Quiet Neighbors - Catriona McPherson


IT WAS THE LAST thing on her mind when she fled across London. She had her passport and meant to take a train to the airport then buy a ticket for the farthest place on the departure board, to put time zones and maybe the dateline between them. If she could have, she’d have blasted off and gone to Mars.

But the northern stops on the west coast mainline caught her eye—PENRITH, CARLISLE, LOCKERBIE—and she remembered a face, kindly and curious, peering round a door with a conspiratorial smile. Before she knew it, she was on the Glasgow train, in the corner seat of an empty four in the quiet carriage. On the sunny side, as though it were meant to be.

Who runs away to a bookshop? she asked herself as the train rattled through grimy suburbs. That place was the only bright spot of the whole two weeks, she answered herself. And then: I should have twigged right then that something was wrong.

For a start, it was the first time he’d suggested a quiet bit of Britain for a break instead of flying south for the sun and some culture. She’d thought it was romantic; what it really was, of course, was cheap. And Max didn’t want to be spending money just then. She’d wondered if he had a big splurge planned for her fortieth.

So they’d had a fortnight in a cottage of laminated signs—DO NOT POUR OIL IN SINK, LEAVE WET BOOTS IN PORCH, NOTHING BUT PAPER IN SEPTIC TANK—and on the middle Saturday he had suggested a day trip to Scotland’s Book Town. He hated it. Maybe he thought it would have five branches of Waterstone’s, a WH Smith, and an Amazon warehouse. Whatever. When he saw the quiet square of Georgian buildings, the antiquarian map shop, the Women’s Studies specialist, the dragon’s dungeon, and the rest of it, he’d checked his watch and said, “Quick look round, since we’re here?”

Which had made Jude want to stay until the last tea shop clingfilmed its scones and rolled the blinds down. From cussedness, from complacency, she’d checked out not just the maps and the feminist poetry, but also pictorial histories of the ancient world, guidebooks to places she’d never go—Southport, Oban, Roxburgh—and sermons by Victorian ministers with comic facial hair and tragic prose. Then she found Lowland Glen Books. It was no more than a doorway onto the street, opposite the clubhouse of the bowling green in the central square. The green-keeper had taken the chance of this single sunny day to feed his precious grass, and now he was pressing it in with a hand-roller, a cloud of flies following him, drunk on the pungent stink of manure. Jude sat, gagging, on one of the benches around the edge of the green, drinking bad takeaway coffee while Max paced up and down near the car and glared at her. Such complacency. More like oblivion.

From her vantage point, the Lowland Glen sign had beckoned. It was hand-painted, suspended from the two upstairs windows by means of washing rope tied to the pull-loops on the insides of the frames. The windows, consequently, were open a little at the bottom and the gaps were stuffed with what looked like bundles of cloth. EST. 1972 the sign said. Jude had drained her cup, repelled by the thought of what lay behind a sign like that after forty years, drawn to find out like a moth to a candle.

She walked past the door twice, bewildered. There were two shop fronts—a children’s books cum toyshop and a crafts specialist with one wall of books and three walls of knitting wool—but the door between them looked so much like the entrance to a house that she dismissed it until, on the third pass, she noticed that one etched-glass panel had a letter L amongst all the leaves and barley-twists and the other a letter G. She grasped the brass handle, still expecting to find a householder in slippers with a teacup halfway to their lips, to have to retreat with apologies. She pushed the door open anyway.

Books. Wavering, tottering piles of books. Brick-stacked towers of books. Woven dykes and leaning spires and threatening landslides of books. Unsorted. Fs upon Bs upon Ns, paperbacks and hardbacks, outsize to Mr. Men, novels and cookbooks and crosswords and plays. Jude snapped her eyes away and faced forward.

The passage was perhaps five feet wall to wall; the way through the middle of it, defended by carriers full of books wedged