The day is drawing in and I’m rushing to finish translating a page. I need to look up a word and that slows me down. I don’t like to stop mid-page but if I don’t leave now I’ll be late. Do I really want to go there tonight with all the work I have to do? And it’s so cold out there. I dither out loud.
“Go,” H. says. “You know you always enjoy it once you’re there.”
I quickly tap cmd + s to save my work, pull on my boots, grab coat, scarf, gloves. Where did I put my notepad? H. is standing by the door, waiting to lock it behind me.
As usual, I’m cutting it fine, but after a brisk walk I push open the glass door and walk into the bookshop. The Book Hive is a local institution. “Eclectic, thoughtful, and tempting – a must for book lovers visiting Norwich”, Margaret Atwood said. A quirky-looking, three-storey building on a street corner that holds a wide range of hand-picked, quality titles on just about every topic you can imagine, many translated from other languages. A setting with so much personality, it’s crying out to feature in a short story or a play, with its three levels, getting narrower the higher you go. A place I sometimes walk into just for the pleasure of a chat with Joe, Megan, Henry, or whoever happens to be behind the counter that day, although it’s hard to then walk back out without succumbing to the temptation of a book you never knew existed but then decide you simply have to have.
But I am not going to buy a book this evening, or chat with the bookseller. This evening, just like all the other people there, I am going to spend an hour being quiet.
It’s the weekly Page Against the Machine hour, when you can bring your book and round up the day by just sitting and reading. Behind the counter, Joe has already lined up the glasses and offers you red wine. He’s put on some music, just loud enough to create a confidently relaxed atmosphere, and soft enough not to butt in between you and your page. Often piano music, always wordless.
There are already people scattered on all three floors of the shop, sitting wherever they’ve found a seat, sipping wine, absorbed in their book. This time, I head for the wicker armchair in the corner by the small sash window. There is a stuffed duck on the sill. I call it the nature corner. The low table and shelves carry books about seasons, the elements, birds, animals, trees, travel logs, landscapes. I pull out my notepad. I have an hour to do nothing but write. Write. Not translate other people’s writing but actually scribble my own. Luxury. When I first discovered the Wednesday Page Against the Machine, I asked Joe if he’d mind my coming to write instead of read. “Absolutely,” he said. “I can even clear you some space at one of the tables, if you like.” I don’t go as often as I would like to; more often that not, work takes the upper hand. But on those Wednesdays when I do manage to slam the laptop lid down on it in time to get to The Book Hive by 5.30 p.m., that hour feels like a capsule of therapeutic release. A whole hour when I am free to write my own stuff, uninterrupted. Luxury.
I lean down to pick up my glass of water on the low table and catch sight of a small hardback. Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick. Gosh, somebody thought of writing a book about snow. What does he say about it? Does he talk about its softness as it muffles the city sounds or describe the unique, geometrical pattern of its flakes? I reach out to pick it up but resist the temptation. No, I’m here to write. My eyes drift back to the black ink curls and swirls in my lined notebook, like untidy notes forming a daisy chain on a stave. I turn my head to the side to stretch my stiff shoulder muscle and see How to Read Water in plain capital letters down a lilac-white spine. I take off my long-sight glasses to focus on the author’s name. Tristan Gooley. What an intriguing title. How do you read water? What kind of water? River water? Tap water? The water content of our bodies?
Enough with distraction. I uncross my legs and cross them the other way, and take the chrome cap off my fountain pen again. I manage to scribble two more sides of A4 without looking up. More swirls and curls that make words. I am writing a story about languages, about when two or three or even four words mean the same thing – and yet not quite. About when two or three or even four individuals have the same concept in their language, but not the same feeling.
I take another sip of water. My attention is drawn to a highly atmospheric picture of a tree, its wind-chiselled branches reaching out to a lead-grey sky charged with thunder. Hawthorn, by Bill Vaughan. I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Of reading The Scarlet Letter in my teens, The House of the Seven Gables many years later. The old film adaptation with Vincent Price playing a goodie. I look again at the picture of the tree. At its branches, gnarled and twisted by the wind, and yet still standing in defiance of the elements. It’s just after 6. I can probably fill a couple more sides of A4. I am writing about a family that has been equally wrought by the gales that make up human life on earth. I wonder if anyone will ever want to read it. If one day, it will be bound into a hardback book, with a quote from another writer on the front cover. What would the illustration on the dust jacket be? If it’s the picture of a tree, then I hope it’s an oak. Tall, sturdy and wise. An oak with centuries of stories to tell.
“It’s 6.30,” Joe says softly.
The shop stirs, as people lazily close their books, drink the last sip of wine from their glasses and slowly leave their seats. It’s time to leave the oasis. Time, which paused for an hour, has resumed its course.
I put my empty glass on the counter on my way out. “I hope I can come again next week,” I say, the temporarily suspended awareness of my overwhelming workload rushing back into my relaxed brain.
I hope I can come again next week, I think as I pull open the glass door and step out into the street. I wonder if I can organise my work so I can come every week. Luxury.