This is a tale told in fat red print on the margins of pocket money paperbacks . . .
The evening fell in layers of yellow-grey the night this story was told. Listeners in the Lone Chapel huddled close to the orange and scarlet and yellow flames, their hearts as dull as the low cloud. News from both near and far weighed heavy on them like the ropes that held the thatch down when the gales came.
The Pilgrim Woman came down from her garret a-jingling with sewn-on coins and bangles. The Lord-by-the-Sea raised an eyebrow at her purple and red and green skirts, the turquoise and orange of her shawl. Like a macaw among pigeons, she passed between the listeners to her fireside stool.
‘When hate and sorrow leech the colour from the world, it is time to return it,’ she said. ‘Here is a peppercorn story of great worth – to some.’
The lonely girl knelt on the bare boards of her new room. With both thumbs working in synch, she pushed the metal clasps across and the suitcase lid sprang up. It teetered upright for a moment, still domed from squashing the contents, then fell backwards. Dust and hair swirled.
She leaned over. A stink of dog-breath from behind blasted across her nose. She opened her lips to breathe. Refused to look its way.
First came the dented scrapbook. Filaments of yellowing sticky tape fell from its edges in spindly golden straws. She laid it as a base for the pile to come. Then she took out a set of Andrew Lang fairy books. Blurred crayon lettering, scribbles she still heard the scolding for, and the beloved black-and-white engravings she didn’t need to see, claimed them as hers.
A quarter smile came at that. Then a damp and heavy paw landed beside her knee. Cold rose from gaps between the floorboards.
‘Get lost,’ she said quietly. The black paw stayed where it was.
Out came the Armada Lions, the Puffins, tatty paperbacks with half-peeled spines. Titles re-applied in Biro. Card slipcases varnished in hues of faded print and scuffed edges. All precious.
Her dark companion curled up, its knobbly back against her side. Lay quiet for a while. Steamed like a midden.
She shelved her old books. Pulled the spines level with each edge of dented wood. Set them in order. Knew when they came to her. Listened to their memories. And all the while, the black dog slept. For she had slipped between the worlds, into a place it could not go.
If anyone asked why she kept such grubby battered articles, her tongue would not say. Yet her heart knew them for talismans of fortitude.