Parliament Square was bright and lively, with tourists queuing for a guided tour of the college, as I passed by and made my way to the Examination Hall. It was a wonderful spring day and I was looking forward to the annual Trinity College book sale that always had a place in my diary. The three-day event had been held for more than thirty years and most bookworms considered it the best in town, an observation that I wholeheartedly agreed with.
Jonathan Swift – wordsmith
The old building, dating from 1785, is normally a place of quiet endeavour but not when the book sale is in progress. The black and white tiled floor gives it the appearance of a giant chessboard upon which hunters moved forwards, backwards, sideways before stopping and browsing. Looking down on the proceedings were the paintings of famous alumni, including the philosopher Bishop Berkeley and Jonathan Swift, men who knew a thing or two about writing.
And listening to the hub-bub of activity as I stepped into the big room I suspected that those former students would have liked to have a ‘look around’ and see if they spotted a bargain. That was why I was here, and with books set out on tables stretching the length of the room, there was something for everyone. I took out the small, cloth bag that I had in my pocket and gently eased past some book hunters. I was ready to rummage.
There was an air of intense activity in the room and the sound of cardboard boxes stuffed with books being pushed along the floor by hunters was something unique to this book sale. The muted tones of friends discussing ‘finds’ added to the excitement that was a feature of the event. By the time I left the Biography table I had my first book, The Life of Jonathan Swift, and I wondered what he thought of it as I glanced up at his painting.
Moments after I began searching on the next table I felt a hand on my shoulder. ‘Hi, is that the first on many?’ Ed said looking into my bag.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘and I’m glad that you made it.’
‘I wouldn’t miss it for world.’
‘And there’s so much on offer this year…it’s crazy.’
‘Sure is, and I’m going to check out the Engineering and Architecture tables first. I got a couple of gems here last year, so let’s see if my luck continues.’
‘Right, you do what you have to do and I’ll see you outside afterwards, ok? Otherwise I’d be cramping your style, and you don’t want that.’
Ed frowned. ‘Never. I mean this is important, sacred work, and best done on one’s own.’
‘Spoken like a true believer,’ I said and Ed winked before turning and getting lost among the hunters.
It was ok, and with Ed gone momentarily from sight I moved, salmon-like in the growing crowd, across the room where I spent a few minutes browsing through books on the History table.
I was bent down, running my finger along the spines of books when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, someone on the other side of the table pick up a book that I had wanted to get for years. I knew from the cover that it was an early edition of Frederick Forsyth’s classic novel The Day of the Jackal, and I didn’t take my eyes from it. The guy flicked through it and I was hoping against hope that he would not take it. After about thirty seconds, a lifetime as far as I was concerned, he weighed up his options and finally put it down and moved away. I immediately leaned over and picked it up, my inner magpie at work. It was the ‘find of the day’ and I happily dropped it into my bag.
After about fifty minutes, and having browsed my way around all the tables, I joined the queue where hunters were paying for their finds. The guy in front of me nudged a cardboard box full of books toward the cashier’s table, and I reckoned that after he had worked his way through them he would be one of the best read people in Dublin.
He spotted me looking at his trove, and grinned. ‘It’s great. I’ve enough to last me for a year.’
‘I can see that, and I hope that you’re a fast reader,’ I replied, and we both laughed.
When it was my turn to pay I put my books on the cashier’s table and she calculated what I owed. ‘That’s six euro,’ she said.
I paid and put the books back into my bag. ‘It looks and sounds like you’re busy,’ I said.
The cashier nodded her head. ‘We are, and it’s as busy as I’ve ever seen it. The good weather certainly helps…and there’s still another day to go.’
‘And do you have enough books?’
That got a raised eyebrow. ‘You have no idea how many books there are in the adjoining rooms.’ She looked across the moving crowd. ‘There are boxes in there stacked six feet high…it’s amazing.’
‘That’s good to know, and thank you for these.’
I was about to move away when a hand, holding a book, came from behind me and a voice said to the cashier. ‘How much is this, please? I’ve left my spectacles at work and I can’t read the price.’
The cashier opened the cover. ‘It’s one euro.’
‘And can I pay with a credit card?’ said the woman who I had turned to look at.
‘No, it’s cash only, I’m afraid.’
The woman beside me paused for a long moment. ‘Ah, I was looking forward to reading this…’
‘I’m sorry,’ said the cashier.
The woman was disappointed and she couldn’t hide the look. Having come to find a particular book and not be able to buy it, I understood what she was feeling. I took a euro from my pocket and handed it to the cashier. ‘Here, I’ll buy it.’
The cashier tilted her head, smiled and gave me the book.
Then I handed it to the woman, and the look of disappointment was now one of total surprise. ‘A present, and I hope that you enjoy it.’
‘Thank you,’ she said and held my gaze for a few seconds.
‘You’re welcome. I’m Joseph.’
The woman looked at the book that she was holding firmly. ‘I don’t know what…I’m Mary,’ she said and we shook hands momentarily before she turned around and left.
I was looking at the door when Ed asked ‘So, what was that all about?’
‘I’ll tell you over coffee. Fancy going over to the restaurant?’
That was a no-brainer and we stepped into the sunshine and walked past the Campanile and the Old Library where visitors queued to see the Book of Kells, and into the restaurant where the aroma of coffee filled the air.
We got a seat, and after tucking into Danish pastries and coffee Ed asked. ‘And who was that woman at the cashier’s desk? Is there something I should know?’
I smiled. ‘No, there’s nothing you should know. Ok?’
Ed sipped his coffee.
‘But if you must know,’ I said, and told him about my brief encounter.
‘That was very good of you, well done that man. And did you get her name?’
‘Mary, and then she just…flew off.’
‘Like Mary Poppins, eh.’
I grinned, and said ‘I think she was so surprised that..’
‘She didn’t know what to say. Is that it?’
‘I guess so.’
Ed let that sink in for a moment. ‘You did Euro Lady a good turn, and there’s everything right with that.’
I liked the name he had just given the mysterious woman. ‘Whatever, and I hope that she enjoys her book, that’s all.’
‘Oh, I’m sure she will, and you never know what might happen.’
‘What are you talking about? It was just a euro.’
‘I know, but that book meant a lot to her. So, maybe you’ll get some good luck. Karma, remember?’
‘I remember,’ I replied with little conviction, and shortly afterwards we left, heading home with our finds as the sun beamed from a cloudless sky.
A few years later I submitted a short story to a few magazines but none of them published it. It was disappointing, so I sent it to one that I had not tried before. I hit the Send button, waved it off, and wondered if this time someone might like it.
A month later I got an email from the company saying that it was going to run my story in its next issue. I was delighted, and especially so when the sender, Kate, asked if I had any other stories that had not been published. I replied, indicating that I had two and, as I was planning to be in town later in the week, I would be happy to drop them into the office.
That would be fine, and the editor wished to speak with me when I called in. That all sounded really good and I printed off the stories and put them into a big envelope and tapped it for luck. Then I checked the company’s website and saw that the editor’s name was MK Conroy but there was no photograph or other information available. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, whoever you are,’ I said and put the kettle on.
The weather on that Friday morning in early May was bright with the first hint of summer in the air. It was clear and fresh and I held the envelope close as the bus made its way into town.
The office I was looking for was on the top floor of a building on Bachelors Walk that offered a great view onto the Liffey.
‘Kate is expecting you,’ the receptionist said before knocking on a door opposite her desk. Moments later I was led into the editor’s office, a place stuffed with magazines and books.
‘Hello, Joseph,’ said a voice to my left.
I turned to see a woman, in profile, taking a book down from a shelf. When she turned and faced me time seemed to stand still, as I recognised Euro Lady.
‘Well, it’s nice to see you again,’ she added, casually waving a book. ‘Remember this?’
‘How could I forget…it cost me a small fortune.’
She chuckled, and we sat down.
‘Hold on a moment. You told me at the book sale that your name was Mary, but the receptionist called you Kate. Do you have a twin?’
She raised a hand. ‘No, no. I’m Mary-Kate and, as there is another Mary working here, I’m called..’
‘I understand, and hence the MK on the website,’ I said and gave her the envelope.
She slid the stories out. ‘Thanks, and if these are as good as your other stories then we’ll both be happy.’
I frowned. ‘Other stories…you’ve read some of my previous ones?’
‘Of course I have. Keeping an eye on what the opposition is doing is part of being a good editor, and that’s how I found you. But you never submitted anything to us until now, so…’
I was impressed.
‘And publishing your story, which deserves to be published by the way, was my way of properly saying Thank You for what you did,’ she said glancing at the book on the desk.
Well, Mary-Kate did like my other stories, and many more since.
The way things turned out, Ed’s comment that ‘one good turn deserves another’ now seems so true. Karma, or whatever it’s called, certainly gets my vote, and I can never forget my brief encounter with the Euro Lady at the Trinity College book sale on a bright spring day that promised so much.
Booklovers – seek and you will find!