Outside the bookshop, the light is drawing in early because the sky is so low. Traffic worms its way home and every so often the red of a London bus breaks up the grey with a swoosh. It's a rainy winter's evening in August.
Inside the bookshop, it's summer. The light, the faces, the gleam on the wine glasses - all these seem to glow. If ever proof were needed of the power of friendship, of community, of celebration, this is it.
Five years ago, my mother Esme began to write poetry. This evening we are gathered together for the launch of her first pamphlet. It's quite an event.
I can't believe how many people she's invited, my sister Hope and I say to each other, worriedly, over the past few weeks. We have our daughter-carers' hats on, speaking in that over-protective way daughter-carers do. But really, the actress in me knows that the actress in Esme will triumph: she may be exhausted tomorrow, but Doctor Theatre will get her through the reading and beyond.
Plus, she won't be alone up there: the bookshop people are greatly impressed that Esme has managed to come up with not one but two celebrities to share the platform with her. Hope and I will be doing our daughter bit and bringing up the rear, reading two poems each. (The night before, Hope gets cold feet and calls me for a team talk. But I'm the only amateur! she wails. I tell her she'll be fabulous and, whatever else she does, to practise reading the poems out loud. She does, and she is).
So never mind that Esme's three-quarters of the way through her six month stint of chemotherapy, has had two blood transfusions in the past month and can't stand up for very long - she's invited every person in her address book. Twenty minutes to go, it's already standing room only. People are sitting in bookshelves and bagging best spots on the floor. The nice woman behind the counter goes to Somerfield for more wine. It's a party atmosphere, the poems not even read yet.
And it is an extraordinary mix of people, from all the many and varied strands of her long life. Esme may have lost a couple of husbands along the way, but by jiminy she made - and kept - one hell of a lot of friends. Now here they all are, out in force, saluting the grit that got her here.
The poems are a triumph. Each of us readers step up to the mark and let the words speak for themselves. There is a hush each time a new poem is begun, and the air quivers appreciatively at each poem's end, with laughter or murmurs or sighs. Sometimes applause breaks from our audience without a pause, at others there is a thoughtful silence. A few tears are glanced at with backs of hands.
From my possie on the floor slightly to the left of the 'Bestsellers' table, I can watch both Esme and her audience. She stands up to read only once, early on, which is how I know how weak is, but it matters not a jot. Her beautiful, RP tones combined with the Scots of her childhood carry perfectly to the back of the room. When she is not reading she listens from her wicker chair, almost motionless. She seems to me to have arrived at some hallowed place tonight, emitting a most clear, fulfilled energy. She appears to be existing in a place of grace. And because of that all present are touched, too.
After the reading people mill and chatter. Hope tells me that three of Esme's chemo nurses are here, too. They came after work, straight from the hospital. They clutch their signed copies of the pamphlet, and one of them, the male nurse, has even brought his mum. Hope, who knows all the nurses intimately because of the long hours she has spent with Esme on chemo days, takes me to meet them. To both their amusement and bemusement, I am so moved by their presence that I throw my arms around their necks as if they are long-lost friends.
Oh thankyou, I manage to say, thankyou.
When Esme and I get back to her flat, I have Earl Grey tea and a biscuit and she a chocolate brown brew of herbs while we chat happily about the night. I notice a small piece of paper with her signature and nothing else on it. She must have practised it before the reading! I realise. But there is something different about it, too.
I discover the next morning that, to her delight, the best and only positive side-effect of Esme's chemo has been the complete loss of a bad tremor she has suffered in her hands for years. She holds them up for inspection, and we marvel that they are steady as can be.
I glance again at the signature and realise that it is this curious phonomenon which has changed it from a previously frilly affair, to a proud, straight-backed kind of hand.
Esme Peal, it reads, the only flourish a curved line underneath the name, as if to punctuate its simple effect. As if to say - Esme Peal: yes, I'm here.