“Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine, but lost time is gone forever.” - Samuel Smiles, 1812-1904
On an ordinary street there is a small building that looks like any other and yet it conceals a maddening place and a unique individual. You could spend a life time watching the goings on of that house and never for one second even begin to suspect the true nature of the goings on inside. The old man who lives there looks as though he has lived since the dawn of time as do all old people, in this case however it is a lot closer to the truth than most. If one were to approach the man on the street and start a conversation with him, he'd have a very interesting story to tell but no-one ever does. All it would take would be a simple hello and you'd have opened the door to a surprising world that only a handful of people have glimpsed in hundreds of years. Had I known that when I saw the old man drop his bag of groceries I'd never have stopped to help, I'd never have been sucked in.
I was once like you a normal man, just trying to make it through the day without have the universe crush me in a new and interesting way. I worked in a book store, I used to love books. One day I was walking home, I normally got the bus but this was a bright and sunny day which just goes to show that you can never tell, which is a nice innocuous beginning to the story. Despite the fact that I'd lived in this town for twenty of my twenty-six years on this earth I somehow got turned around and found myself on a street I'd never seen before. I used to be a fairly laid back individual so I took this in my stride and kept walking knowing that I'd eventually find myself near some familiar landmark.
As I ambled down this road an old man in front of me blocked my path in the way only old people can. He was clearly struggling with several bags of shopping one of which was obeying universal narrative laws by having a baguette poking out of the top. Being in a good mood I offered the gentleman some assistance with his burden, that was my first mistake.
“Why thank you, young man.” He replied with a toothless grin and a wheezing laugh. “Been a long ol' time since I met anyone willing to help an ol' fella” I took the greater share of the bags and he pointed up the street by about ten or so houses “I'm only up there” He wheezed in a good natured way. I helped him along with his bags all the way him wheezing on about my good nature and me mumbling modestly in reply. The house was like any other on the street, I'd guess it was Victorian, you could easily imagine Holmes and Watson discussing a recent case by the fire of in one of the high ceilinged windows. By now we'd reached the foot of the short staircase that led up to the front door.
“Thanks for the help young 'un, I'd feel remiss if I didn't offer you a cup of tea.” The old man wheezed as he opened the door. I muttered something about having to get on but he wouldn't take no for an answer. Now I don't know what I was expecting when I stepped through the door but it was certainly not what greeted me.
I found myself standing on a gantry looking into a pit that just didn't seem to end. Now when I say gantry I think it's important to point out that it wasn't some metal clanking jittery thing it was, well to call it plush would be to miss the opportunity to call it luxuriant. Deep red carpets, mahogany railings, each floor, whilst hollow in the middle had at least one corner which had enough room for a couple of incredibly comfortable looking, the floor I was on had, in addition to the gantry around the edge of the room a walkway leading across the void to the other side. Now I feel it's important to mention that all of this only hit me after I'd been standing in the door way for about a minute staring around. My first thoughts can best be summed up thus books. Books, books and more books. I was standing on the top floor of what looked like the greatest library in the world.
After being stuck to the spot for about 2 minutes I followed the old man across the walk way and through a door to a small kitchen in which he was boiling the kettle. I stood in the kitchen dropped the bags and slumped into a chair by a small table. After a while sitting in near uncontrolled shock I had a cup of tea placed in my hand and found myself staring at the old man who'd sat down opposite me.
“I know,” he said smiling “it gets people like that at first.” I can't recall exactly what I said but I'm pretty certain that the words impossible and how must have escaped my lips. “Well yes I'd say it is impossible under current understan'in' of physics.” The old man replied. “As to the how, well that is a story...”
“In the year 1350 I was a young chap interested very much in scholarly studies. Sadly I was not of the right class to have access to the limited books in the kingdom at the time, I'd been taught to read by the local lords father who I'd been a serving boy to in his later days. He had a love for language and he took a shine to me. Sadly I only my time in his service only lasted a few years but in that time I'd read all fifteen books in the keep. They were good times but there end was not. You see the old man grew sick and called me to his chambers when he was not long for this world. There he handed me a single slip of paper and told me that with it I could ride forth and seek my fortune. Now I thought that it'd be a letter of recommendation allowing me to possibly seek out another position elsewhere. It was in fact a map. I packed up what few belongings I had took my mule and headed to where the map pointed. It took months of travel and searching and it is a pretty tale in and of itself but I won't bore you with the details. I eventually was led to a small cave hidden by a waterfall and in the depths of the cave I found only one thing.
At this point he picked up a lamp from a nearby shelf. Now if I was to describe the most exact example of a magic lamp to you I still wouldn't get close to how close this item fit the stereotype.
“I see you've worked it out” he said staring into my eyes “Well I made two wishes that day, I've been most unhappy with the results.” There was something of a twinkle in his eyes as he said this. “Fortunately so has the fella who is still trapped in here. So want to guess what the two wishes were?”
“All the books ever written and immortality” I responded finding my tongue for the first time since I'd encountered this remarkable man.
“Close and perhaps I would have been happier with the outcome of those wishes but no I used my imagination I sat and I pondered exactly what to wish for for several weeks until I finally decided on it...” He then leant forward and whispered in my ear the wishes he had made. I will never be able to write down on the page what my reaction was at that point the myriad of possibilities that opened themselves to me.
“I wished for every book never written and a place to read them”
No time passed in the library that was important, I spent years in there trawling through wonders that you could never believe, books that could rip apart our society and ones that could rebuild it as a shining wonder. The plays that Shakespeare barely half conceived, the thoughts that Nietzsche considered to dark to to place on the page, histories of civilisations that never existed, poems never thought of, autobiographies of those who were never born. Sometimes books would disappear as the author finally committed them to the page but it was always outweighed by the masses that kept appearing as “will dos” faded to “could've done's” in the outside world. Occasionally in that library I'd encounter another individual whose own experience seemed to match my own but never one who'd read a single page of the things I'd read. Imagine living for what must have been decades never once being able to discuss the wondrous things you have found with another person. Eventually it became to much and I felt ready to enter the world again. I had the idea that I could write my own book, one that could change the world I had access to sources, influences and inspirations that no-one else could ever know off. I only stepped out to get some pens and papers.
I've never been able to find that house again. Every day is a maddening torment as my mind is occupied with thoughts of heavy tomes of wonders most men will never see, every forgotten page is a fresh heartbreak. I write this short document hoping it'll serve as some sort of explanation to those who once knew me for my disappearance and now my passing. I take some solace from knowing that even as I leave this world a new book will appear in my favourite library.