Farouk peered out from between the dusty slats. The man was there again, just outside the shop door. It was becoming a regular occurrence. Farouk reached behind the blind, slid back the top bolt, then bent down to do the same with the bolt at floor level, carefully and slowly so as not to aggravate the twinge in his back. Finally, he unlocked the door and opened it as noisily as he could.
A nasty smell filled the doorway.
“You can’t stay here. Go somewhere else. There’s plenty of other places. Clear off.”
Farouk couldn’t see a face. The sleeping bag was like some overgrown caterpillar that was never going to turn into anything nice. The remains of an empty sandwich packet protruded from beneath the grubby navy nylon. He bent down and pulled at a corner of the wrapping with this thumb and forefinger. Something squashed and smelly was left inside it.
“Disgusting,” he muttered, dropping it on the pavement.
He returned to the shop. From a drawer behind the counter, he unwound a black bin liner from a roll.
“You’re costing me a fortune. Getting rid of your rubbish every day. Can’t you use bins like everyone else? Is that too much for you? You promised me yesterday that you’d find another doorway. You got something wrong with your head? You got Alzheimer’s? You’re putting my customers off.”
There was a groan, followed by a long sentence filled withswear words. Farouk had never heard a sentence like it. It ended with the words, “…you ain’t got no fucking customers.”
Farouk picked up the rubbish and put it in the bin bag.He was annoyed. On the way back into the shop, he shoved the door against a bookshelf, completely forgetting that he’d left the metal stepladder there last night. The bottom step jutted out and caught the glass. The doorbell tinkled. A brief wave of intense happiness surged over him, then the entire pane shattered on to the floor. A million tiny pieces spread out in a glorious halo all around his feet.
“What the hell!” Arms emerged from the nylon folds. “What’s going on?”
“Now look what you’ve done,” said Farouk. It was the first time he’d had a proper look at this slug person who seemed to have adopted his shop doorway as a permanent home. He was young and fair and very skinny.
“You’re bang out of order, mate. What about health and safety?Chucking dangerous glass all over my sleeping arrangements. I could have you up in court for assault!”
The young man was on his feet now but the sleeping bag was still caught around his legs as he shuffled around.
“Health and safety? Look at you! You’re a disgrace. You’ve got two arms, two legs, just like everyone else. You’re a layabout. Simple as that. You need to pull yourself together. Have a wash. You stink.”
“You got a toilet in there?”
“Course I’ve got a toilet in there. What do you think I am? Some kind ofpeasant? And no, you can’t use it. Find somewhere else to shit.”
The young man clambered out of the sleeping bag and started walking off.
“What about your mess? You can’t leave it here!”
Farouk stared down at the pile of sticky, filthy fabric. What was he supposed to do with it? It was probably the only bedding he had.
“You’ve got five minutes,” he shouted, “or it’s going in the bin!”
Another string of obscenities came back at him.
He couldn’t be wasting his time on vagrants. This was the bookshop’s last day and there were things to do. Books to pack. He wished everything could have got off to a more positive start. He’d imagined closing the shop in a blaze of antiquarian glory.
Walking over the threshold,thinking that he wouldn’t have to deal with this aggravating person if the electric shutters still worked,the soles of his shoes came to a crunching standstill.
“Oh, the glass.”
“What do you mean, you can’t come? I need your help!”
The voice on the other end of the phone was really apologetic. A dance student had been helping him out for the last six months, earning extra cash.
“It’s RADA! I can’t turn them down. It could be a life-changing audition!”
“And all they give you is an hour’s notice?”
“Yes! Well, no. It’s a long story.”
“I’m sure it is.”
“Can I come this evening?”
“This evening’s no good.”
“Of course, I’m annoyed!”
“I’m sorry too!” Farouk pressed the ‘end call’button on the handset and threw it acrossthe room. It wasn’t hisusual way with inanimate objects. He was generally a patient man. Then again, Hannah was usually reliable.
“What’s Afrik doo Nord all about then?”
The young man was back, leaning against the doorpost with a can of drink and a fresh pack of sandwiches. He was reading from one of the business cards Farouk had left on the windowsill.
“It’s not about anything. It’s a place.” Or places, thought Farouk, if he was inclined to be exact about it.
“Farouk Al…Al…” He gave up trying to pronounce the surname. “You wanna sandwich?” It seemed like a genuine offer.
Farouk took in the black fingernails curling around the cellophane. “No thank you.”
“Good! All the more for me!”
It wasn’t said with any obvious malice.
“Once you’ve eaten your food, you can clear off. I told you, you’re putting my customers off.”
The young man bit into a sandwich and made a face.
“And I told you, you ain’t got no customers.”
“I have lots of customers, thank you. Online. Anyway, you’re in the way.”
“In the way of what?”
“Things. I’ll be moving boxes in and out.”
Perhaps the radio would be a deterrent?Which station would be most likely to send the young man packing? Radio 3, he decided. With a bit of luck there would be some Tchaikovsky or some deafening Mahler. He found the radio in the storeroom, under a pile of paperwork. The sleepy-voiced presenter was introducing a recording of a scintillating Proms performance. It just needed to be loud with lots of screeching violins.
He plonked the radio down on a pile of books. As he did so, his shoe caught the corner of a crate. Books went flying.
“You got anger management issues?”
The music started. It was pretty loud. He tried to clear his head and plan what needed to be done next, but over the music he could hear a string of questions.
“Why you selling the shop? You gone bankrupt? How do you make any money out of this stuff? You’ve definitely got anger issues.”
Farouk grabbed the radio and turned down the volume.
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you that it’s rude to ask a second question before you’ve had an answer to the first? You got ADHE?”
“ ADHD. Nope.”
All his life Farouk had endured people’s assumptions. People were always coming up withlazy ideas about where he was from, what he did, what languages he could or couldn’t speak, what strange beliefs he might harbour in his spare time. Why was he always having to explain himself?
“I’ll tell you why I’m annoyed. I want to retire. Any objections? This shop has been my life. My parents started it. They came from Marrakesh. They had nothing. Not a stitch. They built it up. They worked hard.They had some books. People passed. They bought and sold. Bought and sold. Sometimes making pennies, sometimes making pounds. They slaved, anyway. Something I don’t suppose you’d know anything about. They had pride. They didn’t lie about in other people’s doorways festering in their own stench. I wanted the last flight of La Librairie d’Afrique du Nord to be dazzling. Now my assistant has rung in to let me down. All this work, and it comes to nothing in the end. Perhaps you’re the one who’s right in the head. Perhaps I would have been better off lying in a doorway all my life, taking handouts.”
“I’ve got pride!”
“I’m not talking about you any more. I’m done talking about you! It’s not all about you, is it? You want to be a valued part of society,you’ve got to get up off your arse. You’ve eaten your breakfast. I’ve got work to do, and enough problems without being forced to listen to youbleating on and on. Off you go!”
Farouk picked up a stack of crates and dropped them noisily on to another set of crates. Even as he did so, he realised that there was no point to it. He was moving things around just for the sake of it.
“Clear off, I said!”
The young man shuffled off out of sight.
“And take your filthy bedding with you!”
Farouk grabbed a crate, turned it upside down, sat on it and put his head in his hands. He looked at the rows of books on the shelves, all carefully organised. They were like his children. He would keep them all if he could,but the upstairs flat was tiny. That evening, they were all being shipped off to a dealer. He hoped they wouldn’t be split into random lots or, even worse, dismembered for their coloured plates.
“I’m sorry I didn’t find you all homes.”
As he got to his feet, a glossy turquoise book spine caught his eye. On closer inspection, it said TheGiant Book of Cartoon Fairy Tales. Atroupe of gaudy characters cavorted across the cover.
“How did you get in here?”
He was amazed. He thought he knew every book in the shop. It must be a rogue item in a job lot of antiquarian editions. He examined the garish dust cover. Someone had loved it once because the edges had been carefully sealed with sticky tape to stop them tearing. He looked inside at the publication date. 1971. Magical princes and clever queens danced across its pages in sugar pinks and turquoise blues. In 1971 he had been living with his parents in a temporary house in Casablanca, while they debated whether to make the final momentous move to London. Perhaps his parents had been dreaming of their own fairy godmother at the time?
He placed the book on top of a pile. It was already ten o’clock. He sensed someone at the door and was about to turn around and tell the potential customer that the shop was no longer open when he recognised the footsteps and the shuffle of the sleeping bag.
“Not you, again. What’s the matter with you?”
“I was thinking…”
“I was thinking we could help each other out. You need help to pack and I could do with some cash.”
“Cash for drugs?”
“None of your business.”
“I’m not giving you cash for drugs. Besides, you’d probably steal half a dozen books then disappear. What do you think I am? Stupid?”
“I can pack books.”
“You’re only selling them off. Who cares?”
“I care. And that’s the point isn’t it? That’s the difference between us. I don’t want your filthy paws on my beautiful books.”
“I can wash. You got a sink?”
“Course I’ve got a sink.”
“Well. Let me wash, then. I’ll help you pack books all day,and you give me fifty quid.”
“Fifty quid! You haven’t got a clue! I’ve worked whole weeks for less profit than that!”
“Thirty, then. I’ll help you till it’s all done and you give me thirty quid.”
Farouk looked at the shelves. There was no way he was going to get it all done in the time.
“Go on. What have you got to lose?”
Did he have the face of a gullible fool?
“The sink’s at the back, by the storeroom. There’s a towel.”
Watching him roll up thesleeping bag, something occurred to Farouk.
“Wait a minute. Here’s a bin bag. Put your stuff in there. I’ve got some painting overalls.”
They weren’t clean, and they were spattered with dried-on paint, but they were better than what he was wearing. At least they didn’t stink.
It seemed to take a long time, whatever was going on at the sink. I must be mad, thought Farouk, and wondered what other disaster would befall him before the day was out. He could be about to employ a dangerous psychopath for all he knew. Farouk tried to decipher the noises. The taps being turned on and off. The toilet seat being dropped too noisily, the loose toilet roll holder coming off the wall. Something rolling across the floor.
When he reappeared he was dressed in Farouk’s overalls.
“Sorry. It fell off the wall,” he said, holding out the toilet roll holder and trailing a black bin bag carrying his clothes and sleeping bag.
“It was loose anyway. That’s the least of my worries.”
Farouk noticed that somehow or other, hehad managed to wash his hair in the sink. It lay pasted flat on his forehead.
“You should have said, I would have got you some shampoo.”
The lad placed the loo roll holder on a pile of books and picked his way between the crates. He looked much younger with a clean face and Farouk felt a pang of guilt that he might be taking advantage.
“You sure about this? A proper day’s work for £30?”
“Yep. You tell me what to do.”
Farouk showed him how to pack the books. He explained about using tissue for the oldest, most valuable ones and how they should be packed spine upwards so that they were easily located, not too many to a crate.He glanced at him often, to make sure he was doing things properly.
“Wait a minute. I don’t even know your name.”
“How do you spell that?”
“J. Like the letter ‘J’.”
“Short for J. You can’t get much shorter than that.”
Farouk was confused. He doubted any parent would call their child by a capital letter.
“Not one I’d care to repeat, like.”
He put on some classical music, not too loud this time. They listened to some Bach. Farouk expected J to complain, but he didn’t. His incessant questions dried up. Farouk was glad about that.
It got to one o’clock. Every now and again, Farouk would catch a whiff of the stuff in the bin bag. The thought of someone climbing back into them at the end of the day made his stomach heave.
Farouk made his way to the front door, picking up the bin bag as he went.
“I’m leaving you in charge for a minute.”
J hardly replied, just carried on packing.
Farouk hesitated by the door. “There’s no money, or anything here worth taking.” He was banking on the fact that J wouldn’t know the value of some of the books.
“I just thought I’d mention it, in case you were wondering.”
J kept on packing.“A deal’s a deal.”
When Farouk returned withsandwiches, but without the bin bag, J was sitting on a crate, engrossed in the pages of a book. I should have guessed he’d be a shirker, Farouk thought, although he was vaguely surprised he was still there at all. He was about to say something along those lines when J said,
“We used to have this book.”
We. It hadn’t occurred to Farouk that he had ever been part of a we. Or that the we might have been the kind of people who had books.
“Which book is that?”
J held it up for Farouk to see. It was The Giant Bookof Cartoon Fairy Tales. He laid the book back down on his lap and carried on turning the pages.
“It was my Dad’s.”
All kinds of expressions passed across J’s face as he leafed through the stories.Farouk wasn’t sure what to do. Was the lad about to have some emotional episode that he, Farouk, would be unable to handle? Would hisapparent sadness be followed by anger? Frustration? A violent outburst? J brushed something away from his chin. Was that a tear? Or just dust?
“I bought you some sandwiches.”
J smiled for the first time and put the book to one side.
After lunch, they carried on packing. Faroukchecked onJ from time to time. He was being surprisingly methodical. Things weren’t going too badly, he thought, looking around at the increasingly empty shelves.
The phone rang. Farouk clambered around the books and crates, looking for the missing handset. Why hadn’t he put it back in the cradle? The voice at the other end sounded frazzled. Farouk couldn’t catch all of it but he did hear the words, ‘can’t collect’and ‘maybe sometime next week’.
“Next week!” he wailed. “What does that mean?They’re virtually all packed.” Then he heard an even more disturbing sentence, which included the words, ‘slim margins’,‘not enough profit’and ‘actually, maybe next month’.
“But we’ve got an agreement!”
Suddenly Farouk felt the phone being wrenched away from him.
“You’re ’aving a laugh, are you? The boss and I’ve been packingall day ’cos you said you were coming!”
There was a long pause, followed by a lot of random swearing from J, followed by, “We know where you are. We’ll be paying you a visit later. Mr Farouk might look like a nice guy but you won’t be messing anyone around once we’ve finished with you.”
The person on the other end of the phone must have hung up becausewhen J handed it back to Farouk, the line was dead.
Farouk sat down on a box of books and put his head in his hands for the second time that day. Somewhere in the room he could hear a box being pushed along the floor and when he looked up, J was sitting down, also with his head in his hands.
“Have you really got friends who would go round there?”
“Nope. I haven’t got any friends.But if I did, they would.”
“I don’t think that would solve anything, do you?”
J shrugged and they sighed, in unison.
Just as Farouk was wondering whether anything at all was going to go his way that day, the door flew open. The force behind it, and the loudness of the doorbell, which usually tinkledbut always seemed to roar whenever she arrived,could only mean one person.
“See! I made it after all!” There was a crunching noise under Hannah’s shoe as she exploded through the door. “What the fuck? Glass! That’s dangerous. Have you had a break-in?Your shutters weren’t working, were they? You should clean that up before someone gets hurt.” Before Farouk could respond to any of it, Hannah noticed J.
“Hello! I’m Hannah!” And then, without missing a beat, turned to Farouk.“You’ve got a new employee!”
Hannah’s smile looked slightly frozen. As well it might, thought Farouk, as he was still quite annoyed with her.
“J’s helping me out for the day. Did you get the part?”
Hannah dropped a collection of overflowing bags.
“Nah. They said I was too fat.”
Farouk laughed. He always used to joke that if she turned sideways in the right light, she might actually disappear.
“They wanted someone ethereal and anorexic. I’m not anorexic and I’m definitely not ethereal.” Hannah undid a clip on the top of her head and an avalanche of bright ginger hairtumbled down her back.Then, as if she’d just remembered something, rummaged through the bags and handed one to Farouk.
“The woman at the laundrette told me to give you this.” She turned to J.“So! What do you do, Jay, when you’re not packing books?”
J was still composing his response when Hannah spotted something.
“Oh, my GAWD!”
She leapt across the crates and fell to her knees, gasping dramatically and hiding her face with the palms of her hands.
“My mum had this! Oh, my GAWD, I loved this BOOK!”
She opened the cover of TheGiant Book of Cartoon Fairy Talesas carefully as if it had been an illuminated medieval manuscript.
“That ballgown! Cinders! Snow White and that gorgeous dark hair.I so wanted her HAIR! Pinocchio and his cute nose…Sleeping Beauty! Her prince was SO handsome. And look – To dear Iain, with love from Mummy.Christmas 1971.That’s so sad! And now it’s here, unloved, in this old place. Can I have it? Buy it, I mean?”
Farouk couldn’t help glancing across at J who was sitting very upright but looking distracted and just a little deflated.
“It’s sold, I’m afraid.”
Hannah made a face as if to say, I bet it isn’t. She was always saying how he loved his books too much to make any real money.
Hannah closed the cover.
“So. What’s going on? Why aren’t you packing? Has the wine and food arrived?”
Farouk’s heart sank. He’d forgotten all about the reception they were supposed to be having that evening for valued customers.
“Mr Farouk’s been messed around. The buyer’s not coming.”
“Mister Farouk! Ha!” Hannah laughed. Then her mouth dropped open in shock.“You’re kidding?”
“You should keep it open,” said J. He had a mouthful of chicken vol-au-vent so it took Farouk a moment to work out what he’d just said.
“Keep what open?”
The three of them were perched on crates trying to make inroads into all the food that the catering company had delivered. There were trays and trays, most of them still covered in layers of cling film. Hannah had rung around and cancelled all the guests, on the grounds that there was nowhere for them to stand, now that the buyer hadn’t turned up and the shop floor was crammed. Worse still, the heavens had opened outside. Farouk could see water seeping through the layers of cardboard that Hannah had stuck over the broken pane of glass.
“Jay’s right. You should keep it open. You’ll miss it too much. What else are you going to do with yourself?”
Farouk laughed and rather than answer her question, looked around for his plastic wineglass.
The shelves were empty but he could still seethe books: volumes and volumes on peoples, languages, customs, traditions; books on kilims and tapestries, histories of the Berber kings. They were all there, shoulder to shoulder, Syrians, Libyans, Algerians, Moroccans, Muslims next to Christians next to Jews. There were no border checks or midnight raids in his bookshop. Everyone got along in his Maghreb.
“Sod the dealer. Let’s give the shelves a proper clean and put the books back,” said Hannah, cutting across his thoughts. “Listen to that rain! I’m not going home in this. Are you kidding? Anyway, there’s loads of food and drink. It’ll all go to waste otherwise. And I haven’t got class in the morning. We could be here all night. We’ll have a ball! Won’t we, Jay? And by morning, you’ll have a brand new shop. We could even give it a coat of paint while we’re at it. Wait! Aren’t those your overalls, Farouk?”
“It’s a long story,” said J.
“And why is that toilet roll holder on top of an expensive book?”
Farouk poured himself another glass of wine and passed the bottle along.
“Another long story,” said Farouk. His head was starting to swim, and he felt as if he was descending into a fairy tale himself.
“And why did the woman at the laundrette think you were going camping?”
J looked across at Farouk. He had a mouthful of cheese and pineapple by that point so could only make a thumbs up sign once he twigged what had happened to his stuff.
“You guys,” said Hannah, taking the wine bottle and filling her glass. “What are you like?”