Driving down the high street, I felt the warmth of the sun on my neck as it glanced fitfully out from behind shaving-foam clouds. The sky was peppered with pigeons, wings all a-clatter. I found myself lost in a daydream about the new Dickens I had sitting on the passenger seat, when a red Nissan Micra came bolting at me out of a side street. I was helpless to prevent myself being propelled through the windscreen as the cars collided with a dreadful impact. I flew through the air, an eternity compressed into a split second, and the atmosphere around me took on a strange texture; as if time itself had been simultaneously sped up and rewound. Landing hard on the hot asphalt, the impact sent a shudder through my whole body, leaving me gasping. I remember thinking: that’s odd; I could swear I was wearing my seat belt.
Opening my eyes, I was immediately confronted with the sight of a tiny, squashed second-hand bookshop I had never noticed before. All my limbs trembling, I managed the convoluted series of movements involved in standing up. Until that moment, I had never quite comprehended the complications that are involved in the simple process of levering oneself upright; the contorting of various muscles to drag my weight of bone perpendicular, the firing of synapses and the creaking of my joints.
I could hear the hustle and bustle of people gathering round my stricken motor; but it seemed oddly distant, as if the very air were quilted with cotton wool. Dazed as I was, I couldn’t take my eyes off the bookshop. Feeling a desperate longing, a compulsion to enter, I approached it with faltering steps. My hands were tingling in a fashion not unlike pins and needles; in fact, much of my body was alive with a tingling sensation, as if I had been infested with insects; centipedes sauntering up and down my spinal column in large numbers, waving to their friends, with ants playing Tag in the damp maze of my brain. Feeling rather over-populated, I peered into the window. I couldn’t see through the dusty glass to the dank interior, but a card proclaimed the shop to be Open, and the door creaked inward with a push. Dust spiraled slowly in shafts of sunshine, and spiders had trapped the chandelier in soft grey nets. The atmosphere was so thick that I felt as if it was crystallizing around me, and a strange presentiment took hold of me, that if I stayed here much longer I was in danger of becoming embalmed in it.
I was unsure of what to do, when I was confronted with a man I presumed to be the owner. A neat little man; his corduroy suit was grey, although whether that was the intended colour or simply the accumulation of dust I was unable to tell.
Despite my surprise at his sudden appearance, I mastered myself into civility. “Good morning!” I said, taking a pace forward. “Are you the proprietor of this establishment?”
“Why indeed I am,” he answered with a slight chuckle. His tone was not unfriendly, and his voice was soft as moss. “Would you care for a tour, a circuit, indeed a peregrination of my small domain?”
Naturally interested, I nodded eagerly, and the little man pivoted as smoothly as if he were on a turntable. Eyeing a gap in the shelves, he took a grip on my sleeve, and took a step between; not simply into the gap, but into what felt like a congruent set of dimensions, pulling me behind him. I gasped and shuddered as if I had just been subject to an electric shock as the air thickened like treacle and became very still, so still that I could almost hear the slow drifting of dust.
I looked around me. The bookshelves appeared not to have changed; but on closer inspection I had difficulty reading the titles on their spines, as the lettering was back to front. I turned to my strange companion and opened my mouth to ask for an explanation, and was forestalled.
“Has it never occurred to you,” he said quietly, “that since there are shelves with the books on the outside, there should be other aisles in the space between the books themselves, created out of the sheer weight of words?”
I was perplexed to the point of bafflement. Now I could detect strange sounds underlying the uncanny stillness, emanating from some hidden place.
“What’s that I can hear?” I asked.
“I shall show you.” He replied, and pattered off into the gloom with me tailing behind. Gesturing for me to peer round the corner of a bookcase, and I saw two ladies sitting. They had a translucency of appearance that made my eyes water to look at them, and their voices echoed as if they had to travel a great distance to my ears. Straining to hear, I caught part of their conversation:
“There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”
“I never thought Mr Darcy so deficient in the appearance of it as you do.”
“And yet I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason.”
Agog to know if the suspicions accumulating in my reeling brain were true, I looked eagerly at my companion. He smiled; a small, neat little smile that went well with the rest of him. I could not formulate the words to vocalize my internal befuddlement, but he seemed to understand my unspoken query.
“That was Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her sister, Jane. Pride and Prejudice is a celebrated novel, it is no wonder that they should be here.”
“So it really…? But how?”
“These characters have become alive in the world of imagination so many times, that the minds of the readers have brought them to life. Not life as we know it, but a half-life; replaying out their eternal dramas, they exist here, in the world between the shelves.”
When I thought about it, it made surprising sense. In this bizarre place, these people had climbed out from the lace filigree of words that bound them to the page.
“Can you show me more?” I asked eagerly.
“Indeed. But be careful; creatures evolve to fill every niche in the environment, and this place is no exception.”
So, we paced through what seemed a never-ending maze of bookcases and shelves. I saw wondrously odd things; a herd of small crab-like creatures that were in the process of macerating their way through a large leather-bound tome, which skittered away at our approach. My companion nodded in the direction they had taken. “Critics,” he said. “Little pests. They graze through the choicer books, you know, and leave behind slim volumes of literary criticism.” Turning a corner he gestured me to look down a long corridor of shelves, in which a phantasmagoria of pale figures flickered in and out of view. “The crime section,” was his explanation for the scenes that confronted us. The figures nearest to my eyes were two men; one exceptionally tall and thin, the other short and stocky, with a moustache. The tall one was shaking his head, and seemed to be admonishing the other: “You will not apply my precept. How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
There were other figures beyond this pair, flickering in and out of view; a very small, plump gentleman with a waxed moustache who spoke in a strong French accent, and a little old lady, sitting alone at a table, her head continually oscillating as if observing invisible passers-by. I turned to make an excited remark to my companion, but he put his finger to his lips and moved on. I followed in bewildered excitement.
“Where to now?” I asked, but instead of a reply, he suddenly dragged me into an alcove and motioned anxiously for me to be silent as a monstrous shape thundered by. After the sound of its progress had died away, he turned to me. “I repeat, you have to be careful! There are many things that live here, some more dangerous than others. The Critics are harmless enough, but one of those Thesauruses would trample you into the dust. And you need to avoid clichés at all costs.”
Alarmed at this grim knowledge, I decided I had seen enough, and asked to be shown the way out. There was sadness in his eyes as he turned and led me away. As we wove our way round the shelves, I caught glimpses of more literary figures; a young, handsome man who was contemplating a large portrait, upon which seemed to be painted a likeness to himself, but deformed and hideous; a ragged-looking man leaning on a crutch for support to aid his timber toe, with a parrot perched upon his shoulder; a large brown bug-like creature emitting a peeping mockery of speech, and a tall, thin gentleman with a white moustache and every outward appearance of nobility; but I caught a glimpse of a pointed ear and viciously sharpened teeth as I passed. Eventually we reached a gap where dust motes danced in a beam of sunlight streaming in. Eagerly I pushed past the bookseller to get back to the reality I knew, longing for the comforting familiarity of the outdoors; but something stopped me. When I neared the gap my limbs became sluggish, and my head swam dizzyingly so that I had to sit down.
The bookseller was looking at me with something like pity. “My apologies. It seems you can’t get out as easily as you got in.”
“But why ever not?” I asked with mounting fear and anxiety.He replied with a gesture towards the gap. I turned and peered through. From this side, it was perfectly easy to see through the shop and out into the street. I could see the wreck of my car, with people still crowded around it. They extracted something from the crushed metal shell and laid it on the floor. With a start I saw that it was a body: my body. I watched as a figure placed a cloth over its – my – face. I felt oddly impartial, as if my emotions had been drained from me; only a vague impression that, if I couldn’t go anywhere else, spending my eternity in a bookshop might not be so bad after all.