Today is different. The difference between night and day. It’s as if the dome we walk into has collected all the morning’s sunshine for safekeeping and has stretched it out along its maze of long corridors. Each offshoot of bookshelves is illuminated. Where you saw only five tunnels yesterday, today you see at least double that.
You step forward and spin slowly three hundred and sixty degrees, your arms not quite by your sides, they give you the shape of an A (if you were really looking).
You know where Angelina is, or at least where she was yesterday, and your eyes linger on that tunnel for a few extra seconds.
But you don’t want to go there just yet.
This smell, the scent in your nostrils, of greenery, of fields and flowers and spring, makes you feel like you’re outside.
George is sat exactly as he was yesterday – behind the desk in the entrance way. He could be a mole part-poking through the dirt, still for minutes on end, just letting the fresh air waft over him. He holds up a sign. You don’t know if he can see you because his eyes are fixed straight ahead, but you know he knows you’re there, though you couldn’t explain why if I asked you, which I don’t.
Though everything around you feel new today, George remains old, even older, and despite the sun he is bathed in, his skin is still grey and speckled. You wonder if he’s blind and you wonder if he can speak.
‘Did he speak yesterday?’ you think to yourself.
The sign he holds close in, just in line with his scored forehead, is written in a child’s handwriting. It looks very much like your own. It’s in green pen and the letters are those of someone who usually writes neatly, usually with small characters that on a normal day could be mistaken for the amputated legs of a thousand spiders. Except they’ve been stretched to make them fill the cardboard sign so they’re more like sparrows’ legs, sparrows who are sometimes struggling to keep their tubby top half from tipping over.
But you start to take your shoes off even before you’ve understood what the letters say. The sign merely affirms what you had thought to do already.
You hunker down over your right foot. You pull at the shoe lace and lift the tongue of your running shoe before pulling your right foot out. Before you repeat with your left, you notice the excess cloth of your sock bunched up above the heel like a pair of fish lips sucking in air from the surface.
You decide to take your socks off too. As you do that, you see the grass beneath your feet and are shocked because you don’t know whether the grass was there before you started taking off your shoes or whether it magically grew just now as you finished taking the sock off your left foot.
You look back at the sign.
‘Please take off your shoes,’ it says. The child, and you still don’t know if it was you, has drawn a smiley face underneath the bird-leg words.
Just like the simple drawing in the bottom right corner of the cardboard sign, you smile. You look at George with your smile but he is busy. ‘Perhaps he is reading,’ you think.
You are about to walk to the right, along the cool, soft grass towards the tunnel labelled: philosophy. The earth feels dry but spongy like rain fell the day before yesterday. As you walk, you see another sign, and maybe it’s the same piece of cardboard but this time it says: ‘Go to literature’. Again, there’s a smiley face under the words.
I’ll wait for you here, I say, I’ll be sat over there with my nose in a book.
Literature. That’s where your steps take you.
When you get to the tunnel, the grass along the book walls is wilder, overgrown to the knee cap. Like, they (the library keepers) haven’t managed to trim the sides yet.
You let your eyes drift along the line of books. One catches your eye. It’s shinier than the others. The deep red cover almost looks liquid. As you touch it, it feels wet. But when you look at your hands there is no trace of moisture, red or otherwise.
You peel back the cover. A note falls out. ‘It’s a poem,’ you think to yourself.
“Fee fi fo fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishm’n.
Be he alive or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”
Come find me.
Where could I be—?
An imaginary character, I could be.
Perhaps you’re a stalker, is that to be?
The question is: where will you find me to be?
You re-read it. It’s a clue.
You recognise the words of the giant immediately, but you’ve read a lot of books about giants recently. You look at the words intently. Each word has its own shape. A shape you investigate once, twice, thrice. By the fourth time you zoom your vision out and look at the clue as one, as a collection of words. It’s only then that you know for sure which book this is from. The words be and An shine at you.
Bean, you say out loud. Bean stalker. Bean stalk. Jack and the bean stalk!
You run down the aisle of books, searching for shelf labels that describe in more detail which books are contained here. ‘Modern literature’, ‘Romantic literature’, ‘Women in literature’. You stop at the end of the literature tunnel and your eyes run along an arch. It’s another hand made sign – it’s sparkly with rainbow coloured glitter. Each letter is like an Orion’s Belt of stars. ‘Children’s literature,’ the sign says.
‘That sign must have been great fun to make,’ you think.
You’re in the right spot. The books feel all the more special here. They’re big and boldly coloured. Your hand touches one and you feel it come to life – it vibrates beneath your fingers so you carefully release it from its space on the shelf.
George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl.
‘This is next on my reading list,’ you say out loud. ‘I am going to read this when I’ve finished The Twits.’ But for some reason you feel compelled to open it up and when you do the buzzing turns into popping and bubbling. It’s the illustration of George on the inside page. It has come to life!
You sit down. The ground has risen to meet you in a wonderful pillowy curve. There’s no time like the present, you think and you start to leaf through the pages. This is no ordinary book. As you read the words, you feel them, you hear them. You hear the clink of the teaspoon as George makes his Grandma a cup of tea. It’s like you’re there because when she grabs George by the shoulder, you feel like George, and your shoulder feels like George’s shoulder. George’s grandma’s grip feels too tight and her nails are too pointed – they dig into your skin.
You rush through the pages, experiencing George’s excitement at his idea, the smell of his curious cocktail. You smell the paint as it’s poured into the medicine. You hear the glug of the engine oil as it sloshes into the mixture. The words in these books pop out of the page, they don’t just look like words, they feel… real. With one hand cradling the book like the neck of a baby, with the other you rub the grass around you to bring you back into the real world. You laugh because you realise that the real world doesn’t feel that real either. Or at least, not what you are used to. I mean, you’re sitting inside a library but also outside in the grass. Here, in this library, the outside is also inside.
You read and read. You can’t stop yourself – you’re having such fun.
By the time you close the cover on the last page, your fingertip as buzzing and you can see little spots of colour in your vision. Blink, blink, blink. A few flutters of the eyelids bring you back to the ground on which you stand. You can feel the soil beneath the sheaths of grass.
The sun seems to have shifted, it feels like late afternoon now. The space around you feels stiller, like the soft breeze blowing about you this morning has slowly petered out. Instead it’s calm, warm enough without a jacket but cool enough with your knitted jumper. You poke your thumb into the sweater’s cuff and flip the book between each hand to look for clues of the experiences you’ve just had. Like the air, it’s still now.
A bird tweets somewhere in the distance. You wonder if it’s a real bird or a recording of a bird, like one of those songs your Mum plays sometimes as she sits cross legged in the living room with her eyes closed and her thumb and forefingers touching.
Your mouth is dry. You need a drink. As you turn the book over in your hands again, a piece of folded paper shoots from within as if spat out by George’s great pot of poison or burped out by the mutating chicken. You pick it up where it lands a few metres away and brush at smouldering corner.
The crisp sound of thick paper unfolding makes your skin tingle for a second. You’ve never received a letter before. This one has been placed here – in this book that you love – for someone to find and that someone happens to be you. ‘Who might have sent this?’ you think.
In seconds, your mind is sailing between pirate ships and adventures. ‘What if the person who wrote this was stranded at sea? Did they make it back? Are they lying on a white-sand beach, their t-shirt around their head to protect them from the weighty sun, thrusting their self-crafted spear at shoals of fish decorating the shore with their synchronised wriggles? Has this note been written with the last page from her notebook and a pen that is all but dried up?’ All these thoughts wrestle each other between your ears.
You inspect the writing. The lines made by the pen are definite. They’re vivid in their blueness. This was not written by a sun-scorched pen. Unlike the other signs and prompts you have received in the library so far, the writing looks similar to your own but rounder, more characterful – there are small circles above the letter i instead of your simple dots.
I bet you’re thirsty by now.
I bet you’d like something to eat.
No doughnuts this time.
Come find me.
You know who I am.
We’ve met before.
But where am I?
Are you north from me or am I south from you?
You press your feet into the grass and pick up your bones from the mound. As you do so, it melts away, becomes flat again. It smells less like wide-open fields now and more like the thinly spread scent of burning wood. If you listen to the trees, you’ll hear the crackling of a wood fire to the south.
She sends you smoke signals. You wade through tall grass, over a felled tree trunk, you crawl like a commando through wide pipes wallpapered with book spines. This place is vaster than you once thought. If you are under or over ground you don’t know but a few metres away you see a stall with the words ‘Fresh Fizzy Lemonade’ written on a red and white striped table cloth.
‘You made it. I knew you’d find me,’ Angelina says as she hands you a frosty glass. The cold beads run onto your skin. Three deep gulps leave the glass empty. It refills once more.
‘Thank you, that’s delicious.’
When you return your glass, Angelina hands you a book.
Everything goes cold immediately. The lights go out. Above you, the stars are twinkling just as they are in your hands. You don’t know if the book you hold is a mirror, reflecting each twinkle from each star above or whether in your hands you hold the universe.
Your ears ring. You feel dust settling around you. It’s hot now. A thick, vibrating heat that you hear as well as feel. You recall a smell you’ve smelled before. Eggs. Mixed with the gas from a just-ignited match. Clouds surround you, making you feel weightless. ‘Where is Angelina?’ You think.
Before we start I need to tell you about something that will be quite difficult to get your head around.
Knock, knock, Scorpio, it’s me talking to you now. Don’t worry, Angelina is taking a break. You’ll see her soon.
You can’t see me but you nod.
Don’t worry. If you have questions, I’ll try to answer them. And also it may take you a few times of my telling you before you get it. Okay?
You nod again. You look intently at the book as if you’ve switched your concentration dial up to one hundred per cent. Your eyes are bright, showing your interest and intent to try to get your head around this thing that is difficult to get your head around.
Okay, let’s begin. Lean back. Look at those stars up there. How many do you think there are?
‘Millions,’ you whisper.
Okay. Any advances on millions?
Any advances on trillions?
You don’t know what the next number after trillions is, so you say a google, even though you don’t really know how many that is.
What if I told you, it’s even more than a google? You might not believe me because numbers like that are so so so very big – too big – for you to think about. But the number of stars in the universe isn’t a number at all. It’s something called infinity.
‘To infinity and beyond!’ You mouth these words but only breath escapes without sound.
Yes! Exactly. The thing about infinity is that there are no limits to it. There is no point at which there are no more stars. For example, you don’t get to a road at the very edges of the universe where the stars suddenly stop. That’s because the universe is thought to have no edges – because it just keeps going forever – and because the universe doesn’t stop, the stars don’t stop.
‘The earth was a star once,’ you say.
Yes, it was! Exactly. You know more about this than I thought. So, I’m going to take this idea of infinity one more step again. And don’t worry if you don’t follow, just remember that infinity means there are no limits. Everything is possible, because everything can and does happen.
Infinity. So. Imagine there’s another Scorpio Smith. This Scorpio Smith is tall, likes mathematics but doesn’t like learning languages. Likes football and netball but doesn’t like tennis. Has a friend named Poppy and one named Joshua. They live on another planet in the universe called Wind where they live in sand caves in homes inside an underground network that to you looks like an ant colony. Then imagine another Scorpio Smith who is the same in every way as you, same parents Suzie and Andy, has the same coloured hair, but he lives under the sea. He’s the same but different. There are an infinite number of Scorpio Smiths except they live light years away, on different planets. You see?
You look puzzled, and that’s OK.
Now I want you to open the book.
There is a blinding light.
TO BE CONTINUED...