WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, chapter one of Alice Thompson’s The Book Collector
She waited, sitting on the window seat, for the carriage to drive up the long avenue to their country house. Violet was looking forward to her husband Archie’s return from London. The daffodils that bordered the driveway held their golden heads still. Later, a servant would perhaps bring them drinks in the drawing room, and Archie would lounge back in the velvet wing chair by the fire as he told her all about his day at work. As she waited she could hear, from the nursery, the baby crying again.
Archie had come into her life over a year ago. They had met by chance. She had been sitting at an outside table in a small artisan café off Oxford Circus, reading a book. She had been wearing one of her late mother’s best hobble skirts that had accentuated her waist, and a delicate cerise blouse. A middle-aged man had sat down at an adjoining table, in a quick agile movement, as if on impulse. It was this apparent intuitiveness that had at first attracted her to him.
“What is the book you are reading?” he asked, before ordering a coffee from the waiter.
She had looked up at him but he had not smiled. He had just stared at her with relentless eyes, not looking at her, but straight through to her thoughts. At that moment, she felt she could never be anywhere else but here again.
“It’s a book my parents gave me,” she replied, holding his gaze. She did not add that she had recently lost them both. She tried to hold on to the details of his face but could only decipher a certain ponderousness that weighed down his symmetrical open features and clouded his dark blue eyes.
‘You seem very young. How old are you?’
‘So what brings you to London?’
‘I’ve just come in from Camberwell. I’ve come to look for work. Perhaps in one of the dress shops.’
‘I wish you luck,’ he said.
Was he flirting with her? She wasn’t sure. His language sounded flirtatious but he appeared serious. She noticed his nails had been bitten down to the quick and the fingertips were tobacco stained.
He looked at her. ‘Rose. Rose,’ he repeated. ‘By any other name.’
‘It’s not my name,’ she replied.
Inexplicably, she knew she had to leave. Where had that brief, arbitrary exchange of words come from? As if their thoughts had been meeting in the air between them. She felt perturbed, not quite frightened. She carefully placed her half-drunken coffee cup down on the checked tablecloth, then turned round in her seat for her wide brimmed, battered felt hat that was balancing precariously on the back of her chair. Standing, she picked up her book from the table. Without catching his eye, she started to weave in and out of the outdoor tables back onto the pavement.
As she walked around the corner and out of sight, she felt surprised by a sense of loss. How could she be experiencing such a sensation of disappointment over a stranger? A small ivory card fell out of her book and fluttered onto the pavement. Violet picked it up to see it was a business card, printed in black ornate calligraphy, for a second-hand bookshop called Looking Glass. A Lord Archie Murray was the proprietor. He must have slipped the card inside the pages of her book when her back had been turned.
She pocketed the card and spent the rest of the day fruitlessly looking for work but it didn’t occur to her to visit his bookshop. It was just another man showing interest in her; it meant nothing, after all.
On her way back to the railway station, she decided to take a short cut through an arcade. It wasn’t a route that she normally took. There, halfway down the arcade, was a bookshop and she knew what its name would be before she could read the clear lettering on its frontage. But what made her decide to go in? She was intrigued by his interest in her. Should that have warned her off, rather than piqued her curiosity? But she was the sort of person who would invariably be drawn to a man’s attentiveness. Fate and character conspiring together, playmates playing tag with each other, taking turns to play ‘It’.
Circumstance. Impulse. Desire. They all drew her to the door and placed her leather-gloved hand on the dull brass door handle. Just another unconscious decision unconcerned with its irrevocable consequences, a choice that would determine the rest of her life.
• Alice Thompson was joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for her first novel, Justine. The Book Collector is published by Salt, price £8.99