It’s only a story. I write stories, extrapolate lives and fictions from facts and faces. A Farce is a series of natural reactions from a single or series of situations by characters wishing to avoid discovery. I don’t do farce, it is too difficult. I do real life with characters that have a semblance of a backstory and a possible future that neither they nor I can know. But this one is true.
Some years ago I used to visit an old shop in, Piccadilly, London. It was called Simpsons. You may have heard of it, even been there. Apparently it was famous. To squander time I used to wander in and look at the mannequins and the clothes, the decorations and accessories. A clothes shop, sort of department store that even to me seemed like a shop lost in time. I would wander up to and round the men’s department looking at the clothes, suits, jumpers, greatcoats, Gannex raincoats (is that the spelling?). Ties and cravats. remember those? And a multitude of waistcoats and smoking jackets. (That bit might be mis-remembered as they might have been velvet dressing gowns in the old Noel Coward style).
It was an occasional routine, a quick visit, frequently to keep out of the rain, followed by a tour of that other hallowed shop, Fortnum and Mason. This time a slower stroll and peer round all the luxury (to me) food items of the day with a last, slower, inspection of the books in Hatchards; that grand bookshop for the carriage trade. In its day.
Well, time moves on and Waterstone the bookseller chain develops, grows. Simpsons never changed and despite the success of Are You Being Served, which apparently used it as an original idea for a sitcom. The shop was closed and redeveloped to became a flagship shop for Waterstone. It took some time for the refurbishment, maybe a year, more quite likely. During this time I would still stroll along the length of Piccadilly, wasting lunchtimes visiting the shops or spending afternoons visiting the Academy or National Gallery off Trafalgar Square. Reading this it looks like I was always there, well I wasn’t.
But, by a stroke of luck I was there, following that sometime routine, two days after the new, grand, refurbished flagship bookstore of Waterstone in Piccadilly was opened from out of the historic remains of Simpsons. The new store was pristine, carpets were new, smelled new. Even the shelving in smooth black ash shone and balanced the white subject headings over the bays and the walls gleaming freshly above.
Up the old stairs to each floor. The mezzanine, the first, the second. Each floor with discrete service points and tables pyramided with new books. The stairs were still marbled, scored and dented with age and the hand-rail slightly low, built for the people at the turn of the Nineteenth Century who were averagely shorter than today. But the shop floors were bursting with the modernity of design and the flush of success.
Turning right from the stairs are the three lifts in a row with their long lists of subjects aiding the bookaholic or the novice alike. Fiction, ground floor; natural history, cookery, children’s, first floor; second floor humanities, history; with medical, law and sciences above. I was impressed by the scale, the newness and freshness of it all. I had just turned to the right at the top of the stairs on the second floor, walking the short distance to be level with the lift and could see the back wall of the shop, at a guess some forty plus yards away, windows impressively breaking light over the black shelving and books.
My eye moved away from the far scene and was attracted to a figure in the middle distance walking towards me. I noticed he was wearing a long black overcoat. Long, because it was almost down to his ankles. Slightly surprising as the day was a warm spring day and very few people were wearing heavy outdoor coats. Even I was just carrying a lightweight raincoat that day. He wore a wide brimmed fedora, pulled down low, it seemed. Even more surprising was that he also had long dark scarf looped round his neck and chin, maybe it was dark brown.
For the few seconds we walked towards each other I briefly wondered if it was Tom Baker reprising his role as Doctor Who but the scarf was wrong. Anyway, it had been different Doctors by then and the programme was not running. Those odd thought slipped through my mind as we moved towards each other. Maybe they were filming here secretly? Several steps on and the figure quickly turned, his left into an alcove and out of sight.
I continued walking and passed the corner where the alcove was. Walked a couple of steps, hesitated and stopped. I looked around in case they were filming this slightly out of time character who had glided out of shot. Also, I was curious to see if it really was Tom Baker (okay, I am still a Dr Who fan) so looked blatantly round the corner and into the alcove to see him in the flesh, or whoever.
There was no one there. It was like a small room, all shelved with books, no door, no exit. Just the one entrance gap. No man in a long black overcoat and pulled down fedora. He should have been there, I never saw him leave.
I was so surprised I just walked away. Only later, on revisiting the memory, did I recall not seeing a face. Hidden by scarf and hat? Why? A man who just disappeared into a closed recess of books.
Not a crime story nor science fiction. Maybe he was an old Victorian or Edwardian customer or devoted member of staff who had returned for one last preamble round his old outfitters and left via the door and stairs that were no longer there.