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Authors: Thomas Montasser

A Very Special Year

BOOK: A Very Special Year
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THOMAS
MONTASSER

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

A Oneworld book

First published in North America, Great Britain and Australia by Oneworld Publications 2016

This ebook edition published by Oneworld Publications, 2016

Originally published in German as
Ein ganz besonderes Jahr
by Thiele Verlag, 2014

Copyright © Thiele & Brandstätter Verlag GmbH, 2014

Translation copyright © Jamie Bulloch, 2016

Published by special arrangement with Thiele Verlag and its duly appointed agent, 2 Seas Literary Agency

The moral right of Thomas Montasser to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

All rights reserved

Copyright under Berne Convention

A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-1-78074-866-5

eBook ISBN 978-1-78074-867-2

Excerpt from
If On A Winter's Night A Traveller
by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver. Copyright © 1979 by Giulio Einaudi Editore, s.p.a., English translation copyright © 1981 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

From
Mason & Dixon
by Thomas Pynchon, published by Jonathan Cape. Reproduced by permission of The Random House Group Ltd

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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For Mariam,

the muse of my budding dreams

Reality can't compete

with literature
,

you see
.

Valerie's mother

A book is so much more

than the sum of its words!

Noé

CONTENTS

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Epilogue

ONE

I
f someone had peered through the window, that person would have glimpsed little more than the bent back of a carefully dressed elderly lady, whose snow-white, somewhat tousled bun was hovering above the till, bathed in the gentle light of a tired ceiling lamp. Maybe that person would have seen her emphatically draw a line below a list she'd written in an ancient notebook, then snap shut said notebook no less emphatically and snap open a handbag beside her, from which she took a purse, and from this she slipped out a rather low-value banknote and placed it in the till. That person would have seen her slender hand, dotted with age spots, but otherwise aristocratic and pale, close the till and touch it again – as you
might comfort an old friend with a slap on the shoulder – before she finally stood up, conducted an inspection of the floor-to-ceiling shelves, whispered something to them, then turned off the light and left the small shop via the back door. Thus our observer would have been the witness of a specific event that can be summed up in two words: Charlotte's disappearance.

Now, you don't need to be especially perceptive to realize that no such observer existed. On that – significant, as we shall see later – winter evening no one was passing by to glance through the window or, more accurately, at the window display. In other words, it was a perfectly normal evening, a typical evening rather than an unusual one. On no account could you blame this on a lack of people milling about; on the contrary, the old lady's shop, although slightly set back from the street, was located in an area with a good level of footfall, as people put it so nicely. A bakery would have probably done a roaring trade, an off licence too, not to mention a fitness studio. In this respect, the elderly lady, whom our non-existent observer would have seen at the beginning, had a more difficult job. Much more difficult. For, as we know, passing trade is an odd species: wilful, stubborn, unpredictable, but most of all, never
there when you need it. For the sake of accuracy, however, we must note that the business this elderly lady was in depends far more on regular customers than passing trade. For it doesn't offer mass-produced goods for swift consumption or dubious, rapidly fading beauty, but something considerably more substantial, important even. We are talking here about being or not being, in more than one sense. Which is why Charlotte's disappearance can quite rightly be regarded as a cultural event, albeit not a pleasant one. But more on that later.

It would be a while before the door to the small shop was opened again. And under very different circumstances.

TWO

T
he paint was peeling in places and there was a crack in one corner of the glass pane in the door. Valerie shook her head. When she finally managed to open the antiquated lock – it had slightly rusted and the door was jammed at the top – she was hit by weeks-old stale air. Leaving the door open, she headed straight for the office at the back to open the window there too. Fortunately it was a warm, spring day.

Valerie dropped her bag on the floor and tried not to fall immediately into despair. Where on earth to begin? This shop was like a dress that the elderly woman had tailored to fit her life. It may now have fitted her perfectly, but for Valerie's youthful existence it was uncomfortable, shapeless and wholly
impractical. She sat down hesitantly on the worn armchair, which Aunt Charlotte had positioned by the window for the light. ‘What
have
I let myself in for?' she sighed.

On the little side table lay a pile of business cards with the shop's name in elegantly flowing letters. Valerie picked up one; it radiated a particularly magical aura. The surface felt as if it had been coated with velvet, the letters were embossed in a deep, dark red. Valerie was unable to suppress a smile. ‘Ringelnatz & Co.,' she said softly, with a mixture of hilarity and embarrassment. Evidently Aunt Charlotte had been trying to emulate the Paris bookshop she so admired: Shakespeare & Co. Valerie couldn't understand why she hadn't at least called her shop something like Goethe & Co. But perhaps there was no need to understand. Perhaps it was simply because Aunt Charlotte was from another era.

So, the bookshop. How long was it since she'd last been here? Years. Several. Since her mother died, she hadn't seen much of her aunt; Papa and Charlotte had never really got on. As a professor of economics, his conversation would soon turn to business matters. Aunt Charlotte exasperated him. ‘Can't you get it into your head that you're no businesswoman?' he'd exclaim, literally every time they spoke, and turn
away shaking his head. The two of them had nothing in common.

And now, of all people, it was up to Valerie to liquidate the old bookshop where she'd spent so many happy hours of her childhood, and whose outdatedness she later found so alien. Chance had decreed that she should be the elderly lady's closest relative and that, with her recent degree in business administration, she should also have the necessary know-how for the job. It was just that she'd set herself other goals for this post-degree period. She had already enrolled on a master's degree, without which she wouldn't be able to set herself up for a career as a consultant specializing in Scandinavia and the emerging economies of the Baltic. As she sat here in Aunt Charlotte's old bookshop, two dozen applications were on their way to top firms: business consultancies, accountancy firms, marketing agencies and think tanks. This is where she wanted to go, into the heart of things, where business was pulsing, where brainstorms thundered and the future was being invented. Instead, she was stranded here amid reams of old paper. Moreover, she fancied she had some idea of what awaited her in her aunt's accounts. That's to say, she had no idea; it was something she would only discover when she was right in the middle of this story. If not later.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that although Aunt Charlotte had disappeared, she had not been registered as dead. She had merely not been found anywhere. There was as little evidence that she had willingly gone somewhere as there was that she had unwillingly arrived somewhere – even if this destination were the afterlife. But nobody, of course, was under any illusion, least of all Valerie. She'd always liked Aunt Charlotte and she was very saddened that the elderly lady – she would have been pushing eighty – had departed this life in such a mysterious way. There had been no sightings of her; she had quite simply taken leave of her existence, which was as cranky as it was convivial. And the note that had been found on her kitchen table was not even valid as an official will because it lacked a signature and it didn't refer in so many words to anyone actually
inheriting
her estate, but maintaining it: ‘My niece Valerie is to look after everything.' That was all.

The shop probably hadn't changed since its foundation in the late 1950s. True, different books adorned the shelves now and the samovar had only arrived in the nineties – by chance Valerie knew exactly when – after a trip her aunt had made to post-communist Russia, the land of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin. Russia had been Charlotte's dream destination, at
least until that visit, which had brought some sober reality (back then, Mama had said, ‘Reality can't compete with literature, you see.'). But apart from this, there were floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves that could have done with a polish years ago, a worn parquet floor, three lamps with ancient green shades on wobbly side tables and a heavy, gathered curtain with gold embroidery at the edges, which separated the display window from the rest of the shop and which had once probably been a stage curtain, maybe even in the pre-war era.

BOOK: A Very Special Year
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