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The shelves were spread before me. The hospice charity book shop did not fail to disappoint. The collection was ample and there were plenty of literary discoveries to be made. I was in my happy place. An elderly, inoffensive lady manned (womanned) the till as I browsed. The air was freezing outside but the warmth radiating from the glowing words on the shelf seeped into my bones, pleasing me immensely.
A bell tinkled behind me and another customer entered the shop. I didn’t look around. I didn’t even flinch. I have a dislike for rubber-necking so I endeavour to lead by example on that front. There is something about the wide-eyed gawping of a face that instinctively turns around in reaction to a noise; something childish. I think I have a fear of being viewed as a child. Perhaps my childhood had something to do with that. I also like to think that I am a calm person, in control, unaffected by the eternal bustle. This thought acts as a lifeline when I am not feeling calm, which happens to be most of the time. I am often reminded of the lie when I physically jump at an unexpected noise. My muscles tense and my skin tingles. A supermarket tannoy announcement is a perfect example. I probably have PTSD. But, honestly, in this world how can one not?
This time I did not flinch. I was in my happy place.
The door closed behind the new character on the scene and he spoke his first lines. He greeted the elderly lady with a buoyant salutation and commented on the weather. He walked towards the rear of the shop, momentarily skimming the periphery of my vision. I continued browsing, looking for the next gem I would unearth for my growing collection of former trees at home. The yellowed leaves of these time-worn treasures continued to exude a warmth, more so when I opened them and fanned the pages. Warm, bright, and soothing.
“Have you read this?” sparkled the man.
I looked up. He was at the other end of the shop, holding out a book toward me with an air of awkward confidence. He was middle-aged, fairly non-descript. You wouldn’t give him a passing thought if you saw him walking along the street. Unintentionally incognito. His face exhibited the characteristics of an amiable persona. In those first few seconds, it seemed as if he was desperate for a human connection; yearning for a genuine sense of belonging. If he was let down, he would crumple to the floor sobbing, trembling like an exhausted child.
I walked over with a smile. My ability to fake extroversion kicked in immediately. We had a short chat. He said that the book was a really good read and it had an unexpected twist. Pretty dark and gritty, too. I replied, with an unintentional sliver of pretentiousness, that I was making my way through the classics mainly so I didn’t read many modern novels. I took it from his hands nonetheless, quickly flipping to the back cover to check the price while pretending to read the blurb.
I ended up buying the book. It still lies unread. It will probably be trash. A cheap modern thriller. (My pretentiousness returns.) That said, it may be a finely written masterpiece masquerading as a cheap modern thriller. Who am I to judge a book by its cover, its genre, or its advocate who I met in a charity book shop on a cold, dark, and gritty afternoon?