This is a short story I put together on the hoof so to speak. I had an idea of what I was after but this really was more a chance for me to just let my mind wander as I wrote. I hope you like it as much reading it as I enjoyed writing it.
The high street in most towns is a very odd place to find yourself. It’s becoming that almost every town has at its centre a clone of every other town centre. The same shops and services are wedged together and fighting for your attention. The large chains are the ones who’ve managed to squeeze themselves into the spaces on the roadways, puffing out their collective chests until all of the smaller company’s, the family run local businesses, have been popped out like a teenagers acne.
Kerry walked down the road and let her attention wander. She knew exactly what was at each location along the road so didn’t need to pay any attention to what was happening in the windows of the various retailers. The same offers of money off or 2 for 1 offers beamed out at her with rictus expressions from every window she passed by. She could swear that all the shops just handed the posters around each week so they all had a chance to proclaim the same deals. Aside from the other shoppers milling around, she could practically walk down the street blind folded and still be able to have a pretty good stab at naming the deals in all of the shops.
The only points of individuality she could see in her town were now right out at the very edges of the shopping experience. The back alleys and hidden nooks held the only independent locations to buy anything but even they were feeling the pinch. A scented candle shop sat on the first floor above a café. The café had previously been Jones and Daughters but was now part of a national chain. The advertising hording for the café was bold and brash and took all of the attention in the area. The small sign proclaiming the candle shop didn’t stand a chance.
Kerry liked the candle shop. She’d liked the woman behind the counter who’d served her and she liked the constant smell of sweety goodness which hung around the place like an intoxicating cloud. She smiled to herself as she thought about the sheer enveloping loveliness of the associations which came to mind but that smile was quick to fade when she closed the gap to the shop in question. The small sign proclaiming its existence had been joined by a much larger sign, boldly stating that they were going out of business. Kerry sighed and walked on. Just too niche a business to survive I suppose. The café below was doing a roaring trade and had tables on the street outside all filled with people happily sipping on assorted hot beverages. Kerry thought about going in but didn’t fancy the crush at the counter waiting to be served. Rounding the next corner, she continued walking without paying any attention to the details of the buildings or the people around her. She missed the small personal touch. She pondered what the café owners had done to make such a success of their business when the previous owners had found it so difficult. All the backing from a massive national chain must be able to do so many things in terms of advertising and revenue generation. That said, maybe they were just better at business.
That was the last thought that crossed her mind regarding the potential prowess of local businesses as she was snapped back into the here and now by the beaming face of the young man with the flyer in his hand.
“Would you like to have a free coffee as you browse through our collections of some of the most wonderful books ever written? Our prices are very competitive and you could find any number of works to bring all kinds of knowledge into your life.”
Kerry floundered in her mind for a long second as she fought to line up everything her assailant had said. He, in turn, looked back at her, his hand outstretched with the flyer, by way of further emphasis. The second dragged on even further and his expression started to crack, his previous enthusiasm starting to melt away to reveal worry just beneath its surface.
Kerry spoke first.
“I haven’t really got the time I’m afraid. I’m heading to work at the moment.” She wasn’t but that was her stock answer when dealing with people handing out flyers, charity box rattlers and the ambulance chasing law firms who offer the no win, no fee deals. It was usually enough to have the person in her path turned around and off to hassle someone else but this time the obstacle remained. His facial expression had turned from the ever so subtle leaking of worry to an almost dread panic at the refusal. He tried again.
“You could be able to find the most amazing gifts for yourself or for friends and family. The wonder and magic of the written word. And did I mention, free coffee.” He nodded nervously as he smiled at her, practically pleading for her to listen. Kerry didn’t have time for this. She could feel the response climbing up her throat until she realized where she was.
Only now did she start to take in the details of the street she was stood on. Without her being aware of it, without her being aiming for it she had casually wandered in a daydream into a very close little road which was lined with oddly shaped buildings with wonky windows and doors. On either side of her was hunkered a collection of the odd shaped business’ which weren’t a part of the shining beacon of order the high streets of the country have become. Here was where the small local businesses had chosen to hide, to shy away from the judgmental gaze of the uber shops who had been collectively kicking sand in their faces.
Kerry’s complaint never got as far as being uttered.
Instead she looked back at the young man who was still smiling in that delightful ‘please take a flyer I’ve not had anyone take one and I’ve been here for hours’ kind of way.
She smiled at him.
“Lead me on to the books.”
As they moved off in the direction of a particularly nobbly looking building, Kerry was struck by the now boundless energy which was pouring from every aspect of her guide. He’d breathed the sigh of relief of a man who had finally made a sale after far too long trying and had been garbling protestations of the outstanding nature of where they were heading. As they arrived at the heavy looking wooden door he was practically leaping from foot to foot like an over excited schoolboy.
“You really will be glad that you’ve taken the time to come in. There are all manner of options and genres for you to choose from, all guaranteed to give you a wonderful time in both the choosing and the reading.”
Kerry nodded politely. She felt it was sweet that this poor flyer distributor was so passionately invested in the subject of his flyers. Maybe he was family. Maybe he was the owner. It made her feel good that the feeling of ownership was still alive and well in the back streets of her town. The call to a time gone by which she could see was still holding on for all it was worth.
He pushed the door open easily despite its heavy appearance and stepped inside ahead of her, holding the door open from inside and gesturing gallantly for her to enter. She nodded slightly to him in acknowledgement and slowly crossed the threshold.
The door shut behind her without a sound and she was left, for a second or two, to take in all of the details of the book shop which was stacked upon itself all around her, straining at the seams of the building it was housed in as if it had been designed for a space much larger and was having to make do with something at least two sizes too small. The air was thick with the smell of a thousand million pen strokes, a trillion key strikes on the keyboard and billions of hopes, thoughts, dreams and ideals. The atmosphere held a comfortable warmth which comes from the tattered pair of slippers which have seen their best days pass them by, of the comfort blanket treasured by the adults remembered childhood or the smell of a loved one on a piece of clothing. Kerry could feel the tensions of life just draining away as she breathed in the coffee and adventure in the air. She had been in the larger bookshops which are in the larger towns, the book superstores, where almost every conceivable title or genre is held under the one roof, and felt utterly disconnected from everything there, but this place carried with it a subconscious lure towards the myriad pages which could be inside. This small business had managed to do something in a fraction of a heartbeat which the superstores had never been able to do. It made her want to explore the space and to hell with the consequences of cost.
Looking around her, she found that her young companion had left her. Looking through the glass panes of the door she could make him out on the roadway beyond, flyer in hand, checking his watch as he looked left and right, obviously checking for more passersby to entice towards the shop.
“So I’m on my own then.” She whispered the words to herself and was about to head into the nearest corridor of bookshelves when she was answered.
“Not quite. What would you like to see?”
The voice came from everywhere yet from nowhere. It drifted out to her from almost behind yet ahead and to both sides of her. She looked around, hunting for the source of the sound amidst the stacked paper and shelving.
“I’d like to see fantasy fiction if I could.” She was still looking around her but there was still no sign of her new accompaniment.
“Ahh. We have so many wonderful works in that area. You will really have the most wonderful time with us.” The voice still wafted on the air like a delicate scent, teasing her with its nebulousness.
“Would you like some coffee before we start? It is free.” She spun round sharply as the voice was finally solidified to a point behind her. She turned quickly, not sure what she was going to find, and was confronted by a tall, lean man of late middle age, holding a small coffee pot with steam curling from the spout in one hand and a small china cup in the other.
“I’m sorry my dear. Did I startle you? The acoustics in this old place do seem to play tricks no matter what I say to them.” He smiled and his face creased at the edges. He was wearing the effects of time all over his face but it looked good on him.
“Don’t panic. You sounded like you were miles away. No thank you for the coffee.” Kerry re-gathered herself and felt more comfortable. He looked at her, still with the same casual smile playing across his features as he put the pot and cup down on a nearby table.
“We’ll just get straight down to business then. Where would you like to go today? Which fantastical journey would you like to embark upon?”
“I like reading Jim Butcher novels. And Ben Aaronovich. What have you got of that sort?”
Kerry had always enjoyed books. The feeling of walking through a secret gateway to another world when you started reading was almost intoxicating. Even encyclopedias had a similar draw. They were the gateways to knowledge. Labyrinthine palaces holding facts and figures which had the power to astound and to terrify all at once. There was no way to know who you’d be after reading anything, such was the power of the written word.
“Hmmmm. They are very good authors indeed. Make me smile as well. What can I suggest that is likely to give you the best experience of your time with us?” The man regarded her as he spoke and considered the options open to him as he sagely rubbed at his chin. Finally he asked,
“When is your birthday?”
“Thirteenth of April” Kerry responded almost immediately. It could have been easy for her to be offended by the question or at the very least be a little put out by it, but she saw no malice at all behind the question. She could see that whatever the question was being asked for, it was going to add a vital ingredient to the broth of opportunity which was being concocted in his head.
The man considered her answer with more chin rubbing and the occasional nod.
“Then I have the perfect title for you my dear. I can give you a story which will give you enjoyment and that lovely warm feeling of reminiscence which won’t end in the way you’d expect. Does that sound like the kind of story you’d be interested in?”
She looked at him and was hooked. He had been so expressive in the few words on the topic he had uttered that she couldn’t stop herself from wanting to find this tale and burrow directly into it.
“That sounds wonderful. Who is it by? What’s it called?”
“Don’t worry about either of those trivial details. I would suggest that you just read the book without knowing either. You will read every word with such focus and attention that the story will come alive in your mind without any effort.”
“But I’ll be able to see the title if I buy it. I’m not going to keep my eyes closed all of the way home.”
“I would suggest that you take the chance to read some of the work here before you decide if you want to buy it. If you have the time, we have a small reading nook at the back of the shop which you could use to try the book on for size. How does that sound?”
Kerry considered his words. She had been casually drifting through the town centre on a warm summer lunch time when she had been stopped. She wasn’t expected anywhere today and she’d completed everything she’d planned to do in town. What was there to stop her relaxing into the first few chapters of this offered masterpiece?
“Sounds great. Take me to the book.” She smiled at the man in the shop and he smiled back at her.
“This way please.”
He led her through the aisle on the left of her as she looked at the shop, passing casually through the towers of literature which were draped over the furniture like the branches of hundreds of aged trees. She could feel the floor boards creaking and shifting under their weight at each footfall as the whole building seemed to sway and twitch like a forest of words. After much longer than she would have thought possible in such an out of the way shop, she was led to a clearing within the woods and found the nook.
There were seven worn leather chairs unevenly spaced around the area, each with a small side table of ornate carved wood. Her guide was standing next to a large chair at the back of the group, set up against the back wall of the shop, his arm out in gesture to show that this was the best place for her to base herself for the read.
“Have a seat here. This chair will give you just enough of everything you need to really immerse you into the story. I’ll go and find the novel for you. Are you sure I can’t tempt you with a coffee?”
Kerry put her bag down next to the chair and settled into the soft leather.
“No thank you. I’ll just have a read if I may.”
He nodded slightly and turned sharply to head off down a different aisle than the one they had entered through. She turned her head away from his retreating form to take in the detail of the clearing she had been left in, but was startled when her companion re-appeared almost immediately.
“And here we are.”
He lent forwards and presented her with a large, leather bound tome with no lettering of any kind on the cover. There was no indication what the book was called or who had written it.
“As I said, just read the words and feel their meaning. Pay no thought to who wrote it or what it’s called. You will draw so much more from the reading this way.”
With that he turned and headed back down the aisle they had originally walked down, calling over his shoulder as he went that if she needed anything just to call and he’d be with her immediately. She noticed that the almost ethereal element to his voice was back and he sounded to her like he was walking back into a dream.
Finally she was alone with the book. This mighty story which had been sold so effectively to her that she was now on the verge of spending the whole afternoon in its company.
Opening to the first page, there was no introduction or acknowledgements or even chapter headings, the narrative just began.
April is a wonderful time to have a child. The weather is warm enough that you don’t feel like you’re in the merciless grip of winter but the rain will keep the world cool enough that any new arrival will be as comfortable as possible.
That was why he’d asked her date of birth. This was going to be one of those stories which had been tailored to the reader.
Kerry was a calm yet serious baby, in as much as any baby could be described as being serious, but she gave both Jeff and Victoria such a feeling of contentment and wholeness that they could scarcely remember a time when they hadn’t been her parents.
Kerry was surprised with the level of detail which was included in the early part of the novel. All the details of her family were correct and she could remember them describing her as being serious throughout her life. She’d always thought that the description of serious was very vague and her parents had been oddly unable to give any further explanation when she’d pushed them. Who knows, maybe whatever it was she had done as a child which had caused the name would be in the pages before her.
She carried on with a small smile on her face.
As page after page was turned, sentence after sentence was devoured with the eyes of purest fascination, the narrative became one of the mundane yet vital facts that are existence for each and every one of us. There were tales of the life of a protagonist who grew up in a supportive household and all of the tiny adventures she had embarked upon over the course of her life. There was a collection of tales recounting the firsts of any child’s life, step, word, day at school, broken bone, boyfriend, driving lesson and car. The competing melodies of tales of parents woes and wonders, siblings adventures and of familial deaths all layered themselves into the symphony that was the life of our heroine. They would occasionally threaten to overpower everything that was happening but in each and every case or event, our protagonist, Kerry, was able to push through to reach a conclusion which would give her some kind of lesson.
Kerry read through the instances of her own life from the detached viewpoint of the reader. She remembered incident after incident as she relived them all in an effortless detail, as if the greatest purveyor of the written word had been following her around for the whole of her life, recording the details for this very moment.
It made her feel simultaneously nostalgic and unnerved. Who’d put this together?
“Excuse me” she called out, placing the book down on the side table and waited for a response.
“Can I get you anything?” came the nebulous voice. “Coffee?”
“I’d like to speak with you please. I have a question about the book.”
“Of course.” His tone was one of spider silk and whispers, coming from a point beyond her field of vision.
And then he was next to her, standing casually to attention like a butler would in so many stories which have been told before.
Kerry jumped slightly but not enough to break her stride.
“Where did this book come from? I thought that it was one of those stories which was created to include the reader in the story very literally but you couldn’t have just had this available for everyone, ready to dig out when you find out their birthday. How have you been able to truly have the story of my life in this shop?” Kerry had managed to keep her tone as close to matter of fact as she could but there was no mistaking the undertone of worried inquiry which it was trying to hide.
The man just looked at her with a neutral expression on his face.
“Doesn’t this story give you a feeling of familiarity? Don’t you feel a level of engagement with the characters that you haven’t felt in a book before?”
Kerry felt ill at ease as he just stared at her. He must have noticed.
“I know this feels a little odd but there isn’t a catch at all. This is truly a work which has been created to entertain and enthrall. After all, there are only so many stories to be told, that’s why they have the disclaimers on things like this, ‘Any similarity to people living or dead’ and all that.” He smiled effortlessly and she could feel the tension ease a little.
“Here, have a cup of coffee as you read. By the looks of things there is still a fair way for you to go.” A cup of steaming coffee had suddenly appeared on the arm of the chair she was sat on. The man smiled and turned away. In seconds he was gone down a different aisle.
She considered his words and tried to think of a way anyone could have had events line up so perfectly that they would have all of the details of her life available to put in a novel and know that she would be here, in this shop, at this time when she hadn’t known she was going to be here. Maybe there had been a fantastical alignment of details and she had just been given the one book which would make her think back over all of the details of her own life and see that she was the protagonist. Her parent’s names weren’t uncommon. Neither was hers. Surely everyone had had variations on the themes of the same experiences when they were growing up. That was why horoscopes worked so well, everyone could make the story fit themselves.
She sipped at the coffee and tried to make herself relax. This was a wonderful book for drawing the reader in. It looked like Kerry may have been pulled in just a little too much.
Putting the cup down on the table and retrieving the book, she remembered that she didn’t really like coffee. Why had she drunk it? Wow this book was making her mind race in some very strange directions. Resolving to maintain a greater level of control over her own psyche, she settled back and climbed back into the pages.
She rejoined the action with the heroine Kerry about to leave to go to university.
Jake had gone with them when the family had taken Kerry off to her new life at the University of Canterbury. He wanted to spend the maximum amount of time with his girlfriend as he could before she was living away from him. It had been an indian summer that year with the temperatures in late September climbing to almost concerning levels. Indeed, there had been much talk of global warming and climate change during the journey.
Kerry could remember the journey they’d gone on in what was now terrifying detail. Her boyfriend at the time, Jake, had been with them when she had gone off to university. He’d been the one talking about the horrors of man-made climate change and her father had spent the entire journey grinding his teeth at the noise he was making. Kerry’s father hadn’t liked Jake. Jake had been Kerry’s first real boyfriend so he was naturally akin to the devil in her fathers eyes.
Kerry kept thinking that this was just a story. She was projecting her own life experience onto what was happening and she wasn’t just reading her own life. She couldn’t be.
She continued to push through the gluey familiarity of the tale on the pages. She could feel each and every detail dragging behind her like an anchor, each sentence adding more weight to her fears that there was something more at work than just a story.
The time she’d dyed all her clothes pink thanks to the rogue red sock in the whites wash. The time she’d just tried that new drink everyone was raving about and ended up spending three days perched over the toilet. The time she’d fallen in love with a complete stranger and dumped Jake. All these and all of the other memories were there. Her first job, first flat everything was there for whoever picked up this novel. It was much more than just being the similarity of stories, the shared thread of existence. She was truly reading page after page of her own life that was being recounted for the entertainment of anyone who could read.
She felt violated. Someone had stolen her life and claimed it as their own work. She couldn’t stop reading despite the trepidation she felt. Until she reached the most terrible passage of the book.
She walked in a haze of her own thoughts and paid no attention to the details around her. She’d seen the effects of the new wave of business and the candle shop closing was going to grate on her for a very long time. She didn’t know truly why but she knew that she had just lost a very important piece of her understanding of the world. It was at that moment that the young man with the flyer jumped out in front of her.
She threw the book away from her and it landed at the feet of the shop keeper.
“W-w-w-w-what is this? Who are you?” Her voice was trembling and cracking as she fought to express the sheer brutality of what she’d just gone through. The mas just stood and stared at her, still with the same expression of caring detachment. Reaching down, he retrieved the book and closed it, being careful not to crease any of the pages.
“Who I am doesn’t matter. All you need to concern yourself with is the rest of this book.” He cradled the volume to his chest and stared at her.
Kerry said nothing. What could she have said? What could she have possibly said that would have fit into the space left by his words. He noticed the turmoil in her.
“Let me explain.” He settled himself down into a chair next to her and placed the book purposefully down on the table next to her.
“You know that this is the story of you, don’t you?”
She nodded quickly, her eyes wide and not leaving his.
“You’ve been brought here to give you a choice.” He gestured at the whole space around him, showing that the shop was more than just a business. “This is the book of your life but as you can see it includes everything.” He lifted the pages up slowly and let them flick through his fingers, showing Kerry that there was print on every page, including beyond the point she had reached.
“This is the story of all of your life, from beginning to end. The choice I give to you is this. Knowing that you can read all of the details of your life to come, will you continue to read to the final page?”
“How is that possible? How can you see the future?” She’d been convinced that the story was her but the future was another thing all together.
The man slowly pulled out his pocket watch, a battered yet ornately designed piece, and casually flicked the cover open. In the air above her was suddenly cast a huge clock face, very much like the face’s on the Big Ben tower. Its massive hands stood like guarding weapons before the detail of the mechanism behind. Kerry just stared at it, her mouth open and her mind racing.
“I have, an ability, in that field. What you can see here is time itself. I can see so much. I can see all of the colours and sounds of the ever flowing river which is time. I can also have an effect on the actions of the currents.”
Reaching out a hand, he casually waved his long fingers and the hands of the clock before her started to move rapidly forwards, revolving many times faster than the normal passing of time. Kerry watched on as, from outside the shop, the sun began to set and rise rapidly, in keeping with the movement of the hands of the clock. Kerry watched as first days, then months, rushed past at the behest of the mysterious shop keeper.
“How are you doing that?” Kerry just couldn’t understand.
“As I said, I have an, ability. Here, in this place, I sit beyond time, my island in the river, and I can bend the fabric of time to my will.” He flicked his hand the opposite way and the passage of time reversed, returning Kerry to her present.
“And here, you too are immune to the effects of time. Outside, everyone you know had just registered that you had been missing for years, yet you have not aged to match their appraisal of the situation. ”
“But what do you want with me?” Kerry was struggling to keep up with the fantastical story which was being spun for her but she needed to know what was going to happen to her. He closed the watch and the image of the giant swirling vortex of time blinked out.
“I’m here to give you the chance to read the book of your life. I want you to decide now if you’re prepared to know what will happen to you next. Do you want to see if you die tomorrow in a terrible accident? Do you have a long drawn out illness which claims your life? Do you win the lottery? I want you to weigh the facts and decide if you want to know the future.”
She just couldn’t believe him.
He had to be lying.
But what if he wasn’t?
“If I read it all and discover something bad, I could just avoid the situation couldn’t I? Just sidestep your book.”
“You could indeed. But, all of our lives are examples of choices which lead to others. You could avoid the death sentence tomorrow but that could lead to creating a different one tomorrow. One, I might add, you would then be blissfully unaware of.”
“Then what’s the point of knowing anything if you will only make one change before the knowledge is then obsolete? I choose to go now.” She felt belligerently confident at the application of her logic at showing this man that he wasn’t going to scare her. He considered her words carefully, again with the same sage chin stroke he had used before.
“But what if that one action is all you have to avoid? What would happen if not getting onto the plane you know is going to crash opens up the life that could have been. Wealth, fame, happiness could all be there if only you hadn’t died.” He sat there, still with his hand on his face, and watched her think.
What if? There could be so many possibilities?
“Why would you give me the chance to know? Why pick me?”
“I can see everything that is, was and will be. I know all that is knowable in the universe but I find myself to be in need of interaction with those who exist in the flow of time. I can see that you are all vulnerable and I find that is a trait I lack. I have no natural predators. Not even age will have any kind of effect on me. I like you and enjoy spending time with you, if you’d excuse the pun.”
“The lad outside. That was you, wasn’t it.” Kerry felt that she was starting to become acclimatized to the conversation so thought she would try asking for some more detail.
“Oh no, his name is James. He’s been with me for some time.”
That wasn’t what she had expected to hear and it did knock her over slightly. She felt like a novice ice skater who had been feeling that they were getting somewhere when they suddenly ended up on the backside on the hard cold surface. She just couldn’t hold onto what was being said.
She needed to be out of this situation.
“I chose to leave the book here thank you.” Decisive action. She was reasonably sure that she had made the right direction but there was always the chance that she was going to be passing over the greatest gift anyone was ever offered.
“Are you sure Kerry? You could be handing back the key to the most wonderful life. Are you certain that you are making the right decision?” There was still no kind of pleading to his voice, just the same casual tone as he maintained his neutral expression.
“I’m sure. The fun comes from not knowing. Surely that’s why you do this in the first place. You don’t have any fun because you know everything that’s going to happen. This whole situation is you having fun.” Kerry finally knew she’d worked out everything and knew that she wasn’t going to be the unwitting puppet in the actions of someone claiming they were the controller of time.
“That was why you were pushing the coffee all of the time. You knew that I hated coffee but you wanted to push me around to accept it. That was just a game to you, wasn’t it?”
There was no further conversation on the point but he had a faintly content expression on his face.
He stood and picked the book up, smiled at her, and gestured for her to follow him back to the front of the shop. She did and felt a wonderful warmth as she considered a new found positivity of the journey ahead of her in life. She could feel the possibilities of the years opening up ahead of her and knew that she would encounter every problem which presented itself and overcome them all. She knew she’d made the right choice.
“I thank you greatly for your time with me. You have truly given me a wonderful experience.” He bowed ever so slightly and opened the door for her. The cool air of late afternoon drifted into the shop and wafted through Kerrys hair.
She stepped through the door and onto the footpath beyond.
James was nowhere to be seen. He’d obviously finished his stint trying to attract business, or was it interest he was attracting?
Kerry took in a deep breath of air and looked forward to the mystery of the time to come, knowing that even one detail of the future could have awful effects on the life of anyone. She would just have to make do with having fun with the not knowing. Turning back to the shop she discovered with a shock that there was just a wall of old brick behind her. The shop, with all of the tomes of who knows whose lives, was gone and the proprietor had gone with it. Maybe he’d wound his clock on to find a new person to play with?
Smiling to herself, she stepped off the pavement.
But didn’t see the car.