“Ellie!” Bernadette Lawson shouted, spinning around. She looked at the many faces that hurried past. She had taken her eyes off her daughter for only a moment. Mrs Lawson worried that her daughter wouldn’t know what to do. She was a bright girl, that had ‘don’t talk to strangers’ drummed into her from an early age, but now, if she was lost, would she know what to do? Would she ask a passer by? Mrs Lawson looked around. People were moving in all direction, in their own little worlds, concerned only about getting their Christmas shopping completed. Where’s a policeman when you need one? she thought. Would Ellie even think to ask one, if one could be found? Ellie was too young to be out here without an adult. What if she had found another adult and wandered off with them? That didn’t bear thinking about.
Mrs Lawson began to walk around calling for her daughter. The high street was busy. With Christmas just around the corner, it was always going to be that way. Mrs Lawson and her children had been in a number of shops already, and both Ellie and her brother, Flynn, had stuck tightly by her side as the Christmas shoppers jostled them.
If there were one of the children that were more likely to walk off, that would be Flynn. Just two years older than his sister, Flynn was already acquainted with the Police, having become separated in similar circumstances more than once. Now he was wiser and stayed in sight of his mum at all times. Mrs Lawson called him back to her as she continued shouting for Ellie.
“Flynn, I can’t see your sister.” Her eyes moved rapidly over the crowd as she pulled her son close to her. She stood on tiptoe to see above the sea of bobbing heads but could not see her daughter amongst the crowd. For several moments, the pair spun around, Flynn ducking down to see through the forest of legs. After a moment, he tugged on his mum’s arm, and Mrs Lawson turned to her son.
“She’s down there, look.” Flynn said calmly.
Mrs Lawson followed the direction of his finger to a narrow, easily missed alleyway, nestled between two big chain stores, offering free toys for all children that sat in Santa’s lap. Part way down the alley, Mrs Lawson could see her daughter, hands cupped in front of her face, up against the window of a shop of some kind.
Mrs Lawson pulled Flynn towards the alley, and when she reached her daughter, she turned Ellie around to face her. “Ellie, you scared me,” she said. “Don’t walk away from me again, young lady.”
“Sorry mum,” said Ellie. She tried her best to look sorry, but she also clearly wanted to get back to what she had been looking at in the window. Mrs Lawson let go of her daughter and looked up at the shop.
“What are you looking at?” she asked, casting an eye over the shop they now stood in front of. It wasn’t a big shop; it looked like it could have been a house at some point, which had been converted into a shop. The shop-front consisted of a door with three glass panels and a large display window. It had a steel grill between the glass and the products. This was not a modern, double glazed window, it was a single pane of glass, surrounded by a wooden frame that had been painted red. The paint had faded long ago, and in parts, the paint was flaking, exposing the bare wood. A glance up at the signage named the shop as ‘This n That’. It had been painted in rainbow colours, also faded.
“This book, mummy,” Ellie said. She stabbed a finger at the glass, indicating a thick book with colourful depictions of animals and trees on the front.
“Why don’t we ask Santa if he can bring you a book with animals for Christmas?” Mrs Lawson looked at the other items on display; some looked quite old. There was a silver cigarette lighter, a hairbrush, some toys that looked like they had been great in 1920. The book Ellie was pointing at seemed to have a layer of dust on it.
“I don’t want any book, I want that book.”
“What’s special about that book? We can probably go round the corner and get a brand new one. That one looks old and dirty.” Mrs Lawson had been battling the shops and shoppers all-day and wanted to get home. If the price of getting there sooner rather than later was a book for her daughter, it was a price she was willing to pay. But not this book. They had passed a big bookstore earlier, which would certainly have what Ellie wanted.
“It just looks nice, and I like the animals.”
Mrs Lawson shook her head and sighed deeply. “There’s a book store back this way. Let’s have a look in there.” She took her daughter’s wrist and began to walk back the way they had come.
Ellie shook out of her mum’s hold on her and went back to peering through the shop window. “I want that one. Can we at least go in and look?”
“Fine,” said Mrs Lawson. She was too tired to fight with her daughter.
Ellie smiled and ran to the door of the shop. A tiny bell jingled as the door swung open.
Where the sun reached inside the shop, dust motes hung in the air, agitated only by the opening and closing of the door. There were no artificial lights inside, and where the sun didn’t reach, it was almost too dark to see. There were racks of clothes that were clearly second hand. Some probably third or fourth hand, Mrs Lawson thought. There was a counter a short way inside the shop. It was made of a large block of wood, rubbed smooth by decades of hands. There was no one behind the counter, but there was a bell, and Mrs Lawson pressed it. It made a shrill ding.
After a moment, a man emerged from the back of the shop. He looked like he had seen better days, not unlike some of his merchandise. It took him a moment to get to the counter. When he did, he stepped behind it and placed his hands on the smooth wooden surface, in all likelihood to stop him from falling over.
“Help you?” He said to Mrs Lawson. He winked at the children, who stepped behind their mum.
“Yes, please. My daughter would like to have a look at a book you have in the window.”
“Ah, yes,” the man said, tapping the side of his nose twice. “The Jungle. You have a good eye, my dear.” The counterman leaned over to speak to Ellie, who shuffled further behind her mum.
“That’s the one. May we see it?” Mrs Lawson stepped back allowing the counterman to get to the window display where he leaned in and picked up the book.
He walked back to the counter, placed the book in front of him and spun it to face the children. He beckoned Ellie and her brother over. “This book is the Jungle, but you already knew that, didn’t you?” He looked at Ellie as he spoke. “You must be, what, six years old?”
“I’m nearly eight!” said Ellie. “He’s ten.” She pointed to her brother.
“Well, I am sorry,” said the counterman, holding both hands up, palms towards Ellie. “So you liked the look of this book, yes?” Ellie nodded. “Well, would you like me to tell you about this book? It’s a very special book.”
“We really need to be going, I’m afraid.” Mrs Lawson was missing fresh air. The air in the shop was stale, old somehow. “Do you want the book, Ellie?”
“I do, but I want to hear about it first.” She looked from her mum back to the counterman. “Why is it special sir?”
The counterman glanced up at Mrs Lawson, but only for a second. “Well, young lady, this is no ordinary book.” He looked around, as if expecting to see someone else in the shop. When he was satisfied that the group were alone, he leaned over the counter, lowering his head until he could look the children in the eye. “Make no mistake about that.” He lifted the book off the counter and blew the dust off it, and Ellie coughed. “This book came into my possession only recently, but its history is long.”
Mrs Lawson rolled her eyes. “How much is it please, sir?”
The counterman looked up at her, just for a moment, before turning back to the children. “Your children asked to know about this book, didn’t you, children.” Ellie nodded vigorously.
Mrs Lawson shook her head, but said nothing.
The counterman took this as permission to continue. “It was discovered by a Portuguese explorer, Pedro Alvarez Cabral, back in the early sixteenth century.” The counterman rolled his Rs when he spoke the name. Ellie thought it made him sound exotic. “Have you heard of Brazil?” he asked.
“Course!” said Ellie.
“Well, it wasn’t always called Brazil. When the Europeans found it, it was originally called Ilha de Vera Cruz. Island of the True Cross.”
“So he was the first person to find Brazil?” asked Ellie.
“The first European, yes, but not the first person. When he landed there, it was already inhabited by many tribes; some friendly, some not so friendly.”
“What happened?” asked Ellie.
“What happened to Cabral is not known. He faded away into insignificance. Not much is known about where he ended up.”
“What about the tribes?” Ellie didn’t like an unfinished story.
“The Europeans brought diseases with them. They couldn’t have known that, but many of the tribes were wiped out. There is some speculation that Cabral couldn’t live with what he’d done, albeit unwittingly, and his career as an explorer ended as a result.”
“So did he write the book?”
“No!” He laughed a hoarse, throaty laugh. “He was around in the 16th century, in a country that had only just met civilized people! No, they didn’t have books like that back then.”
“Then where did it come from?” If Flynn had been feigning indifference, the game was now up as he asked his question, his eyes giving him away as interested.
“Well, we don’t know. When you read it, you’ll understand why. Craftsmanship like that was many years away.”
“How did you get it?” Ellie still had questions.
“It found it’s way to me through a long line of collectors. You won’t find another like it.”
Mrs Lawson made an un-approving sound and turned her back to the trio.
“Can we see inside?” Ellie spoke in hushed tones, as if to speak loudly would break some kind of spell that the counterman had put on them.
“Not in here. I’d really rather you didn’t.”
“Why?” said Flynn. He was finally intrigued. “What will happen?”
Flynn looked disappointed.
“Probably.” The old man finished.
“What does that mean? Might something happen?
“It might. Just don’t keep it open for too long.” He chuckled and stepped back from the counter.
Mrs Lawson turned back and reached for her purse. “Thank you sir, I think we’ll just take it. These two will have nightmares if you carry on. “How much will that be?”
The counterman looked at her, then back at the children, then back to Mrs Lawson. “What do you think kids? Can I trust you to take care of this?”
“Yes!” shouted Ellie. “Can we get it mum? Please?”
“Again, sir. How much?”
Stepping around the counter, the counterman bent forward, hands on his knees bringing him eye to eye with Ellie. He stayed that way for a moment before standing up. “It’s yours. No Charge.” He slid the book off the counter and handed it to Ellie. “Keep it safe. If you need to read it, do it when you get home.”
Mrs Lawson made several attempts to pay for the book, but the counterman would take no money. Eventually the trio left the shop with the book tucked tightly under Ellie’s arm. Mrs Lawson was glad the book had been free. The children hadn’t even looked inside.
For the remainder of the shopping trip, Ellie didn’t stray from her mum’s side. She continued to clutch the book tightly under her arms. The anticipation of opening the book was almost too much to bear. The old man in the shop had made the book even more interesting than it had looked in the window. The urge to open it for a look – just a quick one, mind – was great, but she resisted and bounced along beside her mum and brother and imagined what she was going to find when she did open it.
As soon as the front door closed, Ellie grabbed her book from the pile of shopping and turned to her brother. “You want to come and look at it with me?” She clutched the book to her chest, almost bouncing with excitement.
“Not really.” Flynn shrugged. There was Xbox to be played and TV to be watched. Books were for school and this was the weekend, so no school tomorrow.
Ellie knew better than to press him. He was only two years older, but his priorities had changed. He wanted to play with her less and less with eac...