The Closed Cabinet by Cathryn Philippa Haynes - third place in the ChipLitFest 2017 Short Story competition

Comments from judge, Martyn Waites:

"The Closed Cabinet is a story of ideas. I really enjoyed it. Great idea, beautifully executed. Good, strong storytelling."

“...and remember, the water for the tea must be just boiling, and always put in a good heaped teaspoonful. I don't want any more complaints like last time.” 

“Yeah, yeah, you told me that already. Why can't we just use teabags, like a normal shop?”

“Because this is not a normal shop.” said Donald. “This is a combination bookshop /café. We serve fine quality loose tea and freshly-ground coffee, and the customers choose their own mugs and teacups. That's one of the reasons why it's special.”

“Don't know what's so special about a bookshop. Half the books aren't even new.”

“Listen, you cheeky bugger, my customers want unusual books, not just endless Judith Krantzes that they could pick up at any branch of Oxfam. That's why my stock's second-hand as well as new; that's why the shelves are chronological, not A-Z.” His voice rose.“Ten years ago, this town was full of independent bookshops! Now we're practically the only one left; so our standards are high. Now stop whingeing and get on with that Orange Pekoe. And when you've served it, nip over the road and get 2 litres of semi-skimmed, we're almost out.”     

Stuck in the queue at the Co-op behind some old bag who wanted to know whether the shortbread fingers were gluten-free, Clive simmered. What a bloody annoying week. Partly his own fault, he supposed. Walking down Walton Street last week, he'd seen the “Part-time help wanted” sign, and thought, - Bingo!

 Big mistake. 

The place was a nightmare. First all this tea-party palaver, then the endless sweeping and cleaning. (Books were dust-magnets, Donald had proclaimed, almost proudly, as he'd handed over the dustpan and brush on Clive's first day). Walls and furniture painted all over with stupid names, like a bloody kindergarten (Famous authors, Donald had said. He'd never heard of any of them. Who the fuck was e e cummings?). Then there were all the stupid Groups. Poetry- reading, Creative Writing; they were a right pain in the arse. Groups meant having to come in at funny hours, dance attendance on them like he was some kind of waitress. Even worse, the Jazz Evenings. He hated Jazz. Made him remember when he was a kid, stuck in the flat while his Mum went to work, nothing to do but watch his Mum's old man sitting on the settee in the lounge, getting pissed and playing those bloody Miles Davis 45's. The last thing he'd done before he'd left home forever was trash his Granddad's record collection.

“You want a carrier bag with that?”

“Just the milk.”

Worst thing, he thought as he crossed the road, was that Donald was far too sharp-eyed for him to skim his usual percentage off the till. And what else was there worth nicking? Who wanted books, for Christ's sake? 

 “Got the milk.”

“You took your time. Pop it in the fridge and help me unpack these Daedalus Decadences.”

The way he worked was this. He'd find a shop with a sign in the window advertising for part-time staff. He'd turn up, nice and smart, false surname, false address and the false references that one of his mates would guarantee for him. He'd answer the interview questions politely, and as soon as he'd landed the job, he'd get to work. Only not in the way they expected. Then after a month, he'd bugger off and they'd never be able to find him. 

The big shops had the most valuable stuff, - perfumes, watches, I-pods, - but they had security staff and the tills were monitored. So he preferred the small, independent shops. The stock was less pricey, but their security was usually pathetic, and he could skim the tills and nick stuff all day long if he felt like it. He'd once got a thousand pounds in a week from a small Pakistan jeweller's, while its overworked manager hadn't noticed a thing. Not much chance of that here. 

The Orange Pekoes had finished their teas and were long gone. The Daedalus paperbacks were unpacked and correctly shelved, the box folded flat and put out for the recycling. The front door of the shop was locked, the “Closed”sign displayed and the main shop lighting switched off.

“I'll be off, then.”

“Oh no you don't, my lad. I'm expecting a customer this evening, -  a very special customer, - and I'll need you to serve the refreshments. He likes Lapsang Souchong.”

Clive wrinkled his nose. 

That the stuff that smells like Coal Tar Soap?”

 “Smoked, yes. I wouldn't expect you to appreciate it. You'll get your overtime, don't worry, and while we're waiting for him it'll give you a chance to do all the sweeping that you avoided earlier. I'll be sorting out the Closed Cabinet. Call me when he arrives.”

The Closed Cabinet? Now that was interesting. He'd been wondering about that big old wooden cabinet on the wall out back ever since he'd started here. Its door was padlocked, and locks meant valuables. 

Clive got the broom and swept round the leather sofa, then the steps leading down to the body of the shop. Sweeping the dust out of sight under the tables, he turned over plans in his mind. He knew padlocks; that one would need more than a hairpin to open it. He could manage it tonight; nip in with the duplicate key that Donald didn't know he'd had 

made, and get to work. He hadn't intended to bust the cabinet for some time yet; but if it had stuff worth selling in it; well. Besides, he'd had enough of this dump. Yes, why not try it tonight..?     

“Ahem.”

Jesus! 

Standing in the shadows by the closed door was a tall old man. He wore a long black overcoat with an Astrakhan collar. A worn leather satchel hung from his right shoulder.

“Did I startle you? My apologies.” 

 How the hell did he get into the shop? Didn't hear him open the door. Couldn't have opened the door. Saw Donald lock it.

“If you would be good enough to inform your master that Dr. Hesselius has arrived?”

Then the old man wasn't by the door any more, but standing right in front of him. Bald head, tufty white eyebrows, beaky nose, and a smile with sticky-out teeth. The broom slipped from Clive's fingers. His mouth felt dry. 

How can he move so fast?

The old man bent down, picked up the broom, and propped it gently against one of the chairs.

“Butter fingers...”

Don't let him touch me. If he touches me I'll piss myself.

“Long time no see, Doc!”

Oh, thank Christ.

“Donald, my dear boy! Always a pleasure.” 

 Clive stepped aside as Donald exchanged back-slaps with his guest. 

“Didn't have too far to come, I hope?”

“I took the Bodleian short-cut, so no, not too far. I'm afraid that I gave your charming young assistant rather a start.

“He was probably sweeping the dust under the tables again.” said Donald. “Clive, the Lapsang's all ready in the kitchen, and there's some farmhouse cheddar and a tin of Bath Olivers on the counter. Get cracking. Just boiling, remember; and clean plates this time.”

More bloody waitressing. Clive sullenly ferried the tea-things to and fro, while the young man and the old sat on the sofa and chatted.

“Seen anything of Jack Torrance lately ?”

“Alas, no. I gather he still struggles with his Writer's Block. I bumped into Pierre Menard the other day. He insisted on reading me his new chapter of the Quixote.”

“ Oh dear. He's started writing it again, then?”

“As always. Mm! Scrumptious cheddar!”

After about half an hour, finishing the washing-up and half-listening to the conversation 

in the shop, Clive heard Doctor Hesselius say:

“And now; to business.”

“Washing-up's all done; I'm off now.” he called.

“Don't be late tomorrow; we'll need to get ready for the Sharkspark Story-Tellers.”  Donald called back.

“No worries.” 

He slammed the back door loudly, then crept silently out of the kitchen and into the shadows behind the central bookcase. They'd moved down to the body of the shop and were sitting at the big wooden table. 

“Have you got the first edition?” Donald was asking. 

First editions were supposed to be valuable, weren't they?

“Have you got the scroll?”

“Right here.”

 Donald placed a long cardboard roll on the table. The old man took a slim hardback with a worn cloth binding out of his satchel, and slid it across the table towards his host. Donald picked it up, and began to examine it carefully with a magnifying-glass.

“Hmm... bit foxed... spine's broken...but that signature's genuine, and the publication date's right.” He laid down book and glass. “Definitely a signed first edition of the Motets of Lassus. You'd be willing to make an exchange?”

“For the Scroll, most assuredly.”

Donald slipped a scroll of parchment out of the cardboard roll. He laid it on the table as 

Dr. Hesselius pulled on a pair of white cotton gloves.

“Better safe than sorry, eh?” the old man grinned, and carefully unrolled the scroll. It was covered with columns of scribbly letters in reddish-brown ink. Clive was standing too far away to make out what was written, but he thought it looked nasty; as if it was written about nasty things. A sweety-sick, perfumed smell drifted up; it reminded him uncomfortably of being dragged off to church at Christmas by his Mum.

 Doctor Hesselius smoothed the scroll lovingly with his gloved hands.“It is indeed The Al-Azif of the Mad Arab Abdul Al-Hazred! A manuscript edition of that mighty work, in the original Arabic. Remark the beauty of the calligraphy, my dear Donald! Written in the blood of Circassian virgins, if I am not mistaken?”

“Yup. Took me a lot of trouble to get that scroll.”

“I do not doubt it. And you would be willing to exchange this priceless text for the Lassus? ”

“Hell, yes. I've been searching for that pamphlet for ages. Just what I need to complete the Victorian part of my collection.”

“Then we have an accord.” 

Hesselius rolled up the scroll, returned it to its container, and slipped off his gloves. As 

the two men shook hands solemnly. Clive stole out to the kitchen and snuck out by the 

back door, closing it silently behind him.

………

Gripping the handle of the torch between his teeth, Clive positioned the blades of the bolt-cutter, and brought its handles together with a snap. The padlock fell to the floor 

with a clunk, and the door of the Closed Cabinet swung slowly open. Three shelves were visible in the wavering light, tight with books. Brilliant! He started to stuff them into the big army-surplus rucksack. Some were small as birthday cards, some thick and heavy as paving slabs. If all these were signed first editions, he was onto a nice little earner. When the Cabinet was empty, he slipped the bolt-cutters inside the rucksack, zipped it up, and swung it onto his shoulder. Funny how light it felt.

Time to go. He took the torch out of his mouth, and stepping out into the shop, shone it round. Why not crack the till before he left? Just so's he could imagine Donald's face when he found it tomorrow morning. Lovely. 

The torchlight was flickery; batteries must be low. He snapped off the torch and slipped it into his pocket. No harm in putting on the shop light for a tick; nobody would notice it at 2.30 in the morning, and it would be easier to count the cash. He stretched out his hand through the darkness to find the light-switch, - and touched another hand.

“Allow me.”

A click, a glow of light, and Doctor Hesselius standing beside him. Clive made a croaking noise.

“Pray don't mention it.”

He backed away and stumbled down the step, the old man following. 

“You keep late hours, young man.” he remarked, raising tufty eyebrows. “A spot of overtime, perchance?”

“I'm - I'm stock-taking.”

“How very conscientious. I'm sure Donald will be most impressed.”

“Got to go now. Got to be in early tomorrow, -”

“- and you need your eight hours. But need you leave quite so soon? Stay for a little chat, do.”

Clive swallowed.

“OK, yeah; just for a bit.”

He's only an old git. I can get out of this. I'm young. I'm fast. I can do it. 

Hesselius sat down on the leather sofa.

“Well, isn't this nice?”he beamed, and steepling his fingertips, fixed Clive with a penetrating gaze. “Tell me; do you like working in a bookshop?”

Clive shrugged. 

“It's all right.”

I fucking hate it.

“You should deem it a privilege.” said the old man solemnly. “Consider the great bookshops and libraries of the world. Consider their contents. All those philosophies, histories, biographies, comedies and tragedies, thoughts and dreams, loves and hates;chained in words and crammed into the small space between the covers of a book. After a while, these books will begin to affect the dimension that surrounds them. The late lamented Mr Pratchett dubbed this dimension L-space.”

What the fuck's he wittering on about?

 “The effects vary.” the Doctor continued. “A department that exists one day will cease to exist the next, and vice versa. A shelf that only seems to continue for a few feet will, if browsed incautiously, stretch on in perpetuity. The fictional characters within the books are affected, too, often attaining their own reality. I myself started life in a collection of short stories by Sheridan LeFanu. Last week, as it happens,”he chuckled, “I was passing through The Murder and Mayhem Bookshop at Hay-on-Wye, and chanced to bump into my respected colleague Dr. Van Helsing. We had a lively debate as to which of our creators, LeFanu or Mr. Stoker, originated the figure of the Psychic Detective!” He paused. “Do you follow me?”

Clive nodded vigorously.

 Humour him, humour him.

 “Some characters' personalities even change and develop in this wondrous dimension. 

Did you know that Hamlet and Ophelia are happily married and running the Philosophy section of an academic book-store near Wittenberg University? And I was a German, until my dear friend Molly Bloom told me that my accent made me sound -” his clawed fingers hooked into quotation marks, “- loike the fookin' Kaiser!”

 He's a nut-case. Got to get out of here.

Clive backed towards the kitchen door, but Hesselius did one of his moving-without-moving things and was blocking his path.

“Not leaving so soon, I hope? Oh, but we have so much to discuss.” His voice hardened. “The contents of this, for instance.” He yanked the rucksack out of Clive's grip, at the same instant kicking his feet from under him. Clive crashed to the floor and scrambled into the corner as the old man strode down to the large table and up-ended the rucksack.

“Now, what have we here?” He picked up a book with a binding in elegant marbled paper. “The Abject, by Gustav Von Aschenbach.” He sighed. “ Do you know, whenever I visit the Sansovino Library in Venice I see poor Gustav, wandering disconsolately, still searching for his beloved Tadzio? So sad.”

 He laid down the book and, grunting with effort, lifted an enormously thick volume, tufted with pencilled notes. “The First Encyclopædia of Tlőn: Volume IX, Hlær to Jangr. 

Jolly lucky than only this volume exists, eh, or there'd be no room in this shop, - or this world -  for anything else!” 

Laying down the Encyclopædia with a thump, he took up a small book with a cover in florid mauve calfskin. “Ah, The Home Life of Lucretia Borgia, by Mrs Asp. Very spicy anecdotes in this slim volume,” he leered. “and some rather revealing mezzotints!” Turning the open book sideways and upside down, he muttered to himself “How the Devil did she get into that posture?”

“I only wanted to look at them.” Clive whined.

“Oh, nonsense, you're no reader. I expect you were stealing them so that you could sell them on the – what do you call it? The Intr-anet?” The Doctor looked down at Clive with his toothy smile. “I'm afraid you wouldn't have had a great deal of success. You see, all these” he waved a long-fingered hand over the pile on the table, “are Fictional Books. Not works of Fiction, you understand, but imaginary books, created as part of the texts of real books. If you were to remove them from L-space, they would evaporate, - pouf! - like soap-bubbles. That is why I so enjoy my visits here; the opportunity to see dear Donald's fine collection. That, and the excellent Lapsang Souchong.” 

Fucking hell, he really is mad.  

Hesselius turned away to browse through the jumbled pile.

“And here we have my little offering; A Treatise on the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus, by Sherlock Holmes. Brilliant brain but, alas, no social skills.”

 He swept the four books aside, and turned to the cowering Clive.

“All these are reasonably harmless, but then there are the more specialised volumes...”  

He slipped on the white cotton gloves.

“Better safe than sorry!” 

The light in the shop had grown dim.

“I don't suppose you speak Latin? If you did, you might dip into this, - ” he caressed a book with a crumbling leather binding “ -  The Necronomicon; Olaus Wormius' translation of the Mad Arab's seminal work. Or perchance Doctor John Dee's English version would make easier reading, though the woodcuts can be quite alarming.”  

 “Look, OK, I was going to nick them, but you've got them back now, you don't need to tell anyone, -” babbled Clive. 

Hesselius wasn't paying attention. He had picked up a book with a luridly-coloured cartoon cover. It looked rather like an old-fashioned children's annual, thought Clive. Then he saw the cartoons close up, and felt faint.

“And here we have The Bumper Fun Grimoire! A most amusing tome; unless, of course, one is careless enough to read one of the formulæ aloud. Then, oh dearie me;  the same rabbit from the same top-hat, over and over again, for all eternity...”

Clive slid out of the corner, along the wall. His hand touched metal. He looked down; the bolt-cutter! It must have rolled onto the floor when the rucksack was emptied. He glanced up at Hesselius, who had turned away, absorbed in yet another book, with an unlettered cover of black watered silk. Slowly he rose to his feet, the bolt-cutter gripped in his right hand.

“My old friend Ludvig Prinn's master-work.” the old man was murmuring. “What happy memories it inspires...”

Clive crept towards him. One good whack should do it. Then offski, and on the first coach to London, before the shop was even opened. Find a dealer, flog the books, easy. One good whack. He raised his arm.    

“Oh, no; I don't think so!”

Hesselius was standing behind him. He grabbed Clive's right wrist in his gloved hand and gave it a sharp twist. Clive yelped and dropped the bolt-cutter. He screeched as his arm was yanked into an agonizing half-nelson, and he was propelled towards the book-laden table. 

“I did so hope to avoid violence.” said Hesselius' soft voice in his ear. “But if you were intending to brain a helpless old man, - ” he tightened his hold, and Clive whimpered in pain. “ - well, I think self-defence allowable. Pray be seated.” 

He thrust his prisoner down onto one of the chairs in front of the large table. The black silken book lay open on its surface. Pinning Clive in the chair with one hand, Hesselius used the other to flick through the leaves. They were pure black, covered with a fiery scarlet script. Clive sobbed as the letters writhed and wriggled on the pages before him. 

Can't look away. Can't look away.

“ The greatest book of demonic invocations ever written: De Vermis Mysteriis.” Doctor Hesselius said reverently. “Englished, The Mysteries of the Worm. Now then, young man,”his voice dropped to a whisper. “read it.”     

………

Donald crumpled the courteous note of explanation and apology which he'd found waiting for him when he'd opened the shop. He chucked it, with bad-tempered accuracy, into the waste-paper basket. Damn. Now he had no-one to help him serve the drinks to the Sharksparks that evening. He glared at the pile of worms on the seat of the chair in front of him. They writhed slowly, languid and sated, then as he watched, crumbled into a small pile of ash. Oh, great. 

He stomped off to the kitchen, and began to look under the sink for the dustpan-and-brush.

…………

END.


Cathryn Philippa Haynes asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

Short Story Competition
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