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Back cover copy:
John March is having a good day. He doesn’t have many. Then it starts to rain.
John March runs a struggling bookshop with just one regular customer – Mr. Hill. His life is defined by routine until the day he discovers that he is sole beneficiary of a will worth £5 million thanks to the eccentric Mr. Hill’s untimely death.
But Mr. Hill also leaves behind something else – a lock of hair, a finger bone and a tooth in a jar of water.
It’s certainly not the worst day of John’s life. Not until the rain comes and the dying starts.
There is something in the rain. Only John can give it what it wants. And yet, even when people are dying, even in the midst of terror, it's not the hardest thing John's ever faced.
He faces horror every day. When he locks his shop, drives to August House and opens the door to the room where his wife clings to life.
But what he doesn’t know could kill her, because if the rain doesn’t get what it wants, John’s wife will serve just as well.
I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
From “The Cloud”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Tell me didn’t it rain, rain, rain, children.
Rain, oh my Lord.
Didn’t it Rain
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
There was a brass bell above the door to John’s bookshop. It didn’t ring often.
Apart from Friday mornings. Then, it rang without fail.
‘Morning, Mr. Hill,’ said John March, without looking up.
‘John.’ Just that. No greeting. There never was.
John smiled to himself. He put the photograph he used as a bookmark between the pages of his book.
Mr. Hill walked up to the counter. He wouldn’t use a stick, but he could have done with one. His old back was so bent that he was near enough walking at right angles.
He dumped two heavy bags onto the glass counter and sighed, rubbing at the angry red lines across the fat of his fingers.
Beneath the counter was a collection of first editions that really weren’t worth much. John was more worried about the glass breaking than any damage to his books.
‘Got a couple of bags…I don’t know as you’d want ‘em.’
‘I’ll take a look. Let’s see what you’ve got here.’
John could have bought the lot of them in the charity shops for about a tenner. He knew full well that Mr. Hill had bought them for about the same.
It wasn’t the point though.
John March wasn’t a local, but he wanted to make friends. It wasn’t easy for an outsider to make a living with a bookshop in small town
Norfolk. Any friends he could make were worth
their weight in gold.
Mr. Hill had been a customer in his first week, six months back. He came in every week. The fact that John hadn’t made a single penny from their transactions wasn’t the point. He wasn’t even doing his civic duty, looking after the town’s pensioners. Friends were hard to come by.
‘How’s Betsy?’ asked John, as he stacked the books on the counter. He put the two hardbacks to one side. He’d never sell them. There were seventeen paperbacks. Each book in mint condition.
Mr. Hill seemed to think the condition of the book was the sole criteria for saleability.
‘Farts all the time. Don’t matter what I feed her. She just stinks.’
‘Maybe it’s an allergy?’
John nodded. That’s the way it goes, he thought. Sometimes you get a conversation. Sometimes you get one liners, leaving you nowhere to go.
‘Well,’ said John, pursing his lips, readying for the haggle, ‘I can give you £2 for these.’ He laid a hand on the hardbacks. ‘£5 for the paperbacks.’
‘I was thinking ten for the lot.’
‘Ah, Mr. Hill. You know…’
‘Don’t tell me you don’t sell the hardbacks. You’ve got plenty.’
That’s because nobody buys them, thought John, but he didn’t say that.
‘How about £8 for the lot?’
‘I reckon they’re worth at least a tenner.’
John kept his face completely clear of expression. He just looked at Mr. Hill.
Mr. Hill went right on staring back at him.
John opened the till. Took out a tenner. Handed it to Mr. Hill.
Mr. Hill nodded.
‘Thanks, John. I’ll keep my eye out for some other good ‘uns.’
‘I appreciate it.’
Mr. Hill looked like he was going to say more. John didn’t know if something was expected of him.
Mr. Hill didn’t leave.
‘You want to come out back for a coffee?’
A nod of a droopy face, and a small smile. Not really a smile. Just a hint of a smile, drifting past his eyes like a cloud passing the sun.
‘Don’t drink coffee. Plays me guts up. I left Betsy alone though. She can’t do the walk to town no more.’
John nodded himself. He felt he’d done something right. He didn’t know what, but Mr. Hill seemed pleased.
‘I’ll tell Mrs. Oldham about your shop. She likes a read.’
‘Thanks. I could always use the custom.’
‘She likes the old romances. Don’t do anything for me. I like a western. The old war stories, too. I weren’t old enough to fight in the war. My eldest brother did, though.’
‘He must have some stories.’
‘He’s dead now.’
Idiot. Mr. Hill didn’t seem to mind, though.
‘I’ve got some westerns, if you’d like to take a look.’
‘Maybe next time.’
Every week, it was like an interview, or a test, except John didn’t know the questions, or the answers, or the subject.
‘Well, nice to see you.’
‘You, too, John. Thanks. It’s been a pleasure.’ Mr. Hill smiled at John. It was a warm smile.
John watched Mr. Hill walking down the alley past the big glass front, puzzled. ‘It’s been a pleasure’. He didn’t know why the phrase struck him as odd. Maybe it was just because it wasn’t the sort of thing Mr. Hill usually said. Normally he talked about his dog, Betsy, or his aching joints, or the weather.
Probably just freaked out because I got somewhere today, he thought. Trying to get the old man to buy a book was his current goal in life. He felt he’d come close, today.
He put it from his mind, then sat down and picked up his book to pass the time.
Time was something he had plenty of.
Mr. Hill struggled up Cemetery Road to his house. His back ached. His knees were like bowling balls of pain. Lawn bowls, not that American ten-pin kind. Thank God. His wrists, his shoulders, even his ankles were all swollen.
A journey that would have taken a younger man maybe fifteen minutes took him over half an hour.
When he got to Mrs. Oldham’s door he knocked. He didn’t like electrical doorbells. He waited a long time for her to come to the door and was grateful for the breather.
By the time she reached the door he was breathing normally again. He hadn’t smoked a damn cigarette for nearly thirty years.
Mabel Oldham opened the door tentatively, no doubt expecting a cold caller. She beamed when she saw who it was.
If he’d been wearing a hat, he would have taken it off. She was a beautiful woman. Mr. Hill had been raised to take his hat off even to ugly women, but for Mrs. Oldham, he would have taken it off quicker.
Eighty-two and he bet she could still get out the bath on her own.
‘Mabel. How you keeping?’
‘Fair to middling, same as always. You want to come in?’
‘Nope. Just stopped by.’
Mabel waited. David looked up at the sky.
‘David Hill, if I didn’t know better I’d swear you were daydreaming.’
He turned his gaze away and chuckled. It was a wet sound, but not unpleasant.
‘Just looking for the rain.’
‘Is rain coming?’ she asked. He was staring off into the sky again. ‘David?’
‘Sorry, Mabel. The new guy?’
‘Have you got dementia?’
‘No I have not! Sharp as a wicket, same as I always was.’
She smiled, to show she meant no harm. It was an entirely disarming smile.
Mr. Hill really wished he had a hat.
‘He’s got some romance novels in,’ he said.
‘What do you think of him?’
He wobbled his head, side to side, like he was thinking about it. Mabel wasn’t fooled though.
‘You like him, don’t you?’
If it was good enough for David, it was good enough for her.
‘I’ll phone the girls.’
‘Thanks, Mabel.’ David sucked his lips in.
‘What time do you get up?’
‘David, you’re being strange.’
He smiled. ‘Sorry. My mind’s wandering. Maybe it’s dementia.’ Mr. Hill poked his tongue out sideways.
Mabel giggled. She didn’t want to, but she couldn’t help it. ‘I thought as much,’ she said, refusing to give him a rise. ‘About five, usually. I don’t sleep like I used to, but I sleep pretty well in the hours I do get.’
‘What’s got into you?’
He reached into his jacket pocket and took out a letter.
‘Would you give this to John when you see him next?’
Mabel looked at the letter. ‘What are you up to?’
‘Just a favour. You wouldn’t mind, would you?’
‘Why can’t you give it to him?’
David tapped the side of his nose. Winked.
Mabel shook her head.
‘Just give me the damn letter. I don’t know,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Now, would you come in? You look all done in.’
‘Nope. Thanks all the same. Got to get home before the rain.’
‘It is going to rain? I better get my washing in.’
‘It’s not that kind of rain,’ he said.
‘What are you talking about? There’s only one kind of rain.’
Mabel could have sworn she saw his eyes change colour. Like a clear sky to a cloudy one. Bright blue to grey. But when she looked again, he was just what he’d always been. A kind and warm hearted old man. Sad and alone, like so many people their age. Today he looked like he felt every one of his seventy-nine years.
‘Yep. Only one kind of rain,’ he said.
‘There you go then.’
‘And this ain’t it.’
He tipped an imaginary hat to her.
‘It’s been a pleasure, Mabel. You make sure and visit the boy. Remember, give him the letter when you see him next.’
‘I’m not daft, David Hill. Unlike some I could mention.’
‘Thanks, Mabel,’ he said. He stepped up smartly and kissed her on the cheek.
‘He’ll have a good read for you,’ he said, and walked away into the crisp, cool day. The leaves on the trees had turned. Most had fallen. The sky was a clear cold blue, like an old man’s eyes.
John flipped the sign on the front door to read closed before he locked it. He took the alley in the opposite direction to the high street and the shops, toward the back of the council offices, where his car was parked. He carried two bags, full of all the books he’d bought from Mr. Hill.
His car started with a cough before settling into a steady chug. The exhaust was going, probably already blown, but he didn’t have the money to fix it, and it was far from urgent. The car, a ten-year old Volvo, would be good for a few years yet. Maybe another ten. It was worn but it still did the job.
With the sun visor down to cut the glare from the late autumn sun, John pulled onto the one way system that was the bane of the town’s residents and drove slowly, lost in thought. Local radio played on in the background, through some songs, the news, the weather, some adverts. He didn’t hear any of it.
He arrived without really seeing anything the whole journey. Gravel crunched under the tyres as he reversed into a visitor’s parking space at August House. Lips pursed, he ran a hand through his thick beard, trying to tame it. Checked his hair in the rear view mirror.
‘Like she’d notice.’
He shook his head and got out.
The gravel grated under his heels. He had to squint in the bright sun as he punched the code to the front door and went in.
‘Afternoon,’ he said to one of the nurses making her way through the lobby as he signed the visitor’s log.
Jane, he remembered.
‘How is she?’
He checked the name tag above her breast, carefully, when he was sure she wouldn’t notice, so she didn’t think he was looking at her tits.
‘She was bright this morning. She listened to the radio, ate all her breakfast. She had a nap, too.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘That’s good.’
She smiled warmly at him, but there was something in her eyes. That something that people always got in their eyes when they were looking at a man like him.
He took care of himself, but somehow women knew. He didn’t know if it was the way he ironed his shirts, or forgot to comb his beard, but they all knew…here’s a man fending for himself. A man eating meal deals for one; microwave meals without any vegetables in them, unless you counted mushrooms and onions. Maybe taking a tipple to get him through the afternoons. Maybe more than a tipple in the evenings.
‘I brought some books,’ he said. ‘For the home.’
He nodded. Just stood there.
‘Shall I take them?’
‘Yes. Thank you.’
He handed her the books with a nod and headed past the lift and took the stairs. Anything to put it off.
Why do you come every day? Why do you do it to yourself, even when you hate it?
Same reason you buy Mr. Hill’s books, then give them to a care home. You think maybe a day will come when one of the residents will feel like a read. You think maybe they don’t really care if it’s a good book, or a bad book, but that they’ll be happy to just sit in an armchair on a nice autumn day like this and spend some time reading.
But you know they won’t. They never will. It’s endless, pointless optimism.
No. Not pointless. At least the carers have something to read when they’re not shovelling food and changing nappies.
It was the same argument he had with himself at least once a week. Tired, busy, poor, hungry, sad, hung over...it didn’t matter.
The part that loved his wife until death do them part won over every time.
At the top of the stairs he paused and ran his fingernails through his beard again. Then he pushed open the door to his wife’s room.