Originally from Australia, Cheryl Burman arrived in the Forest of Dean, UK via a few years in Switzerland. The Forest inspired her to write, as it has inspired many before her. She is the author of the fantasy trilogy, Guardians of the Forest, and of Keepers, an historical women’s fiction novel set in Australia in the 1950s. Her flash fiction, short stories and bits of her novels have won various prizes and long/shortlistings. Her latest project is set against the backdrop of the Forest and the River Severn, and is a magical realism novel about a young farm girl who talks to the river, which she knows as Sabrina, goddess.
Cheryl is married with two grown children and a border collie, Sammy, who is also an author.
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A sleeting February morning isn’t optimal to find love. Especially here on this grey, wind-blown high street. Condensation-filled cafe windows and heads-bent shoppers scuttling like crabs to their holes, are hardly the birds singing in blossom-filled trees and rainbow skies Jenny might wish for.
Is the bleak setting a big fat hint? You’re wasting your time. Turn back, get on the train, leave. Hold the memory pure.
It was the first cold day of winter, the station thick with commuters in dark, heavy coats woken that morning from their summer hibernation. Jenny blended with the crowd, another monochromatic piece of the jigsaw. The train squealed to a stop, the doors slid open. Jenny surged forward, reached around a pole, hugged it close – and jerked at the hard jab to her side.
She glared at the man and woman crowded against her. The woman’s eyes were on her phone. The young man grinned. Jenny squirmed, shuffled away, was jabbed again. Whatever it was, it was in her pocket. She reached in, fingers touching the book thrust there an age ago with good intentions, and forgotten.
She’d been persuaded by Rory to take the book from the park bench on a chill, early spring day.
‘It’s not lost,’ he said. ‘You pick it up, then leave it for someone else when you’re finished with it.’
As Rory had done with Jenny.
The weekend after that short conversation, Jenny read the book, curled on the sofa, hot chocolate at hand, eyes puffy, heart furious.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Afterwards, she watched the movie and was disgusted by the distorted happy-ever-after ending. Typical Hollywood, selling the pure fantasy of happy-ever-after endings.
The train had swayed around a curve, sending Jenny swaying against the young man. He uttered a muted cry.
‘What you got there?’ he whispered, smiling. ‘Poisoned umbrella?’
Jenny recalls the heat flushing her face. She had dragged the volume out. ‘A book.’
She could have left it there, stared at the ads, ended it before it began, like a proper commuter. Except she blathered on: ‘Have to leave it somewhere. You know –’
‘Yeah, bookcrossing. Love that site. What’s the book?’
Uh oh. A talker. A stalker?
‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,’ Jenny muttered.
‘Brilliant! Though they stuffed the film up right royally, huh?’
Jenny caught her nod in time to make it a stiff one.
The train juddered to a halt. People left. The woman staring into the phone had sidled off to a seat. Jenny was alone with the young man, sharing the pole.
‘Love Birds Without Wings too. Don’t you?’ he said.
‘Not read it,’ she conceded, staring at a Costa coffee cup rolling on the floor.
The train jolted to another standstill. Jenny had scuttled to an empty seat, sat down, head down. The young man plumped beside her.
‘Oh, you must read it,’ he said. ‘Brilliant, and they haven’t ruined it with a film.’ He leaned forward, laughing dark eyes searching hers. ‘Not yet, anyway.’
Jenny hugs herself on the puddled footpath, sensing again that moment when her eyes were trapped by the young man’s gaze. She’d blinked, gathered herself, and stared at Captain Corelli lying on her lap. ‘Hmm.’
The young man got the hint. He wriggled an inch away and brought out his phone.
At the next stop, he rose. ‘Nice chatting,’ he said.
No irony, although Jenny hunted for it.
When the train moved on, something hard had jabbed at Jenny’s thigh. Tucked against her butt, on the side the young man was sitting, was a copy of Birds Without Wings. Jenny opened it.
Bookcrossing.com, she read. If you find this book …
She humphed a soft giggle. And sighed. She was already missing those dark, laughing eyes.
She had run a thumb over the edges of the book’s pages and a business card, used as a bookmark, fell out. A photograph of the young man standing in front of tidily sorted shelves, with the address of a bookshop in a town not far from Jenny’s home.
Rain is falling in icy rods. Jenny reaches the bookshop, huddles under its short canopy. The white door is closed against the weather. She stares at the diamond-shaped glass pane where a sign hangs from the inside.
‘Open! Please come in!’
Jenny pulls Birds Without Wings from her handbag, holds it in front of her like a defensive weapon, and pushes at the door.
A bell clangs.
The young man looks up from his place in front of the bookshelves. His dark, laughing eyes welcome Jenny in.
Cheryl’s #women’s fiction novel, Keepers, is out on 2 April. Find out all about it here https://cherylburman.com/historical-fiction/ and sign up to her newsletter for novel peeks, short stories, and author interviews (including with me https://cherylburman.com/author-guest-spots/)