Today's Reading

Now Martha wove her way around a crate full of crystal chandeliers she'd offered to clean for Branda, and the school trousers she'd promised to re-hem for her nephew, Will. The black bin bags were full of Nora's laundry, because her washing machine had broken down. She stepped over a papier-mâché dragon's head that needed a repair to his ear and cheek after last year's school Chinese New Year celebrations. Horatio Jones's fish and potted plants had lived with her for two weeks while he was on holiday.

Her oven door might sparkle and she could almost see her reflection in the bathroom sink, but most of her floor space was dedicated to these favors.

Laying everything out this way meant that Martha could survey, assess and select what to do next. She could mark the task status in her notepad with green ticks (completed), amber stars (in progress) and red dots (late).

Busyness was next to cleanliness. Or was that godliness?

She also found that, increasingly, she couldn't leave her tasks alone. Her limbs were always tense, poised for action, like an athlete waiting for the pop of a starting pistol. And if she didn't do this stuff for others, what did she have in her life, otherwise?

***

Even though her arms and back ached from handling the trolley, she picked up a pair of Will's trousers. With no space left on the sofa, she sat in a wooden chair by the window, overlooking the bay.

Outside, the sea twinkled black and silver, and the moon shone almost full. Lowering her head towards the fabric, Martha tried to make sure the stitches were neat and uniform, approximately three millimeters each, because she wanted them to be perfect for her sister.

Stretching out an arm, she reached for a pair of scissors. Her wrist nudged the brown paper parcel and it hung precariously over the edge of the dining table. When she pushed it back with one finger, she spotted a small ink stamp on the back.

"Chamberlain's Pre-Loved and Antiquarian Books, Maltsborough." "Hmm," she said aloud, not aware of this bookshop. And if the package contained a used book, why had it been left at the library?

Wondering what was inside, Martha set the parcel down on her lap. She untied the string bow and slowly peeled back the brown paper.

Inside, as expected, she found a book, but the cover and title page were both missing. Definitely not a library book, it reminded her of one of those hairless cats, recognizable but strange at the same time.

Its outer pages were battered and speckled, as if someone had flicked strong coffee at it. A torn page offered a glimpse of one underneath where black-and-white fish swam in swirls of sea. On top were a business card and a handwritten note.

Dear Ms. Storm,

Enclosed is a book that came into my possession recently. I cannot sell it due to its condition, but I thought it might be of interest to you, because of the message inside.

Best wishes,
Owen Chamberlain Proprietor

With anticipation making her fingertips tingle, Martha turned the first few pages of the book slowly, smoothing them down with the flat of her hand, until she found the handwritten words, above an illustration of a mermaid.

June 1985
To my darling, Martha Storm Be glorious, always.
Zelda x

Martha heard a gasp and realized it had escaped from her own lips. "Zelda?" she whispered aloud, then clamped a hand to her mouth.

She hadn't spoken her nana's name for many years. And, as she said it now, she nervously half expected to see her father's eyes grow steely at its mention.

Zelda had been endlessly fun, the one who made things bearable at home.

She wore turquoise clothes and tortoiseshell cat's-eye-shaped glasses. She was the one who protected Martha against the tensions that whirled within the Storm family.

Martha read the words again and her throat grew tight.

They're just not possible.

Feeling her fingers slacken, she could only watch as the book slipped out of her grip and fell to the floor with a thud, its yellowing pages splayed wide open.
...

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