Detail of the Nine Dragons scroll painting by Chen Rong, 1244, Song Dynasty.
I looked up and saw a man standing there. He was holding an old-fashioned paraffin lamp which cast a dim glow around us. His hair was snow-white and he wore thin wire-rimmed glasses; even so he squinted at me as he spoke. He seemed old and young at the same time, which was odd in itself; his hunched demeanour suggested he was elderly, though his eyes sparkled like polished jet stones and his voice was soft and gentle. He was wearing a tatty suit made of tweed and a jaunty, bright red bow tie. He was holding out his hand to me.
I took it without speaking, mute with shock, and he helped me up to my feet. He seemed to understand.
‘Come. Come with me,’ he said simply and led me into the darkness. He didn’t let go of my hand.
I stumbled a few times as we walked, but he was sure-footed and I felt safe with him. He had a faint smell of sweet woody tobacco about him.
After some time walking (maybe half an hour? It was hard to tell) we came to a halt outside a shop front. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realised we were on a street and there was a whole row of narrow shops before me along a terraced facade. I looked up at the sign on the wall and could just about make out the letters: ‘Curzon Street’. Underneath my feet were cobble stones and the hushed gleam of the gas street lamps burrowed through the gloom like a row of gently glowing coals. A thick mist obscured most of my vision; I could just make out vague shapes of people going about their business, walking in and out of shops, stopping to chat. Out of nowhere, a young lad on a bicycle shot past, almost sending me flying. The man, who still had hold of my hand, swiftly pulled me out of the way and onto the safety of the pavement.
‘Scuse me miss!’ the boy called after him, waving his cap by way of apology. I narrowed my eyes, trying to remember where I had seen him before. He seemed familiar somehow.
All in all, I felt like I had just walked into a Dickens novel.
So many questions raced through my head, but still no words came to me.
He gave my hand a reassuring squeeze and led me into the nearest shop. The sign read:
Chinese Armoury, Dr. B. Sharp
It was painted in simple, bookman lettering.
A little bell tinkled brightly as we entered, announcing our arrival. The room was small and welcoming. I shivered, realising how cold I had been. I was glad of the sprightly fire dancing in the hearth, cheering the air to a genial, fusty warmth. I checked out the cosy space before me: a large oak sales desk dominated the room. There was no cash register, but the desk was heaped with tall piles of papers, somewhat in disarray. The wall opposite was decorated with a stunning display of shining swords and daggers, all mounted rather precariously on the wall. The window was crammed with antique-looking Chinese suits of armour, like the ones I had seen on the internet. I would have liked to take a closer look, but the man had let go of my hand and was gesturing to me to sit, so I did.
He disappeared for a few moments and returned with a steaming hot cup of fragrant jasmine tea, which I accepted gratefully. Neither of us had said a word.
He took a stool from behind the desk and sat opposite me, letting me sip the tea and warm up. He waited.
‘Mr Sharp?’ I began, after an uncomfortable pause.
‘Call me Ben.’
‘Ben. Ok. Um. Ben, I—’
I stumbled and shifted uncomfortably on my chair.
‘Perhaps I could ask a few questions, if it’s ok with you?’
I nodded, relieved.
‘I notice you are wearing a suit of armour.’ I looked down at my armour, embarrassed about its ordinariness. No-one else had ever commented on it before so I had always assumed it was invisible. ‘May I ask how long ago you acquired it?’
I thought for a while. ‘It’s hard to say… I can’t remember exactly… but it was a long time ago. I was very young…’
‘And do you know why you are here?’
‘Well, um…’ I felt awkward. ‘I–I fell through the gap–’
‘–Yes. Yes. But you see, that sort of thing doesn’t just happen to anyone. I think you understand?’
‘Yeah, I think so…’ I replied weakly, ‘well, actually, maybe you could explain a bit more?’ I looked at him hopefully.
‘Of course. Of course. Well. Let me see. It’s customary for people to seek me out for my specialist services, but in your case it was necessary for me to send someone to look for you.’
‘You mean the boy?’
‘Yes. The boy. He is my assistant. I’m sorry he nearly ran you over back there by the way. He can be a little reckless on his bicycle.’
‘Oh. I see. So you thought I needed help?’
‘You were sending out the right signals.’
‘Was it that obvious?’
He smiled by way of response. It was a friendly smile.
‘I expect you’re tired. This has all been a bit of an adventure.’
‘Well that’s one way of putting it!’ I felt suddenly agitated. ‘Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but what are you going to do with me now that you have me here?’
‘Shall I tell you about what I do? Maybe that would help.’
I folded my arms across my armour defensively and a scowl settled on my face. This had better be good.
He got up off his chair and went over to the sword collection, carefully selecting a most stunning example. The scabbard was carved from ebony and gilded with bronze filigree. He unsheathed it and carried it carefully and reverently, palms outstretched, as if it were a gift, and presented it to me.
I looked at him quizzically.
‘Go on. Take it,’ he urged.
Hesitantly, fearfully, I took it from him. The polished ebony hilt was gently curved and decorated with intricate bronze patterns, like the scabbard. Surprisingly, it was wrapped in rather prosaic brown cord, which coiled downwards into a loose tassel, but I supposed it made it easier to handle in battle. I gripped it firmly. The blade, long and sleek, flared out into a gentle curve in the opposite direction of the hilt. It felt strong and cool and thrilling in my hands. A shiver of excitement tingled up my spine. A flash of dragon’s fire in my belly. I turned it around and around in my hands and marvelled at how powerful I felt, watching the steel blade glint by the flickering fire light.
‘It is a Chinese Dao sword; a traditional sword used since the times of the Shang dynasty. This one is special though: it is forged by hand using ancient traditional methods, combining both hard and soft steels which are layered for the perfect marriage of strength and flexibility.’ He stopped and admired the sword for a moment. ‘So, it is both durable and resilient. It will absorb shock without breaking.’ He gave a small nod, as if convincing himself that he was satisfied with his choice. ‘It will protect you well enough.’
‘It’s beautiful…’ I admitted. Then a sudden sadness gripped me: ‘But I don’t need a sword; I have my armour!’
He shook his head soberly. ‘Your armour doesn’t protect you.’
‘Yes it does!’ I protested, even though I knew it wasn’t true.
‘No. It weighs you down. Suffocates you. With this, you will be free.’
‘Maybe I just need a different kind of armour’ I said, casting a longing glance at the window full of fanciful costumes.
Ben waved a hand dismissively. ‘Oh, I think you’ll find that one type of armour is very similar to another, in the end.’ He took the sword from me, put it back into its scabbard and placed it into a cotton drawstring bag. ‘Try it, please.’ He was quite insistent.
I shrugged my shoulders and took it from him, slinging it across my shoulder. Great. I thought. So I still have my armour to deal with and now I have a bloody sword too. More baggage!
But when I felt the poised weight of the sword on my back, I felt instantly calmer.
Ben was standing now as if waiting for me to go. He looked at his watch impatiently.
‘I’m so sorry, I have another appointment. My assistant will see that you get back safely.’
He didn’t move. He stood looking at me as if waiting for something else. I wasn’t sure if I should say something. Oh god, what have I forgotten? I racked my brains.
He gave a small cough, ‘ahem… there—there is just the small matter of, um, payment?’ He asked it like a question.
‘Payment?’ I hadn’t even considered that and I felt suddenly deeply ashamed. ‘Oh right, yes of course please forgive me,’ I rambled as I dug my hands into my coat pockets and fished around for some money. I managed to produce a few crumpled notes and some coins and stuffed them into his hands. It didn’t seem enough to me for such a rare, beautiful thing, but if he was disappointed he didn’t show it.
I turned to go and the boy was there waiting for me with his hand outstretched.
‘Pleased to meet you, miss. My name is Dexter – mos’ people call me Dex.’
I took his hand and shook it. ‘Hi Dexter—Dex. Can you take me back to the pavement?’
‘Sure,’ he grinned and he didn’t let go of my hand as he turned to lead me out of the shop. I was glad, because it was pretty dark out there and I would have been utterly lost on my own.
‘Bye!’ I called to Ben, glancing over my shoulder. He smiled a quiet smile and waved at me. In that moment an avalanche of questions I had forgotten to ask tumbled through my head: When would I see him again? How would I find him? How should I get rid of the armour? How should I use the sword – I had never used a sword before! I felt the panic swell.
Then he put his hand out to still me and brought his forefinger to his lips. It was as if he had heard every question I had thought, or read them in my face; I didn’t need to say them out loud.
‘Remember: live the questions and the answer will find you. And as for me; rest assured that I will always be here for you if you need me.’
Relief flooded me and I felt calm again. It will be ok. He won’t abandon me.
‘Thank you.’ I smiled a smile of genuine gratitude and then Dex dragged me away, keen to be off.
It seemed like only moments and we arrived back at the pavement. I concluded that maybe time worked differently down here, or maybe he knew a shortcut. I saw the daylight seeping through the crack above me.
‘How do I get back up?’
‘Use the ladder of course!’
And then I noticed the metal rungs of the ladder reaching up towards the crack in the pavement, which had opened up again. I felt a little foolish for not having seen it before: no need for the bruised bum next time, then. I climbed up and when I got to the top turned around to wave goodbye to the boy.
‘How do I get back here if I need to?’
‘You know the answer to that, silly!’
‘Oh I see,’ I laughed ‘ask a question, right?’
‘Yep – you got it! Gotta go. See yer miss!’
‘Goodbye!’ I shouted after him as he scampered back off into the blackness.
I slid back through the me-sized gap and squinted as my eyes re-adjusted to the brilliant daylight. I wondered how long I had been away, and checking my phone, discovered it was 11am. I had been gone for an hour. An hour? How can that be?
But, I was learning not to look for the answers, so I let the questions wander and stood and watched the sweeping tufts of the cirrus clouds drift lazily through the bright blue sky, and decided it was ok that I didn’t know why or how. Feeling suddenly energised, I practically flew the short distance back home, agile as a swift, my new sword clunking on my back against my armour.
I felt different somehow.
I felt as though I had lived a whole lifetime in that hour.
To read part one of this story, please see here.
© Emily Hughes, 2017