“In the beginning, there was dust,” Duncan intoned, reading the first line of A Trifling Monograph on the Subject of Library Dust, an attractive little book that had been collecting that very subject on his shelves. He brought it over to his desk and hesitated before the two stacks of books on either side of his computer, the two Martello towers that represented his quandary over what to read and what to sell. He placed it on the left tower, on top of a dusty copy of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, the tower of books to be read. He picked up his cup of tea and walked over to the window.
A foggy Monday morning. It was still foggy. Perhaps Uncle Edward was looking out his windows at a nether sky beneath him, clouds of fog truncating skyscrapers, fingers of fog writing indecipherable messages on brick and glass, blankets of fog hiding wet dark streets leaving the bare grasping upper branches of the tallest trees to form a landscape like a haunted grave yard. In his 53 years he couldn't remember so many foggy days.Was it climate change he wondered. He had hardly been able to see his finger tips at arms length when he had crossed St. Antoine street twenty minutes ago, and, being startled by a bicycle bell—that classic old-fashioned bell he remembered having on his tricycle as a child—he had, for a fraction of a moment, hesitated, not knowing whether to move back or forward. 'He who hesitates is lost', he heard his father say, one adage of many his late father had often dryly pronounced. If it hadn't been for the bicycle bell he might have been dust himself. What had the bicyclist been thinking? His elbow had clipped Duncan and spun him round, and he had heard a muffled curse as he caught sight of the phantom bicycle, enveloped in its own wake turbulence, disappear into the brumous atmosphere. Rubbing his arm, he had continued on his way only to discover, after a few minutes, that he had been walking in the wrong direction. It would be odd, he had thought, if the fog lifted to disclose a completely different reality, an alternative world. One of the future or one of the past, Blade Runner or Bleak House.
It had been fortunate he decided against bringing Hugh to work that day. On Mondays, Duncan liked to arrive early with Hugh at Strand Cordage Ltd. in order to grasp the week by the lapels like Sam Spade dealing with an unruly crook. The time between 7 and 9 were the hours he felt he had a modicum of control over the business week. It was like the calm moments before getting on a roller coaster, the ups, downs and curves inevitably awaiting. He felt there were to be many curves on the horizon.
He sipped his tea and looked out at the vapourous miasma on the other side of his windows, and pondered over what he was going to do with the two businesses he was juggling. Having inherited Strand Cordage after his Father died in 1991, he had decided to move most of the 10,000 books of his Lafcadio & Co. bookshop into the large unused store room on the second floor of the family business, the store room where, as a child, he and his brothers would play among the coils, flats, bales and heady scents of rough and soft fibres imported from such exotic places as the Philippines, Russia, New Zealand, Mauritius, Ireland, Yucatan, Bengal, Belgium and Holland, with strange names like Manila Hemp, Sisal Hemp, Palma Istle, Flax and Jute. They would play pirates and pretend they were aboard ship. There was a climbing rope attached to the ceiling and they would swing on that like dashing swashbucklers, swinging their swords, wooden yard sticks with the business name printed on them. The pine floors creaking, the yard sticks slapping, he could almost hear the sounds. There had been two hammocks his father had fastened near the front windows, and Duncan would often lie there, one leg dangling over the cotton edge, reading an array of adventure books from his Grandfather's collection at the back of the office below, Henty, Marrayat, Ballantyne, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, intermixed with his own gunslinger comic books and the complete Hardy Boys series. He had been a keen reader of western comic books, and yet they were long gone: The Cowboy Kid, Kid Colt, The Apache Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Rawhide Kid. The brothers had shared them till they must have fallen apart. He had not been one for collecting, only reading mattered at the time. He felt that those old comic books had vanished much like the demand for what he had to offer.
Duncan stared at the lustrous fog and thought once more of the papers he had found in his Father's files, an expansion project planned for the early 1970s. A plan to become a manufacturer of rope products, mountaineering and search and rescue ropes, circus and athletic ropes, and specialized marine and aviation ropes. Losing his wife in 1970 had taken the wind out of his Father's sails. The projected expansion had been filed away and never mentioned. Adrift, the business had managed to stay afloat, but only just. The competition overtook Strand Cordage with the slightest of momentum.
He turned his back on the recalcitrant morning. Sometimes he thought he had ruined Amelia's life. If it hadn't been for a dumb waiter in need of repair, they would never have met, and she might have married an engineer or a lawyer, someone who could have easily financed her desires, fulfilled her wishes.
If he could only sell the family business and some of his book stock, he could possibly raise enough to enable Amelia to take that post-graduate course in England she had talked about so often. They could sell up and move. Live in England for a year or so. He closed his eyes thinking he should have sold them both back in 1991. The Internet had been an exciting new prospect for bookselling, and those first ten years were good, but the ebook revolution had dawned with bright force. Becalmed in an era of digital tailwinds, his book business had faltered. More Blade Runner than Bleak House.
He sat at his desk and pushed the computer back. Out of a large deep drawer, he pulled out an old ledger from 1881, the red leather spine drawing lines and shedding small musty fragments on his pale green blotter. It was a somewhat unusual ledger for it had finely marbled endpapers. He had been going through the company's files, interested in the day to day operations. His forebears had been a source for many retailers of the day, the grocers, the dry goods stores, mattress manufacturers, shoe companies, ship builders, fish mongers, spice factors, coffee roasters, stationers, plumbers, printers, newspapers, laundries, florists, flour mills, butchers, glove makers, furniture manufacturers, fruit merchants, awning, tent and carpet manufacturers, and many, many others. Rope, twine, and string were products of necessity.
The last retailer whom Duncan could remember wrapping a package with string was Stuart Grange. An old world ritual. Stuart would first wrap the books in brown Kraft paper and then tie them up, neat packages that felt special when you walked out onto the street with them under your arm. It was as if you had been browsing in a bookshop in the 1880s and emerged to find a bright loud world a century older where plastic bags were ubiquitous. Grange Stuart Books had been a veritable time machine. He missed Stuart and his old shop. When he and Amelia would eat at the Commensale restaurant, he would often look out the window and re-imagine the buildings that had been demolished, buildings that housed an F. W. Woolworth store and Stuart Grange's bookshop among many others. Or had it been a Kresge's store? The buildings had been taken down long ago in order to expand the street and construct a new shopping complex and business tower. Duncan remembered the day he came across Stuart Grange sitting on a street bench facing the new complex and they had sat there reminiscing about the old shop, the old buildings, Stuart pointing with his cane towards the spot where his shop used to be on the upper floors, pointing to open air. They had both agreed that though physically the buildings had vanished like a morning fog, there was still a remnant manifestation that drew them to the spot like a vortex exerting its pull. A black hole of the past. They had sat there seeing themselves moving about in the past, walking on air, phantom walls and books surrounding them. Stuart wrapping a package of books with twine while modern day Montrealers walked beneath his imagined self oblivious to their past.
Duncan also missed his one-eyed cat. An abstraction of ashes in an urn remained. A picture of his cat, he realized now, would have been a better memento mori. The weighty urn had become exceedingly non-representative. It was placed on the shelf to his right where books on the Far East were shelved. Lafcadio was presently propping up The Story of the Geisha Girl by T. Fujimoto, and Japan by Walter Dickson both rather frayed and faded with age, behind which lay many works of fiction, Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Dazai, and more modern practitioners like Murakami. Lafcadio used to enjoy snoozing on the shelves.
Duncan came to the end of the ledger for 1881 and yet there was a facing page with an ink stain in the shape of Sri Lanka, the Serendip of old, like a dark tear drop of an ink God. The paper seemed to be older and of a completely different type. He lifted the volume and looked through the page and could see an edge of an old watermark. Turning the page over he came to a blank page, and he continued to turn a few more pages until he found a half page of printed text, upside down. He fanned the pages and realized the last section of the ledger was made up of old paper signatures bound-in upside down. Turning the book over he opened it from the wrong end and came to a half-title page with a finely written inscription in purple ink.
© ralph patrick mackay