As I've done in a couple of blog posts, I would like to share a short story I wrote a few years ago. If you're an Anglophile, or if you like history and/or the paranormal, perhaps you'll enjoy Charing Cross. Thanks for taking the time to read my work and, as always, copyright applies. (©Veronica Randolph Batterson)
By Veronica Randolph Batterson
The bookshop was isolated, its location hidden from the steady stream of traffic along Charing Cross Road. That gave it an appealing quality, and each time I visited, I felt I’d found something in London no one else had discovered.
Entering the shop was similar to taking a step back in time; a dust coated interior, dim lighting and dated titles along the bookshelves greeted you. As an American tourist, I found it a welcome alternative to the bookstore chains. It was a pleasure to spend a few rainy hours discovering the hidden treasures in the little bookshop called Charing Cross.
It was one such overcast afternoon that I found myself perusing the shelves once again. The storms had started and the steady sound of raindrops pelting the front window of the shop was soothing. I made my way to the rear of the building and set the few books I was carrying on top of a table. As I did so, I noticed a gentleman sitting nearby. His posture was bent; he slumped forward and had white, unkempt hair. He was dressed in a faded, military-like overcoat that obscured his build, yet he appeared small in stature.
The man was engrossed in a book, and as I turned away, he sighed heavily. He seemed distraught at what he was reading and kept his face lowered over the pages. Then small sobs shook his body. Tentatively, I approached the man and asked if there was something I could do for him. His cries ended then and he looked directly at me, yet I felt he didn’t see me. His stare was sorrowful, but his gaze seemed to go through me. Worried, I sought the bookshop owner.
“There is no one else in here besides you, love,” he said behind the counter at the front of the shop, making no move to assist me. “I have been sitting here for quite some time, and you have been the only one to enter.”
The proprietor peered at me over the top of his small-framed spectacles, which rested on the bridge of his nose. Turning back to the newspaper he was reading, he moved a magnifying glass slowly over the print and I wondered just how poor his eyesight was. Perhaps the strange man had slipped in unnoticed. Looking at the doorway, I glimpsed the small bell that jingled delicately announcing arrivals and departures. I then doubted the shopkeeper would miss the man had he entered.
The shop owner probably viewed me as something of an oddity because I visited so regularly. Most tourists were sightseeing the city’s well-known attractions, but I was continually drawn to the charm of Charing Cross. Oddly, I had yet to make a purchase. Attempting several times, it seemed that each book I tried to buy wasn’t for sale. I began to wonder how the shop stayed in business. Rarely did I see any customers. Regardless of what the shopkeeper thought of me, I knew that there was a distraught man in the back of the bookshop and I was determined to help him.
Wondering how I might approach the gentleman, I made my way back to where he had been. However, when I reached the table, the man was gone. Searching every aisle, I found no trace of him. Returning to the empty table, I noticed the book he had been reading. It was old, as were all of the books in the shop, but the cover on it was worn and ragged from use. It was difficult to make out the title. It appeared open to the page the man had been reading and I wondered if it might give clues as to what had upset him. It showed only a faded image of a child playing. The caption underneath read:
“Horatia Nelson, daughter of Admiral Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. Lady Hamilton died penniless and Horatia never wished to acknowledge she was Lady Hamilton’s child. She took great pride, however, in being the daughter of Britain’s greatest hero.”
There were other books on the table. Each one of them had something to do with Horatio Nelson, his daughter Horatia, and Lady Emma Hamilton. I sat down and began reading the pages.
“Admiral Lord Nelson was one of Britain’s most famous war heroes. He died in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar against Napolean Bonaparte. Lady Emma Hamilton, his mistress, gave birth to their daughter Horatia in 1801. Admiral Lord Nelson, upon his death, provided for the future of Lady Hamilton and asked his constituents to look out for Horatia and Lady Hamilton’s affairs. Possibly due to the fact that Nelson was married to someone else, as was Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s counterparts never acknowledged Horatia or her mother. As a result of Lady Hamilton’s extravagant lifestyle, she died penniless and even spent time in debtors’ prison. Horatia, it was said, never knew for certain if Lady Hamilton was her mother, as Lady Hamilton never acknowledged that fact to her child, preferring to allow her daughter to think she was adopted. Once presented with the name of her mother, Horatia refused to believe it. Lady Hamilton died in 1815 while her daughter lived a very long life until 1881.”
I immediately thought of Trafalgar Square and the column that stood proudly commemorating Admiral Lord Nelson. Searching the bookshop once more, I still found no sign of the gentleman. I then left the shop and made my way south along Charing Cross Road to Trafalgar Square. As usual, the great square was filled with people and pigeons, while the massive bronze lions appeared to guard Nelson’s statue. I had been there dozens of times, but something stirred me into visiting again. It was unexplained and I couldn’t pinpoint why; perhaps it was for the same reason I was drawn to Charing Cross. At any rate, I found myself searching the crowd.
A movement caught my eye and I saw it was the sorrowful man from the bookshop. He was wandering through the crowd, weaving between people feeding the birds and children who were playing tag. The man kept moving, apparently with no intended destination. He looked to be very short and was oblivious to those around him. The crowd appeared unaware of him as well. It seemed that I was the only one who had taken notice of the stranger. I followed him and when I was within just a few feet of the man, I attempted to say something. However, a pigeon flew a bit too close to me, causing me to stumble and take my eyes from their target. When I regained my balance, I had lost sight of him. It seemed he’d just vanished before my eyes.
I decided I’d endured enough adventure for the day, but the image of the man troubled me, and my thoughts wandered as I walked home. The drizzling rain continued and I was thankful to finally open the door of the flat I was leasing. The rhythmic ticking of the mantelpiece clock greeted me as I shrugged out of the rain slicker, dripping water in small puddles on the tile floor.
I relayed my experience to a British friend later and he joked that I had encountered the spirit of Lord Nelson.
“It must have troubled him greatly that his poor Emma and little daughter hadn’t been looked after as he’d wanted. I guess when he read it in the books, it upset him,” Nigel grinned. “You would’ve known if it were Lord Nelson. His right arm was amputated due to a war injury.”
It must have been the look on my face that caused Nigel to sound alarmed. I assured him I was fine, but the memory of the man troubled me even more. I was convinced I had noticed his right sleeve was pinned to his shirt, although at the time I just assumed his arm was tucked inside his coat. The thought made me determined to go back to the little bookshop on Charing Cross, although I knew it must be closed for the day. Nigel decided to come with me.
“What’s the name of the shop?” he asked, as he struggled to keep up with my strides.
“Charing Cross,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s a well known place for rare books. I’ve been there a few times myself,” he said.
Nigel took the lead, yet as we reached Charing Cross Road, he traveled in the opposite direction from where I knew the bookshop to be. As I tried to convince him of this, we reached the place he had indicated. This particular establishment was indeed Charing Cross Bookshop, but it wasn’t the same bookstore I had frequented.
“This isn’t the place. The bookshop I went to was called Charing Cross. This is Charing Cross Bookshop. Obviously, there are two different shops,” I insisted.
I knew the store to be a little farther north, so we began walking. The weather had cleared and it was no longer drizzling. The sun was setting and the sky became a palette of color. I suddenly recalled that each time I had visited the bookshop, it had been raining. I’d never really noticed that before and absently mentioned it to Nigel.
We crossed the street and approached the storefront. Although, when we reached where I was certain the bookshop to be, it wasn’t there. Another store with an entirely different name graced that corner. Confused, I turned about, checking the cross street, and each landmark, and I was certain that Charing Cross had been there just hours before.
“It’s not here,” I stammered.
“Maybe we’re in the wrong block. It’s easy to get turned around,” Nigel said.
“It’s not in another block,” I cried. “It was right here!”
We stood together silently, looking at the space where I knew with all my being Charing Cross had been. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be directed up and down both sides of Charing Cross Road and we never located the little bookshop I had so enjoyed. Its address would’ve been exactly as I had said, so I knew it pointless to look elsewhere; however, I was in no mood to argue.
“You don’t suppose you encountered a time portal, do you?” Nigel asked.
I stared blankly at my friend. His red sweater was unraveling at the bottom and a small hole was visible near the neck. I made a mental note of a possible birthday gift for him and focused my attention on what he had just said. Anything was possible, I reasoned, but a time portal was something that seemed far-fetched. Yet how much more out of the ordinary was a time portal compared to a non-existent bookshop and the ghost of Britain’s greatest war hero? Since it appeared my bookshop had disappeared into thin air, the explanation seemed plausible.
“But how do you explain the fact that every time I visited, except for this particular time, the shop had been here?” I asked.
“Think about when you came by. Didn’t you mention you had never been here when it hadn’t been raining? Maybe that has something to do with it,” he said.
“You mean the portal is open only when it’s raining? And somehow I step through that time link and that’s when the bookshop appears?” I asked skeptically.
Nigel nodded enthusiastically. It might also explain why I’d never been able to buy any of the books in the store. However, I still wasn’t eager to completely embrace his line of thinking. At least one question remained.
“How would you explain the gentleman? Not only did I see him in the bookshop, but he was also wandering around Trafalgar Square. If he was part of a time portal, then how did I see him outside of it?” I asked.
“Joking aside, what if the man had been Nelson? What if, by some strange fate, you came upon his apparition in that old bookshop, and for whatever reason, his spirit led you to Trafalgar Square?” Nigel asked.
“It makes no sense,” I replied.
“It makes perfect sense to me. Try coming back when it’s raining and see if your old shop is here again,” my friend said.
The weather was dreary and the sky looked as if it would drop buckets of rain at any moment. The air was damp and cold and a light drizzle moistened my face as I made my way to Charing Cross Road. Most people would wish for clearer skies, but I was so happy with the current conditions that it took great resolve not to skip the rest of the way. Nigel was accompanying me and the look on his face mirrored my feelings. He, too, would’ve been greatly disappointed if the sun had suddenly decided to peek through the clouds and make an appearance.
We were getting closer and my heart was pounding so loudly I could hear nothing else. The rain was coming down heavily at that point and much of the pedestrian traffic hurriedly sought shelter. We crossed the street and I was almost afraid to look. I was soaked and shivering and I was suddenly aware of taking Nigel’s hand in mine.
As we stepped upon the sidewalk, I noticed a subtle change in my surroundings, something I had not recognized before. The walk was cobblestone and the lanterns that framed the door of the shop hung unlit in the daylight. I peered closely at the storefront façade and, just as my friend had said, there before us stood Charing Cross.
As we made our way inside, I wondered if I might encounter the distraught little man once again. The thought of it being the ghost of Horatio Nelson was appealing. Would I discover some reason I might have crossed paths with this wandering soul?
Suddenly I questioned what would happen if we remained inside the little bookshop when the rain ceased. Would we find ourselves trapped in the past? I looked out the front window as the rain continued to pour. Perhaps it would let up soon, I thought. I made my way to the back of the shop in search of Admiral Lord Nelson, secretly hoping that on both accounts the results would prove favorable.