Once Upon a Time

In a small back street in Edinburgh, Scotland not far from Charlotte Square, there is an antique bookshop called Once Upon a Time, specialising in rare and out of print publications. It is a little known fact that in the basement of this shop, coving nearly every square meter of space rests a voluminous collection of vintage post cards and magazines, dating from the 1870’s to the 1960’s. One day in the spring of 2005, Andy entered this little antique bookshop and began browsing about the musty items on the first floor. He passed a lazy calico cat dozing in a windowsill, glided by a collection of Royal Warwick figurines parading across a desk next to an indigo I-MAC computer and even helped him self to one of the shortbread cookies sticking out of an opened pack near a coffee maker.
Andy levitated in the jumbled space of the bookshop, examining all sorts of publications and pamphlets, journals and almanacs. It being closed at the time, the shop was very quiet and tranquil. Only the ticking of a grandfather clock broke the dim solitude with its steady pendulum clicks.
Disappearing through the wooden floorboards, Andy found himself in the shop’s basement. He was amazed to see that there was even more material here than upstairs. Most of the stock was kept on their overcrowded shelves and amid dozens of cardboard boxes, only occasionally made available to the public in small portions. This plethora of several thousand post cards and magazines might stay in their box for years before making upstairs in one of the sales racks.
Despite it being very dark in the basement, Andy could see perfectly well. He lingered in the air wondering where to begin his archival journeys. Glancing down, he happened to see a half-dilapidated box full of brownish-coloured post cards resting close by. Intrigued by these, he dove down into their dingy mass; dispersing his essence through a substratum of fine atmospheric particles, thin spider webs and legions of busy dust mites.
Arriving in a muffled, sepia-diluted setting, Andy looked off into the distance, recognising the interior view of the salt mines of Wieliczka. By piloting himself about within the rectangular troposphere, he came across the remnants of a postage stamp, displaying the date: April 2 1923. Another post card Andy entered showed the Croton aqueduct of New York, with a postage date of September 1881, while yet another depicted a 1911 photograph of the crater of the Krabla in Iceland.
As Andy moved through the post card settings, he navigated a serene interphase, half-paper, half-frozen atmosphere. He slipped in and out of instantaneous pockets, some brown, some pewter-tinted, some a grainy, hazy dried-blood-rust. Although there were a variety of printed captions on the cards, no sounds penetrated these miniature settings. The airs were stiff and perfectly preserved, composed of non-breezes and taciturn barometries.
Having made his way completely through one of the stacks of cards, Andy embarked upon a second. He evaporated into a slightly folded post card showing the Villa Chigi gardens in Rome. For the first time, Andy saw the image of a person; this being a sole man wearing a dark suit and rimmed hat, poised next to a circular pool, regarding an ornate portico in the distance. Andy slowly floated in the direction of the man, taking into account the early evening lighting and the 1904 date stamped in the upper right corner of the sky.
Arriving next to the gentleman, Andy hesitated speaking any words in the hushed atmosphere; afraid he might disturb the man’s contemplation of the distant portico. Though at last the man must have sensed Andy’s presence, for he turned slowly and addressed his little green visitor with a smile.
“Hello there,” he nodded.
“Hello,” replied Andy politely.
“It’s rather lovely here, isn’t it,” sighed the man, leaning forward with both hands upon the handle of a wooden walking stick.
“Yes, it certainly is.”
The two continued admiring the scene before them. To their left, Andy could just make out the western wing of the Villa Chigi, absorbing the sunset with its light grey façade and white shutters. Numerous small flowerpots decorated the courtyard where they stood, containing a variety of shrubs and small evergreens. Andy was enjoying the setting very much but felt he should move on to the following post card, quite curious to see where he would end up next. Just as he was turning to leave the Villa Chigi’s courtyard, the man in the dark suit looked over at Andy and asked, “I was wondering, my little friend, if you wouldn’t happen to have the time?”
“The time?” replied Andy a bit caught off guard by the question.
“Yes. Might you know what time it is?”
Andy thought for a moment about the man’s question, remembering that outside the post card setting it was actually April 2005 and they were in the basement of a bookshop in Edinburgh. Then again, he thought about where they were at that sub-instant, inside a 1904 post card of a villa in Rome.
“Well, let’s see,” he began, “it looks as though it must be getting late in the day… I see the sun is nearly setting.”
“Yes indeed,” replied the man with a smile. “It’s just that it seems I’ve been here for the longest time, relaxing within this garden. I was simply wondering how late it had become.”
“What’s today’s date in fact,” asked Andy, hoping to see what frame of chronological reference the man perceived.
“Today’s date? Now that’s a good question. I seem to have forgotten. Dear me, how odd…”
Andy smiled at the man, noticing a pocket watch hanging on a silver chain from his vest.
“Why not consult your watch for the time,” he suggested.
The man looked down at his timepiece as if he had never seen it before.
“Oh yes, how silly of me. I have a watch of my own. I shall indeed see what it says.”
The man removed a monocle from a breast pocket and held the little round watch up to his eyes.
“It says that the time it precisely twenty-one minutes past eight o’clock.”
“So, that’s what time it is then,” offered Andy with a grin.
“I suppose so,” nodded the man, replacing his monocle and clicking shut the cover to his pocket watch. “It’s just that, as I said, it seems I’ve been her for the longest time, as if this day were standing still… Can you understand what I mean?”
“Oh yes,” replied Andy. “I surely can. I sometimes feel outside of time myself. Like the rest of the world won’t begin until the next day, like your whole life is ahead of you, waiting to happen but for a single moment everything is still in a state of anticipation.”
“I must confess that sometimes I wonder if I’m not dreaming here in this wonderful garden,” disclosed the man. “ At times I feel as though I might wake up and be back at home, realising that my long afternoon here was nothing more than a illusion.”
“In a way, this is nothing more than an illusion,” answered Andy. “Think about the days from your past and the days from your future yet to come. Don’t they all seem like an illusion? I mean, in a way, each set day is just a mirage of some other perspective.”
The man nodded in accord. “It’s true. By tomorrow, this afternoon in the garden will be nothing more than a memory, a mere trace of a time and place that no longer coincide… Yet”, continued the man, “what about me? What about my self? Who was I amid all those different days? Do I ever change? Have you ever wondered at that, my little friend?”
Andy looked at the man who had stood in that very spot for over a hundred years without moving. He thought about how this representation of the actual man who had posed for the photograph had simply gone on, extending the original moment from long ago, completely oblivious to the true self beyond the click of the camera’s shutter that had moved on from that spot to eventually live a life and die.
“I think that there’s a lot more happening around you than you might realise. I bet that for each day you’ve lived, a little part of you has travelled somewhere else. I bet that while you’ve been standing here admiring this garden, other parts of you have wandered to places you would never have guessed at. While you have been here watching this sunset for so long, reflections of yourself have dreamed away the chasm of different years, making tangible those other days that seem to only be an illusion. So all the while that you have waited here patiently for this one single day to close, focusing your attention on one place and one time, you have actually been flying through time and dancing with many shadows…”