Opium House

By Edward Cox




The heavy wood door swung inwards, creaking on rarely used hinges. An old craggy face peered out into the gloom with an expression that objected to the sudden chill of the night air. His aging eyes held a sharp keenness, and the intense, almost maniacal gaze fell onto the face of a younger, middle-aged man. He frowned suspiciously.

"Mr Cobbler?" asked the man outside.

Mr Cobbler sized up the tailored suit and expensive raincoat of the well spoken other, and then sneezed noisily into a red spotted handkerchief. "Thatís right. Whoís asking?"

"The nameís Windgate . . . we spoke earlier on the telephone?"

"Yes, yes. I remember."

A ghost of a smile came to Windgateís face as he waited for an invitation to enter the old building; an invitation Mr Cobbler made no signs of offering.

Clearing his throat politely, Windgate shivered and made a point of showing the old man how cold it was outside. "May I come in?" he asked amidst rising plumes of freezing breath.

Mr Cobbler shook himself as if noticing the younger man for the first time. "I suppose you must," he grumbled and moved back from the door.

Stepping inside, Windgate removed his leather gloves and wide-brimmed hat. He turned to give them to his host, but Mr Cobbler just closed the door and shuffled off down a dimly lit corridor without a word. Windgate smiled, dropped the gloves into the hat and followed the fragile old man along the hallway.

As he walked, Windgate wrinkled his nose against the musty smell of age and dust. The air was slick with the scent of oil burners, which stung his eyes. The carpet was badly worn and tacky underfoot. Cat fur and hairballs lay wherever he looked.

Another offensive odour kissed Windgateís nostrils and he guessed that Mr Cobbler didnít wash very often.

In-fact, little was known about the old man at all. It appeared that Mr Cobbler was the last in a long line of sons to have inherited the running of this old royal library, and had been here, seemingly alone, since the death of his father at the turn of the century.

But these things were of no importance if the old fool had what he came for. Windgate could write a report on his observations later. As for now, stale air, worn carpet, and unpleasant smells were something he was quite prepared to tolerate.

But Windgate still found it difficult to accept that this place had been forgotten for all these years, especially when he took into account just who it had been forgotten by.

Suddenly Mr Cobbler sneezed again and Windgate had to stifle a chuckle as the old man failed to reach his handkerchief in time.

He cursed obscenely. "Now Iíve gone and caught me death!" he groaned.

"I do apologise, Mr Cobbler," soothed Windgate, "but as I said earlier today, this is a pressing matter."

The old man stopped at a door and produced a large bunch of keys from a hidden pocket in his brown, moth-eaten cardigan. "Iím a bit too long in the tooth for pretty words, sir," he said without bothering to look at Windgate. "I always say what I mean and I means it too. Now, if I hadnít opened that door, I wouldnít have a bloody cold in the making, no matter what you says. But, by the by, if I can help bring this bloody war to an end, I will. But likes I says on the phone, Iíll make no promises however pressing the matter is."

Windgate, surprised by the blunt words, simply nodded. Sated by this silent response, Mr Cobbler turned the key in the lock and twisted the doorknob. Windgate read the sign on the door Ė History - and followed the old man inside.

The History room was just as dimly lit and even ranker smelling than the hallway. The impossibly high ceiling disappeared into the shadows above, seemingly, to Windgate, with no end. The curtains covering the tall windows were thick and dark like black holes: light devouring and impassable. Windgate wondered if Mr Cobbler ever let the light of day into his home. He doubted it. The old man looked as though he hadnít been beyond these walls in years.

A huge, singular bookcase, sitting in the roomís centre, confronted Windgateís attention. Covered in dust and cobwebs, it was surrounded by a gnarly circular table. The whole thing looked as though it had been carved straight from the tree. Windgate marvelled at the craftsmanship as he walked its circumference and looked at the books crammed into the misshaped shelves. There had to be thousands!

He followed its twisted and uneven length, arching his back to see the top, and strangely flinched when his gaze met that of a catís, sitting lazily on a high shelf. Itís tail hung over the edge and flicked from side-to-side angrily. It then stretched its mouth in a wide yawn and ran a bright pink tongue over long whiskers, before returning to stare at the man below.

Windgate flinched again and a chill scratched his spine as Mr Cobblerís grating voice broke the silence.

"Donít mind Merlin, sir. We donít get many visitors any more, not since we shut down anyway. Just wondering who you are . . . probably."

Windgate nodded. "He seems to like heights."

"Oh yes," chuckled the old man. "Not like Baudie though."

"Baudie?"

"Baudicca - Merlinís wife. Canít stand heights, she canít."

"Oh! Another cat!" gasped Windgate.

The old man looked at the younger oddly. "Of course sheís a cat!" He tutted. "Donít know where the bleeders got to, mind. Probably out looking for food. I forget to feed them sometimes." He tapped the side of his head. "The old nogginís not what it used to be."

Windgate frowned. "Yes. Quite. Mr Cobbler, did you find the references I asked for?"

"References?"

"On the telephone . . ." The old manís blank gaze agitated Windgate. "The books I asked you for, Mr Cobbler?"

"Oh the books!" realised the old man. "Why didnít you say so?"

Windgate waved a dismissive hand. "Did you find them?"

"Yeah. Well, one of them. But it wonít do you much good, sir."

"Why?"

"Because it donít exist anymore."

"What? The book?"

"No!" Mr Cobbler rolled his eyes. "Come on Iíll show you."

He led Windgate to the round table. With old, shaking fingers he adjusted an oil lamp in a hollow carved into the original bark, and as the extra light lifted the shadows, Windgate saw a lone book sitting on the tableís dark surface. Like everything else in the library, it was old and covered in dust.

Goose pimples tingled over Windgateís skin as Mr Cobbler pulled out a chair and motioned for him to sit.

"Itís the last translation ever written," explained the old man. "A devil to find."

"But is it in English?"

"Oh yeah," was the boastful answer.

Windgate licked his lips and placed his glove-stuffed hat on the table.

"Old English, mind," continued Mr Cobbler. "Translated by a monk in the fourteen hundreds. And if memory serves, got himself burned at the stake for his troubles, as well. Blasphemer, they called him. Charged and found guilty of heresy and witchcraft." The old man shook his head. "If only theyíd known, eh? Still, itís all hand written. Beautiful book it is."

"Yes. Yes it is," replied Windgate, and reached for the book as tentatively as one might reach for a newborn babe.

But Mr Cobbler stopped him. "If you donít mind, sir, Iíd prefer if you wore these." He held out a pair of white gloves. "Iím a bit fussy about me books," he explained. "I likes to keep them clean."

Without taking his eyes from the book, Windgate accepted the gloves and slipped them on. They were stale and crusty, but this didnít surprise him and he ignored the grimy-slick feeling of the material as it passed over his skin. It seemed to be a trait of the old library and he found himself amused by Mr Cobblerís idea of cleanliness.

He ran his hands down the sides of the book and pulled it towards him. The cracked and peeling leather binding was faded. The remnants of elegant gold leaf writing swept down the spine.

Taking a deep breath, Windgate steadied his excitement and looked to the old man. "Do you mind if I have a moment alone, Mr Cobbler?"

Mr Cobbler threw his eyes into the top of his head. "Iíll get some tea and biscuits, shall I?"

Windgate waited until he heard the door close and silence Mr Cobblerís quiet moans and shuffling footsteps. He ran a finger over the indented writing on the bookís spine: Albion Ė ghosts of the past and their incantations.

Carefully lifting the cover, he marvelled at the ancient writing inside. The ink was flaking with age, the delicate sweeping strokes of the quill beautifully crafted with love and care. Windgate took a deep breath. This had to be the most exquisite piece of literature he had ever held.

The first page was a contents listing. Roman numerals ran vertically down the left margin and next to them were a host of names Windgate had never heard of. He traced a finger down the names until he found the one he recognised: XI Ė The Talisman.

Putting a fist to his mouth Windgate closed his eyes. This is it, he thought. Youíll never breathe English air now, you bastard!

He turned the pages, more carefully and slowly than his excitement wanted to, seeking chapter eleven. He felt his heartbeats quicken and a victorious smile appeared on his face. The war office would be so proud of him. Perhaps his name would even be mentioned to the king himself. The King relished Windgate.

His excitement won the day. Windgate turned the pages feverishly, flicking them over two, three at a time. He ignored the creaks and groans of the old paper with the simple glee of a child, until he came to the penultimate page. He steadied himself and turned it slowly. Windgateís face dropped to a look of horror. "No!" he whispered.

Merlin jumped onto the table and Windgate flinched, knocking his hat and gloves to the floor. He flinched again as Baudicca made an appearance and the two cats playfully fought then rolled off the table and fled. Windgate flinched for a third time as Mr Cobbler silently appeared with a tray piled high with stale looking biscuits and a cracked pot of steaming tea.

Windgate swallowed and looked at the old man with nervous shock. Oblivious to the younger manís discomfort, Mr Cobbler nosily set down two teacups complete with saucers. He poured a little milk into both cups and then reached for a bowl of sugar cubes.

He turned to Windgate, a pair of tongs in one hand, the sugar bowl in the other. "One lump of two, sir?"

"What? No, forget the tea. Itís not here!"

Mr Cobbler frowned.

"Chapter eleven. The Talisman, itís not here, Mr Cobbler!" Windgate showed the old man the blank pages.

"I know, sir. I tried to tell you earlier, it donít exist anymore."

"What do you mean?"

Mr Cobbler could hear the agitation in the younger manís demands and smiled softly. "The Talisman, sir. It packed itís bags and left and took itís whereabouts with it."

"But the pages in the book. Theyíre blank!"

"Thatís right, sir. Took the words as well. You wonít find it unless it wants to be found." Mr Cobbler placed the tongs and bowl back on the tray.

"But the war . . ." Windgate looked frightened and stared at the book in disbelief. Perhaps Mr Cobbler was mad, or had hid the pages himself out of spite. He felt sick. To have come so close and then to end with nothing was at best infuriating. "Iíll have to take this with me," he said. "My superiors will need to see it."

Mr Cobbler raised a hand to his mouth and coughed politely. "Iím afraid Iíll need to see your ticket before you can do that, sir."

Windgate wasnít sure he had heard the old man correctly. "Ticket? What ticket?"

"Your library ticket, sir. A book cannot leave the building without one of valid date."

Windgate suddenly laughed. "You canít be serious?"

The humour was not returned "Deadly serious, sir, Iíll have to insist. Iím a stickler for rules."

"But weíre at war, man. I have to take it. This book could be the only thing stopping German forces landing on our shores!"

"Oh, I doubt that, sir. But rules are rules all the same - no book can leave the premises . . ."

"Without a bloody ticket! Yes I know! But I simply have to take this. Surely you understand that?"

Mr Cobbler took a deep breath. "Donít think you can come here with that expensive whistle and well-to-do manner and and muscle me around, Mr Windgate. Twenty-seven years I ran this library after the old man died, and it was you lot that shut me down in the first place." He reached inside his cardigan and produced a yellowed letter. "ĎDear Mr Cobbler," he began. "We regret to inform you that Opium House is no longer required as a royal libraryí.

"No longer required!" he shouted. "Iíll tell you what I understand, sir, you shut me down for a new place around the corner. You had no interest for real books; you wanted all that obscene stuff, naked ladies and sex. But not anymore, we fall into a spot of bother and the first thing you lot do is call old Cobbler. Yeah, thatís right, only when you need me, eh!"

Windgate raised his hands in a calming gesture. "I understand youíre upset, Mr Cobbler, but this really isnít the time to let pride stand in our way, is it? Just let me take the book and Iíll see what I can do about reopening Opium House. Is that what you want?"

Mr Cobbler laughed bitterly. "Libraries are like Gods, Mr Windgate. We only exist as long as people need us."

The old librarianís eyes glinted like a lunaticís. An ugly situation, Windgate thought. He turned his back and hid from the madman stare. "I am going to take this book, Mr Cobbler,"

But no reply was made. The old man was staring into space.

"Mr Cobbler!"

Motivated by Windgateís raised voice, Mr Cobbler slowly lifted the tray from the table. "Itíll do you no good, sir," he said stiffly.

"So weíre agreed? I can take the book?"

The old man let the tray fall from his hands. The sudden noise singed Windgateís nerves and he gritted his teeth against the eruption of sound that seemed to take an eternity to end. The younger man looked to the wet pile of broken crockery and biscuits, and then at Mr Cobbler with incredulity etched onto his face. But he sank back in his chair when he saw the red fury on the old manís

"You havenít listened to a bloody word Iíve said, have you!" he screeched, threw his hands into the air, and stormed away, muttering curses.

Windgate had not realised he had been holding his breathe and exhaled heavily. He felt his cheeks flush and sat motionless in the chair for a moment. Eventually he took the book and held it up to his face, studying the grainy, blank cover. He should just walk out with it. Mr Cobbler was a madman! Windgate weighed the odds. He realised the old man was potentially dangerous, but he could easily be overpowered, if it came to that. And after all, the country did need the book more than the library. Lives depended on it. He had every right to do this.

Windgate tried to ignore a tapping doubt at the back of his mind as he justified the situation. Things were wrong here, and it wasnít because of the old manís eccentricities either. There was something oppressive about this place, like somebody was tracing a finger along his spine, searching for the point were pleasure would turn into spine-snapping pain. Opium House reeked. It smelt of ghosts.

He shivered and grimly came to the only decision he could make. Confiscating the book was his only option. But when Windgate placed the book down on the table, he was confronted by the black figure of Merlin, sitting casually before him. He locked gazes with the cat and bared his teeth, trying to scare it away. Windgate jumped back in his seat as Merlin beamed a smile back at him.

"Heís really quite right," said the cat, "Bran has gone, Mr Windgate. Youíll not find anything on the Talisman in that book. Not any more."

Windgate looked at the cat with open-mouthed astonishment. It ran a tongue over its whiskers and smiled again. Then Baudicca jumped onto the table and muzzled against her husband.

She too turned and smiled. "But is Bran really the object of your search, Mr Windgate?"

Unable to believe his eyes and ears, Windgate searched the room for Mr Cobbler. He saw the old man pounding a large bookcase with a multicoloured feather duster and surrounded by a cloud of dust and cobwebs. He seemed unaware or unimpressed by the talking cats as he continued to utter curses.

Windgate turned back to the patiently waiting felines. "Excuse me?" he mumbled weakly.

Baudicca rolled her eyes. "So young and naive, Mr Windgate. Did you really think the Cauldron would be so easily found?"

Windgate shrugged his shoulders, unable to speak. Baudicca sighed and smiled at Merlin before jumping from the table and sauntering off.

Merlin took a few steps forward and sat on the book just a few inches from Windgateís face. "There are two reasons why you cannot take this book, Mr Windgate. Firstly, you wish to summon something that cannot be summoned. You think you can demand of Bran, you think he is yours to instruct and gain protection from an invading force. But no, Mr Windgate, you are quite wrong. Bran watches us from a secret place, and it is in that place he keeps his cauldron."

Windgate nodded dumbly. "Cauldron?"

Merlin chuckled. "Believe me, Mr Windgate, being deceitful will do you no good. Baudicca was right to call you naïve, but you are also immature and infantile. Just look at yourself. You are willing to believe in the powers of old Celtic gods and yet you cannot bring yourself to converse with a simple cat."

Windgateís shoulders sagged with tired acceptance. How could he report this? The war office would think him as mad as Mr Cobbler. But the cat, or whatever it was, did have a point. This project had its head in the clouds from the onset. Windgate had only ever thought he would find the book. He hadnít realised it had come to mean so much to him. Nor how much he believed, however slim the chances, that the legends were true and a way to end the war could be found in this old library.

Unsteady, unsure and feeling sick, Windgate spoke to the cat. "If the legends are true," he began slowly, "Branís cauldron can resurrect the spirits of dead warriors Ė soldiers and leaders. The advantage this would give Britain and all the joint forces would be immeasurable."

Merlin shook its head. "You are talking of warriors from ages past, Mr Windgate. What good would it do you? Fighting with sticks against swords? Swords against guns? Those you seek to restore could never hope to stand the test of modern warfare. They would be cut to the ground as quickly as you could resurrect them."

"Then the legend is true." There was an edge of triumph to Windgateís voice.

"Oh yes. The cauldron is quite real, Mr Windgate."

"Then you must tell me where it is!"

Merlin clucked its tongue. "A childish demand, do you not think?"

Windgateís frustration simmered into anger then. "Surely you can understand that resurrecting these figureheads from history, to have them standing under our banner, would put steal into peopleís spines and fear into the enemy. Our rate of loss would fall dramatically. The morale of the troops would soar into the heavens. Think on that, Merlin. The power of morale alone is not something to be underestimated."

Merlin shook its head sadly. "And what happens when the people see their historical heroes for the unwashed, arse scratching bigots they truly were? Do you honestly believe that Joan could free France by waving a sword in Gods name again? Or Herne could crush the Naziís from the heart of his forest domain? What do you think would happen when your soldiers stand next to the Pendragon and realise he has no comprehension of machinery or the modern tactics of war? Where would your morale be then, Mr Windgate?"

Windgate opened his mouth, said nothing, and closed it again.

"Let me tell you, let me tell all your kind," continued Merlin. "The legend of the cauldron maybe true, but you will never get the chance to use it, Mr Windgate. When Branís mortal life came to an end, his head was cut from his body and placed under the great tower in London. This was done to ensure hostile forces never invaded these shores again."

"But . . . but we could still use him," argued Windgate weakly.

"Why? Please try to understand what Iím telling you, Mr Windgate. The Talisman already protects these isles from the men you fear. As long as Branís head remains under the Great Tower, it will continue to do so forever more. As for the cauldron . . ." Merlin shrugged. "Bran took it with him. And no one, save himself, knows of its whereabouts. He did this to ensure it was never used for gains you would now use it for. It is not a toy to conquer another nation with, Mr Windgate. That is not its purpose."

A strange silence hung in the air and Windgate and Merlin locked gazes. Then Merlin tapped the old leather book with its paw and smiled its eerie smile again.

"As for the second reason, I believe Mr Cobbler has already told you, yes?"

Windgate narrowed his eyes.

"You do not have a library ticket, Mr Windgate. Now go and tell the king what you have learned on this day."

With that, Merlin jumped to the shelves of the bookcase and bounded up its twisted length. Windgate watched as the cat rose up into the shadows and finally disappeared.

He looked down to the table and blinked.

So had the book.

Rising from the chair, Windgate turned and was immediately confronted by the aging Mr Cobbler.

"I do apologise, sir. My temper gets the better of me sometimes."

Lost for words, Windgate dumbly pointed over his shoulder at the table, his mouth open.

Mr Cobbler chuckled. "Whatís the matter, sir? Cat got your tongue?" He stepped in close and shut Windgateís gaping mouth with his hand. "There is one final problem, sir," he continued, brushing down the shoulders on Windgateís raincoat. "Merlin tends to talk too much, you see, and I canít let you leave the House knowing what you know."

Confused, Windgate felt a warm, sickly pain flare in his gut. The strength in his legs left him, and they gave way.

As he crumpled to the floor, Mr Cobbler pulled a thin letter opener from the younger manís stomach and wiped the blood on his red spotted handkerchief. "Donít worry, sir, itís poisoned tipped, the pain wonít last long." The old man smiled sympathetically. "Please understand, we canít have you lot digging up the Great Tower, looking for some old cauldron, can we? Desperate measures for a pressing situation, you might say."

Windgateís vision swam as he dumbly looked up from the floor. The old man gripped the dead weight of his legs and began dragging his body towards the door, whistling as he went.

Windgate felt his life fleeing from his soul. He felt Numb. He then thought of the speech the king would never give in his honour.

He groaned weakly.

"Oh donít you worry about that, sir," said Mr Cobbler cheerfully. "Your first on the list for a new ticket."

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Edward Cox

Bio:Ed Cox lives in England, he is 32 years old, and is studying for a creative writing degree at Luton University.

E-mail: edcox@edcox.fsnet.co.uk

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