Monastic-style beers were her favourite. Heavy, sweet, and above all, high alcohol! She peered through the small opaque panes of Oliver’s Beer and Books. No sign of anyone in the small cafe behind the faded yellow door. She pushed it open and a bell rang.
Inside was a counter, and behind, shelves upon which stood perhaps twenty dusty brown bottles. Bold fonts on cream and blue labels displayed odd foreign names – Zundert, Achel, Gregorius, Westmalle, all ones that she was now familiar with. Perhaps too familiar? A coffee machine, all shiny bright steel and red levers stood at one end of the counter. The enticing odour of coffee was noticeable by its absence.
A tall thin man in a green apron appeared. Oliver perhaps? He had short grey hair, with a matching beard and moustache, and he wore thin-rimmed silver spectacles. He looked like a university lecturer, or what she imagined one to look like. She sighed. She’d had to leave school at sixteen.
“Hello, Mrs Fuhring, the usual?”
She averted her eyes and nodded, saying nothing.
The man busied himself behind the counter, taking a round, unlabelled brown bottle from a fridge.
She wondered why Oliver if it were he, didn’t dust the bottles on the shelves. It would only take five minutes! And where exactly did he go when he wasn’t serving?
He opened the bottle and brought it over with a matching glass, a large shallow goblet with Monasticity printed on it in gothic red script.
She poured out a cloudy orange liquid, admiring the miraculous white fluffy head, and inhaling yeasty orange aromas. She waited for the man to leave, pretending to look at her phone. As if anyone would call or message her! She thought of her husband, Eric. He’d said he was going to get a new blade for the lawnmower, but from the shine in his eyes and the smell of aftershave, she knew where he was really going. She’d caught him bang to rights recently, a packet of condoms in his jacket pocket. He’d said he’d ‘found’ them on the pavement and was ‘going to give them to a friend.’ As if!
Presently he’d be with his teenage ‘lover,’ Christine. Knowing him, right now they’d probably be having a ‘sixty-nine.’ Yuk, the thought made her feel sick.
Once alone, she closed her eyes and took a large mouthful of beer, feeling the foamy head tickle her nose. She swirled it around her mouth and tongue with her pink-lipsticked lips slightly open. What could she taste? Honey, raisins, banana, leather perhaps? And the bite of pure alcohol. Wonderful! Her head swam and she felt better.
Mrs Fuhring ran her fingers over a piece of coloured paper stuck to the front of a large, olive-green, hardback book, old but in very good condition. Looking closely she saw it was a painting. Lighted cabins at the front of a sailing ship against stylised, unrealistic grey-blue waves. On the deck were a group of what looked like elves, and looking down from the upper cabin, three young figures, one of whom sported a pair of wings. Fairies she presumed.
She traced her nails over the gilded title above the ‘pictorial onlay,’ as she knew it to be properly called. The Children’s Golden Treasure Book. And beneath the onlay, the words, ‘Brimful of Joyous Entertainment.’ Hah, if only she could feel joyous!
Inside, on the thick cream paper were stories of schoolchildren, witches, fairies, goblins, and elves, and there were numerous illustrations of all kinds. From rough pencil sketches, through more sophisticated engravings, to colour plates. An enchanted world, now vanished, replaced by Xboxes, and PlayStations, she reflected with disdain.
She admired the endpapers, brightly coloured figures from the tales no doubt. Hideous witches confronted a handsome prince in a green cloak, a knight rode on a white charger, and a yellow sailing ship displayed a flag, The Golden Vanitee.
Mrs Fuhring had passed through narrow corridors lined with old Penguins, more modern paperbacks, and cloth-covered volumes from the past, ‘when books were books,’ as she thought. Then down a spiral staircase into her ‘special place,’ a circular room filled with nothing but books and two armchairs, covered in worn red-brown leather.
She looked at the price, £12. She didn’t really want to spend so much, maybe she could offer £10? The thought of doing so made her stomach queasy, she wasn’t one for bartering.
Mrs Fuhring plucked out a short thick black hardback – The Answer Book. Interesting! She read the back cover. ‘Concentrate on your problem for sixty seconds, with your right-hand palm on the front cover, then open at a random page and the solution will be given.’ She had a quick peek and saw that every other page had a short sentence on it.
All right! She did as instructed, closing her eyes and thinking of Eric, his thinning hair and beer belly, and how thirty years of marriage had worn them both down. Then of silly, plain-looking Christine, sitting, bored, at her menial library job. She was nevertheless well proportioned, and, no doubt Eric took pleasure in her eager, young body Mrs. Fuhring admitted. Mind you, Christine hadn’t had to bear three kids!
A minute must be up, surely! She opened the book and stood shocked. The ‘answer’ was ‘Laugh about it.’ Well, it was hardly a laughing matter, your husband ‘playing away’ with a young ‘floozie’! Suddenly, she envisioned Eric’s spotty fat bottom riding up and down on top of Christine’s sweaty white body. She smiled. Surely Christine couldn’t really enjoy it. She was just after the perks – meals, concerts, hotel rooms. She felt a bit better. Well, two could play at that game. There was a young lad at Tesco who was always friendly towards her. In fact, more than friendly on occasion. Probably sex-starved. Well, maybe she might just put him out of his misery! She looked at her watch. Just time for another bottle of Monasticity first!
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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