[Fiction] The Republic of Literature, By John le Carré | Harper's Magazine

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[Fiction]

The Republic of Literature

From the novel Silverview

Illustrations by Darya Shnykina

[Fiction]

The Republic of Literature

From the novel Silverview
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In a small seaside town perched on the outer shores of East Anglia, a thirty-three-year-old bookseller named Julian Lawndsley emerged from the side door of his brand-new shop and, clutching to his throat the velvet collars of a black overcoat left over from the City life he had renounced two months previously, set off at a forward lean to battle his way along the desolate seafront of shingle beach in search of the one café that served breakfast at this dismal time of year.

His mood was not friendly, either toward himself or the world at large. Last night, after hours of solitary stocktaking, he had climbed the stairs to his newly converted attic flat above the shop to discover he had neither electric power nor running water. The builder’s phone was on answer. Rather than take a hotel room, if one was even to be found at that time of year, he lit four kitchen candles, uncorked a bottle of red wine, poured himself a large glass, piled spare blankets on the bed, got into it, and buried himself in the shop’s accounts.

They told him nothing he didn’t know. His impulsive escape from the rat race had gotten off to a wretched start. And if the accounts didn’t say the rest of it, he could say it for himself: he was not equipped for the loneliness of celibacy; the clamorous voices of his recent past were not to be quelled by distance; and his lack of the basic literary education required of your upmarket bookseller was not to be repaired in a couple of months.

The one café was a clapboard shack squeezed behind a row of Edwardian beach huts under a blackened sky packed with screaming seabirds. He had seen the place on his morning runs, but the thought of entering it had never crossed his mind. A faulty green sign flickered with the word ice minus its s. Forcing the door open, he held it against the wind, entered and eased it back into place.

“Good morning, my dear!” yelled a hearty female voice from the direction of the kitchen. “You seat you anywhere! I come soon, okay?”

“And good morning to you,” he called vaguely in return. Under fluorescent lights lay a dozen empty tables covered in red plastic gingham. He chose one and cautiously extracted the menu from a cluster of cruets and sauce bottles. The babble of a foreign news announcer issued through the open kitchen door. A crash and a shuffle of heavy feet from behind him informed him of the advent of another guest. Glancing at the wall mirror, he was guardedly amused to recognize the egregious person of Mr. Edward Avon, his importunate but engaging customer of the previous evening, if a customer who had bought nothing.

Though he had yet to see his face—Avon, with his air of perpetual motion, being far too preoccupied with hanging up his broad-brimmed homburg hat and adjusting his dripping fawn raincoat over the back of a chair—there was no mistaking the rebellious mop of white hair or the unexpectedly delicate fingers as, with a defiant flourish, they extracted a folded copy of the Guardian newspaper from the recesses of the raincoat and flattened it on the table before him.

It is yesterday evening, five minutes to closing time. The shop is empty. It has been empty for most of the day. Julian is standing at the till, totting up the day’s meager takings. For some minutes he has been aware of a solitary figure in a homburg hat and fawn raincoat, armed with a furled umbrella, standing on the opposite pavement. After six weeks of running a stagnant business, he has become quite the connoisseur of people who stare at the shop and don’t come in, and they are beginning to get on his nerves.

Is it the shop’s pea-green paintwork the man’s disapproving of—he’s an old inhabitant maybe, and doesn’t like garish? Is it the many fine books on display, special offers to suit all pockets? Or is it Bella, Julian’s twenty-year-old Slovakian trainee, frequently to be found occupying the shop window in search of her various love interests? It is not. Bella is for once gainfully employed in the stockroom, packing unsold books to be returned to their publishers. And now—miracle of miracles—the man is actually making his way across the street, he is removing his hat, the shop door is opening, and a sixty-something face under a mop of white hair is peering round it at Julian.

“You’re shut,” an assured voice informs him. “You’re shut, and I shall come another time, I insist”—but already one muddy brown walking shoe is inside the door, and the other is easing its way after it, followed by the umbrella.

“Not shut at all, actually,” Julian assures him, matching smooth for smooth. “Technically, we close at five-thirty, but we’re flexible, so please just come in and take all the time you need”—and, with this, resumes his counting while the stranger studiously threads his umbrella into the Victorian umbrella stand and hangs his homburg on the Victorian hat stand, thereby paying his respects to the shop’s retro style, selected to appeal to older customers, of which the town has a plentiful supply.

“Looking for something particular or just browsing?” Julian asks, turning up the bookshelf lights to full. But his customer barely hears this question. His broad, clean-shaven face, mobile as any actor’s, is alight with marvel.

“I’d absolutely no idea at all,” he protests, indicating with a flowing gesture of his arm the source of all his wonderment. “The town may boast a real-life bookshop at last. I am amazed, I must say. Totally.”

His position now manifest, he sets off on a reverential inspection of the shelves—fiction, non-fiction, local interest, travel, classical, religion, art, poetry—here and there pausing to fish down a volume and subject it to some kind of bibliophile’s test: front cover, inside flap, quality of paper, binding, general weight and friendliness. “I must say,” he exclaims again.

Is the voice entirely English? It’s rich, interesting, and compelling. But is there not a very slight foreign flavor in the cadence?

“You must say what?” he calls back from his tiny office, where he is running through the day’s emails. The stranger begins again, on a different and more confiding note. “Look here. I’m assuming that your magnificent new shop is under entirely different management. Am I right, or am I barking up the completely wrong tree?”

“New management is right”—still from his office, through the open doorway. And yes, there is a foreign flavor. Just.

“New ownership also, one may ask?”

“One may, and the answer is emphatically yes,” Julian agrees cheerfully, taking up his former position beside the till. “Then are you—forgive me.”

He starts again, severely, on a more military note: “Look here—are you by any chance, or are you not, the young mariner himself? Because I need to know. Or are you his deputy? His surrogate? His whatever?” And then, arbitrarily concluding, with some reason, that Julian is offended by these searching questions: “I mean absolutely nothing personal, I assure you. I mean only that, whereas your undistinguished predecessor christened his emporium the Ancient Mariner, you, sir, as his more youthful and may I say vastly more acceptable successor—”

By which time, the two of them are in a silly all-English tangle, until everything is properly patched up, with Julian confessing that, yes, indeed, he is both manager and owner, and the stranger saying, “Mind awfully if I help myself to one of these?” and deftly winkling a get-to-know-us card from its housing with his long pointy fingers, and holding it to the light to scrutinize the evidence with his own eyes.

“So I am addressing, correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. J. J. Lawndsley in person, sole owner and manager of Lawndsley’s Better Books,” he concludes, lowering his arm with theatrical slowness. “Fact or fiction?”—then swinging round to observe Julian’s response.

“Fact,” Julian confirms.

“And the first J, if one may make so bold?”

“One may, and it’s Julian.”

“A great Roman emperor. And the second—even bolder?”

“Jeremy.”

“But not the other way round?”

“Never on any account.”

“Does one call you Jay-Jay?”

“Personally, I recommend plain Julian.”

The stranger ponders this with knitted brows, which are prominent and gingery, and flecked with white.

“Then, sir, you are Julian Lawndsley, not his portrait, not his shadow, and I for my sins am Edward Avon, like the river. I may be Ted or Teddy to the many, but to my peers I am Edward all alone. How d’you do, Julian?”—thrusting a hand across the counter, the grip surprisingly powerful, despite the fine fingers. “Well, hullo, Edward,” Julian replies jauntily and, withdrawing his hand as soon as he is decently able, waits while Edward Avon makes a show of deliberating his next move.

“Will you permit me, Julian, to say something personal and potentially offensive?”

“As long as it’s not too personal,” Julian replies warily, but in a similarly light vein.

“Then would you mind frightfully if, with all due diffidence, one made an absolutely footling recommendation regarding your extremely impressive new stock?”

“As many as you like,” Julian replies hospitably, as the danger cloud recedes.

“It is a totally personal judgment and merely reflects my own feelings on the matter. Is that clearly understood?” Evidently it is. “Then I shall proceed. It is my considered view that no local interest shelf in this magnificent county, or in any other county for that matter, should regard itself as complete without Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. But I see you are not familiar with Sebald.”

See from what, Julian wonders, even as he concedes that the name is indeed new to him, and all the more so since Edward Avon has used the German pronunciation, Zaybult.

The Rings of Saturn, I must warn you in advance, is not a guidebook as you and I might understand the term. I’m being pompous. Will you forgive me?” He will. “The Rings of Saturn is a literary sleight of hand of the first water. The Rings of Saturn is a spiritual journey that takes off from the marshes of East Anglia and embraces the entire cultural heritage of Europe, even unto death. Sebald, W. G.”—this time using the English pronunciation and waiting while Julian writes it down. “Formerly professor of European literature at our University of East Anglia, a depressive like the best of us, now, alas, dead. Weep for Sebald.”

“I will,” Julian promises, still writing.

“I have overstayed my welcome, sir. I have purchased nothing, I am good for nothing, and I am in awe. Good night, sir. Good night, Julian. All good fortune with your superb new enterprise—but wait! Is that a basement I see?”

Edward Avon’s eye has lighted on a descending spiral staircase tucked into the further corner of the Reduced to Clear department, and partly concealed by a Victorian screen.

“Empty, I’m afraid,” Julian says, returning to his takings.

“But empty for what purpose, Julian? In a bookshop? There must be no empty spaces, surely!”

“Still thinking about it, actually. Maybe a secondhand department. We’ll see”—beginning to tire.

“I may take a look?” Edward Avon insists. “Out of shameless curiosity? You allow?”

What can Julian do but allow?

“Light switch on your left as you go down. Watch your step.”

With a nimbleness that takes Julian by surprise, Edward Avon vanishes down the spiral staircase. Julian listens, waits, hears nothing, and puzzles at himself. Why did I let him do that? The man’s as mad as a flute.

As nimbly as he vanished, Avon reappears.

“Magnificent,” he declares reverently. “A chamber of future delights. I congratulate you unreservedly. Good night, once more.”

“So may I ask what you do?” Julian calls after him as he starts toward the door.

“I, sir?”

“You, sir. Are you a writer yourself? An artist? A journalist? An academic? I should know, I’m sure, but I’m new here.”

The question appears to puzzle Edward Avon as much as it does Julian.

“Well,” he replies, having apparently given the matter much thought. “Let us say I am a British mongrel, retired, a former academic of no merit, and one of life’s odd-job men. Will that do you?”

“I guess it will have to.”

“I bid you anon, then,” Edward Avon declares, casting him a last wistful look from the door.

“And anon to you,” Julian calls cheerfully back.

At which Edward Avon-like-the-river dons his homburg hat, adjusts its angle and, umbrella in hand, sweeps bravely into the night. But not before Julian has been subjected to the heavy aroma of alcoholic fumes on his departing breath.

“You decide what you wanna eat today, my dear?” the proprietor asked Julian in the same strong mid-European accent with which she had greeted his arrival. But before he could answer, Edward Avon’s rich voice resounded over the boom of the sea wind and the creaks and groans of the café’s flimsy walls: “Good morning to you, Julian. You rested soundly amid the turmoil, I trust? I suggest you go for one of Adrianna’s bumper omelets. She does them remarkably well.”

“Oh, right. Thanks,” Julian returned, not yet quite willing to use the Edward. “I’ll give it a shot.”

And to the ample waitress standing at his shoulder: “With brown toast and a pot of tea, please.”

“You want fluffy, like I make Edvard?”

“Fluffy’s fine.” And, to Avon, resignedly: “So is this a favorite watering hole of yours?”

“When the urge takes me. Adrianna is one of our little town’s best-kept secrets, aren’t you, darling?”

The insistent voice, for all its verbal flourishes, struck Julian as a trifle underpowered this morning, as well it might be, if last night’s breath was anything to go by.

Adrianna clumped happily back to the kitchen. An uneasy truce reigned, while the sea wind howled and the gimcrack building heaved under the stress and Edward Avon studied his newspaper, while Julian had to content himself with staring at the rainswept window.

“Julian?”

“Yes, Edward?”

“A most amazing coincidence, actually. I was a friend of your late lamented father.”

Another crash of rain followed.

“Oh, really? How extraordinary,” Julian replied, at his most English.

“We were incarcerated in the same appalling public school together. Henry Kenneth Lawndsley. But to his school friends fondly known as the great HK.”

“He often said his school days were the happiest of his life,” Julian conceded, not at all convinced.

“And, alas, if one surveys the poor fellow’s life, one might sadly conclude that he was speaking no less than the truth,” said Avon.

And after that, nothing except the crashing of the wind again, and the foreign gabble of the radio from the kitchen, and Julian discovering an urgent need to get back to the empty bookshop where he didn’t yet belong.

“I suppose one might,” he agreed dully, and was grateful to see Adrianna approaching with the fluffy omelet and his tea.

“You allow I join you?”

Whether Julian allowed or not, Avon had already risen to his feet, coffee in hand, leaving Julian not knowing which to be more surprised by: the man’s evident familiarity with his father’s unfortunate life, or Avon’s reddened eyes sunk into their sockets, cheeks cracked with pain lines and coated in silvery stubble. If this was last night’s hangover, the man must have been on the bender of a lifetime.

“So did your dear father ever mention me?” he asked when he had sat down, leaning forward and appealing to Julian with his haggard brown eyes. “Avon? Teddy Avon?”

Not that Julian remembered. Sorry.

“The Patricians Club? He didn’t speak of the Patricians to you?”

“He did. Yes, he did,” Julian exclaimed, the last of his doubts for better or worse receding. “The debating club that never was. Set up by my father and banned after half a meeting. He nearly got slung out for it. As he tells it—or did,” he added cautiously, since his late father’s accounts of himself did not always stand the test of accuracy.

“HK was club chairman, I was his vice. They nearly threw me out too. I very much wish they had”—swig of cold black coffee—“Anarchists, Bolsheviks, Trotskyites: whatever doctrine enraged the Establishment, we hastened to adopt it.”

“That’s pretty much how he described it too,” Julian acknowledged, then waited, as Avon did, each for the other to play the next card.

“And then, oh dear, your father went up to Oxford,” Avon recalled at length, with a stage shudder, and a lowering of the underpowered voice, and a clown’s lift of the bushy eyebrows to heaven, followed by a sideways glance at Julian to see how he was responding, “where he fell into the hands”—placing his own hand on Julian’s forearm in sympathy—“but perhaps you are of a religious disposition, Julian?”

“I’m not,” Julian replied emphatically, his anger rising.

“I may go on, then?”

Julian went on for him: “Where my father fell into the hands of a bunch of American-financed born-again evangelical mind-benders with short hair and smart ties who carted him off to a Swiss mountaintop and turned him into a fire-breathing Christian. Is that what you wanted to say?”

“Perhaps not in such harsh language, but I could not have put it better. And you are truly not religiously disposed?”

“Truly not.”

“Then you have the foundations of wisdom within your grasp. There he was at Oxford, poor man, ‘as happy as Larry,’ as he wrote to me, his whole life before him, girls galore—yes, they were his weakness, and why not?—and, by the end of his second year—”

“They’d got him, okay?” Julian cut in. “And ten years after he’d been ordained into the holy Anglican Church, he recanted his faith from the pulpit in front of his whole Sunday flock: I, the Reverend H. K. Lawndsley, Clerk in Holy Orders, do hereby declare that God does not exist, amen. Is that what you were going to say?”

Was Edward Avon proposing they now dwell on his father’s prolific sex life and other dissipations, as widely aired in the gutter press of the day? Was he pressing for the gory details of how the once-proud Lawndsley family was turfed out of its vicarage into the street without a penny? And how Julian himself, in the wake of his father’s premature death, had to dump his hopes of university and become a runner in a City trading house owned by a remote uncle, in order to pay off his father’s debts and put bread on his mother’s table? Because, if he were, Julian was going to be out of the door in twenty seconds cold.

But Edward Avon’s expression, far from salacious curiosity, was the very mask of heartfelt sympathy.

“And you were there, Julian?”

“Where?”

“In the church?”

“As it happened, yes, I was. Where were you?”

“I wished only to be at his side. As soon as I read what had happened to him—a little late, alas—I wrote to him posthaste, offering whatever inadequate help I could. The hand of friendship, such money as I had.”

Julian allowed himself time to consider this.

“You wrote to him,” he repeated, in a questioning tone, as the shades of his earlier disbelief returned. “And did you ever get an answer?”

“I received none and I deserved none. On the last occasion your father and I met, I had called him a Holy Fool. I could hardly take it amiss when he spurned my offer. We have no right to insult another man’s faith, however absurd it is. You agree?”

“Probably.”

“Naturally, when HK renounced his faith I was filled with pride for him. As indeed vicariously, dare I say it, I am filled with pride for you, Julian.”

“You are what?” Julian exclaimed, laughing out loud despite himself. “You mean because I’m HK’s son and I’ve opened a bookshop?”

But Edward Avon found nothing to laugh at.

“Because, like your dear father, you found the courage to defect: he from God and you from Mammon.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I understand you were a highly successful trader in the City.”

“Who told you that?” Julian demanded stubbornly.

“Last night after leaving your shop, I prevailed on Celia to allow me to use her computer. Immediately, all was revealed, to my enormous sadness. Your poor father, dead at fifty, one son, Julian Jeremy.”

“Celia, your wife?”

“Celia of Celia’s Bygones, your distinguished neighbor in the high street and collecting point for our overgrowing population of rich weekenders from London.”

“Why did you have to go sneaking off to Celia’s? Why didn’t you just come out with it in the shop?”

“I was divided. As you would be. I hoped, but I was uncertain.”

“You were also pretty refreshed, if I recall.”

Avon appeared not to hear this: “I was immediately drawn by the name. I knew only too well there had been a scandal. I had no idea how the drama had played out, nor of your poor father’s death. If you were HK’s son, I could imagine how you had suffered.”

“And my supposed defection from the City?” Julian asked, refusing to be appeased.

“Celia happened to mention that you had abandoned a lucrative livelihood in the City at no notice, and she was appropriately mystified.”

Julian would have liked very much at this point to return to the little matter of Edward Avon’s claim to have offered his father the earth in his hour of need, but Edward Avon had other ideas. He had rallied remarkably. There was a new zeal in his eyes. His voice had recovered its flowery richness: “Julian. In the name of your dear father. And since Providence has twice brought us together in the space of a few hours. Concerning your large and beautiful basement: Have you considered what treasures it might contain, what a work of miracle it might be?”

“Well, no, as a matter of fact, I don’t think I quite have, Edward,” Julian replied. “Have you?”

“I have thought of little else since we met.”

“Glad to hear it,” Julian said, not without skepticism.

“Suppose you created—in that splendid space, still virgin—something so untried, so alluring and original, as to be the talking point of every literate and would-be literate customer in the area?”

“Suppose.”

“Not a mere secondhand books department. Not an arbitrary book depository of no character, but a purposefully selected shrine to the most challenging minds of our time—and of all time. A place where a man or woman may come off the street knowing nothing, and leave enlarged, enriched, and craving more. Why do you smile?”

A place where a fellow who has recently declared himself a bookseller, and only afterward realized that such a vocation has its own queer skills and knowledge, might blamelessly and invisibly acquire them, while appearing all the while to provide them from his own stock to a grateful public.

But, even as the unworthy thought occurred to him, Julian was starting to believe in the idea for its own sake. Not that he was yet prepared to acknowledge that to Edward Avon.

“You were sounding a bit like my father for a moment. I’m sorry. Go on.”

“Not just the great novelists, who are obvious. But philosophers, freethinkers, founders of great movements, even those we may abhor. Chosen not by the dead hand of the ruling cultural bureaucracy, but by Lawndsley’s even Better Books. And called—”

“Called what, for instance?” Julian demanded, off balance.

Avon paused, the further to arouse his audience’s expectation: “We shall call it the Republic of Literature,” he declared, and sat back with his arms folded while he studied his man.

And the truth was that, even if Julian had started out thinking this the most overblown sales pitch he had ever been subjected to, one that played with suspicious accuracy upon his sense of cultural deficit—not to mention an outrageous presumption on the part of a man whose bona fides he continued strenuously to question—nevertheless Edward Avon’s grand vision spoke straight to his heart, and to the reason he was here at all.

Republic of Literature?

He bought it.

It rang bells.

It was classy, but had universal appeal. Go for it.

And he might have offered a more encouraging reply than his City man’s knee-jerk “Sounds pretty good, I’ll have to think about it,” had not Edward Avon already been on his feet, gathering up his homburg hat and fawn raincoat and umbrella on his way to the counter, where he now stood deep in conversation with the abundant Adrianna.

But in what language were they conversing?

To Julian’s ear it was the language of the announcer on the kitchen radio. Edward Avon spoke it; Adrianna laughed and spoke it back. Edward rallied and laughed along with her all the way to the door. Then he turned to Julian and gave him a last exhausted smile.

“I am a little down at the moment. I trust you will forgive me. So good to meet HK’s son. Extraordinary.”

“I didn’t notice anything. I thought you were great, actually. I mean about the Republic of Literature. I was thinking you might drop by and give me the odd bit of advice.”

“I?”

“Why not?”

If a man knows his Sebald, is an academic of some sort, loves books and has time on his hands, why not indeed?

“I’m opening a coffee bar above the shop,” Julian went on engagingly. “It’ll be ready next week with luck. Come in and graze, and we can have a talk.”

“My dear fellow, what a generous offer. I shall give it my best endeavors.”

With wings of white hair streaming from under his homburg, Edward Avon once more set off into the storm, while Julian headed for the cash desk.

“You not like your omelet, my dear?”

“Loved it. It was just a bit much. Tell me something, please. What language were you two speaking just now?”

“With Edvard?”

“Yes. With Edvard.”

“Polish, my dear. Edvard is good Polish boy. You not know this?”

No. He didn’t.

“Sure. He very sad now. Got sick wife. She gonna die soon. You not know that?”

“I’m new here,” he explained.

“My Kiril is nurse. He work Ipswich General. He tell me. She don’t speak Edvard no more. She chuck him out.”

“His wife chucked him out?”

“Maybe she wanna die alone. Some peoples, they do that. They just wanna die, go to Heaven maybe.”

“Is his wife Polish?”

“No, my dear.” Hearty laugh. “She English lady”—laying a finger lengthways under her nose to indicate superiority. “You wanna take your change?”

“It’s fine. It’s yours. Thank you. Great omelet.”

Silverview John le Carré

Safely back in his shop, Julian suffers a severe reaction. He had known a few con artists in his time, but, if Edward were another, he was in a class of his own. Was it conceivable, even, that he’d been hanging around in the downpour at eight o’clock this morning—just on the off chance that Julian would come out of the shop—then followed him to Adrianna’s café for the express purpose of putting the arm on him? Was Avon, by any chance, that huddled figure he’d spotted, sheltering under an umbrella in a doorway down the street?

But what on earth was the endgame?

And if the worst Avon wanted was company, didn’t Julian have a duty to provide it to his late father’s old school friend, and all the more so if his dying wife had chucked him out?

And the clincher—how could Edward Avon or anyone else have known that Julian’s water and electricity had been turned off?

Ashamed of his unworthy thoughts, Julian makes amends by haranguing a succession of errant tradesmen on the phone, then takes to his computer and visits the site of his late father’s West Country public school, currently mired in a child abuse investigation.

He confirms that an Avon, Ted [sic], is on record as a “late entry scholar” to the school’s sixth form. Period of attendance: one year.

He next embarks on a succession of abortive searches, first for plain Edward Avon, then for Edward Avon, academic, then for Edvard Avon, Polish speaker. He finds no plausible match.

The local telephone listings offer no Avon of any kind. He tries an online address service: number withheld.

At midday, builders appear unannounced and remain till mid-afternoon. Normal services are restored. Come evening, he leafs through his predecessor’s outstanding orders for rare and secondhand books, and chances on a dog-eared card marked Avon, no initial, no address, no number. The said Avon, male or female, is interested in any hardback work in decent condition by one Chomsky, N. Probably some obscure fellow Pole, he tells himself dismissively, and is about to toss the card away when he relents and searches for Chomsky, N.: Noam Chomsky, author of over one hundred books. Analytical philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician, public activist, critic of U.S. state capitalism and foreign policy, repeatedly jailed. Rated world’s top intellectual and father of modern linguists.

Chastened, he retires to bed after the usual solitary supper in his resurrected kitchen and finds he is unable to think consistently about any subject other than Edward or Edvard Avon. So far, he reckons, he has met two irreconcilable versions of the man. He wonders how many more there are to come. Falling asleep at last, he speculates as to whether he has discovered in himself a secret need for another father figure. He decides that one has been quite enough, thank you.

The week that follows Julian’s dual encounter with Edward Avon does not lack for distractions. A next-door neighbor’s underhand planning application threatens to rob the stockroom of its only source of daylight. Returning one evening from a conference of local librarians, he is met, not by Bella, but by a locked shop and a flowered thank-you card on the till, declaring her undying love for a Dutch fisherman. And in the precious basement, now firmly established in Julian’s mind as the future home of the Republic of Literature, rising damp is diagnosed.

Yet, for all these calamities, he never ceases to reflect on the many faces of his late father’s school friend. Too often he fancies Edward’s raincoated shadow sweeping past the shop window without a turn of the homburg hat. So why doesn’t the wretched man come in and graze? No obligation to buy, Edward, Edvard, or whoever you are.

The more he thinks about Edward’s grand plan, the more it grows on him. But does the name still ring right? Is it perhaps too high-hat after all? Might Readers’ Republic have greater crowd appeal? Might Republic of Readers, or New Republic of Readers, or how about Lawndsley’s Republic of Readers? Or how about just calling it Literary Republic? Telling no one—since there was no Edward to tell—Julian makes a dedicated journey to the print shop in Ipswich and has them run up a few tentative drafts for a full-page ad in the local rag. Edward’s first title is still the best.

None of which in any way prevents him, in his low moments, from taking Edward to task for his intrusive theories regarding his father and himself: I defected from the City? Utter balls. I was a wide-awake predator from day one, and no kind of believer. I came, I stole, I conquered, I got out. End of story.

As to my lamented father: maybe—just possibly—HK was some kind of religious defector. When you’ve screwed half the pious ladies of your parish, maybe you and God do decide to call it a day.

And what about that heartwarming offer of friendship, money, and whatever else that Edward Avon had purportedly made to his old pal HK in the hour of his distress? All Julian could say was: Next time we meet, prove it.

Because whatever else you might say about the Reverend H. K. Lawndsley (retired hurt), when it came to hoarding useless junk, he was in a class of his own. Nothing was too humble to be stored away for his future, nonexistent biographers: no sermon note, no unpaid bill or letter—be it from a discarded mistress, an outraged husband, tradesman, or bishop—escaped his egomaniacal net.

And hidden here and there amid the mountain of dross, yes, the rare letter from a friend he’d managed to keep. And one or two of them did indeed offer assistance of a sort. But from his old school pal Edward, Edvard, Ted or Teddy, not a peep.

And it is in part this inconsistency, coupled with a great impatience to get the Republic of Literature up and running once the rising damp was fixed, that prompts Julian to set aside whatever scruples he has, and call on his fellow toiler in the high street vineyard, Miss Celia Merridew of Celia’s Bygones, on the pretext of discussing a revival of the town’s defunct arts festival.

She was waiting for him on her doorstep, feet astride, and sixty if a day, smoking a cigarillo in the unlikely sunshine. Her choice of costume was a kimono of parrot green and orange, her ample bosom adorned with strings of brilliant beads, her hennaed hair knotted in a bun and held in place by Japanese combs.

“Not one penny, young Mr. Julian,” she warned him jovially as he advanced on her. And when he assured her that it was only her moral support he was after: “Wrong address, darling. No morals worth a bean. Come into my parlor and have a ginny.”

A hand-scrawled notice on the glass front door read free cat neutering here. Her parlor was an ill-smelling back room of broken furniture, dusty clocks, and stuffed owls. From an ancient refrigerator, she extracted a silver teapot with the price label dangling from its handle, and poured a gin concoction into two Victorian rummers. Her hate-object of the day was the new supermarket.

“They’ll do you in, and they’ll do me in,” she predicted in her rich Lancashire growl. “That’s all the buggers care about: putting us honest traders out of business. Soon as they spot you earning half a living, they’ll open an industrial-size book department, and won’t rest till you’re a charity shop. All right, let’s have it about your festival. I’ve heard about bumblebees that fly as shouldn’t. I’ve not heard about dead ones as can.”

Julian made his pitch, by now a practiced performance. He was thinking of getting together an informal working party to explore options, he said. Might Celia agree to adorn it?

“I’ll want my Bernard along to hold my hand,” she warned. Bernard, her consort: market gardener, Freemason, part-time estate agent, and chairman of the local council’s planning committee. Julian assured her that Bernard’s presence would be a boon.

Random small talk while Celia gets the measure of him and he lets her. What about that Jones the greengrocer, then, standing for mayor when everybody except his wife knows he’s put his fancy lady in the family way? And those affordable houses they’re putting up behind the church, there: Whoever’s going to be able to afford one of them by the time the estate agents and lawyers have taken their cut?

“So we’re a public schoolboy, are we, darling?” Celia asked, appreciatively running her sharp little eyes over him. “Went to Eton, I expect, same as the government.”

No, Celia. State.

“Well, you speak posh enough, I will say. Same as my Bernard. And I expect you’ve got yourself a nice girlfriend too, haven’t you?”—continuing her unabashed appraisal of him.

Not at present, Celia, no. Resting, let’s say.

“But the girls are what we like best, are they, darling?”

Definitely what he liked best, he agreed—but he was careful all the same, as she leaned suggestively forward to top up his ginny, not to sound overenthusiastic.

“Only I’ve heard a thing or two about you, you see, young Mr. Lawndsley. More than I’m letting on, if I’m truthful, which I like to be. Quite the demon trader, you were. A leader in his field is what I heard. And more friends than what he has enemies, which they tell me is unusual in the City, it being cutthroat. How’s custom, darling, or should I not speak ill of the dead?” she rattled on, with a saucy lift of the long skirts, and a crossing of the legs, and a sip of ginny.

Which was Julian’s opportunity, by way of a couple of detours to confuse the scent, to arrive by supposed chance on the amusing topic of this oddball customer who’d barged into his shop at closing time, having had a drink or three, inspected it from top to bottom, kept Julian talking for half an hour, not bought a single book and turned out to be—he needed go no further:

“That’s my Teddy, darling!” Celia cried in mock indignation. “Over the moon he was! Came straight in here to look it all up in the computer, bless him. Oh, but when he knew your dad had passed away—what with the troubles he’s got already—oh dear, oh dear,” she added, shaking her head in what Julian took to be a combined reference to his late father and Edward’s ailing wife. “My poor, poor Teddy,” she went on, as her beady eyes came back to inspect him yet again. And with barely a pause: “You’ve not had any dealings with him at all, have you, darling, while you were being a City mogul?” she inquired with elaborate innocence. “Direct or indirect, as we might say? Arm’s-length, as I believe they call it up there?”

“Dealings? In the City? With Edward Avon? I only met him a few nights ago and bumped into him by accident at breakfast”—followed by the unpleasant afterthought—“Why? You’re not warning me off him, are you?”

Ignoring his question, Celia went on scrutinizing him with shrewd eyes: “Only he’s a very good friend of mine, you see, darling, is Mr. Edward Avon,” she said with innuendo. “Like a special friend.”

“Not prying, Celia,” Julian put in hastily, only again to be ignored.

“More special than what you might think. There’s not a lot of people know that, apart from my Bernard.” Thoughtful sip of ginny as she continued to scrutinize him. “Only I wouldn’t mind you knowing, you see, what with the impressive City contacts you’ve got, if I knew I could trust you not to blab. I might even cut you in on something, down the line. Not that you haven’t got enough already, from what I hear. Can I, is the point?”

“Trust me?”

“I’m asking.”

“Well, that’s something for you to judge, Celia,” Julian said piously, confident by now that nothing was going to stop her.

It was a very long story, she assured him: All of ten years now, since her Teddy first breezed through that door there one sunny morning with a carrier bag stuffed with tissue paper, pulled out a Chinese porcelain bowl, put it on the counter, and demanded to know what she reckoned it was worth on a good day. “Am I buying or selling, I say, because I don’t know him, do I? He walks in, he says, I’m Teddy, like he’s my best friend, and I’ve never seen him in my life. So what you’re asking for, I say, is a free valuation, which is not how I make my living, so it’s half of one per cent of whatever I say it’s worth. Come on, Celia, he says, don’t be like that. Just give me a ballpark figure. If I’m buying, I tell him, ten quid, and I’m being generous. Make it ten grand and it’s yours, he says. Then he shows me the valuation from Sotheby’s. Eight grand. Well, I didn’t know who he was, did I? He could have been any joker. Plus he’s a bit foreign. Plus I know bugger all about Ming blue-and-white. Anybody would have guessed that, just looking through the window. Who are you anyway? I say. Avon, he says, first name Edward. Well, I say. Not the Avon that’s married to Deborah Garton down at Silverview? The same, he says, but Teddy to you. Because he’s like that.”

Julian needed to get his bearings.

“Silverview, Celia?”

Big dark house on the other side of town, darling. Halfway down the hill from the water tower, lovely garden, or was. Used to be called The Maples in the Colonel’s day, until Deborah inherited. Now it’s Silverview, don’t ask Celia why.

And the Colonel was who? Julian asked, trying hard to imagine Edward in this unlikely setting.

Deborah’s father, darling. Town benefactor, art collector, founder and patron of the town library, and hands all over you. My Bernard had a contract with him to supply and maintain his gardens. Deborah still has Bernard up there now and then. And it was the Colonel bequeathed her all his lovely blue-and-white porcelain, Celia went on with a grim sigh. A truly grande collection, she insisted, grande to rhyme with “horned.”

Silverview John le Carré“So when Teddy walked in on you that day, he was hoping to flog you a bit of family Ming on the side,” Julian suggested, only to see Celia’s mouth open and close again in horror.

“Teddy? Bilk his own wife out of her inheritance? He wouldn’t ever, darling! He’s as straight as a die, is my Teddy, don’t ever let anyone tell you different!”

Suitably chastened, Julian waited to be corrected.

No, what Teddy would like to do in his retirement, Celia said, using the funds he’d earned after all those years teaching abroad in places you and me wouldn’t be seen dead in—Deborah being away on her quangos and whatever else she was up to—was to raise the quality of the Colonel’s grande collection to the absolute tops, partly by trading up, partly by acquisition. “Plus he’d like his Celia to be his intermediary, scout, purchasing agent, and representative on a highly private and confidential basis never to be revealed, with an annual floor commission of two thousand quid cash in hand for her trouble, and an agreed percentage of the annual turnover, in cash or kind, with nobody troubling the Inland Revenue, what does she think? Well, what would you think?”

“All this in one short visit to your shop?” Julian exclaimed, privately recalling the eerie speed with which Edward had become prospective cofounder and consultant to the Republic of Literature, all in the space of a cheese omelet.

“Three, darling,” she corrected him. “One the same afternoon, and then next morning, he’s got two grand in tenners in an envelope, he’d got them all ready for the moment I said yes, and there’s a piece for me each time he does a deal, him to decide how much—which I can’t object to, seeing he’ll be doing it all himself anyway behind the scenes.”

And you said?

“I said I’d have to ask my Bernard. Then I said—which I should have said before if I’d known him better—in heaven’s name, why come to me? Because you don’t sell top-class Chinese blue-and-white porcelain out of a toffee shop, do you? I said. Or buy it, I said. Plus the fact it’s all computers and eBay these days, and I haven’t even got a computer, let alone know how to work one. We’re Luddites, me and Bernard, proud of it, I said. Everybody in the town knows we’re Luddites. Didn’t bother him a bit. He knew it coming in, he said, he’d got it all worked out in his head. Celia, dear, he says to me, you don’t have to lift a finger beyond being who you are. I’ll be there for you every inch of the way. I’ll buy a computer. I’ll install it and handle it. I’ll locate the pieces to buy, and the pieces to trade. I’ll study the auction prices. All I ask, he said, is you do the talking, you be my front office under my guidance where needful because I like my life in the shadows, and that’ll be my retirement taken care of.”

Celia purses her lips and takes a sip of ginny and a puff of cigarillo.

“And you did all this, just the two of you?” Julian asked, bemused. “For ten years or whatever it was you said. Teddy trades, you take your retainer and your commission.”

Julian’s bemusement was further compounded by the fact that Celia’s mood had blackened dramatically. For ten long years, ever since day one, everything had gone sweet as sugar. The computer duly arrived and was awarded its own little home—over there, darling, on the bow-fronted escritoire, not six feet from where you’re sitting. Edward would drop by whenever he felt like it, not every day by any means, sometimes not every week. He’d sit down in that chair there, with all his catalogues and trade rags, and he’d tap away and they’d have a ginny and Celia would take the calls and front for him.

And every month, rain or shine, there’d be an envelope for her and she wouldn’t even count it, which was how much they trusted each other. And if Edward were away on business, which he sometimes was, there’d be the same envelope by registered post, and like as not a billy-doo saying he’d missed her beautiful eyes or something equally daft, because Teddy always knew how to pull out the stops, and he must have been a terror when he was young.

“Away on what sort of business, Celia?”

“International, darling. Education and similar. Edward’s an intellectual,” she replied loftily.

Another sigh, a prudish tug at her neckline in case she was giving Julian ideas by mistake, as she approached the moment that ended her ten years in paradise. It’s Sunday night, a week ago. Eleven o’clock, the phone rings. Celia and Bernard have got their feet up, watching telly. Celia picks up the receiver. Her Deborah Avon voice is part Lancashire, part Her Majesty: “Is this Celia Merridew by enny chance? Yes, Deborah, I say, this is Celia. Well, Ay wish to inform you that Edward and Ay have decided to dispose of our collection of Chaynese blue-and-white porcelain forthwith. Dispose of it, Deborah? You don’t mean your grande collection? Yes, Celia, that’s exactly what Ay mean. We want it out of the house, preferably by tomorrow latest. All right, Deborah, I say. So where are we supposed to put it? Because you don’t shove a grande collection up against any old wall for the night, do you? Well, Celia, she says, seeing as how you’ve made yourself a small fortune out of Edward over the years, and since Edward assures me you have emple space, how about storing it in your beck area?

“You store it in your back area, I thought—but I didn’t say it, did I, because of poor Teddy. Next afternoon, four o’clock by royal appointment, we’re up The Maples, all right, Silverview. Bernard’s got his tea chests and wood shavings; I’ve got my bubble wrap and tissue. Teddy’s waiting at the door, white as a sheet, and her ladyship’s upstairs in her boudoir with her classical music turned up loud.”

Celia interrupted herself, but not for long: “All right, I know she’s ill. I’m sorry. I’m not saying it’s the greatest marriage ever because it’s not, but I wouldn’t wish what she’s got on my worst enemy. The whole house smells of it. You don’t even know what you’re smelling, except you do.”

Julian acknowledged the sentiment, while Celia consoled herself with a sip of ginny.

“So I say to Teddy, quietly, what’s all this about, Teddy? It’s not about anything at all, Celia, he says. Me and Deborah, in view of her tragic illness, we’ve decided to give up acquisition, and that’s all there is about it. Well. It’s past midnight by the time me and Bernard get it all back here into the shop, and all I’m thinking is, what about the insurance, with all the Romanians and Bulgarians roaming the countryside? Bernard makes himself a pile of blankets on the floor. I stretch out on that Victorian divan there. Midday, Teddy calls me up. He doesn’t like telephone as a rule. Our dealers will be arranging transportation directly, Celia. Deborah will be going for a private sale in due course of time, which is her good right. Kindly therefore inform me what I owe you for the removal and insurance. Teddy, I say, I’m not about the money, because I’m not. Just tell me what’s going on. Celia, he says, I told you already. We’ve given up acquisition, and that’s all that needs to be said.”

Had she finished? It seemed so, and now she was waiting for him to speak.

“So what does Bernard say?” he asked. “She needs the money for the doctors. I say bollocks to that. She’s got her father’s money, her private health, and who knows what else from her quangos. Plus she could buy half of Harley Street with her grande collection and have change left over,” Celia retorted contemptuously, stubbing out the last of her cigarillo. “So what do you say, clever Mr. Julian? Because if you’re the brilliant young gun I’m told you are, and seeing as our Teddy is your late father’s school friend, and is in total denial regarding his former close friend Celia owing to his wife’s unfortunate illness—and me having too much tact to trouble him at such an hour—perhaps some nugget of information will come your way”—very angry now, witness the sudden flush in her face, and the rise in her voice—“be it from Teddy himself, be it from one of your many City friends and admirers regarding the disposal of a certain unique collection of prime blue-and-white Chinese porcelain. Perhaps one of those Chinese millionaires we read about has snapped it up. Or one of your City syndicates. All I’m saying is”—the crescendo now—“I’ve not received one brass farthing on the sale, so if you’d kindly keep an ear out, I’d be very much obliged, young Mr. Julian, and I will show my appreciation in a businesslike manner, if you get my meaning. Blue-and-White Celia, they used to call me in the trade. They won’t be saying that anymore, will they? Not ever. Bugger! That’ll be Simon, come to buy my gold.”

A cacophony of Swiss cowbells had announced Simon’s arrival. With improbable agility, Celia sprang to her feet, yanked the folds of her kimono over her hips, and straightened the Japanese combs in her hennaed hair.

“Slip out the back way, will you, darling? I don’t believe in mixing my flavors,” she said, and set course for the shop.