18. The βookstore.

Ít was the last day of my Christmas holiday. Being religious to a minimum for any faith, the idea of holidays have always been ever so enthralling. The four day holiday was to be occupied with the action of painting the walls of our humble little house for a refreshing ambiance but also it was necessary. The action of the program had ended this afternoon and the house was becoming with the brightness of the new layer of paint.  We were set for a fresh start the new coming year.

I left the house at about 3:00p.m. to simply have a cigarette. I hadn’t had a cigarette in all day. I grabbed my dark jeans, slipped into my Chuck IIs and didn’t bother to change my sweater. I hung my loved camera; the Olymups EM5 Mrk II, over my right shoulder and I was out.

I called a friend who was in Bangalore, then I called another in Bombay. As we spoke, I walked, smoking cigarettes in intervals.

I wanted to visit this place that I had walked into accidentally a few months back. This was my third attempt to find it. I hadn’t a clue where it was. This place was close by, but in the thick of the confabulation, I had already walked two districts away from home.

By the time I put down my phone, I was walking somewhere around Mid-Levels in Central. I knew where I was and decided to visit the vicinity of our first home in Hong Kong. It had been over a decade and a half.

I wasn’t thrown back to the past, it wasn’t even nostalgia. I was simply there to see, and of what I could remember I could find it all there, hardly changed. I stepped off the famous escalators in Mid-Levels which has stood through time and rain. I stood as close as ten meters from the shiny little gate that would if opened show the concrete stairway right up to the top floor where I had once lived an innocent life. Standing there I imagined the view from the terrace; you could see The Center standing with all its dignity against light and shadow, and you would feel that mighty eminence of its divine architecture. I had loved that building with awe and I realized that that feeling had not changed in over sixteen years. From where I stood, I could only see the top of The Center and the Upper half of the International Financial Centre amongst the concrete jungle. The two stood out like Teak in an orchard of Pines.

“τhe two stood out like Teak in an orchard of Pines”.

I decided to reach to the very top of the escalators. I knew the bottom of it so well, but now I was old enough to face the wind at the top. I had never seen the source of the metallic river, that escorted men, women and children transporting them a distance difficult to achieve without its existence. I felt my body lifted to an altitude, the sense of height that I had never reached before that decision. I escalated upwards.

It took a while to get to the top. I felt I had dropped the warm ensconcing covers warping me to safety and comfort. I felt light and bare, and walked towards uncharted territory needing no courage. Within the next five minutes of walking, I hadn’t a clue where I was. The sense of losing myself to the city was magnificently enchanting. Although I had a decent idea to which direction I should move towards, I found myself with my head thrown back and walking aimlessly enjoying the sight of walls, gates, trees and the sparse moving clouds. I realized it was a lovely day to practice photography. The light was soft and there were so many things I could shoot to capture, instead, I switched off the camera which was still switched on, ready in standby mode. I just knew one thing then, I had to live that.

I became a tourist, discovering not the place but myself. I was immensely aware, and deflected any thought that tried to enter my aura. I felt I should at least feel slightly tired from all the activities of the day, but decided I wasn’t, and instead felt invigorated. I didn’t feel any gush of adrenaline or motivation, or even a reaction to the environment. I noticed it was cold and the wind was in my hair, ruffling it to its desire. Clearly I was not dressed for the weather but that did not seem to matter. I lost my sense of style, my attitude, my walk and, when I realized that, I saw myself walking tall on the pavement. I became the wind, the lamp-post, the tree or the obstructed view at unpredictable intervals and yet I knew I was me, completely.

For a moment I thought about food or something to drink, but before I could assure myself of that, I lost the thought intentionally. I was now walking downwards on a smooth inclined road with twists and turns that made me feel like Alice in Wonderland. This whole time it had not felt like I was in the city, let alone a city as crowded such as Hong Kong. The streets were almost empty, I had noticed so few vehicles, no loud chattering or laughter, in fact, I don’t even remember hearing my own footsteps. I did once observe the rustling of leaves when the wind shook the tree in front of me. The sound of which drowned my eardrums, as well as my imagination.

I still hadn’t a clue to where I was headed and now I had lost my sense of direction too, when suddenly I passed by a bookstore in the middle of the street out of nowhere. There were no shops or anything colourful, the entire lane was as still as a photograph, just walls and foot-walls of buildings down the slope. It was so peculiar, that suddenly I noticed a series of four tall windows on a street wall with books stacked halfway up the windowpanes and all there was to advertise its existence was an oval hanging signboard with the words ‘Books & Co’ painted on it. I took two steps back and found a wooden transom door below the signboard. As I pushed it open, a bell above it jingled.

A lady wearing an apron stood there welcoming me, almost in confusion. A moment later it came to my attention that it was I who was confused. The door had closed shut and the reminiscent of the bell’s ring remained in the unaltered silence.
I turned to her and asked, “Do you have any books in English?”
I saw her look at me and hesitantly I added, “Novels?”
Her eyes seemed to recollect and then she most confidently struck out the words from her mouth, “Fiction‽”
“Yes, please.” I answered.

She showed me the area section, from which I could find what I hadn’t known yet what I was searching for, but I looked anyway, almost frantically and filled with feelings of a rush as though I had to find a certain book within a set limit time. The first book I saw and recognized was ‘The Secret’, it was a Chinese edition and I smiled to myself. I knew I was in the right place and that I had all the time to not search for anything.

This book store was pleasantly peculiar. It wasn’t anything like your public library or those exclusively astounding massive bookstores where you can find any given book. It was an ordinary bookstore, the kind you don’t usually find in a city as commercial as this. There were four small column-shelf with books and in between those columns were books stacked up to the height of my hip. Perpendicular to the columns stretched a long single row of a shelf with books overflowing on both sides and on top. The wall where the transom door opened, too, had a cabinet with tens of books stacked on top of each other. Towards the inside were a few tables and chairs. Soft music played in the background. The choice of music was obviously inspired out of the spirit of the season, more so,  there was a Christmas tree built out of books and ornaments and lights, which I noticed much later. The lady with the apron was kind and smiled when we crossed paths. There was a man who was working and it seemed to me that it was their business and that they could be Husband and Wife. I thought that that thought was romantic. It made me smile. There were two other people in the room, both girls, both customers.

I spotted ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ written by the great Alexandre Dumas. He had been my favorite author in the sixth grade when we read The Three Musketeers for English Literature. I had loved reading The Count of Monte Cristo when I was in the tenth grade, for my leisure. It had pictures on alternative sides illustrating the story, and was rather thin than the one I held at the time. I was baffled when I saw the price of the book was only thirty dollars. I had to pick it up. I advanced with short steps toward the counter to make payment but when the lady with the apron approached me halfway intending to help me out with business, I signaled her that I should like to take some time to skim through the rest of the store. A moment later I was before her again, dreading the fact that after I make payment I would be obligated to leave, but before I could tell her that I should like to pay, she asked, “Would you like to have something to drink?”.
I saw that I could choose to stay there a while longer. I answered, “Yes, I would like to have some tea, please.”
She asked, “Do you want Earl Grey Tea or Chinese tea?”
I smiled my practiced smile that exhibits innocence, obliviousness and carefree spirit, I answered, “I’d like to try the Chinese tea, thank you.”
Apparently, Chinese tea too has its types and names and she helped me pick one in measurement of the strength of the tea leaves. I chose the stronger one.

I sat by the last window, ensconced between the last column of books and the Christmas tree made out of love. I placed the camera on the table together with the pack of cigarettes and my cellular phone. I visited the loo and when I got back to the table, the book was settled on the table by the side of my belongings, waiting for my authoritative touch. I began reading and a pot of tea and a cup both made of porcelain arrived no sooner.
I asked her, “What time do you close?” as it was already 5:15p.m.
She replied, “We will close at seven.”
We made a short small talk and I attempted to speak the few words I knew in Cantonese. Her English was very good, clean grammar and a clear accent.

The Chinese tea was not extraordinary and neither was the first chapter of the book. It was a little past 6:00p.m., before I proceeded to leave I said my goodbye to her and told her I would like to visit again. We exchanged Christmas greetings and with the jingle of the doorbell, I was out once again.

I still had no clue as to which direction I was supposed to go. I had little option as the only viable thing to do was walk down as I was doing before I stopped at “BOOKS & CO”. I had to hurry home as my beloved mother needed me at home for a specific purpose that required my presence. However, hardly two minutes after stepping out into the wind and walking downwards, I recognized the place and knew exactly where I was. I was back in my home district, potentially 10 minutes away from my house!

I was glad to have recognized the place and no longer worried about the route to return to the store for my next visit. But, as soon as I had realized where I was, the streets were scattered with people walking around, crossing roads, holding hands, smiling. Cars were halted at the traffic signal while the other lane had a busy road. Almost like time has ceased to stop and went ticking on rampantly. The noise had returned without any welcome.

On my way back home I thought that the book store could be the kind of place where miracles could take place, or like how in  movies or in short stories the protagonist walks into a store as such and walks out with a magical story that follows. I funnily believe something of that nature happened and of course not as dramatic. Only it happened just the other way around. Where usually the unusual story begins, mine ended without realizing a story had begun and finished.

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