Penny found the bookshop wedged between a bank and a Tesco Metro. It was shoved in so tight between the two, it looked as if the architects of the neighbouring buildings hadn’t even noticed it during construction.
The entrance to the shop was set down a narrow alleyway, so tight in fact that Penny, a woman not of a demure build, had to suck in her stomach in order to avoid snagging her cardigan on the brickwork of the bank next-door.
The glass of both the front-door and the main window were caked with grime and dust, so much so, in fact, that Penny found it impossible to identify the books on display. She tried to wipe some of the muck away with her tissue, but discovered most of the build-up was in fact on the inside.
The sign declaring that the shop, despite all appearances, was in fact open, was faded to a point where it was nearly unintelligible. Nearly a dozen roof slates were missing and a dead pigeon lay on the doorstep in lieu of a welcome-mat.
Penelope Manningtree considered not entering this most unwelcoming of shops. However, something was urging her on. Something like invisible hooked fingers were clawing at her cardigan and skirt, trying to weakly drag her forward.
Yet, despite this unnerving sensation, she stepped over the pigeon and brushed her fingers against the handle.
Surprisingly the door opened with exceptional ease. Almost like a piece of paper caught in the breeze. There was no haunting creak, there was no sudden rush of stifled air, it simply whistled open and stood there, waiting for Penny to step over the threshold.
With one step she was swallowed by the gloom, the idea of natural daylight extinguished and forgotten. Penny turned and, with a cold sense of dread, discovered the door already closed behind her. The cobwebs painted across the doorway were undamaged, and the rust covered hinges argued that opening the door was a physical impossibility.
A small, yet persistent voice in the back of Penny’s head continuously urged her to turn back now, to wrench open the door and sprint towards the main high street, back to civilisation.
But she knew it was too late to listen now. The mystery of the decrepit old shop had sunk its fangs into her and, if she made any move to leave, she might just get hurt.
She took a cautious step further into the shop, her foot sending up a wave of dust as she placed it down on what she initially thought was a grey-coloured carpet.
She was flanked by walls made up entirely of books. They were stacked as high as the eye could see, disappearing into the shadows above. Treading softly, not daring to let even the sound of her breathing break the silence, Penny rounded a corner and came face-to-face with what she at first thought was a statue.
An ancient-looking woman was perched behind a cobweb cradled counter, her body hunched over a paperback book. Her hair, almost long enough to touch the ground, was wild and unkempt. Its pale grey colour could have been natural, or it could be an effect, painted on by the dust that ensnared everything else. Her eyes, glazed and hollow, stared unblinkingly at the yellow pages of the book. The elderly woman’s small mouth hung open slightly, enough for Penny to glimpse a bottom row of teeth that were almost brown in colour.
Penny considered walking past the woman, to try and disappear into the labyrinth of book-cases. But, as soon as she took another step past the counter, the old woman’s head snapped up. Her black, walnut-shaped eyes locked onto Penny and stared at her. For a moment the young lady didn’t know what to say. She felt like a thief suddenly caught in the act. After a second, when the paranoia slunk away, Penny fixed the shopkeeper with a plump smile.
“Don’t mind me,” she murmured. “Just browsing.”
In reality Penny suddenly no longer wanted a book. She simply wanted to make a quick circuit of the labyrinth and then scurry out as quickly as possible. She was just about to try when the old woman moved. She placed a scrap of paper between the faded pages of her book, and then closed it with a heavy thud.
Her eyes still fastened onto Penny, the woman sent a hand below the counter. Almost reluctant to breath, Penelope held her ground, fear wrapping its tendrils around her legs. The withered hand returned, and in it was a small, paperback book. She placed it on the counter and slid it closer towards the customer. A brief flash appeared in the hollow eyes, a brief glimmer that, for some reason, sent a shiver down the young woman’s spine.
Like a fish on the end of a reel, Penny was drawn closer to the book. Her eyes being pulled down to read the title.
The Unextraordinary Life of Isabella Olyphant.
There was no author’s name on the cover, and the title wasn’t one that she recognised. However, without realising, Penny had already picked the volume up. The unmistakable new-book whiff drifted up and playfully tickled Penny’s nose, teasing her like a lover.
On the back was just a simple one-line blurb: A Story You Won’t Put Down. Somehow, rather than reading as a testament to the story, there was an edge of menace to the words.
Nevertheless, her fingers remained curled around the book. She was going to buy it.
“How much is this -?”
Before she could even finish, the wizened shop-keeper tapped a browning nail against a sign that, Penny was willing pay money on the fact, hadn’t been there a moment before.
Faded, bold letters read: First Book Free!! Recommend Us to Friends and Family!
The pleasure of a natural born book connoisseur was now in full control of Penny’s faculties. She beamed with the pleasure of finding such a bargain and stuffed the book into her bag. She gave a swift nod to the woman at the counter, which was deftly ignored, and then retraced her steps and out of the suffocating confines of the shop.
The sun bore down on her like a bully in the playground when she stepped outside. Pausing for a moment as her eyes adjusted, Penny felt a little thought tap at the backdoor of her mind. One that, she knew, would have some serious questions about what just happened. But that thought was swiftly ignored. All Penelope Manningtree knew, was that there was a book in her bag that needed to be read.
Kenneth shuffled down the corridor, his eyes bouncing from the bouquet in his hands to the name-plates screwed to each door he passed.
Finally, he stopped outside one particular office. He licked his palm and began flattening down the few erratic strands of hair that remained on his pumpkin-shaped head. He re-arranged the wilting flowers in his hand, and then knocked on the door.
Without waiting for an invite – invitations, in Kenneth’s opinion, were for other people – he threw the door open and stepped into the cramped office. And there she was. The woman of his dreams. Or, at least, the top of the woman of his dreams’ head. But it was the most beautiful he’d ever seen.
He sighed wistfully as he closed the door behind him and stepped further into the room. So far Penny hadn’t looked up, she was engrossed in the pages of yet another book. Kenneth allowed himself a small, chapped smile. She was never without a book.
He decided to let her finish reading the page before interrupting her. He’d learned already how much being interrupted annoyed her. The first time he’d done so, she’d thrown a mug at his head. The bruise didn’t fade for nearly a month.
Taking a seat opposite the lady of his affections, Kenneth cast a quick glance around the office. It seemed like every available surface was covered in flowers. From little pots of daisies, to voluptuous bouquets that were taking up nearly half the office. It looked like Kenneth was the last person in the building to pay a visit to this dingy room.
Never a man for waiting, Ken loudly cleared his throat. Finally, Penny looked up, and discovered the overweight form of Ken Bolton leering at her. She started suddenly, almost dropping the book and losing her page.
Penny found Kenneth about as appealing as a corpse, and that feeling was amplified beyond endurance at that point. Her eyes began to itch as she fought the urge to continue reading. She just hoped that Ken would make it quick.
Fixing her with his most charming of smiles, the bloated man slapped the bouquet onto Penny’s desk, covering up the book and swatting the woman’s groping hand.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your dad,” Ken purred.
“Yeah, thanks,” Penny muttered, her eyes glaring at the flowers blocking her from her reading. “Really sudden.”
“I heard, I heard,” Ken said, leaning back in the chair, destined to get comfortable. “What was it? A heart-attack?”
“Stroke,” Penny stated, flicking some of the petals aside in order to reach the corner of the volume.
“So sad, so sad,” the man said, picking at his teeth as he studied the supposedly-grieving woman. His eyes dropped down to the slim paper-back she was extricating from amongst the debris of his flowers. “New book?” he asked, suddenly leaning forward.
“Yes,” Penny said, quickly returning to her page.
“Not sure, only just started it.”
Kenneth tilted his head, trying to get a better angle to read the title. His sweaty brow creased slightly. “The Unextraordinary Life of Isabella Olyphant? Never heard of it. What’s it about?”
Penny opened her mouth to answer, but her mind had nothing. That was strange, she thought. She was nearly a quarter of the way through, and yet she couldn’t remember a single thing about what she’d just read. When she tried to recall, the words in her mind simply morphed into an inky mass, desperately squirming and reaching out, trying to grab hold. The only thing fresh in her mind was the ravenous desire to keep reading. So, with her mind empty of objections, she sank back into the depths.
Eventually, given enough time, even someone like Kenneth Bolton can take a hint. Realising that he had once again lost Penny’s attention to the book, the man sighed wearily and struggled to his feet. Just as he had his hand on the door knob, he turned back. “Meet for drinks later?” he suggested, a hopeful grin on his lips.
Penny said nothing. Her eyes simply dashed across the page, devouring the words like a woman half-starved. Despite this, Ken rewarded himself with a satisfied smile. Usually she’d tell him where to shove it; no response meant only one thing: He was winning her over.
Heather Manningtree was not a happy woman. That’s just a statement on her general state-of-being. Having to parent two pairs of triplets under eleven years of age had transformed this once carefree woman into a granite-faced gorgon with a glare that could melt through steel. And, today, she was in an especially bad mood.
Her husband, Hugh, was a man who had taken one step into the ordeal of parenthood with his wife, and after the first six months had waved a white flag and promptly given up. Now he drifted through life with about as much passion as an unbuttered piece of gluten-free bread. But, when his wife was in one of her moods, Hugh had no choice but to spur himself into action.
He had just settled himself into his chair, had just kicked off his tight shoes and was readying himself for a mid-afternoon nap, when he caught sight of his wife. She was giving him one of her patented Looks.
“We need to talk, Hugh,” his wife declared, her voice just low enough to make the guests in the other room pay attention.
The battle-weary man sighed and immediately ceased getting comfortable. “About what, my love?” he said with a groan.
“Your sister,” Heather stated.
Another sigh crawled out of his throat. The war between his wife and sister, he was sure, was the only thing Heather considered a hobby. However, if there was one place Hugh had hoped they would put their differences aside for a few hours, it was at his father’s funeral. He was naïve for having hoped for such a miracle.
“What’s the problem now?” Hugh asked, slowly rising to his feet.
“Your sister’s behaviour today has been horrendous,” Heather declared, craning her neck to glare at her six-foot-four husband. “Utterly horrendous! Did you see her during the service?”
“Of course I saw her -”
“I meant, Hugh, did you watch her!”
“No, no I was not watching my sister whilst my father was being cremated.”
“Well, I did, and let me tell you, I was shocked, shocked! Throughout the entire service she looked – dare I say it? She looked . . . bored! Bored, Hugh!”
“I’m sure she didn’t look bored, darling,” Hugh said calmly. “Don’t forget, not a lot of people like funerals.”
“Don’t be stupid, Hugh,” his wife snapped. “No one likes funerals! But most people have the decency not to show it!”
“All right, all right, I’ll go and have a word with her.”
He was about to slope off to find his wayward sister, when his wife slapped him in the chest. “I’m not done! What’s more,” Heather continued, turning an acidic glare towards the kitchen, “is that your sister has now secluded herself in the corner of our kitchen, and do you know what she’s doing?”
Hugh Manningtree rolled his eyes. “What’s she doing, my love?”
“Reading!” Heather’s eyes almost rocketed out of her skull with the indignation. “She’s not talking to anyone, she’s not walking around, she’s just sitting there reading! You’d think, at her own father’s funeral, she’d be a bit more sociable!”
“Don’t worry, dear,” Hugh said, patting his wife on the shoulder, “I’ll go and have a word.”
“It’s not as if she’s even reading anything good! It’s just some tatty paperback no one’s ever heard of,” Heather murmured, desperate not to let go of the rancour.
Ignoring her, Hugh tramped through to the kitchen, nodded to the various mourners making the most of the free buffet, and wound his way towards where his younger sister sat. She was just as his wife had described. Snuggled in beside the refrigerator with a book only a couple of inches from her face.
Hugh shook his head. He had never been able to understand Penny’s addiction to books. His exploration into that area had ended when he’d reached the literary peaks of The Famous Five. Yet, for his sibling, books seemed to be the only thing that kept her alive. He stood there for a whole minute and forty-five seconds before deciding that she wasn’t going to acknowledge his presence. Or perhaps she really had no idea, she was that engrossed. It gave him plenty of time to study his sister. His brow creased, was it just his imagination, or had she got thinner?
He cleared his throat, and not quietly. “Penny? We need to talk.”
Now that he thought about it, had she even blinked since he’d been standing there? Sure, her eyes were scampering to-and-fro, but had they closed? Even for a micro-second? Slightly perturbed by this sinister thought, Hugh leaned over and snatched the book out of her hands.
An immediate change overcame his sister. Her eyes, only a moment before glassy and transfixed, now became drenched in a wild-fire of fury. Her mouth that had been dangling open in a slight grin, now became a maw of glinting fangs. She launched herself out of the chair and straight onto her brother, knocking him backwards onto the kitchen table.
Stunned at the unexpected burst of strength, Hugh dropped the book and threw both his hands onto Penny’s shoulders, desperate to push the screeching woman away. But, as soon as the book had slipped from his fingers, Penny released her brother. Instead, like a mother desperate to catch a falling child, she bounded for the tumbling volume. Her hands closed round it moments before it landed and, with a rattled sigh of relief, cradled it against her bosom.
Rising from the table and wiping the remains of a quiche-Lorraine from his backside, Hugh glared at his sister. “What the Hell is wrong with you?” he barked.
But she was yet again lost to him. Crouched on the floor, Penny was once again invested solely in her book. After witnessing this act of animalistic ferocity, not a single person – not even Heather – dared approach her for the rest of the wake.
It was finally going to happen. After waiting for so long, only getting close in his dreams, Kenneth was finally standing outside her door. Sure, he wasn’t here on a romantic premise, but he wasn’t going to let that little fact spoil his mood.
It had been two weeks since Penny had graced the company with her presence, and with no phone call or email to update them as to her condition, the managers were beginning to get worried.
“We’ve got our Year-end due at the end of the month! This company cannot afford to have Manningtree ill!”
And so, with no-one else willing to venture out and risk catching whatever was plaguing Penny, Kenneth had valiantly volunteered.
He re-adjusted his gravy-speckled tie and then rapped his knuckles against the door.
He gave her a generous five minutes before knocking again, this time loud enough to make the door rattle against its hinges.
Finally, it was opened. For a moment Ken thought Penny’s mother had opened the door, but he quickly realised that it was the woman herself, though it was hard to believe. Her cheeks had lost their former plumpness, now reduced to a pair of grey strips stretched from cheek to chin. Her eyes were burrowed deep in shadows, now glaring at Kenneth with the nervousness of a wild animal. The head of hair Kenneth had often dreamt of caressing, was now a thatch of greying weeds.
Kenneth took a step back, fearing that the woman would jump out at him. But she simply stared at him. When she failed to do anything that matched her feral appearance, the man smiled weakly.
“Erm . . . hello, Penny, how – how are you?”
She stared at him for a moment longer before her eyes began to list downwards. Seeing this, Ken cleared his throat. The eyes returned. “Penny?” Kenneth asked, “You okay?”
She gave a mute nod, her eyes already sinking back down.
“Can – can I come in?”
The woman stepped away from the door, disappearing back into the gloom of her flat. Cautiously, Ken followed her inside.
This should have been a moment of triumph for the pot-bellied man. He was finally stepping into Penny Manningtree’s flat. The place where she kept all her underwear. But, upon seeing the reality, Kenneth felt his dreams slip away, like a sandcastle in high tide.
The living-room, which he had always hoped would be an extension of the bedroom, was little more than a disaster zone.
His own humble bachelor pad couldn’t compare to the almighty mess he now beheld. The curtains were drawn, though a sliver of noon-light was piercing through. With this, and the burning glow of a lamp in the corner, Kenneth was able to see that, when it came to the battle for territory, the empire of dust had all but won. It carpeted every surface, from the menagerie of mugs that dominated the coffee table, to the silent television, its once black screen now a faded grey. Bloated flies hustled around abandoned microwave-meal trays, some of which were growing mouldy coats. And a smell crawled through the flat, a smell Kenneth realised with a heavy-heart centred most prominently around Penny.
Without the shield offered from the door, he was now able to see just how altered the woman had become. Clothes that once struggled to contain her, now had difficulty clinging onto what remained of her figure.
And, though Kenneth was sure his mind was playing tricks on him, not only had she thinned, but she looked as if she’d shrunk. The man suddenly regretted making this trip. Whatever was ailing Penny, the last thing he wanted was to catch it.
He was about to make some attempt at conversation, when he noticed he had once again lost her attention. This time her eyes had found what they were looking for. The book she held in her pale, bony hand was inches away from her face, it had jumped up from her side so fast, for a moment Kenneth had thought it was attacking her.
“You still reading that?” he said with a weak laugh. “I thought you would have finished that by now.”
“. . . So . . . so did I.” The pain in Penny’s voice was enough to bring a cold sweat to Ken’s forehead. He suddenly wanted – no, needed to get out. There was something about Penny that wasn’t natural. Her eyes were lurching from left to right, devouring every word of the book. It was as if finishing it was more important than anything, even looking after herself. Kenneth suddenly knew what had kept Penny from work for this entire time. The black bags under her eyes led him to believe that reading had even kept her from sleep.
His throat suddenly dry, his knees trembling and every hair on his round body standing up, Kenneth began to back away. This wasn’t an illness, he thought, at least not a physical one. And he wanted out.
She didn’t turn around, not even when she heard the door click shut behind him.
Half-an-hour later Penny looked up. She had a vague feeling she hadn’t been alone. There was a shadow of a memory creeping in the back of her mind. Slowly, the book still in hand, she shuffled to the front door. She opened it, looked up and down the corridor, and shut it again. She must have been wrong.
She crept back to the living room, and crawled back into her chair. The book slithered back to its place. I thought you would have finished that by now.
Yes, she thought, she should have finished it by now. It was a labour for Penny to tear her eyes free, and it was an effort greater than can be described for her to put the book down. But, with her face dripping with sweat, her breath coming in ragged bursts, and her fingers refusing to uncurl themselves, she finally managed it.
The book lay on the arm of the chair, glaring at her, screaming to be finished. The continued to claw at her as Penny struggled to the bathroom. The light flickered into the life and a gasp caught in the woman’s tight throat.
She barely recognised what stared back at her. But she knew the mirror wasn’t lying. She’d known, right from the start, that something was different about this book. Usually she could finish a volume of that length in a day and a half, but twelve days later and she was still barely a third of the way through. The further she got through, the more there seemed to be. And, in the darkest pit of her mind, she knew where it was all coming from. With every turn of the page she felt like she was shaving away a part of herself.
Her hair, matted with grease and dust, draped across her gaunt face. Her yellowing teeth were embedded in sickly white gums, and her tongue appeared to be slathered in sandpaper. Slowly, needing to pause and catch her breath halfway through, Penny stripped down to just her underwear. What countless diets had failed to achieve, that book had accomplished in just a few days. Her ribs were pronounced painfully through her morgue-ready flesh. Every breath she took was laboured, every step was a pain. The book had left its poison coursing through her, and yet, despite knowing this, she still wanted to read. She’d never smoked, barely drank, and she’d spent the phase usually dedicated to experimenting with drugs reading, so Penny had never gotten acquainted with addiction, until now that is.
There was an itching in the back of her brain that she knew she’d never reach, and sweat began prickling up and down her body. She peered into the living room, somehow fearing that the book would have crept up on her. But it was still there. Waiting on the arm of the chair, confidently expecting her return.
It had to go. Throwing her clothes back on and ignoring the pain in both her chest and head, Penny was determined to rid herself of that infernal book. Just one more look at the broken, haggard creature she had become was enough to turn her resolve into iron.
The shop was just the same. It sat there, silent and patient. The door swung open at the lightest touch of her frail fingers, almost causing her to stumble inside.
She managed to find her balance and, after a moment to ready herself, stepped inside. The rows of books stared down at her, almost gloating at the sight of what their brother had managed to achieve. She ignored them and continued forth, squaring what remained of her shoulders.
Penny approached the counter, and then stopped. The woman, who had looked as if she had been welded in place, was nowhere to be seen. Penny peered up and down the aisles, searching the inky gloom for any sign of something living.
Her eyes slowly returned to the now empty stool. Its leather was a thick red, gleaming and clean, a beacon in the otherwise decrepit shop.
Doesn’t matter, she thought. She didn’t need her anyway. All she wanted to do was drop the book, and then get out. She looked down, ready to take the book out, and then stopped. The slim volume was already in her hand. She didn’t remember taking it out, she had barely even registered it between her fingers, but there it was.
Shrugging, Penny turned to lay the book down. Her eyes landed on the plump, tongue-red cushion of the stool. Now that she thought about it, it wasn’t as if she really had that much left to read. Given the soft silence of the shop, she was certain she’d be able to it in just a couple of hours.
She was behind the counter and sitting down before the rational side of her mind could offer any sort of objection. Every wail of sanity was smothered as soon as Penny sat down. The book was open on her lap, her chin was glued to her chest, and her eyes were glazed over. A satisfied sigh washed out, though it was difficult to say just where it came from. It could have come from Penny, but it sounded as if the building itself had made it.
A little smile crept across the woman’s lips as her eyes drifted from left to right. She didn’t even notice the dust begin to settle on her shoulders. “Just . . . one more . . . page . . .”