Everything that could have gone wrong did so for me in the early part of 1885. Having found out that my fiancé was stepping out with my best friend, and the fact that my place of employment had just announced that it would be closing the doors after seventy years of business, was too much for a simple soul as I to take. On the advice of my brother, one of London’s most eminent psychiatrists, I packed up everything that I owned and moved to a remote part of England, and to a place where I felt that I could reinvent myself and maybe start anew.
I settled in Hothraven, a small town on the outskirts of Kings Lynn, with a population of just three hundred it served as an overflow to the main city. It was here that I rented the small run-down cottage that I would call home.
As this tale progresses you will find that to know me is to know that books are my passion. I love to read and collect the great works of literature throughout the ages and many of the new classics yet to be seen as such. My library is extensive and, after erecting a suitable bookshelf, I covered the whole of the main wall of my living room with over two thousand books, maybe more. An impressive sight – with everyone having been read from cover to cover – many times over. Because of this, I was always on the lookout for something new to lose myself in, to immerse myself in someone else’s world in order to vanish from my own somewhat dull life. Thinking about it now this was probably the contributing factor to my fiancé seeking the attention of another man.
A sobering, if depressing thought.
It was as if one love had destroyed another.
Hothraven’s high street mainly consisted of tea shops, antique shops and, to my delight – a second-hand bookshop. It was into this Aladdin’s cave that I found myself one Saturday afternoon after inadvertently ‘taking tea’ with a lady in her late sixties. I had asked her if I could borrow her sugar bowl as mine was empty and had been sucked into a conversation that involved her dead husband, long lost regrets and my rapid loss of the will to live. After a while, she asked me what my story was.
“I have no real tale to tell” I replied, “My life is quite dull and uninteresting”
She smiled at me. In her youth, she must have been very beautiful for her face seemed to light up at this.
“We all have stories to tell,” she said, “All we have to do is keep talking and life’s story need never end.”
I made my excuses and left after half an hour, and ducked into the aforementioned bookshop when I saw her leaving the café not five minutes after me.
Now, I love the smell of old books.
Their aroma is intoxicating to me and was a welcome relief from the overpowering perfume that my tea-date had apparently bathed herself in. The musky scent of worn and loved pages swept over me, and I stood for a while enjoying this small pleasure. I looked around at the stacks of literature, piled so high that you had to walk up a small flight of stairs in order to see where they ended. As I took in my surroundings I caught the eye of the shop owner who acknowledged me with a slight nod of his head before returning to his own fantasy world. Save for a clock ticking the seconds slowly away, all was quiet – all was still.
I walked slowly around until another scent invaded my senses - coffee this time. At the back of the shop, there was a small stove and a freshly brewed pot of coffee with a sign above it, which said,
‘Please help yourself – Do not disturb the readers’
Those who know me will be aware that this is my second vice.
I turned toward the owner who smiled and motioned with his open hand as an invitation to take up the offer. I nodded politely and poured myself a cup. This was heaven.
Old books and real coffee – marvelous.
I made my way upstairs to see what other delights I could find, for my choice of books had so far overshadowed my income and I had to be careful what I bought save leaving myself short for other, more pressing things – like food and rent. It was here that I discovered that I was not the only person in the bookshop, for in the far corner was a small table at which sat a pale-faced young woman with the blackest hair I had ever seen.
It almost shone blue with blackness.
I smiled at her but she was so engrossed in her book that she did not notice my arrival, something of which I could relate to, and her only reaction to my arrival was to turn the page in her book.
As I looked around I could see that there were others also engrossed in their books.
“Good Afternoon,” I said quietly, more as an aid to alert them all that they were not alone rather than to start a conversation.
“You mustn’t disturb the readers” came a voice thick with a Norfolk accent. I started slightly at the appearance of the shopkeeper, as I had not heard him follow me up the stairs, for being as old and creaky as they were it was quite a feat for him to not make a sound.
“Excuse me?” I stammered, “Sorry, I was just being polite – I did not mean..”
“I’m sure you didn’t” he interrupted, and with that, he walked over and pretended to rearrange some of the books on the shelves around the other patrons as a rouse to prevent me from engaging them further.
There is something else you should know – My curiosity gets the better of me sometimes and being told not to do something seems to awaken the mischievous schoolboy within me.
It was obvious that the shopkeeper held some deep objection to any conversation with or by his patrons, and made this very clear to me. I curbed my curiosity somewhat by half-heartedly looking for any other books that I had not read hoping that something would spark my interest enough for me to forget my childish need to break some foolish rule imposed upon me. After a while the suspicious looks over half-glasses made me feel uncomfortable and so I left with my need to engage in conversation quashed and unfulfilled.
The tearooms that had offered me my impromptu date with the old lady had given me that same chance to engage her further, as two days later I found myself sitting by the window watching intently at the bookshop opposite to open. I figured that I would catch a glimpse of the young woman, who had caught my eye previously, entering the store and would use the opportunity to introduce myself. I was not sure why I wanted to talk to her so much, save for the fact that I had been told not to.
Quite frankly I found her appearance a little disturbing, if the truth be told, so the excuse of attraction could not be applied, and so rebellion was all I had. I was not even sure what I would say to her.
The conversation with the old woman, however, seemed to follow on directly from the last time we had taken tea together, almost as though I had never left our last encounter. I half-heartedly listened to her ramblings as I watched for my mystery girls’ appearance, but as the time dragged on I felt the will to leave grow stronger with each tick of the clock. Eventually, I excused myself and made my way to the bookshop in case I had missed her arrival. On entering I was once again enraptured by the smell of trapped words and exciting stories.
Lands and people of mere fantasy, mixing with those of fact.
Tales of fictional battles next to recounts of the real horrors of war.
Stories of love, fear, hope and despair all waiting to entertain those that would wish to be so. The shopkeeper looked up and acknowledged me once again as if we had never met. I made my way upstairs only to encounter the young woman still sitting at the same table as if she had never left. My thoughts went to my experience with the old lady in the tearooms and of the trap in time that I seemed to have been caught in through an act of necessity. With her, it was tea, with this girl it was my love for the written word.
“Hello again,” I said, and with that, the shopkeeper was at my side once more.
“You mustn’t disturb the readers,” he said again.
“Does she have a name?” I asked beckoning my head towards my mystery woman.
This provoked a look of confusion to cross his face.
“She is one the readers,” he said simply.
“Do you know her name?” I asked.
He looked at me for a while.
“You are the customer, but I don’t know your name, so why should I know hers?” he said.
“Fair comment – but why can I not talk to her?”
He seemed to think about this for a while.
“Because she’s reading – do you like to be disturbed when you read?”
I looked over at the girl who seemed totally oblivious to our presence. From here I could hear her shallow breathing in the still air of the bookshop and the crinkle of the paper as she turned the pages of her book. Her skin seemed closer to white than just pale, and her lips were an exaggerated red against such pallor. Her large dark eyes seemed to drink in the words from the book placed in front of her, moving only to trace their progression.
An hour later I left the bookshop, having purchased a Jules Verne, and took up my position at the window table of the tearooms opposite.
Once again the company was provided for me.
It seemed to me as quite ironic that these two women in my life were strangely connected as neither of them seemed to have a home to go to, both of them instead preferring to live a closed life.
One in a bookshop - one in a café.
One I had the unwavering attention of and the other unaware of my existence, and in some small way, both causing me some annoyance.
I sat until the bookshop closed, along with it the café, but at no time did the strange girl leave.
Maybe she lived there? – There was always that.
The chance for employment took me away from Hothraven for a few weeks, but all the while my thoughts seemed to burn with the mystery that was the girl in the bookshop; I even found in some small way that I missed the old woman in the tearooms. I felt a little guilty about the resentment I had felt towards her when all she wanted was someone to talk to. Quite frankly I should have been honored that she sought me out as her ‘tea partner’ and so fueled by a resolve to correct my arrogant ways I vowed to give this woman the time and respect she deserved when my business had finished.
But life is fleeting, has no favourites and shows no mercy, for on my return home I discovered my new friend had passed away and for some reason, this saddened me more than I thought it would. On further investigation I learned that her name had been Emily and that in her youth she had been a nurse – but more than that. Emily had served in the last campaign as a Red Cross nurse and had been honored with many decorations for bravery in the field of battle. For many was the time she would be seen through the smoke, mud, and death dragging some unfortunate soul to safety whilst hot lead stung the air as they sought their next victim. On more than one occasion she had been the recipient – one taken in the shoulder and one in her leg, both failing to slow her steadfast resolve to save as many soldiers that she could.
‘Children in their fathers' boots’ she had called them.
I ordered two cups of tea and placed one in the empty space where once she had sat. I felt guilty at my dismissal of such a woman for I should have instead cherished the time and shared in her life.
The words of my grandmother echoed at this,
‘Let those who came before you show you how far you can go’.
For two weeks I went into the small cafe at 4 pm every day and ordered a small pot of tea and two cups.
“A toast for Emily” I would say quietly as I drank my tea alone.
My brother is a great advocate of talking and feels that a lot of our inner demons can be expelled by merely sharing our woes with a soul who would seem sympathetic to a person's current plight, and I for one needed to talk to someone about the strange feelings of loss I had for someone I had very little time for. For some reason, my thoughts turned to the mystery girl in the bookshop and I finished my tea and made my journey across the town square.
The jingle of the bell above the door, and the familiar smells of books mixed with coffee brought my untethered grief to the surface and as a single tear ran down my face for a lost soul that had touched my life without me realizing it.
Why did I feel like this?
How could one person be engaged so emotionally without realization?
I made my way upstairs and sure enough, there was my mystery woman once more. I had learned by now that the minute I said a word to her the shopkeeper would appear by my side as if by magic, and so I walked quietly over to where she sat. Her full red lips, set so dramatically against the deathly pallor of her complexion, moved silently as she read from the enormous tomb that lay before her. Her dark eyes followed the words as if fixed to an invisible thread - never blinking and never wandering from those pages. As she turned the page I noticed for the first time that the rest of the readers turned theirs at the same time and that strange coincidence sent a small shiver down my spine.
“I lost someone recently,” I said, almost to myself as if not wanting to disturb her or them too much. I looked to the top of the staircase and sure enough, the shopkeeper had appeared as before.
“You mustn’t disturb the readers,” he said, but his words seemed to be aimed at the empty space that I would have occupied. It was as if his presence was merely an act of duty and his words that of habit. I watched as he turned and went back downstairs and presumably to his counter.
I smiled and returned my gaze back to the girl only to find that she had stopped reading and was staring directly at me.
“Oh, hello,” I said, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for you to stop reading.”
“The story has finished,” she said. Her voice was cold and lifeless and sounded as though she had learned to speak from these very books, for there was no expression in her tone.
“What was it you were reading?” I asked.
Her cold stare made me feel uncomfortable and the deep desire to leave cast a shadow over me like some dark specter with death in its heart and sorrow as its companion.
“A biography” she answered.
I felt cold and alone, tired and without energy.
“Whose?” My own voice sounded as if it had traveled from a great distance, losing substance in its journey.
“Everyone’s,” she said, still with that dead lifeless tone.
With that, the shopkeeper reappeared once again, only this time he stood at her side. In his hand, he carried a large pile of books that looked exactly the same as the one in front of the strange girl. He took her book and replaced it with his and then went and did the same to the other readers who had seemingly finished theirs at the same time.
“What’s that?” I asked, my voice still weak and thin.
“A biography,” she said again.
There was a pause as she tilted her head. Her dark eyes still locked onto mine as if looking into my very soul. Eventually, she broke her gaze and shifted it to the new book. She opened the cover and started to read once more, but not before saying – “Everyone else’s”.
The energy flowed back into me at this point and I stood up sharply, the force of which knocked my chair backward. I made my way on shaky legs to the top of the stairs and took one final look back only to find that the readers had continued on as if nothing or no one had disturbed them.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs I found the shopkeeper at his desk once more. He looked up from his book and smiled as if we had never met. Once again he motioned over to the coffee pot.
I walk to the door, “Could you apologize to the young lady for me?” I asked. There was no response to my request. I opened the door and went to step outside – and stopped.
The outside had gone and been replaced by nothing.
All around, as far as the eye could see – simply nothing.
It was as a blank white canvas – or page in a book.
Unspoiled and virginal as if waiting to be filled.
I put my foot over the threshold of the door and tried to feel for any solid ground but I found nothing of any substance that would afford me a foothold. I turned to the shopkeeper.
“What’s going on?” I said, my voice rose in alarm and confusion.
He looked up again from his book.
“The story has finished,” he said simply.
I looked back into this howling void of nothingness.
“What story?” I asked, the emptiness swallowing my words.
“Everyone’s” he replied.
I turned back to him with questioning in my eyes and fear in my heart.
He stared at me for a moment.
“All of our lives are just chapters in a larger story,” He said.
The questioning look on my face was encouragement enough for him to continue. He sighed, “All of us are intertwined with some lives more complex than others.”
More confusion from me seemed to evoke a small amount of exasperation from the shopkeeper.
“For us to exist in each other’s eyes”, he said, “our story has to be read, for without that our book will close and our story ends. Take your lady friend at the small tea shop across the way – her tale was all but finished, but your interaction delayed that, but when you were no longer there to hear her story – it ended, and because you had become a chapter in her life her absence started a chapter in your own.”
“Is this why I felt such a loss?” I asked.
“Indeed - life itself has a story and for this, we have the readers – lost souls that keep time alive by reading between the lines.”
I looked back towards the empty space where once was my life.
“But my story had not yet finished” I wailed.
“The story seen through your eyes, and from your point of view has ended. That chapter has finished. The other chapters that make up the story will continue on without you. A new story has started.”
He went back to his book leaving his last words hanging in the air. Only the ticking of the clock marked the movement of time – but not my own.
Not anymore, and the soft hiss from the coffee pot marked the silence that ensued. Occasionally I could hear the rustle of paper as each reader turned his or her page in unison.
“You shouldn’t have disturbed the readers,” he added, almost to himself.
I made my way up the stairs once more and to the readers so deep in keeping a new existence alive.
How many times had the story ended?
How many more times would it end?
Had all these people once been as I? – Mere patrons who once made the mistake of interrupting a story – THE story.
I looked over to the young woman that had first engaged my curiosity and saw that there was a mug of coffee and a closed book on the table where I had sat not half an hour ago. I walked over to the table and sat down, and on opening the book I started to read.