Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lady in White

I can't say for sure about the lady in white. Whether or not she's real. Whether or not the nice woman behind the counter in the back corner of the shop is right to have her doubts about the lady's existence even though the owner of the shop has often seen the specter walking the narrow staircase that connects the first floor of books with the second floor of even more books which are stacked to the ceiling and layered two to three rows back on every shelf and standing in wavering piles in the corners and lining the carpet and crammed into the open space beneath the window. But saying things for sure has never been very interesting to me anyway. Saying things for maybe is much more intriguing. And now that I think of it, probably much more true.

In July 2009, Jonathan and I walked down a side street in Cambridge. A shop caught my eye because the sidewalk out front was lined with boxes of books and because the bright red front window was crammed so full of kid book titles I couldn't see inside. It's been my favorite shop ever since.

But I can't say I felt a tingling when I walked up the crowded stairs or an unusual draft as I flipped through the brown pages of early prints of school stories or sensed a strange presence in the tiny room with bars on its windows where the Pooh and Alice books live. Even though the sign over the door said Haunted Bookshop and even though I've had plenty of unexplainable interactions with not-so-solids before, I felt nothing.

We were almost ready to leave (I think Jonathan was discussing the history of the place with the woman behind the desk) when I knelt down to save a thin book which had been crammed awkwardly on a bottom shelf between two hulking hardbacks till it was nearly crushed. When I turned it over to see a green cloth binding with a picture on the front of the boy who never grew up, my heart stopped. Peter Pan and Wendy. My very favorite book of all time. It had to be old. It was in plastic. I carefully pulled the book from its wrapping. Inside someone had written in pencil, "v. early copy of scarce item £45". . . at the time that was $76 I didn't have to spend on books. I showed Jonathan. It was a 1918 printing, I said. I asked the person working if she could take less for it. But it didn't work out. I couldn't justify the cost. It didn't make sense to buy it. I had enough books already.

We left the store and the book and the street and Cambridge, but I'm not ashamed to admit I cried. I know it's just a thing. Just pages with words printed on them. The story itself is not in the ink. And the story is what I love. But there was a connection. A meant-to-be. I guess I knew that, but I left it anyway. Because it didn't make sense.

Nearly a year and a half later, just this December, I found myself faced with the daunting task of making a Christmas list. I thought and thought and thought until a brilliant idea came to mind: I'd ask for a Peter Pan print to frame and hang in the living room. A brief search online and I found the exact thing. F. D. Bedford's "Peter Flew In". Beautiful.

A few days later, many weeks of planning ended with me sitting on a plane headed to England. I was to meet a friend in Oxford and then go with her to Cambridge. I'd really been talking up the haunted bookshop. I recall saying something about it being my favorite store in the world and about it being amazing and quirky and something about Cambridge not being worth the visit if you don't at least stop in to see the books. When we arrived, we found the shop easily, and I was so pleased to see a messy pile of books on the sidewalk, including one stuffed with Christmasy titles. The red paint around the window was the same, and the shop inside still hidden by the books behind the glass. Lovely.

We went in and immediately began to rummage through the piles. Ellen became engrossed in looking for this or that author. I flipped through some girls' books. I tried to find an early copy of Swallows and Amazons, but had no luck. A Christmasy book nearly fell from a tall pile, so I looked through it for a while. Pictures were taken. Then I left Ellen upstairs to search for my classics on the first floor.

The same helpful woman from a year and a half before sat at the back. I asked her where Milne and Carroll were and where the copies of Treasure Island were and if there were any old versions of Willows. And then of course, I asked for Peter. You know, it never occurred to me that the little green cloth copy would be there. How could it be? It'd been so long and it was a fairly affordable price for an early printing and I'd wanted it so badly that my greed had surely been punished by some wretched uncaring soul snatching the book up and whisking it away to let it live on a shelf, never a page to be turned. But when I asked her, she brought a stack of books, one of which was small and thin and wrapped in plastic. She tried to point out a very nice hardcover edition with Rackham illustrations, full color, beautifully presented, but it was £2000! I'll never own that book. But the little one with Peter on the front holding his sword and Hook's ship in the background looming on a turbulent sea--that little one was now well within my reach.

I took it out of the plastic, flipped it open--still £45. I turned to the next page. It was blank. Next was the title page with an illustration--but not just any illustration. It was F. D. Bedford's "Peter Flew In". No way, I thought. No freaking way. I had no memory of seeing that illustration. I didn't even know who Bedford was a year and a half ago! I knew then I wouldn't walk out without the book a second time. I carried the thing around with me for another half hour, talking about other pretty little books and about the shop and the weather and finally about the lady in white. I was told that the owner has seen her many times, but the only experiences the woman I spoke with had had were more mischievous. According to her, things go missing. Obvious things that she knows right where to look for (and she really does seem to know where everything is). She'll search and search and never find a book, eventually assuming someone has stolen it or it's been sold without record on accident. But the next day, she'll come back in to work and find the book laying in the middle of the floor as if someone was holding it back the whole time to play a trick on her.

As she told me stories of the lady in white's mischief, I immediately realized what had happened with Peter and Wendy. The lady in white must have been there on my first visit. She'd seen me peering in through the front glass and known immediately how I would be and taken the book and crammed it between the hardbacks so I'd notice it. But she hadn't expected me to leave without it. And she'd watched me back on the street wiping my eyes. And when the nice woman closed the shop up for the night, the lady in white must have come down her stairs and taken the book away to a far shelf somewhere out of sight. Then she waited and waited and waited. The exact amount of time I did. And on a cold day in December, I walked back into the store, my heart completely void of hope for the book, only to find it there waiting for me.

"It's snowing!" the woman said as I held the book in my hand.

I paid and Ellen and I went back out onto the street to find huge white flakes falling, soft and pretty. Very rare, I hear.

My new year's resolution has to do with following my heart, believing what it says, and trusting things will work out. But the lovely thing is that sometimes, even though I must give in to reason, my heart keeps beating in the background.

"Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night-time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees. 'Do you believe?' he cried."