Treacle and Ink

March 31, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — adrian @ 6:03 pm

Busy busy weekend. Working, writing, eating, sleeping. I have five chapters done of my new book now. They’re only first draft but they feel so alive. I haven’t written like this for years, maybe not ever. I keep thinking it’s like someone’s breathed new life into me. One of my readers emailed to tell me that the Greek word on that note I found means “god-breath” or something like it. I have to confess, it does feel rather like that, like a god took pity on me and breathed into my mind. But I talk such nonsense!

You’re all still emailing me with these interesting, if bizarre, questions. I understand that you’re looking for a book called “Mythological Objects” now, which has been mentioned in the Penguin online storytelling project. I quite understand how irritating it can be not to be able to find a book you’re looking for, and I’m rather surprised that the Penguin project would reference such an obscure work. However, I’m afraid that with my work in the shop, and my own writing, I don’t have the time to be your research assistant. Surely if the book is mentioned in the Penguin project, they will have given you some hint about how to find it? I do apologise, but I simply must devote my time to my writing.

On the subject of which, I think Jacques is cross with me. I don’t have much time to talk to him now that I’m spending my evenings writing. He’s got a little resentful of the mirror too – I hung it above the front desk in the shop, but he kept saying he’d sell it, so I moved it back into my little bedroom. A good thing too, because Jacques said that today, while I was out getting something from Marks and Spencer for our dinner – steak and kidney pudding and treacle tart, might as well introduce him to the classics – someone came into the shop offering to buy it! I half think Jacques would have sold it, if he’d known where it was, just to spite me. But he’s being awfully sly about who precisely this interested buyer was, so I suspect he might be making it up.

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March 28, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — adrian @ 6:10 pm

I don’t have time to write much because I have to go and write. Silly, isn’t it? Silly but wonderful. And to think that all this time I’ve said – not just said, believed – that I didn’t miss it. Ah, self-deception, a capacity invented by Mr Freud. Did you know that? Before Freud, no one would have understood the sentence “I was deceiving myself”. It’s like the end of a love affair, when one says “oh no, I don’t miss him, I don’t miss him at all.” Because the ache inside is too great to be borne, too great even to be glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. Can one glimpse an ache? Most imprecise and ridiculous phrasing.

I’m rambling foolishly. Like a woman suddenly in love, I am besotted with my new book. Three chapters already drafted! I wouldn’t have thought I was capable of writing this sort of thing at all: it’s all thrills and derring-do. There’s a terrible villain, Harrison Maltravers, with a wooden leg, who manipulates everyone around him to do his will, and there’s a plucky hero and a dashing heroine – I think they’re going to fall in love – and there’s been a blackmail plot in Downing Street, and the discovery of a secret society operating in the London Underground, and a balloon ride in the Cairngorms has gone horribly wrong and the fate of the nation lies in the balance. It feels more like reading than writing, I’ve never known storytelling to be so effortless. I just look at my reflection in the black mirror, fall into a sort of mild trance, and then pick up my pen and start writing. But just thinking of it now makes me want to return to the page. The shop’s closed – it’s time!

March 27, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — adrian @ 9:04 pm

Strange things, coincidences. All of your emails insisting that I must be the Alice that your odd story is addressed to gave me an idea. I thought I’d tweak with the window-dressing, to showcase some Lewis Carroll, and other children’s classics. Maybe pin the green baize so that it looks like a rabbit-hole and have all the books tumbling into it. So I went to the store-room to look through the books that aren’t on display, to find suitable ones. There were quite a few old editions of Alice in Wonderland – probably part of Marsh-Ayre’s private collection – which I thought would do well. And as I was flicking through one of them, a piece of paper fluttered to the floor. Another note in Marsh-Ayre’s handwriting. I opened it without thinking. Well, who’d keep a private note in a book, after all?

mysterousnotes.jpg

It’s weird, but at the same time intriguing. I have an aunt who believes in crystals, all that stuff. When I couldn’t get started on my second book she kept giving me tigers-eye stones which she said would “release blocked creativity”. They never worked, but I guess perhaps staring into a black mirror is just the type of thing that might stimulate the contemplative parts of the brain? It’s funny, I wouldn’t have thought that many blokes were into crystal healing, so I’m surprised to find this in Marsh-Ayre’s notes. But, can’t argue with the results! I’ve hung the mirror behind the desk in the shop, and I’m going to have another go with it tonight.

March 26, 2008

Inspired again

Filed under: Uncategorized — adrian @ 7:34 pm

Writing is such a strange business. I didn’t come to this bookshop to find inspiration, but to try to get away from it. But it seems to have followed me. I’m writing again. It’s the strangest thing. Let me explain.

Yesterday, I confessed to Jacques that I’d had a look round the store-room.
“But did I not tell you,” he said “not to do such a thing?”
I agreed that he had, but said: “Mr Ayre left me in charge, after all. You couldn’t expect me not to look could you? Too tempting!”
“Ah yes,” said Jacques, “the temptations, they are great.”
I explained my idea to him, that we could display some of the antiques in the bookshop, and maybe sell them on behalf of Loon herself.
“Ah,” he said, “but, pauvre she may never know the benefit.”
“What do you mean?”
“Did I not tell you? There was an accident. Something in the store room fell on ‘er, perhaps. I was not ‘ere.”
“Is she dead?”
“No no,” his face was grave, “she lies in ‘ospital, in a coma. Very serious. For several weeks now.”
“Oh!” I said. I thought for a moment. “That’s very sad, of course. Does she have no family who might want to take charge of the antiques?”
Jacques thought there was no one.

In a funny way, this news made me feel better about going into the storeroom again, taking a proper look this time. After all, no one was going to come and ask me what I thought I was doing. And I felt strangely as if I was doing the room a favour, visiting it. Things only come alive when you use them, don’t they? A pen that’s not being written with, a mirror that’s not being looked into, a chair that’s not being sat on: don’t they seem kind of sad to you?

It was a mirror that caught my fancy, actually. Going into the room in daylight, even waning daylight, was different. The light caught on motes of dust in the air, and on the polished surfaces of the antique furniture. I picked up a book with yellow leather binding and flicked through it, but it seemed to be a diary or journal, the writing too crabbed and faded to read. I ran my fingers over the marbled wood of an ormolu clock.

And then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of movement. A mouse! I turned – no, it had just been my own reflection in a brass-backed mirror. A pretty thing, very old-looking, the mirror is made of some sort of black stone but very shiny. I picked it up and turned it over. Half a label is stuck to the back “The mirror of Dr…” But the rest is missing. The brass fittings must be old and loose, though, because I caught my thumb on something sharp. I whipped my hand back. I’d drawn blood, just a little. A tiny bit was smeared on the face of the mirror. I looked at it and suddenly… it was like I was falling into a dream. Like that time, long ago, when I was dead-heading the roses. An idea, a scene, just a tiny fragment of a story but there it was fully formed.

I almost ran out of the room to start writing. I didn’t realise I’d taken the mirror with me until an hour later when I’d run out of steam. I don’t know what comes next in my story, but I want to find out. And a mirror’s certainly easier to keep around than a rose garden! I’m going to hang it in the shop and see if the sight of it will help me write again!

March 25, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — adrian @ 6:04 pm

I made it! The shop was tremendously busy again yesterday – one never can keep track of all the people coming and going through the doors. (Not to mention the people who’ve been emailing me – some of you seem to think that a mysterious story they’ve received by email is meant for me. But honestly, it makes no sense to me at all.) But after we closed up for the day I suggested to Jacques that I cook a shepherd’s pie for the two of us, to celebrate the Bank Holiday and so on. And even though he pretended to wrinkle his nose and say “I do not know zis ‘shep-herd’s pie”, I could tell he was delighted. By the looks of him, he doesn’t eat a square meal too often. But then, mon dieu, sacre bleu! I had run out of potatoes. Would he be an angel and run to the corner shop to get me some?

While he was gone, I had just enough time to sneak upstairs and take a look in the store room.

I suppose you might be wondering why, since I’m living in one of the bedrooms here, I couldn’t just sneak into the store-room at night. The honest truth is that I’ve been a bit nervous. All these warnings to stay away, I thought at least the floor might be unsafe but it’s more than that. Something about just passing by the door gives me the weirdest feeling. But, as my mother used to say, one cannot live in fear!

I pushed open the door, which creaked appropriately. The room was, indeed, absolutely crammed. Furniture piled one piece on top of another, wardrobes and bureaux and chaise longues and mirrors and books and side tables and scroll-legged chairs and fireplaces and workboxes and glassware and silverware and paintings. There was even a tantalus, still with its bottles full. I can see why Marsh-Ayre, at least, wouldn’t have wanted me coming in here – it’s just too distracting.

I didn’t stay for long; I heard the door open on the floor below and Jacques had returned with potatoes and another two bottles of wine (if I stay here much longer I’m going to develop some bad habits). But, having crossed the threshold, I can see there was nothing to be scared of! I’m going to take another look tonight. Everything’s price-marked, the books look fascinating, and I wonder if we couldn’t sell one or two of them. And there are a few decorative pieces in there that would really brighten up the shop. We might do this elusive Hattie Loon some good; enjoy her pieces and then sell them for her!

March 21, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — adrian @ 5:40 pm

Thanks to all the readers of this blog for the emails I’ve received; I certainly didn’t expect the doings of a bookshop manager to generate this level of interest! A number of you have suggested that some sort of “message” for me has found its way into the Penguin online project. I don’t know anything about that, but I suppose it could be some sort of computer glitch, since I was once slated to work on it. Do you know what this “message” is? I could point it out to Penguin so that they can erase it.

In the meantime, I think I’m warming to Jacques. Or perhaps that’s just the wine talking. We managed to finish off a couple of bottles of Mr Ayre’s excellent claret the other night between us, although I’m pretty sure Jacques did most of the drinking. Between swigs, he told me what he knows. He’s a drama student, going to be a “famous acteur” one day he says. “Like Gerald Depardieu?” I asked, but was met with stony silence.

Marsh-Ayre took him on last autumn because he said he was “engaged on a project that was consuming a great deal of time and energy”. Jacques has no idea what the project was, but says that the owner of the antiques shop, name of Hattie, seemed to be round here an awful lot, as well as another woman whose name he never knew. Was the old goat just running two affairs? Jacques doesn’t think so. They used to spend ages locked in the antiques store room, apparently, emerging a bit glassy-eyed and dishevelled. When I pointed out that this sounded exactly as if they were having an affair, Jacques said, quite sensibly, that in that case they could have gone to the bedroom, not an antiques store-room. Strangely, though, when I suggested we take a look in the store-room ourselves, Jacques didn’t seem to think this was a good idea.

“Oh no,” he said, “I ‘ave been in once. Only musty old things there, nothing interesting.”
This makes me more keen than ever to take a look, but we’ve been run off our feet today in the shop, serving customers and ordering things from suppliers. I had no idea running a shop took so much time! And Jacques is apparently used to spending his evenings and weekends here, rehearsing his dramatic monologues. So I’ll have to find some reason to get rid of him, and then take a look while he’s out.

March 18, 2008

Marsh-Ayre Books

Filed under: Uncategorized — adrian @ 1:01 pm
Tags: , , ,

The shop is charming, truly. I knew before I even stepped inside that I’d take it. It is on a little parade of shops in Muswell Hill, it has a bowed front window with 1940s utility hardbacks displayed delightfully on a green back-cloth as if tumbling over a meadow.

The shop even smells right. I pushed open the door, setting a small bell ringing, and the proper scent of bookshops engulfed me: old paper and leather, dust and binding glue, candlewax and furniture polish. A young man with a sharply-cut floppy fringe and a pair of very tight trousers was standing behind the display case containing rare books at the front desk.

“I’m here to see Mr Ayre,” I said.
“Mr Ayre, ‘e ‘as gone,” he said. And before you all ask, yes, his accent was absurdly French and there’s really no other way to convey it. “
“But where has he gone? When will he return?”
The man shrugged his shoulders, as if to indicate that he neither knew nor cared.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, who are you?” “I am Jacques,” he said, smiling thinly, “can I ‘elp you with something?”
“Ah,” I said, “I’m… Alice Klein. I rather thought I’d be taking over running this shop while Mr Ayre was away. But, um… look, really, do you think he’ll be gone long?”
“Oh,” he said, “I ‘ave ‘eard of you. Mr Ayre, he left me a note for you.” He rummaged in the drawers under the desk, muttering to himself “always with the notes, all these notes everywhere…”
At last, he retrieved a large brown paper envelope and handed it to me. I pulled out a folded note written in neat, old-fashioned handwriting.

“My dear Miss Klein,” it began,

“I do apologise for hastening my departure such that I am not able to greet you. However, I have heard such marvellous things about you from Bernard that I am delighted to leave you with temporary charge of my little corner of the world of books. The keys to the shop, and to the rooms upstairs which are used by H. Loon’s Antiques-Emporium in Grove Street for storage, are enclosed. I do not advise you to enter the storage room; some of the objects are precariously placed and I would not wish you to place yourself into danger.”

I tipped a large bunch of keys out into my hand.

“Jacques will be able to show you the ropes, as they say. I do not expect to be gone long, not more than a month, or six weeks at the very most. My business simply could not wait, I’m afraid. You are very welcome to inhabit my rooms, at the back and above the shop, if they please you. I have also enclosed an honorarium as thanks for your assistance in taking care of the shop. Do look after yourself. I shan’t be long.

Yours with all best wishes,
T. Marsh-Ayre”

I tipped the last object out of the envelope: it was a largeish bundle of £50 notes, tied together with an elastic band. More money than I’ve seen in one place for a long time. Jacques whistled under his breath. We both stared at the money for a moment.

“So,” Jacques said at last, “you will be staying?”
“Yes,” I said, “I suppose I shall.”

I am writing this from the back-bedroom of the shop. Jacques is just closing up downstairs, and he’s promised that tonight we’ll open a bottle of wine and he’ll tell me all he knows about Mr Marsh-Ayre. And tomorrow, I’m going to take a proper look around: “precarious objects” be damned, I want to know what’s in there!

March 12, 2008

Time to whistle a new tune.

Filed under: Uncategorized — adrian @ 4:41 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Spring always feels like a good time to launch new projects, don’t you think? I see that the Penguin online story project starts next week. It looks good, but I don’t think I’ll be following it. It’s not sour grapes exactly, more like regret.
Early on in the discussion they suggested I be involved. My lovely editor, Charlie, called me and said:

“Darling, I’m not nagging, I’m not chasing, don’t think for one moment I am, but this one tinsy-winsy little project? Won’t you think about it? It could be just your thing, short stories, back in the saddle and all that.”

I said I’d think about it, even went into the shiny offices on The Strand to meet the team who are putting it together – they’re all so young! But the awful truth, the fact that caused a sinking sensation in me like the day of the French vocab test when you know you haven’t learned the words, the truth was that I couldn’t find an idea for it. Just like all the other times.

When I used to have the privilege of being asked to speak to audiences about writing, this was always the question uppermost on their minds.“Where do you get your ideas from?” they’d say. I never knew how to answer them: the idea for my first book just popped up one day while I was dead-heading the roses. And despite all my attempts to recreate the moment (let me tell you, no rose near me ever keeps a dead head for long) nothing has ever popped up again.

Hey ho, as my father used to say. Time to whistle a new tune. An intriguing offer has come up: a friend my uncle Bernard’s is in the book trade, runs a little second-hand bookshop in North London. Mr Marsh-Ayre is his name. He’s thinking of retiring, apparently, and is off to the south of France to look at gites. All right for some, eh?
The idea would be for me to take over running the shop for the next few months, with a view to buying it when he eventually retires. Which all sounds like rather a good plan to me. A fresh start, away from my sorry attempts to begin a new book without that fire-wisp of inspiration, and among other people’s books at last!

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