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Electronic Books Unlimited

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Bernard had a hangover, an event as unremarkable as the sun rising in the east or a river flowing to the sea. What Manny did find surprising was Bernard’s position, face down on the floor with Fran kneeling next to him, a glossy magazine balanced on her lap.

“What are you doing? You know he likes to recover in his chair.” Manny said.

“I was reading an article about removing toxins through positive energy, and I thought I’d try it on Bernard, who was moaning and looking green,” Fran said.

“He’s always like that. What’s a toxin?”

“I don’t know, the article didn’t explain, but I’m sure poor Bernard is full of them.”

Bernard breathed deeply. If there were such a thing as toxins, the floor of Black Books must have been swarming with them. Any good that would come from Fran’s waving and chanting was sure to be undone by the decades of mould and decay soaking into his clothes and skin.

“Am I healed now? Can I get up?” Bernard tried to ask, but all that came out was a pathetic gurgle. He moved his head slightly, and his hangover, which had respectfully been standing by and watching the toxin removal with mild curiosity, came roaring back, tap-dancing across his skull and whacking at the back of his ears with a spanner. “Fran, my dear, could I trouble you for a paracetamol and glass of water,” he said, but his mouth was still unable to form coherent words, so his request went unfulfilled.

“For god’s sake, Fran, listen to those noises. Give the poor man his toxins back.”

“Oh, all right.” She studied the photo in the magazine. “Maybe if I imagine a backwards hoover.” She waved her hands and made a wooshing sound. “It’s no good,” she said.

The door to the shop swung open and a man carrying a large box shouldered his way in. “Delivery from Electronic Books Unlimited,” he announced.

“I’m sorry, we don’t want any.” Bernard made another attempt at communicating with the outside world. The delivery man stepped back, alarmed by the dreadful moans coming from the motionless body on the floor.

Manny signed for the box. “Electronic books. I wonder if it’s something for the computer.”

“Well, open it,” Fran said.

Electronic Books Unlimited. When we say Unlimited, we mean it. Sounds a bit like a threat.”

Fran picked up the top CD-ROM. “Wouldn’t electronic books be a threat to the paper kind?” She turned the case over. “Look at this, a hundred classics of world literature for a pound. A bookshop can’t compete with that. Or this one, a hundred classics of erotica, ten pounds.” She set the second CD aside for later.

Bernard valiantly roused himself to make a speech. “You think that because you don’t understand books or people who buy books. How do you think I’ve stayed in business all these years? Entropy? No. I’m here because I understand that people love touching the books; they want their grubby fingers on the paper. They love smelling the books; they’re not happy until they’ve got dust up their noses. Books become part of your history; you can line them up on the shelves and see where you’ve been and dream about where you’re going. Electronic books could never be a threat.” Bernard had more to say, but his hangover had chosen that moment to stop the dancing and whacking, and he realised that his impassioned words were not ringing throughout the shop, but were wasting their sweetness in the desert air of his parched throat.

“What’s this nonsense you’ve brought to the shop? Stick it in the computer and let’s have a look,” Bernard said, his voice raspy and weak.

Manny put in the CD and clicked on a title, Moby Dick. The sound and smells of the sea filled the room. A stray seagull wheeled overhead, then stopped, confused to find itself in a small, dusty shop in Bloomsbury.

“Was that…” The room tilted from side to side, much too much like a boat for a man with a hangover. Bernard closed his eyes and waited for it to stop.

--

Bernard woke up. It was a lovely sunny day, the emerald green grass waved in the gentle breeze, and above him a couple of fluffy clouds gambolled and romped across the azure sky. It was all wrong. He’d read the word ‘azure’ in books, but London skies were never that clear. Even the nostalgia-tinged skies of his childhood were a defeated blue, somewhere becoming rain. Something else was wrong:, he was in the country. He tried to stand up, waited for the world to right itself, then tried to stand up again. A muffled ringing sound caught his attention. He checked his pockets and pulled out a large bell. It was too large for the pocket where he’d found it, but he would think about that later.

He was in a camp, surrounded by boxes and bags of the most useless rubbish he’d ever seen, and as the proprietor of a bookshop, he considered himself to be a connoisseur of useless rubbish. Manny and Fran had made themselves comfortable., Manny was doing some complicated juggling with a fork, a thimble, and a piece of soap, while Fran was knitting.

“What happened?” he asked them.

Fran didn’t look up from the white threads she was winding around a board. “It was dreadful. The room turned into a boat. Manny couldn’t close the program or turn off the computer. He had to choose another book otherwise we’d be eaten by Moby Dick.”

“Moby Dick doesn’t eat people.”

“Well, he might start. Do you want to be there when he turns into Jaws?” Manny flipped the thimble into the air and neatly caught it on the end of his fork.

“Where are we now?”

“Manny thought a poem would be safer, so we’re in The Hunting of the Snark.”

“Safer! How is that safer?” He angrily tingled his bell. It was very satisfying. “Moby Dick doesn’t eat people, but Boojums and Jubjubs and other things that shouldn’t exist certainly do. Why don’t you find us a nice Tennyson or something else with waistcoats?”

Manny added another thimble to his collection and began juggling again. “Look at this—didn’t know I could do that, did you?”

“Manny?” Bernard tingled his bell. It was a surprisingly satisfying method of communication.

“Manny didn’t want me to tell you, he thought you might get a little angry, but he fed the keyboard to a Bandersnatch, so we’ve no way to change books,” Fran said.

“I didn’t feed it! It snatched it right out of my hands! That’s what they do—it’s in the name!”

Bernard tingled his bell excitedly. “We must be the characters in the poem. I’ve a bell, so I must be the Bellman. You have a tail…” He felt like there was something he was missing.

“Obviously I’m a beaver.” Fran shrugged. “It’s not so bad. I like it here. I’ve got a hobby, making lace. It’s really quite cool.”

“Yes, but this place is dangerous.” He used his bell to punctuate his remarks. “There’s these creatures called Boojums and they look exactly like Snarks until you get really close and then if your Snark be a Boojum! For then you will softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again!

“Well, I didn’t know that, did I? What’s the worst that happens in poetry? You romp through some fields and get your heart broken. That’s any Tuesday for you.” Manny said.

Bernard tingled his bell loudly. “Good poetry is dangerous,” he said. “That’s why people read it. This particular poem is filled with things that will kill you and it can’t end until we find a Snark. That’s why the poem is called The Hunting of the Snark. There is a Snark and we hunt it. Or you hunt it. I’m going to stay here with my bell.”

“I suppose I’d better get on with that then. Is that why I have a fork?” Manny arranged his hunting supplies.

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care; They pursued it with forks and hope; They threatened its life with a railway-share; They charmed it with smiles and soap. That’s all I remember about hunting it, sorry.”

“Well, that helps a bit. I guess if I meet one, I’ll throw the thimble at him.”

“You could try sticking him with the fork. Remember, the sooner you find the Snark, the sooner we get back to the shop.” Fran said. “At least, I hope so.” She gave him a half-finished antimacassar for luck.

Bernard solemnly tolled his bell. He’d suddenly remembered the Baker’s fate.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

   In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away—

   For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

“He’s fine, I’m sure. We’ll all be fine.” Bernard tingled his bell, but he didn't feel any better. "It will all be fine."

“I’m going over there--that bit of rock looks promising.” Manny shouted at them from a neighbouring hill.

Fran and Bernard watched Manny, who seemed very excited about something on the other side of the craggy hillside.

“He’s shouting like mad. Do you think he’s found a Snark?” Fran asked.

“No,” Bernard said. “There are no Snarks, only Boojums.”

Manny was both chortling and cavorting. It didn’t suit him at all.

“I’m going to pretend that makes sense. At least Manny looks like he’s enjoying himself. By the way, does the poem say anything about what happens to the Beaver?”

The dismal, Boojum-filled wasteland stretched around Bernard as far as his eyes could see. It would be impossible for the books he sold to compete with a truly immersive experience like this.

“I need a drink,” he said, and sadly tingled his bell.