Ernest Nettles was a fixture in town, like the gasworks or the ring road. The shoppers and commuters no longer noticed his awkward, shuffling gait or the homburg he wore at a jaunty angle. But if you were a visitor you might pause to stare at the stooping giant in the tartan overcoat that only fastened at the collar.
This Monday morning, as always, Ernest was in search of bargains. He peered through the glass, framing his eyes against the reflection of a strip-light. OK, it was a charity shop and it wasn’t as if Anna or Mrs Pepper was paid, but it said nine o’ clock on the door and it was already three minutes past. Ernest shuffled, choosing a patch of block-paving that wasn’t blighted by gum or spittle, and set his bag down. He wanted the pick of the weekend’s hand-ins, but if they didn’t open soon he’d risk missing the best ones at British Heart. Four minutes past. Ernest’s eyelid flickered. Finally, Anna pushed her way through the bead curtain at the back of the shop. Anna was a bright girl, but unsuited to shop work. Her pale cheeks and throat flushed scarlet when anyone spoke to her. She was painfully thin and, if forced into conversation, her fingers worked away at the amber beads on her wrist.
Anna clutched a crisp box tight to her chest, steering a bony hip to support it. Ernest thought it was heavy and hoped it contained railway books or a few decent crime novels – not his preferred choice, but there was a good market. Anna set the box down and tugged back the bolts. She mumbled something as Ernest strode in.
‘Nice day for a race,’ Ernest said, ‘the human race, that is.’
Anna blushed, but Ernest paid her no attention. He stared at the wall of books, his mind working away, searching for obvious changes. As a boy scout Ernest had discovered he possessed photographic recall. They used to play a game where Skip would bring out a tray containing a cotton reel, a 50p piece, a toy car, a rabbit’s foot and many other curios. After ten seconds Skip would place a tea towel across the tray and challenge them to remember as many items as they could. Ernest never missed a matchbox or a toffee.
The bell over the door tinkled causing him to start. His shoulders dropped when he saw it was Martha. She had a battered raincoat with the collar turned up against the wind and carried a string bag, bulging with windfall apples. Ernest smiled, but Martha stared straight through him. Ernest sighed and stared at the wall of books, unblinking. Since Saturday a few Dan Browns had been added and a Jackie Collins with an immaculate dust jacket. The usual haul of chick lit was wedged between travel and classics; garishly pink or sparkly covers with caricatures of blondes on shopping trips to Paris. There were a handful of literary reads that were obviously unwanted Christmas or birthday presents. Their spines were pristine and the pages neat and uniform.
Ernest sighed. Today’s new additions did not look promising. Yet now and again a first edition washed up among the dusty house clearances and the stacks of books left at the door in bin-bags.
Ernest scanned the hardbacks. The dross they couldn’t sell was stacked in wicker baskets or piled against the milk churns in the window. Ernest was squinting at a stack of Stephen King novels when a shadow fell over him. He blinked and looked up at a frowning Perry Sadler. Ernest’s eyes narrowed. He stared back at Sadler who held up a white British Heart carrier bag. Ernest’s heart thumped.
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