looked up from his book
one day on the train to work and surveyed his fellow travellers. They all looked just as grey, serious, jaded and miserable as he felt. No one was speaking. Everyone looked downwards. Occasionally a sullen and begrudging cough cracked the silence - the cougher furious and embarrassed at having drawn attention to themselves for a split second. Despite most of the windows being open, the winter
air couldn't seem to penetrate
the close atmosphere, and gradually, he began to feel as if he were trapped in a tomb that had been sealed for centuries, and that he would soon die of breathing the stale, germ riddled air. He meditate
d on this for a few moments, and when the train pulled into the next stop he decided to get off.
Stepping off the train onto a snow-dusted platform he breathed the bright winter air and smiled, then threw his head back and submerged his face in the blue-grey light of early brisk-winter morning. Sitting down on a bench on the platform he read his book. Hours passed, snow fell, fresh cold air flowed round him, and people boarded and alighted from the trains. He noticed none of it, but read the book to the very end. When he eventually left the story, darkness had arrived; he was stiff with the cold and very hungry. He sighed, smiled, and stretched with the satisfaction of someone who has just finished a wonderful story. As the last dregs of warmth from the book's world faded, a train pulled into the station, and Fergus stepped into the impersonal heat which, although it did the job, was nothing like the cosy log fire he had just been reading about.
One hour after the train had passed his own stop, he disembarked. With no more of the book left to read (he had already dragged himself through the longwinded introduction and absorbed all the footnotes), he found another bench to sit down on and spent a long time thinking and trying to figure out just what he was doing there alone, so late at night. His job was the main reason: the same old nine to five type office work that millions of other people trudged through every day with all of the relentlessly same tasks and conversations, petty politics, stress and frustrations that went along with it. Changing jobs would do nothing to rid him of the sense of being trapped that dogged him night and day. All of his friends had long ago settled down and had children or moved to the countryside, and it was impossible to have any kind of interaction with them unless he had a girlfriend along with him. Which thought led him on to 'the lovely Charmaine', his girlfriend of all of three weeks. Her beauty was, to him, sadly disfigured by her vacuity and vanity - despite her generally sweet nature. He made the decision to run away from it all, then. The only thing that made him hesitate was his parents - but they could only hold him for an instant. He believed in unconditional love, he felt it for them. So despite everything they had put him through, and all of the things he despised them for, he had to think twice about deciding never to see them again. Mum and Dad. Not so very motherly and fatherly, but Mum and Dad. It wasn't the memory of his first day at University, which he had managed to attend despite Mum having secretly spent his college fund on Smirnoff Blue Label. Nor was it his last day at University, which he had to drop out of because he couldn't afford the fees anymore. It wasn't the memories of his father giving him a hiding for refusing to stay at home from school and look after his vodka soaked mother. But there are certain words of righteousness that you can forgive and forget, but not listen to again. Those were the words that urged Fergus onwards and away from them forever.
So up he stood, he put his book into the inside pocket of his coat and walked away, leaving his bag on the station bench. He walked along the tracks in complete darkness, his mind reliving parts of the story he had just read. When the snow began pricking his face, another story was conjured up and relived in his mind. On and on he walked, caught up in the life of every story he could remember, or make up. Sometimes he didn't bother thinking of tales, just imagined lands and feelings and scenes.
A train in the distance woke him from his rapture and immediately he was hit by the pain. Snatched from his reverie he suddenly realised just how cold and tired he was, how biting the early morning wind, how sharp the snow crystals that sliced into his face, how empty his stomach was. This jolt back into the real world made him feel afraid and stupid for the first time. Panic leapt into his heart and crawled over his skin, but he knew he had to calm himself and think rationally. The image of walking to the next train station and getting a cab home to his snug, gas centrally heated flat swept across his mind. He caught hold of it, drew it back and considered it. Then a bigger, beefier image strode through his head in place of the little far away cab and it projected itself on his skull, highlighting the dullness of his life and the cynicism, prejudice and just plain grownupness of all the people he knew. There didn't seem to be any sense of joy or wonder in anyone any more and he certainly wasn't prepared to part with these things. So, even though it was so painfully cold and his legs ached terribly, he turned his back on the road that was his past, and stepped off the tracks and into the woods.
An hour later he came to a babblative little stream, and taking a half eaten bar of chocolate out of his pocket he sat down and ate, and drank some of the sharply cold water. Leaning at the foot of a tree he closed his eyes for what seemed a few moments. When he opened them again he could make out a full moon through the canopy. He stood up quickly, becoming aware that his clothes and even his heavy coat were soaked through; they were meant for the wintry weather, but hardly for a trek through the forest in it. When he looked up again, the moon had been smothered with cloud. With his food supply exhausted, his clothes seeping with icy water and his sense of direction non-existent, he began to realise the danger of his predicament. But his stiffened legs gave out then, and he sank down against the trunk of a tree, and shook out some tears of fear. He had to stop when they started turning to ice on his face, but the fact that he couldn't even cry without something going wrong amused him at last. "This has the makings of a story," he laughed "at least something good will come out of this - if I ever do." He felt better and safer having laughed out loud, so he slumped back against the tree and closed his eyes. "I mustn't fall asleep," he thought to himself as he drifted off. "But I just need to rest; I've been walking for so long"
Every snowflake is unique, a little crystal miracle; but every one has the same sharp, jagged edges. Exquisite, mindless, blue-white flecks of shark-teeth falling from the heavens, delivering their only bite before clinging to you as you slowly become drenched, their only goal before they begin their new existence - to change your colour until you are as beautiful as they once were. Fergus was dreaming only of their beauty, oblivious that they were drifting heavily from the skies and coming to rest on his sleeping form.
"Get up, Fergus. Now." His eyes jerked open and his body flung itself into rigidity, scared out of his wits he let out a quick yelp of fear. "Who's there??"
"Avdotya." It sounded like a simple and obvious explanation, and he suddenly felt stupid for asking it.
"Avdotya?" He tested to see if the voice would reply again.
"Avdotya." He didn't know whether this was a name or an order, but he didn't feel scared anymore, her voice was almost familiar - or was his mind just imagining it to stop him from giving in to fear and panic again?
"Who are you? Why are you here?"
"I am Avdotya. I am here for you."
"But... for what? How did you-"
"I'm here because I have chosen you, Fergus. There is something that I want to share with you, and you alone if you so wish."
Her voice was like silver salmon ripples on a fresh water pool. It made him want to do anything for her and go anywhere with her but somehow he managed to remain relatively composed. "What is it, tell me?"
"Listen to me carefully Fergus. I want to take you to a place called Prokofe." She said the name with reverence; almost as if she was surprised she'd said it.
"Where's Prokofe?" he asked, the name completely unfamiliar to him.
"Prokofe is a library."
As she spoke, a gentle illumination grew behind her until eventually he could make out her appearance. She had no coat on, but didn't seem at all uncomfortable, despite the gnashing wind. "It's my library." She wore a long black linen dress, flowing just a little around her legs but taut against her torso. Her long, curling, mahogany locks were dry and lustrous despite the falling snow. "It houses all the books, all the thoughts and all the ideas that have ever been written or ever will be written. To walk its halls is to have unlimited knowledge and worlds at your fingertips, and indeed it could never be fully explored. It is timeless, and it is endless. Just by being there, Fergus, you are blessed." Her grey eyes lit up when she smiled. "Now tell me, do you want to go?"
"How is it I can see you? How do you know my name?" he demanded. She responded by clasping his hand firmly, drawing it to her face and pressing it against her cheek. She was so warm! She slowly took his other hand as if she were being careful not to frighten him and placed it against the other side of her face. She put her own hands around him and embraced him. He was immediately dry and warm. A flash of thought lit up his mind, telling him to be cautious, but lightning fast it was gone and forgotten. He looked at her with unconcealed awe. "And when are you taking me to Prokofe?" She smiled.
As he transferred his gaze from her smile back to her eyes he noticed peripherally that the world around him had changed.
"This is Prokofe," announced Avdotya.
"How long can I stay here?" he asked, still transfixed by her face.
She arched an eyebrow. "Prokofe is not a place from which you can leave. This is why I chose you, Fergus. You don't want your old life, that's why you were lying drenched and, yes, dying at the foot of a tree, nowhere. That life had no magic or enchantment, and even here I felt you yearn for those things. You are still yearning for them, isn't that so?"
"Well, yes but-"
"Fergus, this is my library. I, and only I, know of its existence. I know each and every book that is housed here. It seems to me that I have always been here, and I will be here forever. But Fergus, I have never been able to share this; I have never been able to give the gift that is this place to anyone. I've wanted to let someone else experience this for so long now, so I waited and watched and finally I handpicked the right person."
"Fergus, every book that will ever be written is in here," she explained patiently. "To be here is to have access to the future. That is why you are the first and only person I have brought here, or ever will. That is why I chose you, you who wouldn't ever want to leave it. But if you do not want this, then you must leave now - and if you do leave, no-one, including you, can ever come here again."
"But, you knew that I couldn't resist this place, especially now that I know of its existence."
"Then, will you stay?"
"You haven't, nor did you ever intend to give me a choice and you know it. But…I must see it."
"Remember, I am always here. This is my gift to you Fergus, and your gift to me."
He began to speak, but she was gone.
He looked around, gasped, and fell to his knees. He was not in a room it seemed, but a Universe! He looked up - there was no ceiling, just walls that reached upwards forever and an endless corridor that stretched out ahead of him and behind him. Countless, unimaginable numbers of books and papers lined the colossal walls with huge gothic flying buttresses and arches separating levels of literature. He flung himself completely on the floor and clung to it, sobbing and trying to suppress the vertigo, crazed with terror by the incomprehensible infinity all around him.
"Fergus." He heard Avdotya's voice whisper his name, again he was calmed. He snickered bitterly at his dog-like behaviour. Eventually he summoned enough courage to raise his head a fraction. The world around him had changed again. He was in what appeared to be some kind of study, he was relieved to see, just a normal sized room with ordinary furniture. The walls were panelled with oak bookcases which were filled with leather-bound books. A thick ruby red carpet covered the floor beneath him into which sank a thick oak desk and chair, and a sumptuously comfortable looking chaise-longue. The room was lit by candles in sconces on the walls and in candelabra which rested on the mantlepiece of a crackling log fire which roared in an enormous, intricately engraved hearth. Before the fire was a great leather armchair which he immediately sank into, breathing deeply until the palpitations passed. On a small table beside the chair was a decanter of whiskey, a glass containing some ice, a tray of sandwiches and a book.
He poured himself a whiskey and picked up the book. Silently thanking Avdotya for giving him a glimpse of the reality of the place, and for creating this room to save his sanity, he began to read.
Snowflakes fluttered through the hibernal air, finally falling through the trees of the dense forest, and weeping onto the frozen form of Fergus. They had succeeded in turning his skin a gentle shade of blue, except for his cheeks which remained a fire-warmed red.