Secret Pocket Books

The last couple of years put a stop to in-person art classes, so the YouTube video rabbit hole became my teacher. I’ve always wanted to try bookbinding, so Librarians look away now!

I found an old Daler-Rowney sketchpad lying around, and trusty Amazon supplied a few basic tools. I wanted to make a hardback book, but didn’t have the aptitude, artistic skill or materials to make a decent-looking book jacket, so decided to use one from an Observer’s Pocket Book. Those little books were cheap and pretty, and there was a plentiful supply for me to practice with, so I could learn from my mistakes and gauge my progress. They’re on every family bookshelf, at every car boot sale and in every charity shop, and more importantly, have standard dimensions. The only thing that would change would be the number of signatures (folded sheets of paper sewn together) needed in each book, depending on the width of the spine. I gave a few prototypes to family and friends as gifts, and got the same reaction each time –  from an 80 year old man to a teenage girl – utter delight. They thought the notebooks were cute, sturdy, useable and unique. People kept telling me that I could sell them, so I decided to give it a go.

The earlier versions of those little books, without their dust jackets, are what fashion-people refer to as ‘bang on trend’. I think they’re perfect for creating a very specific vintage look when ‘staging’ a photograph for social media of a cosy, cottage (#cottagecore is a thing), mid-century modern minimalist, or simple childhood nostalgia. I get the impression that some of the brighter jackets (for example, pottery and porcelain, house plants, cathedrals, pond life, and cacti) sell for more because of how they look, and not necessarily their rarity. 

I love seeing the original price sticker, someone’s name or a greeting and the year on the inside cover. I’ve kept the flyleaf page intact from one or two because it had a stamp on it from the now-gone organisation or institution to which the book once belonged. I like to imagine the life the book had pre-internet. I’ve repurposed a few other vintage books recently, and one had a stamp inside from 1897, and another from 1904. These books were awarded as prizes, and probably cherished as sentimental items. After the owners’ deaths, those books turned up on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, to be then sold to me. Although the jacket of these books were in good condition, the pages were foxed and musty. I felt they deserved to be made into something special, so I used top notch, Italian, Fabriano artist paper for the pages.

The images below show one that I worked on this weekend.

Things I’ve learned about bookbinding so far.

  1. Always use branded glue. Cheap glue isn’t the same.
  2. Duck Tape isn’t the same thing as bookbinding tape. I’m trying out micropore tape as it’s stretchy, thin and breathable.
  3. Measure from the middle outwards when marking the placement of holes for before sewing.
  4. If I prick my finger when sewing, put the work to one side.
  5. Have separate rulers for inches and centimetres.
  6. Change my cutting blades often.
  7. Save a double page from each book to use as a measuring guide.
  8. Don’t underprice myself to try to get more sales. Again, suspiciously cheap, translates as poor quality to a buyer.
  9. I can never have enough binder clips.
  10. Measure twice and cut once. Don’t cut anything that requires accuracy when I’m tired.

Now you can hide your diary in plain sight

I created this tag line to imply that the casual observer would not spot the difference between the intact original book or one of my up-cycled versions on an ordinary bookshelf. (Does anyone else store their tiny scissors in a concrete doll’s head?)

I’m sure it is only a matter of time before someone is outraged enough to reprimand me for being a book destroyer, and they are perfectly entitled to hold that view. Some things are not for everyone. I am enjoying learning the craft of bookbinding and turning these little books into notebooks, so they can have a new life out and about in the world. After all, Observer Pocket Books were designed as books to carry around with you in your pocket, or for our American readers, in your pocketbook. The encyclopaedic knowledge contained on our phones may be more convenient these days, but a physical paper notebook has not yet gone out of fashion.

I sold my first one on my Etsy shop, SecretPocketBooks.etsy.com within two hours of my shop going live. I only had one item for sale at the time! I never thought that I’d enjoy watching videos on how to maximise my SEO analytics and future trends. (#coastalgrandma #cottagecore #darkacademia or #crustaceancore anyone? Yes, they’re all lifestyle trends)

Unfortunately, I’m only selling to the UK at present. Laziness, Brexit and fear of customs paperwork has put me off, for now. However, if you like what you see, then you can claim 10% discount on a purchase by using the code RILEY10 at checkout.

134. My Extraordinary Friend

Hello, internet friends,

I have decided to pause this blog for a bit. I think it’s run its course. I’m working on a novel, which is taking up a lot of thinking time. I’ll continue to add guest posts and news of things I’ve had published, and you never know, I might be back in a month with a new story.

Nicola x


This story was inspired by the Duran Duran song, “Ordinary World”. It’s always been a song that was guaranteed to bring a tear to my eye.

A paramedic colleague told me that they often find people curled up in the foetal position. 

The council had given me a week, but I hadn’t had a chance to get around to doing it until today. That’s what I tell everyone. My lack of decision weighs heavily on me for two reasons. I know she’s definitely gone, but this won’t be her flat any more. If I’d have cleared it out the day after she died, then that homeless family would be living here now. I hate that I’ve prolonged their worry.

I’m glad that I bought eight death certificates, because everyone I’ve contacted so far will only accept an original. Their standard line is, “it’s policy”. As if I’m going to go to all the effort of making something like that up just to cancel her mobile phone contract. Am I going to cancel her contract? It’s the closest thing to her I have left. I want to listen to her playlists, see her photographs, read her newsletter emails, and answer her texts with “I have some sad news to tell you.” Do people go to the hospital or morgue to get the thumbprint that unlocks a phone? 

The woman from the council was trying to be sympathetic, but she said there was a desperate need for a two-bedroomed flat round here, and that some people had been living in a B&B for nearly a year. The decorators and gas man were due tomorrow, and the locksmith the day after that. There was a charity that needed confirmation of when to deliver a fridge freezer, washing machine, some wardrobes, chests of drawers, beds and a dining table and chairs. She’d already told one of her service users that that would be moving in by the weekend. I know she’s right; life goes on. I try to imagine how delighted those two little girls will be to finally have their own proper home. They won’t know why a flat has unexpectedly become available. Even though this new family doesn’t have any furniture, I’m not allowed to leave anything because of health and safety, and I’ll be fined if I do. I hope they don’t think I’m taking the lightbulbs out of spite. They’re the Alexa ones that can be voice-activated ones and are really expensive. The woman from the council gave me the number of a charity that collects unwanted furniture. It’s the same one that’s refurbishing the flat.

So many people have said that they can’t imagine what I’m going through, and I don’t even know myself anymore. I’m half-asleep and compressing myself slowly into a ball so I can roll away and hide under the sideboard. There is no guide or map through this fog. It’s as if I’m  trying to keep her here as long as possible before she dissolves completely. Sometimes, I find a hand to steady me for a while, but mostly I’m on my own. 

Is it wrong that I’m relieved that she died in her sleep? Am I being selfish because I can’t bear the thought of all of those people who were always too busy, now wishing they’d been able to say goodbye? Tomorrow evening, her order of service card would go into their bureaus and desk drawers where she will remain, quietly resting amongst the other paper clutter of unwon lottery tickets, birthday cards and hospital appointment letters. 

I took a photo of Becky’s fridge door and posted it to my Instagram with the words “Sleep tight”. Whenever we used to go out for the day, she’d always buy a fridge magnet and I’d always get a tea towel. I’ve still got enough pencils from school trips to various industrial museums or art galleries to last me for the rest of my days. Those artists and writers who were never recognised in their own lifetimes are now memorialised on posters and tote bags in gift shops everywhere. Did the Brontës even have a fridge back then?  

As I popped a tea bag into a mug I said “Alexa, play,” and the speaker resumed the last song that Becky had listened to. “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran. My head began to tingle like it did when she used to tease me with that picture of lots of differently-shaped holes. She thought it was ridiculous that I was scared of baked beans. I took a deep breath and held it, pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth, then I let out the air with a soft, slow whooshing noise. Amongst the pile of boxes, black sacks and spray cleaning products I’d brought with me, I had some of those fancy tissues with lotion, so I wouldn’t get a chapped nose. It was going to be a long day today.  An even longer one tomorrow.

I sniffed the milk. It was still in-date. Becky always bought food with a long shelf-life. “I never know if my condition is going to flare up, so if I can’t get out for a few days, I need to know I’m prepared.”

Inside the fridge was a plastic tub of home-made curry, a bottle of pinot grigio, a jar of mustard, a brown paper bag of red splitting tomatoes, a few wrinkled radishes and a small, bobbly cucumber. There was a cardboard carton with three eggs in it, some spring onions, a block of cheddar, a tub of double cream and two bars of 70% dark chocolate. “Tea is on you tonight then,” I thought, knowing full well none of it would get eaten, but I raised the milk in a cheers gesture to no-one in particular anyway. Even with just those two ingredients, her truffles always tasted better than mine.

Just then the doorbell rang.  “I thought it was you, my dear,” said Becky’s neighbour, Bilan, “I’m sorry about your friend.”

“Thank you. Actually, I was just on my way round to see you.”

She held out the brown parcel with the distinctive smiley arrow on it.

“It got delivered a few days ago, but there hasn’t been anyone here since….” Her voice trailed off, and she put her hand up to her mouth as she lowered her head. I reached out and lightly touched her forearm.

“Come in, come in,” I said. “I’m packing everything up. There’s those few bits of furniture and kitchen stuff that I told you about. I thought they’d be alright for your son, or one of his student friends. Anyway, I’ve not long boiled that kettle.”

“Go on then, if you’re sure I’m not disturbing you” she said.

“I’ll have to find a new parking spot now” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “I can’t park in the disabled space any more when I come and see you.”

I put the cardboard package into the plastic tub that contained all of Becky’s paperwork, her photograph albums, mobile phone, jewellery box, perfume and unopened letters. 

About half an hour later, Bilan’s son and his friend arrived. They graciously took whatever I offered. Furniture, pots, pans, crockery, bath towels, book cases, the ironing board and iron, fridge freezer, including its contents, microwave and even a massive potted palm. Bilal said they were too young to remember moving here with only the clothes on their back, but she does, and was overwhelmed at the time by the kindness of strangers. Her family knew people who had nothing so these things would really help them out. She tried to persuade me to come round for some food later, but I said I had to go home and get myself organised for the funeral. Seeing the flat emptied so quickly set me off again, but I didn’t have time then to give in or wallow. I still had stuff to do.

My crammed car could have been a teenager’s leaving for University. Clothes, books, cushions, telly and black sacks. A laptop and carrier bag full of leads. A clothes airer and duvet. I couldn’t fit the vacuum cleaner into the car, so I knocked for Bilal again. This time I didn’t refuse the plastic box of Bariis that she pressed into my hands. We both knew this small gesture was a welcome kindness. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten anything decent, but I no longer knew hunger. “Running on fumes” as my mother would say.

When I got home, all I wanted was a hot shower then bed, but I still had to iron my dress. I felt that familiar bone,  tearful melancholic emptiness of a 2am shift, when it’s too late for caffeine. All this not sleeping properly for the past few nights had made me feel a bit run down, and I kept tonguing the start of a mouth ulcer. Fully clothed, I lay on the bed, and buried my face into Becky’s duvet to be near to her a bit longer. To remember all those nights when we squashed up in bed together, whispering about boys, or years later, when one of us was too drunk to go home. 

I must have nodded off, as it was dark when I woke to the sound of a lock turning. I heard the clink of keys in the bowl and the crinkle of shopping bags. Then, footsteps on the stairs. I was sitting on the edge of the bed emerging from the cocoon of the duvet, when he slowly opened the bedroom door.  “Hello, sorry, did I wake you? I thought I’d make us steak, creamed spinach and jacket potatoes for tea. To get your strength up for tomorrow,” said my husband, “If you get out your shoes, I’ll polish them for you and iron your clothes.”

Reaching into my pocket, I felt a flat, smooth, square object. It was one of those overpriced theme-park fridge magnet photographs of me and Becky, arms up, mouths wide open with joy, taken about half a second before we were drenched at the log flume last year for her thirtieth birthday. 

When I’m sixty, she will still be thirty.

Photo by Markus Spiske

133. What We Leave Behind

This short story was inspired by a writing prompt in a recent ‘Writing on the Wall’ Zoom class.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on Unsplash

“Alright Linda, girl, I nearly missed you.”

“Hiya Mel,” said Linda. Then she burst into tears.

“Ay c’mere girl. It’s alright.” He put his arm around her shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

She let out a heavy sigh and said “I just need to um… just pop to the ladies.”

Linda had lost count of how many times she’d practised the expression she would have on her face and the things she would say if she ever saw her ex-husband again. But it was too late for all that now.

A couple of minutes later, she emerged from the ladies room, with tissue in hand and freshly applied lipstick.

“Now or never,” she said and looked at Mel, but her smile didn’t reach the corners of her glistening eyes.

“We’d best get a move on, I’ve only got another 8 minutes on the car,” said Mel.

She took off her coat and gently threw it on the back seat. There was a small, slightly deflated football and an action figure toy in the seatwell.

“You got kids then?” asked Linda.

“Yeah, two grown up and three grandchildren. All boys. Me missus, Claire said she would have loved to have had a girl. You?”

There was a beat of silence and then he said, “Sorry, Lin girl, I didn’t think.”

“No it’s alright, it was a long time ago now. We were only kids ourselves then. Me and Ronnie have got just the one, Simone. She’s training to be a dental hygienist. Says she’s not having any children” said Linda.

“Can’t fault her. It’s expensive these days. Me missus Claire, says you’re married to a schoolteacher?”

“Yeah, Ronnie. He’s a Special Needs teacher. He would have come with me today but teachers can’t get time off, and he’s got Scouts tonight and I said I didn’t know what time I’d be back.”

“It’s good of you to come you know. I know you didn’t have to, but Stewart kept asking for you and then one of me lads found you on Facebook and I couldn’t just leave it like that without knowing.”

“How is he?” said Linda.

“He’s only got days left now but he’s not in any pain. One of us is up there almost all the time. They’re really good with visiting hours up there.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

They drove the few miles through a city she’d once loved, past the old football stadium, the hospital and the park. A big Tesco now stood on the ground where her old school used to be. That dodgy council estate where she grew up in was now considered desirable real estate, with its larger than average houses and big gardens that were not found in modern builds.

There was a car already outside the house so Mel parked behind it.

She remained sitting in the car for a moment or two, breathing deeply to compose herself. She looked into the garden and watched a man she used to know, slowly move a long-handled tool up and down at the edge of the lawn. There was a small boy chasing and grabbing at bubbles as they floated away. The boy saw her, ran to the gate and peered over the top of it. She smiled at him and Mel unlatched the gate.

Photo by Ben Griffiths on Unsplash

“Hi Dad. Hello Trouble,” said Mel, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You remember Linda, don’t you Dad?”

“Hello, Derek,” said Linda. “Still keeping a lovely garden I see. I’m sorry about your Stewart.”

“Thanks love. You look well. Janey’s inside. She’s been looking forward to seeing you,” said the man.

Mel fumbled in his pocket for his phone.

“Are you that lady who used to be married to me Grandad Stewart?” asked the boy.

“Yes, love. I am,” she said and stroked the boy’s upturned face.

The boy slipped his hand inside hers and they began to walk towards the house. Behind her, she heard the gate close. Then Mel said, “Dad, that was the hospice. He’s gone.”

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash