At midday Jacob struggles through the door with his bicycle. One leg of his jeans is rolled up and his bicycle makes a soft ticking sound as he wheels it behind the low desk at which I am sitting and props it up against the wall. I don’t draw his attention to the trail of grime he has left on the floor.
It’s raining heavily outside, and all morning I’ve allowed myself to be transfixed by translucent rivulets of rainwater streaming erratically down, and sometimes across, the long rectangular window panes. My dog is asleep on a cushion a few metres away from me. One of her long ears drapes over the edge of the cushion onto the floor; the other folds back on itself revealing the impossibly tender pink skin on the underside. She always arranges herself on her cushion in such a way that at least one part of her body touches floor.
Without taking off his helmet, Jacob sets his backpack down on the desk, unzips it and produces a fern. Its texture is diaphanous and I have a strong desire to put my hand through it, to prove to myself that it’s tangible. It’s such a startlingly saturated shade of green that it seems to glow.
I swung by the garden centre en route, he says. And picked up a fern. Specifically, it’s an asparagus setaceus.
He reads the Latin name on the tag while cutting it off one of the fern’s wiry branches, to which it had been attached like a hospital bracelet.
Apparently it’s not technically a member of the fern family, he says. But it looks like one.
I think of the ferns which grow as weeds in the hedgerow at the bottom of my mother’s garden—which is less a garden than a patch of wild, boggy land—and of how absurd it would seem if I dug one up and potted it.
The ferns I’ve seen in the wild are more cruciferous-looking, I say.
It’s January and the sky is the shade of pale wintry grey against which distant trees might appear dark reddish purple, though the view from the shop window is not remotely pastoral. The segment of the opposite side of street which is visible to me consists of abandoned shop fronts in varying states of dereliction. Weeds sprout from the guttering, and tattered and discoloured net curtains hang in all of the upstairs windows. I’ve always found net curtains repellent. I think there’s something spectral and awful about them, and the sight of them makes me feel slightly ill.
The street on which the shop is located is in the vicinity of the city’s financial district and the wider neighbourhood is rapidly gentrifying. If you stand outside the shop, turn your head in any direction and look up, you’ll see that cranes and modern buildings crowd the sky and that several of the street’s retail units are under renovation. The extent to which the shop is complicit in the area’s gentrification is something Jacob and I worry about, though, as—technically—a small, struggling business, the shop is hardly the driving force of the property market. The same thing can be said about the boutique flower and knitting shops on the street too, but this fact doesn’t negate the disparity between the demographic profile of our respective customers and that of the wider neighbourhood.
Jacob usually points out that we could always go back to having real jobs like the progeny of the professional middle class are supposed to. I never address his presumption in including me in this demographic category, in part because I dislike confrontation and in part because I find it flattering. The truth is that I’m strangely drawn to the aesthetics of corporatism. I sometimes open the shop for 9am just so that I can join the financial commute and pretend to myself that it’s necessary to jog up the subway elevators.
Jacob pulls out a bag of soil and a stack of second-hand terracotta pots, a gift from the owner of the garden centre. The pots are faded and stained green; some of them are chipped. Jacob sits back on his heels and absently strokes Lola behind her ears while she sniffs at the pots. He chooses the second largest pot and puts the rest back under the display table. He spreads some newspaper on the ground, holds the fern upside down over the newspaper with his left hand closed lightly around the base of the stems and gently squeezes the plastic container to release the roots. He lines the chosen terracotta pot with soil, which he scoops from the bag with a tablespoon, and places the fern inside it and packs soil around the sides. When he’s finished, he puts the fern in the window display and turns to me with an amused expression.
Jacob’s eyes are heavily lidded and slant slightly downwards. When he smiles they become animated in a way that seems disarmingly earnest. His facial structure is very different from mine and, by default, conveys an air of both self-command and sensitivity. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I had his face. When I see photographs of myself I’m always horrified by how anxious and alarmed I look. One time in a job interview one of the interviewers said: I hope you don’t mind me saying this but you look absolutely terrified. In response I apologised and said that that was just the way my face was, which made all three interviewers laugh.
Doesn’t the word ‘cruciferous’ refer to the cabbage family? he finally asks.
I’ve no idea why I said that, I say. I think I meant that ferns have more substantial fronds.
I grew up on the periphery of an agricultural community and have an embarrassing compulsion to appear authoritative in matters concerning the natural world, in order to compensate for my lack of knowledge about it. Jacob sits on the edge of the window display, shivers and takes off his cycling helmet. His clothes are wet, particularly the thighs of his jeans, and I notice that the hair which had been covered by his helmet is as wet as the strands which had been exposed to the rain, a sign that he isn’t long out of the shower. His head is bowed and he silently picks his fingernails.
I should wash my hands, he says after a while, holding them out and spreading his fingers. They’re absolutely filthy.
I watch him disappear up the small staircase at the back of the shop. The shop is a bookshop and Jacob is its owner, despite being only twenty-eight, two years older than me. The inside of the shop is modern and dimly lit, partly due to the positioning of the light fixtures but primarily due to the proximity of the buildings across the street. Customers regularly comment on how beautiful it is. It contains lots of indoor plants and is illuminated by reading lamps positioned at intervals along and attached at varying heights to the book shelves. Thank you, I always say, though the aesthetic of the shop has nothing to do with me.
Jacob is very selective about the books the shop sells. He likes to see himself as a discerning curator, and I suppose he is. Although, even if I had contempt for his taste and personally disliked him, I would still probably agree with everything he said. By now I consider Jacob a close personal friend, but his status as—technically—my boss is an unspoken source of tension in our relationship.
In spite of all the handsome reading lamps and indoor plants, the shop receives relatively few customers. On weekdays there are hardly any at all before the afternoon. The few who do enter are usually alone, peruse blurbs and opening pages for up to half an hour and leave without buying anything. They also usually thank me on the way out, mouthed more often than spoken. In the beginning, it used to appall and mortify me to be alone in be such close quarters with strangers. My senses would be on high alert for every step, breath and page turn. Now I find the intimacy and stealthiness of these occasions calming and strangely exhilarating, like being in the presence of a peaceful, though potentially dangerous, ruminant animal.
Weekends are much busier and bring customers of a different ilk. They’re more fashionable, boisterous and urbane, and come mostly in twos and threes, overspill from the nearby street market. I prefer the weekday crowd. Sophie, an old friend of Jacob’s, works in the shop on weekends. She’s acerbic, has a nose piercing and is a PhD student in the English department of one of the city’s most prestigious universities. She has worked in the shop since it opened almost two years ago, a lot longer than my two and a quarter months.
The first time I met Sophie was also the first time I met Jacob. She was standing on a step ladder rearranging books on a high shelf, and Jacob was sitting at the desk with his legs crossed. It was a starlit Saturday evening in November and my breath was visible in the cold air. From outside, the brightly lit interior of the shop seemed to me like a stage set, and Jacob and Sophie like louche, attractive actors in a bourgeois play.
I had lost the run of myself that week. On the Monday I quit my job (with immediate effect) as a dogsbody at a venture capital-funded internet platform and by the end of the week I had finalised Lola’s adoption from a local animal shelter. I decided to adopt her more or less on a whim on the evening of the Monday that I quit my job. I came across her profile on the website of a local animal shelter, dialled the number provided underneath and called it. On her profile it said she was looking for a new home following the sudden and unexpected death of her ‘human’, an elderly woman called Veronica, and that the trauma of losing Veronica had left her insecure, though she was otherwise very affectionate and playful.
When I called my mother to tell her about these developments, I could almost hear her trying to decide what to say on the basis of her snap assessment of my psychological state.
Could you not have hung on until you found something else? she asked. Was it really that bad?
It’s more that it was pointless and degrading, I said. Are you ashamed of me? As I asked this question it occurred to me that maybe I was ashamed of myself.
Of course I’m not ashamed of you, she said quickly. I’m just sorry you’re finding it so hard to find a job that makes you happy.
I don’t really have any faith in that happening, I said. I considered sneering at the idea of finding happiness in a job but decided against it. I was holding the phone between my shoulder and chin. When my mother spoke again, I analysed her voice for intonations suggestive of exasperation. She said she’d transfer some money to my account and asked tentatively if I was eating properly. Then she gently enquired as to whether Lola could be returned to the animal shelter, in response to which I asked if she would ever consider returning Dougal to the animal shelter. Dougal is my mother’s pampered springer spaniel. When she walks him, he trots sedately at her heel, while gazing up at her with such devotion that strangers stop their cars to ask for training tips. The trick, she tells them, is to get a clicker. When Dougal pulls on the lead, she gives the clicker two vigorous clicks and he scrambles to her heel and sits up straight like an army cadet standing to attention, an image of man’s dominion over nature.
No, I wouldn’t, she said.
As she spoke, I was watching Lola who was lying on my bedroom floor. Her face was turned away from me but I could see from her shadow on the wall that her eyes were open. Apart from embarrassment and resentment at her apparent indifference towards me, I felt nothing for her beyond the mixture of guilt, despair and compassion which I feel for most living things if I think about them for long enough.
It’s just that, she said, a dog is big commitment, especially when certain aspects of your life are, you know, in flux.
Obviously, I knew she was right.
That evening in front of the book shop, I picked Lola up, supporting her chest with my left arm under her front legs and supporting her back legs with the crook of my right arm. With my shoulder, I pushed at the unyielding door and momentarily caught Sophie’s eye through the window.
It opens outwards, Jacob said, pushing it open. Sorry, I know it’s a pain. I thanked him and he fussed over Lola, stroking her under her chin, his face about an inch from her long placid muzzle.
I love spaniels, he said. I had a springer when I was growing up. You can put her down and let her walk around if you like. We’re a dog-friendly establishment. As in we like having dogs about the place.
Sophie coughed at the word ‘establishment’ and smiled down at me from the step ladder. She resumed rearranging the shelf. I set Lola down and detached the lead from her collar. Jacob picked up a stack of books from a cardboard box on the floor and wordlessly handed it to Sophie. I scanned the display table and picked up a book with an illustration on the cover which I could only describe as ‘lurid’. I turned it over and read the entire blurb without taking in the import of a single word. If someone had asked me what I was reading, I would have said ‘who knows.’ I returned the book to the display table and picked up another.
I just find it makes all the difference to be able to talk about it, Jacob said quietly to Sophie. And I know it’s a luxury that most people can’t afford.
He was standing at the base of Sophie’s ladder, fidgeting with a reading lamp.
I mean if you can afford it and you think it’s helping, then why not? Sophie said absently. I know it really helped my friend after her dad died and her best friend committed suicide.
I’m probably too self-indulgent, Jacob said.
His voice was lowered almost to a whisper but I could still very clearly hear every word he said and I wondered whether he was aware of this.
Sophie didn’t respond to this comment. I couldn’t see either of their faces as I was facing the bookshelves on the opposite side of the shop, and had my neck bent over an open book of short stories by a long-dead female writer. No one spoke again until I approached the desk to pay for the book.
Such an underrated writer, Sophie said. She was at floor level, having descended from the ladder. That’s actually my bath book of choice. You should see how tattered my copy is. I’ve dropped it in the bath like twice.
Since when do you bathe, Sophie? Jacob asked.
As in, wash? Sophie responded.
As in, soak.
Since I’ve had access to a bath that isn’t too gross to use, Sophie said. So, I’ve always bathed, with intermittent gaps. Why?
No, I just didn’t think you seemed like the kind of person who would, Jacob said, scanning the book. Actually I haven’t heard of this author before. I’m constantly finding new blind spots.
Jacob never reads books by women, especially if they’re about women, Sophie said. He only reads serious books about war and the human condition.
Sophie has no respect for great art, Jacob said.
I just have a healthy loathing for the white male canon. Is that so wrong?
No, but it probably means you’ll never be considered ‘well read’ by serious people.
A prospect of inconceivable horror, Sophie said. You can be so cruel sometimes.
Although when you’ve finished your PhD no one will actually believe you when you say you haven’t read Nineteen Eighty Four. Or the Russians.
Can I just say that it sends shivers down my spine when you refer to ‘the Russians’ like that? Sophie said, which made me laugh.
Don’t encourage her, Jacob said, handing me the card reader. I entered my PIN and handed it back to him.
Would you like a paper bag? he asked.
Thanks, but I have a backpack, I said. And I’m trying to cut down on single-use packaging.
Aren’t books made of trees? Jacob said.
They are, aren’t they? I said. Although I guess they’re not necessarily single-use.
I reattached Lola’s lead to her collar and put my hand on the door handle. Then I said: Actually, are you hiring at all?
Potentially, Sophie said, after she and Jacob quickly exchanged glances. When could you start? If you’re asking for yourself that is.
I haven’t worked in a bookshop before, I said. I don’t know if that’s a problem.
Neither had we, Jacob said. I hadn’t actually worked in a shop of any kind.
Different rules tend to apply when one controls the means of production, Sophie said.
Jacob is descending the stairs now, presumably with freshly washed hands. He looks past me through the window and says that it’s stopped raining, that if he stayed in bed for an extra hour he wouldn’t have got drenched on the way here.
You get no thanks for being an eejit, as my grandmother would say, he says.
I walk to the door and open it.