Magnús Sturluson and Jowan turned down the unassuming alleyway between cottages slap bang in the middle of the perilous path that descends to the harbour.
‘Down-along’s always been a no-car zone,’ explained Jowan, while Magnús struggled with his suitcase over the cobbles. ‘The village donkeys used to transport the luggage, not to mention fishes, coal and beer, up and down the incline. Now’days you have to do it yourself, though there’s sleds at every doorway, you’ll notice, to make it easier.’
Magnús only nodded and righted his case once more. Jowan’s elderly Bedlington terrier, Aldous, trotted along between them, his skinny tail curled between his legs like a fallen question mark even though he was a perfectly happy creature.
Jowan, decidedly more weathered and sun-bleached than you’d expect for a sixty-something-year-old, yet still handsome and fine-featured beneath the sandy beard, persevered in spite of Magnús’s silence, and as he spoke, his pearl-drop earring danced off his jaw.
‘You’ll have the volunteers on hand to offer assistance whenever they’re needed. There’s a whole band of ’em, you’ll see. You’ll have the running of not only the shop but the little café too, as I’m sure you know. There’s a kitchen and bathroom for your private use and, of course, there’s only one bed, up at the top of the spiral stairs. It’s what you might call cosy. But that won’t be a problem for you,’ Jowan assured Magnús. ‘You’ll have plenty space, bein’ only one person.’ He pronounced it ‘perzon’ with a lovely thickness in his voice like clotted cream.
‘Correct,’ Magnús assured him, his own voice deep and with a wonderfully musical Icelandic accent that had made everyone he’d encountered since the airport remark upon it.
It had been so long since he’d left his island that he wasn’t at all used to this, and he especially hadn’t enjoyed the taxi driver having a go at mimicking his speech patterns and getting it wildly wrong before asking if he’d ever met Björk.
Magnús had met her, as it happened, and she’d been absolutely charming, but he’d lied and said no, not wanting to confirm these people’s belief that Iceland was some tiny backwater where everyone knew each other.
Magnús hadn’t been at all aware that plenty of the women – and many of the men –he’d encountered during his brief time in England so far had in fact been smiling and staring in admiration, thinking him a rugged kind of attractive they weren’t used to.
Back home, Magnús’s height and breadth was pretty standard stuff, as was his shorn head and beard (easy to look after, he thought, but unintentionally really kind of attractive), but here in the south of England his piercing blue-grey irises and robust, impressive bearing provoked many people who saw him to draw the same salacious, thirsty conclusion: this was a fierce-eyed Viking invader.
That was not what Jowan was thinking as he handed over the keys. He was thinking the newcomer sullen, sad even, noting the way his broad shoulders slumped as he made his way up the shop’s stone steps, his stare fixed on the peeling sky-blue paint on the door which back in the summer had been bright and glossy.
Jowan eyed the man, unsure what to do. Was he cross about the state of the place? He was only young, just shy of thirty maybe; he should be springing up those steps and excited for his holiday like the others usually were.
Jowan felt the need to defend his little bookish kingdom. ‘Repaintin’s a springtime job, for after the winter frosts have done their worst. No point even thinking about maintenance at the moment, ’specially not with storms predicted.’
The man seemed not to hear him so Jowan gave up and said the words he always said as he bade his guests goodbye and good luck.
‘It’s your bookshop to do as you like with. Remember, every guest changes the display on the table by the till on their last day to reflect their own readin’ taste, and you must leave it for the next bookseller to keep in place during their fortnight – nice little tradition we have here, a legacy of your stay. You’ll see Kim and Karamo, who were with us before you, liked home décor and lifestyle books, so that’s what they’ve left for you. Otherwise, do as you please, same goes for the café.’
Still Magnús Sturluson wasn’t smiling in the dazed, can-hardly-believe-my-luck kind of way that the other guests usually did. In fact, he was a bit sick-looking.
Even Aldous – who these days loved meeting new people – wasn’t giving this guy the time of day. The little dog hadn’t been offered so much as a scratch behind the ear. Everyone liked giving him a fuss now he’d had a makeover and a new lease of life at the hands of Elliot, the village’s new vet.
Even when Magnús turned the key in the lock and the little bell over the door ting-tinged in the shop’s papery stillness he failed to turn to Jowan and grin like all his dreams were coming true at once.
‘She’s all yours,’ Jowan said again, as always feeling like he was bestowing the most wonderful gift in his possession.
Magnús only nodded, thanked Jowan and waited in silence on the threadbare doormat until the shop owner had accepted that this was all he was getting in the way of exuberance.
He and Aldous turned and plodded off towards the Siren’s Tail where Bella and Finan were bringing their new Christmas ales on line and would be looking for a taste-tester.
‘Right you are then,’ Jowan called back. ‘Number’s by the till if you need uz.’
But the shop door was already shut.