Everyone knew that Violet was fragile. She would happily and completely believe the last thing she saw on Facebook or YouTube and fall in love with whatever trend was rattling around the internet, before being completely crushed when it all ended badly. She was a sweet woman, with a heart of gold and a genius touch at the upscale salon she worked at, but she was vulnerable.
Then she discovered Instagram.
‘Hang on, I need to take a picture here,’ became her catchphrase. It even came out at a fast food place.
I looked down at my unremarkable burger. “It’s nothing special. Besides, you took one five minutes ago.”
“But now you’ve taken a bite,” Violet said. “It’s more of a statement.”
“Is it?” I looked down at the soggy bread and meat. “Well, you know best.”
“It’s all about the composition,” Violet said. She frowned for a moment. “Hang on…”
I stared in disbelief as she pulled a fake twig from the plastic pot next to us and laid it across my burger, before taking another picture. “I’m not so hungry after all,” I said. “I mean, that twig has seen some stuff.”
“Excuse me,” a manager had appeared. She had probably been watching for a while and half expected this. “I have to ask you to leave.”
“Why?” Violet said. “It’s just for my followers. You know that lots of people choose where they eat from what they see on social media…” She was still protesting as I hustled her out.
The trouble with Violet was that while she was the sweetest, kindest, loveliest friend anyone could ever ask for, she had the resilience and depth of a petal. There were times when I felt I could shake her. Not that it would have done any good. I had known Violet for years, and watched teachers and classmates try. Everyone liked her, when they noticed her, and she was cherished at her salon, but she was as substantial as a sunbeam. And I think that she felt it.
After some fairly traumatic attempts at making her mark, Violet finally settled on something. She was going to be an influencer. We couldn’t keep her away from TikTok any longer. She also registered on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and half a dozen other sites as well as setting up her own website on a free platform.
“Your site looks lovely,” I said, sincerely. Violet really did have an eye for design. “Perhaps you could share hairstyling tips.”
Violet shook her head. “The salon would have a fit if I did that, and I want to keep working there. I love my job. Besides, it’s quite a crowded niche. I’ve got a better idea.”
“It’s not cleaning, is it?” I asked. Violet’s flat was so clean that you could use any surface for open heart surgery, but it was quite soulless.
Violet shook her head then shrugged. “Sort of. Cleaning is a very full niche, but I think I can make my mark – old cleaning.”
“What?” I stared at her.
“Look at this,” she said, digging a book out of her bag. “This book is nearly a hundred years old, and it has a section on how to use a mangle.”
“What’s a mangle?” I asked, looking at the tattered book in front of me.
“It presses water out of clothes,” Violet said. “It’s a sort of early spin dryer, except that it doesn’t spin.”
“I don’t even know what one looks like,” I said, an uneasy feeling growing in my stomach.
“And it tells you how to make indelible ink – look!” she said, waving the book at me. “Take 20 grains of sugar and dissolve in 30 grains of water…”
“Water doesn’t have grains,” I said as she frowned over the old print.
“No, grain is a type of old measurement. It’s tiny, like a tenth of a gram or something. But it’s all in proportion. It’s two parts sugar to three parts water. Then you add sulphuric acid.”
“What!” I craned to see over her shoulder but the tiny, cramped printing defied me. “You can get Sharpies from the supermarket.”
“But that’s no fun.” Violet said. “Lots of people want to go back to homemade, natural treatments.”
“Sulphuric acid isn’t natural,” I said, “Or it shouldn’t be. Where could you get it from?”
“I can get hold of sulphur,” Violet said uncertainly. “How hard can it be?”
“Perhaps you should start with something easier that won’t terrify any followers,” I suggested.
“Hmm, perhaps,” Violet said. “But there are loads of old housekeeping books around that are going for pennies, and I can share them with my followers.”
I thought about it for a moment and I couldn’t see any pitfalls. “It sounds great,” I said. “Don’t forget to send me the links so I can follow.”
I kept an eye on things for a while. Violet was one of my oldest friends and a sort of distant cousin as well. She didn’t have much family, or at least family that was of use, so me and her other friends tried to keep her safe. And the influencer stuff was working for her. She was working hard, having fun and enjoying herself as her followers grew. To be honest, I was having a lot of fun as well. I went with her to flea markets and book fairs to scour the place for the old cookbooks and housekeeping manuals that she loved and we poured over them together in whatever cramped coffee shop we found afterwards. Violet was thriving.
Then she got the book. The slim, tattered volume was tucked in the back of a box of a trader at a collector’s fair, along with some random 1980s cookbooks, bought from a house clearance company. I ignored it, but it caught Violet’s attention. It was a small volume with old recipes and it seemed to call to her.
“Look at this,” she said, waving the book past my face. “It’s got little sayings around the edges of the text. Look – ‘Wilful Waste Makes Woeful Want’. It’s true, though, isn’t it? You always end up down if you waste stuff.”
I nodded hesitantly.
“And there’s a recipe for Wharfedale Pudding here. I’d never heard of that before,” Violet continued. “I can’t wait to try it.”
Work got busy for me, so I wasn’t meeting up with Violet so much. I followed her social media, of course. Every morning I dutifully logged in on all the different sites and liked and shared everything. I even skimmed the text over my morning coffee. I started noticing things, however. I remembered us chuckling over a facsimile copy of Mrs Putnam’s Receipt Book, which must have dated to the early nineteenth century. There wasn’t a mention of it in any post. There was hardly a mention of Soyer or Acton or Glasse or any of her staples. Instead it was all about that little book. She started every day with a tweet of one of the trite sayings printed at the edge of the page. There were dissections of the recipes and videos of her trying them out. There was even some quite deep research on the book’s background, which I didn’t think that Violet could manage.
But the articles seemed flatter and lifeless. There seemed nothing of the inner joy that Violet took in life. Even the language seemed different. Violet didn’t usually worry about spelling and grammar, but the over-correct text next to each picture was jarring. Finally I got a call from Violet’s boss at the salon.
“I haven’t heard from her all week,” Kylie said. “It’s not like her, and I’m more worried than anything else. Have you heard from her?”
“I’ve not heard a thing,” I said. “She’s still posting, though, so she must still be sort of okay.” Inside I was terrified. Violet lived for her job, and it was unheard of for her to risk it.
“I don’t think that means much,” Kylie said. “Violet was telling me how she sets posts up to go live weeks in advance, just in case.”
I felt a chill run through me. “I’ll call in at her place tonight,” I said. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
I wasn’t reassured when Violet opened the door. She had always been slim, but now she was barely skin and bones. Her eyes were sunken and her smile was strained. I stepped in before she had a chance to make an excuse. “Are you okay? What’s happened?” I almost stumbled when I went into the living room. Normally it was minimalist and sparse. Right now it was a mess. Plastic flowers and bits of twigs were heaped everywhere. Black coffee mouldered in half a dozen mugs scattered around. The curtains were closed even though it was bright outside.
“I’ve been a bit tired,” Violet said. “And I haven’t had much appetite. But I’ve had some meals from The Book.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I looked around. “Where is it?”
“Hmm?” Violet’s eyes were losing focus and she was swaying.
I swore and grabbed her. “When did you last have something to eat?” I snapped as I guided her down on her chair.
“I made baked tomatoes for breakfast,” Violet murmured.
I stared at her for a moment. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in a month. “Hang on,” I said, and strode into the kitchen. It was full. Packets were stacked haphazard on the usually empty counters, and the bin was overflowing. Someone had been eating plenty here. I opened the fridge. It was full. Something weird was going on. I returned to the living room. “You need to see a doctor,” I said firmly. “You’re nothing but skin and bone.”
Violet shook her head. “Honestly, I’m fine. I’m just a bit run down.”
“Kylie is worried about you, you know,” I said. “Why didn’t you at least call her?”
“What day is it?” Violet asked. She checked the calendar on her phone. “What’s happened? I think I’ve lost three days.”
“You can come and stay with me,” I said. “I’ve got a sofa bed in the living room, and it will give you a chance to relax. Come on, I’ll grab your toothbrush.”
“I have to bring The Book as well,” Violet said.
“Which one?” I asked as I rummaged in her bathroom.
“You know, The Book. The one called ‘Good Things’. It’s been an absolute life saver. And it was written in 1896, you know.” Violet looked wildly around and then relaxed as she picked up her book. “Here it is.”
I frowned as I came back in. “Are you sure that’s it?”
“Yes, look – it says ‘Good Things’ on the front.” Violet said. “And I’ll need my camera as well.”
I didn’t feel better about things when I got Violet back to my flat. I settled her down and made her some cocoa. “Are you sure you won’t see a doctor?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” Violet said. “I’ve just been overdoing it. I’ll have a look through The Book and see if there are any recipes for invalids. That will make a good blog post.”
I dragged out spare blankets and pillows and then looked hard at the book. I was sure that it wasn’t the book I had thought. It was plump and sleek and it seemed to gleam a little under the living room light. “I’m just nipping to the shop for some bits,” I said. “And I’ll call in at the pharmacy as well.”
“Ask if they have any quinine wine,” Violet said. “The Book recommends it.”
I stumped off down the road and, when I was sure I was out of sight of my windows, rang Kylie. “I’m really worried,” I said. “But I can’t get her to see a doctor.”
“Perhaps some time with you will sort it out,” Kylie said, though she didn’t sound convinced. “And she’s owed some holiday time. She never takes time off.”
“It’s that damn book, I’m sure of it,” I said. “She’s following health advice from a time when they gave opium to babies and put arsenic on the wallpaper. I’ll pick up something more modern at the pharmacy in the supermarket.”
“Let me know how it goes,” Kylie said. “But I’m sure that you’ll work it out.”
Violet had fallen asleep when I got in, with the book tucked in close to her. I looked closer. It had ‘Good Things’ embossed on the cover, but I was sure that I remembered it differently. I went into the kitchen, pulled out my phone and started checking Instagram. And it was there! No-one would believe me if I just came out with the words, but the book changed. Over the weeks the thin, threadbare copy seemed to swell and the cover grew sleeker at every image. At the same time, the images showing Violet’s hands holding the book grew thinner and paler until they were almost skeletal. I couldn’t hear Violet moving, but I didn’t want to take a risk. I carefully shut down my phone and poked my head back into the living room. The book hadn’t moved, but I had seen far too many horror stories. I went back to the kitchen and texted Kylie. <Check the book in Violet’s Instagram. It’s the same, even though it changes.>
Kylie texted back. <Are you sure it’s the same book?>
<According to Violet, it’s the same book and the same printing is on the cover.>
<You need to burn it!> Kylie texted. <It’s possessed.>
<How am I supposed to burn it?> I texted back. <I’m in a second floor flat with no fireplace. Besides, Violet would never permit it. She’s even sleeping with it right now. The hard part is going to be getting hold of it. We can worry about what to do with it after that.>
<I have an idea.> Kylie texted back. <I’ll be there in an hour.>
I had doubts when Kylie arrived. “Are you sure about this? I’m not sure it’s ethical. I’m not sure that it’s even legal.”
“Desperate measures,” Kylie said breezily. “And do you have a better idea?” She pushed past me into the room and stopped suddenly. “What the hell is the matter with you, Violet? You should be in a hospital!”
Violet managed a tired smile. “I’m okay, really. I’m just a little run down.”
“We had burgers for dinner,” I said. “Proper meaty ones from the butchers, with chocolate pudding afterwards.”
Kylie looked at Violet in disbelief. Violet looked like she could be blown away like a dead leaf. “Well, I’ve got something that will pick you up,” Kylie said, recovering. “I’ve got a bottle of tonic wine for you and a bottle of prosecco for us.”
I still had reservations as I brought out three wine glasses. The tonic wine was strong stuff and though Violet had wolfed down three huge burgers and two helpings of pudding, she didn’t look like there was anything to mop up the alcohol. Then I caught sight of the gleaming book nestled in Violet’s lap. I didn’t like the idea of getting Violet drunk. But if that is what it took, then that is what I would do. “Tonic wine,” I said. “It’s like the quinine wine that the book recommends. It will be just what you need.” I watched as Kylie poured a generous glass for Violet and then two more reasonable measures for her and I.
“The Book is never wrong,” Voilet said, and took a mouthful. She blinked. “What is in this stuff?”
I picked up the bottle and looked at the label. “It says it has added iron.”
“That won’t hurt,” Violet said and took another large mouthful.
“You’re looking a little peaky,” Kylie said, ruthlessly topping up Violet’s glass. “Iron has to be good for you.”
It took two and a half glasses before Violet fell asleep. I exchanged an uneasy look with Kylie. It seemed more about exhaustion and lack of resources than a couple of glasses of wine. “Let’s get a blanket on you,” I said cheerily as I stretched Violet out along the sofa. “What you need is a good night’s sleep.”
“That’s absolutely right,” Kylie said, shaking out a throw and slipping it over Violet. The book fell out of Violet’s hands and onto the floor. Violet murmured and shuffled in her sleep, but the tonic wine was too much for her. Kylie automatically bent to pick up the book, but I stopped her. I nipped quickly into the kitchen and came out with a tea towel, which I used as a barrier as I picked up the book.
“I’m going to take a walk,” I said, marching briskly to the door. “Keep an eye on Violet, will you?”
Kylie nodded, her eyes wide and fixed on the book as I marched out of the door, phone in one hand and a book wrapped in a tea towel in the other. “Be careful!”
I moved with purpose, down one street, then another, then I cut across a park, past an arcade of shops and then down the back of the industrial estate until I got to the canal. I hesitated. I had seen Jumanji. Things could come back from a watery grave. Then I pulled myself together. That had been a wooden box, not a paper book. Besides, there were things in the canal that would clean brass. An old cookbook didn’t stand a chance. I found the footbridge, got to the centre and shook out the tea towel, sending the book into the water with a splash.
I stood there, almost transfixed by the reflection of the setting sun bouncing off the murky water. I expected something to show for it, like lights or explosions or steam. Then I got a text alert. It was Kylie.
<Violet is looking better. She has some colour in her cheeks. Have you done it?>
Yes, I thought, as I turned back to the flat. I’ve done it.