On seeing the bookshop in place of the pub, Hank was puzzled and a little bit peeved. He cast his mind back to when he and his old man had last visited the establishment. There had been a fight over a girl and Gardaí turned up on the scene. He and his old man, they never set foot in Charlie’s place again after that night, not ever. Now the pub was usurped by this foxy old bookshop. Yet it was one and the same, because the copper globe was still mounted above the entrance, and the rotted old woodwork was still painted green, even if it was a darker shade than before. So they hadn’t demolished the building just yet.
The door window, that long, tinted furrow was now engraved with the lettering, Books Old And New. The cart outside the shop was a jumble of new and antique editions – classics mixed with cheap romances, westerns, potboilers, all manner of rags selling for ha’pennies. Idly picking a book up and putting it down again, Hank’s mind wandered back to the prickly landlord who consorted with only a few, Hank’s father being one of them.
Charlie was a heavy set fella, and a drinker, but he was a man who could handle his sauce – he was neither rowdy nor foolish when drunk. His son Kevin was just the opposite, hot headed. He was in line to take over the business but instead had fallen for the English Rose who served drinks in the lounge. They were hell bent on getting married and emigrating. Hank wondered how they had fared in pernicious Albion.
Curiosity drove him to climb the worn step leading up into the shop. There was a small puddle of water that glinted in the sunlight and Hank’s brown leather brogues got wet as he trod on the step. He tried to remember the girl’s name, but the door to that memory was shut and padlocked. Try as he might, he couldn’t fathom the hidden picture there. All he could do was remember how the smell of the old floorboards, and the polished oak of the bar had made him feel safe. Those were manly odours, but this new smell of mildewed paper was a fussier, womanish affair as if all the manliness had been wiped away over the years.
The former pub was divided into two – the centre of the room was partitioned off and back where the snug ought to have been a heavy velvet drape hung loosely, concealing the hinder part of the bookshop. There had once been a cellar, Hank recalled, and he remembered the wooden barrels being hoisted up into the lounge.
In the corner of the room, an elderly man sat at a table reading by the light of an antediluvian lampshade. The book in front of him was of gargantuan proportions and the old timer was scrutinising each line, he wore large black-rimmed spectacles and his tiny rabbit-like face was scrunched up as if he was having trouble seeing the text. He scratched his beard and dipped a silver pen into an inkpot. Then he scribbled on a jotter that lay open next to the magnificent volume. In spite of the discordant bell over the door that had snitched on Hank as soon as he entered the bookshop, the old codger seemed oblivious to everything, absorbed as he was in his current occupation. He looked like he belonged to another era.
Hank walked around the shop, quietly examining the wrinkled leather spines of venerable looking volumes. The books were neatly arranged in dark bookcases, but the bookcases, Hank noted, were grimy affairs, blackened with age. Despite its tawdry appearance, the bookshop was very well organized with each bookcase divided into neat sections, each with different titles typed up on small pieces of card. History, Geography, Religion, Music, Art, Science, Poetry, Biography, Mystery and what was that last? Hank squinted hard because it was a tiny section with just a handful of slender books, and the type on the card was miniscule compared to the type on the other cards. He just managed to read the scrawny words, ‘Time Studies’.
How bizarre, Hank thought, and he was on the verge of pulling one of those strange books from that odd section, when his nose caught the unmistakable scent of sweet heather mixed with turf – it was the very same cut of tobacco that Charlie used to stuff in his pipe. Hank swung around to find the old-timer standing to his rear, sucking away at a dudeen – all the more reason to suspect the old boy of being from another planet
His wizened face was full of curiosity. ‘Can I be of any assistance to ye sir?’
Friendly or not, there was a certain amount of dubiosity behind those smiling Irish eyes.
‘I-I-I was only just browsing,’ Hank retorted, feeling like a boy with his hand in the sweet jar.
‘That’s okay,’ the owner said, ‘let me know if ye need me. On’y too glad to help.’
He turned to go back to his desk.
‘Wait! I’d like your help,’ Hank blurted, amazed to hear his words tumbling out, stutter free.
The grandfather turned around, his demeanour shifting towards sunnier climes. ‘What can I do for ye young man?’
He had a pleasant Cork accent and Hank began feeling at home – a rarity in itself.
‘I used to come here as a boy,’ Hank said wistfully.
‘Well ‘tis glad we are to have you back again, sir.’
Hank wondered if the old man heard him right. ‘No you don’t understand, that was over twenty years ago, back when it belonged to Charlie.’
It was the owner’s turn to look puzzled. He frowned. ‘Charlie you say?’
‘Charlie Murphy, the landlord,’ Hank replied.
The old man scratched his beard. ‘No, never heard of him.’
He sounded genuine, but Hank thought it was his Cork sense of humour – a little joke being played. ‘From a bar to a bookshop,’ He said jovially, letting the old heirloom know he was in on the joke.
‘A bar you say?’
It was getting to be wearisome, Hank wanted no more beating about the bush. He asked Methuselah what had happened to Charlie, and Charlie’s son, Kevin. Had he ever made it to England with his English Rose?
By way of an answer, the owner held out his hand and introduced himself. ‘The name’s Donal O’Develin. Pleased to make your acquaintance.’
‘Hank Fitzgerald,’ said Hank uneasily.
The old boy surveyed Hank from top to bottom. ‘I must tell ye Mr Fitzgerald, sir…’
‘Call me Hank.’
‘I must tell ye Hank, I’m the on’y proprietor t’was ever there was.’
Hank was distraught. ‘What are you talking about? This was Charlie’s bar, that’s what we called it, Charlie’s…’
‘Ah no,’ Donal O’Develin said, chuckling good-naturedly, ‘This bookshop has been standing here since the beginning of time itself sir, and that’s a mighty long stretch.’
Hank was beside himself. What the devil was happening? Was his mind playing tricks, could he be wrong about the location? Surely to God no. ‘Well, I don’t recall this place at all! How far back did you say you went?’
O’Develin spat a morsel of tobacco on the floor. He looked like a hobo with his huge Arran cardigan and loose fitting trousers, and on his feet a pair of silk slippers with fancy brocade. Strangest of all, on this swelteringly hot day he wore an emerald shawl around his shoulders as if to protect from the cold. ‘Well, let’s see now, yes I remember now. At the turn of the century there was alterations made all right, but them was important. Loads o’ people complained – bookshop customers don’t like change, but the window needed replacing. Terrible rogues and vandals we had in Dublin back then.’
Hank gasped. ‘Turn of the century you said?’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ O’Develin said, impatient at the interruption. He continued his flow. ‘And din, Magda, that’s my secertree, she left to go on a sabbatical. When was that? The 40’s maybe. Hah! This rusty ould head belongs in the scrap yard boy!’
The smoke from the pipe drifted upwards, sneaking into Hank’s nostrils.
‘Them was bad days,’ O’Develin reminisced, ‘I nearly lost me mind sure. See, I couldn’t cope without Magda, harridan that she is!’
Just then, Hank heard the sound of typing coming from a back office somewhere. He thought it strange that he hadn’t noticed the sound until then.
‘As constant as the moon, dear old Magda.’ O’Develin said.
Hank saw a ray of hope. Perhaps the shop had closed down in the 1940’s and Charlie had taken over, turning it into a bar. ‘So you closed shop did you?’
‘Closed shop you say?’
‘Back in the 40’s, when your secretary left.’
The old man looked piercingly at Hank. ‘This shop niver closes boy.’
Hank felt confused, even a tiny bit afraid. ‘It’s impossible.’ He told the old man. ‘Just impossible.’
‘I much prefer tings as they is now,’ O’Develin went on. ‘Now that we modernised the shop.’
Hank looked about. There was no way you could call the frumpy old bookshop ‘modern’.
‘Since we had the new window put in and that,’ the old man explained.
‘What year was that?’ Hank asked, trembling inside.
‘Some place around 1900,’ Donal said. ‘Can’t be too sure of the exact date.’ He tapped his forehead with the heel of the pipe. ‘ The ould brain box is not what it once was.’
Hank thought that old man was nuts, but then the whole thing was madness, a bookshop standing in the same spot where Murphy’s bar ought to have been.
‘What’s the matter boy, look like ye seen a ghost? Come over funny have ye?’
Hank cast his eyes around searching for somewhere to sit. There were some upturned wooden crates in the corner.
‘Come over here boy.’
O’Develin took Hank’s elbow and led him to a capacious seat at the desk. Hank sat down, he took his handkerchief from his jacket and rubbed the sweat from his face. It was so damn hot in the bookshop.
‘A glass of putcheen is the cure, ‘ O’Develin said, and he disappeared behind the purple drape. Hank sat and studied the desk lamp. It was an elegant object, the red shade sloping outwards into a feathered rim – it looked feminine and very pretty. The serpentine stand aroused his curiosity the most – that was made of solid silver, carved with amazing intricacy, a pattern of involutes, leaves and branches spiralling upwards and resting on the head of a cobra.
He saw the humongous book sitting on the desk in front of him. It was bound in faded black leather and had a suspiciously pungent aroma. Next to that he saw O’Develin’s jotter full of neat handwriting, and then he saw a letterhead with the imprint of the shop, Books, Old and New and next to that lay a pile of papers, invoices by the looks of them, weighted down by a large, green slab of Connemara marble. Hank picked up the stone and turned it around in his palms. It felt smooth, like silk and he had the strange sensation of water pouring through his fingers. As he handled the stone Hank began feeling lighter than air, it seemed as if his body might rise up out of the seat and float upwards. Things around him started to wobble, then dissolve into little pieces, everything shimmering. Tiny particles danced in the rarefied new atmosphere. Hank felt his body sliding down out of his seat.
The scene unfolded in front of him. There was Kevin Murphy on one side and he on the other, and in between them stood the girl, (Katie was her name, he now remembered). The fight itself was brief. Kevin was the undisputed winner.
Hank saw himself lying on the floor in a pool of blood, and then the Gardaí came and pulled Kevin away out the door. He could still hear that insane bell ringing.
‘Are you okay sir?’
Hank looked up. The old gentleman was gazing down at him with a kindly expression, blue eyes magnified behind thick lens.
‘Where am I?’ Hank asked. He pulled himself up from the floor and took the proffered glass of putcheen.
‘There’s no going back now you know,’ O’ Develin said.
Somehow Hank realised he had never made it out that night.
So this is it, he thought, I’m dead.
‘Drink that firewater,’ the old one said. ‘It’ll settle your nerves.’