One of our favourite authors and Books Editor of Woman & Home Magazine, Fanny Blake has written us a wonderfully bookish story short story set on Book Lane for our birthday!
Fanny’s fabulous new novel about parents, siblings, and family secrets, House of Dreams, is out in paperback, ebook and audio on 5th November.
Sally put her shoulder to the door of the cottage in Book Lane and gave it a good shove. Her grandmother was forever saying she was going to change the lock that always stuck but she never had. Inside, the hallway was dark, silent. Under the fustiness lingered the faint scent of tea roses and loose face powder that immediately conjured up her Granny P. Frail and bent as she might have been, arthritic hands clasping her stick, the old lady had kept her marbles right up until her death.
Sally glanced at her phone for an incoming text saying her mother was on her way. If they got this done fast, she could be down at the Cricketers by eight where the usual evening crowd would be.
If she hadn’t promised to go through Gran’s wardrobe – ‘Just this one last thing’ – she could be at Anna’s at this moment, getting ready for a night out, the first vodka already under the belt. She picked out Chopsticks on the old upright piano in the corner and the notes echoed through the house. In the kitchen, she poked her nose into the kitchen cupboard where Granny P kept her favourite tipple – sweet sherry. Perhaps she could start her night here instead. But it was empty.
She went upstairs, two at a time, remembering her grandmother hauling herself upstairs with one hand tight round the banister. ‘Never give in,’ she’d say. Perhaps Sally should have spent more time with her when she was alive. But what was the point? Their lives were miles apart. What would an old woman understand about Sally? Or her random sex life? Or having fun?
Taking a deep breath, she opened the bedroom door, half expecting her grandmother to be lying back against her pillows. But, of course, she wasn’t – and Sally felt an unexpected pang. The room had been emptied, the pictures taken down, the treasured possessions boxed up and shared out. The only things unclaimed by family were the ancient wardrobe and the bed, stripped bare now. On the floor were boxes labelled ELLEN (her mother), JEAN (her aunt) and RUBBISH.
No box for her? Checking inside the ones marked JEAN and ELLEN, light dawned.
Books. Lots of them. Fat, thin, old, new. Sally couldn’t remember the last time she had read one. In school, probably.
Why would she bother with a book when there was social media and the Internet? She wasn’t stupid but honestly, what could a book give you when there was a twenty-four/seven world of entertainment and information at your fingertips?
A text pinged in from her mother: Traffic a nightmare. Running late. Be as quick as I can.
Her evening at the Cricketers seemed doomed. And her phone battery was running low.
On top of the bed sat a box marked CHARITY. She sat beside it, noting the dip in the thin mattress. She took out a framed black-and-white photo, turning it in her hands. A couple stared back at her. The woman was dressed in a trim figure-hugging blouse and skirt that fell to her knee. Sally found herself pulling her own skirt down so it covered the tops of her thighs. Beside the woman was a man in uniform, not bad looking if you ignored the slicked-back hair. She flipped the frame over to see a label that read: Me and Simon, engaged November 1944.
Simon? But Granny P had been married to Granddad – Bill Potter. Not that Sally had ever known him. He had died just after she was born.
Placing the photo on the bed, she reached into the box again to pull out a book. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. Opening it at the title page, she saw a list of dates and comments in her grandmother’s handwriting
'Given to me by Alfie, Christmas 1946' and underneath: 'Re-read Summer 1958. Still made me laugh.' Fascinated, Sally saw that her grandmother had re-read this book ten times, most recently in 2015: 'As entertaining as ever, and full of truths.'
Why would anyone read a book more than once? A sceptical Sally flicked through the pages. In the margins were written notes – was that allowed in a book? She remembered the stern lectures they’d endured about defacing schoolbooks. She peered at what her grandmother had written: Just what Alice should have done . . . Yes . . . So true . . . This is what life’s about . . . Rubbish!
It was like reading a map to her grandmother’s emotions and responses.
Curious, Sally returned to the beginning of the book and began to read. Slowly at first, but she was soon transported into a world so unfamiliar to her own and yet somehow so recognisable.
The main character questions what she has done with her youth, and whether she was now doomed to a lonely existence after her second failed marriage. No, no, her grandmother had written. You can do better.
Her grandmother was right. Sally raised her head, imagining Granny P bent over the book, so involved in the story that she had to comment. To her surprise she realised she wanted to know what would happen next, whether she would agree with her grandmother again.
Granny P and she might share more than she had ever imagined. Why had she never seen it? With huge surprise, Sally returned to the story.
When she heard the front door open, she glanced at her phone. Seven thirty! She hadn’t even noticed the time passing. Reluctantly, she returned the book to the box. Were the other books in there annotated in the same way? She glanced inside the next in the pile. It was. If Granny P got pleasure and found guidance in them, there was a chance she might too.
You can do better. The words rang in her head. Perhaps she would give the Cricketers a miss altogether tonight.
Picking up the black felt-tip pen lying on the bed, she scrawled a line through the word CHARITY. As her mother’s footsteps sounded on the stairs, she stuck another label on the box and wrote in large letters: SALLY.