The man slammed the book down on the counter with such fury that every customer stopped to stare as a shockwave swept through the bookshop. I pictured carnage, screaming, the bookshelves tumbling down like dominoes, a pair of feet sticking out from underneath an enormous copy of the Collected Works of Shakespeare like the Wicked Witch of the East. The man stared at me, his nostrils flared, as if he expected me to telepathically know why he was angry.
"I ordered this book from you last week," he said eventually.
I looked down at the book, then back up at the man, then blinked several times. "Critical Interpretations of T.S. Eliot. Yes, you did." I remembered him now—he had spoken the words I am looking for a book about T.S. Eliot as if he had expected them to be accompanied by a fanfare. He had been in the shop for about half an hour, manoeuvring his large body round behind the till so that he could peer over my shoulder at the computer screen as if I was incapable of reading it myself, and in spite of this I thought I had been quite patient and helpful with him.
The man shuddered so that his chin wobbled. "Well, I took it home, and it's the wrong edition! I wanted the 1982 edition with the introduction by Christopher Hartley-Bowman!"
Oh, sorry, sir. My crystal ball didn't enlighten me on that one. "My apologies for the mix-up," I said as politely as I could, though there was no mix-up, except for this man mixing himself up with someone who wasn't stupid. A queue had begun to form behind him, comprised mostly of fellow students from the university, who I'm sure were sniggering at me. I knew the look on my face implied I wanted to throw myself out of the nearby display window in a supernova of broken glass and shredded 'Great deals for students this autumn!' posters. "But I'm afraid the older edition will be out of print now," I continued, "which means I won't be able to order it for you."
"Why will you be unable to order it?" the man demanded, and his chin wobbled even more. In my mind his chin was like his little sidekick, nodding along to everything he said and punctuating his obnoxious rant with cries of, "Yeah! Why can't you order it, huh?"
I suppressed the urge to scream. Why was my day going so terribly? I had thought it was a good omen when earlier I'd dropped a huge stack of W.B. Yeats: Collected Poems and the most adorable curly-haired boy had helped me to pick them all up. "And it's just the one I was looking for!" he'd said with a smile, tucking a copy under his arm. Oh, I'd almost melted. But after that a little girl had forced me to retrieve a book she'd dropped down the back of the shelf and my hand had emerged coated in dust and the biggest spider I'd ever seen, and then an old lady had shouted at me for ten minutes because we had no lift to the second floor and she'd just had a hip replacement, and now this. Was it national Bully a Bookseller Day or something?
"You'll have to try a second-hand bookseller," I said to the man, and handed him a piece of paper with several website addresses on. "If you just—"
He threw the piece of paper across the counter and cried, "I shouldn't have to go to such lengths to find my book! That should be your job!"
I recoiled from the shower of spittle that doused my face, now starting to feel rather terrified. "I'm afraid there's nothing I can—"
"You salesgirls are useless these days, couldn't give a fig about customer service! Well, I shall be taking my custom elsewhere from now on." He leant across the counter so that his stomach squashed up against the wood, peeping over the edge like the sunrise above the horizon – very poetic, I thought – and squinted at my name badge. "And I certainly won't be recommending you to anyone I know... Naomi."
I gave him a little wave behind his back as he stormed out of the shop, all the time contemplating the peculiarity of the phrase couldn't give a fig. Presumably this man lived in a world where everybody read outdated editions of books and tossed about figs as if they were currency.
Unfortunately I was given no time to recover from Hurricane Angry Man before the next customer in the everlasting queue approached the counter. A studious-looking boy with long hair, glasses that I presumed had leapt from a 70s time warp straight onto his face, and a backpack hoisted up so high it looked as if he wanted to wear it as a hat, leant on the counter and produced a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket.
"Excuse me; I was wondering if you could help me find this book. The Development of the Study of Microbiology and Virology in the Late Twentieth Century, 6th Revised Edition, editors Andrea Warner and Marcus Strohmeyer..."
I glanced with desperation over my shoulder as his words began to merge into one meaningless blur. That display window was starting to look more and more attractive.
Ten minutes later, when I was finally allowed on my break, I slumped onto a concrete bench outside the bookshop with a sigh of epic proportions. I hate my job, I decided with vehemence. Whoever decided working in a bookshop was nice and lovely and quaint and just like being Hugh Grant in Notting Hill was horribly, horribly wrong. I loved books – that's why I studied English at the university – but with my Saturday job on top of that, I spent so much time around them that I worried I had started to smell like an old, musty tome myself. Mmmm, who's wearing Eau d'Librarian?
A librarian. In ten years' time I could imagine myself being exactly that. I would wander up and down the aisles wearing a facelift-inducing bun and a shirt bestowed with Victorian amounts of starch, my arms wrapped around a pile of dusty books as if they were glued to my chest; I would hiss every time anyone made a noise, or if a ray of light managed to spill through the blinds to invade my bookish spinster's lair and glance off my thick-rimmed glasses. What other fate was there for a girl who was nineteen and had still never had a boyfriend, due to the fact she refused to settle for anything less than the kind of elegant courtship found in a Jane Austen novel?
As I sat and brooded over my sad, lonely life, I became aware of a wet sensation spreading across my backside. Oh please, no, I begged. Not today. I stood up with a grimace to discover I had sat right on top of a puddle of melted ice cream someone had lovingly discarded on the bench. Now it lovingly destroyed the skirt I had spent hours making last week. The skirt was beautiful, light blue with a pattern of yellow roses, fitted around the waist and flared at the bottom like something from the 50s. Well, it had been beautiful. Now it was just ruined.
"For goodness' sake!" I said out loud as I scrubbed frantically at my backside with a tissue, to the concern of everyone who passed by. "It's October! Who even buys ice cream in October?"
At this moment, as if to highlight the fact it was a ridiculous season in which to buy ice cream, the heavens opened and it began to pour with rain. I shrieked and scrabbled to gather up my belongings, in the process spilling all the contents of my bag in every direction; my compact mirror shattered and my phone bounced across the concrete, where it broke into three pieces. "No!" I cried as I crawled across the ground and snatched up my various belongings. A group of thirteen-year old boys in tracksuits stopped to observe me, laughing and clapping their hands as if I were the star attraction of some kind of Unluckiest People in the World freak show. Why, why, why is this happening?
And then, the strangest thing happened.
Reaching for my broken phone, I instead found a shoe, and looked up to see a boy standing above me. It took me several moments to realise it was the gorgeous curly-haired boy from earlier; when I did, I rose to my feet, feeling my cheeks light up as if Christmas had arrived early. The boy, whose eyes were grey and luminescent like the surface of a seashell, watched me with his head cocked to one side and his lips quirked up in a slight smile. While I was sure I looked like a drowned rat, the rain seemed to caress him as if he were too beautiful to get wet, its drops gathered in his curls like tiny gems. I noticed he held a paper cup in one hand, the Yeats book still tucked under his other arm. Of course, the book – that was the only reason he had come anywhere near me.
"Is – is there a, er, problem with your book?" I said. No doubt he had wanted a different edition of Yeats' collected poems, one with a duck egg blue cover and double spaced font that was printed on paper sourced exclusively from sustainable British forests—
"I saw you were having a rough day," the boy cut into my thoughts. I hadn't noticed before, but he spoke with a soft Irish lilt. His voice is like a song, I thought. A beautiful, melancholy song, of smooth creamy melted gorgeousness... I realised he was staring at me, waiting for a response.
"Um," was all I managed to produce. "Yeah."
"You English types seem to believe that tea solves everything. And I'm starting to think, y'know, maybe it does." His grey eyes twinkled. "So here you go. Naomi." He set the paper cup down on the bench, and then walked away, lost to the crowd before I even registered what he'd done.
I sunk back down onto the bench, this time avoiding the ice cream puddle, my face creased into a frown. Did that really just happen? I wondered. Slowly, worried it would turn out to be a mirage, I reached out to run my finger around the rim of the cup. Well, it was certainly solid. Steam piped merrily from the hole in the plastic lid. I picked up the cup, lifted it to my nose, and sniffed. Then I took a sip. It was definitely tea – hot, milky tea, with no sugar, just the way I liked it. Immediately it soothed me and filled me with warmth. I took a few more gulps, and then lifted the cup away from my face, because I had noticed something written on the side in thick black marker pen.
Cheer up. And underneath it, a crudely drawn smiley face beamed out at me. Without warning, I burst into tears.
So there I was, crying on the bench in the rain, my belongings scattered around my feet. Because I was miserable, utterly miserable, and a cup of tea was exactly what I had needed.
But how had he known? And, more importantly, who was he?
Author's note: All right, so I got a little sidetracked from my main story and wrote this one. I'm obsessed with tea so it's only proper I write a story about it. It's going to be short but sweet, either 7 or 8 chapters. Apologies to those Storm Awakened readers who have me on author alert and hate romantic comedies; rest assured I'm still very much writing SA!