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It's 1959, and the "small, wispy and wiry" Florence Green, a widow and middle-aged, wants to open a bookshop in the little, bleak, remote, sea-swept East Anglian town of Hardborough. And so she borrows money to buy her stock and, as a place to house both it and herself, the High Street building known as Old House, over half a millennium old and faultless except for being damp and haunted. But as Mr. Raven, the marshman, says, Florence "don't frighten," which is why he has her hold onto a horse's tongue while he files its teeth. What Florence hasn't counted on, though, is the studied malevolence of Hardborough's social illuminary and civic leader, Mrs. Gamart, who now says she wanted Old House for an "arts centre." And things, indeed, start going wrong for Florence—not from the real ghost, who seems frightening but harmless, but from inexplicable changes in statute, policy, and law. When Florence is tipped off by a slippery ex-BBC employee that she ought to stock Lolita, she questions only whether it's a "good book"—and so she asks the town's one true aristocrat, the dour Edmund Brundish, veteran of WW I. He says it's good (though he dies soon after), but Florence's troubles still grow only worse, both before and after Nabokov sells out. Readers will learn the sorry end, while enjoying on the way a wondrous cast of townsfolk, including Florence's assistant, the sweetly tough Christine Gipping, who, at 11, as Florence says, "has the ability to classify, and that can't be taught," though she does make an error (true human style) that costs dear.
Pitch-perfect in every tone, note, and detail: unflinching, humane, and wonderful.
“A marvelously piercing fiction.” — Times Literary Supplement
In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not. This was because of her worries as to whether to purchase a small property, the Old House, with its own warehouse on the foreshore, and to open the only bookshop in Hardborough. The uncertainty probably kept her awake. She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much. Florence felt that if she hadn't slept at all -- and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind -- she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron.
She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation. For more than eight years of half a lifetime she had lived at Hardborough on the very small amount of money her late husband had left her and had recently come to wonder whether she hadn't a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right. Survival was often considered all that could be asked in the cold and clear East Anglian air. Kill or cure, the inhabitants thought -- either a long old age, or immediate consignment to the salty turf of the churchyard.
She was in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back. She was not much talked about, not even in Hardborough, where everyone could be seen coming over the wide distances and everything seen was discussed. She made small seasonal changes in what she wore. Everybody knew her winter coat, which was the kind that might just be made to last another year.
In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.
`Of course I can't make any definite commitment on behalf of the bank at the moment -- the decision is not in my hands -- but I think I may say that there will be no objection in principle to a loan. The Government's word up to now has been restraint in credit to the private borrower, but there are distinct signs of relaxation -- I'm not giving away any state secrets there. Of course, you'll have little or no competition -- a few novels, I'm told, lent out at the Busy Bee wool shop, nothing significant. You assure me that you've had considerable experience of the trade.'
Florence, preparing to explain for the third time what she meant by this, saw herself and her friend, their hair in Eugene waves, chained pencils round their necks, young assistants of twenty-five years ago at Muller's in Wigmore Street. It was the stocktaking she remembered best, when Mr Muller, after calling for silence, read out with calculated delay the list of young ladies and their partners, drawn by lot, for the day's checking over. There were by no means enough fellows to go round, and she had been lucky to be paired, in 1934, with Charlie Green, the poetry buyer.
`I learned the business very thoroughly when I was a girl,' she said. `I don't think it's changed in essentials since then.'
`But you've never been in a managerial position. Well, there are one or two things that might be worth saying. Call them words of advice, if you will.'
There were very few new enterprises in Hardborough, and the notion of one, like a breath of sea air far inland, faintly stirred the sluggish atmosphere of the bank.
`I mustn't take up your time, Mr Keble.'
`Oh, you must allow me to be judge of that. I think I might put it in this way. You must ask yourself, when you envisage yourself opening a bookshop, what your objective really is. That is the first question needful to a business of any kind. Do you hope to give our little town a service that it needs? Do you hope for sizeable profits? Or are you, perhaps, Mrs Green, a jogger along, with little understanding of the vastly different world which the 1960s may have in store for us? I've often thought that it's a pity that there isn't some accepted course of study for the small business man or woman ...'
Evidently there was an accepted course for bank managers. Launched on the familiar current, Mr Keble's voice gathered pace, with the burden of many waters. He spoke of the necessity of professional book-keeping, systems of loan repayment, and opportunity costs.
`... I would like to put a point, Mrs Green, which in all probability has not occurred to you, and yet which is so plain to those of us who are in a position to take the broader view. My point is this. If over any given period of time the cash inflow cannot meet the cash outflow, it is safe to predict that money difficulties are not far away.'
Florence had known this ever since her first payday, when, at the age of sixteen, she had become self-supporting. She prevented herself from making a sharp reply. What had become of her resolve, as she crossed the market place to the bank building, whose solid red brick defied the prevailing wind, to be sensible and tactful?
`As to the stock, Mr Keble, you know that I've been given the opportunity of buying most of what I need from Muller's, now that they're closing down.' She managed to say this resolutely, although she had felt the closure as a personal attack on her memories. `I've had no estimate for that as yet. And as to the premises, you agreed that 3,500 [pounds sterling] was a fair price for the freehold of the Old House and the oyster shed.'
To her surprise, the manager hestitated.
`The property has been standing empty for a long time now. That is, of course, a matter for your house agent and your solicitor -- Thornton, isn't it?' This was an artistic flourish, a kind of weakness, since there were only two solicitors in Hardborough. `But I should have thought the price might have come down further ... The house won't wall; away if you decide to wait a little ... deterioration ... damp ...'
`The bank is the only building in Hardborough which isn't damp,' Florence replied. `Working here all day may perhaps have made you too demanding.'
`... and then I've heard it suggested -- I'm in a position where I can say that I understand it may have been suggested -- that there are other uses to which the house might be put -- though of course there is always the possibility of a re-sale.'
`Naturally I want to reduce expenses to a minimum.' The manager prepared to smile understandingly, but spared himself the trouble when Florence added sharply `But I've no intention of re-selling. It's a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age, but having done it I don't intend to retreat. What else do people think the Old House could be used for? Why haven't they done anything about it in the past seven years? There were jackdaws nesting in it, half the tiles were off, it stank of rats. Wouldn't it be better as a place where people could stand and look at books?'
`Are you talking about culture?' the manager said, in a voice half way between pity and respect.
`Culture is for amateurs. I can't run my shop at a loss. Shakespeare was a professional!'
It took less than it should have done to fluster Florence, but at least she had the good fortune to care deeply about something. The manager replied soothingly that reading took up a great deal of time. `I only wish I had more time at my disposal. People have quite wrong ideas, you know, about the bank's closing hours. Speaking personally, I enjoy very Little leisure in the evenings. But don't misunderstand me, I find a good book at my bedside of incalculable value. When I eventually retire I've no sooner read a few pages than I'm overwhelmed with sleep.'
She reflected that at this rate one good book would last the manager for more than a year. The average price of a book was twelve shillings and sixpence. She sighed.
She did not know Mr Keble at all well. Few people in Hardborough did. Although they were constantly told, by press and radio, that these were prosperous years for Britain, most of Hardborough still felt the pinch, and avoided the bank manager on principle. The herring catch had dwindled, naval recruitment was down, and there were many retired persons living on a fixed income. These did not return Mr Keble's smile or his wave out of the hastily wound-down window of his Austin Cambridge. Perhaps this was why he went on talking for so long to Florence, although the discussion was scarcely businesslike. Indeed it had reached, in his view, an unacceptably personal level.
Florence Green, like Mr Keble, might be accounted a lonely figure, but this did not make them exceptional in Hardborough, where many were lonely. The local naturalists, the reedcutter, the postman, Mr Raven the marshman, bicycled off one by one, leaning against the wind, the observed of all observers, who could reckon the time by their reappearance over the horizon. Not all of these solitaries even went out. Mr Brundish, a descendant of one of the most ancient Suffolk families, lived as closely in his house as a badger in its sett. If he emerged in summer, wearing tweeds between dark green and grey, he appeared a moving gorse-bush against the gorse, or earth against the silt. In autumn he went to ground. His rudeness was resented only in the same way as the weather, brilliant in the morning, clouding over later, however much it had promised.
The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication. By 1850 the Laze had ceased to be navigable and the wharfs and ferries rotted away. In 1910 the swing bridge fell in, and since then all traffic had to go ten miles round by Saxford in order to cross the river. In 1920 the old railway was closed. The children of Hardborough, waders and divers all, had most of them never been in a train. They looked at the deserted LNER station with superstitious reverence. Rusty tin strips, advertising Fry's Cocoa and Iron Jelloids, hung there in the wind.
The great floods of 1953 caught the sea wall and caved it in, so that the harbour mouth was dangerous to cross, except at very low tide. A rowing-boat was now the only way to get across the Laze. The ferryman chalked up his times for the day on the door of his shed, but this was on the far shore, so that no one in Hardborough could ever be quite certain when they were.
After her interview with the bank, and resigned to the fact that everyone in the town knew that she had been there, Florence went for a walk. She crossed the wooden planks across the dykes, preceded as she tramped by a rustling and splashing as small creatures, she didn't know of what kind, took to the water. Overhead the gulls and rooks sailed confidently on the tides of the air. The wind had shifted and was blowing inshore.
Above the marshes came the rubbish tip, and then the rough fields began, just good enough for the farmers to fence. She heard her name called, or rather she saw it, since the words were blown away instantly. The marshman was summoning her.
`Good morning, Mr Raven.' That couldn't be heard either.
Raven acted, when no other help was at hand, as a kind of supernumerary vet. He was in the Council field, where the grazing was let out at five shillings a week to whoever would take it, and at the extreme opposite end stood an old chestnut gelding, a Suffolk Punch, its ears turning delicately like pegs on its round poll in the direction of the human beings in its territory. It held its ground suspiciously, with stiffened legs, against the fence.
When she got within five yards of Raven, she understood that he was asking for the loan of her raincoat. His own clothes were rigid, layer upon layer, and not removable on demand.
Raven never asked for anything unless it was absolutely necessary. He accepted that coat with a nod, and while she stood keeping as warm as she could in the lee of the thorn hedge, he walked quietly across the field to the intensely watching old beast. It followed every movement with flaring nostrils, satisfied that Raven was not carrying a halter, and refusing to stretch its comprehension any further. At last it had to decide whether to understand or not, and a deep shiver, accompanied by a sigh, ran through it from nose to tail. Then its head drooped, and Raven put one of the sleeves of the raincoat round its neck. With a last gesture of independence, it turned its head aside and pretended to look for new grass in the damp patch under the fence. There was none, and it followed the marshman awkwardly down the field, away from the indifferent cattle, towards Florence.
`What's wrong with him, Mr Raven?'
`He eats, but he's not getting any good out of the grass. His teeth are blunted, that's the reason. He tears up the grass, but that doesn't get masticated.'
`What can we do, then?' she asked with ready sympathy.
`I can fare to file them,' the marshman replied. He took a halter out of his pocket and handed back the raincoat. She turned into the wind to button herself into her property. Raven led the old horse forward.
`Now, Mrs Green, if you'd catch hold of the tongue. I wouldn't ask everybody, but I know you don't frighten.'
`How do you know?' she asked.
`They're saying that you're about to open a bookshop. That shows you're ready to chance some unlikely things.'
He slipped his finger under the loose skin, hideously wrinkled, above the horse's jawbone and the mouth gradually opened in an extravagant yawn. Towering yellow teeth stood exposed. Florence seized with both hands the large slippery dark tongue, smooth above, rough beneath, and, like an old-time whaler, hung gamely on to it to lift it clear of the teeth. The horse now stood sweating quietly, waiting for the end. Only its ears twitched to signal a protest at what life had allowed to happen to it. Raven began to rasp away with a large file at the crowns of the side teeth.
`Hang on, Mrs Green. Don't you relax your efforts. That's slippery as sin I know.'
The tongue writhed like a separate being. The horse stamped with one foot after another, as though doubting whether they all still touched the ground.
`He can't kick forwards, can he, Mr Raven?'
`He can if he likes.' She remembered that a Suffolk Punch can do anything, except gallop.
`Why do you think a bookshop is unlikely?' she shouted into the wind. `Don't people want to buy books in Hardborough?'
`They've lost the wish for anything of a rarity,' said Raven, rasping away. `There's many more kippers sold, for example, than bloaters that are half-smoked and have a more delicate flavour. Now you'll tell me, I dare say, that books oughtn't to be a rarity.'
Once released, the horse sighed cavernously and stared at them as though utterly disillusioned. From the depths of its noble belly came a brazen note, more like a trumpet than a horn, dying away to a snicker. Clouds of dust rose from its body, as though from a beaten mat. Then, dismissing the whole matter, it trotted to a safe distance and put down its head to graze. A moment later it caught sight of a patch of bright green angelica and began to eat like a maniac.
Raven declared that the old animal would not know itself, and would feel better. Florence could not honestly say the same of herself, but she had been trusted, and that was not an everyday experience in Hardborough.