I poked my head inside the unlit doorway of the bookstore. Its sandwich board, which should have been displayed on the pavement, was discarded haphazardly beside the trolley of discount books and calendars piling atop the center island within the foyer. My children sheltered beside it, finishing their dripping ice-blocks.
Anyone there?” I called into the gloom within.
The owner, a lurching, hunched over, disheveled form, crept from the dim back recesses of the store, shaky and shrouded, only mildly curious about the summons.
“Oh yes” he called in a feathery, uncommitted voice.
I glanced behind me: “Come on kids. Finish up. Come inside.”
They very slowly did so, one depositing their wrapper in the bin outside, the other pinching their slimy foil between their fingers and parading it through the shop before stuffing it noiselessly into my handbag.
“Throw it away” I scolded. Too late. My boy slunk off, lost in his own shadows in the back corner of the store.
The owner, by now, had shuffled to the velvet couches in the center of the shop. He sat precariously on the edge of one, his back to us, his pink, mottled skin hidden beneath a halo of dank brown hair, combed flat to his face and speckled with large flakes of moistened dandruff. He wore a high collared navy-blue velvet jacket buckled like an eighteenth century sailor, complete with vintage pocket watches that dangled from several chains linked somewhere beneath his lapels.
“You alright browsing there?” he bleated with eyes averted, shoulders hunched, his large bony hands hugging his knees as he rocked back and forth between the sofa and the coffee table.
“Yes thanks” I answered automatically, hoping to deflect any more attention. He did not seem to be in a good sort of way.
There were so many titles to explore, stacked in rows, towers and shabby piles in random corners everywhere. There was barely room to walk or turn. How could such a ramshackle fellow carry so much stock? There was a fortune of words in here!
"In the not too distant future, hard copy books will be a luxury, if they are not already" I mused.
The owner ignored me so I lowered my gaze to the spines of several books in the art section.
“Hello - how old are you?” I heard him ask after a minute, in a slightly more chipper voice, as my young daughter edged toward the children’s section, trying but failing to pass his sofa unnoticed.
“What?” she asked, stalling in her journey.
“How old are you, Darling?” I encouraged, averting my gaze but remaining alert. I was trying to put her at ease by demonstrating my trust in the stranger. He wasn’t close enough to hurt her, after all. And he was local.
“Eight” she announced.
“Ahh” he pronounced, as though a great riddle had been solved. His voice was brighter, stronger.
She shuffled forward slightly, skirting the sofas in an effort to retain her distance from him.
“You’ll be looking for that section, then. Right there” he instructed, pointing her toward the tall row of shelves a few paces forward. As it meant moving away from him, she followed his advice.
“Oh good” I exclaimed, closing my own gap to her.
“Is that Roald Dahl?” she asked and pointed to the top shelf.
“Yes - we have many. Roald Dahls, that is” he announced, quite loud now.
“Which one do you want?” I asked, coming to her aid.
“All of them” she replied, now fully engaged in the search for a good, readable book.
“You’ve got a few of those” I noted. “Just browse through and see which ones you don’t have”.
Meanwhile, my son was sleuthing around the nick-knacks and toys section in the dark rear corner of the store. He struck upon a dart board nailed to the toilet door. He fiddled with a couple of darts that protruded from the cork, causing them to fall to the floor.
“What’s your name” the shop owner all but bellowed toward him now.
“Griffin” my son answered steadily. Beautiful - strong, clear pronunciation. I could tell he was not in the mood to shirk contact as he often is. Perhaps something about this fellow intrigued him.
“Monty” the man said. He stood and shuffled in his stooped and jumbling way toward my son, holding his large hand out to be shaken. Remarkably, my son met his stare (as Monty's gaze wandered and ducked constantly) and gripped his hand firmly to introduce himself.
They both paused and did that ‘eyeball of respect’ that men often do, sizing each other up, though in this case, I believe it was the meeting of two kindred souls, oddballs, finding a welcome familiarity in each other, despite age and appearance, my son being young, blond and handsome (some would say pretty) with clear eyes and a tall youthful swagger to his gorgeous snake hipped form. On a good day, he is the picture of gentle vitality. In contrast, although Monty might be gentle, he seemed far from vital in appearance.
I neared them both, again careful not to scrutinize their exchange too closely. I didn't want to offend the man who'd offered my son this boon, nor signal to my son that I didn't trust his own assessment of the situation. In the relative comfort of the bookstore, I wanted him to explore his independence and his own judgments about people (notwithstanding my own misgivings in the moment).
“And how old are you, then?” Monty shuffled around the toy table, lifting things and replacing them, appearing baffled and comically out of sorts. His tall form drifted toward the stock room as he nervously patted his hair and his pockets, apparently anxious about the very space he occupied in that moment.
“Ten” declared my son.
“You’ll be wanting to look at that shelf, then” he informed him, pointing towards the young adult section. My cursory inspection of the titles produced the suspicion that he would only find teenage romance and sci-fi adventure series marketed primarily toward girls.
“Do you have any books that are about horses, but which are directed towards boys, not girls?” I asked. My son hung back, finding a shadow - prepared to sink into it - awaiting his reply.
“Ah - No. But it’s a shame. That’s a real hole in the market” he said thoughtfully.
“Well, so many of the best riders are men. I can’t imagine how they ever got there, considering they receive so little encouragement” I complained.
“Do you ride?” he demanded of my son. I continued browsing nearby.
“Yes!” he declared forcefully. Another unusual moment - he was prepared to reveal something of himself to this stranger.
For some reason, Monty set my son at ease, and I do believe something about the children ‘brought out’ this frail, fidgeting character as well. Perhaps it was the ability of children to suspend their judgment, as my son was clearly doing.
“I rode” Monty announced. “Oh yes. Back in the day, I belonged to the Howick Pony Club. Before they turned it into a car park and a supermarket” he lamented. “As they are want to do. But anyway...”
I glanced at him and smiled. It was all the encouragement he needed.
“Oh yes. There were 600 members of the Howick Pony Club. And only two were boys” he proclaimed, almost giddy, falling to the sofa and holding himself steady with one hand.
“That’s a shame” I muttered, eyes averted. My daughter was browsing another section of books. I tried to foist the Beatrix Potter series onto her, but she shook her head silently and frowned. Obviously, she had outgrown them.
“Ah yes. The tack room - that was a wonderful place” he mused, a slightly filthy insinuating tone creeping into his voice.
“Oh” I frowned and turned away, picking up the first book I could reach. It was Prince Caspian from the Chronicles of Narnia.
“Is this the first in the series?” I deftly turned the topic.
Monty lurched up from the sofa and inched closer. He scrunched up his bulbous eyes, bloodshot and downcast, and took the book from my hands to inspect the inside cover.
“Ah yes, Prince Caspian. Narnia. It’s the third in the series.”
“But do you have to read the books in order?” I asked, turning away and pretending to browse another shelf.
“No no. You can read them however you like” he guffawed, his shoulders jerking with mock outrage. Or idiocy. It was hard to tell.
Meanwhile, my son had returned to the dartboard and begun to play with the small spiked darts that stabbed the board and littered the floor.
“What are you doing there?” Monty called across the table loaded with toys, again fidgeting with them absently.
Another dart fell to the floor and my son dodged it with a small yelp.
“Ah. You’ve found my darts I see” declared the willowy owner.
Though he was thin, stooped and disheveled, he had the unmistakable air of a ‘Pied Piper’. There was a certain charm about him. A sort of despicable drunken chivalry and intelligence, I do believe he was, towards children at least, a gentleman, and therefore quite a rarity. He mozied over to my son, who promptly surrendered the darts to Monty's outstretched hand.
“Do you play darts? Are you good?” the owner probed.
“Yes I play” Griffin asserted.
“Do you, honey?” I queried doubtfully.
“Yes, at my neighbors” he retorted, announcing their name for clarity.
“Oh yes” I apologized with a frown.
“Alright. I’ll give you the Ten Percenter, then” Monty dared playfully.
“What’s that?” Griffin asked.
“The 10% challenge. If you win, you get 10% off anything you buy in the store today.”
“Alright” Griffin agreed. “You first” he offered.
“No - what?”
“You first” offered Griffin again.
This perplexed the shop owner.
“Good strategy, Son” I commended him.
The shop owner was still put out. His routine was evidently interrupted: “No no. You go. Now stand behind that line. Yes that one” he said, pointing at an imaginary line on the floor across the children’s section, opposite the toilet door. “You get three darts. Three goes. That’s all. The best score wins.”
“OK” agreed Griffin. His face blushed slightly with the effort of concentrating, and the embarrassment of being a spectacle, and the anxiety of being under pressure to perform. But he threw his dart firm and straight.
“Seventeen!” yelled Monty, startling us all.
“Good boy” I called from a bookshelf, very busily not noticing their competition.
My daughter, meanwhile, was standing close by the boys, watching raptly. Griffin took aim and released another dart. A dull thud echoed soundly through the shop.
“Oh” sighed Griffin. “I was going for seventeen again.”
“Oh, well” clipped Monty. “Last one.”
Griffin released the third and final dart. A rather shrill rattle echoed around, followed by a clang and a dull thud as the dart hit the carpet below the toilet door.
“And that’s a zero. Sorry. Seventeen is your total” declared the shop owner.
“OK - your turn” Griffin reminded him.
The shopkeeper seemed surprised. Honestly, did he forget? “Oh. Alright.” He stood straighter and hop skipped to the dart board, grabbing the darts then returning to the imaginary line.
“Wow” exclaimed Griffin. Direct hit evidently. I wasn’t watching so I couldn’t be sure.
“Ohh!” both Griffin and his sister breathed.
“You’re good” Griffin complimented him.
“Well. Yes” said Monty. Evidently.
Thwack. Another bullseye.
“Sorry. You lost!” declared the shop keeper. “You failed to win the Ten Percenter today.”
“Never mind, Babe. Thanks for trying” I offered Griffin. He smiled sheepishly and wandered away from the children’s section.
A few other people came into the shop and Monty responded to their query, searching the computer for a particular title they requested. Griffin browsed the titles I had selected, affirming he would endeavor to read them all. When the browsers were gone, Monty shuffled over to the toilet door, which doubled as an office foyer it seemed.
“Better turn some music on, then” he admitted wearily. “You like music?” he asked Griffin who sidled toward the sofas.
“What kind of music do you like?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Rock” Griffin surmised.
We were on our way to his guitar lesson shortly: “Griffin is learning guitar” I revealed proudly.
I neglected to mention his sister learns piano, guitar and violin and will take up the drums next year. I see her as a sort of ‘Animal’ character from ‘The Muppets’- wild, frenzied and unrestrained in her musical dexterity and genius. She dances the same way.
Monty took a sharp breath in: “Guitar! Really?”
“Yeah” he grunted.
“Well. Oh. But -” He had the art of disheveled, discombobulated surprise and bewilderment down pat. It really worked to add emphasis. He began to point to a basket next to the sofa, which indeed held a guitar. He strode over and lifted it for exclamation. “I have a guitar! What - what do you play? Do you play anything?”
“Well, play something” Monty commanded.
“OK” agreed Griffin, sitting in one of the armchairs, reaching for the guitar.
“Oh. Wait” said Monty, reaching for the same. “Just - let me check that its tuned” he said, sitting in the next arm chair along in the row. Monty began to strum some chords.
“Harmonics” noted Griffin.
“Well - what? - yes! Harmonics” agreed Monty, sparking up a song. He sang in a shrill, Bob Dylanesque way, his thin voice hanging in the air like the rainbow sheen left on a mirror after too much cleaning solution has been applied, all streaky and sharp and shimmering reflection.
“Cool” said Griffin.
“Do you sing” Monty asked.
“No” Griffin shook his head.
“What? Why? Well - do you speak? Can you talk?” Monty demanded, brow furrowed, all consternation.
“Yes” Griffin guffawed.
“So you can sing!” Monty exclaimed. “It’s all the same thing. It’s just a voice. It doesn’t matter how you sound. You just sing!”
‘Uh - OK” said Griffin.
Monty handed him the guitar and he strummed a few chords of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ - it had been on his mind recently.
“Tracy Chapman. Alright!” said Monty. “OK.”
Griffin strummed a few more chords of another song, Metalica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’.
“I don’t know the words” he said, apologizing.
“That’s alright. It’s good” Monty encouraged Griffin.
Griffin smiled and handed the guitar back, then got up and shuffled away. He began to browse the bookshelves nonchalantly, as though he wasn’t, in fact, almost officially hanging out with this guy by now.
“So. What. Are you guys just hanging around in Devonport?” Monty asked. He'd stood up and begun shuffling books and papers around at the counter, doing nothing in particular but trying to look busy as well.
“Yeah” said Griffin.
Tigerlily maintained her silent vigil next to her brother. Watching, always watching.
“Why aren’t you in school?” Monty probed.
“They’re home-schooled” I summarized. Griffin was still nervous about offering that explanation. He felt he might get in trouble for being out and about during school hours in situations like this.
“Oh well! I’m gonna School You, Homey!” chanted Monty, leaping around the counter and lurching toward the coffee table.
Upon it stood two different chess sets and three packs of cards. In his haste, he caught Tigerlily unaware and she was sort of cornered closest to him in between the sofas.
“Do you like magic? What’s your name?” he demanded of her.
“Tigerlily” she mumbled, half scared out of her wits by his entire persona.
“What?” he coughed, indicating he hadn’t heard or couldn’t make out what she’d said.
“TIGERLILY” she all but shouted at him.
“Oh. I see” he nodded. “Tigerlily. Well, do you like magic?” he once again demanded to know.
“Yes” she nodded cautiously.
“Well - come on” he waved her over.
Griffin migrated back to the sofas while Tigerlily found a way to circumnavigate the coffee table without getting anywhere near him. She slowly backed into the arm chair next to Griffin, using her calves as a guide, all the while maintaining her careful focus on the stranger.
“Go on. Sit down. I’ll give you a magic show. Shall I? Do you want to see a magic trick?”
“Yes!” they both agreed. For probably the first time in 15 minutes, Monty turned to me.
“Sorry - do you have five minutes?” he asked, but turned again to complete his performance before I had a chance to answer. This time, I felt I had been invited to share and so milled around to stand behind the children and watch the show.
“Alright. Tigerlily? Tigerlily! Pick a card, any card” he instructed her, spreading the cards out face down across the coffee table. He'd moved a marble chess set to one side and it balanced with the precarious tenacity of an Alfred Hitchcock movie-prop on top of a tower of small novels beside the table.
"Please don’t knock it’ I prayed to myself. I wasn't sure I could predict how this erratic, spontaneous, highly strung man would cope if it fell.
Tigerlily pulled a card from the pack.
“Now - don’t show me!” he commanded. “Look at the card. But keep it hidden!”
Tiggy revealed the two of clubs from an Alice in Wonderland pack that featured the Cheshire Cat as the Joker. It wasn't memorable, but it wasn't mistakable either.
“Got it?” he asked.
“Ok. Now put it back in the pack. There you go” he accepted the card on top of a half pack pile and then joined the piles together to form the complete pack again. It seemed to me the card disappeared into the middle of the pack. Then he handed the pack to Griffin.
“Now - shuffle them. Go on! Just shuffle them any old how” he insisted.
Griffin fiddled a bit, separating them and stacking them and trying to blend them together in a clam shell fashion.
“Don’t worry. I had small hands once too” Monty acknowledged.
Griffin dropped a few cards and finally collected them all together and handed them back to Monty. He laid them all out on the table in a series of four crosses or ‘flowers’ as he called them.
“Now. Tigerlily. Pick a flower” he instructed her.
She pointed to one. He took all the cards away and gave them, along with the remainder of the pack, to Griffin again.
“No no. You don’t have to shuffle them now. They are just gone. Rubbish” he declared.
Griffin’s alarm was growing. Tigerlily’s humour was conversely improving.
“Now, pick another flower” he instructed her.
She pointed again and he removed that flower also. Only two remained, each with four cards.
“Which one now?” he asked her.
“That one” she pointed.
“What? That one-what?” he grew agitated and confused/alarmed, doing that sort of John Cleesey high-pitched double-take maneuver. “Are you sure? You want to keep that one? Oh no - wait - you want to get rid of it?” he nodded, prompting her to his line of thinking.
“Yes” she mumbled, agreeing with whatever would work best for Monty.
Monty removed the fourth flower, keeping the third.
“Now. Point to a card.”
Monty removed it and handed it to Griffin.
“Point to another” he said.
The tension in the shop was thick like butter. The room seemed to have shrunk to the size of our little sofa circle, and truly, nothing existed beyond it. It was us. And the cards. Nervously, Tigerlily pointed to another card.
Monty removed it. Gave it to Griffin.
“One more” he demanded.
She chose a final card, and he handed it to Griffin.
“Now put them all away” he commanded.
Griffin held them all behind his back. Only one card remained on the table, facing downwards.
“Now Tigerlily - do you remember your card?”
“Yes” she answered.
“What was it?” he asked her.
“The two of clubs” yelled Griffin, completely taken by the trick.
I myself was eager to see the face of the last card lying downward on the table.
“Is that it?” asked Monty, pointing to the card.
Griffin and Tigerlily both reached to turn over the card. Universal gasps filtered through around our circle. Glinting, gleamy-eyed Monty leaned back in his chair, patting his lapel and slapping his knee, biting down a smile that spread over his mottled face.
“What?” shrieked Tiggy, most perplexed.
“How did you do that?” demanded Griffin with a wide, disbelieving grin.
“It’s magic!” shrieked Monty, grinning widely.
“But how did you do it?” I asked.
“A good magician never reveals his tricks” he intoned, most annoyingly.
“OK kids. We’re going home to search You Tube for the answers to that trick” I announced.
“No - really?” I asked as we made our way to the counter, still shaking our heads. “How did he do that?” We turned around. Monty was leaning back in his chair, staring at the wall, some internal dialog running through his mind.
“Do you mind if we pay for these?” I asked, holding up a bundle of books I’d selected.
“Oh - Oh. I see. Oh. Alright then. You’re buying something!” he observed. As though it hadn’t occurred to him that we might.
“Was it like when the psychic asks you to imagine this and that while they are drawing, and when they are finished they have drawn exactly what you imagined, using the power of suggestion?” I asked.
“No - but I will say this. It involves one of the Classic Forces” he said, intriguing us all the more.
“OK” I replied. “Come on kids. Let’s go hit You Tube.” As it happens, we still haven’t. But we spent the rest of the morning ruminating about the trick, and about the marvelous time we’d had in Monty's book store, which the purchase of books formed a very small part.
In the small seaside village that we lived in, it became quite apparent that we had the privilege of meeting our very own Charlie Chaplin / Pied Piper / Willy Wonker / (and that fellow from ‘Love Actually’ who played the aging pop star) type of person in our midst, and there was quite a good deal of magic in that.