The Appointed Time
It is night in
Henry Anderson looked up from his book with a start. A noise had caught his ear; something outside the normal range of sounds that he had, after more than thirty years in the shop, come to know and expect and even, at times—especially lately—welcome. It was a thin, dusty sound, almost a sigh, and Henry glanced behind him, half-expecting to see a figure standing over his shoulder. Impossible; there had not been a customer in the shop for at least an hour, and he was all too aware that the apartment behind was painfully empty.
He kept his head up for another moment, listening. Around him stood row upon row of books, which seemed to be listening, too; holding their collective breath, watching, waiting, as if in anticipation of something which was hovering just outside Henry’s vision. As indeed it was, had Henry only known; had he, as he gazed about him, been able to see beyond the front wall, into the street, where a figure stood, wrapped in evening shadows, its whole attention fixed on the dim light spilling out of the door of the shop.
In the ordinary course of things, Henry would have had the shop closed and locked now, the lights extinguished; but he had become engrossed in his book, and lost track of time. This was by no means unusual with Henry, and on most evenings no harm would have come of it. But this was an evening unlike any other in his life, although he did not yet know it. And so, after assuring himself that all was well inside the shop, his head dipped irresistibly back down towards his book, and the light continued to shine out into the damp streets, a lone beacon in an otherwise dark stretch of shops. And outside the figure, after a moment of hesitation, drew nearer.
This was not the figure’s usual habitat; it was used to more garish surroundings, louder streets. Chance had taken it further afield than usual, and in this unaccustomed environment it was cautious, wary. But cold and hunger and other, darker needs spurred it on, drawing it inexorably, inevitably closer to Henry and his quiet, tidy world.
The noise again, louder this time. Henry’s head jerked up, and he cocked it on one side, trying to determine what the sound was and where it came from. It had definitely sounded like a sigh; no mistaking it. It was followed by a silence which sounded expectant, as if awaiting some action on his part at which he could not guess.
Perhaps, thought Henry, it was time to start thinking about selling up and moving on. He had thought about it before; he and Mary had discussed it before she died, but lightly, as something that would not happen for a good many years yet. Then for some time he had not thought about very much of anything, selling the shop least of all. He had kept it going because not keeping it going had seemed unthinkable, another blow to the fabric of his life which would have been unbearable. Mary and the shop had been part of him for so long that to lose both would have been to lose every reason he had for getting up in the morning.
So he had clung to the shop, finding a kind of solace in the ordered rank of books in their neatly labelled sections. It had not always been thus. When he had first bought the shop, it had been little better than a junk-heap, a dispirited shambles of discarded, unwanted books, and he had had to spend a good deal of time patiently weeding out the multiple copies of battered paperbacks, their broken spines and chipped covers an affront to his notion of what books should be. Slowly he had built up a quietly successful bookstore, filled with the sorts of books he liked reading, all lovingly tended, neatly shelved, easily accessible. The shop itself attracted a loyal group of regular and semi-regular customers, who found a safe and companionable haven amongst the shelves and racks, a friendly and knowledgeable proprietor in Henry. ‘It’s Mary’s cookies people come for, really,’ he would say with a smile, and it was true that the plate of cookies put out every morning by the coffee machine had always been empty by day’s end, the crushed cushions on the comfortable armchairs bearing silent witness to those who had found a home there. The cookies were from a box now, but the customers still came.
Outside the rain continued to drizzle, stretching damp fingers along the sidewalk. The figure in the shadows shivered, and gazed greedily at the light from the shop. It drew nearer still, eyes fixed on the door. The sound of a car in a nearby street caused it to hesitate, and draw back from the light momentarily; and that pause bought Henry Anderson a few more moments of life.
‘By George! I find it gives me the horrors,’ returns Mr Weevle.
‘Then, you see, you live in a lonesome way, and in a lonesome room, with a black circumstance hanging over it,’ says Mr Snagsby, looking in past the other’s shoulder along the dark passage, and then falling back a step to look up at the house. ‘I couldn’t live in that room alone, as you do, sir. I should get so fidgetty and worried of an evening, sometimes, that I should be driven to come to the door, and stand here, sooner than sit there.’
The sound had become louder, as if uttered by someone—or something—that was gaining strength, rallying for one supreme effort. The cry—for it was a cry, no doubt of it—startled Henry so much that he pulled himself out of his chair with a suddenness that made the bones and joints in his legs and back protest at the effort. He walked around the desk and peered into the depths of the shop, while his mind tried and failed to analyse and define the exact nature of the sound. He was forced back to his first, instinctive thought: a cry, and of pain, too. No; not pain, exactly: the expectation of pain, as of someone who cried out in anticipation of a cruel blow.
He shook his head. Definitely time to start thinking seriously about selling up, moving out, going somewhere warmer and drier. He was getting too old to manage the shop on his own, and the trade was changing too fast for him to keep up. Every day, it seemed, people asked him when he was going to take his stock on-line, and he would shake his head and say ruefully, ‘Ah, well, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Now, standing in the familiar quiet of the shop, he shook his head again. ‘Old dog?’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Old dinosaur, more like. Hearing things, too. What would Mary say?’
And yet the thought of leaving the shop, turning it over to another person, closing the door behind him forever, was one that he persisted in putting off. There were too many memories bound up within the four walls, jostling for space on the shelves, surrounding every bookcase, each piece of furniture. The armchairs, now; they were not the height of fashion, never had been—‘But Mary, they’re comfortable,’ he had said when he brought them back, and she had surveyed them with a look, half-tolerant, half-exasperated. She had had the same look on her face every time Henry, faced with a need to create more space, had brought back another bookcase, discovered at a sale or in the dusty recesses of a used furniture shop. ‘If your goal was to not have any two bookcases in the shop matching, Henry,’ she had said once, ‘then you’ve certainly succeeded.’ But there was a smile on her face as she said it.
Henry smiled at the memory. Yes, the shop was full of memories, and he could smile at most of them. ‘If these walls—no, if these books could speak,’ he thought, ‘they could certainly tell a tale or two!’
He glanced out the front window, vaguely surprised to see how dark it was. Time to close up for the night; more than time, in fact. Lock the doors, turn out the lights, then go and make some dinner, listen to the news, read for a time. A night like any other. But this was not to be a night like any other.
Had he gone to the door even then, he might have been in time, for the figure outside was still hesitating in the shadows, and the sight of Henry at the door, pulling down the blinds, turning the lock, would have been enough to send it scuttling back into the darkness. But he paused, and stretched, trying to relieve the ache in his back; and he was lost.
‘Just so,’ observes the stationer, with his confirmatory cough. ‘Quite a Fate in it. Quite a Fate.’
At the sound of the door opening and shutting, Henry turned so quickly that his back gave a more violent twinge than before, causing him to draw his breath in sharply. A swift glance took in the—no, not customer, this was no customer come late, this was Trouble with a capital T, right here in his shop. Be calm, think, think, think. . . .
‘Yes? What can I do for you?’ He tried to make his voice sound curt, no-nonsense, but Henry was not used to being curt, and his voice wavered slightly. The figure moved forward, and Henry could see it more clearly. A youngish man, unruly dark hair framing a sullen face, a cheap imitation leather jacket zipped up to his chin, one hand visible, the other balled up in a pocket, clutching—what? Henry realised he did not want to know.
‘What can you do for me? What can you do?’ said the other, as if seriously pondering the question. ‘I’ll tell you what you can do, old man—you can give me any money you’ve got, and quick, too, ’cause I don’t like having to ask for things more than once.’
Henry thought quickly, weighing his options. What options? said a voice in his head. Don’t try to be a hero. Give him what he wants and maybe he’ll leave. ‘All right, yes, money, by all means,’ he said, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. ‘I don’t have much, but you can take it all, yes . . .’ He moved to walk around the desk, and the other man stepped forward, closing the distance between them so suddenly that Henry pulled back.
‘No tricks, old man,’ whispered the intruder. ‘See? I don’t like tricks, and neither does my friend.’ He withdrew the hand that had been in his pocket, and Henry saw the gleam of a knife blade as it caught a ray of light from overhead. ‘Just move nice and slow.’
Henry nodded. ‘The cash—I keep it there.’ He gestured towards the desk.
‘Get it, then.’ The intruder’s eyes left Henry for a moment and swept around the shop. ‘Anyone else here?’
‘No. No one. I live by myself,’ said Henry, profoundly grateful—I’m sorry, Mary—that this was true.
‘Great. Get the money, then.’
‘Yes.’ Henry moved around behind the desk to the cash register and fumbled at the keys with fingers which seemed to have grown stiff and useless. How does this thing open . . . please, please . . . let it be all right, oh, let it be all right . . .
‘Come on, old man, stop jerking me around. I don’t have all day.’
‘No . . . yes, yes, I’m trying . . . just be a minute . . .’
‘I don’t have a minute!’ the other exploded, thrusting himself across the desk so that he was inches away from Henry’s trembling frame. ‘Aren’t you listening?’ He moved his hand so that the knife was between them. ‘I want that money now, old man, or I’ll use this!’ He grabbed Henry’s shirt, pulling him halfway across the desk; and Henry, feeling himself losing his balance, flailed his arms, trying to stop himself from falling. One of his hands caught the intruder’s arm; not a blow, not by any stretch, but unexpected, and feeling himself threatened the intruder lashed out, sending Henry reeling backwards, hands to his throat, staring uncomprehending at the redness which was covering them, covering his shirt, covering everything, even his eyes, which were straining into darkness, straining, trying to see, trying—and then there was silence, and Henry Anderson saw and heard no more.
The intruder stood stock-still on his side of the desk, his chest heaving as with some great physical effort. He could see part of Henry’s body, lying on its side where it had fallen, and he watched it for any movement, any sign of life. But there was none. The job had been done well. The knife was still in his hand, and he gazed at it dispassionately. A box of tissues stood on a corner of the desk, and he took out a handful and wiped the blade off before placing the knife back in his pocket. He looked at the body again, his mind working as his breath came more easily and he found that he could think with something approaching clarity.
First he moved to the door, locking it and pulling down the blind, unconsciously carrying out the very actions which would have saved Henry’s life. Then he returned to the desk and stood looking round the shop thoughtfully. Various bays formed by the arrangement of bookshelves stretched down both walls, all neatly labelled with signs hanging above them describing the books to be found therein. In the middle of the shop were a few armchairs, surrounding a small table which contained a coffee maker and a plate of cookies. The intruder helped himself to a handful of cookies and made a more thorough survey of the shop.
A door at the back caught his eye, and he made his way towards it, alert and cautious. The old man had said there was no one else there, but you never knew . . . He opened the door carefully, and saw a short hallway leading to what appeared to be a kitchen. A staircase, its upper reaches in darkness, led to the next floor.
He remembered Henry’s words. I live by myself. The old man must have an apartment behind the shop, then! This was getting better and better. He’d be able to get the cash out of the register, have a good look round the apartment—there must be stuff worth taking from there, too—fix himself something to eat and drink, maybe even wait out the rain, before being on his way long before anyone discovered something wrong. What a stroke of luck!
A sound behind him in the shop made him jump, and he whirled around, knife at the ready.
He moved swiftly back towards the desk and looked at Henry. The body had not moved. The intruder turned his attention to the cash register, and in a matter of seconds had it open. He cleared out the contents, stuffing the money into his pockets, then looked to see if there was anything else worth having.
A book lay open on the desk. He flicked it shut and looked at the cover. Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The old man wouldn’t be reading that again anytime soon.
Another noise disturbed him; this one came from the back of the shop, and for a moment he thought that someone had come through the door from the apartment, for a shadow seemed to pass lightly into one of the bays. He moved along the shop and peered between the shelves. There was no one there.
More sound; this time from the front of the shop. The intruder whirled around, and again thought he saw a shadow pass into one of the bays, this one near the window. He narrowed his eyes, peering through the dim shop. Was it his imagination, or were the lights getting dimmer?
‘I know there have; but in most rooms you let them alone, and—and they let you alone,’ Tony answers.
Of course there was no one there when he reached the front of the shop. The front door was locked tight, and no one could have come in through the door at the back without being seen. The intruder shrugged his shoulders and tried to laugh. Crazy. Imagining things. That’s what it was. All these books, lined up, watching him, waiting . . .
Waiting! That was good. Waiting for what? He shook his head, then went back to the plate of cookies for another handful, as if to prove that he wasn’t afraid, there was nothing to be afraid of, just a dead guy behind the desk and he wasn’t going anywhere, wasn’t going to be calling for any help, there wasn’t even anyone to call except a load of books, and what help could they be? As if to prove his point he moved to the desk (although he was careful not to look too closely at Henry’s body) and picked up the copy of Bleak House, gazing at it with contempt for a moment before flinging it to the back of the shop, where it fell with a flutter and crash.
And, mingled with these sounds, a cry, as of pain.
The intruder’s head swivelled round, trying to locate the source of the cry. It sounded as if—this was crazy—as if it had come from the book. He moved through the shop towards the book, which was lying, face up, on the floor. He moved closer, almost against his will, looking to see if perhaps the book had hit something—a pet of some kind, was there an animal in the shop?—and touched the book gingerly, almost delicately, with his foot. It was just a book.
Another sound, behind him. He whirled around, eyes trying to adjust to the dimness—there must be something wrong with the lights—as a figure moved in front of the door and disappeared behind a bookshelf in a curious gliding motion. The intruder stared, heart pounding. The old man had said he was alone. How could anyone else be there? It wasn’t possible. There was no one else in the shop; just him and a dead man, and a load of old books. No one else.
A murmur came from behind him, halfway along the shop, in a bay labelled—he could barely make out the sign, so dark had it become—Literature. There was an answering murmur—or so it seemed to the intruder—from a bay on the other side of the shop, this one labelled Children’s. A dim memory stirred within him, and he was reminded of a time, impossibly long ago in what seemed another life, when he had played hide-and-seek, and had tried to track down those hiding by listening for the tell-tale signs of giggles and whispers. He could almost imagine people hiding behind the bookshelves, breath held, trying not to give themselves away, watching him to see what he would do.
‘Who’s there?’ he called out roughly. ‘Come on out, where I can see you. Come on!’
No answer. But there was movement. He could sense it, rather than see it, as if shadows were massing behind the shelves, dark clouds of movement, full of purpose. His head swivelled from side to side, trying to pin down the danger, define it, attack it. His hand clenched the knife, poised in front of him, ready to strike.
A small sigh behind him, at the back of the shop. He twisted round, every nerve alert, ready to face whoever—whatever—had come in.
It was a boy. The intruder could see little of him, apart from the fact that he looked thin and pale. He was holding something; a funny sort of broom. The old man’s grandkid, come downstairs to see what’s up. A wave of relief flashed through the man. A kid with a broom: pathetic. He could deal with this, no problem. He put the hand with the knife behind his back and adopted a sickly, wheedling tone.
‘Hey, kid, sorry you were bothered, okay? Me and your granddad were just talking about business; you know, business—nothing for you to worry about, so why don’t you just . . .’
The boy wasn’t listening to him; wasn’t even looking at him. He was looking at something else, something behind him. The intruder turned around, and stared in disbelief at the figures moving towards him. It couldn’t be . . . it wasn’t possible . . . it was just him and a dead man and a load of old books, for Christ’s sake . . . nothing else . . .
There was something wrong with them; something which his brain tried to comprehend even as he moved backwards, unaware of the figures advancing towards him from the back of the shop, led by the child with the broom. The clothing—they looked like figures from old movies, or from pictures in books.
Plenty will come in, but none can help.
'The Appointed Time'
Original illustration by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
for chapter 32 of Bleak House by Charles Dickens