If my head had snapped up any faster, I’d have broken my neck. The door to my shop was still blocked by a bookcase—Humour and Comics—but the door could open just enough to tap the bell and make it tinkle.
Oliver Smith and I shared a glance, and for the first time, worked together.
Well, he dived under the desk while I yanked up the curtains, hid his gear, and removed the bookcase from the door.
The door opened fully, revealing a pair of atrociously pink high heels. My apology died a squealing death in my throat as I registered the owner of those heels.
She glanced around as though she’d just stepped into a room of small aliens who’d become confused and now worshipped her as their God. Her muddy brown eyes swept me up and down, her nose automatically wrinkling at my dishevelled state, mouth pursing like a limpet fastening onto a rock. Her clothes almost blinded me—tacky velvet shirt, showing off her saggy body and mole-peppered arms. It clashed against her Oz-style hair, so much so I felt inspired to write a book entitled ‘The Clash of the Joans'. I felt a flush on my face at the length of her skirt—belt? Paint? A small bubble of gathered air particles?—and turned away to busy myself with some books that needed urgent re-shelving.
I sighed, not turning around. “It’s Edmund.”
I could almost feel her sneer drilling into my spine. “No, I think you’ll find it’s not. It’s Edward.” If her tone had been any more condescending, I would have withered into a small dry heap of skin and bone.
“I’m fairly sure my mother named me Edmund. You can take it up with her, if you like.”
Joan made a noise in her nose and stepped further into the shop. Her heels probably left indents in the floor. “If you’re so sure—although if you check, I think you’ll find it is Edward.”
I dug my nails into the palms of my hands and mentally apologised to all the books that had to hear this. “What do you wa—can I help you?” I turned around, hoping that I looked as insane as I felt.
“Why did you close your curtains?”
There was a silence in the shop as I digested this question. Why did people usually close their curtains? I’m not entirely sure. I gave Joan a look—the kind of glare that only a bookworm can give. It’s a wonderful look—both intelligent and wormy at the same time. “Because…I did?”
“Yes, but why? And why was there a bookshelf across the door?”
Because a famous actor decided to take refuge from his bodyguards in here and is apparently trusting me to keep his location a secret. I raised my eyebrows, as though surprised. “A bookshelf? A bookshelf? In a bookstore? No, it couldn’t possibly be, Joan.”
Joan, suffice to say, does not understand or comprehend sarcasm in any shape or form. She wrinkled her nose.
“Were you doing something? Do you want me to do it?”
Translation: Were you doing something incriminating that I could get you in trouble for? And really, there’s no way you can worm your way out of this.
I gave a forced smile. “I was…reading.”
Joan turned sharply to my desk. “What were you reading? Why did you need the curtains closed?”
I wanted to take those curtains from the curtain rails and strangle her with them. “Edgar Allen-Poe.”
“Immersion.” I racked my vocabulary. “I was endeavouring to immerse myself in the circumstances that appeared present in the novella I was then interpreting and digesting.” Oh, very nicely done Edmund. Very nicely done.
Joan left without so much as a backwards glance. I had learnt early on that actually having a vocabulary was the best arsenal against people like Joan.
“Say, thanks for that, buddy.” Oliver Smith was on my—my chair! I seethed silently, grinding my teeth.
“Yep.” Off. Go on, get off. Now. Before I strangle you.
Oliver Smith gazed leisurely around the store. “I’ll be gone tomorrow.”
He stood, stretching his long legs equally leisurely. “Edmund, huh?”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes. Not Edward.”
Oliver nodded, lips pursed. “Who was that bitch?”
I jolted slightly. The last time I had heard a swearword had been when I tried to make conversation on public transport. “Uh, The Boss. Joan, that is.”
“Uh-huh. Is she…?” He made a cuckoo gesture around his ear. I shrugged a shoulder and scurried as politely as I could behind my desk, forcing him out the way and back into his corner. He moved without protest, and for a while, silence descended once more. A heroine in my book died tragically. The clock ticked quietly. I finished my tea. In fact, there were two whole minutes of utter, lovely hush.
I felt as though this might actually work—this comfortable silence, this quiet peace. Yes. Oliver Smith in his corner could calmly sit and wait, and then softly stand and leave.
I congratulated myself.
Too soon, Edmund. Too soon.
Enter ‘The Suspiciously Pretty Young Woman Without a Husband Probably Dodgy,’ AKA, Alice.
Do not misunderstand me—I have no quarrel with Alice. In fact, she and I exist in a symbiotic relationship in which we do not make eye contact, and both manage to smile at the same time, thus avoiding having to awkwardly do it twice. She is also quiet, and I usually welcome her presence—as much as a casual misanthrope can. I tend to ignore the constant mutterings in the village that we’d “better marry soon or scandal will ensue”. I could never think about someone like Alice like that, for reasons that are confused even in my own mind.
Then again, I don’t usually have a famous actor in the corner of my shop, sitting, quite literally, like a sitting duck.
Alice had her back turned to the desk, and I knew we only had a few seconds. I grabbed Oliver Smith by the back of his collar and dragged him under my feet, into the relative safety of the bottom of my desk. He made a noise of protest, at which Alice turned around.
“Hi, Alice.” I moved my chair around, making it squeak pointedly. No, there is no one under my desk. That noise was my chair. Do not pursue this.
Alice went back to browsing. It was only then I noticed that Oliver Smith’s head was in a rather awkward place. I tried to shift surreptitiously, but his legs crushed my feet to the ground. Please don’t buy anything, Alice. I’ll have to stand up then, and that will be very, very bad. Leave. Now. Please.
“I’ll just take this one today, Edmund.”
“It’s really dreadful.”
Alice frowned. “Really?”
“Yep. Awful. Worst book I’ve ever read.”
“It’s my favourite.”
Damn it. “Uh…according to the critics, anyway.”
Alice approached me, determined to complete her purchase. “I’ll just buy it, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Oh no you won’t. “That copy’s infested. With fleas. Look, there’s one on your shoulder.”
Alice dropped the book on the floor, horrified. Her long blonde hair that usually hung in a silken sheet to her waist was suddenly clenched between her hands.
“That’s disgusting! What is wrong with you! Why would you even sell that!”
I blinked as indignantly as I could with a bony elbow poking into my calf. “I’m breeding them. I was planning to infest all the books, start a little colony and then name them all George.”
Alice backed away, still scratching. “That’s weird, Edmund. You’re weird.” She left. Scratching.
Oliver Smith unfolded himself from under my desk with a groan. “George? Seriously?”
“Don’t diss the Georges.”
“That’s sick, man.”
I did a double take. “I did that to protect your identity! I didn’t want you in here in the first place!”
Oliver Smith put his hands up in surrender. “Chill, dude. It’s a compliment.”
I sunk back into my chair, head in hands. “I’m too old for this.”
“How old are you?”
I checked my clock. Seven hours to go.
Kill me now.