Authors: Jan Ellis
“Well I don’t think much of Mr Crumpet, that’s for sure,” she murmured to herself, her feet crunching on the dry sand as she strode back down the path and along the beach. Bella rushed back and forth, nose and tail in feverish activity as she dashed from seaweed to driftwood to seagull. Eleanor smiled at the dog’s evident joy and thought how lucky she was in her new life.
Chapter 2: The Launch P
The next day, Eleanor tried to go about her work as normal, but she was excited by the prospect of that evening’s launch. Persuading This Book Press to hold the party at her shop rather than the big chain store in the next town had been a real coup. She had worked hard at it mind, with promotions, window displays, a guess-the-author’s weight competition – okay, she didn’t actually do the last one, but she had managed to entice Lavinia Threlfall to The Reading Room for the launch of her latest novel. The books were a potent mix of historical fiction, romance and the occult set on that stretch of the Devon coast and had a fervent local and national following.
All afternoon Eleanor and Erika had been busy decorating the room where the event was to be held. The publishers had stumped up some cash for drinks and Eleanor had done a deal with the bakery next door to get some handmade cheese straws. It was the sort of extravagance that her accountant disapproved of, but Eleanor believed that people would be more inclined to buy something if they’d had a good time. She brought an old-fashioned standard lamp from the cottage and arranged velvet shawls and paisley throws over the sofa that lived by the back wall. With the lights dimmed, the space looked suitably Gothic and romantic. “It looks like we’re planning a séance,” said Erika, as they stood back to admire their work.
Eleanor laughed. “So long as we only conjure up good spirits, I don’t mind.”
Right on cue, the door opened to reveal their author. Lavinia Threlfall turned out to be a rather dumpy woman, not in the first flush of youth, with bright copper hair and emerald nail polish. She was accompanied by her publicist, Georgie, a striking young woman with perfect teeth. Elegantly dressed in a black suit and wearing impossible heels, everything about her just screamed ‘London’. “Hello ladies. Where do you want us?”
Erika led them over to the area they had prepared for their visitor and Georgie set to work putting up posters and rearranging the piles of books that Eleanor had already put out. Later, Georgie shepherded customers over to the table where Lavinia sat in state and kept her charge supplied with wine and snacks throughout the evening.
They opened the doors to customers at 6pm and by 8pm the shop was packed with people wanting to meet Lavinia and to get signed copies of her rather torrid fiction. Among them was Malcolm Pearce who seemed fascinated by her and even bought a copy of the book. He took it over to the cash desk, looking rather shifty.
“Don’t tell my son – I’m supposed to be shedding books, not buying more!”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” said Erika, as she wrapped up his purchase.
Eleanor was circulating, chatting to regular customers and offering wine to those clutching books, when, just at that moment, she glimpsed Daniel Pearce across the room scanning the gardening shelves. He caught her eye and nodded.
She weaved her way over to where he stood, a bottle of wine in her hand. “Hi! I didn’t have you down as a fan of romantic fiction.”
“Oh. Well, is there anything else that catches your eye?” she said, indicating the shelves packed with glossy books.
“Not really,” he said looking about the crowded room. “I’ve really just come to give my father a lift home.”
Right, she thought. I’m not going to make a sale here, but never mind.
“Can I top you up?”
“Better not, as I’m driving,” he said, handing Eleanor his empty glass. “Thanks anyway.” He wandered off to collect his father who gave Eleanor a cheery wave as they left the shop.
She waved back, then carried on where she’d left off, topping up glasses and smiling encouragingly at the people who were waiting to get their books signed by Lavinia. After a little while she felt a tap on her arm.
“Hi, I’m Jim Rowe from the
Eleanor turned around and smiled. “Gosh, you’ve turned up. I didn’t think you’d come.” Their paths had crossed before at other events, and it had been Jim who had interviewed Eleanor three years before when she had taken over the shop from a Mr Williams, who had run it for nearly thirty years. She had been slightly embarrassed at Jim’s treatment of her as a heroine, come to save the town’s oldest bookshop from the clutches of wicked developers who hoped to open yet another coffee shop. However, apart from the hyperbole he had done a good job – and taken quite a flattering photograph of her – and the interview was now framed and had pride of place on the wall behind the counter.
“Slow news day,” he said, between mouthfuls of cheese straw. “A coachful of French tourists got jammed in a lane in North Yarnton, and we had an escaped sheep on the beach. Apart from that not much happening, so I decided to swing by and see what our local celebrity was up to.”
“Well I’m glad you did. Publicity is always welcome. I’ll introduce you to our star.”
“No need. ‘Lavinia’ and I went to secondary school together. She was plain Susan Green then.”
At that moment Georgie sprang into action and hurried over to where they stood chatting. “You must be Mr Rowe? We spoke earlier. Have you had the press pack? Lavinia can’t wait to meet you,” she said, turning towards her author. Lavinia, resplendent in ankle-length green velvet, swooped over to them wearing a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Sue love,” said Jim, shaking her hand, “how are things? Haven’t seen you for ages.”
“It’s Lavinia to you. Still working for the local rag, I see.”
“I certainly am Sue, er, Lavinia. And you’re still knocking out the old bodice-rippers?”
Lavinia looked deeply unimpressed by this description of her work. “I prefer the term Gothic fiction.”
“Ouch,” said Erika under her breath, “We’d better split these two up fast.”
“I think this corner here would be perfect for your photograph,” said Georgie, smoothly taking control and escorting Jim and Lavinia away.
Eleanor went back to topping up glasses and chatting to old and new customers. At the end of the evening when the few remaining books had been packed up and the promotional flyers all tidied away, Eleanor stepped outside to find Georgie and Erika sitting on a wall across from the shop each with a large glass of white wine.
“We’re just having a sneaky fag,” said Erika. “Come and join us.”
“When you write your memoirs, sweetie,” said Georgie, patting Erika on the knee, “I insist on being your publicist. What a story!”
“Cheers to that!” said Erika, clinking glasses. Her slim figure and smart hair cut made it hard to believe that Erika had actually started life as Eric. After twenty years in the Manchester Police Force, Eric had retired on a handsome pension and left the city to begin a new life as the person he had had to subdue for so long. Now Erika was officially female and Eleanor’s one full-time member of staff and right-hand woman. She had got the job at The Reading Room because she was very experienced, immensely thorough and good with the administrative tasks that Eleanor loathed. She was also well read and had an easy manner that customers soon warmed to. Another of her talents was an unerring ability to spot and deter potential shoplifters before they made away with the goods. It didn’t happen often, but sometimes there would be a coachload of French schoolchildren in town bent on acquiring a few ‘free’ souvenirs. Word would go from shop to shop that they were on their way and Erika would always be ready for them.
Now she shifted along to make room for her boss. “Eleanor, why don’t you sit down and join us?”
“That is a very tempting offer, but it’s freezing cold out here, and I have to finish tidying up.”
“Darling, let me help you,” offered Georgie, slithering down from the wall.
“No, you stay there. You’ve both been brilliant and it won’t take a minute.”
“Oh well, if you insist.”
“Actually, shouldn’t you be looking after our author?”
“No need. Lavinia has gone to have dinner with an old flame, so I’m off the hook.” Georgie rummaged around in her bag. “Okay, one last ciggy then I’m off to my B&B. This sea air is really quite exhausting.”
“Don’t leave tomorrow without coming in to say goodbye, will you?” said Erika.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Eleanor couldn’t help smiling as she went back into the shop. The launch party had been a great success: lots of books sold, new customers in the shop and nothing broken. She had made sure that highlights of the evening were pinged off into cyberspace and there would be photos in the local paper thanks to Mr Rowe.
“Need any help down there?” Eleanor looked up from beneath the drinks table where she was putting empty glasses back into boxes to see Jim grinning down at her.
“No, everything’s under control, thanks.”
“Any chance of a drink? You’re my final celebrity exclusive of the day.”
“‘Fraid not. Emma and Erika have finished off the last bottle of Chardonnay.” Eleanor frowned.
“Never mind – I’d actually prefer a pint anyway. Would you like to join me in the pub for a snifter?”
Eleanor hesitated for a moment then thought, why not? She didn’t know Jim Rowe all that well, but he seemed like a nice enough guy. “Okay. But only if you promise to spill the beans on ‘Lavinia’.”
“Deal. Now let me help you with those.”
Together they carried the wine glasses and empty bottles into the office, then Eleanor turned out the lights and locked the shop door.
“Where to?” she asked.
“It has to be the King’s Head,” said Jim, leading the way down the high street to the harbour side.
The town had several pubs, but this was the one with the most character. The heavy oak door opened onto a narrow corridor then another door, beyond which was a stone-flagged room with a log fire in the inglenook. There was a group of locals at the bar and what looked like tourists at another table. As Jim went to the bar to get the drinks, Eleanor looked around the room. On the walls were photographs of the fishing boats that had once worked the seas along this coast, and the lifeboat crews who had pulled so many men out of the water. Weather-beaten men in heavy oil skins stared out from across the centuries. Another photograph showed the high street and the bookshop that was now hers. One of the things that she loved about the town was the sense of history.
The pub was deliberately old-fashioned and completely unreconstructed – thank goodness. In a prominent spot behind the bar was a collection of mobile phones nailed to a board – Gerald, the landlord, insisted that customers should only speak to people in the same room, not somewhere else in the country. Quite right too, thought Eleanor as Jim joined her at the table bearing a pint, a large red wine and two packets of crisps. “Dinner,” he said smiling.
Eleanor suddenly remembered that she’d not eaten since about 1pm and realised that she was ravenous.
“Thanks and cheers!” The red wine on an empty stomach combined with the success of the evening made Eleanor feel giddy and bold. She couldn’t help herself checking out Jim as he stood at the bar: stocky, and older than her with greying hair. What her mother Connie would refer to as a ‘silver fox’. Oh, and quite a nice bum. The wine had gone straight to her head. She took a sip to cover her smile.
“So tell me about Lavinia Threlfall.”
“Oh, there’s not much to tell really. She was quite a looker when she was younger and determined to do well for herself. We worked alongside each other on the local paper for a few years, but she was always very ambitious and determined to go on to bigger and better things as a writer. Her father ran an abattoir, but you won’t find that in any autobiography, I bet.”
“Did you not want ‘bigger and better things’?”
Jim shrugged. “Not really. I enjoy the job and I love this part of the world.”
He sipped his beer and smiled across at Eleanor. “So what’s your story? I know about the shop, but not much else.”
She took another gulp from her wine. “Oh, there’s not much to tell really.” Not until I know you better, she said to herself. “Got married, had kids, got unmarried, bought a bookshop. What about you?”
“Pretty similar really – without the bit at the end. I was married to Margaret for twenty-odd years, and we have a son and a daughter. We split up a couple of years ago, but we’re still good pals.”
“That’s nice,” said Eleanor, peering into her wine glass. “I’m afraid that Alan and I are not quite at the ‘good pals’ stage yet.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll get there. More crisps?”
Eleanor looked at the pile of crumbs on the table. “Sorry! I seem to have demolished most of those.”
“That’s okay. I think the fish and chip place is still open if you fancy something more substantial.”
“That sounds great,” she said, licking salt off her fingertips. “But I should probably go home. It has been a long day.”
“Oh, that’s a shame,’ said Jim, draining his glass. “I guess it’s a microwave lasagne for me then.”
As soon as she’d turned down the invitation Eleanor felt a pang of regret. Why shouldn’t she have a night out with Jim? She was a free woman, after all.
“Perhaps we could do it on Saturday?” she said at last. “If you like. I’ll be ready for a night out by then.”
Jim perked up immediately. “Okay. It’s a date.”