This is my short story that I wrote for the Words in Winter Trentham Ellen Kemp Memorial Prize which, incredibly, won! It was easy to write because I do love books and I took many of the quotes from favourite novels or BBC period adaptations. It is also about the feeling of first love. I hope you enjoy it.
Jane closed her eyes and took a deep breath in through her nose. She savoured the papery smell as it hit her.
I should infinitely prefer a book – Jane Austen.
She couldn’t help but smile knowing she was surrounded by a rainbow of spines, hundreds of souls, thousands of verses, and gazillions of words. Words put together so perfectly and delicately so as to challenge attitudes, inspire imaginations, change lives.
Words. Words were everything.
Jane started and her eyes snapped open. She noticed Mr Holdsworth, the bookstore owner, was standing in front of her. He regarded her with a perplexed expression from down the end of his spectacled nose.
“Are you alright young lady?”
“Yes, Mr Holdsworth. Just browsing,” she said quickly as she grabbed the closest book off the shelf and pretended to be keenly interested in the blurb. As soon as Mr Holdsworth was safely back at the counter, Jane squeezed the book back into position and dragged her fingers along the spines, feeling the change of textures with each bump. Smooth, dimpled, scratchy.
Oh, how she would love to own a bookstore! Or to work in a library! Or just be really, really rich and have a whole room filled with books in her house. And she would be sure to read every single one of them.
Paper has more patience than people – Anne Frank.
The bell on the bookstore door tinkled and Jane stopped in her tracks when she heard a familiar low voice speaking to Mr Holdsworth. She twisted a stray brown lock behind her ear and her eyes stopped at that moment on the cover of War and Peace. Appropriate.
It was John Tindle’s voice. What on earth was he doing here? He couldn’t be in her bookstore.
“Great. Thank you.”
She saw him turn in her direction. Jane swung around and headed toward the next aisle but stumbled over the edge of the shelf, knocked over the display and fell onto the floor.
Oh. Lord. No.
Jane’s body was like that of a chalk outline, the books surrounding her oddly placed limbs. It had been a barrage of thick rectangular bullets.
Death by books.
The amusing thought almost distracted her from the embarrassment of her predicament.
Death lies on her, like an untimely frost – William Shakespeare.
“Have a nice trip?”
There it was. Her face must have looked horrified because John immediately appeared sorry that he had said it and offered her his hand.
She glared at him but reluctantly let him help her up. His fingers were warmer than she expected on a winter’s day and were stronger than they looked.
Cold hands, warm heart – Margaret Forster.
“What are you doing here?”
It came out a little more crossly than she intended.
Now it was John’s turn to be lost for words.
“Uh, um. . .I came to see if they have that book that Mr Papadello recommended as extra reading in Lit class. Um. . .An-an-”
“Antigone,” they said in unison.
She lowered her eyes and blushed slightly as they both chuckled.
“Yes, I enjoyed it,” Jane affirmed. “I’ve read it before.”
“Isn’t it a tragedy? Do you enjoy tragedies?” he asked with a slight smile and she had to contain an eye roll.
“I’m joking,” he said quickly. “I know what you meant.”
Is love a fancy or a feeling? – Hartley Coleridge.
Jane dusted herself off and began to place the fallen books back onto the display. To her surprise, John knelt down and began to help.
“They don’t have it,” he said.
“Have what?” asked Jane, confused.
“The book. . .Antigone”.
“Oh. You could borrow mine if you like,” she found herself saying.
What was she doing? Why was she being nice to John, her arch-nemesis? He was always trying to best her in Literature class. It was infuriating. Why was she helping him out?
She blinked hard and grimaced, scolding herself. Too late now.
“Thanks. That’s nice of you. I know you don’t like sharing your books.”
“Excuse me?” she turned to face him with a frown.
Mr Holdsworth cleared his throat at the counter uncomfortably.
“I hate to interrupt but I think it’s starting to snow outside. You two best be going home before it gets worse”.
“Snow!” Jane forgot herself for a moment and ran to the window to confirm that indeed, it was snowing. Just the tiniest of flakes that melted into the road as soon as they touched it but snow nonetheless. The clouds were beginning to darken in the sky overhead too. Yes, she wanted to go home.
“I’ll walk with you,” said John, appearing by her side and also staring out into the weather. “It’s on my way.”
“Thank you,” Jane said without thinking. Why did she keep doing that?
The bell on the top of the door tinkled as John opened it for her and Jane begrudgingly went through. She was torn between being a strong, feminist woman and daydreaming about romantic situations she had read from the likes of Pride and Prejudice and Ethan Frome.
She would let it slide this time. She didn’t want to appear rude.
They walked to the other side of the main street to get protection from the awning in front of the shops. Jane liked their quaint old town with its heritage buildings, history and lush surroundings.
She didn’t always like how everyone knew everyone else, and more often than not, their business too. Jane glanced worriedly into the bakery where Mrs O’Meare was serving people from behind the counter. The place was so crowded, Jane could barely see the collection of breads on the back wall. The old lady appeared interested to see who she was walking alongside and gave her a little wave. Did Jane see her give a second look before she turned back to her customer? She couldn’t be sure.
What sort of man is he, Miss Dashwood? Is he butcher, baker, candlestick maker? – Jane Austen.
As Jane hugged herself to keep warm she turned back to see John taking his school jacket off. The snow was coming in more forceful flurries now and got caught in the spikes of his ash blonde hair. Had she not been in this situation, she would have thought the weather entrancing and romantic. The white flakes were dancing and twirling like icicle ballerinas giddy with love and lust.
“Here, you put this on. I’m warm enough, really.”
He looked her straight in the eyes as he said this, the earnest blue slightly disconcerting her. She quickly glanced away and grabbed the blazer from him, her fingers brushing his for a moment.
He’s a gentleman.
Yes, he is a gentleman, she thought, smiling inwardly and putting the jacket over her shoulders. She gave him a sideways glance though, just to check. Was this just a facade? No, it seemed genuine enough. She really couldn’t afford to be nice to him. She needed to keep him at arm’s length. Jane desperately wanted the Literature award that year. She deserved it. She had earnt it!
John stuffed his hands into his pants pockets as young men do and hunched over, putting up his shirt collar and sinking his neck into his body like a turtle.
As they passed the chemist, John groaned inwardly as he spied his mother chatting to the pharmacist. Suddenly Jane’s academic worries seemed insignificant. Walking home with John Tindle, and wearing his jacket! She was never going to hear the end of this if someone saw them.
“Is that your mum?” Jane asked.
“Uh, yeah. Let’s keep walking.’
Fog came out of her mouth as she spoke and she tried in vain to put her hands in the pockets of the jacket but she had forgotten that they were the kind that were for viewing only. John noticed and stopped.
“Give me your hand?” he asked, although they way he asked sounded more like a directive than a question. It was clinical almost, as if he had asked for a pen or a spoon.
She held it out without thinking too much about it. He placed his own warm hand firmly around her cold one and then turned to continue walking.
What was going on? He was holding her hand. He. Was. Holding. Her. Hand! A boy had never held her hand before!
Despite the chill in the air, the blood began to pump so quickly around her body, she could hear it thumping in her ears. A warmth crept up her arm and radiated through her. All she could do was stare down and notice her feet walking one in front of the other, her lace up black school shoes crunching on the frosty path.
I have a prescription for you, Mr Coxe. Three ounces of modesty, two ounces of duty, a pinch of deference taken three times a day in aqua pura. That should cool the passion which I believe runs in your veins. – Elizabeth Gaskell.
“I watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries,” John said, half turning as he spoke, and she thought, trying to sound casual about it.
“The whole six hours?” she asked, incredulous.
“Yes. You talked so much about it in class and said how good it was. . .”
Jane bit her lip and felt her eyelids flutter downward as a fuzzy feeling flew from her stomach to her warm cheeks.
“And did you like it?” she asked trying to contain her anticipation for the answer.
He made a face.
“It was okay. I liked the dad the best. Mr Bennett. He had lots of good lines.”
“Yes, he’s a good character.”
They turned into Jane’s street and as her front gate got closer and closer she wished it further away.
John broke the silence finally as their locked hands dropped and the electric current broke – her hand suddenly empty but still very aware of where each of his fingers had pressed into her palm onto seconds before.
“Would you like to go to the bakery after school tomorrow?” he asked. He shoved his hands back into his pockets and pressed his chin to his chest as a pretence that he was cold but she knew it was because he was afraid of her answer. She gingerly took his blazer off her shoulders and passed it over to him slowly, her mind racing with a million thoughts.
John had a resigned look on his face as though she were sure to say no.
“Forget I asked,” he mumbled and he started off down the road but then he quickly turned and shouted.
“In such cases as these I believe the established mode is to express a sense of obligation!” and he gave her a smile.
Jane felt instant relief. She hadn’t wanted to upset him but she truly didn’t know what to say. Then as she pulled the waist high metal gate closed in front of her she found herself shouting back.
“Okay! I’ll bring my book!”