The Bookcase by Steve J. Haywood
I lived in an ordinary semi-detached house in a regular suburban neighbourhood. There was nothing out of the ordinary about me, my house, or the neighbourhood; in most respects my life was routine, even dull. What I did have, though, was a magic bookcase. There was no hidden door in the back that led to Narnia, however, and it didn't come alive and talk to me at night. It was full of ordinary books, my books. Except, occasionally, a new book would appear from nowhere. Even that was just an normal book; there were no magic spells in it, and it wasn't a monster book like that one with the teeth from Harry Potter. It was just a book. A book that Bookcase thought I should read.
I first got Bookcase when I was twelve years old. We'd just moved house, and I'd got a much bigger bedroom than the box room I'd had in the old place. I needed some new furniture to make it not look like a big empty space, so my mum and dad took me to the local antiques center. The word antique was probably being a bit charitable to the place, which was basically just full of bric-a-brac and old furniture that no one wanted. Bookcase was half buried in a corner behind a stack of grubby old dining chairs. It was made of a dark mahogany with fancy carved edges and an inlaid gold-leaf pattern that had half worn off. It looked old. Like, really old. It was a bit scuffed around the edges too, and there were those brown tea-ring stains on the top, which perhaps explained why it was seeing out its twilight years in a dingy saleroom in the back end of nowhere. Despite its flaws, I loved it straight away, maybe in part because the first book from my favorite series—Lord of the Rings—was sat solitarily on the top shelf. Did Bookcase know me even then? Was it calling out to me?
At first, I thought it was my dad leaving the books on the bookshelf as a little joke. He did used to buy me books occasionally, particularly after he'd been away with work. When I confronted him about it though, he didn't have a clue what I was talking about.
The first book it introduced me to, not long after I’d brought it home, was The Spook’s Apprentice, a book about a boy apprenticed to a witch finder. It was set in my native Lancashire, sort of, only twisted and dark. Next, the bookcase introduced me to other fantasy authors, including Robert Jordan and Raymond Feist. One day it even had the first Game of Thrones book (which was long before the TV series). Bookcase sated my desire for epic fantasy and even seemed to know when I was starting to get bored of those types of books - almost before I did myself. When I was fourteen it presented me with Foundation by Isaac Asimov and opened up a whole new world of science fiction. A ton of great authors followed, from classic names like Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin, to more contemporary writers like Alastair Reynolds, Iain Banks, and Gregory Benford.
I puzzled over how it worked for a long time and had many theories. Was there a portal to some sort of secret library? Was it magic or technology? I even wondered for a time whether there was some sort of hidden book printing mechanism built in, a high-tech micro 3D printer (I had a wild imagination in those days). I inspected it thoroughly over the years, but found no hidden mechanism.
I couldn't answer the what or the how but was equally vexed by the why. Why me? Were there others like it? I'd never heard or read about such a thing before, but maybe it was something people didn't talk about—I certainly hadn't told anyone about it for fear they'd think I was crazy. Then, on one of my periodic inspections of Bookcase, I came across something that didn't answer the question, not straight away, but that created more questions in my mind. I discovered the bottom shelf was slightly loose; I gave it a slight twist and tug, and it came free in my hand. On the underside of the shelf were a series of carvings in the wood, mostly sequences of letters. Were these the markings of its previous owners perhaps? There was “WW MDCCCI,” another said “BOZ MDCCCLI,” and then there was “AL MDCCCXV.” These looked like initials followed by a date. Several had years in numeric format after the names—the most recent was ”RF 1954.”
I puzzled over these for ages, running my fingers over the soft grooves, as if this action would magically impart the answers to my questions: Who were these people, and how was I like them? The next morning, I had the means to find the answer, to the first question at least, when another book appeared on the shelf: Who's Who of Famous Britons, published by Faber. A shiver went up my spine; it knew what I was doing. I scanned through the contents and first found WW—William Wilberforce, politician and leader of the campaign to abolish slavery. MDCCCI was the Roman numeral for 1801, when Wilberforce would have been forty-one. Then there was Ada Lovelace, Victorian mathematician and pioneer of computing; Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts; C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books (I loved those at primary school). I puzzled over Boz, but Wikipedia told me that Boz was a pen name of Charles Dickens, which matched up with the date.
Could this even be real? Could Bookcase have belonged to all these famous people, or was it a joke of some sort, a hoax? If it was real, why did I have it now? I was a nobody, I wasn't like them. Unless. . . I suppose they were once nobody too, until they achieved success, fame, and their names in the history books. Could I be destined for greater things?
Over the years, I tried to research the bookcase's previous owners. I read everything I could about them - I searched online, I borrowed books about them from the library, and even asked my teachers at school - but there was never so much as a hint of a magical bookcase. On a rare visit to London, I convinced my parents to take me to the Charles Dickens house. I don't know what I was hoping to find, but I was disappointed. I asked the volunteers about what would have happened to Charles Dickens's bookcases, but they just shrugged. Despite not finding anything, I became increasingly convinced of the veracity of the initials, and almost equally convinced that I was destined for some future greatness too, though I hadn't a clue what.
Bookcase didn't always give me books to read. Around exam time they dried up, which made me continue to suspect my parents for a long time. And after it had introduced me to a series, it would invariably go quiet for a while, allowing me to devour the rest of the books in the series from the local library. Don't judge me for this, but it would get to the point where I'd start talking to Bookcase about, well, books, and what I thought of them. It was like my imaginary friend, a made-up literary chum. I was way too old for an imaginary friend, but it was magic after all. Maybe it was a genie, like in the tale of Aladdin. Except rather than spending eternity inside a lamp, it was in a bookcase. Bookcase never did talk back, though; it just listened quietly. I'm sure it did listen, because sometimes, just sometimes, it would serve up a book I asked for. It was fickle, though, not like buying from Amazon, where you can order at 11:00 p.m. and the courier will wake you up with your purchase the next morning.
Sometimes, it was eerily prescient. One day in the early summer of my sixteenth year, a book appeared called What Smart Teenagers Know . . . About Dating, Relationships and Sex. I was so embarrassed I hid it immediately underneath the bed, just in case my mum came in and saw it. It wasn't like I was going to need it anytime soon; my spotty, bespectacled face and nerdy personality hardly made me a hot-girl magnet. Several days later though, I met the girl of my dreams. It was at the Sport4All Summer School my parents forced me to attend so they could go to work—I objected to this on the grounds that I was old enough to stay at home on my own for the day, but my entreaty fell on deaf ears. I hated it. Sport was really, really not my thing. I was always the last one picked for a team and usually embarrassed myself with my lack of sporting prowess at least a couple of times a day. So whenever I could, I'd sit out a game and read instead. Lizzie obviously thought the same; when I saw her, she was sat in a corner reading Judy Blume (not an author Bookcase had introduced me too). Lizzie wasn't what you'd call classically beautiful, but I loved her dimpled cheeks, her slightly lopsided smile, and the freckles sprinkled on her face like stardust.
Our whirlwind teenage romance lasted the summer and no more, but it firmly cemented in my mind the idea that girls could join books in the short column of things I rather liked and wouldn't mind more of, thank you very much. The point was, though, how did Bookcase know? Was it a coincidence, a lucky guess, or did it really know the future?
That question would soon be answered in a most horrible fashion. One day, a week before my sixteenth birthday, a book appeared called Tear Soup. This was not like anything I'd read before. I looked at the subtitle: “A Recipe for Healing After Loss.” I felt a chill go right through me. I hadn't lost anyone. How could Bookcase have gotten this so wrong? It turns out it hadn't. Two days later, my mum and dad called me downstairs looking grave. My best friend Max had just been killed: run over by a lorry while crossing the road near his house. I can't even begin to describe how I felt. Long before I got to grief, I felt anger. Anger at the world, at the lorry driver who hadn't been paying attention, and angry at Bookcase. “How could you!” I screamed at it, hammering my fists against the unyielding wood. I blamed it, as though it had caused this, and right then wanted to chop it up for firewood.
I still haven't got over losing my friend; the loss of him ripped the heart and soul out of my childhood. I did eventually stop blaming Bookcase though. As it turned out, Tear Soup - when I finally managed to bring myself to read it - was helpful. After that, suitably chastised as I liked to think of it, Bookcase gave me safe, easy reads for a while: fantasy to escape into and thrillers to keep the pages turning and stopping me thinking too much. My parents were really worried about me, cooped up in my room every hour I wasn't in school, but reading really helped dull the pain.
One day a book turned up that was so slim I almost missed it. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome was, I found out from the back cover, a classic of Victorian literature. I nearly threw it straight in the bin in disgust—I'd suffered the torment of Jane Eyre already at school and was not ready for a punishment beating at the hands of another “classic.” They do say, however, that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and Bookcase hadn't wrong-footed once; it knew what I liked or needed. So, on a rainy Saturday morning, when it was too wet to venture out to the library and I had nothing else to read, I reluctantly picked it up. The adventures of Harris, George, J, and Montmorency the dog was a hilarious read, which I consumed in its entirety by lunchtime. My mother was rather surprised when she asked me what I was reading - and a bit impressed I think.
Three Men in a Boat marked a turning point in my reading, and while I didn't entirely turn my back on my first love of science fiction and epic fantasy, I started to read other books that really opened up new worlds for me. I did read some other Victorian classics (including Dickens), but, led as ever by the all-knowing Bookcase, quickly found that 20th-century literature was more my thing. I read Graham Greene, John le Carré, and Kingsley Amis, as well as fell in love with the works of John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and other great American writers. Had Bookcase just introduced me to these authors for my enjoyment, or was there something more? Was my destiny to be a great novelist, perhaps the next Dickens?
If Three Men in a Boat marked a turning point in my reading, it was the arrival of The Hungry Student Cookbook a few days before my A-level results that marked a major turning point in my life. It also heralded a kind of enforced separation. I tried to convince my parents I needed to take Bookcase with me—that it was an essential item for any dedicated student—but my entreaties fell on deaf ears, and anyway, it would never have fit into my father's Ford Focus with all my other belongings. So regrettably, we went our separate ways for a while; there was always a book waiting for me when I came back for the holidays though, and three at Christmas.
After university, there was still no sign of any fame, fortune, or great destiny. I trained to become a high school English teacher, found the woman of my dreams (for real this time, not just for the summer), and was happily married soon after. When we moved into our marital home, she was a bit skeptical about the rather shabby Bookcase, which I insisted move in with us, but she humored me in the end. I never did tell her Bookcase was magic. At first, I suspected she'd think I was a nutter, leave me, and never come back; later, it was just never the right time.
Over time, the books became less and less frequent, and until last week, I hadn't had one in over a year. Perhaps it thought that by now I could find my own books to read. On Thursday last week, however, I came home from work to find What to Expect When You’re Expecting. And when the next day my wife sat me down and informed me she had something important to tell me, I knew exactly what she was going to say.
With the birth of my daughter, Jilly, the cycle is complete. Bookcase's final gift was Astro Bunnies, a cute picture book about bunnies in space that I love reading to Jilly. I think it was trying to tell me something, so the next day I moved it into the nursery. It was a hard thing to admit, but our journey together had run its course. I apparently had no great destiny; I was merely a temporary custodian of Bookcase. I looked down at Jilly, sleeping contentedly in her basket, my childhood fantasies finally abandoned, and realized that was just fine with me.