It is time.
Come on Monday. I will send a car to meet you from the half past four arrival at Harrogate Station.
How long did I sit on the stairs after reading
the letter? I don't know. For I was spellbound. There is
something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they
take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider
silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they
pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside
you they work their magic. When I at last woke up to myself, I
could only guess what had been going on in the darkness of my
unconsciousness. What had the letter done to me?
I knew very little about Vida Winter. I was aware naturally of the various epithets that usually came attached to her name: England's best-loved writer; our century's Dickens; the world's most famous living author; and so on. I knew of course that she was popular, though the figures, when I later researched them, still came as a surprise. Fifty-six books published in fifty-six years; they are translated into forty-nine languages; Miss Winter has been named twenty-seven times the most borrowed author from English libraries; nineteen feature films have been based on her novels. In terms of statistics, the most disputed question is this: Has she or has she not sold more books than the Bible? The difficulty comes less from working out how many books she has sold (an ever-changing figure in the millions) than in obtaining solid figures for the Bible -- whatever one thinks of the word of God, his sales data are notoriously unreliable. The figure that might have interested me the most, as I sat there at the bottom of the stairs, was twenty-two. This was the number of biographers who, for want of information, or lack of encouragement, or after inducements or threats from Miss Winter herself, had been persuaded to give up trying to discover the truth about her. But I knew none of this then. I knew only one statistic, and it was one that seemed relevant: How many books by Vida Winter had I, Margaret Lea, read? None.
I shivered on the stairs, yawned and stretched. Returning to myself, I found that my thoughts had been rearranged in my absence. Two items in particular had been selected out of the unheeded detritus that is my memory and placed for my attention.
The first was a little scene involving my father. A box of books we are unpacking from a private library clearance includes a number of Vida Winters. At the shop we don't deal in contemporary fiction. "I'll take them to the charity shop in my lunch hour," I say, and leave them on the side of the desk. But before the morning is out, three of the four books are gone. Sold. One to a priest, one to a cartographer, one to a military historian. Our clients' faces, with the customary outward paleness and inner glow of the book lover, seem to light up when they spot the rich colors of the paperback covers. After lunch, when we have finished the unpacking and the cataloging and the shelving and we have no customers, we sit reading as usual. It is late autumn, it is raining and the windows have misted up. In the background is the hiss of the gas heater; we hear the sound without hearing it for, side by side, together and miles apart, we are deep in our books.
"Shall I make tea?" I ask, surfacing.
I make tea all the same and put a cup next to him on the desk.
An hour later the untouched tea is cold. I make a fresh pot and put another steaming cup beside him on the desk. He is oblivious to my every movement.
Copyright © 2006 by Diane Setterfield
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He has only half learned the art of reading who has not added to it the more refined art of skipping and skimming.
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