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Afternoon Stroll


A gift for a friend

Well aware of the whispers behind his back, Joe walked unhurriedly along, hands deep in his pockets. He had left Music at The Hibernian as she was in foal, and as comfortable as she was with crowds, Beechworth was particularly busy on this spring afternoon and he had decided she was better off resting in the relative peace and quiet of the stables. He did not have far to walk anyway.

Joe stepped aside to avoid a cart clattering past, and caught sight of two women about to enter Bray’s photography studio across the road; a mother and her daughter, it looked like. A sudden noise in the street made them turn, and the older woman’s eyes met his. He deliberately let his gaze wander appreciatively over her soft curves before returning it to her eyes. Even from across the street he could see her blush, and he grinned and winked. Visibly flustered, she turned and ushered the younger woman in through the open studio door but she glanced back at him before the door closed and he could see she was smiling.

Whistling under his breath Joe walked on, tipping his hat at the odd acquaintance and smiling at the pretty new barmaid from The Harp of Erin who disappeared through the door of the Post Office a hundred yards ahead of him. Finally at his destination, he took off his hat as he opened the door and stepped into Mr Ingram’s shop.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Ingram.”

“Why, good afternoon to ye Joe! Long time since ye’ve been here.”

The old Scot was impeccably dressed as always, sorting through a pile of books on his desk, peering at him over the top of his glasses.

“I have had business elsewhere Mr. Ingram, but I have not come across a better bookshop than yours so I am very pleased to be back here again!”

“Good lad! Was there anything in particular you wanted? I have just taken delivery of these -” Mr. Ingram waved at the books in front of him “- and I think there might be one or two here you would find interesting.”

Joe picked up a book from the pile and leafed through it.

“I am a bit lacking in reading material at the moment but perhaps I will come back another day when I have a bit more time. Today I'm looking for something suitable for a young lady. As a gift, ye understand.”

Mr. Ingram smiled.

“I do indeed, Joe. I believe I have just the right thing. Is your young lady a reader herself?”

“Aye, that she is. I believe there are almost as many books in her house as in yer shop! So I trust yer to find me something with which I can impress her!”

Mr. Ingram pulled out a book from a drawer in his desk and presented it to Joe.

“This came in with the latest consignment from Melbourne. I must have known you were coming because I put it aside. It has only just been published.”

Joe took the thick leather bound tome and looked at the gilded letters on the spine: Anna Karenina. He opened onto the first page and read:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

“If your young lady is a reader, I think she might like it. And I am fairly certain she would not yet have this book,” Mr. Ingram said, beaming with pride at the thought of being able to provide such an exclusive gift.

Joe turned the pages and read bits at random:

The place where Kitty stood seemed to him a holy shrine, unapproachable, and there was one moment when he was almost retreating, so overwhelmed was he with terror. He had to make an effort to master himself, and to remind himself that people of all sorts were moving about her, and that he too might come there to skate. He walked down, for a long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking.
I think... if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.
He could not be mistaken. There were no other eyes like those in the world. There was only one creature in the world who could concentrate for him all the brightness and meaning of life. It was she.

Smiling, Joe looked into Mr. Ingram’s expectant face.

“I hope this will not end up causin' me grief,” he weighed the book in his hands as an image of it flying at his head flashed in his mind’s eye, “but I will trust yer judgement. If you would please wrap it up for me, Mr. Ingram.”

The book package tucked under his arm, Joe stepped out into the sunlit street. A quick glance at the Post Office clock told him he still had time for a drink at The Hibernian before collecting Music from the stables and setting off for his evening rendez-vous. Well aware that his progress was followed by several pairs of wistful female eyes he sauntered down the street, his blue eyes twinkling.

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