As his aged countenance smiled with happiness, Professor Mannheim picked up the small packet addressed to him - the book had finally returned. For a while, he had considered that the volume and the gift that went with it might be lost forever. Now that he was getting older, he was optimistic that another would take up his secret quest. Alas, the only one he had deemed worthy to-date had another path in life. There is still time. Someone will appear and take on this marvellous assignment. The old man smiled and shook his head. Ragnhild will be laughing from the heavens, as it once again bounces back from where it came.
The young woman who had called him had promised to return the book and three days later it finally arrived. Now he was going to send it once more upon a journey. This time will not beas before. No, this time I'll not have to wait to confirm that the recipient is eligible - I know she is. Picking up the phone he called the number of the individual who, for many reasons, had been on his mind …
" Carolyn , for goodness sake take a vacation. If that isn't possible the take a walk in the park or better yet, pick one of your musty volumes and take it with you to the park. The fresh air will do you a world of good." Richard Svorski pleaded with the inattentive woman relaxing on the horrible sofa she insisted on buying. " Stuck here in this apartment must be driving you nuts."
They had been friends and even adversaries on occasion, since high school. He'd been the football star and she the bookworm. The hand of fate stepped in when he was about to flunk out of school and she'd been volunteered to be his tutor. Neither his parents nor the football coach would take his failure lightly for they all were optimistic that even with minimal grades he could easily go to the college of his dreams. From there he would be on his way to a career in the upper echelons of his chosen sport.
Carolyn had been remarkably unimpressed at his perceived status at school. From her perspective, impressive was a grade A student who loved to learn everything there was to know about the world and to her college football didn't cut it. All she wanted was to provide him with the guiding hand to study and make the required grade. Under her tutelage he'd succeeded with better grades than was necessary and came out of the process with both triumph and Carolyn as a good friend. Richard was a social person and she was just the opposite which made the friendship somewhat unusual. She preferred her books and visits to the library for her social events while he went to all the partys. When he asked her to the prom and she refused by saying she didn't need that kind of entertainment in her life, he to threaten to hog-tie her. Eventually she reluctantly accepted the invitation and they attended the event much to the bewilderment of their entire class. From that point on, their friendship had never looked back.
Carolyn Black looked up at the handsome man standing tall and muscular next to her shabby couch. " I said that I preferred to stay indoors. The doctors haven't given me a clean bill of health yet and that won't come until the end of the month." I know he is only trying to help. What worked for her was spending her sick time at home reading and researching her pet subjects. Richard is so dense at times. Even after almost fifteen years of friendship, he doesn't have a clue as to how I tick.
In high school, Carolyn had been a late bloomer. Most of the people Richard knew taunted him about the geek he preferred spending time with instead of going out with them. He would shrug off the comments by simply telling them that if he was going to pass he needed to spend time with her. When his friends spotted him taking her to a Saturday evening movie he was busted but realized he didn't give a damn what they thought for he enjoyed her company. Hmm, he thought staring at her with approval. The old gang would be kicking themselves if they could see her now. A smile crossed his face. The ugly duckling turned into a regal swan.
" Richard, are you listening to me? Have I grown a horn or something?" she asked self consciously.
Richard's mind returned from the memories to the present and gave her a glare that had no substance. He turned a brick red at the woman catching him in the act of Carolyn watching. " I was only thinking what the guys in school would think of you now," he blustered.
Arching an eyebrow, Carolyn grimaced. " I see by your eyes that they would approve…not that I cared then, or now. Superficial emotional feelings are not who I am or want to be."
Richard smiled indulgently as he took the seat opposite his friend. It is true she is a walking talking encyclopaedia, everyone who meets her socially says the same thing. " Did you ever think about marriage Caro?" He winked at his friend. "Though perhaps I should say fall in love, get married and have that statistical average, family."
Chuckling at his comment Carolyn lent forward and pressed his knee gently with her hand. " Whichever way it might present itself I can't say it has ever been on my agenda."
Richard let out a belly laugh that made her spirits, which she hadn't realised were down, rise. Maybe his suggestion has merit after all. Her thoughts turned to the local second hand bookstore where she could wile away the odd hour or two. I bet the old man who runs it is wondering where I've been. The nature of the viral infection had consumed her for more than four weeks causing her to ignore everything including her books in favour of her bed. I feel like taking on my life again and that bookstore might just be the place to start.
" I'm going to compromise Richard. How about I promise that I'll take a short stroll to the bookstore and browse. How does that sound to you?"
Pulling at his strong, clean-shaven jaw, the man smiled warmly. " Good enough for starters." He looked at his wristwatch. "I need to get going if I'm going to make my flight. I should be back by tomorrow evening. I'll call you when I get back and maybe you'll feel up to dinner." He stood up and bent slightly to kiss the top of her auburn hair and squeezed her shoulder. "Take care of yourself."
Once Richard left, Carolyn's resolve to leave the comfort of her home began to slowly wane. If I don't get up now I'll never go. Why did I have to go and promise him. She took a deep breath. Okay Carolyn get yourself up and go. She stood quickly and her legs shook for a few seconds and she wondered how much longer that would happen. The doctors assure it will disappear as I become stronger. Darn it why can't the body be as tough as the mind!
+ + +
Carolyn had been in the bookstore for a short time when the owner, a dear man who had once been a Harvard Professor, walked unsteadily towards her. She gave him a beaming smile, which he reciprocated.
" Now where, my lovely lady, have you been hiding in recent weeks?" he asked as he steadied himself. He refused to use his cane, calling it vanity, especially when he was in the presence of a pretty woman.
" Ah, now that would give all my secrets away wouldn't it Professor Mannheim," she said as her pale features brightened. She covered her mouth as a yawn escaped. The short walk to the store mad her realized how quickly weariness could overtake her body. Will I ever feel hundred percent again? I know the doctors said the beat the viral infection into submission but I wonder if it isn't still lurking somewhere.
" You look pale my dear are you ill?" The concern from the old man warmed Carolyn's heart. He's a stranger and has more compassion for me than my parents Other than making several calls when she had first been in the hospital they hadn't bothered to check on her since. That hadn't particularly worried her for they had little interest in her life and she preferred her own company. Even before her illness Richard usually visited her every Friday evening for dinner or an occasional theatre date. But, that was few and far between for Richard preferred comedies and oddly enough cult musicals, like the Rocky Horror Show and she liked Shakespeare and operas. Although they had contrasting likes and dislikes, he was a witty companion and she enjoyed his company. It was a pleasant change from her academic colleagues and students.
" I'll be fine Professor, I have been ill, but I'm getting stronger by the day. This is my first trip out for several weeks. Perhaps if I sit down you will choose a couple of volumes for me to take home." She managed a smile and added, " I'd appreciate it." She was grateful that a wooden chair next to the undersized round table was close by. I wonder how many other readers have lost themselves in the magic of another's words in this vary chair. Her attention returned to the old man as he pulled out the chair for her.
" Of course my dear, how dreadful for you...I'll do better than that. How would you like some mint tea while you rest?" The man's kindly features beamed as she gratefully accepted with a nod. " Good that's settled. I shall have Wayne bring along the selections as you wait for your tea."
Carolyn watched the man shuffle back to the counter and speak with a man who was younger than the professor's seventy years. In the past, the professor's assistant was usually in the backroom restoring old volumes so she had very little interaction with him. She turned to face the glass pane that gave her a window on the small world that passed by. For most of her life, books or papers of current affairs and her pet subject medieval history totally engrossed her. Rarely did she spend any time watching everyday life as it slipped past her. Today she gave it a curious look, amazed at what she saw. Numerous people were scurrying to their destinations seemingly preoccupied with their travels and unaware that a stranger was watching them. The vehicles passed by at differing speeds and some slowed to a stop as passengers slipped out to do their shopping or to make an enquiry of a passer-by. She had no way of knowing what the people were thinking or doing but did speculate and at the same time wondered about the people themselves. Where are they going I wonder? And, what is so important that some rush while others dally.
A voice clearing at her side brought her out of her reverie. Slight embarrassment tinted Carolyn ‘s face for the man caught her daydreaming - a pastime that she didn't participate in often if ever. The whole experience was strange to her analytical mind although a part of her wanted to dream a little more.
" Your books Doctor Black. Professor Mannheim will be along shortly," the timid assistant said before scuttling off.
Carolyn glanced down at the selected volumes and smiled. It was an interesting mix and one in particular was unexpected. She picked up the slim volume and her eyes twinkled at the title, Waterfalls, Rainbows and Secrets. The old man must think I need a fantasy novel for a change of pace. Her eye tracked to the name of the author and was stunned to find it was an eminent academic from a century earlier. Perhaps the title is a ploy of the publishers to have the non-academics of the world wanting to purchase the book. As she waited for the professor, she began to read the book's preface unaware of the new customer that entered the small bookshop.
+ + +
Jennifer Finch pulled up the corners of her mackintosh to ward off the raindrops that now liberally cascaded from the overcast sky. She was rushing on her precious lunch break to Fremantle Street, which was over three blocks from where she worked. She was finally picking up an item she had on order for over a year. The phone call she received that morning had been a long time in transpiring. Her anticipation to have the item at last was so great it had been difficult not to leave her job immediately. Now, within yards of her destination, she felt the excitement that one of her many goals in life would finally achieve fruition. Her quest had begun over twenty years earlier when her grandfather told her a story which most had simply passed off as the ramblings of a feeble old man who had reality and fiction mixed up. For Jennifer though, it had sparked in her ten-year-old mind the need to find out if her grandfather had been telling the truth or if it was the failing mind of a once intelligent person.
Because of her inquisitive mind and questions over the years, she had become the brunt of family jokes. At one time, the crude jibes hurt her but now, living in Railston hundreds of miles away for five years, they were nothing more than old memories with insignificant pain attached. One thing bonus of her obsession with fantastic stories was her ability to recreate fantasy onto paper as her popular cartoon strip for a local newspaper testified. She opened the door to the shop where she hoped the most important piece in the puzzle, which haunted her dreams, would reside. She paused for a moment and stood halfway in the doorway.
" Young lady are you inside or out on such a ghastly day?" an old man with a merry twinkle in his aged eyes asked politely.
" I'm really sorry, yes…yes of course I'm inside," Jennifer gasped out closing the door firmly behind her. Rivulets of raindrops from her coat fell onto the coconut mat placed just inside the doorway.
" Welcome, we haven't seen you before have we?"
" No, well that's not exactly true in a way you know me, I'm Jennifer Finch." Eyes gazed around the old musty smelling shabby bookstore. Jennifer felt the atmosphere as a whole had a subtle effective charm of yesteryear that wouldn't deter any would be customer. As her eyes travelled around the room, she saw a figure huddled at a small side table far too engrossed in a book to notice her entrance.
" Why my dear at last we meet! It must be… let me see now all of a year since you first called me for help." Professor Mannheim peered at her from over his horn-rimmed spectacles clearly pleased to make her acquaintance.
" It's my pleasure believe me Professor. You, of course, know why I'm here?" Jennifer breathed out the last words like a starving man begging for sustenance.
The old man grinned widely and dithered for a moment before looking at the young woman who had taken a pensive stance at his hesitation. " Of course my dear, if you will give me a moment I shall find it for you." He ambled over to the counter where his assistant was working.
As the old man left, Jennifer, trying to steady her nerves, heaved a sigh of relief. It is hard to believe that one of the most important parts of my search is really within my grasp. Her attention turned to the old man in a discussion with his assistant that gradually seemed to become more and more intense.
She saw the doddery professor shake his head and move in the direction of the only other person in the shop. Jennifer speculated that the woman seated at the table in the opposite corner of the room may have been reading without buying and that had irked the old man. She grew impatient as she glanced at her watch noticing that time was ticking by. If he doesn't hurry up, I seriously doubt I will be able to keep my promise for a new cartoon for tomorrow's paper. I still have so much left to do before it is finished.
+ + +
Carolyn grinned at the old man who stood by the table wringing his hands in agitation. She couldn't recall ever seeing him in such a state and that had her worried. " Hi Professor you look flustered is everything okay? Hasn't the tea mashed to your satisfaction?"
Professor Manheim gave her a woeful look and hung his head slightly, " Ah my dear, if only it were that simple. Alas it isn't for my assistant in error gave you a book that was meant for another and my customer has arrived to collect it."
" No worries Professor," Carolyn said with a smile. "He gave me three volumes, which one do you want?" Carolyn held her breath hoping the one that the book that had captivated her imagination wasn't the one he wanted.
Glancing at the two volumes that lay idly on the tabletop, he shook his head and then with a slight cough of apology he motioned to the book at her fingertips. " If you are interested in the book I'm sure that my customer would allow you to read it once she's finished...she appears to be a very personable young lady."
Carolyn was surprised at the mention of another customer for she never noticed another person enter the shop. I must have been indulging my fantasy senses with the book. I can't recall ever doing that before. Although the book was supposedly a work of fiction, she had a distinct impression that it had foundation in reality. Her thoughts drifted along with her idealisms. How can such an eminent person write anything other than fact? " It's okay, I'll check out the other works you've given me," she said in an unconvincing voice.
As the old man watched the womanreluctantly release the volume to his care he thought, how odd it is that an obscure copy of a work that has never been anything more than another's personal obsession has apparently bewitched two people at the same moment. Ms. French has been gently hounding me for months to find this book. Doctor Black feigned disinterest but he knew differently - years of observing people had convinced him otherwise.
" Tea will be served shortly and I'll fetch a plate of scones since you sacrificed your reading." Carolyn smiled at the old professor. He is such a dear. They don't make many like him anymore or if they do, I haven't found any on campus.
" Okay I'll look forward to it, thanks Professor." Carolyn picked up one of the other volumes on the table flicking over the first couple of pages as she speed-read them. The material would usually have been immediately of interest however, her mind was on the story unfolding in the other book. Her eyes travelled towards the counter. The woman who wanted the book was speaking with the proprietor then paid him for the volume. Maybe I should have taken up the professor's offer to have the woman call me or leave the book here for me to read after she'd done with it. Carolyn sighed heavily and dragged her gaze back to the book at her fingertips. In comparison, this is going to be as dry as ditch water. The only thing keeping her here now was the offer of tea and scones. Who, in their right mind would refuse such a delectable offer?
+ + +
" Jenny it's your mother, why haven't you returned my calls?" Jennifer grimaced as the haughty critical voice of her mother grated on her eardrums. Most people had loving caring parents but she had a mother who despised her way of life and reminded her of the fact frequently. Her concession to the needs of her mother to keep in touch, however tenuous, came down to a weekly phone call that usually lasted all of five minutes. They didn't have much to say and all she was interested in now was the book she had begun reading five minutes earlier.
" Mom I'm sorry, I didn't realise it was important."
A snort at the end of the line signified that she'd said the wrong thing again. It was always the case, wondering why she chose to call her at all. It's not as if anything I do would meet with her approval.
" Young lady isn't a call to your mother important? Or, have you decided that cutting yourself off from the family is your way of dealing with problems?" Sally Finch had great hopes for her daughter when she had been born. She wanted her youngest child to have all the things she hadn't been able to afford to give her two older children by a previous marriage. George, her second husband had been somewhat disappointed that the baby was a girl, especially since Sally had sons previously. As with most fathers and their daughters, Jenny soon became the apple of his eye. Had it not been for the ridiculous story that George's old fool of a father filled her young ears with things might have worked out just as she wanted for her daughter. However, Jenny turned from being a precocious ten year old to an intelligent, yet bothersome adult. She went from being everybody's angel to the brunt of the family's jokes. Sally had seen it coming of course, but Jenny being Jenny had soldiered on.
A rift never repaired opened and left a chasm in the family that now they barely spoke. She blamed herself for not nipping the imaginative wanderings of the child in the bud. At the time, she reasoned that it would disappear as most childish things did. She apparently had misunderstood her child from day one. The fantasy buried itself so deep in Jenny's psyche that it was hard to say what was real and what wasn't anymore for Jenny. Especially with that silly job she has.
" Mom, don't be so melodramatic you know I would never do that. How's dad? What about Eric and Larry?" she asked in an attempt to placate the woman. She knew she was being unfair - at least she's interested in me, even if I don't appreciate it.
" Your father is the reason I've called. The boys are well they were both over with their families for Sunday brunch. I don't know why you can't make brunch one Sunday Jenny. It's been over eighteen months since you came home for a visit."
Jennifer heard the hurt tone and she felt slightly sorry for her mother. " You know with my new job I haven't had the time Mom. What's the matter with dad? He's not ill is he?"
Sally Finch gave a derisive laugh at her daughter's question. " Silly thing to say Jenny your father hasn't a day's illness since the day I met him. I doubt he had any before that. No, he's being made president of the company and there will be a celebration party and you should be there."
"When is it?" There was no point asking anything else because her attendance was expected and she would go if possible. For her dad she would do anything, it had been his support that had allowed her to leave their small town and venture into the big city. He'd paid the lease of her apartment for the first year and she suspected would have done so indefinitely if it made her happy. When she had finally explained to him why she needed to leave, he had been upset although he did admit that he felt bad for not being there for her while she was growing up; his job necessitated that he travel all over the globe. His way to appease the situation and his lack of attention in her younger life had been to fund her city life until she didn't need his help. He had also been the bridge between her and her mother to make it happen. Now that he has achieved what he wanted and rightly deserves I should be there to honor him.
"Two weeks from Saturday. I've booked you a room at the hotel where the function is to be held. Will you be there?"
Great, now I'm not welcome in our home. A hotel is fine by me that way I can leave early the next morning and no one will care.
"Oh, and we expect you to have lunch with us the following day Jenny. We have special guests arriving, which is why you can't have your old room. However, I think a family get together Sunday wouldn't be too much trouble for you since you will already be in town."
Jenny shook her head. She wanted the laborious conversation to end so she could continue reading her book. " Okay I'll do that as well," she said in a conciliatory tone. " I'll call you next week and you can give me with the details. Send my love to dad and take care of yourselves."
Sally Finch knew a dismissal when she heard it. Then, with a long look at the handset, she sighed softly whispering one last phrase, " Talk to you soon Jenny. We love you." How I wish I could turn back the clock and do things over.
Jennifer heard the phone hiss - the caller at the other end disconnected without waiting for her answer. Replacing her receiver on the cradle, she gave a rueful frown. " Love you too Mom." She soon forgot about her family and went back to the sacred novel in her lap.
To be continued...