Quiet Neighbors - Catriona McPherson Page 0,1

like sandbags into the bulges of more books behind them, was eighteen inches and not a squeak more.

She let the door close at her back and stood in the sudden quiet as the street sounds were shut out. The books, in an instant, had deadened everything. She could hear her breath in her head and her blood in her ears, the swishing she used to think was the sea when she held up a shell to hear it. Max had taken that away, telling her on one of their first dates that it worked just as well with a cupped hand, nothing to do with the sea at all.

Twelve feet ahead of her, a faded brocade curtain was drawn over the width of the passageway and a little soft light showed around its edges. Jude turned sideways, clamped her bag tightly under her arm, and edged forward. She could feel particles of dirt shaken loose by her brushing past, could feel the motes drift through the air between the books and her body and lodge in the weave of her clothes, settling in the folds of her ears, nestling among the roots of her hair.

The curtain let out a complicated puff of dust as she drew it aside. All of its life was there in the mix of sweet pipe tobacco, harsh cigarettes, boiled food, cooking oil, the faint suggestion of one small rodent somewhere in the long years, and most of all, of course, the books: the must of their pages and the reek of their old leather covers, crumbling or mouldy; the touch-stains of countless fingers on their buckram-covered boards.

Jude smothered a sneeze, compressing it into a grunt in case it sounded, to the bookseller, like judgement. But when she looked up to check, there was no one there. A big old teacher’s table was set across the entrance to a back room to form a counter and there was a lamp on it, casting light on piles of papers and coils of old till receipt. A heavy grey computer was whirring, its fan at full tilt, straining against the dust in its innards. Pushed back from the desk was an empty chair, duct tape over the splits in its vinyl covering, a ring cushion on its seat, and a fawn cardigan slung over its back.

Fawn, Jude said to herself, nodding. It wasn’t taupe or stone or oatmeal; it wasn’t even beige. It was an honest-to-God fawn cardi and, without knowing why, she was smiling as she turned away to look at the nearest shelves.

ARCHAEOLOGY said the label on the edge, and above it were crammed railway timetables and rolled LNER posters tied with faded pink auditor’s tape. She slipped around the desk and sidled into the small room behind it. GARDENING, COOKING, HANDICRAFTS was printed on an index card pinned above the door, and volumes of military memoirs stood in two tall stacks just inside. Jude ran her eyes down the nearest pile and up again, looking for something—thematic, alphabetic, chronological?—and finding nothing at all. She slid volume five of Churchill’s WWII out of its place and wiggled it in between volumes four and six a few books higher up. That slowed her breath and, before the absence of the first three could quicken it again, she turned away.

Her eyes came to rest on a glass-fronted case full of Scottish fiction. She knew it was Scottish fiction; she would recognise those sets of Scott and ugly seventies Muriel Sparks anywhere. And on the third shelf down, after the Marion Chesneys but before the Dorothy Dunnnetts, there was one single book smaller than all the others, with a custard-yellow jacket and a rust-red logo at the bottom of its spine. Was it …?

Jude surged forward. It was!

She opened the front of the case and drew the little book out with something between a gasp and a whoop, pressing it to her chest with her eyes closed, giving thanks for it before she started to inspect the jacket and binding and state of the pages. It might be no good after all—ex-library, grubby and stamped, glue from old tape on its end papers. But the yellow of its jacket was so bright, even the spine unfaded.

She opened her eyes and screamed, dropping the book.

The man, noiselessly sprung from nowhere, dipped and caught it in one deft hand, like a crocodile snapping its jaw on a gobbet of tossed meat.

“That’s my favourite sound,” he said. “I mean, dear me, of