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Open Features: Love Is A Lottery

Betty McKay's satisfying tale, which ties up every loose end, is about bookshops and lotteries, love and life...

Lucy discovered the bookshop one Saturday morning. It was a soft, warm April day when the air felt like silk on her skin. She was wandering through the old part of the city, the medieval wynds and closes which lay around the Cathedral precincts.

Pausing outside the shop she delved into a large tea chest full of books, which stood outside on the cobbles. Rejecting old textbooks and paperback novels, she finally unearthed a leather-bound book which looked different from the rest. Looking at the title she was astonished at her find, for only the day before, she had overheard two men discussing it.

Her table had been tucked away in an alcove and sitting there she overheard a voice with a soft Scots accent say quite clearly, "It's not 'The Thieving Magpie', Paul, it's 'The Jackdaw of Rheims' from an old book of ballads by a chap called R H Barham."

"Spot on, Angus! 'The Ingoldsby Legends!" This was a sharper voice, from the north though not from over the Border. Yorkshire maybe. "He was a clergyman, wasn't he? Born here in Canterbury." There was a sound of chairs scraping on wood as the two men prepared to go. "Of course it's years since I read him. I shouldn't think there's much of his stuff left around anymore."

"No, I suppose not. He's what you might call Victorian Gothic."

The voices tailed away as the pair made for the cash desk and the door. Overcome by curiosity, Lucy peered around the corner of the alcove and saw a tall, dark-haired man wearing a tan shirt and a stockier, grey-haired figure with a beard, denimed and in a sweatshirt, standing by the door. They moved out onto the pavement, chatted a moment, separated and were gone. Wondering idly which was the Scotsman with the delightful accent, she smiled, 'Probably the one with the whiskers' and sighed, 'Ah, well.' Then she went back to her copy of the Times and her coffee.

Now Lucy stood handling the book. It was old and dusty. Noticing the publication date was 1844, she realised the volume was in excellent condition. The illustrations were a delight, and coupled with yesterday's overheard conversation, she knew she must have it.

Entering the bookshop she had a feeling of letdown. She loved books, and this place was shabby and down-at-heel. The pity of it was that the room was large and extended a long way back. The windows were partially covered by bookshelves, making it even gloomier. No wonder she was the only customer. At that moment she heard the sound of slippered feet shuffling towards her. When the old man appeared from around the corner of one of the bookcases, he was as shabby and as sad-looking as his shop.

The book cost her five pounds, and she came out into the spring sunshine happy with her purchase. 'A bound leather volume always gives pleasure,' she thought, 'but it was an awful pity about the shop. Somebody should take that place in hand.'

Over the next few evenings the musty old book became bedside reading. She smiled at the quaint, archaic verses telling of weird hauntings and strange happenings. And when she read 'The Jackdaw of Rheims' concerning the mischievous bird who stole the prelate's ring and was cursed for his crime -'Never was heard such a terrible curse!', Lucy said, "Thank you Angus and Paul, whoever and whatever you are." Finishing the book, it joined the other volumes in her bookcase.

Lucy was new to Canterbury. She had moved into her flat late the previous autumn. It was the top floor of an Edwardian villa. She had two large bedrooms, a light airy living room, bathroom and kitchen, her own front entrance and a shared double garage. The developer had made an excellent job of the conversion, making it a joy to furnish. This was her first real home, and the feeling of cool anticipation she experienced as soon as she opened her eyes each morning was tremendous.

Until early last summer Lucy had been a nanny. For twelve years she had looked after many children, realising quite early in her career that, although she was good at her work, it was better that she didn't become too attached to her charges. Lucy was invariably understanding, kind and fair to the children. She loved the babies. Gradually as they got older she weaned herself off them. It was much easier to move on if she didn't become too attached to the children; then no-one got hurt. In fact it made partings kinder all round.

While she was working for the Gregsons, her last employers, the miracle happened. Taking the twins, Thomas and Edwina, to spend their weekly pocket money, she indulged herself. The magic finger beckoned and she bought a ticket in the National Lottery. On the Saturday evening, having put the twins to bed, she remembered the lottery ticket. Switching on the television she caught the tail-end of the draw, and then the six numbers flashed up on the screen. They were 7, 5, 10, 12, 19 and 31. Quickly writing them down she sat back, hardly believing what was happening. Never having done the lottery before she had chosen the first numbers that came into her head; her date of birth, the 12th October 1975 and her age, which was at that time, thirty one.

Now eight months later she owned a fully furnished flat, a brand new Vauxhall Corsa and had half a million pounds in the bank - more if she added her own savings and the interest which her bank manager assured her was mounting up rapidly. 'Not bad for an ex-Barnardo's kid.'

Giving notice to Julia Gregson, Lucy hadn't mentioned the money, knowing her employer disapproved "on principle" of the lottery and "the spend, spend, spend mentality of the working class". Not even her present bank manager knew where her money came from. She realised it had changed her life completely.

Feeling different made her look different. She had lost that pinched, timid look. Her hair, no longer pulled back off her face, was trimmed regularly. It fell into two shining dark wings on her cheeks, making her face fuller and softer, emphasising her cheek bones and large grey eyes.

Her walk-in wardrobe was filling with the easy-to-wear clothes she liked, the kind she had always admired. To Lucy, couturier and designer clothing she had seen worn by some of her employers had never appealed. They didn't look comfortable. But never again would she wear navy or grey, or anything that resembled a uniform. Soft pastels suited her colouring. Smart accessories and elegant shoes completed the picture.

Sometimes when she caught sight of herself unawares in a shop window, Lucy was amazed at how she had got to look so good, and wondered whatever happened to the old Lucy. 'Perhaps she had quietly disappeared into the wallpaper.'

Choosing Canterbury had been easy. When she was fourteen, Meg Thorensen, her House Mother at Barnardo's, had taken her there for the day. Meg had been kind to her and knew Lucy loved beautiful old buildings. She said that when next she went to visit the city Lucy could come with her. She had taken the shy young girl to explore all the places of interest, including the Cathedral. It had made a tremendous impression and Lucy vowed to herself that come hell or high water, one day this city was where she would make her home.

Now she was a settled member of the small community in the area where she lived. Tradespeople smiled at her, neighbours stopped to chat. Two weeks before the door-bell had rung, and opening the door she found a small boy carrying a covered basket. "Please, Miss Trescott, Mum said would you like a kitten? Grandma and my aunties have taken the others and this is the last one."

Lucy recognised him. He lived in the house next door but one. "You're Adam aren't you? You don't need to call me Miss, I'm Lucy. Come on in." She led the way upstairs. "Has the kitten got a name?"

"No, but it's a she-cat and is house trained. Mum says all she needs is a litter tray."

The kitten had taken to Lucy and the flat. Adam, astonished she had never kept any pets before, proceeded to give her expert advice on cat care and asked her what she would call the kitten.

"Flora I think." said Lucy, and Flora became part of her new life.

Before long she knew money, flat, new clothes and a kitten would not be enough. She had no desire to be a student - mature or otherwise. Perhaps she should let the whole thing ride for the time being. She didn't want to try any old venture; it had to be something she would really put her heart into. It wasn't as if she would be doing it to make money; after all, she didn't need money, merely to indulge in something she loved doing.

What did she enjoy? Walking, theatre, cinema, art, reading... Books! Yes, that was it. She would create a 'state of the art' bookshop, just like the one she had seen when she worked in America for the Conrads.

Remembering the Conrads, the children were running wild when she first met them. "Free spirits" Mrs Conrad had called them. Louisa Conrad had herself been a far too free with the other kind of spirits. Mr Conrad was a diplomat and a bottom pincher, but providing you were quick on your feet, you wouldn't come to too much harm with him. It had all ended rather quickly and sadly with Mr Conrad being summoned summarily back to London and Louisa being 'dried out' in a clinic, with Grandma and Grandpa Conrad getting custody of the children.

The bookshop had been in one of the smaller university towns, quite near to Washington. She remembered it with affection. You could get coffee and browse. There were places to sit, and 'literary events' were staged. Authors and poets came, not just to sign and sell their books, but to talk to the readers. The assistants actually knew something about what they were selling, as if they also enjoyed reading. She would have to talk to someone about it - someone who knew more than she did about selling books. She would contact the bank for financial advice.

Over the next week she visited all the bookshops in the city and none of them matched up to her ideal bookshop.

Presenting her ideas on the Friday afternoon to Mary Stephens, the bank's Small Business Adviser, Lucy said that a city as important as Canterbury with a university and such a high influx of regular tourists and 'pilgrims' (she grinned as she said it) deserved something better and a lot more imaginative know-how.

Then Lucy told her about the Charlottesville bookshop. The financial adviser must have been a fellow reader for her eyes lit up as she elaborated on her ideas for the book-store. "Have you any particular outlet or area in mind?"

Lucy glanced at her speculatively, "Yes. There's a place in the old area at the back of the Cathedral. It's already a bookshop, but terribly run-down and neglected. The premises look large and I imagine the upper floors could also be utilised as I don't intend living above the shop."

Mary Stephens smiled, "I know that shop. It used to be a thriving little business until Mr Graham's wife died about ten years ago." She handed Lucy a sheaf of pamphlets. "What I suggest you do first of all is get yourself a good accountant. I'll be in touch with you next week."

At seven o'clock that evening the telephone rang. It was Mary Stephens. "I just thought you'd want to know Mr Graham is as anxious to sell as you are to buy."

"Oh, that's marvellous - what a mine of information you are."

Mary laughed, "What I didn't tell you this afternoon is that his granddaughter is one of our secretaries. She tells me her father has been trying to persuade old Mr Graham to sell up for ages. Your visit today did the trick nicely. The property agent is likely to be Rogerson and Taylor who have an office in the old Market Square."

"Thank you so much. I'll get in touch with them tomorrow."

"Lucy, there's one more thing. It might be a good idea to get in contact with someone at the university about your project. It is just possible they might be of considerable help to you. My husband is the Bursar there, and tomorrow evening we'll be having a few people over for a barbeque. Are you free and would you be interested enough to come?"

"That's awfully kind of you, I'd love to."

Mary gave her the address and directions, wished her good night and rang off.

The following evening, instead of taking the car, she rang for a cab. When the cabbie arrived at 'Cockleshell Mews' the driver gave her a querulous look. "I'll have to drop you here, love. You couldn't squeeze a fairy cycle in amongst that lot." Cars stood double parked in the mews. Obviously the Stephen's did their entertaining on a large scale.

When Lucy rang the bell, there was no reply. Noticing the wrought-iron side gate was open she walked directly through to the rear of the house. The garden looked enormous and very pretty in the concealed lighting. It was on two levels. Most of the guests seemed to be congregating lower down beside the swimming pool, where the barbeque had been set up.
Lucy hesitated at the top of the steps leading from the terraced area to the lower part of the garden. Unexpectedly she heard a voice behind her. "Good evening. I'm Paul Stephens, Mary's husband. I think you must be Lucy Trescott. Mary asked me to keep my eye open for you as she's busy in the kitchen. She'll be with us in a few minutes."

Lucy had recognised the sharp, quirky tones immediately he had spoken. Turning round, she saw the grey-haired, bearded man from the tea shop. 'Well, that was one mystery solved. If Paul is here can Angus be far behind?'

She felt a quick surge of pleasure. Ever since the fleeting glimpse she had of him, Lucy had wanted the tall, dark-haired man to be the Scottish half of the duo. She'd remembered how, when she was a tiny girl, her Grandmother had described Lucy's father as a 'braw highlander'. Since then she had always found a highland accent enchanting.

Mary introduced Lucy to a number of people from the university, but at this early stage, until the project got off the ground, there seemed little point in discussing the bookshop. What Lucy did was to accept several invitations to various social activities. These would further future contacts with people who would be helpful to her. But of her doughty Scot there was no sign.

She was about to tuck into a large helping of ice cream when she heard Paul's voice: "Of course the one person who would really go for your super bookshop is Angus. He's your man. Yes, Angus Stuart. He's the Professor in Literature Studies, and he's up by the house. Come on, I'll take you up to meet him."

Lucy never knew how she travelled from point A to point B but it seemed only a second before Angus Stuart's dark eyes looked down into hers, and he smiled and said, "Hello." Lucy felt as if she had known him all her life.
People around them must have realised they weren't needed; they drifted away. For hours they sat on the terrace wall and talked as if words had just been invented. Suddenly she heard a laugh and saw Mary standing in front of them. "Aren't you two ever going home - or are you stopping to do the washing-up?"

With surprise Lucy realised they were the only guests left. So Lucy helped Mary with the washing-up, while Angus and Paul cleared up in the garden. "I'm so glad you and Angus get on so well; he really is a lovely man. He and Paul were at St Andrews together, so they go back an awful long way."

She laughed, "He's usually so quiet, but that's because he's a bit on the shy side." She cast a mischievous sideways look at Lucy, "At least I thought he was shy. You seem to have brought him out. What on earth were you talking about?"

Lucy laughed: "About the bookshop, he's got so many good ideas, and about Scotland and America. So many things, Mary, I can't remember them all." She helped put the things away as Paul and Angus came in.

"I think it's about time I took Lucy home, it's after two."

"Yes, Angus, I'm ready. Thank you so much Mary and Paul. I've had a great time."

After waving them off, Paul and Mary came back into the kitchen. While Mary put the last of the plates away Paul said, "Well, for once your match-making machinations seem to have taken off successfully."

"Paul, I knew she was right for Angus the minute I clapped eyes on her."

"Come on then, Wonderwoman, let's have a nightcap."

"Yes. I think I deserve one. Thanks, Darling."

Paul poured them both a drink. "Here's to Lucy and Angus. God bless them", and they raised their glasses.

Eight months later Lucy's dream became a reality. On a Saturday morning in early December LEGENDS celebrated its official opening. The dark, gloomy interior was now bright and welcoming. The bookshop took up the whole of the ground floor. On the first floor was the coffee shop, where customers could meet and enjoy a meal, and on the upper floor was a functions room large enough to seat eighty people.

In the centre of the bookshop's highly polished oak floor stood an enormous circular Victorian settee, newly upholstered in royal blue buttoned velvet. Angus and Lucy had bought it at an auction in Inverness, when Angus had taken her to meet his family the month before they were married.

As she stood amongst the crowd of well-wishers and friends who had helped get her idea off the ground, Lucy glowed with happiness. Angus, who had been pouring wine for their guests, came over and stood beside her.

Mary looked at them both and smiled, "You know life really is a lottery. It's only eight months since you two met and think how much has been achieved in that time. If Lucy hadn't gone into that tea-shop and overheard Paul and Angus talking about that old book, none of this would have happened. So I'll propose a toast." She lifted her glass. "Here's to Lucy and Angus, Legends and life."

"Yes," said Lucy. "Here's to life's lottery."

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