In a large detached house surrounded by high privet hedges at the foot of a low hill range there is a room filled with books. Some of them date from the 19th century. There are books about geology and Greek mythology, there are books about the flora and fauna of far off lands. There are books about subjects that no longer exist. Phrenology, mediumship, gruesome racial theories. There are books whose pages have crumbled to dust. There are books that have not been looked at since the day they were pushed into place on the high shelves that surround the walls.
This is her grandfather’s collection. To her sister he left money to buy her first flat. London was out of reach of most people these days he said. To her brother he left investments that would mature when he reached his twenty-first birthday. The house went to his children, her own mother included all of whom were now conspiring how to divide his earthly possessions before a for sale board would appear in the front garden.
Lottie has been left all these books. She looks at the extent of them and feels overwhelmed. You can’t deny the kindness.
“You’re the one who inherited my bibliophilia Charlotte,” he’d said as they’d sat on the swing seat at the edge of the orchard watching damsel flies take off from the pond, jays stripping the seeds from teasels.
“You can have all my books.” He had an owlish face which looked at you through reading glasses that were invariably perched on the end of his nose, your own nostrils being filled with pipe tobacco and venerability. Lottie’s mother was the youngest of his four daughters, the late accident that brought him joy and a co-conspirator against his wife’s ceaseless social climbing. Lottie remembers that day whenever she opens a bottle of cider. The warmth and light of the Indian summer, the fermenting scent of the windfall from the long grass that brushed her bare legs, the spots of previous adventures collected around the hem of her favourite summer dress. There’s so few moments where you feel totally at ease with who you are and your lineage. Despite that promise she never really thought he meant it. It had sounded like a moment prompted effusion of feeling that practicality would forget. Surely his daughters would divide it all between them?
Lottie thought of her tiny flat and wondered what she would do with them all.
“If you’ve any sense you’ll get them sold,” said her father. He’d driven her here today and waited in the lounge of the pub nearby reading the newspaper. He wouldn’t dare cross the threshold of his ex in-laws house.
“I’ve not been welcome there since your brother was a baby,” he said. Lottie promised she wouldn’t tell anyone if he wanted to come inside. He said he really didn’t. The scent of death gave him the creeps he said. He didn’t want to risk any beyond-the-grave shadows sorting through his past, pulling out more reasons to find fault. Lottie had scrunched up her face and wondered.
“Considering you’re so like him it’s a wonder you don’t hate me too.”
She hadn’t taken the bait. She’d just shrugged, muttered something about mum being his favourite little girl, said that if circumstances had been different granddad and him might have become firm friends. Although in truth it seemed unlikely. Dad was flashy without having the money to be flash, he was brash and loud but with little of real consequence to say. He loved but after a fashion all the time reminding you how lucky you were to have him in your life. Despite this Lottie felt a heart pang every time she learnt of his latest setback. There’d been something recently, a false love made over the internet, emotions built on the back of mutual deceit. His heart had broken again. Lottie lost track of all his girlfriends but wondered if it was quite right for a man in his sixties to have so many. All of them appeared to be at least twenty years younger than him. Try as she might she couldn’t see him forming a meaningful relationship with a contemporary and equal, the two of them making a companionable old age in a south coast bungalow. He was still living in the old hotel two streets back from the seafront. It had been ‘just a stop gap’ when he moved in five years earlier.
Alone in the big old house Lottie found a pile of folded old boxes in a back bedroom. She begun taking volumes off the shelves, placing them in the boxes, sealing each with parcel tape and writing ‘LOTTIE’ in big letters across the top in marker pen.
Her mother hadn’t been so mercenary in her advice as dad but they did sing from the same song sheet.
“I’m sure granddad really wouldn’t mind if you just picked out your favourites. Take a few boxes full to start your own collection with. You can add to it when you’ve got a bigger place.”
Her siblings had been given money she said. Surely granddad intended her to sell off his books to raise funds of her own. There were things she wanted to do. There was a whole world to see, a future to prepare for, that PhD to complete. Her grandfather had swollen with pride when he’d read her proposal:
“I can’t pretend to understand what it means entirely but I heartily approve.”
It was literature. It concerned the world of writing and books and that was enough for him. It was perhaps the confirmation he needed that the details of his will had been correct, at least where Lottie was concerned.
Lottie sat on the floor surrounded by filled boxes. Already there was more than an estate car load, more than enough to fill her flat twice over but she’d made hardly any impression on the shelves. There were so many books. More than one person could possibly ever read.
She takes her flask out of her bag and walks out of the patio doors to the garden. Following the gravel path down through the rose garden and the steps across the lawn she comes to the beginnings of the orchard. The blossom has gone, the fruits are starting to form. The grass is long and wet and it soaks the bottom of her jeans. She feels the cold damp seeping through to her legs. There’s no swing seat anymore, but a rusted bench with a missing central strut sits by the beech hedge that separates the fruit trees from the farmer’s field. She sits down, looks at the trees trying hard to remember the names of the varieties. Her grandfather had once walked around each tree, placing a hand on the bark, closing his eyes in concentration as he tried to recall their particular provenance. She knew they were all local, some of them ancient and hardly edible long since surpassed by commercial varieties more suited to the modern palate. The house was always full of crumbles, his cleaner and part-time housemaid Mrs Linden cooking up huge pans of stewed apple. She remembered one January watching the gardener pruning the trees from a perch in the branches. She didn’t engage him in conversation, just glared her legs stretched out, her arms folded from on high. The gardener had been a picture of concentration, avoiding eye-contact. He was a shy young man. He screwed up his face as he worked out which spur to thin, which crossing branch to remove. When he was done he wrapped up the cuttings in and old blanket and carried them off to make a pile by the hedge which became a home for hedgehogs and mice. Lottie thought the newly shaped trees looked like gnarly wine glasses. Later when recalling that day with her grandfather he casually dropped into conversation that he’d walked into the river a few years later.
“We’d not told you at the time. Never any need.”
This house and garden had its ghosts. Grandma’s early death hung over the place for decades. Her mum had still been living at home at the time. Black flowers had grown in grandma’s breast. Perfect, insidious, slow to unfurl and difficult to stop. When they were finally discovered it was too late to do anything about it. Not that there was much that could be done back then. For some reason, and based on nothing but a hunch, she suspected gran wasn’t too bothered. It was hard to fathom much about her grandparent’s relationship. Lottie wasn’t sure her mum had any idea either. There were intimations of other lovers. Her gran had a friendship with a man who worked on cruise liners, he’d drive up from Portsmouth every six weeks lodging with his sister in a bungalow by the park. Granddad always referred to him as ‘Kathy’s tennis partner.’
Granddad nurtured a poet. Lottie had seen photos. She was a pale, skinny girl with long legs and a page boy hair cut who never seemed to smile. There was one photo of them together, Granddad already in his thirties, the young woman perhaps still a teenager. There was an exercise book of poems, inky, difficult to read and full of crossings out. She could make out odd lines, sentence structure that seemed archaic now, lost in a different time. Lottie had once found a copy of the woman’s first collection in a second-hand bookshop and had thought about buying it. She’d not yet found a copy amongst granddad’s books.
When she read granddad’s old letters, those he’d received from people he’d known and encountered Lottie felt a sense of loss. Not only for the man they described but for that world that had been lost. Letters from seventeen year old male friends, home truths from platonic female ones, all filled with analogies and written with a fluidity that was now absent. For several days she’d been unable to check her social media accounts saddened that we’d all been reduced to such digital dross, a swamp of overdone brevity.
There were shadows of the other women that passed this way too. Plenty came and went. Nothing seemed to stick. Lottie thought her grandfather might have regretted his marriage, coming to a belated conclusion that he was temperamentally a bachelor. She wondered if he felt relief when grandma died. Perhaps not without guilt or sadness, but was it there somewhere sweetening the bitter pill of bereavement? All the women that followed had either literary aspirations or pretensions. It had only recently struck Lottie that her granddad was a male muse attracted to would-be brilliant women whose talent he wished to sponsor. It was there in the way he nurtured Lottie’s literary interests.
Sipping on her tea, she watched birds busy in the overgrown garden. She’d like to tidy it up but didn’t know where to start, her mum and aunties telling her not to bother.
Whoever comes next will doubtless want to make changes. Granddad always told her that all you really needed to be happy was a garden and a library. He’d ensured she had the library. It overwhelmed her but she wouldn’t give in to the obvious. She’d box up the books and transport them in stages back to her flat. She’d fill up the spare room and the hall and her own bedroom if necessary. The walls of the living room could be covered in bookshelves. She would fit them in somehow until the day came when she had space big enough to display them and a garden in which to read them when the weather was fine.
In the house the breeze from the open patio doors was blowing up net curtains in other rooms. Lottie thought of her granddad passing through like a gentle wind, then remembered his humanist funeral and corrected herself. He was gone. What lived on were his memories, the imprint he left on the material world. The page corners of some of the books had thumb prints on them. There were notes in his hand in the margins. The books with well worn spines fell open at pertinent places, passages in novels that he’d starred for their craft or beauty.
The silence of the house was interrupted by the sound of a car horn outside, the purr of a stationary engine. From the front window she could see her father’s car through a gap in the hedge.
She placed another handful of old volumes in a box, pushed it with her foot alongside the others and walked to the door.
Header photograph: By Alexandre Duret-Lutz from Paris, France [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons