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General

My childhood was not a happy one. My parents were far too absorbed in their compulsive relationship cycle – quarrelling and making up in turn – to have any kind of energy left for me. I had to seek happiness elsewhere. I read Jane Eyre and David Copperfield very early and found comfort in the company of the eponym protagonists, whom I looked upon as fellow sufferers. We lived in a village called Oleron. Walking to school by myself, every day I went pass a small shop that sold sweets only. I would enjoy staring at bright colorful candy in the vitrine: lolli pops with flavors like violet and rose, brownies, truffle, shortbread, fudge, chocolate curls, marshmallows. It was the most beautiful candy shop in the world (granted it was the only one I knew). To me it was much more than that; it was an enchanted place. I would normally only be able to admire it from the outside. But once a year, my godmother, who was also my father’s sister, would spend a week with us in the summer, a period of time that felt magical. To my childish eyes, there was a real Mary Poppins air to her... She never tired of playing games with me. And she would take me to the sweet shop, where I was allowed to select exactly what I wanted. Behind velvet pink curtains, there was a tea room where we would have a milkshake or an ice cream sundae.  


A few years later, I had left for university and my parents had moved to a different place. My godmother died in a car accident. For months I was in a state of shock, I could not cope at all with my grief. As suggested by my therapist, I went back to Oleron and hunted for the little sweet shop, as a kind of pilgrimage: it had become a bookshop, in addition to being much bigger than I remembered. There were several rooms full of books, with shelves from floor to ceiling. The owner was a mysterious, intriguing old man, with a benevolent, albeit strange presence, and a twinkle in his eyes. Before I could say Jack Robinson (can’t think why I should have wanted to say that, anyway…), I found myself working in this shop: well, why not? I was looking for a summer job, the pay was good, it was close to the hotel I stayed in and… well, there were thousands of good reasons for me to agree to take the job, but the truth is, I can’t remember accepting an offer – or being made one, for that matter. Suddenly, I was just working there…

I was surprised, upon starting work the next morning, to find that there were books all over the place… on chairs, on tables, everywhere… and the shelves were actually overflowing. The sight was an instant flashback for me. It was just like in my childhood: my father would read all the time (when he was not fighting with my mother, that is). There were hundreds of books all over the house. They would drop from unexpected, improbable places… He kept his favorite ones in a big cupboard – access to which was of course strictly forbidden – situated at the end of a long corridor near their bedroom. He would sometimes cautiously lock it and then puzzlingly actually forget to remove the key. First opportunity I had, I would climb on a chair, and slowly, very slowly, turn the key in the lock, making sure to avoid any creaking. When the door opened at last, it revealed a sea of books. A feast for my eyes: they were so beautiful – not in the sense of being leather-bound, or in rare and valuable editions. No. It was the promise they held, of future delights, that I found enchanting: all these stories, sentences, words, words, words… worlds to explore. I felt I would never know want or grief again… Heart beating, I would put my hand in, quickly, as into fire, and pick up the easiest volumes for me to reach…


Few customers camet to the bookshop, but since each of them would spend a fortune, and leave me huge tips, it was definitely worth it. One day I was sent by Mr Shallow to get hold of a history book in the back room. I noticed a big painting on the wall: a clearing in a forest in the moonlight. A scent of wet wood, moist moss and fresh new leaves. A centaur standing beside a unicorn. I could see the graceful head of the latter, its bright horn, delicate legs, snow-white hair and the faint glow that irradiated from them both. And at the foot of an immense oak tree spreading high its silver boughs, on a cushion of silk and velvet – an old-fashioned leather-bound book. The unicorn had traced the name of the publisher and the title with the point of its horn, in refined gothic letters that shine bright and luminescent on the sea green book and was about to trace the name of the author. “Nice cover”, I thought, “and nice title, too”. I happened to be a writer myself – had just finished a novella, had sent it to a few publishers, but alas, to no avail. I had given up after a few refusals. As for the title, it was neither inspired, nor inspiring, I knew that. I assumed the publisher would welcome the opportunity to have free reins to choose one. Some authors, I have heard, are ready to kill over this kind of details. “What’s in a name?” is my motto; the flavor of a book is just the same, whatever it is called, as long as it is published…


I found the required book and hurried back to give it to the client who had requested it, fearing his displeasure, but he was intent on turning the pages of several works at once and certainly did not betray any sign of impatience. I was very busy all day and did not have any opportunity to go to the back room again. The next morning, I went there to have another look at the painting I had admired so much, but it was not there anymore. When I asked Mr. Shallow about it, he looked at me and said:

“What painting would that be?”

“Why, the one with the centaur and the unicorn.”

“Nope. Never had anything like that in the shop.”

He looked sincere.

I just knew he must have dropped it somewhere. He had this habit of leaving things, mostly books, wherever his fancy moved him to… on the nearest shelf, the nearest table or chair. The object was usually put in a perilous balance and then it would fall. But it was still held responsible. Same with the alarm on his mobile, which he forgot to turn off and then proceeded to blame: “Blast the thing, gone and done it again, woke me up right in the middle of my siesta!” (If you suggested that he must have fixed it that way himself – no fairies in the shop – he just plain ignored you). So I resigned myself.

 

That particular morning, I had arrived in the shop feeling dreadful, having just received a letter of refusal for my novella. I was sighing and moaning over it when I stopped in my tracks: the painting was back on the wall. And my pulse suddenly quickens, for letters are flashing. The unicorn is tracing the name of the author. The glistening letters keep rearranging themselves to form… my own name.

When I went back to the shop three years later, the proud author of two published books, I found a bakery in its stead. The new owner said that he could not remember any bookshop, said he had bought the place from a travel agent. As for a candy shop, he couldn’t be sure, he seemed to remember one from when he was a boy… on reflection, there might indeed have been one here, years and years ago… And in retrospect, he doubted very much that the products were handmade, as was claimed: acidulated flavors, unnatural colors, nothing like the cakes he sold…


December 13, 2019 19:15

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