THE LADY WITH THE TWENTY-FIVE-LETTER ALPHABET
by Richard Rose
The bookshop had been quiet for most of the morning but on hearing the bell signifying that a potential customer was entering, Mr Hope glanced towards the door. His instant recognition of the lady crossing the threshold caused him to smile as he anticipated an opportunity to engage in some light-hearted entertainment at the expense of Mr. Pritchard, his new and very willing assistant.
Summoning Mr. Pritchard from where he was carefully arranging a display of the books recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Mr. Hope informed him that an important customer had just arrived at the shop and that he would require his assistance for the next few minutes in order to ensure that she received the best of service. As he did so he nodded his head in the direction of the lady who had commenced to browse through books on the history shelves just inside the door. Mr. Pritchard, following the clue provided by his employer turned his attention to the lady indicated and uttered what he hoped was a barely audible “good grief.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mr. Hope, raising his eyebrows as if in disbelief, “I didn’t quite catch what you said there.”
“It was nothing, really,” replied a slightly embarrassed Mr. Pritchard. But he couldn’t help following this with, “You say she is one of our most important customers?”
“Yes, indeed,” Mr. Hope reiterated this information with a nod and a smile, as he reviewed the expression on his young assistant’s face.
The customer in question was a lady of indeterminable age, short, squat, with lank greying hair, which was barely contained on the crown of her head by what Mr. Pritchard could only describe as a floral elasticated ring, the effect of which was to produce an image something akin to the crest or comb that is more commonly seen on the head of a cockerel. The lady observed was wearing a long raincoat, which may once have been of an olive green colour, but had clearly faded with time and now appeared to be of a more similar hue to her hair, give or take a few stains. A pair of good stout, if somewhat scuffed black shoes beneath bright red crumpled socks led Mr. Pritchard to conclude that the customer before him could not by any stretch of the imagination have been described as sartorial. To add to this impression the lady was well laden with two large fraying hessian bags, from which protruded a cornucopia of detritus made up of what appeared to be a jumble of papers, magazines and folders.
“This important customer;” Mr. Pritchard placed an incredulous emphasis upon the word important, “does she have a name?”
“Of course,” replied Mr Hope, “but I tend to think of her as the lady of the twenty five letter alphabet.” This latter declaration was made with a barely concealed smile, and enjoyed all the more by Mr. Hope because of the bemused expression on the face of his assistant. I’ll let you work out that one for yourself, he thought.
Having completed her perusal of the history section the lady customer approached the desk behind which both men stood.
“Good morning Mr. ‘ope,” she began, greeting the proprietor like a long lost and much trusted friend. “I was just passing and I wondered if the book I ordered ‘ad arrived.”
“Good morning and may I say what a pleasure it is to see you here again, yes I do believe it may have,” Mr. Hope replied, and turning to his colleague commanded “Mr. Pritchard, could you please go to the orders cupboard and see if there is a book under the name Lapinski awaiting collection.”
Mr. Pritchard, eager to please both his employer and this rather dishevelled, but apparently important customer, immediately turned and made his way to small room at the rear of the shop, where books ordered by customers were shelved awaiting collection in a tall wooden cupboard. Mr. Hope, with his customary efficiency had arranged each shelf within this cupboard with a series of alphabetical labels and it took less than a minute for Mr. Pritchard to find the name Lapinski and the associated tome, which was awaiting collection. Taking this book from the cupboard he began his return to the shop only pausing briefly to glance at the title and then across to the lady who had ordered this specific volume. “Poems from Iqbal: Renderings in English with Comparative Urdu Text.” Having read this title Mr Pritchard halted briefly to check the order paper that had been slipped inside the book. Could he possibly have made a mistake, he wondered? This scholarly book appeared to be an unlikely match to the lady who was currently deep in conversation with his employer. But there on the order paper within the book he found confirmation that it had indeed been ordered by a customer named Lapinski.
“Ah, I see you found it Mr. Pritchard,” said Mr Hope taking the book from his assistant as he returned to the counter.
“Excellent,” exclaimed the customer looking towards the younger man. “I always know I can rely on the efficiency of Mr. ‘ope. I’ve been coming ‘ere for years and ‘e never lets me down.” Taking the book she browsed carefully through a few of the pages before stating, “very good, this will ‘elp me considerably. You know Mr. ‘ope, my Urdu is quite ‘opeless, but ‘aving the Urdu text alongside the English, well it will ‘elp me no end. It will certainly assist as I look for the meanings ‘idden in the more complex ghazals. Of course, as you probably know, Iqbal wrote much of ‘is early poetry in Persian, though it’s taking me all my time to manage the Urdu at present, but who knows, per’aps in the future I’ll give the Persian a go.”
Throughout her brief speech, Mr. Hope, who despite his customer’s confident assertion had in fact never previously heard of the poet Iqbal, had been watching the reaction of his young assistant with mischievous pleasure and he now took the opportunity to introduce his clearly bemused colleague to the lady who stood before them.
“You will not have met my new assistant as yet,” he began. “He joined me only last week, allow me to introduce Mr. Pritchard.
“Very pleased to meet you I’m sure,” exclaimed the lady looking intently at the young man. “I know you will enjoy working for Mr. ‘ope, ‘e’s a proper gentleman.”
“And very pleased to meet you too,” Mr, Pritchard responded. “Yes, I’m sure I will be very happy here, Mr. Hope has already made me feel quite at home.”
“Ah, now;” the lady customer’s curiosity had clearly been ignited by Mr. Pritchard’s response, “is that a Welsh accent that I detect there Mr. Protheroe?”
“Pritchard,” the young man corrected her. “Yes indeed my accent still retains traces of my Welsh ancestry. Both of my parents were born and bred in the principality, but although born there myself, in Brecon actually, we moved to Bristol when I was just five years old. So indeed you are correct in your deduction that my roots are most certainly Welsh.”
“Yes, I thought as much Mr. Prichett. A most beautiful accent it is too. A land of great bardic traditions and legendary tales. So many great lyrical Welsh poets, as being a Welshman of course, you must know better than I. Now then, Dylan Thomas, there’s a fine example for you; such a clever man with words, most interesting rhythms, though sadly sometimes lost in the obscurity of imagery, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea” she intoned in a languid, soulful voice. “Such beautiful images don’t you think?
The lady briefly halted her peroration and sensing a lull in proceedings the young Welshman felt that he was required to make some effort at a response.
“Well yes, Dylan Thomas is greatly loved even today,” he began “And not only in his native Wales of course, I understand that he remains popular in many parts of the world. And er… if I might just correct you, the name is Pritchard.”
“What, yes, of course it is.” The customer looked at the young man as if to confirm that he of all people should know his own name. Determined not to be diverted by such a trivial issue, and now having embarked upon a theme which she was determined to explore, the lady continued. “There have been so many fine bucolic Welsh poets down the centuries, each with a golden tongue and love of the rugged Celtic landscape. George ‘erbert, Vernon Watkins, R.S. Thomas, Lewis ‘opkin, Gillian Clarke, though I myself of course, relate more closely to those who trace a direct line to the Mabinogion, that greatest of all the Welsh epics. Now then, Waldo Williams, ‘e’s the man for me.” And saying this she burst forth into another loud rendition, which drew the attention of the only other customer to have entered the shop, a rather timorous, mousey gentleman, who on hearing this sudden outpouring of a foreign tongue hid himself behind shelves in the gardening section and remained concealed until sometime after this loud customer had left the shop.
Beth yw byw? Cael neuadd fawr
Rhwng cyfyng furiau
Beth yw adnabod? Cael un gwraidd
Dan y canghennau.*
“Now then, what do you think of that young man?” she demanded at the conclusion of this brief recitation.
Mr. Pritchard’s facial gymnastics at this point might best have been likened to that of a goldfish, that having been wrenched from its bowl was gasping for air. When eventually he was able to speak he could do no more than stutter his confession. “I’m afraid I have hardly… well barely a dozen words of Welsh. As I said, I was brought up and educated in Bristol, not a great call for Welsh in the south west of England I’m afraid. Very sorry.” He found himself apologising, though unsure what he had to be sorry for. He looked towards the customer in anticipation that she would not letters rest easily after heard his timorous response.
Sure enough, he was not to be easily let off the hook. “I see”, exclaimed his tormentor, though she wasn’t entirely sure that she did see. This young man she felt, seemed somewhat ill at ease in his own culture, something that she always found difficult to understand. “So, Mr Phelps, was it a deliberate act of you parents to deny you access to your ‘eritage, or were they trying to assimilate themselves and you, into a foreign culture? Subservience to an imperialistic hegemony has been a weakness resulting in the marginalisation of many of the world’s most beautiful languages don’t you know?”
At this point Mr. Pritchard decided that a tactical retreat was called for. Therefore deciding not to once again correct the mistake with his name; was it a mistake or deliberate provocation? he wondered; he tried to bring the conversation to a conclusion. “Actually, whilst my mother spoke some Welsh, my father had virtually none. You see there was little need for the language even in Brecon at the time and they got by very well in English.”
Almost as soon as the words had been uttered, Mr Pritchard recognised that his feeble repost sounded exactly like the surrender that it most certainly was.
His interrogator shook her head and smiled, recognising that her new acquaintance had little more of interest to contribute to the conversation. “Ah well,” she replied, in a more placatory tone, “There are several fine translation of the works of Waldo Williams available these days and many even better interpretations of the Mabinogion in English than there were when I was a young woman. I do ‘ope that someday Mr….”
“Pritchard,” came back a pleading voice.
“Yes, of course, Pritchard, you’ve no need to keep repeating this; I got your name first time. Now then young man, I do ‘ope that you may find the time before too long to read some of the extraordinary literature ‘anded down to you by your Welsh forefathers. We all ‘ave a responsibility, to ensure that our ‘istory and literature continue to be recognised and appreciated by future generations. Every one of us, and that most certainly includes you Mr… Well, every one of us must play our part in keeping our cultural ‘eritage alive.”
Mr. Hope had been standing back, smiling and enjoying the spectacle of one sided jousting that had been enacted before him. His customer now turned towards him and asked, “’ow much do I owe you Mr. ‘ope?”
Taking up the paperwork that had come with the book and was now lying on the counter, Mr. Hope indicated the price clearly printed on the document to the lady. “The price is fifteen pounds ninety-nine, but for a much valued customer as yourself, let’s make it a nice round fifteen pounds I think Dr. Lapinski.”
“That’s very kind of you Mr. ‘ope, very kind indeed.” And with this, she scrambled to the depths of one of her hessian bags until she found a small leather purse, which on being opened revealed a large roll of money bound together with a rubber band. Removing this band she handed over a twenty pound note to the bookseller, who duly presented her with a five pound note as change. This she incorporated into her wad of currency and returned the purse, along with her newly acquired reading to the bag. Her mission accomplished, Dr. Lapinski turned and headed towards the door.
Halting briefly she turned back towards the two men. “Goodbye Mr ‘ope and also to you Mr. Pritchard,” she pronounced the new assistant’s name with exaggerated emphasis and more than a hint of a mock Welsh accent. “I’ll see you again soon. I’m off ‘ome now to brush up on my Urdu, and who knows, I might dust off my collected poetry of Waldo Williams, just for old time’s sake.” Mr. Pritchard could have sworn that she proffered him a wicked wink as she turned away.
The doorbell clanged behind Dr. Lapinsky as she left the shop and shuffled her way down the High Street.
“Goodness me,” exclaimed Mr. Pritchard. “Who on earth was that extraordinary and I must say, rather intimidating woman?”
Mr Hope threw back his head and laughed. “That,” he replied, “was Dr. Theodora Lapinski, sometime Professor of Literature at several of the finest universities in Europe. She is apparently fluent in at least six European and four Asian languages and has rather more than a working knowledge of several others; though I confess that until today I had no idea that one of these might be Welsh. A veritable phenomenon and as I said one of our finest customers, and I’m sure that as you get to know her you will find yourself to be less terrified.”
“So many languages; the woman must be some kind of genius,” suggested Mr. Pritchard. “Though you would hardly have thought so judging by her appearance.”
“Yes, you are not the first to make this observation, though of course you will have noticed that she does take some shortcuts in displaying her linguistic prowess. It would for example appear that within the English language, competent as she most certainly is, Dr. Lapinsky regards the letter aitch as being totally superfluous,” replied Mr. Hope. “However, an alphabet of twenty five letters seems to have served her perfectly well, and enabled her to prove herself more than a match for you I would suggest!”
Both men laughed before Mr. Hope slapped his new assistant on the shoulder and suggested, “I think it’s about time for a cup of tea don’t you? Be a good fellow and put the kettle on there’s a good chap Mr. Pritchard. Or should that be Mr. Prentice or Mr. Parker or Mr. Padgett?”
Mr. Pritchard sensed that his employer had enjoyed a good laugh at his expense this morning and now felt confident enough to share the joke. As he went off to make tea he reflected that he was likely to enjoy his new job in this quirky provincial bookshop. Just as they say, he thought, one should never judge a book by its cover.
*What is living? The broad hall found
between narrow walls.
What is acknowledging? Finding the one root
under the branches’ tangle.
From Pa Beth yw Dyn? By Waldo Williams (1904 – 1971)
About the Author:
Richard Rose is a British writer and university professor. In addition to more than 100 academic publications his fiction and essays have appeared in literary magazines in several countries. He works regularly in India and is a regular columnist for The Bangalore Review.