It was a wintery afternoon the day Stephanie discovered the bookstore. The sky was unleashing its fury; she’d sought refuge in the store’s dimly lit doorway, yet she couldn’t recall exactly what had lured her inside. Peace. Protection. Parapsychological, perhaps.
The bookstore appeared empty but for the strong aroma of coffee. Usually, she adored old bookstores, the way they smell of dust and vanilla and her grandmother’s bedroom. Other than this one’s coffee-corrupted air, this was the sort of bookstore she imagined owning one day. One day, when she’d meet someone, and he too would love books and Melbourne winters and sipping hot chocolate by the fireplace... and two hands, untouched, yet each longing to be touched would find each other with a jolt that would electrify the couple and draw them into each other’s arms forever.
Dickens. He’d also love Dickens. They would have a whole section of their bookstore dedicated to highlighting Dickens’ most favoured stories. Maybe even have a weekly reading. People would come from across the world to meet them; they’d be seen as eccentric, yes, but one of Melbourne’s inner-city treasures. People would come for the stories and stay for the hot chocolate.
The smell in the store was making her stomach lurch; she had eaten very little for breakfast and it was well past lunchtime. She turned to leave when a crack of lightning lit up the street. She shuddered. There could be a Dickens book in here; an old copy of The Tale of Two Cities, perhaps, or the more rare signed copy of Great Expectations. It was exactly that kind of store. She caught her breath as she grappled with her own excitement. Popping a mint in her mouth to help cover the smell, she removed her coat and hung it on the empty coat rack. ‘Hello? Is anybody there?’
A noise, a movement. Something small flickered between the aisles. Not human, or at least, not an adult. It looked hairless, round. And so fast. Perhaps it was one of those ugly hairless cats.
‘Hello?’ Her voice was barely audible above the music. (Beethoven? No, Tchaikovsky.) She made her way to a doorway at the back of the store. In a tiny kitchen, a percolator bubbled furiously. She removed it, tipping the contents down the sink.
Sensing someone she turned to see a man, his head in a book. He looked up, took a step backwards, dropped the book, laughed, gasped, his hand to his mouth, all within one movement. ‘You’re here,’ he said.
Stephanie pressed up against the sink behind her. ‘Your coffee was burning. It smells awful in here.’
He nodded ferociously. ‘Yes, yes, I do so often burn the coffee. I get so caught up, sometimes, in my books, you see.’
She understood. That was her life, too.
‘I can’t believe you’re finally here,’ he said. “And saturated.’
“I got caught in the rain. I don’t know this area of town well.’ Stephanie wiped a hair stuck to her cheek away. ‘Do I know you?”
The man shook his head. ‘No, no. It’s just, Cupid, out there in the store, promised you’d be here today. He said you’d come, turn off the coffee, and stop me from burning my coffee every day after.’
‘I see.’ At thirty-two-years-old, Stephanie wasn’t altogether opposed to the idea of supernatural intervention in her loveless life.
‘There’s a fireplace on the other side of the store if you’d like to dry off. Can I get you—?’
‘Nice,’ he said. ‘Good choice for this weather.’
Stephanie put her handbag on the ground and walked around the bookshelves on her way to where she could hear a fire crackle in between songs. She strode down an isle of classics, but no Dicken there. Then came the obligatory Mills and Boon section. An old Encyclopedia Britannica. ‘Why,’ Stephanie called out, ‘would you have a set of Encyclopedia for sale?’
The man appeared beside her, a steaming cup of hot chocolate in his hands. He handed it to her.
‘You’d be surprised,’ he said. ‘We’ve got a lot of preppers in these parts. They stock up on that sort of thing. Encyclopedias hold the world’s knowledge, should the internet even become…’
‘You’ve heard of it, then?’
‘Who hasn’t? I mean, there was such a rave of them for a while. Thomas Sneigoski.‘
‘Powaski - hardcover.’
They laughed, their heads thrown back.
Stephanie took a sip of the chocolate, but immediately screwed up her face and pulled the cup away.
‘Yes,’ she said, sucking her top lip into her mouth.
‘He can fix you.’
She furrowed her brow. ‘I thought you were just being cute, using a line on me.’
The man looked through the books, his stare intense, as though he was looking at someone.
‘What are you doing?’ Stephanie couldn’t resist; she followed his gaze and looked through the books into the next aisle along. She caught sight of what could well have been an aged Dickens novel.
‘Wait,’ the man said, grabbing her arm. She hadn’t even moved yet.
‘What?’ She pulled her arm, but he held it tight.
‘He put it there for you, for you to see.’
‘What?’ She was getting frustrated now. ‘Who is Cupid? Is it your cat or something?’
He huffed. ‘Don’t tell me you’re a sceptic.’
She pulled harder on her arm and he released it. ‘I want to see that copy of Oliver Twist. It looks very old.’
‘Mmm, I should have taken you for a Dickens reader,’ the man said. ‘I can tempt you with something better. But you need to speak to Cupid first. He’s at the fireplace already.’
‘What could be more tempting than an aged copy of Oliver Twist?” Stephanie heard herself snort, but she didn’t care. She just wanted to get the book and get out of this weird little bookstore.
The man held up a hand as he walked to the end of the aisle. ‘How about a copy of Gil Blas.’
Before the words had finished leaving his lips, her knees had begun to fail her.
‘English. 1761 translation.’
Stephanie let loose an audible groan. He was pulling the book from a shelf from under the front counter. It was wrapped in thick plastic.
She reached out a hand. He pulled the book back.
‘Whom do I need to meet?’ she whimpered.
The man led her to the fireplace. A fat, round little thing, dressed in very little clothing, was standing in front of the fireplace. He wore a scowl on his face.
‘Stephanie.’ he said. ‘It’s about bloody time. You’ve been in Gary’s bookstore for more than five minutes and you’ve only seen the Dickens book now? I have other places to be, you know. Other clients to help.’
‘Clients?’ Stephanie looked at the bookstore man. ‘You’re Gary?’
Gary nodded. ‘Gary Hookman. Hookman’s Books.’
‘That’s the name of the bookstore you’re in, Stephanie,’ Cupid said. He was gruff and impatient. Not at all like what Stephanie would have imagined he would be like, if she had been meeting Cupid. Not that she was; clearly someone was playing a practical joke on her.
‘If you’re Cupid,’ she said, ‘and I’m here because you intend for me to fall in love with Gary -’ Gary gave a stupid little smile, as though that was exactly what he was hoping - ‘then,’ she pointed at Cupid, ‘you would have suggested he put on a pot of tea, not coffee, just before I came into the store.’
Cupid chuckled. ‘Ah, but then you wouldn’t have gone to the back of the store and turned the coffee pot off. Then, you might have missed Gary altogether, because he always has his nose in some book or other; he’s always missing them, no matter who I put in front of him. But now, instead, you both know what you now know.’
‘Which is?’ Gary and Stephanie had asked the question at the same time.
Cupid shook his head. ‘That Gary here is not perfect, and he needs you, Stephanie. He needs you to make everything wrong about him right.’
Stephanie looked at Gary and her face softened a little. ‘And why me, then? What do I get out of it?’
Cupid flung his arms out, then pointed to the book being hugged by Gary, still wrapped in plastic. He seemed delighted in his declaration, ‘A dedicated Dickens section.’
Stephanie’s eyes flicked from a light grey to pale blue. ‘We could get a couple of chairs, like armchairs, floral, or checked, and place them here.’ Cupid smiled. Gary nodded, stupidly, as she flung her arms around the store, spouting out idea after idea of all her dreams of what they could do with the store. ‘And we could bring the vanilla smell back into the store.’
‘But, no coffee?’ Gary asked, his face fallen.
Stephanie laughed. ‘No, silly! Of course not. Coffee is terrible stuff.’
Gary nodded slowly. Cupid smiled expectantly.
‘You’re asking me to give up coffee,’ he said, his eyes glistening, ‘for a girl I’ve only just met?’
Cupid frowned. ‘I told you, Gary. I said you’d have to make sacrifices. Compromises.’
He glared at Stephanie. ‘What’s she giving up? What’s she compromising?’
Stephanie took a step back. ‘What am I compromising?’ There was a little too much anger in her voice. ‘I never come to this part of town. I’d never open a bookstore here. We’ll have to do a lot in the way of advertising if we’re going to make ourselves known in Melbourne, let alone overseas. It will take time and expertise. I will be the one who will make this store into the thing you have never been able to make it.’
Cupid burst out laughing. Stephanie and Gary glared at him.
‘Get out,’ Gary said. There was authority in his voice, low and controlled as it was. ‘Now. Get out now.’
Stephanie glanced at Gary to ensure she knew who Gary was speaking too. But she was right - he was looking directly at Cupid.
‘Get out of my store. I’ve had enough of you meddling in my life. You come in here and you tell me my breath stinks and I’m boring and I have nothing to offer anyone else in this world without your help. Well, I’m done. I’ve had enough. I just want to be left alone.’
Cupid’s mouth hung wide. Then his face morphed from shock to anger to obedience. From some imaginary place, he picked up a quiver of bows and swung them over his shoulder. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Fine. But if you don’t mind, I’ll pop back in from time to time, to make sure you’re not dead, lying here rotting, with no one having found you.’
Gary pointed to the door and followed Cupid as he flew towards it.
Stephanie flipped off her shoes, took a seat on the floor in front of the fire, and sipped her hot chocolate.
‘You’re still here?’ Gary asked from somewhere behind her.
‘The hot chocolate is nice. You make a good hot chocolate.’
Gary sat down beside her. ‘A couple of chairs right here really would work well.’
Stephanie smiled. ‘Shall we start again?’
Gary frowned and took the hand she was extending toward him. ‘Hi, I’m Stephanie. Have you got any books by Dickens?’
Gary smiled. ‘I do. But I also have coffee.’
She screwed up her nose. ‘I’ll buy you a pod machine.’
‘I’ll get you an infuser.’
‘A Dickens section would make this place,’ she said before downing the last of her drink.
“Perhaps. Or, perhaps a section devoted to the classics? Gil Blas could go there. And that copy of Oliver Twist you saw.’
Stephanie leaned back and twinkled her toes before the fire. ‘I sure am glad I came into your bookstore. It’s perfect.’
Gary leaned back, too, close enough that his fingers found their way over to hers until they connected.