Home > The Bookshop on the Corner(9)

The Bookshop on the Corner(9)
Jenny Colgan

Nina really loved wet and cold winter days; she liked to sit with her back to the radiator, listening to the rain hurl itself against the windowpanes as if it could breach them; she liked knowing she had nothing to do that afternoon, that there was bread to toast and cream cheese to spread and gentle music playing, and she could curl up cozy and warm and lose herself in Victorian London, or a zombie-laden future, or wherever else she felt like. For most of her life, the outdoors had simply been something to shelter from while she got on with her reading.

Now she stood at the threshold of the pub door. The air outside was bracing, the sun bright, the breeze cold and fresh. She took a deep breath. Then she did, for Nina, a very unusual thing.

“Can I just leave this here?” she said to the landlord, and when he nodded, she placed the huge hardback down on top of the table.

“I’ll be back soon,” she said as he waved her away, and she stepped outside, book free for the first time in a very long time.

Chapter Five

It was another splendid day outside, not at all what Nina had been expecting. It looked like the sky had been freshly laundered: a bright TV-studio blue, with fluffy clouds passing across. It was ridiculous, she mused, how little time she spent in the countryside, considering how much Britain had of it. There was always concrete under her feet—she rarely stepped off the pavement—and the sky was hemmed in by streetlamps and the high-rises that were popping up in the Birmingham city center at the rate of about one a week, it felt like.

She looked around. Sunlight rippled through the trees, puddled down the furrows of the fields. Across the road were great lakes of shimmering yellow rape. A tractor happily trundled across a field with birds flying in front of it, like something out of an old children’s book about life on a farm. Reflecting the clouds above, a little cohort of lambs was charging around, hopping up and down and nipping at one another’s tails in a field so green it looked Technicolor. Nina watched them, unable to stop herself from smiling.

This was so unlike her, she took a selfie of herself with the lambs behind her and sent it to Griffin and Surinder. Her roommate immediately replied, inquiring as to whether she’d been kidnapped by aliens, and did she need help? Two seconds later, Griffin texted back asking if she knew what “interfacing methodologies in library connectivity” was, but she ignored that and tried to tamp down the anxiety it sparked in her.

After exploring the village, she noticed there was no library. She walked on up a hill track, from where she could see the sea, closer than she’d expected, with a little rocky cove you could clamber down to. She shook her head. It was paradise, this place. Where was everyone? Why were they all crammed into the same corner of England, honking at each other in traffic jams, breathing each other’s fumes and food smells and squeezing in and out of pubs and clubs? She saw a huge black rain cloud building up in the far distance. It couldn’t just be that, could it?

Apart from the distant putt of the tractor, she could hear nothing at all. She felt suddenly as if she hadn’t been breathing, not properly, for a long time. It was as if her entire body was exhaling. Standing on top of the hill, she surveyed the landscape. She could see for miles. There were several other villages dotted about, all looking quite similar, in ancient soft gray stone and slate, and in front of her the valley unfolded, green and yellow and brown, rolling onward all the way down to the white-crested sea.

It was a most peculiar feeling. Nina breathed in suddenly, all the way in, and felt her shoulders uncurl, as if they’d been jammed up around her ears.

Maybe they had been, she thought. After all, it had been a year since they’d first heard rumors about the library. Seven months before they knew it was the subject of a consultation paper. Two months since they knew it was definitely happening, and three weeks since she’d known for certain she was out of a job if she didn’t pass the interview. But she’d been living with that uncertainty, that inability to plan the next stage of her life, for much longer than that.

She stared into the distance and tried to think, honestly and properly, about her life: up here where it was clearer, and she could breathe, and she wasn’t surrounded by a million people in a great hurry dashing or grabbing or shouting or achieving things in their lives that they plastered all over Facebook and Instagram, making you feel inadequate.

Some people buried their fears in food, she knew, and some in booze, and some in planning elaborate engagements and weddings and other life events that took up every spare moment of their time in case unpleasant thoughts intruded. But for Nina, whenever reality, or the grimmer side of reality, threatened to invade, she always turned to a book. Books had been her solace when she was sad, her friends when she was lonely. They had mended her heart when it was broken, and encouraged her to hope when she was down.

Yet much as she disputed the fact, it was time to admit that books were not real life. She’d managed to hold reality at bay for the best part of thirty years, but now it was approaching at an incredibly speedy rate, and she was absolutely going to have to do something—anything—about it. That was what Surinder had said when Nina had asked her what she honestly thought about the van idea. “Just do something. You might make a mistake, then you can fix it. But if you do nothing, you can’t fix anything. And your life might turn out to be full of regrets.”

Suddenly that seemed to make sense. Suddenly everything she’d thought on the way up—I can’t do this, I’m not assertive enough, I couldn’t possibly run my own business, I won’t be any good at it, I can’t drive that van, I can’t make this happen, I have to hold on to my safe job—sounded feeble and pathetic.

Here, looking down on the valley, at the tiny villages full of people getting on with their own lives in their own way, unbothered by trends, or fashions, or the pace of the city, or some kind of odd concept of getting ahead, Nina had the oddest sense of things she had ever experienced. She’d been raised in a city, educated in a city, had worked and lived in that world. Yet somehow, deep within herself, she felt that she had come home.

A cloud passed over the sun, and Nina shivered. It turned cold quickly here, and she headed back down the hill toward the pub, lost in thought. The two old men who’d been there yesterday were propped up against the bar again. One of them was holding her book and looked to be deeply into it already.

“Are you enjoying that?” she asked with a smile. It was an Arctic thriller, set at the very ends of the earth, just one man against the elements, the polar bears, and a mysterious presence beyond the ice.

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