THURSDAY: Chance Encounter

BY SUSAN A. JENNINGS

Copyright is held by the author.

FRANCES HURRIED along Rideau Street heading east towards the bookstore, trying to stay dry. But the water bounced off the sidewalk into her new beige pumps and soaked her freshly pressed beige slacks. The neat telescopic umbrella was no match for the torrents of water the sky proceeded to empty upon her.

“Just my luck,” she said aloud, jumping to safety as the spray from the #7 bus narrowly missed her. “Why did the heavens have to open now?”

Working the noon to eight shifts allowed Frances a couple of quiet morning hours to browse at Mr. Booker’s store. Frances supervised the tellers at the Dominion Trust Bank. A title she had earned through many years of loyal service rather than ambition. She felt a pang of excitement remembering her impending retirement and all the books that lined the walls of her spare room. She called it her retirement collection. Soon she would be able to sink into her new Lazy-boy chair with her feet up on the matching ottoman — one of her few extravagances — and from there she would disappear into the adventures and mysteries of borderless and timeless literature. She chuckled.

“Books without borders,” she said aloud as she stepped into Mr. Booker’s doorway.

***

At the other end of Rideau Street, Paul Morris’s long lilting stride was heading west towards Booker’s Book Store. Paul didn’t care that his trousers were wet and the rain had already penetrated the shoulders of his frayed tweed jacket. He loved the rain and its fresh cool feel on his weatherworn face. Today he felt particularly happy. He had made the decision to retire. Thirty-five years in computer engineering, as professor and latterly, department head, would give him a good pension. He hated to admit that he was finding it difficult to keep up with the fast changing technology. Instead of reading those undecipherable technical manuals, he could relax and read for the pure pleasure of reading. He liked Booker’s Book Store because Mr. Booker knew books, not just those mass-market books they sold in Chapters or Barnes & Noble, but great masters of literature, authors who knew how to write. Maybe he would find good authors he had never heard of before.

“I’ll explore that little back room where Mr. Booker keeps his rare and first editions.” His mind was already scanning the bookshelves.

As he stepped into Mr. Booker’s doorway he heard a female voice say, “Books without borders.” Before he could look up he bumped into someone, and an umbrella poked him in his midriff. He felt water trickling down his turtleneck shirt.

“Ouch!” the female voice yelled. “You’re standing on my foot.” Frances looked down at a large dirty brown loafer that had engulfed her beige pumps.

“Oh! I’m terribly sorry,” Paul said.

He stared at the dripping umbrella impaled in his midriff. It didn’t seem to be going anywhere. He looked at Frances one eyebrow raised as if to say, well, are you going to remove it?

Annoyed about her wet, and now dirty shoes Frances had, a “tut, tut” ready on her tongue. Her bright emerald eyes snapped upwards, her mouth open but no sound was uttered as she dissolved into his gentle blue eyes. With a subtle movement Paul relaxed his eyebrow, turning his whole face into a smile. Without saying a word he quietly took the wet umbrella and moved it to one side.

“Oh my gosh!” Frances said turning a bright pink struggling to close the umbrella. “You are awfully wet. I’m . . . terribly . . . so . . . really sorry.” Her words didn’t come out right and her stomach was doing flip-flops. Her shaking hands let go of the clasp, and the umbrella sprang open again showering them both with droplets. Still smiling, Paul quietly took the umbrella, closed it, and handed it back to her. Pushing the door open he stepped aside to let Frances enter first. The old-fashioned brass bell perched on the top of the door announced their arrival and a musky aroma of books, wood and leather escaped into their nostrils.

Mr. Booker looked up from his counter. “Good morning Miss Tibbles. Quite the rain shower,” he said directly to Frances but only nodding towards Paul.

“Yes,” Frances answered looking down at the puddle of water that had formed at her feet.

“I’ll put the umbrella in the back room for you,” he said and disappeared, returning with a mop and a white towel. Frances took the towel and dried herself off while Mr. Booker mopped the shiny wooden floor.

“Thank you,” she said handing him the towel and thinking how unusual it was for a bachelor to have such a white towel. But, now she thought about it, it wasn’t unusual for Mr. Booker. He always wore a crisp white shirt, a plain or conservatively stripped tie with no drips or stains. Both he and the store were always immaculate.

“A new P.D. James mystery came in yesterday.” Mr. Booker pointed to the display island.

Frances turned to look and stopped abruptly. The unusual man she had impaled in the doorway was studying the rare book section. He still looked very wet, in fact his jacket and trousers seemed to have shrunk. The sleeves were about two inches short of his wrist and his trouser’s showed one navy and one black sock. Instead of tut-tutting her disapproval at his unkempt appearance Frances found herself smiling with a fondness she didn’t quite understand.

Paul sensed her stare and wanted to say hi, but social chit chat with women had always been difficult for him. However, he thought, there is something different about this woman.

Frances hedged her way around the display and nonchalantly stepped into the rare book section. Keeping her eyes fixed on the bookshelves she reached for the red spine, only because it stood out from the others and legitimized her presence. Paul also reached blindly for the red spine. Suddenly electricity exploded as their hands brushed against each other. In unison they apologized to the knots and swirls in the polished wooden floor too embarrassed to look up, and then, slowly emerald and blue eyes met — the connection made, they stared in silence.

Paul broke the silence, “Cr . . . crum! Hello, my name is Paul Morris,” he said, extending his right hand. When Frances didn’t respond, he diverted his gaze to the bookshelf, while discreetly sliding his hand into his jacket pocket.

Francis didn’t answer; she couldn’t answer. Something foreign whirled around inside her body and she felt very hot. What’s happening to me? She thought. Realizing how rude she must appear she took a big gulp of air, preparing to introduce herself. Unfortunately this set her off into a violent coughing fit. Now gasping for air Frances thought she might gag at any minute and worsen the already embarrassing situation. Calm down and breathe she told herself. But she gasped again when she felt his hand touch her arm as he guided her to the brown leather chair.

Mr. Booker came rushing out from behind his counter. “Miss Tibbles are you alright?”

Frances concentrated as she took a careful breath. “Yes, thank you Mr. Booker I am fine.”

“Can I get you some water?” Paul said.

Frances stared at the floor. “No, thank you, I’ll be fine,” she whispered.

Not knowing what to say or do, Paul bowed awkwardly. “Um . . . if it’s . . . um okay, I’ll be on my way.” His arm gave a penguin-like flip as he waved goodbye. The sound of the brass bell told Frances it was safe to look up. But Paul had lingered at the door glancing over his shoulder — blue and emerald met once more. This time a natural connection prevented them from averting their eyes.

Pushing the door open and with a great deal more confidence than he actually felt, Paul said, “Would you like to go for a coffee?”

Frances tried to answer, but only a squeak came out. Paul didn’t hear and began to close the door. But his wave of confidence came back. He leaned around the door. “I think a coffee might ease your cough.” He smiled. “And it has stopped raining,” he said ,raising his eyebrow once more.

“I think you are right,” Frances croaked.

They walked across the road to Sophie’s Café and settled at a little round table in the bay window. At first they sipped cappuccinos awkwardly, reluctant to catch each other’s eyes. Until Frances giggled as some foam stuck to her nose and Paul gently wiped it with his napkin. They both laughed and the conversation evolved as though they had known each other for decades. Frances glanced across the street and saw Mr. Booker standing at the door, smiling. She smiled back knowing that Mr. Booker had witnessed more than just a chance encounter.

8 comments

  1. JAZZ

    Susan,
    You lost me at “…she dissolved into his gentle blue eyes”. An old cliche that should have been avoided.
    There is too much description in the story regarding clothes and their wearers.
    Also, a few things didn’t ring true: A professor of computer engineering that couldn’t, after 35 years in the biz, decipher technical manuals. And I doubt if Mr. Booker would let customers leaf through his rare books and first editions.
    But, I look forward to your next effort.

  2. Ian Shaw

    Hi Susan,
    A great little story! You really pull the readers quickly into the plot and address a very realistic theme in life – how lovers meet for the first time. I also like how you show that love can be ageless.
    Cheers,
    Ian Shaw

  3. RITA BURKE

    Susan… this is a fabulous story… I thoroughly enjoyed it!!!

    You are the best…

    Rita

  4. Hanifa

    Thank you for a beautiful story. Chance encounters are magical, especially when captured with a writer’s pen!

    It wasn’t too much description, as yours adds to tone, style, and atmosphere.

  5. Joanne

    Susan,
    This story is so real and genuine.
    It lends a reprieve from the busy lives we all lead.
    Thank you tender-hearted lady.

  6. Beryl

    Great by chance story Susan. It will have single romantics wanting to go to the book store!

  7. Theresa

    What a lovely short story, stirring the imagination with hope that at any age, the spark of romance can ignite — even while one is soaked by the rain. I like the fact that it takes place in a book shop. Thank you!

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