Leaning over her trolley, Martha grabbed hold of its sides and heaved it around to face in the opposite direction. As she did, a clear plastic box slid out, crashing to the path. When she stooped to pick it up, the biscuits lay broken inside.
It was only then she noticed the brown paper parcel propped against the bottom of the door. It was rectangular and tied with a bow and a crisscross of string, probably left there by the shadowy figure. Her name was scrawled on the front. She stooped down to pick it up, then pressed her fingers along its edges. It felt like a book.
Martha placed it next to the box of broken biscuits in her trolley. Really, she tutted, the things readers tried to avoid paying their late return fees.
She wrenched back on the trolley as it threatened to pull her down the hill. The brown paper parcel juddered inside as she negotiated the cobbles. She passed sugared almond-hued houses, and the air smelled of salt and seaweed. Laughter and the strum of a Spanish guitar sounded from the Lobster Pot and she paused for a moment. Martha had never eaten there before. It was the type of place frequented by couples.
Through the window, she glimpsed Clive and his wife with their foreheads almost touching across the table. Candles lit up their faces with a flickering glow. His mind was obviously not on the library.
If she's not careful, Mrs. Fold's hair is going to set on fire, Martha thought, averting her eyes. I hope there are fire extinguishers in the dining area. She fumbled in her pocket for her Wonder Woman notepad and made a note to ask the bistro owner, Branda Taylor.
When Martha arrived home, to her old gray stone cottage, she parked the trolley outside. She had found it there, abandoned a couple of years ago, and she adopted it for her ongoing mission to be indispensable, a Number One neighbor.
Bundling her stuff out of the trolley and into the hallway, she stooped and arranged it in neat piles on the floor, then wound her way around the wine bottles. She found a small free space on the edge of her overcrowded dining table for the brown paper parcel.
A fortnight ago, on a rare visit, her sister, Lilian, had stuck her hands on her hips as she surveyed the dining room. "You really need to do something about this place, Martha," she'd said, her eyes narrowing. "Getting to your kitchen is like an obstacle course. Mum and Dad wouldn't recognize their own home."
Her sister was right. Betty and Thomas Storm liked the house to be spic and span, with everything in its place. But they had both died five years ago, and Martha had remained in the property. She found it therapeutic, after their passing, to try to be useful and fill the house with stuff that needed doing.
The brown velour sofa, where the three of them had watched quiz shows, one after another, night after night, was now covered in piles of things.
Thomas liked the color control on the TV turned up, so presenters' and actors' faces glowed orange. Now it was covered by a tapestry that Martha had offered to repair for the local church.
"This is all essential work," she told Lilian, casting her hand through the air. She patiently explained that the shopping bags, plastic crates, mountains of stuff on the floor, stacked high on the table and against the wall, were jobs. "I'm helping people out. The boxes are full of Mum and Dad's stuff—"
"They look like the Berlin Wall."
"Let's sort through them together. We can decide what to keep, and what to let go."
Lilian ran her fingers through her expensively highlighted hair. "Honestly, I'm happy for you to do it, Martha. I've got two kids to sort out, and the builders are still working on the conservatory..."
Martha saw two deep creases between her sister's eyebrows that appeared when she was stressed. Their shape reminded her of antelope horns. A mum brow, her sister called it.
Lilian looked at her watch and shook her head. "Look, sorry, but I have to dash. I'll call you, okay?"
But the two sisters hadn't chatted since.