Wednesday 3 May 2023

Looking at the Sky by Isobel Copley, a glass of Sancerre

 I suppose I should’ve guessed there was something wrong because I never heard the baby cry. But some kids don’t cry a lot. So I didn’t give it a thought.

   The first time I saw her I stopped to stare. I was working in the bookshop across the street, a summer holiday job. The week had begun quietly with few customers. Normally I’d have my head in a book but her door opening had caught my eye so I’d looked up. That was the first surprise. It was a fancy door on a fancy house, wrought iron metalwork over glass. It even had honeysuckle reaching up and round. The house had all its shutters permanently closed. That wasn’t unusual in high summer but this house looked closed for a century. 

   She was pushing a pram. One of those great old fashioned ones with big wheels, but shiny and new. The hood was up even though it wasn’t raining and she’d put this mosquito net across the front. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful. It was like the sun was shining only on her. She was a goddess; really tall, hair so blonde it was almost white. She saw me staring. But I guess she must have been used to that.

   She’d opened her door and stepped backwards down the step, pulling the pram after her. She’d tucked in the netting, whispered to her baby and set off.  It was like Moses in the Red Sea, the people just parted silently, staring, to let her by. She smiled at me standing in the bookshop window as she passed. I was too mesmerised to respond. It was a crazy hot day, everyone was creased and pink. But not her.

   She wasn’t out long. Came back twenty minutes later with a few bits of shopping under the pram. I was still in the window. She smiled again. This time I know I grinned back. And waved.

  I watched her house all afternoon. Silent, still. Shuttered up. I guess I was now thinking how cool it must be inside. Important for the baby I supposed. I think I wanted to see someone else going in, a husband perhaps? Her mother? No one.

  She came out again the next day. Same time. To say I was expecting her wouldn’t be true but I was kind of hoping. She must’ve been going mad on her own with a baby. Same route, Red Sea past the bookshop then back twenty minutes later with some shopping under the pram.

   I spoke to the neighbour next door. He and his wife sat outside their house each afternoon. They knew everyone and everyone knew them. He said he thought the house belonged to a family in the city. They had a son, he said, something in banking. I asked him if the girl was his wife. Maybe he’d married and had a baby. The neighbour shrugged in that Gallic way, lips pursed, “Sais pas.”

   The following day I was outside wiping in the bookshop window and sure enough, almost like clockwork, her door opened, she pulled the pram out and turned to go up the street. As she passed I called, “Bonjour.”  She stopped. I stepped forward.  

   “Bonjour, vous etes le propriétaire de la librairie Anglaise?” She spoke in a low, deep voice. I fell in love with her right then.

   “Yes, oui. Sort of. This week, cette semaine. Only this week.” My stuttering squeaked

  “Ah bon. I like to read some books in English.” I was floored. Beautiful and bi-lingual. I stepped nearer to the pram. She turned it away, rocked it gently. “Maybe one day I come to your shop?”  

   “Oh yes. Please. I mean, you’re welcome. Any time. Now? I could help you up the steps with your pram?” I could feel myself going red. She laughed. My heart flipped. I had to act.

 “Can I give you a book at least?” I ran back inside the shop. I stood there frantically looking for a book for the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen but knew nothing about. Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Too clichéd? What the heck.

   She took the book and put it under the pram promising me she’d read it. Then she left, pushing her pram, nodding at people as she passed, just like before.

   I stood in the middle of the street. Everyone smiled at her. Then turned to each other, nodding, once she’d gone. It was as if she’d granted us all one wish.

   I could not get her out of my head.

   She didn’t come out the next day. Or the next. By the time she did I had blamed myself. I’d been too forward, or too stumbling, or too embarrassing. But when she did appear my shame cloud evaporated. She didn’t have the pram. She flitted across the street and straight into the bookshop.

   “My baby, he sleeps. Thank you for the book. It is very good. I pay you.” She took my hand. Folded my fingers around a note. Held it for a second or two. “You come see me? When you close the shop? We talk about the book. I must go now.” She ran out. Left her scent in the shop. I had to sit down.

   I closed up early. Showered. Agonised over choice of shirt. Then knocked at six thirty.  I heard the sound echo in her hallway. She led me in down a wide passage past the empty pram to a high-ceilinged room at the back. The shutters were almost closed with just the narrowest of openings letting in the light. As my eyes adjusted I took in polished antique furniture, oil paintings, bone china. I imagined how it might look in a few months’ time when her baby was crawling, or walking. She patted the sofa, a chaise longue with one single curling arm. I perched where her hand had touched and took the glass she gave me. I watched her melt into a high backed armchair.

   “I am happy you are with me,” she said. I held my hand to stop it trembling.

   We talked for an hour, then another. Conversation was easy. Books, politics, food. We drank cold Sancerre and ate frozen grapes from a Ramen bowl. I was mesmerised. Her hands darted like tiny birds as she talked. She didn’t mention a husband and I didn’t ask, but I saw the ring on her finger. Then finally she stood and said she had to wake the baby. Maybe, she asked, I would come again tomorrow? My last day at the bookshop. She would cook a little supper for the two of us. Of course I said yes. I didn’t sleep that night.

   It was market day. The street outside the shop slowed to a snail’s pace and the shop was full. I got out as soon as I could and bought the last bunch of sunflowers. I wished the hours away. Then I waited some more. Didn’t want her to think I was over eager. At six thirty four I knocked at the door. Same echo down her hall. This time though I heard footsteps. Substantial footsteps. It wasn’t her face that greeted me. It was a man, heavy eyebrows, frown.

   “Oui? Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?”

   “I, er, I’m from over the road. The bookshop. The lady here.” I realised I didn’t know her name. “The lady with the baby, she invited me.”

   “There is no lady, no baby, here.” His English was perfect. I couldn’t see the pram in the hall behind him.

   “But yesterday...” I knew I should’ve turned away. “She bought a book from me.”  

   He stared at me. I felt myself shrinking. Then he stepped back and closed the door. When I turned round the next door neighbour was watching. He shrugged. That Gallic thing again.

   The next morning I stepped out of the bookshop with my suitcase and locked the door for the final time. I walked past her house. Locked up. Nothing new there. I was just about to cross the road at the end of the street when someone tapped me on the shoulder. Eyebrow man. He was handing me the book.

   “My wife. She is ill. You see. There is no baby. We are all just trying to help her. Please forgive me.” His eyes were heavy lidded with exhaustion.

   I read the book on the plane.

  Never love a wild thing Mr Bell...If you let yourself love a wild thing. You'll end up looking at the sky’

About the author

Isobel Copley is a writer and a bookshop owner. Her bookshop, in a medieval village in southern France, sells second hand books to lovers of literature and escapologists. 

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