By Yewande Omotoso
Muriel knew people talked about her. They didn't like her. Said she ate her own babies, that's why she was alone. Muriel heard the gossip, the things that were whispered. News got around easy amongst the business owners on Grandville Drive, all anyone had to do was go to Hazel's and spend thirty minutes getting a blow dry or a perm and the news would become viral.
Muriel heard a screech of brakes and horns going, she stretched from her seat behind the counter and looked out the window, cars sped past. It was always busy on Grandville, that's why the businesses stayed, decades on. The Laundromat next door, for instance, had come through many generations and little Harry, he wasn't so little any more, was convinced he'd hand it over to his daughter and she'd continue the family business. Muriel snorted, good luck getting any of the kids these days to show any sign of common sense, the kind of sense required to run a business. Running their mouths is all they did, yack yack yack. Muriel snorted again, she was the only one in her bookshop so she could make whatever noises she pleased. Despite the bustle that went by, few people came into the bookshop these days, maybe that's why all the gossip. About crazy Muriel, Muriel the witch, going blind in one eye and walking with a stick that became a crow that became a broom after midnight. She sucked her teeth and continued packaging books. Most of her customers these days were her age and older, bed-ridden, phoning in orders for the new books or revised collections of their favourite authors. Muriel spent most of her time wrapping parcels. It didn't make business sense anymore but it was something to do and she felt closer to Jamal when she was with the books. He'd died between stacks D and E, carrying a Hemingway and two African poetry collections. He'd died with a thump. The doctors said natural causes, old age. His heart stopped.
Muriel finished addressing the last of the parcels for the week, placing the packages in the brown box. Everything in order, boxed by the door so when Vinesh put his head through in the morning there'd be no scurrying about looking for anything. Not like she'll be busy though, not like there'll be queues at the check-out desk and Muriel with her hands full of customers. No, busyness was for another time, something for the young, people who could still fall in love with still a life to make.
For a quick period of the day Grandville got quiet. The lunchtime crowd crawled back to office desks. The old woman went and stood by the open door for a bit, she liked doing that, liked to watch the quiet, some housewife with laundry perhaps, but mostly nothing doing. Muriel liked to know she wasn't the only one, even if only for a moment. The noise would return soon enough, the school kids out, the jostle of workers on their way home, stopping for this and that, useful things, on Grandville.
“Hazel” Muriel raised a hand to greet and turned back inside.
The phone rang.
“Jamal's Books…yes, this is a bookshop - Jamal's Books. I'm Muriel, who's this? A viewing? I don't know anything about a viewing, you must have the wrong number.”
The person put the phone down without saying anything. It was all this text messaging and punching buttons on a machine by way of conversation. No one knew how to talk anymore, how to say things. Simple things, like goodbye.
Three o'clock came quickly and Muriel knew it was three because she heard the racket outside.
“Hey," she could shout when she wanted to. "Get away. Move from my shop.”
They backed off the sandblasted shopfront but stayed on the pavement in front of the bookshop, one wearing a yellow beanie with what looked like an Indian chief head embroidered on it. And another, bubble gum in her hair, barefoot but still in uniform. The boy carried one of the girl's shoes, Muriel didn't know where the other one was. The kids regarded Muriel, appraising her, sizing up the threat she was.
“I said get away. Move.”
They inched but with no urgency.
“Got any chappies, Ma'm?”
She doesn't own the pavement, Muriel heard the girl as they slacked further along. Children didn't walk anymore.
“I don't want you standing here, see? Frightening my customers. Dropping your rubbish in front of my shop. Put that in the bin.” Muriel's voice scratched, she could feel it hitting against the walls of her throat, the roof of her mouth.
The boy placed the sweet wrappers into the blue bin. Muriel clenched her teeth and stayed in her doorway watching the kids who now sat on the edge of the pavement with their backs to her.
“I don't sell chappies.” He had upset her. “I sell books. Books, see?”
The kids didn't say anything. The girl raised a middle finger into the air and the boy sniggered.
“Hooligans,” Muriel went back inside, into the coolness of the shop, the stillness.
At six o'clock all of the businesses on Grandville closed except for the Laundromat which closed at nine o'clock. Muriel greeted Harry as she pulled down the roller shutter door, wincing 'cause her back hurt but still thinking, I'm strong, I'm fine. She did that a lot, not just talking to herself but reassuring herself. Maybe that is getting old. Maybe you keep telling yourself everything is okay and then one day you die.
The next morning Muriel was the first to arrive. Sometimes Harry arrived before her but mostly Muriel opened up first. She parked her car in the back but then walked round the front to see that the sign was lit, all the bulbs firing. She smelt it first, stepped in the dark because that street light was dead and slipped, almost falling.
“Jesus” Muriel whispered holding her hand to her nose.
The glass was covered in it; the brown had crusted and fallen off in parts. And someone had run their finger through when it was still wet and written something. In negative, Muriel thought that technique was called. Jamal was the one who was into the art monographs.
“Jesus” she said again.
The light was coming. A yellow bucky with its car lights still on drove down Grandville, stopped and turned into the side street. A door closed and in a few minutes the Laundromat had its front door open. Harry was holding a broom looking at his watch, his staff were always late.
“Muriel” he glanced her way.
She didn't nod. She hadn't moved.
Muriel didn't know what to say so she didn't say anything. Harry leaned the broom against his shopfront, began walking down. The sun will start out now, people will soon come.
“Muriel?” as he got closer and then he scrunched his nose.
“It's bad isn't it?” she asked him.
“Who could have done this?”
Die, the person had etched into the layer of faeces. Die. Die.
Muriel shook her head. "I just…" she'd come to work. It was going to be like any other day. It had made her quiet to see the shopfront of her bookshop slathered in crap and the pavement area and the three big letters, repeated and repeated. On the outskirts of the stillness in her head Muriel heard Harry call to one of his workers that he'd seen arrive, call for a bucket and some Handy Andy. While the cleaning started Harry, much taller than Muriel, guided her into her shop.
She was a guest in her own shop.
“Cause I'm Jewish, you think? Harry? I mean I don't care about that kind of thing.” she held onto his arm, the elbow, dug her thumb into that bend in the body. “I stopped believing long ago. You know Jamal - he'd read to me from the Qur'an, never bothered me. We came to live in this community because Jamal wanted it that way - no one gave us trouble. I was accepted. We never made a fuss. Harry?”
“Don't worry about that now. Can I bring you tea?”
He brought camomile without asking which kind of tea she wanted and Muriel blurted “I'm not going home, I won't sleep. Today I work.”
“But do you think it's safe?” Harry asked. “And how about the children, from yesterday, do you think they were involved in this?”
The mess was cleaned, two people were needed for the job. Is it human? one asked the other, Muriel could hear them from her regular perch behind the desk. It took longer for the smell to clear, even weeks after, Muriel would see people walk past the bookshop and hold their noses. The smell endured, it was of something rotting, with a sour note. It got so that when Muriel arrived in the mornings, opening the shop, she looked for it, sniffing the way an owner might whistle for her dog.
Everyone knew what had happened, there were no secrets on Grandville. The children still came down the pavement but they didn't sit outside the bookshop anymore. Harry popped around sometimes but mostly people went about their business and left Muriel alone.
“How are things today Muriel? I wondered if you weren't tired. I saw you walking to the post office earlier.”
Just a short walk, she'd needed to get out.
“I want to get my own back, Harry.”
“At the kids. I'm going to get my own back.”
“Why don't you be careful, Muriel. I mean, maybe it's time, don't you think?”
She studied him. “I have some work to do.” she finally said even though there was no work.
“Yes, okay. I'll check in later.”
Muriel went out once more to the nearby supermarket and then she returned to the bookshop and waited. At three o'clock Muriel heard the kids come down the walk. She knew it was them because she now knew their voices intimately the way she imagined a mother might recognise her baby's cry. She moved to the front door.
“Hey, you two.”
She startled the kids. The boy still wore the yellow hat even though the days were getting warmer now. He had koki marks on his face as if someone had used him to sketch on. He was licking his fingers and rubbing where the marks were, leaving brown smudges. The girl wore both shoes, a shorter school dress than Muriel remembered. Redder lips.
“Come. I sell chappies now. Come buy.”
Muriel stayed standing just to the side of the doorway while the children mulled over her invitation. The girl already had gum which she popped in ten second intervals. After what felt like a minute they exchanged glances and entered the bookshop, boy first then girl. Muriel followed.
“How many do you want?”
“Twenty cents for one. Give me a rand and I'll give you seven chappies.”
“Like a discount?”
“Well, do you want?”
She'd arranged the bowl of bubble gum on the left side of the main counter. The yellow and green wrappers looked comic in her shop. She'd arranged the plate of pie next to the bowl of gum. The kids would be hungry, she knew. They were scruff, really, they were from nothing. She saw them eye the food.
“Want some pie? That's for free. I baked it myself.”
“No M'am” the boy said.
“No thanks” the girl followed his cue.
They paid one rand and still at the counter, Muriel watching, divided the goodies. The seventh chappy presented a problem.
“Cut it” the girl suggested.
“Uh uh, it was my money anyway. I'll take it.”
They moved from the counter, wandering about the stacks, touching things with sticky fingers.
“Hey! Come from there.” Muriel said but the kids paid her no mind.
“Have you read all these books, M'am?”
They'd split up, Muriel followed the girl, she had the dirtiest hands. At least Muriel knew they wouldn't steal anything.
“What's this one M'am?”
“Leave that.” Muriel took the book from the girl. Cradled the thinness of it - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
The child moved on.
“And this one? Who's A-che-bee?”
“Please don't touch anything. Where's your brother?”
“He's not my brother. He's a cow, a skelm.”
“I'm here M'am.” a voice piped.
Muriel reached for the girl's arm, took the child by the wrist because she reasoned it was the cleanest part of the paw. She dragged the small body, pulled her to where the voice had come from but then stopped - he sat in the aisle between stacks D and E.
“M'am,” the boy began paging through a book, using spit on his index finger to make the pages turn easier. 'Are you like a library or something?'
Muriel released the girl who went on down the narrow passage, scanning titles with her fingers as if reading braille. She settled on the floor next to the boy.
“This one has pictures, M'am!”
Muriel hated to come here, to these stacks. There were the kids sat, where Jamal had fallen.
“Come away from there.”
“Can I have this one?”
“No, I saw it first!”
Muriel put her hand to her head, her temple. Harry was right, she was tired. The children produced a din, a buzz, that made her heart quicken, that gave a pace she couldn't keep. Muriel felt a bump as the boy poked her out of her daze. She hadn't seen when they'd gotten up and walked to her.
“So?” the boy asked, holding a book Muriel couldn't make out what.
“Can we have the book? We'll share it, I'll take these pages, she can have the rest.”
“Can we have it, we don't have money, M'am.”
Muriel prised the book from his clutch. The Little Prince.
“Have you got one with a Princess?”
“Wiedaad, don't be ungrateful.”
“I'm just asking, man!” they flashed eyes at each other then settled.
Muriel held onto the book, walked back towards the counter and the children followed.
“What do you want with the book?” she settled on her perch, feeling familiar again, feeling herself. The pie was cold, a fly bothered the crust.
“To read.” he was indignant. Wiedaad stood quietly beside him.
Muriel thought she might be a year or two younger than the boy.
“But you don't read. You chew gum. You make noise outside my shop. You make trouble.”
The children were quiet.
“Was that you two, huh? That did that thing. Don't lie to me.”
They didn't speak, they shook their heads, no.
Muriel sighed, scratched an eyebrow. The children were on the other side of the counter, the only customers she'd had in a week and they'd bought seven pieces of bubble gum.
“Can you even read?”
“What are you reading in school?”
The girl hung her head, the boy looked sideways.
“No school, M'am. We don't have school.”
“But the uniform?”
“I got it from the time when we went to the shelter. A white woman came and she did give old clothes and I got it.” the little girl said.
“But…” Muriel held onto the counter, she had nothing to say.
“The book, M'am. Can we lend it maybe? Then we bring it back.”
“We'll take care of it, we promise.”
They were ten, maybe they were eleven. She'd never thought they were runaways, street kids.
“Where are you from? Your parents?”
“We need to get going. Wiedaad, come, make quick!”
Suddenly frightened, they walked quickly to the door, the book forgotten.
“Wait” Muriel called, moved from behind the desk. “You're leaving something.” She handed them the book. “Keep it.”
The boy took it, they both smiled but said nothing, Muriel watched them walk away. She'd forgotten to ask the boy's name.
The day still wasn't over. Harry came.
“Muriel, you busy?” he walked through the doorway and up to the counter.
“I'm never busy, Harry.”
She'd moved the bowl of chappies. And she'd thrown the pie away, confused but relieved that she hadn't fed it to the urchins.
“Actually that's what I wanted to talk about.”
She'd known it was coming.
“Was it you, then? The window, all the crap everywhere, was that you? Your thugs?”
“Absolutely not” he said but Muriel didn't believe him, he knew something.
“Look,” he sounded like they were discussing a bank robbery, crept close to the counter, lowered his voice. “I know you love this place.” he waited to watch her reaction as if he was still feeling his way into the conversation. Then his tone changed, lightened. “How long have I known you, Muriel?”
She started calculating in her head but he answered himself before she could finish.
“You knew my Dad, you knew me as a boy. Twenty, twenty five years? Jamal's was like an institution then, wasn't it?” He paused, a smile on his face, as if to nurse some nostalgia. “The after school reading clubs. Jamal teaching the classics to whoever would listen. Hey?”
Muriel smiled. She would rather have cried but didn't feel like giving Harry the satisfaction.
“Ah, things have changed now, hey Muriel. Grandville has changed. We've lost people. My Dad. Then Jamal.”
“What do you want Harry?”
“The Laundromat is doing really well, Muriel. I came into some inheritance, from my mother's side. I didn't know when was a good time to tell you. I've bought up the row of properties from the landlord - he wanted out.” Harry straightened up, “I own it now.”
Muriel looked at her new landlord, she wished he'd hurry up.
“I think it's for the best, Muriel.”
“What are you talking about Harry?”
“I'm terminating your lease.”
People have no manners, young folk. And they have big long words they point at you like swords.
“Can you just do that? I have two years left on that lease.”
“Well we, you and I, we could agree to terminate. The best thing for everyone, really.”
He felt he'd made his point so he patted the table two times like punctuation marks and walked towards the doorway.
“What will you do with it? Is it the rent, you want more money?”
“Muriel” Harry said and looked sad. “We thought a 7-11 would do well here or a small Spar if we bash down next door - we're working out the plans.”
“When do you want me out?”
“As soon as possible. I mean you could stay but we're starting construction soon. There'll be rubble everywhere.” He opened his palms to the roof as if to impress upon Muriel the logic of his thinking.
“I won't go.”
“I was hoping it won't come to that.”
“I'll fight you. Can't I fight you?”
Harry turned to leave.
“Jamal, my husband, died here.”
“I know Muriel.”
“Just walking and then it was over. I wouldn't know what to do, Harry, where to go.” But Harry had already left, she was talking to herself.
A day passed, Harry stayed away, let the information sink in. The boy came back to the shop. Muriel gave him a glass of milk, studied him properly. His skin was coffee with too much cream, bunch of freckles on his nose, sand-coloured hair. There was dirt beneath his fingernails. Greenish, a mucky colour. She'd never wanted boys, she hadn't wanted girls either. It was Jamal who asked that they keep trying and then he asked less and less and there was no need to talk about it. The boy drank all the milk and asked for more.
“What's your name?”
“Adam” he said but Muriel thought he lied. She had always been good at that, smelling lies. She didn't push.
“She ate the pie.”
Muriel took a few seconds to fully understand.
“I told her not to eat it. We saw it at the back yesterday where we sometimes play. In the dust bin.”
“The pie”, time was slower now.
“She got a stomach ache. She did vomit and then had pains. I took her to the shelter. We hate the shelter but, anyway they're not bad people there.”
Muriel leaned against the counter. They were both on the customer side of the desk, him with another empty glass of milk, she with her mouth open.
“I…why didn't you eat it too?”
“You were a stranger and you gave us food. And it's happened before that strangers give us food. Not all strangers are kind. Some people are angry.”
She thought of Jamal. It wasn't right that he just fell down, that he left her.
“But, you came back. How'd you know I didn't put something in your milk?”
The boy shrugged. “Just. Anyway I was thirsty. And if I got sick I'd go to the shelter.”
Muriel let her breath out, like at the end of the story when you know what's happened. “I'm sorry,” she said, catching the boy's eyes.
He shrugged. “Can I take another book?” he didn't wait for an answer but moved off to his favourite aisle, between stacks D and E.
“Take what you want.” Muriel said.
She stayed standing by the counter, thinking people die, it's not done to insult those that live; it just is. She could hear Adam, whatever his name, rifling through the rows of shelves. Muriel looked around the bookshop, thinking how she'll be gone soon, and how the place would turn into somewhere you come to from 7 to 11 to buy detergent and magazines. And chappies.
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Yewande Omotoso is freelance writer and novelist, based in Johannesburg. Her debut novel 'Bom Boy' was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Award and recently won the South African Literary Award First Time Author Prize. Her short story "Things Are Hard" was included in the 2012 Caine Writers Prize Anthology.