During the lockdown, a lot of shops were mothballed. Their windows were covered with blinds or hardboard. Some of these were already covered with graffiti, and as she walked through the empty streets she tried to decipher them. One of them was different though. Instead of the curly flamboyant script which adorned the other shops (often recommending substances she’d never even heard of), one of them displayed small, neat lettering near ground level: it said “this will surprise you”.
There used to be a bookshop here, she thought. It had been called Robert Fludd. Since then it had been (by turns) a shoe emporium, a vaping shop, and a cut-price clothes boutique. Underneath the lettering, she saw a tear in the MDF, and by diligently working away at it with the heel of her shoe, she managed to enlarge the rip until it was a hole big enough to wriggle through: “this will surprise you”.
Scraping and scrambling, she tumbled into the space behind. First of all she had the wit to pull the MDF roughly together behind he, so that no-one would follow her. She looked round. Where did the light come from? She could see no windows or lamps, but the interior space was rosy and effulgent, a cross between pink and gold. And the scent! It was sweet and sharp, though logically she knew that it could not be both at once. The perfume seemed to move through the space - you could almost see it - and it changed its mood in subtle ways. This was strange.
To her astonishment, it was still a bookshop. Or had become one again. The books were shelved according to their colours (blue, silver, crimson) and within the colour coding, there were subject categories: repetition, anomaly, echo, and discovery. She was surprised not to find more conventional categories such as love, pain or war. But whoever had designed the bookshop and organised the shelves had rejected those, and instead they had wanted to stimulate the reader’s mind to see patterns of cyclical renewal and the motors of change.
She pulled a couple of books down from the shelves and settled down to read. But these were like no books she had ever read before. For a start, each of them had a particular perfume that changed as the chapters progressed. And a very faint music emanated from each page. And then the characters! As soon as she became engrossed by a protagonist, they took flesh, and sat for a while in the chair in front of her. They explained themselves, they asked her questions. Some of them were searching: was that what she really wanted, what did that remind her of, why had she done that? She learned a lot, but the process was sometimes embarrassing. That was a more important emotion than she had thought.
Picking up more and more books, she began to see that the collection was extensive. The books about history (none of which she had ever read before) showed her the intimacies of the past. The people were like us: they were not like us. One by one, objects tumbled out of the pages onto the table in front of her: lace collars, stirrup-cups, letters, rings. Then they dissolved and made way for another set. She began to see a pattern emerge. The artefacts were not important in themselves, but only in the feelings they had aroused. That was their value.
It was getting late. One by one she closed the books, and each of them gave a sigh as she did so. She would come back another day and learn more. She slithered out of the little entrance she had made, and found herself again in the bleak street in the rain. But she never found the magic bookshop again. It had gone, and the neat writing had disappeared for good. She had indeed had her surprise though, and the perfume, the light, the music and the cornucopia stayed in her mind forever.