If Frankie’s life were a book, she would title it Disappointment, named aptly after the disaster that was her career, her family and, of course, her love life.
Frankie’s alarm blared accusingly, declaring that she was already twenty minutes late to get out of bed. She sighed, rolled over, and buried her face in her shabby copy of Emma, which she had shoved under her pillow the night before. Then she bit her lip, thinking she would never be remarkable enough to have a book named simply after her first name.
But Frankie never judged a book by its title. Nor by its cover. She liked to judge a novel purely by its opening sentence, which she and her best friend Cat dubbed a ‘book birth’. In Emma’s birth, Austen described Miss Woodhouse as ‘handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition’. By contrast, the opening sentence of Frankie’s birth was her mother proclaiming, ‘She’s bald and has her father’s big nose.’
Frankie pulled her blanket over her head and drank up the words on the page in front of her. She knew she was approaching the proposal scene, and closed her eyes tight. Just like a good chocolate bar, she wasn’t sure whether she should indulge in its goodness right now, or savour it later. And just like that, the jarring ring of her phone solved the dilemma for her. Frankie picked it up and saw her mother’s name flashing on the screen. She rolled her eyes, clicked ‘ignore’ and slowly dragged herself out of bed.
Searching for an outfit that was easy to put together, she picked up a loose cotton dress from her floor and flung it on. Scooting through her bedroom door, she walked towards her pride and joy – her precisely colour-coded bookshelf. Filled with 172 of her all-time favourites, the bookshelf lined a full wall of her living room. Beginning with reds on top, the wall shaded into oranges, yellows, pinks, purples, greens, blues, greys and, finally, blacks. A rainbow of books. Her happy place. She dragged her fingers absently across the cloth-bound Austens, along the hardcover Fowlers, over the Brontës and then stopped haltingly at the muted green book with ‘Frankie Rose’ embossed on the spine. She picked it up cautiously, as if it were a snake about to bite, and peeled open the first page.
To Mum, Dad, Cat, Ads and, most importantly, pizza. For all the love, support and cheesy goodness.
Frankie slammed the book shut and threw it to the other side of the room. She grabbed her handbag, which lay beside the couch, slipped on a pair of red sneakers and ran out the door of her too-small Richmond apartment.
After digging for the keys in the bottom of her bag, Frankie let herself into The Little Brunswick Street Bookshop; her home away from home for the last year and a half, right about the time her dreams shattered and her life fell apart. Working at the bookstore had saved her, in so many ways. It reminded her of the three months she had spent working at the famous Parisian bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, before she returned to start her Masters of English Lit at the University of Melbourne.
Free of responsibility, Frankie had relished this time spent lost between bookshelves, writing, and eating almond croissants. That same carefree feeling washed over her every time she entered The Little Brunswick Street Bookshop. She loved watching people from the inside out, like a backwards kaleidoscope of literature lovers gazing into their beautiful front windows from vibrant Brunswick Street. She loved being surrounded by powerful women such as Angelou, Atwood and Adichie. And most of all, she loved working with Cat. Cat’s husband Claud had inherited The Little Brunswick Street Bookshop from his grandparents, and when he – an accountant at a small city law firm who maintained long hours and an intense knitting hobby – was unsure how he would juggle a second job, Cat had the genius idea of selling the books in the front, while he, occasionally, managed the books from the back. And when Cat offered Frankie a job, it didn’t take long for her to say yes, yes, yes!
Since the days spent penning love letters to Mr Darcy instead of practising algebra in Year 8 maths, their bond had endured even though Cat, pregnant with her first child, now spent Saturday nights watching reruns of The National Knitting Evening on Netflix with Claud, and Frankie, pregnant with last night’s pizza, spent hers on awful first dates. And now, with their days spent surrounded by, discussing and reading books (and of course appraising everyone else based on their book choices), Cat and Frankie were closer than Horatio and Hamlet.
Frankie wound her way through the shelves and unceremoniously flung her bag beneath the front counter. She cranked on the air conditioning, sank into the seat behind the register, placed her feet up on the counter and returned to her worn copy of Emma. She had just turned the page when the front door chimed open and Cat marched into the store. Her red frizzy hair was everywhere, sweat dripped down her face and she wore a hot pink knitted top, black lycra pants and bright orange sneakers.
‘Catherine,’ Frankie nodded from behind her book.
‘Frankston,’ Cat nodded back. She joined Frankie behind the counter, grabbed her copy of Jasper Jones and propped her feet up next to Frankie’s.
‘What’s with the sweat?’ Frankie asked.
‘I had another K-Pop dance class this morning – which was amazing, by the way – but their showers are broken and I couldn’t be bothered walking home to change and then coming all the way back here, so I thought if I just stood outside for a while I would dry. But I forgot that it’s going to be thirty-two freaking degrees today! Plus, these knits Claud keeps making me do nothing for sweat absorption. Look at me dripping, I’m like an ice cream!’ Cat grabbed Frankie and tried to pull her head into her sweaty chest.
If Frankie was the queen of dating, Cat was the queen of exercise classes. From barre to one very confronting summer of pole dancing, Cat became obsessed and then unobsessed with every sort of exercise and health kick imaginable, before dropping it like Marius drops Eponine. It all started a few summers ago and, at first, Frankie thought the fixation on fitness was simply Cat wanting to be healthier and more toned, but lately she had wondered whether it tapped into a deeper insecurity. Cat used to relish watching heads turn at her overly attractive husband, but was she starting to feel overlooked?
‘What are you up to?’ Cat asked, glancing at Frankie’s battered book.
‘Almost at the proposal,’ Frankie gushed.
‘You’re reading Jasper Jones for the fourth time,’ Frankie countered.
Cat spread her arms as if to say touché.
‘So, something pretty weird happened at K-Pop today.’
‘Oh?’ Frankie asked.
The front door opened, halting their conversation. Frankie and Cat shut their books, dropped their feet to the floor and looked up, alert. A stout, slightly balding man walked in.
‘Sci-fi!’ hissed Cat.
‘War biography!’ spat Frankie.
The man, red in the face, smiled at Frankie and Cat. They smiled back sweetly and asked if he needed any assistance. He shook his head and then proceeded to walk excruciatingly slowly around the bookstore, scratching his head, not touching anything. The women stared at him, examining his every step.
‘Just make your move,’ Cat whispered at him.
‘He’s about to pounce!’ hissed Frankie.
After what seemed an age, the man stopped in the science fiction section and grabbed two Stephen King novels, placing one swiftly under each armpit.
‘Damn it! Shirt but no tie. Dead giveaway,’ Frankie said, disappointed.
‘Pay up, Frankston.’ Cat held her hand out in front of Frankie’s nose, wiggling her fingers in anticipation. Frankie slowly dragged a five-dollar note out of her wallet and slammed it into Cat’s hand.
‘Just these two wonderful sci-fi books, then?’ Cat said to her customer while smiling devilishly at Frankie.
‘Yes, I love a good Stephen King,’ said the man, dropping the books on the counter for Cat to scan. ‘I was actually going to try my hand at that war biog, The Crossroad, by Mark someone-or-other. You know the one I mean? But then I thought, why stop at a good thing? And King – well, he’s a very good thing!’ he chuckled.
Frankie stared, and Cat held back a laugh as she slid the two Kings into a paper bag.
‘Have a lovely day. I’m so glad you decided to go with King over a war biography. King really is such a good thing,’ chirped Cat.
‘He really is! Well, toodaloo!’ the man trumpeted as he walked out the door, the bell ringing behind him.
‘Go you good thing!’ Cat shouted after him, pumping her fist triumphantly.
‘He was going to buy a war biog! Give me my five dollars back!’ Frankie grabbed at the note, but Cat pulled away.
‘He was going to. But alas, he didn’t! The fiver is all mine,’ said Cat smugly.
Frankie sighed. ‘You don’t have to sound so pleased about it.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Cat said, smiling, and sounding even more delighted with herself.
Frankie frowned. Balancing their legs back on the counter, they reclined in their chairs. The growing heat of the day pressed its way under the gap beneath the front door, only to be stunted by the harsh air conditioning in the store. Beads of cool sweat trickled down Frankie’s neck and into her cleavage.
‘Sorry, I’m in a silly mood,’ Cat said.
Silence. ‘ “Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way,” ’ Frankie quoted the Austen she was reading, to a tee.
Cat smiled as Frankie gave a little bow of her head.
‘So, why the silly mood, Kitty Cat? What happened at K-Pop? Are you moving to Korea?’ Frankie joked.
‘Cat! Seriously? What happened at K-Pop?’ It was unlike Cat to be so evasive. Frankie usually got the lowdown from her about everything, from what she had for breakfast to the romance between the two buskers who sat opposite the bookstore.
‘Nothing. Nothing.’ Cat’s face bloomed even redder, and her eyes darted towards the door.
‘Catherine Adeline Cooper. Tell. Me. Now.’ Frankie squinted suspiciously at Cat.
Cat stared back just as intently, and for a minute – a record for them – they had an ice-cold stare-off.
‘Oh, all right, fine!’ Cat threw her arms in the air, defeated.
‘Well, at K-Pop … there’s this really cute dancer. A guy. Called Jin Soo.’
‘Yes, Jin Soo.’
‘And … Jin Soo.’
‘What about Jin Soo?’
‘Well, I sort of, accidentally, slept with him a few weeks back,’ Cat covered her mouth with her hand and bolted for the door.
‘WHAT! Cat? Cat, come back!’ Frankie shouted, refusing to believe what she had just heard.
Cat, cheating on Claud? No; Frankie knew it was impossible. Cat would never cheat on him. Cat and Claud’s marriage wasn’t perfect, but whose was? Cat loved Claud. In his stupidly good-looking, knitting-obsessed entirety. And she was four months’ pregnant with his child, for God’s sake.
Frankie jumped up from her seat and raced after her sweaty, recently adulterous friend. As she pulled open the front door she stopped. Instead of Cat, before her stood a man. Possibly the best looking man she had ever laid eyes on. He was tall; he was burly. He was, to her mind, the perfect mix of John Knightley, Mr Darcy and Edmund Bertram all rolled into one.