Eastcote & Belford

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
short story, summary updated lator

Submitted: March 30, 2011

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Submitted: March 30, 2011

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I work at this small book shop in downtown Dublin. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s called Eastcote & Belford, you know, down on Nassau Street. Anyway, ever since I dropped out of Trinity I’ve been working there full-time. It was only a couple months ago that I became the manager and owned the damn place. Mrs. Lansing finally died – she was probably eighty or ninety – and well, the place is mine now. Like I said, it’s a really small place. There’s only two employees, plus me. Catherine Black is one of them – she’s been there longer than me. You know, no one really knows where Catherine came from. Mrs. Lansing told me that she had just shown up wearing pink Wellington’s and saying she wanted to work at the shop. Catherine is, I think, between seventy-four and seventy-six years old. I don’t know, I’m not so good with ages. Anyway, every day she does the same thing. She doesn’t really work, per se. She sits at the table by the French literature section and reads Bitch magazine while listening to soap operas on the radio. Catherine is a pretty happy person, though. Even though she’s in her seventies, her hair has never grayed and she says it’s because she never broods about her life. That might be the one thing she’s revealed about herself, ever. She rarely ever talks about her life. For the longest time, I didn’t even know if she had any family or friends. It wasn’t until one Tuesday about a year ago when a tall brown-haired man in his mid or late thirties showed up asking for Catherine. He actually knocked on the door when asking for her. People don’t usually do that at a book shop, you normally just walk right in. Anyway, he came in, carrying this hat in his hand, and I took him to Catherine. The old woman just grinned, the sides of her eyes were crinkling in that kind of happiness you can’t exactly fake, and took his hands. The two of them just had tea by the bay window until closing time. It turned out – though it wasn’t too difficult to guess – that this tall man with brown hair the exact same shade as Catherine’s was her son. She invited him and he came to tell her that he and his wife were expecting. After that event, Catherine kept receiving more and more visitors, one or two at a time, and had tea with them by the window. I’d always hear them laughing as they exchanged stories and touched hands. Sometimes Catherine invited me to sit with her, but I’d usually protest and say no, I have to work, even when I wanted to. Somehow it just didn’t feel right. After their extended tea time, Catherine would see them off at the door, offering kisses and reminders to always come back or be careful. And she would wave to them until they were out of sight and I would start to feel sad. It wasn’t because I knew them well or anything; it was probably just because I don’t have a family I can invite over for tea anytime I want. I left my family ten years ago back in Boston. Or rather, it felt like they left me. At least my mother did by choice. They say she had a mental illness, but I think it was because she had a heavy heart. She cared too much for people. Here’s how I see it: it was as if she was carrying a bucket already filled with water, but people kept pouring in more water and no one came to help her with the bucket and no one thought to stop pouring. I guess it’s just feeling like you can’t handle it anymore. I feel like that sometimes too. Only for me, it’s loneliness. Or maybe it’s disappointment. You know, the reason why I even came to Ireland is because of my mom. She’s a native. She used to tell my stories about her life in Dublin and how fantastic it was, the cobblestone streets and the bicycles and living statues. She made it sound like magic. Except after being here for ten years it doesn’t feel like magic anymore.
My days are basically the same every day. I wake up around six or six-thirty, buy myself a bagel and say hello to Jonathan at the bakery, work at the shop until four or five, and eat dinner, sometimes alone or with friends. Half of me is so grateful that I have a routine that I know won’t ever change. The other half of me wonders what I’m missing. I’m only twenty-nine and I feel like I’ve already lived my whole life. However, it wasn’t until a few days ago that I felt like my life might have some change. I had received a phone call from my sister Claudia. She’s still living in Boston with her husband. She told me that she misses me and she’s coming to visit me for a week or two. She’s coming next Thursday, which is only four days away. I was told not to make any preparations for her or any other sort of fuss, despite the fact that I haven’t seen Claudia for two or three years. Today I took off work and spent most of my day at home. I live in this small, one-bedroom flat a couple blocks away from Eastcote & Belford. I’ve had it since my freshman year at Trinity and I bought it specifically for the location since it was so close to school. It’s a really cute place, it reminds me a lot of those adjacent townhouses back in Boston. There’s a Chinese restaurant one floor below me, a psychic’s home and office right next door, and a hemp shop and bakery, too. The flat itself has these pretty, but scratched-up-from-use rosewood floors and lots of lattice windows. I set up a bed in the living room for Claudia right by the TV, because I know she likes to watch TV to fall asleep. I dusted, scrubbed, mopped, sprayed, and washed pretty much everything in my tiny home so it looked a bit more presentable. Claudia’s never been here before and I’m not exactly sure why she’s choosing now to come visit, but I often remind myself that she’s my sister Claudia and she’s spontaneous just like our mother. It’s just her way of doing things.
The next day I came to work and announced to Catherine that my sister Claudia was coming to visit me.
“I didn’t know you had a sister,” she said.
I shrugged. “Oh. Well, I guess I never talked that much about her. Yeah, my sister just turned twenty-six last month. You’d love her, I’m sure. She’s coming to visit on Thursday.”
“Is she like you?”
“Er,” I said. “I don’t know. She doesn’t care for books that much. She’s very much into beauty.” I paused. “Do you have any sisters?” I asked.
“Once,” she said vaguely, looking off into the distance. That signaled the end of our conversation.
As I’ve mentioned before there is a second employee besides Catherine. For some reason, that second spot was often vacant with interchangeable employees. First, there was Mr. Porter who rarely spoke. He used to be a frequent customer and whenever he visited, he’d always read these books he’d never buy. He soon became an employee, but that was only so he could get discounts and finally buy the books. I remember he often ignored the customers when they asked for help -- not because he was rude, but too immersed in whatever novel he was reading. Mrs. Lansing wasted no time to let him go. Then there was Mary, a single mother and artist, who joined the staff shortly after her divorce. I liked her a lot. Her oil paintings were stunning and she liked to hang them up around the shop. She remarried only a few months after her divorce and moved to Cork with her new husband. Pity, I never heard from her again. There were a few others here and there until Thomas Muller arrived nine or ten months ago. Thomas is from Berlin. He’s a third-year student at Trinity, studying European history. He fits in well, even though he doesn’t say much; although I think it might be because his English is so poor. He’s very orderly; he’s quite fond of wearing neatly pressed Oxford shirts buttoned to the top. Yet he keeps his dark blond hair very messy in a mop-top style, sort of like the Beatles’. Catherine and I both find him quite fascinating. He laughs at all my jokes, even though he might not always understand them. And I think he may have an extreme case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Always the first to come and last to leave, Thomas is oddly devoted to making sure everything is in its right place. I’m certainly not complaining, though. Every table and window has been wiped spotless and books are shuffled in alphabetical order and are color-coded. And when he feels that he is done -- after cleaning and organizing in cycles -- he sits on one of our white couches and reads for hours.
One slow business day, I saw that he was reading the German version of The Picture of Dorian Gray for the third time in two weeks, I believe. “Why are you reading it again so quickly?” I asked unabashedly.
Thomas shrugged. “There are only a few books in the German section,” he said, pointing at the nearly empty shelf by the fish tank.
“Really?” I walked over and examined the shelf. There had to be at least eight books. “I’m sorry, you must be disappointed.”
Thomas shrugged again. “It’s okay.”
I sat down across from him. “I can restock the German section. What kind of books do you like to read?”
“Kafka, Nietzsche, that sort of thing,” Thomas mumbled. “You don’t have to do this. It cost lots of money.”
“It isn’t a big deal for me. Plus, I’m sure there are other Germans living in the area that might want something to cater to them as well.”
Thomas had looked at me blankly, indicating that he didn’t understand a word I had said. It didn’t matter. By the following month, a huge shipment of books from Austria and Germany came in. As Thomas and I quietly stacked the shelves, I saw him stop and smile as he read the back of one of the books. He told me he appreciated me. I told him that I had ordered historical German biographies. He likes that sort of thing.
On the Thursday Claudia was to arrive, business was slow. Business is usually slow on Thursdays for some reason, but come the weekend it’s quite crowded. Anyway, since there were no customers, Catherine, Thomas, and I decided to play a game of cards. I think we enjoyed ourselves a lot, sitting by the window eating crackers while dealing cards and laughing at jokes. Catherine’s daughter even stopped in on her way to the pharmacy and joined us for a bit. I liked how small and intimate our little group was. And when I looked at the four of us, all of us so different with different stories and personalities and ages, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s been a long time since I felt that homey feeling.
That night I waited by the terminal for Claudia to come out. I’ve never told anyone this before, but I secretly love airports. I love to see all the people rushing and wondering where they’re going and why. I think of all the cities and countries and the people on the other side waiting to welcome others in from a long flight. But I think one of the best parts is seeing people walk out of their terminals, their eyes searching for a familiar face. And when they do spot that familiar face, or faces, their whole face brightens and they quicken their speed to get over there and hug their friend or family member. I’ve seen military soldiers and business men reunite with their wives and children, all squealing and sometimes crying. I’ve seen mothers throw their arms around their sisters or daughters, elderly people with their children and grandchildren, and best friends coming together again. It doesn’t matter how long people have been away from each other because the minute they’re together again, it’s as if the time and distance apart never happened. And that’s exactly how I felt when I saw my beautiful sister Claudia emerge out of the terminal, wearing her favorite pair of gray yoga pants she’s had since high school and a Red Sox sweatshirt. Her light chestnut-brown hair was twisted into a messy bun near the top of her head and she was wearing glasses instead of contacts. She looked tired, yet alert as she scanned the crowd looking for me.
“Claudia!” I shouted.
Her eyes found mine and a grin spread across her face. “Oh my GOD!” she screamed, and rushed over to hug me. “I can’t believe it’s you!” she said in my hair.
“I missed you,” I said softly.
“I missed you, too, Natalie!” she gushed. “God, you look different.”
I laughed. “How?”
“You look older, wiser. You know, the way women look when they’re near thirty.”
“You’re weird. Come on, let’s go get your luggage.”
“Oh my God, you talk different, too! What is this? You’re picking up some kind of Irish accent that’s mixing with your regular one.”
“I’m not!”
“You are, you are. See, this is why you need to come back to Boston with me. You’re losing your identity,” she said, grinning. I half-laughed. I knew she was joking, but a part of me thought about how true that could be.
While we waited for her luggage, I took a look at my sister to see if anything had changed since I last saw her. She still has that tall, slender built with wide hips. I think our faces look more alike, too. We both have light freckles on our cheekbones that spread across our pointy noses that have identical bumps in them. Hers used to look more hawkish, but I think she’s grown into it. She also looks more mature. The last time I visited her in Boston, she was twenty-three and still had that single, party-girl persona most women in their early twenties have. Now at twenty-six, Claudia definitely looks more self-assured. Yet I also noticed something a bit more unsettling. Despite her bubbly demeanor, Claudia looked very troubled. It seems she’s working hard to hide it, but as her sister I know these things. I can sense them easily. It reminded me of my mother, someone else who liked to mask things with happy faces to hide what was really going on.
I decided not to bring anything up until she did. Instead, we talked about everything under the sun. She told me about how she got promoted to assistant co-manager at the makeup store she works at. She also told me that she and her husband Jared just bought a gorgeous townhouse on Commonwealth Avenue and she can’t wait to decorate it. At the moment, she still lived in the townhouse we grew up in, the one my father bought thirty years ago with my mother when they had first married. Claudia had still been living with my father until the day he passed away in his sleep six years ago and she had assumed the responsibilities of the house after his death.
“I couldn’t wait to get out. I think now, you know, Jared and I have been married for a year and it’s about time we pulled our money together and moved to somewhere new,” Claudia was saying to me in the car. “Start over, you know.”
“I agree,” I said. “Too much has happened in that house.”
She nodded. “Yeah, but. You don’t really understand, Natalie,” she said with a sigh. “You don’t know what everyday life at home is like anymore.”
She turned on her side and went to sleep for the remainder of the forty-minute ride home. That left the silence to me, a very uncomfortable silence that kept me thinking until we got home. Claudia had woken up by the time we arrived and I helped her carry her luggage in. She took her shower, brushed her teeth, and just as old times, she watched TV until she fell asleep.
I brought Claudia with me to work for the next few days. She was a very entertaining temporary worker. She made customers laugh and she was bouncing all over the store with her handmade name tag (“Why don’t you guys have name tags?”...“Because there’s only three of us, I think it doesn’t matter if the customer knows or not.”...“That’s ridiculous. Then I’ll just make my own. Everyone should know my name.”) that she had taped to her chest. Claudia liked to listen to soap operas on the radio with Catherine during lunch time. One of her favorite things to do was to announce what she thought was going to happen later and see if she was right or not. Most of the time, she was quite accurate. Meanwhile, she actually got Thomas to open up more about his life (despite the language barrier), something that Catherine and I previously couldn’t do. Things felt brighter.
“Your sister reminds me of my sister,” Catherine said to me. “Full of sunlight. Life.”
“Full of life” described Claudia perfectly. I had never seen her so happy. When we were doing laundry, we had a petty argument over separating colors from whites that somehow turned into a clothing fight. We laughed for the longest time, wiping tears as we picked up each dirty sock and T-shirt and threw them back into the basket.
“I’ve missed you, Natalie,” was all she said.
As the day of her departure neared, the unsettling look on Claudia’s face that I had seen back at the airport resurfaced. She was still happy and full of energy, but the conversations we had late at night were changing. She’d ask me questions regarding life and purpose, but in a less broad sense. Tonight, while we were lying on her bed in the darkness, she opened the conversation with asking me why I dropped out of Trinity.
I sighed. “Dad couldn’t pay for it anymore.”
“Really? Is that the only reason?”
“Mm, yeah. I think so.” I paused. “You know, I was really excited to start college here.”
“I remember!”
“Yeah. See, I applied here the same year Mom died. I was really drawn to Ireland, really, because it was like a tangible piece of her and I just wanted it so badly. And I studied English for the first two years and when Dad called me and dropped the bomb that he couldn’t pay for me anymore, it felt like ... I don’t know.”
“Like your world was falling apart?”
“Yeah.”
We were quiet for a moment. “Do you like your life here, Natalie?”
“Yes,” I said softly. “Yes and no.” I turned on my side and faced her. “I love it because Ireland has become my home. It just has. And ... I do love working at the book shop, I do. It’s just that sometimes I feel like ... I don’t know. Lost? It’s like sometimes when I’m organizing the books or even just looking at myself in the mirror that I’ll stop and just think, What am I even doing here? And then sometimes I miss my life back home and then I think, what life?” I paused. “My adolescence? The ghost of my mother that seems to haunt the house she died in? Claudia, the life I’ve built here isn’t what I planned or thought it was going to be, but it’s the only life that I really know.” I swallowed hard. “It’s all I have.”
“I know how you feel. I know exactly.” Another moment of silence passed between us. “Natalie?” she whispered hoarsely.
“Yeah?”
“I’m miserable,” she whispered. “I can’t stand my marriage anymore.”
I sat up. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. It scares me because Jared is such a wonderful guy who has put up with my shit for the past five years and I just want to throw it all away.”
“Claudia…”
“Jared has done nothing wrong. It’s me. I just feel like I don’t have any control over my life. I’m only in my twenties and I just feel…”
“Like you’ve lived your whole — ”
“Life already?” Claudia finished with a bitter laugh. “Yeah. That’s exactly it. And you know what, Natalie? I haven’t felt like I knew what I was doing since before Mom died.”
She said it. The thought that has been eating me away for years that I never wanted to admit to myself. And I didn’t even know it was eating away at Claudia, too.
“Me, too.”
“Natalie, do you remember when we found her?”
My stomach sank. “Yes.”
“She was just…lying there in the bathtub, so still. And we saw the blood. Her eyes. God...” Claudia swallowed loudly. “And nothing, nothing was the same again.”
“Nothing,” I said. “It broke my heart.” The pain from that image seeped through my voice and I knew Claudia understood me.
“Natalie, do you ever feel like running away from everything?”
“Sometimes.”
Claudia sat up. “What if we could just do that? Think about it. Imagine leaving everything here behind, the book shop, your friends, the memory of Trinity. You said to me yourself that this life you’ve created isn’t what you wanted.”
“That’s not — ”
“Shh, listen to me, Natalie. Just think about if we could just pick up ourselves and quietly leave without anyone noticing.”
It was moments like these where Claudia’s spontaneity could be dangerous. “Claudia, wait,” I said tentatively. I couldn’t finish my sentence. Because I realized Claudia had a point. Maybe I didn’t have to run away to start my life over, but the possibility of starting my life over existed. I could quit working at Eastcote & Belford. I’d take all the money I earned and enroll myself back at Trinity. Or if not, I’d find a different place to work. Or maybe I’d move back to Boston because maybe I just never truly belonged in Ireland. And if I left, I’d let myself love again. I’d forgive myself and move on. I could do that.
“We’d never have to hurt as badly as we do now ever again,” Claudia assured me. “We’re nearing thirty, Natalie. Isn’t it time we claimed our lives for ourselves instead of for the past and the people who hurt us?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Natalie, I’m supposed to leave tomorrow and go back to Boston and you know what I’ve realized after being here for so long? That I don’t ever want to go back. So I’m leaving tomorrow, but not to Boston. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, Natalie. And when I got here, it just felt right. It’s one of those things.” She said this very calmly and blasé.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to the train station. I don’t know where I’m going but I want you to come with me.”
We lied there awake for maybe another hour. I thought about my life in Dublin in the past ten years. I thought about all the books with their unforgettable characters and personal tragedies. And I thought about the families in the airports.
“I can’t go with you,” I said.
Claudia sighed, disappointed. “If you change your mind, I’m leaving tomorrow. I’m not sure where I’m going but you can find me at the train station.”
“Just get some sleep and we’ll talk about it in the morning.”
The next morning, Claudia was gone. Her bags were gone. The bed was made. I began to panic. How could I let this happen? Why didn’t I hear the door close? Frantic, I called her. I called the train station. No answer. Nothing. I drove to the train station, as I remembered her last telling me. By the time I arrived at the train station, I saw police cars surrounding the area. Hoards of people were gathered either standing, looking stunned, or running around frantically. A policeman announced something through his megaphone, but I couldn’t hear what it was.
“What’s going on?” I asked another policeman standing by.
He sighed. “There’s been a train collision between Dublin and Cork.”
“What do you mean? When?”
“It happened about two hours ago. Miss, I’m going to have to ask you to clear the station – ”
“Wait,” I pleaded. “My sister…she might have been a passenger on that train!”
“Stay here,” the policeman said.
My fingers were numb as I continued to dial Claudia’s number. I spoke to the station employees and after a nerve-wracking wait while the woman searched on her computer, I found out that Claudia did buy a ticket to Cork. I swallowed.
“No,” I said softly. “No.”
I waited at the train station for hours. By nightfall I found out just how terrible the collision really was. Over a hundred died and another hundred were wounded. The collision was not very far from the train station and I could see black smoke spiraling up toward the sky.
“Is your sister Claudia Wallace?” the policeman I spoke to earlier asked me.
“Yes.”
“I have her suitcases and purse,” said the policemen, gesturing to her luggage. “I’m sorry for your loss, miss.”
I nodded numbly. I took her things, placed them gingerly in the trunk of my car and drove home in silence. I walked in my home and quietly shut the door. I let the keys slip out of my hand. I stood there for the longest time before I collapsed on the floor sobbing. I crumbled on the floor.
My first thought was that I had to tell Jared, but what could I tell him besides that his wife had died? I didn’t want to be the one who had to tell him. But I managed to pick myself up and dial Jared’s number. It was six o’clock at night in Boston; dinnertime. While the phone rang, I thought about Jared setting down his fork, wiping his hands on a towel, checking the caller ID to see it was me, and answering, “Hello? Natalie?”
“Hi, Jared,” I said. My voice was trembling. “I’m sorry to bother you, but…”
“Oh, don’t worry about it! It’s so nice to hear from you. How are you doing? Is Claudia okay?”
That’s when I broke down into tears and told him the news. He was silent for a long time and I apologized for being the bearer of bad news.
“I’m sorry, Jared,” I kept saying.
I spent the next few days in sick, sick mourning. Thomas actually came over with soup from Trinity’s kitchen. He sat down next to me quietly and rubbed my back.
“I can’t understand,” I croaked.
Thomas responded in German.
“What?”
“I said that life isn’t meant to be understood. It’s an old saying my mother used to tell me when I was little. Before she died in an accident, too,” Thomas replied.
One week later, I flew to Boston for Claudia’s funeral. I stayed with Jared in his home, my childhood home. My old room was left the way I had left it in high school. All of my books were piled haphazardly on my desk and old sweatshirts were folded on my bed. Afterwards, I went into the bathroom and looked at the bloodstains left on the porcelain from when my mother died. The color had faded; someone had obviously spent a long time trying to scrub it off. But it was staying permanently, the only physical trace left behind from that night, and reminding me that I would never forget. And then, I walked into my parents’ room. The door creaked loudly from being unopened for so many years. I could smell traces of my mother’s perfume as I sank onto my parents’ bed. The bed covers had not been changed. As I lied down on my father’s side of the bed, I began to cry. I don’t think I stopped crying for a long time.
The funeral went well, I think. I spoke to my friends from high school and some of Claudia’s friends. I saw our old teachers, neighbors, and cousins. I even spoke at the funeral without breaking down.
Jared hugged me afterwards and thanked me for everything I had done. I went home, back to Ireland the next morning, feeling a sense of emptiness but also closure. After I got off the plane, I did not go straight home but to Eastcote & Belford. When I opened the door, Catherine was sitting in her seat by the French literature section, drinking tea, listening to soap operas on the radio, and flipping through this month’s Bitch magazine. Thomas was wiping the shelves clean and when I walked in, they both looked at me. Thomas set down his wash cloth and tentatively hugged me. He understood. Catherine set down her magazine and turned the volume down on the radio. The three of us sat down at the table together in silence. Thomas understood. Catherine understood. And I understood. I understood that you can’t plan things in life and that people won’t always listen to what you say. But I also understood that there are people who are not even your family members and you can trust your life with them and they will take it seriously. And they will be there for you.
Thomas opened a drawer and pulled out a deck of cards. “Do you want to play a game?”
“Yes,” I replied quietly. “I would like that.”





© Copyright 2019 Claire van der Kerc. All rights reserved.

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