The raised bands and gold leaf of the worn spines, stood to attention in rows of mismatched heights and colours, on antique, wooden shelving. Coloured headbands, only visible if you peered over the spines, protected ancient text blocks, bound by dextrous hands generations ago. Delicate pages concealed within, played host to a plethora of type-set prints, pen and ink lettering, and hand painted illuminations. Every wall, floor to ceiling, in the L-shaped shop, displayed its share of literary beauty.
Bethan breathed in the beloved leather and dust as she turned the faded sign from “closed” to “open” in the central bullseye-glass panel of the door.
This had all seemed like such a good idea five years ago. She had signed the lease and filled the shelves with her grandfather’s collections, bringing a life-long obsession to reality. She’d used all of her contacts to obtain further stock and get her name out to connoisseurs all over the southeast and beyond. The first three years saw a regular in-person client base developing and online sales picking up. People travelled to see her, to see her rare books, to see her charming shop.
Though clients could now pay by card or with their phones, the original walnut sales desk still stood proud on the blue, floral, Victorian tiles. The drawers at the back were filled with items Bethan had collected or been given. Bone folders, Japanese tissue paper, binding glue, craft knives, waxed thread, curved needles, the tools of restoration and reparation that went hand in hand with her love of ancient tomes.
If covid and lockdown had not hit, business would be booming. But right now, people were still scared to come out, and the rise in the cost of living had taken its toll on disposable income, even for those with the wealth to collect. How long could she manage before closing up, clearing out, and handing back the fancy, brass keys?
The handmade chocolate maker to her right and the luxury pen shop to her left had already done just that. Only eight of the twenty-two exclusive, Victorian arcade units were still in business. Footfall was not picking up.
Bethan pushed the depressing thoughts away and sat behind the cash desk to sip her vanilla latte. She glanced over at her desk calendar – Olde English Word of the Day.
Yesterday’s word was still showing: wæferlic – Theatrical. She recalled, with a smile, the previous day, when she had worked the word into her head by being overly dramatic about everything. Swooning as she answered the phone, feigning tears when she dropped her pencil, laughing rather too loudly at Mrs. Benson’s awful literary jokes. A sense of humour was really all that kept her going.
As she reached across to tear off yesterday’s word, the bell above the door tinkled and a young woman with a thick woollen coat came in, damp haired and uncomfortable.
“Can I help you?”
“Oh, hello. Yes, I think you can. More than you know.”
“Intriguing! Do come in.” Bethan stood and approached the lady with a quizzical smile.
“Are you Bethan Aldershot?”
“I am, the very same.”
“I’ve been given your name about six times now by different people and finally decided it was worth the journey. I did try to look up your number, but I really do hate talking on the phone.”
“Well, it’s lovely to meet you. Is it a particular book you’re looking for?”
“Actually, I’m hoping to sell. It’s a bit of a strange story, and no one else in the trade seems to have time to hear it. They roll their eyes once I get past the first line or so and they realise they can’t open it either. I’ve tried libraries, museums, dealers; no one will take it off my hands.” The woman removed her gloves and stuffed them into her overflowing handbag before she stopped to look around the shop. “What a beautiful place! Little dusty perhaps.” She ran a critical finger along the edge of the nearest shelf.
“Thank you?” Bethan pulled her spare chair from behind the counter and gestured to the woman to take a seat.
“I’m Caroline, Caroline Moseby,” said the woman, sitting down and propping her various shopping bags against the corner of the cash desk. “My father left me a book I cannot open, and I fail to see its value if I can’t even look at the pages.” Caroline felt around in a carrier bag and, after some rummaging, pulled out another carrier bag with a book inside. She handed the bundle to Bethan.
Bethan extracted the volume from the bag, unwrapped the pale tissue paper from around it and set it square on the desk, taking her seat as she did so. It was a brown, three quarter, calf skin binding, with probably vellum pages. It looked ancient. The spine was cracking and the leather was damaged in many places, lifting slightly from the board on the bottom edge. The whole thing was held shut by a leather strap with a metal clasp that looked like it should swing open easily with a bit of encouragement but might be further damaged in the process. The stitching of the clasp to the strap was frayed and delicate. A single word appeared in faded gold leaf along the spine: andgiet.
“Well, this is unusual. I’ll put some gloves on.” Bethan rummaged in her top drawer.
“It’s been in my family for hundreds of years, passed down and down until everyone forgot what it was,” Caroline said. “The only information I keep hearing is that the word on the spine means –"
“Knowledge,” Bethan said. “It’s Anglo-Saxon, or Olde English for knowledge, or possibly understanding or perception.”
“Yes, exactly that.” Caroline sat back and started to relax into her chair. “I’m so glad you are who they say you are. I was so worried I’d come all this way for nothing.”
“Well, I’m a student of Olde English, still building my vocab. In my line of work it can only help. Why would you want to sell it?” Bethan put her white cotton gloves on and lifted the book off the desk.
“No one can open it, so no one can read it, so I fail to see why anyone should keep it.”
“What do you mean no one can open it?”
“This is where I always lose people. I fully expect you to give up about now.” Caroline took a deep breath. “The clasp looks like it should just turn and open, but it doesn’t. Everyone has tried everything and if they are not too scared to break it they are too heavy handed and they damage the cover. The British Library offered to take it off my hands as a donation, but I can’t part with it for free. The truth is that my husband and I have fallen on hard times since all this covid business. Our family company folded last year, and we've been living on savings, but they will only take us so far. We have children to think of and the job I managed to get is only part time.”
“I understand,” Bethan said, “I really do. It’s been so hard on small businesses."
“Well, I’m sure if anyone could get the thing open they could get it verified and valued. I honestly think it’s a genuine Anglo-Saxon text and worth considerable money, but no one can examine it properly, so no one can tell. My Great Grandfather swore blind when I was a child that it was worth a fortune, but he also said it was only worth a fortune to the Worths. You see, my family name is Worth. I was never sure what he meant by that.”
“It’s fascinating.” Beth ran a gentle finger over the clasp without attempting to open it; this was going to take patience. “Where have you travelled from? It sounds like you don’t live nearby.”
“Down from Harrogate, actually. Though I lack the local twang. My husband, you see, Yorkshire born and bred. We moved up there when my mother died. I’m staying at the White Gate guest house for a couple of days, hoping to get this sorted once and for all.”
“Would you be happy to leave it with me for a few days? I could see if I can open it, and if I can, I can try to work out what it is. You’ll probably want to get several valuations before you sell. But I’d certainly be interested in it if it’s genuine.” Bethan opened her bottom drawer and pulled out a small green book. “I’ll give you a receipt of course, proof that I’m holding it for you.”
Caroline agreed, and left the book behind as she ventured back out into the mizzle, shopping bags bumping off her legs.
Bethan turned the shop sign round again and pulled the blind down behind the glass panelled door. She flicked on the banker’s lamp on the cash desk and extracted a magnifying glass from the second drawer down. Examining the strap and clasp on the book revealed nothing new. The stitching was frayed and the clasp fragile. She could see no reason it wouldn’t open.
Gloves still on, she turned the book so that the spine was facing her, and examined it again – it did appear genuinely ancient. Even breath might damage it, so she found a surgical mask in her desk and covered her mouth and nose. Covid preparations did have some practical use outside of the pandemic.
After a few minutes, Bethan got up the courage to try the clasp. A gentle poke with a single finger achieved nothing. It wouldn’t move. She tried holding it gently between two fingers, nothing. She tried carefully tugging at the strap, shimmying it towards the top of the book, then towards the bottom. Though the strap did not seem tightly fitted, it would not budge.
Bethan managed to lift the front cover away from the text block by a few millimetres with the strap in place, but it wasn’t enough to be able to examine the pages, or even the end paper.
In the interests of avoiding getting frustrated and heavy handed, Bethan stood up, took a large cigar box from the shelf behind her, wrapped the book back up in its tissue papers and stowed it in the box. She agreed with herself that she would close the shop, take it out and try a different tack every two hours, resting and calming herself between attempts. If the British Library couldn’t open it, then it was quite possible she couldn’t either. There was no point getting worked up.
Once the shop was open again, Bethan turned her attention back to her desk calendar. She carefully tore “wæferlic – Theatrical” away from the block and filed it under T in the hanging folders next to the desk. It made way for today’s word - blawan – meaning to breathe or blow. This was one she had heard before but needed to learn the different tenses. Now to spend the next six hours blowing on things to fully commit this word to memory in all of its forms. She blew on her fingernails and on her cold coffee first, while repeating the forms of the verb. What else could she blow on?
Two hours and one customer passed. It was time to try Caroline’s book again, so Bethan shut up shop. Once it was lying back on the desktop in front of her, she tried again to jimmy the clasp with her gloved fingers. Nothing.
Silent conjugation of the verb blawan helped her concentration. Blawe, I blow. Blaewst, you blow. Blaewp, he blows. Blawp, they blow. Bethan removed her surgical mask, wiped her lips with a tissue and blew the gentlest of breaths across the clasp of Caroline’s book.
“I must be crazy.” She sat back in her chair, rubbing her eyes.
There was a short, but definite, metallic scraping sound and Bethan opened her eyes and studied the book again. The curved pin of the clasp had pulled back from the buckle and released the strap!
Mask back on, Bethan leaned over the book and examined the clasp with the magnifying glass. It was definitely open. She removed the strap from around the binding and laid it out on the desk.
Supporting the delicate spine with the fingers of her left hand, she began to open the front cover, a few millimetres at a time. The front hinge of the book seemed to be intact, and after a minute or so, the cover was open and the dark green end paper exposed to the air.
Bethan’s first thought was to call Caroline, but she hadn’t left a number, and had said she hated talking on the phone anyway. Perhaps she should just keep going and see how far she could get before Caroline came back.
She found her small blue notebook and a pencil and wrote down her observations as she worked. After a few minutes, the inner end paper was turned to rest on the inside of the front cover, and the title page was visible. Or what would have been a title page in a more recent book. The top of the page was mostly filled with an elaborate monogram in red and green. Black ink cris-crossed the lettering in curved, diamond patterns. It appeared almost Celtic in design and was snugly fitted between two black and red borders, one on either side. Below the monogram, exquisitely hand-penned in black ink on the vellum, was a short paragraph of Olde English text, ready to be examined.
Bethan stayed at the shop long into the night. She pencilled her notes into her pad and didn’t stop until she had finished the full translation.
At 9am the following day, Caroline arrived to see if the mystery of her book had been solved. The door was open and she let herself in, tinkling the bell.
Her first step into the shop was interrupted by a large, red book, lying face down, pages spread open on the floor, spine cracked. There was another book next to it in an equally unkempt manner, and another, and another. The floor was littered with damaged books. The books still on the shelves were falling on top of each other in untidy piles, bindings ripped, spines broken, pages torn out.
“Bethan! Bethan! Have you been burgled? Have you still got my heirloom?”
Caroline stepped between book after book until she came level with the cash desk and peered behind it. There was Bethan, collapsed on the floor, white gloved hands clutching Caroline’s book. Caroline’s open book!
Bethan’s face was vacant, eyes glassy, mouth open, pale, unmoving. There was a blue notebook next to her on the floor, a pencil pressed between the pages.
Caroline knelt down beside her new acquaintance, tapped her on the shoulder and tried to rouse her, but she didn’t react. She started to clear books out of the way so she could get in closer, picking them up, closing their covers and arranging them in neat piles on the floor. The strange thing was that all of the pages of the books were now blank. Completely blank.
Caroline wrestled her own book from Bethan’s stiff fingers and peered into it. The pages were full of hand-written text and brilliant illuminations in bold, bright colours with detail that took Caroline’s breath away. She looked around for the strap that had been over the cover and soon found it on the edge of the desk. Now it was open once, it must surely be easy to open again, so she wrapped it back around her book and fastened the clasp to keep it safe before stashing the book away into one of her bags.
She tried again to rouse Bethan, and established that she was breathing, but could get no response. She picked up the notebook from the floor and glanced inside – there were handwritten lines, some in Olde English and some in modern day words. She put that into her bag as well. Then left the shop without summoning any help.
Helen, the dressmaker from three units down, passed by the bookshop at around 11 and noticed the shop in disarray. She called 999. Bethan was taken to hospital and regained consciousness two days later with no recollection of what had happened or of who she was. She knew nothing of antiquarian books or Olde English. She couldn't remember her own family.
Caroline got on the train home and opened the little blue notebook to the centre pages with a lot of pencil scribble on them.
You opened this book at risk to your soul,
Seeking within it the knowledge it stole,
If you be Worthy you need have no fear,
The contents inside, to your mind, will be clear.
If you be not of the family Worth,
Now you will find in your knowledge a dearth,
No ink on your papers, no paint in your frame,
No memories, insight or facts in your brain,
All that you knew shall reside in this book,
Taken straight from you as soon as you look.
Caroline fished the book out of her bag and laid it on the fold-down table in front of her.
All that knowledge could be the answer to her problems. Bethan was quite the scholar, and the contents of all of those books! She could open her own bookstore. Become a history professor. Who knows what other knowledge was contained within? She could do almost anything.
She tried to open the clasp, but it would not shift.