The bookshop was lined with windows, the whole way along. Melissa spent her days at the till, watching people walk the length of the street. In the time it took them to walk from the block of flats with their thick white window frames, to the construction site down the way, she made up stories for them, decided who she liked and who she didn't. Clothes. Walk. Hair. That was about all she had to go on.
This woman, for instance. What an ageless beauty. She wore red patent shoes, black tights and one of those dresses with no real shape at all, except it still looked good. Melissa had never worked out how women did that. She woke up every day, stood in front of her wardrobe and surveyed its insides. Nothing she bought ever really went together. Today, for instance, she'd put on the burgundy trousers spotted with black leopards, and the yellow silk shirt dotted with butterflies, their wings smeared with silver glitter.
She envied the woman with her red shoes and her dress. She envied the woman's granddaughter, skipping along with her blue and pink Pepper Pig boots, her coat with the ponies, her pink plastic headband, and her eyes, bright to the world. Melissa must have been like that, once, except she didn't really remember. She only had the awkwardness of now.
Take last night. Her birthday. Why she'd had a party, she couldn't really say, they always made her depressed. She'd cooked chicken with spicy black bean sauce, and everyone had woolfed it down, and she'd watched them eat and hadn't felt at all hungry. Later, when the visitors had left, the emptiness and quietness of the house felt so unbearable that she went walking - along the river, other people's lights reflecting off the water.
The shop door used to have a bell, but it drove the lot of them mad. Now they were left with the sucking noise it made as it opened and closed. The thing with working in a shop is that you were exposed. Anyone could come in. Anyone could call. And you were there, behind the counter - you had to absorb whatever the world threw at you.
Today, it threw Mrs Freer. Mrs Freer - with her long grey hair pulled into a bun, and her too white teeth, and her astrology.'Mercury retrograde.' Mrs Freer stood at the till with her arms crossed. 'That's your problem.'
'This time of year. People come back into your life.' She opened her palms as if to say, see, I'm here, point proven. 'Things go wrong. People don't communicate.'
'So what am I supposed to do about it?'Mrs Freer had once spent an afternoon trying to teach them how to wire a plug - blue, green/yellow, brown - Melissa remembered the colours but not what they stood for, she remembered the classroom with its yellow walls and fluorescent lights. 'From here, I saw the immaculate peak of Athos, clear and white above the green forests,' Mrs Freer said.
There were times Melissa thought they were running a therapy service rather than a book shop. There were times she thought she should call the police.'These moments of silent meditation took away all his cares, made up for all his pain.' Mrs Freer wore red lipstick, and when she spoke Melissa could see the slightest smear of it on her front teeth.
'So you're saying I need to sit and think about it?'
'I'm saying, eat lemon and courgette cake. I'm saying, food, comfort, security, friendship. I'm saying wise words.'
Melissa eyed the door and hoped for another customer. There was never one when you needed one.
'Well?' Mrs Freer was staring at her. She had those bulgy kind of eyes.
'Ain't nobody got time for that,' Melissa said. 'Have they?'
Mrs Freer stared at her a while longer, then nodded and said 'Exactly. That's exactly what I was saying.'
[text in italics have been kindly donated by Woolfson & Tay customers and the online audience]