PART ELEVEN– THE DEPARTING OF FRIENDS
] THE NATURAL HISTORY CORRIDOR ]
Ben looked up and watched the water as it fell from the cracks in the reading room ceiling. There were quite a few gaps for the water to fall through as it was striped with logs like a tree house or cabin. As Ben looked at these, he noticed how the moss that decorated them in patches resembled a map of the world. The nest of baby spiders that hung in the corner were a batch of spirits fresh and ready to explore it.
Ophelia seemed to be the most sensitive in the room to the sounds about the place. Her expressions showed how each drip bothered her as much as if someone was pulling at her hair, which concerned Ben. After seeing the puddles forming on the floor, he went to look for some pots to catch the droplets.
He wandered towards Mrs Vine’s desk where she laid back in her chair, sleeping. She looked peaceful; her mouth had fallen open to form an ‘O’ shape, and she was breathing heavily so Ben decided not to bother her. A black cat was resting on her lap; its coat was long with a slight red tint to it, and it had large staring eyes that watched Ben as he wandered around in search of containers.
Whilst looking, Ben noticed a suit of armour in the room that he hadn’t recalled seeing previously. It was old with no shine to it, a bit like the red bike he had ridden. He walked towards it to take a closer look, and noticed that it was positioned to guard a door. The door was wallpapered to blend in with the wall that framed it, but the key left in its keyhole gave away its identity and Ben reached forward to unlock it, squeezing behind the suit of armour as he did so.
The cat meowed and Mrs Vine stirred, changing her sleeping position. Her eyes remained closed as the door fell open to reveal a long and cluttered dark passage, with daylight seeping from the cracks in a door right at the very end. Ben struggled to see, so he looked around the abundance of discarded matchsticks on the floor until he discovered one with a pink tip which he used to light a candle before stepping inside.
The passage walls were made from both sandstone and mud. They echoed the sounds of scurrying animal feet, and as well as being cluttered, the floor was slippery and wet so he had to be extra careful to watch his footing as he looked around.
Scattered around was a selection of newspapers, many of them printed long before Ben had even been born. There were also fossils and artefacts, as well as canvas’s, displaying unfinished paintings; and then there were the books... piles and piles of books.
Ben noticed that their covers weren’t coloured like the ones housed in the main library. Instead, they were dull greys and muddy browns. He couldn’t help but be curious, so he opened a few of these to take a look.
THE BALI TIGER
THE CARIBBEAN MONK SEAL
THE WOOLLY MAMMOUTH
He gasped as he came to the realization that what lay before him was a pile of species that had been wiped off the face of the Earth. Everything in the passage was history. There were even old maps and diagrams that showed how planet Earth’s continents had looked in Jurassic times before the land had divided. Less interesting junk also added to the untidiness of the corridor. There were piles of old food packaging, bent kitchen utensils, pieces of driftwood, and rags that were once people’s clothing.
A sudden sadness filled Ben as he thought about the possibilities that were no longer there. Those animals that had become extinct and would probably never return to the shelves but their memories remained in that single corridor. He wondered what it might look like in the future. There were a lot of endangered animals on Planet Earth. If they were just left to die out, maybe one day the books would be piled so high that it would be impossible for a spirit to even weave through the passage.
As he wandered towards the light at the end of the corridor, Ben noticed that there were several adjoining rooms all of which were derelict. Their entrances were decorative archways that curled in a similar way to the architecture around the Taj Mahal, but inside there were broken chair frames, crumbling fire places and rotting floorboards. They were old reading rooms that had been left to disintegrate.
Ben felt puzzled; everything else in the library had always seemed the same. The building never looked any older and neither did Mrs Vine, but this corridor was different and the way everything was falling to pieces reminded Ben of Earth.
The door that the light had been seeping from was the entrance to a hexagonal room which was the most colourful place Ben had ever seen.
The floor was covered in bright patchwork fabric, bolder than any rainbow; with comfortable cushions arranged in a circle. The walls held candles that were lit with tall flames and little archways housed bats and barn owls. Everything shone and when Ben looked up, he noticed that the ceiling was high, and made from glass. The light that had been shining in came from the moons, there were five of them.
As Ben lay back to look at them, along with the stars he wondered which planet he was on. He guessed that if he was in the same solar system, it must be a very tiny planet that humans hadn’t yet discovered. Maybe it was one of those numbered asteroids his dad had once mentioned.
He wondered which of the stars that surrounded him was Earth and thought about Anna. He wondered if she was looking at the sky too and thought about the possibility that they could both see each other’s stars.
A barn owl swooped down and sat beside him and as Ben stroked its feathers he thought about unusual and rare animals. He decided that if Anna were to notice him and realise who he was, he would have to return as something unusual that could visit her in the garden. That way she would pay him special attention and he would have more of a chance to give her his message.
After almost falling asleep to his thoughts, Ben remembered Ophelia, and how she had been shuddering at each droplet that had splashed against the reading room floor. He still hadn’t found anything to catch the water, but thought that perhaps she, Granddad, and Fergal would like a change of scene. The reading room though a calming place, could at times be claustrophobic. The glass ceiling in this hexagonal room made the place feel connected to the rest of the universe, and was a reminder that the library was on a different planet.
As Ben marched hastily back towards the passage entrance, the wind blew the flame of his candle out, leaving him in the dark. He could only just distinguish the blurred outlines of objects that obstructed his path. Although he was careful, he stepped over a book onto another one, which sent him flying across the corridor. He shut his eyes as he landed heavily on his hands and knees, still expecting it to hurt and graze as if he were on Earth, but he felt nothing. In front of him, Ben could make out some old flower pots. He felt them to see if there were holes in their bottoms, but there weren’t. They were perfect for catching the water. He pushed the door to return into the main library, but it was locked.
Ben panicked: he banged and called out, but nobody came. As he sighed and leant with his back against the door, something amazing happened. He felt a tingling sensation followed by a shiver as his spirit flattened and squeezed through the gap underneath the door. When he realised what had happened and noticed that he was back by Mrs Vine’s desk, Ben had a sudden adrenalin rush and ran to tell the others about his bizarre experience.
] FERGAL LEAVES THE LIBRARY ]
When Ben stepped back into the reading room, he began telling the other spirits about the secret passage and the room with the glass ceiling that he had discovered. As he did so, he noticed that there was a difference in Fergal’s face: his eyes were gleaming and the edges of his mouth were turned up to form a V- shaped smile.
“Do you want to come and see it?” Ben asked.
His granddad and Ophelia jumped up onto their feet ready to discover something new, but Fergal stayed put, sprawled out beside the open fire like a contented kitten.
“I’m ready to go back to Earth,” he explained, “I know what I want to be.”
He got up slowly and allowed the others to escort him to Mrs Vine’s desk.
Fergal wasn’t interested in stars or moons. He didn’t care for derelict rooms or old books much either- he just wanted to be in the sea again. It felt so right for him, and when he was away from it, Fergal felt unnatural as if he had been removed from his habitat. His new found happiness had come to him with the realisation that he could now fulfil his dream.
Mrs Vine had awoken from her nap and was now darning a tear in the hem of her dress. She wore a gold thimble to protect her finger and her tongue protruded from the corner of her mouth as she concentrated. The cat was curled at her feet purring in its sleep along with the old German Shepherd.
Ben pointed the suit of armour out to his granddad, and as he did so, he noticed that the key had been removed from the door. Someone must have locked it whilst he was in there, which would explain how he had got stuck. Ben thought about how his spirit had squeezed underneath the door and wondered if it could do the same thing to get into a place. He thought about his actions prior to the experience, and tried to put his finger on what he might have done to cause such a peculiar thing to happen. It was very hard for him to remember anything leading up to it other than the feelings of panic.
Fergal leant over the front desk; his eyes reflected in Mrs Vine’s spectacles as she bit off a loose thread that hung from the end of her crisscrossed stitches. She noticed the difference in Fergal’s face too and smiled softly at him. After seeing millions of spirits, she had quickly learnt to tell just by a change in the face when one of them was ready to leave.
Mrs Vine’s chair creaked across the floor as she got up, bones clicking as she straightened her back. She groaned as she stretched and muttered incoherently to herself as she rummaged around in her desk drawer. She took out four black buttons and a magnifying glass with a lens the size of a saucer.
Fergal’s chosen book was tucked under his arm. Its cover was made from shiny blue leather, and its title was neatly engraved on a delicate label.
“Let me see what you’ve got there then,” Mrs Vine requested.
Fergal opened the book up proudly to reveal a crumpled page, dotted with age spots. On it was written a short paragraph, illustrated with a simple line drawing.
Although his diet consists of a large range of prey and he is considered dangerous to humans, this tiger shark is a very solitary creature. He hunts mainly at night and rests in the daytime. He is one of the largest sharks to exist and lives in the waters that surround the Bahamas.
“He looks mean,” Mrs Vine shuddered, looking at the pointed teeth in the picture. It always amazed her that spirits chose to live as sharks, snakes, and creepy crawlies. Usually she could picture the change in her head; but Fergal’s features weren’t very shark like.
She led everyone to the top of the winding staircase, once again to say their goodbyes. Fergal wasn’t the type of spirit to give out hugs. In fact, he had never hugged anyone in his entire human life, so on exiting the library, he bid everyone farewell with the same bony handshakes he had greeted them with, rubbing his palms together afterwards.
He then leant forwards and grasped onto the bannisters before slowly descending the staircase.
As his form faded into the mist, it didn’t change on the way down like Barney’s had, instead he remained a human. Mrs Vine didn’t look surprised by this and Ben asked her what was going on.
She explained to him that Fergal’s spirit would probably look the same until it met its new form in a shark egg. She explained that spirits are complicated, sometimes they transform on their journey and find themselves before they enter an egg or womb and at other times, they can remain in their past form until they get there. No one knew what caused these different approaches to Planet Earth and Mrs Vine was still trying to find out.
] OPHELIA DEPARTS ]
Both Ophelia and Ben’s granddad were keen to see the hexagonal room, and wanted to see if they too could encourage their shapes to shrink and pass through doorways. Ophelia grabbed Ben’s arm and tugged him towards the guarded door, but Ben’s granddad gave him a stern look. It was the sort of look that Ben could remember being given as a small child when he had forgotten to pack his toys away. His granddad would never have to say anything because the look that came from the top of his newspaper was always enough. It worked to this day, and Ben paused to listen, shrugging away from Ophelia.
He knew what his granddad wanted. He wanted Ben to respect Mrs Vine and ask her politely rather than tiptoeing around the place behind her back whenever it was turned. Ben had noticed that his granddad had taken quite a shining to Mrs Vine since his arrival at the Earth library. When they spoke his eyes shimmered, and his pupils rarely lost contact with hers. He also giggled for no reason after the two of them had spoken, sometimes whispering parts of the conversation back to himself.
Ben’s granddad had lived alone ever since his wife had died, and Ben was pleased that he had finally found someone that he could feel a bond with once again. He knew that his granddad would enjoy the history corridor too, but it was important for him to know that Mrs Vine approved.
She was once again sitting at her desk. This time she was stuffing an old stocking with sawdust. Ben stood facing her with his granddad and Ophelia either side of him. He began to ask her about all the old books that contained extinct animals and asked if there was any chance that those animals would ever return to Earth.
Mrs Vine answered, stitching the stocking together to secure the sawdust in her usual crisscross pattern. She shook her head sadly and explained that there was no hope of those creatures living on Planet Earth again as the environment was no longer suitable for them, but the books would be kept aside in case they were wanted in any other solar system. She stitched two buttons onto the stocking as she informed Ben that some of the other planets in different solar systems were at different stages in their history to earth. She explained that their environments might be ready to introduce our extinct creatures at some point soon.
“We’ve already got rid of the dinosaur books,” she smiled, “did you notice that those were missing from the extinct collection?”
The thought hadn’t crossed Ben’s mind. He asked Mrs Vine if this meant that there were dinosaurs living on another planet somewhere far away, and she nodded. She cut two circles from a square of black velvet, and stitched them above the two buttons. Ben’s granddad asked about the hexagonal room, and Mrs Vine’s expression turned dreamy as she reminisced. She used to visit that room a lot. She had enjoyed sleeping under the stars in the company of bats and barn owls, but since the population had increased on earth, she had found her workload to be a lot heavier, and she didn’t like to leave the desk unattended for long, in case a new spirit turned up. Spirits were usually confused on arrival, and Mrs Vine liked to be there to help them out. Her own hobbies were reading, sewing, and spending time with her cats and dog which were all things she could do from the desk. The German Shepherd was quite old and didn’t like to walk too far so a trip around the corridors at night was more than enough.
She attached a piece of string to the stocking and dangled it in front of her black cat that jumped at it playfully.
“Oh, it’s a mouse!” Ophelia grinned.
Mrs Vine smiled back and did a mouse impression to make Ophelia laugh. Her mood seemed brighter now that she had completed the toy; and she agreed to take the spirits into the hexagonal room for a bit of star gazing. She took the key from her deep dress pocket. It was iron with an intricate Celtic pattern and reminded Ben of the key in The Secret Garden. Anna had loved classic books, and The Secret Garden had been one of her favourites when she was small. Sometimes Ben’s mum would get the two of them to help with the weeding during the summer and Anna would always enjoy it because she could pretend that she was Mary and Ben was Dicken.
“Can’t we get our spirits to squeeze through the door like Ben did?” Ophelia pleaded, snapping Ben out of his dreamy memories.
“It isn’t a very easy thing to do,” Mrs Vine explained.
She wrapped the stringy tail around her stocking mouse and tucked it into her desk drawer. Her eyes were edgy like a cat with a twitching tail, and her pupils flicked from side to side to make sure that no one was coming as she rose from her seat. She had spent so many hours sat at the desk each day that an imprint of her buttocks was engrained in the cushion she used to keep her rocking chair comfy. For a small white haired lady, Mrs Vine had a deceiving amount of hidden strength and lifted the suit of armour away from the door in a single swift movement, declining both Ben and his granddad’s offers to help her. She rubbed the dust from her hands, and it formed a cloud. She then cleared her throat before explaining the door situation to the spirits.
She made it clear that although going through a door or wall was a power that all spirits possess. It could only happen when both feelings of stress and determination were combined. She went on to explain that the reason that Ben had experienced such a thing, was because he had been stressed by the thoughts of getting stuck and was determined to get out of the situation, so his spirit form had reacted. Ophelia and Ben’s granddad were a bit disappointed by this and it showed all over their faces, but their eyes brightened when Mrs Vine removed the iron key from her pocket, and gave everyone a tour of the corridor and hexagonal room.
They lay in a circle looking up at the stars and moons, thinking and chatting to each other as they relaxed in the calmness that surrounded them.
Ophelia had a piece of string wrapped around her hands and played cat’s cradle with herself as she listened to the hooting of the owls and flutters of bat wings. Ben’s Granddad looked at the moon surfaces that reflected in his glasses, and remembered watching the first man step onto the moon on a black and white TV screen. Mrs Vine smiled, happy to take a break from her work, she admired the owls and tried to remember the names she had given them back when she visited the room regularly. Ben was once again looking at stars and wondering whether he could see Planet Earth. He thought about how light travels and remembered that each star he could see now, was how it looked about eight years ago. So if he could see Planet Earth, he would be seeing it how it had looked when he was six. He would still be living there, very alive and probably playing knight and princess games with Anna.
Mrs Vine asked how close everyone was to choosing what they wanted to be next. Ben was later to find out that she had been mainly interested in hearing his granddad’s answer, but it was Ophelia who responded.
“I think I want to be a horse,” she smiled, “horses are beautiful and live out in the countryside, playing in fields all day.”
“Horses are a popular choice,” replied Mrs Vine.
“Hardworking though.” Said Ben’s granddad; going on to talk about the jobs that horses are used for, pulling carts, farm work and carrying humans. Ophelia frowned as she thought about this. She wanted a relaxing and carefree life, not a hard working one.
“Then I’ll be a zebra,” she concluded.
Once the spirits had left the hexagonal room, Ophelia headed back to the main library and picked up a small pile of zebra books. She asked Ben and his granddad to help her choose one to be, and together they sat around the fire, and read before settling on a perfectly striped female living for twelve years in Kenya.
Mrs Vine thought that it was a fantastic choice for Ophelia and even said that she could imagine her as a zebra: which may have been something to do with her long eyelashes and dark hair or the way she skipped gracefully when she was happy.
Before leaving the library, Ophelia kissed both Ben and his granddad’s cheeks goodbye.
She galloped down the staircase changing form as she went and became the cutest baby zebra that Ben could ever have imagined.