By the time I discovered the room my Uncle James had told me was hidden in the Bodean Library I had discovered far more than the room itself. In fact, my voyage of discovery almost eclipsed the original reason for my search. I had hunted high and low and had long since given up on the room as I suspected that it was a device of Jimmy’s to hook me and have me undertake something useful in my three years away from home. Such subterfuge was not beyond my uncle, he knew that I was a kindred spirit. Everything came easily to me and as a result I bored easily. I was a listless spirit already fearing that I would forever drift on the tides of life, never finding a place to set anchor and stay a while, let alone being in a place long enough that I might develop roots.
The prospect of a hidden room excited me. Another thing I knew about Jimmy was that he would not lie. He was above such things and he did not waste his precious time with nonsense. When he imparted the knowledge of this secret place he did so away from the family gathering. Yet another christening. We had a spate of them as siblings and cousins popped sprogs out at an alarming rate of knots during a version of Keeping Up With The Jones’s that threatened to overwhelm the planet with overpopulation.
The family do for the crumpled Winston Churchill mini-me was at a half decent hotel and the way it came by such a rating was by having several bars, all of which were open. Jimmy led me to the quietest of the bars and bought me a neat whisky. Jimmy didn’t ask me what I was drinking and I had no current drink about my person. This was how he rolled. He knew things and that included what it was that I should drink. For my own part, I would have walked over hot coals to drink any drink Jimmy bought for me. It wasn’t just that he was my uncle and my favourite uncle at that, it was that he was blatantly special. So very special. He wore his difference conspicuously about his person and I just loved being around him. I suppose that is love, but I love my parents and it just isn’t the same. I think you can love someone and not necessarily love being around them, not the way I did with Jimmy. Alternatively, it may be that I’m a deluded cold fish and my capacity for love is broken in a fundamental way that no one has yet to spot, myself included.
I drank some of the whisky. I did so carefully, but not so carefully as to look like I’d never drunk whisky before. Thankfully I had and I knew enough not to throw it at the back of my throat. I’d choke if I did that and lose face as a result. One thing I never wanted to do was embarrass myself in front of Uncle Jimmy.
“So,” he said over the rim of his glass, eyeing me as though I were some kind of scientific specimen and only partially hiding his smile, “you’re spreading your wings and indulging in a spot of higher learning.”
There was no question there. He knew I was. But still I had to confirm what it was that he already knew. The conventions of conversation are quite odd at times. Stilted and awkward until the whole thing is moving at a pleasant cruising speed, “yes, I head off next week.”
“Isn’t that a little early?” he asked.
It was. “The lease on my flat starts then, so I thought I’d get my money’s worth. Scope out the local haunts and get the lay of the land.”
Jimmy put his glass on the bar and laughed heartily. After some thirty seconds of abandonment to his jollity he clasped my shoulder, almost as though he needed the additional support, “you crack me up, my boy! Getting in there early! Lay of the land! And a flat! You’ve only gone and got yourself a flat!”
“Yes, but…” I began.
“It’s not in a student block, is it?” asked Jimmy.
I shook my head. It wasn’t.
“It’s not a shared flat, is it?”
“No,” I confirmed.
“Alfie, you are a dangerous man to know! You’re approaching this university lark exactly the way I would!”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” I asked earnestly.
“No!” he blurted, “I mean yes, but I’ve got decades on you. You’re doing it the way I would do it now, not the way I would have when I headed off to university all those years ago.”
“So how did you do it then?” I asked.
He gave me something approaching a coy look, “went at it like a puppy on a leg, son! I didn’t have a clue. Crashed onto the scene and gave it a jolly good going over. I know a thing or two now and I enjoy my creature comforts. I certainly wouldn’t slum it, but more fool me for that slackness.”
I was nonplussed. I thought I’d played a blinder. Now, my grand plans were in tatters.
“Listen,” he said, “you’ve got my blood running through your veins. I’ve known that ever since you were a wee nipper. You’ll make it work, and that’s what worries me. You already have a habit of coming up roses and you seem to do it effortlessly.” He took a sip of his whisky, “you’ve got a low boredom threshold haven’t you?”
“You get bored easily?”
“Yes, I suppose I do,” I said.
“Yeah, that will get you into trouble,” Jimmy grinned.
“Hasn’t yet,” I retorted.
“Really?” he asked.
“Not much,” I shrugged.
He chuckled, “there’s the spirit! Dangerous spirit. If we could bottle it, it would be banned!”
No it was my turn to grin. The whisky was doing its job and I was enjoying myself.
“Listen,” Jimmy said. He handed me a fresh whisky. I hadn’t even seen him order this next round. He was leaning in conspiratorially, “there’s something I want you to do.”
I liked the sound of that. It sounded illicit. It felt like I was being brought into Jimmy’s inner circle and he was trusting me to do something that he would never ask anyone else to do. I leant in and nodded, awaiting to hear what it was that he wanted me to do.
“You’re going to have to use the library I’m afraid,” Jimmy told me.
“The library?” I echoed. This did not sound like dangerous derring-do to me. Libraries were places where people went to die. Nothing fun ever happened in a library, especially these days. I saw absolutely no reason whatsoever to go through a library door during the entirety of my existence.
But Uncle Jimmy was shaking his head, “listen to me, and listen well, else you miss out on the adventure of a lifetime.”
Then he told me of the hidden room in Bodean Library and sent me on a quest to find it.
In my first days away from home, it was all I could do not to head straight to the library to search for that magical room, but Jimmy had cautioned me not to do so. Part of the adventure was to commence my quest when the library was in full flow. I had never considered that a library could ever be in full flow. This concept intrigued me, as did furtively searching for a secret whilst evading detection and capture.
The entire venture was to stay between us and I was to report back to Jimmy in my holidays. This additional dimension to my time at university was welcome and as I found my feet I was glad I had not rushed over to the library and shot the bolt.
My flat was in a good spot on the opposite side of town and I found a number of pubs and eateries a short walk from where I would live for the next three years. By the time the freshers began arriving, I felt like the old guard. Knowledge was power and I knew more than all those around me. I built some kudos and then a reputation thanks to my early arrival and all I had to do was live up to the expectations of those around me and not disappoint. As always, this came easily to me.
It was during the first week of lectures that I went up to the second floor of the library and the corner of the building that Jimmy had described. The picture he had painted with a sparsity of words was remarkably true to what I saw before me. This was the place alright.
As I feigned interest in the books and looked for all the world as though I were browsing the titles, I couldn’t help noticing that this section was fiction, and dark fiction at that. I wondered what a university library was doing wasting its time with these books. Then I remembered that there were people here doing English Literature degrees and for some reason, I found that I cast an eye around at the people near me to see whether they looked like the sort of people to study such a subject. Very few of them seemed to fit the bill, in fact, I struggled to discern any commonality amongst these earnest readers.
Having checked the walls of the library and risked a few light raps with my knuckles here and there, I came away empty handed. This was a disappointment to me, as was the prospect of months of searching and still coming up empty handed, which was exactly what happened during my first term.
“Well?” asked Jimmy.
We had arranged to meet in a pub near my parents’ house. Just the two of us. I liked that, it felt like I’d arrived at my next destination. What I didn’t like was that I had failed.
“I couldn’t find it,” I told him.
He nodded as though he had expected this exact result, “it takes time and it takes dedication,” he told me, “it’s there though, and it’s a rite of passage to discover it.”
I studied him closely as he said this. He’d found the room. He knew where it was, but he would not give me its location. This was a rite of passage. It was for me to find the room and in so doing I would be closer to being like Jimmy. We would share this secret and the ritual of the secret. We would share knowledge and experiences that few possessed. There was something almost arousing about that. An excitement that was exotic.
Nothing more was said and next term, I launched myself into everything with renewed vigour. I was a force of nature. I had a mission and that meant attending to my studies and my social life with both focus and energy such that I acquitted myself well.
I lived for the mission though. The visits to the library were part of a secret life that I had to keep hidden from my growing band of friends. This became increasingly difficult and I found the only way to keep my cover was to borrow books from that section.
For the first month I managed not to read any of the books I borrowed from the library, but I discovered that people circumvent the unwritten laws of intrusion and so have an annoying habit of asking about the books in another person’s possession. Mainly they ask how the book is. The real issue is when someone has read the book, or at least knows it well enough. And so I began reading the books. Skim reading to begin with, but gradually I slowed down a little and in no time at all I found that there was something quite compelling about the stories in the books that I borrowed.
I felt a little limited and possibly stupid when two weeks before the end of my second term it dawned on me that there may be clues as to the room’s location within the pages of the books in that section. I thought it very likely and so my reading of those books took on another aspect and intensity. It was probably just as well that I had a break looming as I damn near stopped going to lectures as I read book after book seeking a clue as to where the damnable hidden room may be.
“Are you closer to your objective, Alfie?” asked my uncle when we next met at the same pub a term later.
I grinned at him.
“Not her! You dog!” he grinned back at me.
I shook my head, “I’ve had no time for that sort of thing.”
“Ah…” said Jimmy, “so your search is yielding promising results?”
“Not really…” I shrugged.
“But?” he probed.
“I’ve begun reading some of the books,” I studied his face, but it was closed to me, “I figured that having come up empty handed in my investigations of the fabric of the building, the next course of action was to search for clues in the books themselves.”
“A fair assumption,” he conceded.
I asked him if he’d ever read the book I was currently reading. My intent was to glean more from him so I could progress my search, but soon enough we were talking about the book itself and a number of the other titles I had read. We were not short of conversation that evening and the landlord had to encourage us to leave the pub well after everyone else had left.
The next term commenced and I resolved to carry on with my studies and to continue with my social life. This commitment I did stick to, but I have to confess that my studies were somewhat improved by my extra-curricular reading and my social life took an interesting turn when I was told to shush several times as I discussed a book I’d liberated from what I considered to be my shelf with a third year student who had intended to borrow the same book. We agreed to share the book and ended up sharing a great deal more.
And still I read and read, but clues as to where the hidden room was, I did not find.
“What have you discovered my young padawan?” asked my uncle after my first year of university had come to an end.
I nodded in a faux sage manner, “I have discovered a great many worlds and that there are many more worlds to come, master. You sent me to find a hidden room and it was there before me all the while. The room was hidden to me because I did not see it. Now I do.”
He nodded. Then he tapped my pint glass with his own, “cheers.”
I returned his cheers.
“I’m glad,” he said, “but your quest is not at an end.”
I smiled, “I fully understand that Uncs.”
Then, before we talked about the books I had read that term, I told him about my other discovery and showed him photos of Sybil, the third year student who shared my growing love for those library books. There are more than books in a library.
I found that I had missed Bodean Library over the Summer Holidays. I held an affection for the place that had somehow become a part of me. I’d discovered a love of reading and I had discovered love. Upon my return I slipped right back into my exploration of my books and part way through that first term I began to find the clues.
The clues were there, but only if you tried not to look for them. It’s very difficult to explain. You have to know that they are there, but you don’t look directly at them. They have to come to you. I think they came to me because I had reached a level of enjoyment in my reading where I was becoming immersed in the worlds I visited every time I opened the pages and left the confines of the reality surrounding me.
As the clues coalesced, I realised that each and every book I had read from the shelves of the second floor of Bodean Library contained clues. Now, as I became receptive, all of the clues came and found me. I had no need to reread any of the books I had previously borrowed.
Then, one day, as I was selecting my next batch of reading material, I found a dusty old book tucked behind the neat rows I had been visiting for over a year. The book was entitled The Cypher and it changed everything.
A sense of calm overcame me as everything became clear. My quest was almost at an end. All there was left to do was share my discovery with Jimmy.
“You look different,” Jimmy observed as I took a seat right beside him.
“I am,” I told him.
“What has happened?” he asked me, concern etching his face.
“I found it,” I said with a slight smile.
“Found what?” he asked.
“The hidden room.”
Jimmy looked even more concerned, “Alfie… the hidden room… it’s… it’s in your head. It’s in everyone’s head. It’s the part of us that comes alive when we read. It’s… the notion of us becoming more as a result of reading.”
I nodded, “I know, Uncs. And it’s wonderful! Here, let me show you. Let me show you the hidden room inside my head. The one you sent me to find in Bodean Library. It’s so beautiful!”
I took out The Cypher and held it between us.
That was Jimmy’s last word.
His hidden room was quite different from mine.
He wasn’t ready for the room I found…