London is not what I expected it to be. It is greener than in my memories; not so green as Cambridge, but that goes without saying. It is bigger than I realised; unlike Paris, it cannot be walked. The people are either remarkably friendly or remarkably unfriendly; there is no middle ground.
My flat is bare but comfortable. The front door is a deep pink. I have a view of the tourists as they walk towards Portobello Road. I sleep on a mattress on the floor; the floorboards creak when I walk across them but are silent when I’m away. The photo of us all is next to my makeshift bed. This is my beginning, before I make more of myself.
I start at 9 a.m. tomorrow – a leisurely hour! I’m grateful for the sleep, though. I suspect I’ll be exhausted before too long.
I hope you and Dad and Ezra are all well. How was the boat trip last weekend? I miss you, but I’m excited to be here. I guess that’s how it should be.
Having written this kiss, Sophie turned the postcard over. The picture showed a small shop on Portobello Road, whose wares included leather footballs, leather rugby balls, old cricket bats, and other paraphernalia of an England now fading. The sheer browness of the shop was remarkable. It was a world away from the colour of Notting Hill Gate, a street Sophie loathed for its chaos but appreciated for its tube station.
She found a first-class stamp and placed it in the top right-hand corner. Having read through the card one last time, she smiled with a mixture of pleasure and pain. Not being someone who tended to dwell on sources of the latter, Sophie fetched her thin beige overcoat, pocketed her keys, and made the short walk to the post office on Kensington Church Street, where she mailed her first missive home.
Her ultimate destination was the Foyles on Charing Cross Road, which she had been meaning to visit ever since moving to London a week earlier, but whose wondrous book halls had remained just out of reach due to slightly more pressing concerns, such as furnishing her flat and getting used to life in the capital. And whilst she really ought to be on the hunt for a proper bed, this was her last Sunday before work, so she had prescribed herself a mild dose of self-indulgence.
Given that her tube journey was limited to the Central Line, it was a hot and unpleasant one. But Sophie managed to exit Tottenham Court Road Station with a spring in her step, giddy at the prospect of choosing a few books to keep her company now that she was living alone for the first time.
Whilst Sophie tended to go to bookshops without any idea of what she was going to buy, Ernest Krandle was a very different kettle of fish: he liked to arrive with dozens of titles swirling through his brain. On this fine September afternoon he was walking to London’s literary emporium with Rosa Colbert, his girlfriend of three and a half years. It had been a quiet start to their Sunday: having kissed themselves awake at nine o’clock, they had spent most of the morning cooking and listening to Neil Young, before setting off from their place in Battersea for the lengthy walk to Charing Cross. It was a ritual of theirs to travel the city on foot every Sunday afternoon, provided that Rosa wasn’t away on work. This particular outing took them across the river, through Westminster and St James’s Park, along the Mall and then finally to the heart of London, where the Foyles flag fluttered in the urban breeze. They noticed the smell of candy-floss vape disappearing at their entrance. In its place, the woody, dry-yet-damp smell of paperbacks. Ernest read the famous Foyles sign, ‘Welcome book lover, you are among friends’, gave Rosa a parting kiss, and mounted the stairs to the fiction section with a smile.
J-J-J. Ah, J. James-James-James. Ah, James. No, not bloody E.L. James. Ah, yes, Henry James. Honestly, how does Penguin publish so many books? Uninspiring cover. Flick-flick-flick.
“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not – some people of course never do – the situation is in itself delightful.” He was vaguely aware of the slow, heavy footsteps of a teenage girl. “Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold – Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime.” He looked around to see three women, each on her phone. He returned The Portrait of a Lady, a novel he had been putting off for years, to its shelf.
‘Have you read any Franzen? Jonathan Franzen?’
‘He’s so great.’
Couldn’t agree more.
But this woman wasn’t speaking to Ernest Krandle. She was addressing her somewhat nervous friend (how sad to be nervous in a bookshop of all places), who was yet to have the pleasure of reading one of America’s strongest contemporary writers. Ernest considered saying something like ‘Good choice’, but, for whatever reason, he didn’t.
Instead he made his way to the essays and letters section, where Susan Sontag offered a smile: “Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)” He heard snippets of Spanish and Italian. He skipped to the second essay. “No one should undertake a discussion of pornography before acknowledging the pornographies – there are at least three – and before pledging to take them on one at a time.” Ms Sontag’s intellectual hooks had him in their grasp. He tucked the paperback – also published by Penguin – under his armpit.
Ah, there she is. Rosa’s face came into view from behind a whitewashed pillar; her square, chocolate face, out of which shone surprising bright blue eyes; her unassuming nose; those lips that turned his own into an adjacent jigsaw piece; the scar on her chin. She wore a typical Rosa Colbert outfit: a black leather jacket over a grey turtleneck, dark blue jeans, and yellow trainers scuffed by their endless strolls. Her hair was darker than her skin but lighter than her jacket.
‘Hello, my love.’
‘I heard a kiss from you.’
This was another routine of theirs. Ernest would recite the first half of the first line of Shuggie Otis’ Strawberry Letter 23, and Rosa would respond with the second half. For a long time, Ernest thought the title was a joke, since the only strawberry letter mentioned in the song was ‘strawberry letter 22’. He discovered the title’s meaning whilst browsing Genius.com, that haven for music nerds like himself. He might have solved the puzzle on his own if he’d listened to the lyrics more closely, but that may just be some unconscious male thinking right there. In any case, he learned the truth from the great Shuggie himself: “The song has nothing to do with a strawberry.” Ernest’s mind was not exactly blown by this. “What I pictured when I was writing that song, was a girl handing a guy a pink envelope. A love letter. The guy and the girl had written each other twenty-two letters so far. And the twenty-third one he writes is a song.” It seems, therefore, that Strawberry Letter 23 is the twenty-third strawberry letter in question, which would suggest that Mr. Otis and ‘the guy’ are one and the same person.
‘Not yet,’ said Rosa, in her gently nasal voice. ‘Ooh, what have you got there?’
‘A collection of Susan Sontag essays. They seem excellent.’
‘You do like her, don’t you?’
‘I do indeed.’
‘Can I read them after?’
‘Of course, my dear. I think I’ll head back to the fiction section.’
‘Sure, I’m off to the music.’
‘See you in a bit.’
‘I look forward to it already.’
On the way back to his sanctuary, Ernest was met by a shocking sight: a Foyles bookseller was wearing a kilt. Like most Scottish leg-clothes, it was a simultaneously murky and garish number; it reminded Ernest of his many half-Scottish friends who wore their trews at every opportunity. And yet, somehow, this employee managed to pull off his absurd legwear. Ernest then realised that this was an unfortunate turn of phrase. Better put, the fifty-year-old man in question showed himself to be a man of character. No doubt the magic of the bookshop persuaded Ernest of this.
He moved onwards, desperate to find a novel for the coming weekend. He had heard whispers of a 1020-page tome by one Lucy Ellman, and was also intrigued by Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. But Ernest Krandle had more than browsing in mind: he was taking notes for a short-form piece about Foyles.
Most of the male browsers were wearing t-shirts or polos. Ernest wished this could be put down to some proclivity for short-sleeved clothing amongst book aficionados, but the reason was far simpler: it was a warm day.
The men were outnumbered, both by books and by women. The only place where they dominated was the intriguing corner dedicated to records, ‘Ray’s Jazz’, which Ernest tended to visit halfway through each Foyles trip, when his head was spinning with too many opening paragraphs.
At the time of note-making, he was in the section marked ‘I’. Beyond Ibsen and Ishiguro, it was not the most exciting of sections, but it was here that Ernest saw an old man making notes on a small sheet of paper. This old man, let us call him Bernie, was wearing a black suit, a white shirt, and a black tie. Bernie’s hair was grey and thinning. On second thought, he was more of a Rupert. Rupert’s attention was divided between the waiter’s notepad in his hand and the books on the third shelf from the top. Ernest began to make notes about Rupert making notes, and he wondered what would happen if Rupert turned around, whether they would share a smile, or whether Rupert would scoff at Ernest’s inconveniently large pad of paper, an A4 pad, so inferior to Rupert’s compact scrawling space, or whether Ernest would look away for fear of being caught in the act. But Rupert never turned his head. He went on making notes, and Ernest wondered whether Rupert could be making notes about his making notes about his making notes. If Ernest had been able to steal a glimpse of Rupert’s notepad, the only words he would have read were ‘John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany’.
Moving to the ‘K’ section, Ernest Krandle stopped writing. He took a closer look. Yes, there was no doubt about it. That was the cover, with its royal blue background and pure white title. The woman holding it looked roughly his age, which is to say the right side of twenty-five. She was tall, perhaps five foot nine, and she had a slight but muscular frame. Her face was thinner than she’d have liked, but this allowed her cheekbones to protrude. Her hair was a very light brown. These were Ernest’s first impressions of Sophie Shaw, who was examining his second novel, eyes moving left to right and steadily downwards. She flipped the book over to re-read the blurb; glanced again at the cover; flicked to a random page one-third of the way through; took a final look at the cover; and returned the book to its shelf.
Ernest felt a mixture of disappointment, anger and, strangely, relief. But he allowed his disappointment to grow, and soon the cancer had spread throughout his body.
She looked up, and her face was kind. Ernest noticed that her bottom teeth were ever-so-slightly crooked. ‘Yes?’
‘Sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering something: what made you put that book down?’
‘Which one? Version Six?’
‘Yep, that’s the one.’
‘Oh, well, no reason in particular. I guess it didn’t grab me enough.’
‘Too many books to choose from, huh?’
‘Yeah, exactly. It looked good, but… I don’t know, not quite my cup of tea.’
‘How come? Are you a fan of…’, she glanced at the bookshelf, ‘… Ernest Krandle?’
‘Um, yes, I think he’s a decent writer.’ Ernest noticed a stain on her dress. ‘Version Six is a good read, even if it’s got some issues.’
She smiled, but wondered where this was going. Luckily for both of them, Rosa returned at this point. ‘Made a friend?’
‘Um, well, sort of. She was having a look at Version Six.’
‘No way! That’s so great.’
‘Uhh, how come? Do you like it?’
‘Of course! Don’t let Ernest sell himself short, it’s a wonderful novel.’ Rosa gave her boyfriend a loving smile, but he was busy wondering how long it would take this poor woman to cotton on.
‘I’m confused. Are you Ernest Krandle?’
‘Um… Surprise.’ Ernest’s voice contained the faintest trace of jazz hands.
‘Wow, I’ve never bumped into a writer at a bookshop.’
‘You’d think we spend all our time haunting shelves like these, but actually we just wallow in self-pity at home. Far less effort.’
‘Ha, ha, tell me about.’ Sophie tucked hair behind her ear. ‘Well, Ernest, I think I’ll buy your book.’
‘Oh, you don’t have to-.’
‘Well, as long as you don’t feel forced into it.’
‘No, not at all. It’ll be a memento to this… surreal encounter.’
As if to ratify this description, Rosa said, ‘Do you want to have coffee with us?’ Although it tried to, this question didn’t surprise Ernest.
“We can discuss Ernest’s book.”
‘Crikey.’ By way of explanation he added, ‘Rosa loves making new friends.’
Sophie hesitated. She didn’t understand these people. Either they were supremely confident or incredibly socially awkward. But they were a wonderful pair, full of varied smiles. ‘Okay, sure. Anyone as bold as you guys should be worth hanging out with. Mind if I buy this first?’
‘How could I mind? Meet you outside in a few minutes?’
Sophie went to the front desk downstairs, and, a minute later, Version Six was hers. As for Ernest, he bought Styles of Radical Will and, in a typically impulsive move after hours of private deliberation, the latest Elizabeth McCracken novel. Rosa restricted herself to one book, Philip Glass’ Words Without Music. The paperback edition was gold on black.
With their books clasped in sweaty palms, the young couple sauntered outside to meet Sophie.
‘I don’t think we know your name,’ said Ernest, as a bus creaked nearby.
‘Oh. I’m Sophie.’
‘Nice to meet you, Sophie.’
‘Just in case you’d forgotten, I’m Ernest, and this is Rosa.’
‘Ha, ha, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting your names anytime soon.’
They went to a café that Rosa knew well, having once attempted to write an album of her own in its coffee-scented rooms. They made their way to the counter, which was womanned by two fresh-faced baristas with clips in their hair.
Ernest ordered a matcha latte with no sugar, Rosa ordered a cup of English Breakfast, although she resented paying for a drink that cost all of 10p at home (bearing in mind a healthy dash of milk), and Sophie ordered a cappuccino. Truth be told, Ernest and Rosa were in need of some caffeine, having stayed up until two that morning watching Groundhog Day and making slow, passionate love (one activity after the other rather than simultaneously; their Bill Murray fandom didn’t extend that far). As for Sophie, she and a few school friends had gone to a bar until the late hour of eleven-thirty p.m., at which point she returned home feeling far tipsier than anyone should after two pints of cider. But she gulped down a jug of water before bed and slept through till ten. Upon rising, she thanked her bladder for its remarkable service and delighted at her head’s lack of ache.
They found a window table for three; Ernest sat next to Rosa, and Sophie sat opposite them. ‘I don’t know many men that drink matcha lattes,’ she said. Ernest realised that their friendship was a dead cert.
‘Well, as Rosa will tell you,’ with a smile already forming, ‘I’m very confident in my masculinity.’
‘Oh yeah, you’re in the presence of a real man’s man.’ Rosa winked at Sophie, who then asked Rosa what she did for a living.
 He played one.