The Bookshop at Lower Wake
by Salley Vickers

There was some consternation in Lower Wyke when Alfred Hale died suddenly. The sad event, it emerged, was a consequence of his attempt to shift, single handed, one of the heavy mahogany bookcases that, along with the little bow-windowed premises on the village square, he had inherited from his grandmother. It appeared that along with the shop  he had also inherited his grandmother’s weak heart.

Lower Wyke was in general less well endowed with cultural possibilities than its sister village, Middle Wyke. But in a couple of respects, it was superior: Vanessa Parson’s ‘Craft Centre’ where handmade pottery and other locally fashioned artefacts were sold and Hale’s, the local bookshop. In the view of Lower Wyke’s more intellectual residents the bookshop was the greater asset and the unexpected loss of its owner a matter for concern.

Alfred was well liked as a man and respected as a judge of books. He had the true bookseller’s gift of knowing what book would appeal to whom and when out of obscurity a future best-seller had emerged. He was in the vanguard of booksellers who recognised the potential in a book, by an unknown first-time author, about a retired spinster’s trip to Venice and her encounter with an angel, which had become an unexpected best seller. He recommended the novel to Jen Truelove’s book group, who had acquired prestige by becoming early fans and recommending the book in turn. As the grateful author liked to say, without booksellers like Alfred Hale her writing career might have died.

It was Alfred who had slyly offered Fifty Shades of Grey to the younger Miss Leggat, whose taste in reading hitherto had been almost exclusively P. D. James.  And it was thanks to him that the Madame Pamplemousse series by Rupert Kingfisher became so popular with the village’s younger children.

And now Alfred had left them and gone on to run the “greater bookshop in the sky’’, as the new curate, Tim Sparks (a Terry Pratchett man), had put it, attempting, as was his tendency, to put a humorous gloss on the grim. The incumbent, the Reverend Tony Truelove, who had tried in vain to wean the curate off this habit, had phrased it more fittingly when at the funeral he had spoken of Alfred’s “abiding love of literature and unstinting desire to share it with others”. The vicar, a committed Ruth Rendell fan, had been the first among the bookshop’s regulars, to sample, at Alfred’s encouragement, Stig Larson.

It was the vicar’s wife, Jen, a devotee of Joanna Trollope, who with the funeral behind them had enquired, “So who’s going to run the shop to, do we know?’” For Alfred, unlike his grandmother, had no known family or obvious heirs.

Alfred’s grandmother, Alice Hale, an early feminist and a self-educated blue stocking, who had left her county husband for trying to curtail her business aspirations, had bequeathed the shop’s freehold premises, along with the two-bedroom flat upstairs, to her grandson. Alfred had held bookshop parties, where cut-price wine was served in plastic cups and and cheese straws were supplied by Pat Freeman, who ran the local playgroup and nursed hopes of a late life romance with the bookshop’s owner. But neither Pat, nor anyone from Lower Wyke, had ever been invited upstairs.

It was some time before it was discovered what was to happen to the shop and there was a degree of cautious optimism when it transpired it had been left to Alfreda’s second cousin’s daughter, Alfreda.

‘I assume it was because of her name,’ Janet Derby opined to Viv Jensen over their Earl Grey morning tea in bed.  Janet was the retired head of Middle Wyke’s primary school. Since her retirement she had openly lived in Lower Wyke with Viv, a liaison that was welcomed by the Lower Wykians since it allowed them to feel liberal in their sexual attitudes. ‘I wonder if she was named after him.’

In fact, Alfreda Hale was named for the great great grandparent whom she and Alfred had shared. The first Alfreda was what was once called ‘an original’, which is to say she had strong views on life and how she in particular should live it and didn’t give a tinker’s cuss what others thought about her, or indeed about anything else. Among other eccentricities, was a forensic knowledge of herbs and a reputation for administering cures for ailments that had resisted more conventional medicines.

It was rumoured that Alfreda planned to move into her new premises over the first May bank holiday weekend and it was a pleasant surprise to keen Lowe Wyke readers to learn that the shop, under its new directive, was to reopen on the bank holiday Monday.

At first glance, the regulars were pleased to note, nothing much about the little bookshop had changed. The departed Alfred’s stock was displayed as before on the fatal mahogany bookcases, which, polished up for the opening, were gleaming with an appearance of self-satisfaction that might have struck an observer, aware of the manner of Alfred’s death, as insensitive. On the scrubbed pine tables, books were promisingly stacked, inviting any potential purchaser to a leisurely browse, free from any harassment from hovering salespersons. There were a few small additions and alterations. Alfreda, for example, welcomed her customers with a smile, where the habitual expression of her predecessor had been one of sober gravity. The smile it is true was somewhat inscrutable. But it undoubtedly added a note of gaiety to the shop’s ambience. A couple of shabby leather armchairs had been set by the fireplace, which hitherto had been of merely ornamental use. The chairs’ availability to customers was, however, limited, by the presence of a large grey cat, implacably enthroned on the seat of one of them. The fireplace was ablaze with burning logs, prompting Meredith Parker to wonder to her friend Louise, “With all the paper about, is that wise?”

Louise was examining a book on edible fungi. “She should get a fireguard. But it’s a nice idea. It’s so cold after all.” And the general feeling was that the fire created a pleasant haven, since with the perverseness of a bank holiday, dispiriting wet snow had begun to fall. As a further antidote to the inclement weather, the new owner of the bookshop had provided unseasonal mulled wine, served in amusing jam jars.  Along with the wine, young Janey Hamilton was passing round a plate of exotic canapés. What with the fire, the wine and the canapés, decidedly superior to Pat Freeman’s cheese straws, the consensus was that Alfred’s relative might prove a very fair replacement.

It was a while before people began to notice something odd about the books purchased from Hale’s. As writers unhappily discover, most people are indifferent readers. They read not what is actually on the printed page but what they think – or hope, or fear, or, most annoyingly, are told by other, supposedly more knowledgeable, souls – is written there. Most writers will have had the depressing experience of finding their carefully chosen words quoted out of context, giving the impression of quite another meaning, often absurdly wide of the intended mark. Or they will have had their books judged by some critic riding a hobbyhorse or bent on establishing him or herself as a wit at the expense of the hapless writer’s reputation or any actual attention to their precise words.

But to every three-score of careless readers there will be one or two of a discerning nature. Viola Knox, a retired English teacher, and a distant relative of the famous Knox family and with something of their intellectual rigour, was one such.

Viola had not in fact bought the book that first prompted questions. It was a gift for her sixtieth birthday from Jen, the vicar’s wife. Jen and Viola belonged to the Lower Wyke book group and were on cordial if not intimate terms. That Jen had not fully grasped Viola’s tastes was a consequence more of Viola’s tact in group discussions than any failure in Jen’s perspicacity. She bought her book group colleague a recently published novel, Get Real, which had been lavishly praised in a Sunday broadsheet.

Viola had read the review and had privately decided that the source of the reviewer’s generous praise came more from fear of retaliation from the author, known for his savage attacks on other writers, than any genuine liking. Reading between the review’s lines, Viola’s guess was that the novel, dealing with North London middleclass society, was shallow and show-offy. Infidelities, neuroses, wine-snobbery were not subjects to capture her interest in life – still less in literature. But she was fond of Jen and admired the good humour with which she fulfilled her role as the vicar’s helpmeet. It would be impolite not to offer a few grateful words about the gift, however much they may conceal Viola’s true thoughts.

She was surprised on flicking through the book to discover a number of pages were quite blank. And on those where there was discernible print there were visible omissions, as if some hungry word-moth had devoured holes in the paragraphs. Her first thought was that there had been some printing error. But closer inspection suggested an intentional design. Certain words, generally adjectives, from the look of the remainder of the sentence, had apparently been excised. In some places complete sentences were missing, sometimes whole paragraphs as well as the several runs of blank pages. Puzzled, but without wasting much more thought, Viola persevered enough to gain an impression she could authentically offer (‘provocative’ was, she decided, the most charitable praise she could supply) before relegating the book to the ‘Save the Donkeys’ charity shop.

Dr Neil Henderson, who prided himself on being a culinary pioneer, was the next to experience something unusual. He had bought the latest book by an of-the-moment chef, whose Friday night TV show ‘Tasteful’ provided a welcome respite when Dr Henderson was regretting his youthful folly in pursuing a career in medicine. He was looking forward to perusing the book, with its jacket picture of the unshaven chef, in bed after the show, for ideas for the dinner party he was planning for a coming wedding anniversary.

It was a shock to open the pages to find, printed beneath the section SMASHING STARTERS, the following: If you want a real cookery book this is not it.  Suggest you try Elizabeth David. Nothing else. No accounts of any starters, ‘smashing’ or otherwise. Mystified, Dr Henderson turned to SECONDS TO SEND ‘EM WILD to find the stern injunction:  Food is not for turning diners wild. It is for savouring respectfully.

Cooking was Neil Henderson’s principal distraction from long hours labouring in a failing NHS. Reading recipes at night had become his remedy for insomnia. To be lectured to by this hitherto source of solace was an outrage. On Saturday morning, having bundled the book back in its brown paper wrapping, he marched purposefully across the square.

Alfreda was at the till, the large grey cat asleep on the counter beside her, when Dr Henderson entered. She demonstrated her proficient memory for customers’ names.

‘Dr Henderson, good morning. How I help?’ His round, cabbage-like face was visibly charged with indignation.

“This book seems to be some sort of joke. It’s full of absurd comments. Look, here.” His hands trembling from the combined effects of self-prescribed tranquillizers, excessive consumption of alcohol and irritation, Dr Henderson shoved the book angrily at her, open at the offending pages. Other customers hearing his tone, left off browsing and begun to cluster around them, fearful of missing a promising disturbance.

Alfreda took the book calmly from him and read aloud “SMASHING STARTERS, Honeyed beetroot with oven-crisped kale Ugh! I agree, absurd.”

“Hang on.” Dr Henderson grabbed the book back and stared wildly down at it. “I don’t understand.’

“Nor me. I loathe kale and I detest this trend to put honey with everything.”

“It said something quite else when I read it before.”

“What did it say?”

The cat had opened its eyelids and was gravely considering him. Its expression, and the peculiar light green of its slanting eyes, quite remarkably resembled its owner’s.

“I can’t remember. But nothing about beetroot, I assure you.”

“You don’t care for beetroot?”

The cat closed its eyes again and readjusted its spine for sleep.

“No. I mean, yes. I like beetroot, as it happens. But there was nothing about it here before.”

Alfreda’s expression visibly prepared to soothe. “Let me give you another copy.” She set aside the offending book and wrapped a shiny-covered replacement in brown paper. “I hope that proves more reliable.”

Dr Henderson was grateful. He suspected word of his drinking had got about and he was anxious to avoid any suspicion of some alcoholic delusion. “You must come and dine with us some evening. Sample the recipes. Not,” he laughed a little too heartily, “kale, I promise.’

Alfreda’s smile like her eyes was feline. “That is very kind.”

The following week Josephine Leggat shyly pushed a book across the counter with a ten-pound note. It was, though she hoped that this was not apparent, a book from the range of tasteful erotica aimed at female readers inspired by the commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey. She snatched the brown parcel nervously from the hands of Janey Hamilton, whom Alfreda had taken on as part-time assistant. Josephine’s sally into erotica was recent and she felt awkward exposing her tastes to a young girl.

Josephine had not exactly planned to hide her purchase from her sister. But Lavender could be stinging over her taste, so she preferred to sample it privately first. She greeted her sister, who was catching up on The Archers, from the hallway and smuggled the book upstairs to her bedroom.

It was a shock when the following day, back from a coffee fund raising morning, she popped up to her bedroom to find Lavender sitting on the bed absorbed in Dawn Rises to Desire.

“I thought I’d read it first-” Josephine began to murmur but was interrupted.

“Naturally I’ve read it.”

This was a whole new kind of shock. “You’ve read it?”

“You have too. You’re becoming forgetful. But they seem to have altered the title. Heavens knows why. This title is quite unsuitable.”

Taking the book from her sister’s hand Josephine read

“’Now, Anne, I noticed last night that you threw your clothes all about the floor when you took them off. That is a very untidy habit, and I can’t allow it at all. As soon as you take off any article of clothing fold it neatly and place it on the chair. I haven’t any use at all for little girls who aren’t neat.’

‘I was so harrowed up in my mind last night that I didn’t think about my clothes at all,’ said Anne. ‘I’ll fold them nicely tonight. They always made us do that at the asylum. Half the time, though, I’d forget, I’d be in such a hurry to get into bed nice and quiet and imagine things.’”

Was this a prelude to some lesbian love play? Josephine read on.

“’I never say any prayers,’ announced Anne.

Marilla looked horrified astonishment.

‘Why, Anne, what do you mean? Were you never taught to say your prayers? God always wants little girls to say their prayers. Don’t you know who God is, Anne?’”

“But this Anne of Green Gables!” she exclaimed

“One would have thought you knew that since you bought the book. I didn’t expect you to go through a second childhood quite yet. But there was no need to conceal it. I’m perfectly aware of your juvenile tastes.”

At about this time unexpected goings on in the flat over the bookshop were noticed. Lower Wyke was a village that customarily kept early hours. But those who for whatever reason were out late heard raucous laughter, punctuated by the yowl of cats, issuing from the lighted upstairs windows, which were open to all weathers.

“My husband said it sounded like a coven of witches,” Meredith Parker confided to Jen Truelove.

“Oughtn’t you investigate?’ Jen asked her husband.

The Reverend Tony was not given to spiritual speculation. “A coven? Not terribly likely, love. I expect what’s her name, the book woman, was having a party. Meredith’s been watching too much American TV.”

“It was her husband Martin that said it, not Meredith.”

“For God’s sake, Jen, this is Lower Wyke.”

But Viola Knox, who had heard the sounds herself, was of different persuasion. She had once looked into Lower Wyke’s history and had discovered that in the seventeenth century a ‘wise woman’, a certain Noll Hallows, had lived in the cottage that was now Hale’s Books. There had been rumours of strange midnight activities then. Alfreda, with her Grey Malkin and bewitching moss green eyes, had something of Noll Hallows about her.

It was after this that the bookshop purchases began to reveal more strident tendencies. Some publications, books on gardening, for example, DIY or reference books remained on their established lines. But others had mysteriously metamorphosed. Most notably revised were the latest novels, or books on philosophical subjects. Whatever strange spirit it was that had had got into Hale’s Books seemed to be conducting a campaign against modern literature and contemporary takes on philosophy

The Ethical Atheist by a philosophy populariser, was bought by the diocese’s Bishop, who was visiting the parish and fancying himself as a free thinker felt he should maybe wise up to the opposition’s arguments. He was startled, on reaching chapter two, to be advised to Go to hell, you might as well. Pleasanter, surely, than reading this garbage, while the text of bookie’s favourite for the Man Booker Prize, a six hundred-pager involving a revisionist take on Ghandi, portrayed as a British undercover agent, was found to have been altered wholesale to a translation of Don Quixote. Disney Princess Fashions had transformed into the Brothers Grimm, and copy of My Struggle, bought out of Roger Kenway’s desire to impress a bookish girlfriend, had been reconstrued as Carry On Jeeves. Most of the major classics remained innocent of change. Only books that inclined to the pretentious, Viola Knox concluded, were the targets of the phantom editor.

She was confirmed in this view when Get Real came back to her via Lavender Leggat. The congruence of their names – both floral – had fostered an exchange of birthday gifts between the two women. Lavender, who had forgotten Viola’s birthday and was feeling slightly guilty, felt the discovery of pristine copy of a novel, for which she had read rave reviews, on sale in the local charity shop, was a lucky bargain. She called by at Viola’s with the book wrapped in Christmas paper and a card featuring a photo of a Labrador with its tongue hanging out, and the strap line ‘Never too late for a walk’.

Viola, who had unwrapped the Father Christmas paper to discover Jen’s discarded present, felt a stab of guilt herself. Glancing through the pages again, she was intrigued to find that where there had been blanks curt exclamations and sometimes whole sentences had now materialised throughout the text. Pompous PhoneyTrite were some of the milder criticisms. Turning to the back she read: It would be prudent for this writer to abandon any literary aspirations and take up the profession of undertaker before he succeeds in burying the English language under his tuneless prose and banal view of the human condition.

Alfreda seemed remarkably unfazed by the reports of the strange amendments in the books sold at Hale’s. When examples were brought to her attention, she simply stroked her cat and smiled her inscrutable smile. After some months, she announced that she was taking a holiday and in her absence another cousin of Alfred’s would be overseeing the shop.

Colin Hale was a large, pink young man with ginger hair, and a line in jaunty ties, and bon mots. His literary taste inclined to cosy murders and under his supervision the stock behaved quite normally. Most of the village felt a measure of relief when word came that Alfreda was moving to somewhere obscure on the Black Sea and Hale’s Books would henceforth be permanently under Colin’s management. Only Viola Knox was sorry. In her view the standard of the village’s reading had greatly improved under Alfreda’s curacy.