked back to my shop and it started to rain again. By the time I got back it was too late to open up again.
I waited for her to return to the shop as I was sure she would. The single rose she had left me sat in a vase on a mantelpiece. It was still an unopened bud but its fragrance filled the shop wonderfully. It was if I had a dozen roses, not just one.
The days passed but there was no sign of her. Every time the door opened, I looked up and was disappointed when someone else walked in. My business was suddenly doing very well and I was inundated with customers but each sale somehow just added to my disappointment at not see the woman with horn-rimmed glasses.
One afternoon, I decided to visit the café, to see if the woman with orange hair knew her name. So I closed the shop early and headed off. I found the alley way and walked past the Chinese and Japanese restaurants, but the street it lead into looked different somehow. I realised the shops were different. There was a second hand shop, a trinket shop, a barbers. I must have taken a wrong turning. I went down a side street and came out on a main street that I was familiar with. I headed back in the direction I came, searching the streets in vain. Finally, I came across the shop which sold brass lions, but the café was nowhere to be seen. Either I was completely lost or the shop had vanished.
I walked back to my shop. I was certain I had followed the same route as before but clearly I had missed a turning somewhere. I was disappointed. However, my spirits rose when I returned to the shop, for the woman with horn-rimmed glasses was standing on the front step waiting for me to reopen.
"Hello," I said.
"I've been waiting here for half an hour."
"Sorry. Come in."
We entered the shop. She ignored me once inside and went to the children's section. I stood looking at her.
"Would you like a hot drink?" I asked.
She looked over at me.
"That would make up for keeping me waiting on the cold step," she said with a smile.
So I went out the back to my kitchen and put on the kettle. A little while later, she came into the kitchen herself, clutching a book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales. She sat, resting against the table, clutching the book to her chest.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Charlotte," she replied.
"What are you going to pay with this time?" I asked wryly.
"What would you like me to pay with? Did you like the rose by the way? It's aroma attracts customers. I think you've made hundreds and hundreds of dollars thanks to that rose."
"You think so?"
"Oh, I know so."
I looked at her: her jet black hair, her red-painted lips, her glasses.
"Who are you?"
"I told you. Charlotte."
"No, I mean, what do you do?"
"I'm a librarian. I collect books."
"Do you ever pay for them?"
"Always. Usually a lot more than they're worth. Why did you follow me the other day?"
"I'm not stupid."
I was a bit taken aback at being caught out.
"I was curious, that's all. About where you came from."
"Did you find out?"
"No. I'm none the wiser."
"Well, I hope it wasn't a wasted trip then?"
"Look __" I began, but she raised a hand.
"No time. I have to go. Thanks for the offer of a drink but I have to go now."
She came over to me.
"It's a lovely book, Luke. It's a nice edition. It'll go well with my collection."
"How did you know my name?'
She shrugged. She was so close to me now, I could smell her perfumed skin, see the tiny creases in her lips.
"This is for the book," she told me, then she leaned across and kissed me on the mouth; a kiss that was warm, soft and fragrant; a kiss that was oily with lipstick which tasted faintly of lavender. I closed my eyes, and felt myself falling into some emotional whirlpool, and then the kiss was over. I opened them and she smiled gently then headed off, leaving me speechless and shaken, as if bewitched.
I spent the next few days thinking about that kiss. I had never been kissed that way before. It was a kiss which left me longing for more. I was haunted by it. I felt as if I would do almost anything for just one more. I found myself dreaming of her mouth and lips when I drifted off into sleep at night.
It drove me crazy when she didn't come in. I was addicted to her now and craved her visits. I even found myself going to the front door, looking up and down the street, hoping to see her approach.
My business continued to do well. In fact, it had never been so good. I was raking in the money. Every one seemed to have heard of the little bookshop which smelled of roses and no-one came without leaving with at least one book in their hand.
She arrived three weeks later. She looked me directly in the eye and smiled knowingly. She headed off for the science section this time. I watched her as she perused the shelves, taking books out, reading the blurbs on the back, then replacing them. I ached to be beside her. I adored the shape of her hips, the way her hair hung just above her shoulders.
Finally, she came over with a book on quantum physics.
"Is that hot drink still on offer?" she asked.
We headed off to the kitchen. She sat down and crossed her legs. I put the kettle on and stood by the sink, admiring her knees.
"This is the last time," she said.
"The last time I'll come here."
"Why?" I asked, feeling ridiculously heartbroken.
"I have to leave."
"Where are you going?"
"Nowhere you know."
"I'll miss you."
"Will you? That's nice."
I made her a peppermint tea. She took the cup with a friendly smile.
"Do you have to go?'
"Nothing lasts forever. Not in the real world."
She sipped her tea. She looked at me and I had the strange feeling that we had known each other for a very long time, even though I knew this wasn't true.
"Do you love me, Luke?"
I was surprised by the question.
"I hardly know you."
"That's not the point. None of us know each other. Falling in love is all about a journey. We get to know each other over time, but we never know each other from the beginning. That's love's raison d' être."
I didn't know how to ask the question. I had feelings for her; I was certainly attracted to her. I'd even go as far as admitting that I'd done my fair share of yearning over recent months. Was this the beginning of love? She stood up and she came over, putting her hands lightly on my shoulders.
"You know, you could be very happy. Did you know that? You could have more happiness than you ever imagined. But I'm not offering you something safe and easy. It's a risky and dangerous choice, Luke. A once in a life time choice."
And then she kissed me again. A long, slow, wondrous kiss that made my blood feel as if it were boiling. I held her by her hips and she fell against me, and I had never felt so happy or fulfilled; we held each other and swayed slightly on the floor of the bookshop, our feet barely touching the carpet, as if we were swinging on an invisible fulcrum and were about to float up into the ceiling.
Then she pulled away.
"That was for the book," she told me, "but there's more. If you want it."
"I don't understand what's happening," I said, bewildered.
"You don't have to understand. You just have to make the choice."
"Come with me. Leave every thing behind."
"You can do it. It's a simple choice. It's one of those rare moments. Like bungee jumping. Risking everything. When you have to chose to continue doing what you've always been doing or truly live."
"But where are we going?"
"That doesn't matter either. Here."
She threw me a box of matches, which I caught.
"What's this for?"
"Do you trust me?"
"I don't know."
"Here's the thing," she said, "in a minute, I'm going to walk out of that door and I'll probably never come back. You can try to follow me but you'll never find me again. Or you can come with me and I'll show you a life that will truly amaze you. But you have to pay the price."
"You have to show me you're willing to let go of your old life."
"How?" I asked nervously.
"By setting fire to the shop."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. She must be crazy.
"Are you kidding?"
She shook her head.
"You can have me, Luke. We can live a happy life together. I'll show you things you never dreamed possible. But you have to prove to me that you're the kind of person who can take the kind of risk it takes to be truly free and happy."
I looked at the matches.
"Set fire to my own shop?" I asked incredulously.
"Create a blaze that will start something new and exciting. Something wonderful."
She looked at me hopefully. I had never wanted a woman as much as I had wanted her that day.
"But the books?"
"There are other books. There's nothing unique here. It's not about the books. It's about letting go and embracing life with a capital 'L'."
"You really mean it?" I asked.
"I really mean it," she said with conviction.
I had the matches in my hand. I think I even opened them. And I'd like to tell you that I piled a whole load of books on the floor and set fire to their pages; that we watched the fire grow and gradually engulf the shop; that, in the heat of the golden flames, we had laughed, held hands and then run out into the wild streets to a new and wonderful adventure. I'd like to say that, I really would.
Instead, I put the matches down.
"I can't do that," I told her.
She looked disappointed. She came over and kissed me softly on the forehead, stroking the top of my head gently.
"Goodbye then, Luke. I won't make you do something you don't want to do. I'm sorry."
"Wait! This is crazy! You can't just leave."
But she did. She left through the front door and I never saw her again.
In the weeks after she left, I prayed that she had been joking. Surely it had just been a test? She'd come back and share the joke. I waited and waited for her return but, after a few months, I realised that she had gone. I searched for the café a number of times but never found it. I looked at my books. My shop still did well, but my books always reminded me of the choice I had made that day. I had chosen the real world, the ordinary world, over mystery and possibility.
Do these kind of choices come to you more than once in a lifetime? Having made your choice, is that it? Have you determined the course of your life forever? Or do we sometimes get the chance to revisit our choices and make up for the mistakes we have made?
I have one hope. The word 'probably.' She said 'I'll probably never come back.' Which means, of course, that she might.
The front door of my shop opens, these days, onto a world of fragile hope. I don't know if Charlotte will ever come back but, if she does, I am ready this time.
Sometimes I open up the top draw of my desk and look inside and I am filled with longing and desire. It is filled to the brim with boxes and boxes of matches waiting to be turned into flames.