Thursday 24 May 2012

Lives and lessons of others

Every week I work in an old second-hand bookshop in Kew Gardens. I love sitting in the window as the sun works its way round, writing without the distractions of email and internet and browsing and reading all the weird and wonderful books. And another great thing about it is the mix of people who pop in with their interesting stories, lives, reading preferences and questions.

Last week a lady came in and we talked for over an hour. She works locally and has known the place for years. As soon as she came in, she felt at home and sat on the floor stretching. She has multiple sclerosis. She works hard. She does a paper round at 6am seven days a week. She is a full-time carer for an ex-SAS soldier. She also delivers papers in the afternoon. She was tired, but not too tired to talk. We chatted about the Leveson Inquiry; we discussed the saga of the Chilean miners trapped in 2010. We shared stories of where we’d studied, instruments we had learnt. She told me about her bullying neighbours, about living with MS, about her experiences of doctors and nurses. I told her about my travels, about teaching, about working in the shop. We talked about people’s attitudes to health, to work, to life. I really liked her. Having MS for 12 years hadn’t stopped her. She was in pain and was the one looking after someone else. “You’ve just got to carry on, haven’t you?” she said.

A writer came in the week before, looking for books to help him with his research. He stayed for half an hour, telling me all about the two true stories he was going to combine in his own book about the Vietnam War. The more I listened to him, the more I realised how brilliant an idea he had and what a fascinating story it would make. Unassuming and modest, the man’s face didn’t agree with me when I told him I thought it would make interesting reading. “Well, I hope someone reads it,” he said.

A while ago an old man came in. It was a cold afternoon and he had been the first customer for over two hours. He browsed for a short while and then sat down on one of the chairs. I was writing my book at the time and he just sat there, waiting for a pause in the tapping of keys. It came. He then stayed for an hour and a half, telling me all about his two marriages, especially the second to a Russian woman who he was thinking of leaving. He revealed all the things she had done over the years, how she made him feel worthless, how ungrateful she was, lazy and manipulative. He hadn’t seen his grandchildren because of her. His eyes were sad; sad and tired. I listened. He looked up: “I don’t know what to do. I’ve been thinking of leaving her.” I told him that in my opinion it sounded like he would be happier that way. He stood up to leave. “Yes, but I love her,” he said.

These are a handful of characters I have met in my three months at the shop. Each one weaves a tiny square on my tapestry of life. And each one offers a life lesson, a memento to take away.

Love is enough.
Keep writing.

Don’t give up.

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