‘Never ask a question unless you want to know the answer.’
When Harriet Eldridge finds a book with a curious title in a second-hand bookshop in Deal, Kent, she has many questions she wants answered. What links a First World War pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service, a medieval merchant, and her? And who, or what, is Indigo?
Part love story, part historical novel, Indigo Mosaic intrigues and teases the reader into wanting to know more, and join Harriet in putting together the pieces of a mosaic that will, ultimately, form a complete picture.
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The first section of the book may be read here
It began with a book. But it did not end with a book.
The book was, at first appearances, unremarkable. A dusty old hardback, it lay on a dusty shelf in a dusty second-hand bookshop, in a quiet street in a quiet seaside town. Harriet Eldridge might never have come across the book, or indeed the town, if it hadn’t been for a conversation with Rita.
‘I have a suggestion for this Saturday.’
Harriet liked Rita’s suggestions. Ever since they’d become flatmates the year before, they’d agreed that about once a month they would take a train trip, to get away from their jobs and from London living. Each time they chose a town or place and explored it. They took it in turns to suggest destinations.
‘Deal. It’s a seaside town, in Kent. We can catch the HS1 train from St Pancras. There’s a pier and a long beach, so we can walk by the sea and breathe in some clean air. And there’s a town centre with lots of independent shops and places to eat, so we should be able to browse our way around and do a bit of shopping.’
‘Excellent. What time’s the train?’ Privately, Harriet suspected that the ‘bit of shopping’ rather than the pier and beach would be what attracted her friend, who had never been known to pass up a retail opportunity. Nothing pleased Rita more than a day on Oxford Street, although she was equally happy poking around the little shops and boutiques they found on their travels. Clothes shops, shoe shops, antique shops, even charity shops were likely to receive patronage when she was in the mood – and she was invariably in the mood. Harriet herself was less obsessive. She preferred the individual little places that could still be found in many of the towns and villages they visited. She didn’t care much for the big chain stores. Above all, each new trip contained the chance that she’d find a second-hand bookshop. She could lose herself for hours in one of those, while Rita trawled the streets around her. Unfortunately, second-hand bookshops were a dying breed. The ones in Charing Cross Road tended to be expensive, and the old quirky ones tucked away in back streets had nearly all vanished. Charity shops were the main repositories for second-hand books these days, and their stocks tended to be depressingly similar and low-brow. Specialist dealers had mainly gone on-line, but there was no fun in searching the internet for titles, and no chance of coming across some unexpected gem that could be found while browsing jumbled shelves in an ill-organised shop.
Deal, as they left the station on a sunny May morning, didn’t immediately look promising. There were cheerful flowers in planters in the car park, but the surrounding buildings were undistinguished and randomly laid out. Still, they were used to stations being sited in the unprepossessing parts of towns, and agreed to give Deal a chance before they passed judgment. They walked past the Eagle Tavern and into Queen Street, where they encountered a hardware store of exactly the old-fashioned kind that boded well. Neither of them was a fond hardware browser, however, so they moved on. Queen Street led to a junction with the High Street, which stretched to their left and right. They noted with approval that it was pedestrianised, and Rita was keen to divert along it to judge its shopping potential. Harriet insisted that they keep straight on to the sea front, which they could see a short distance ahead.
‘Let’s look at the pier first,’ she said, knowing that once Rita had found a shopping street she would never leave it. ‘You promised me some sea air.’
‘Not shops first, pier second?’
‘Coffee, at least?’
‘No. After. You’ve had one coffee already on the train, remember?’
Rita looked faintly rebellious, but Harriet grabbed her arm and dragged her forwards. They reached the front and the view opened up, showing wide expanses of sea and sky. It was a shock after London, where the eyeline was always interrupted by buildings. They both stopped and gazed, taken by the simplicity and grandeur of the scene. There was a fishing boat moving across the bay in front of them, rising and falling only slightly because the water was calm and there was almost no wind. The main sounds were the waves lapping on the shingle, and the gulls drifting overhead and calling to each other. The noise of traffic in the streets behind them was muted, and there were none of the incessant sirens that were a feature of London life.
They stopped to look at an information board. ‘This is rumoured to be the place where Julius Caesar landed when he invaded Britain,’ Rita said. ‘Seems incredible, doesn’t it? It’s so ordinary now. I wouldn’t like to be here in wartime, with the threat of invaders coming across the ocean.’
To their left, the pier stretched hundreds of feet out into the water, tempting them to come and walk out to sea. It was an elegant if rather bare structure, and Rita complained. ‘No amusements! No arcades!’
‘No opportunities to waste your money. You can save it to spend in the town later. We’ve come to enjoy nature, so let’s walk along it.’
There were lots of fishermen at the end of the pier, and Harriet and Rita watched them, fascinated. They had clearly settled in for the day, and showed no hurry or particular desire to be successful in their task. Harriet couldn’t envisage spending hours so tranquilly, detached from the land and the town and the bustle.
‘Have you caught anything?’ She couldn’t resist asking the question of one of the men who was leaning on the rail, hardly even glancing at his fishing rods. She wondered if it was a rude thing to say, but he didn’t seem to mind.
‘Not yet. Plenty of time. And if I don’t, well, no loss.’ His calmness and relaxed manner made Harriet see that there were other ways of filling days than her own frenetic routines. She could feel her mind slowing down, adapting to the quietness of the place. She looked back at the shore.
‘They’re nice buildings here. Nothing too big and brash. They seem to fit in, somehow. What’s that low grey one at the end?’
The fisherman looked round. ‘That’s Deal Castle, that is. Built by King Henry VIII, to guard against the French. Always dangerous, the French.’
‘I told you, Hattie,’ Rita said triumphantly. ‘This place may look tranquil, but it’s where all the invaders arrive.’
‘Well, not exactly,’ said the fisherman. ‘Nobody’s actually landed here since Saxon times, and before that Julius Caesar. It’s been about fifteen hundred years since we were last disturbed, so I reckon I’m safe for a while.’ He smiled gently, and Harriet laughed.
‘It certainly feels safe. It’s so peaceful. I could stand here for hours. You do, don’t you?’
‘Only on Saturdays and Sundays. I have to work like everybody else, during the week.’
Rita looked disconcerted. ‘Hattie, if you want to stand here all day communing with the fishes, that’s fine by me, I’ll leave you to it, but I want to go and see what the town has to offer.’
Harriet laughed again. The pier and the sea and the sky and the fisherman had put her in a good mood. She felt all the stresses of a working week fall away. ‘Oh, I didn’t really mean it. It’s just so lovely here, such a change from London, that’s all. I’m quite happy to go and explore the town as well.’
‘Don’t forget the castle,’ added the fisherman as they said goodbye to him. ‘It’s famous, and open to the public. There’s another one just down the coast at Walmer. There was an aerodrome in Walmer too, from a hundred years ago, when we were fighting the Germans in the First World War. It’s not just the French we have to worry about.’
‘Thanks,’ said Rita. ‘We may go and take a look.’
They strolled back along the pier towards the shore. They knew they wouldn’t go to the castle; they didn’t find ruins interesting. They retraced their steps to the High Street instead. There was a convenient coffee shop to hand, appealingly called The Toasted Bean. It was a point of honour for them to find local cafés, and avoid the High Street chains. The unaccustomed sea air had made them thirsty, and a second coffee was overdue.
Afterwards, as was their habit, they agreed to separate for an hour to conduct a reconnaissance. Experience had told them that if they stayed together they tended to become irritable, because one of them would become engrossed in a shop that held no interest for the other.
They deliberately headed in opposite directions. Harriet contented herself peering in windows and getting a feel for the place. There were enough people around to give the town a sense of life, without any of the hurry and intensity that she was used to. She found herself slowing down, matching the natural rhythm of life here, where undue haste would look out of place. And on one corner, she came to a complete halt. Some distance up a side street called Turnham Lane, there was a signboard on the pavement that simply said ‘Books’. Her kind of sign. Hoping that it wasn’t one of those annoying outlets she sometimes found that had about half a dozen new titles and a vast swathe of greetings cards and stationery, she made towards it.
She could tell as she got nearer that it was a proper second-hand bookshop, with a display of dusty and faded covers hopefully displayed in the window. Then she glanced up to see its name. Turnham Pages.
She was delighted. What a perfect name for a bookshop! Turnham Pages. The owner was either a genius, or had a winning sense of humour. With a sense of excitement she opened the door and went in.
Her first impression was that even the bookshop owner was dusty and faded. He wore a greyish jacket that might have been brown once, but across the shoulders was a scattering of what looked like dust or – horrid thought – dandruff. The man’s hair seemed to be greying too, a powdery speckling over what might once have been chestnut. He hadn’t looked up as Harriet entered the shop, even though an old-fashioned bell jangled above her head to announce her presence. She looked round the room, which resembled dozens of other second-hand bookshops she’d visited. There was the usual mix of local books, old leather-bound editions, and a jumble of cheaper stuff designed to tempt either the idle or the poorer visitor. Nothing immediately attracted her.
She made her way towards the arch that revealed further rooms beyond the first, and as she did so she passed close to the owner’s desk. He glanced up, one swift and penetrating look at her face, and she stopped in surprise. The face was young, the eyes bright, and she noticed two things simultaneously. The first was that the grey jacket concealed a bright red waistcoat, patterned and rich with silk and golden thread. The second was that his hair and shoulders weren’t covered with dandruff, or even dust. He was wearing hair powder, which he’d liberally sprinkled on as if powdering some eighteenth-century wig. For an instant she even wondered if it was a wig, and she was facing some true eccentric from another age.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked, as she’d stopped right in front of him. He could hardly ignore her, although his manner suggested he would like to have done. His voice matched the eyes – young, clear, with a richness and depth that made her want to hear it again. Unfortunately she was so flustered by the change from the original impression of the man to this altered vision that she simply mumbled apologetically, ‘I’m just browsing,’ and ducked through the arch into the safety of the room behind. There she paused to gather her wits, and take in her surroundings. She could see that the bookshop was much bigger than it had looked from the outside, and that one room led to another like a labyrinth. And there didn’t seem to be signs on the shelves, so it would take time to explore.
‘Ridiculous,’ she thought to herself. ‘He’s just a young man with a strange taste in clothing. Nothing exceptional.’ Putting him out of mind she wandered further in.
She came across another customer, who was almost barring her way in the narrow passage between stuffed bookshelves. It was an older man, looking intently at the shelf in front of him and apparently unaware of her. As she squeezed past with a slight, ‘Excuse me,’ to which he made no reply, she saw that the books were all about military aircraft. Why, she thought, were people obsessed with aeroplanes? And why were those people always old men? There could only be so many Spitfire pilots left who wanted to relive their glory days. On the other hand, there were probably thousands of wannabe Spitfire pilots keen to relive somebody else’s glory days. That would explain it.
She turned a corner and came to an abrupt halt, receiving her second shock since coming into the shop. Right in front of her, not ten feet away, was a woman who looked exactly like her and was peering at her as if equally surprised. It took Harriet more than a fraction of a second to realise that she was staring at herself. She was looking into a mirror. It was one of those large ones you find in shop changing rooms, and it had been placed to completely fill one end of the passage into which she’d just turned. As one part of her mind finally processed the information and she felt like a complete idiot, another part was wondering what on earth the mirror was doing there. She’d never seen anything like it in a bookshop, and she certainly hadn’t come there to try on clothes.
She was about to turn away when a thought struck her. She stood and looked at herself properly in the mirror, as if it was truly a stranger standing in front of her. What could she see? What would the shopowner have made of her? Would he have summed her up correctly, or would he too have had to revise an initial impression that proved false? She tried to imagine what might go through his mind as he looked at her.
All right, what have we got here? It’s a young woman, or youngish, in her mid to late twenties, I would guess. (Harriet privately congratulated herself on the shrewdness of this judgment, as she was in fact twenty-nine. She liked to think she looked a trifle younger.) She’s not pretty exactly, but she’s got an interesting face. (Plenty of people had said that to her over the years.) The mouth’s a bit small and serious-looking, but the eyes are blue and quite striking. I think she looks intelligent. (Smile.) And she’s nice when she smiles. Her hair’s a bit short, it’s a bit severe, like her mouth. Perhaps she’d look better if she grew it longer. (She’d tried that, without success.) Her figure’s not bad, a bit boyish, but she’s not fat and she has some idea how to dress. She’s casual today, in jeans and jumper, but the jeans are smart and the jumper’s elegant rather than dowdy. All in all I’d like to get to know her. (That was a relief.)
She smiled again, and had had enough of self-examination. Or more precisely, she thought, self-reflection, and she laughed aloud at her own joke. She glanced guiltily round at the aviation enthusiast, in case he thought she was mad, but he was immersed in a book and took no notice. She left the strange mirror passage and went into another room, which seemed no different to the others. But there was a doorway that looked promising, because there was light coming through which might indicate an outside window.
What awaited her was not so much a shock as a puzzle. The doorway led onto a landing, with stairs leading up and down. The illumination was coming from a skylight far overhead. What attracted her attention were two notices, the first she’d seen since coming into the shop. One, by the stairs leading down, read Bargain Basement. Those were common in bookshops, and usually contained all the junk that the owner couldn’t be bothered to price up and shelve properly. It was the other sign, by the stairs leading up, that was curious. It read Unbargain Unbasement. What could that mean? It was most peculiar, yet obviously deliberate. She wondered whether the curious shopowner, with his weird hair-do, was also whimsical and fanciful. It was quite possible. It took a certain kind of character to run a second-hand bookshop, and many of those characters, in her opinion, weren’t entirely what you would call normal. Normal people worked in offices, or in factories or in businesses where they could make lots of money. Second-hand bookselling, especially these days, was not a sensible or lucrative trade. You had to be dedicated, or slightly odd. She was happy with slightly odd, but you had to take care in case the odd turned out to be decidedly strange. She thought back to the young man in the first room. She hoped he was merely odd.
Bargain or Unbargain? Basement or Unbasement? She couldn’t decide, and half turned as if she was going to go back to the main shop. As she did so a new oddity made itself apparent. On either side of the doorway was a mirror. These were not like the full-length changing room mirror she saw earlier, but small mirrors similar to the one in her bathroom, which she tried not to peer into too often. The curious thing about these two – beyond their unexplained presence in a bookshop – was their positioning. The one on the Bargain Basement side was set high up, so that its bottom edge was roughly at eye level for her. She had to raise herself on tiptoe to look into it, and even so could only see the top part of her head, looking perplexed and cut off just below the nose. The Unbargain Unbasement mirror, by contrast, was set low down, at waist level. To look into it she had to bend down, almost to squat, so that she was reflected as a contorted and unnatural apparition. Both mirrors were disturbing.
‘These things are sent to try us,’ she muttered to herself, and wondered vaguely if that was a quotation from somewhere. She also wondered whether it was true, whether the mirrors had been put there deliberately as a kind of test. She looked at them again. It wasn’t an accident, she was sure of that. So was she a tiptoe person cut off at the nose, but heading downwards? Or was she a squatting monster, going up?
‘Enough!’ she said, decisive at last. She wasn’t, she told herself, a Bargain Basement woman, however tiptoey. Not even in a bookshop. She had aspirations, she was ‘upwardly mobile’. She laughed at herself again, and took the first step towards the Unbargain Unbasement.
The stairs led to a room that appeared to be like all the others. There were no special displays or obvious rarities, and not the locked cabinets that Harriet had been expecting. There were just ordinary shelves, with books that looked no different from the thousands in the shop below. Harriet looked around, puzzled. Was the sign just a joke? Maybe. At one side of the room was an opening, hardly more than a cubby-hole, and she wandered over to see if there was anything exciting there. Not really. A few more shelves, a few more dull books. And on a top shelf, on its own, a single book that she noticed was genuinely covered in dust. Clearly this was not a frequently visited part of the bookshop. Idly she picked the book up and blew on it. The hardback covers were of a dark grey cloth, and removing the layer of dust revealed black lettering that was hard to make out. She brushed the cover completely clean, and read the title: The Corruption of Indigo Ibex.
What kind of title was that? There was no author name, and no indication of what type of book it might be. It was just a plain old book in boring grey covers. Despite this, she was intrigued. She wasn’t really sure what an ibex was. She had vague thoughts of it being some kind of African animal, perhaps a deer. Indigo was a word she did know, and the word that really struck a chord. She had been to an exhibition in London about Hokusai, the Japanese artist, and seen his world-famous print of The Great Wave. That picture was almost entirely blue, and the caption had explained that it had been made using indigo, because that pigment had only recently been imported into Japan and Hokusai was obsessed with it. Indigo. Blue. You couldn’t have an indigo ibex, could you? That wouldn’t make sense. And how could one be corrupt? The whole title was baffling, and almost challenging. Buy me, said the book, and you can find out.
Harriet opened the front cover to look at the price. £6.66. Really? That was silly. No book was ever priced like that, certainly not a second-hand one. What did £6.66 signify? It was two-thirds of £10, so maybe the book had been reduced. But no, it should have been £6.67 if that was the case. 666. The Number of the Beast from the Apocalypse? That hardly seemed likely. Or just another challenge?
Somehow Harriet felt that all the parts of the puzzle were there to fit together. The Unbargain Unbasement sign, the mirror, the title, the price. They all combined to make her curious. On impulse she decided to buy the book, without even looking to see what was inside or what it was about. She would have the pleasure of discovery in her own time and at home.
She looked briefly around, but nothing else attracted her attention so she went back down the stairs. As she went through the shop and approached the desk to pay, she wondered how the young man would react. He couldn’t fail to comment on the daft title, and he’d have to explain about the price.
She was completely mistaken. He took the book and wrote the title in his sales file as if she was buying a copy of Jane Eyre. He hardly looked at her as he said, ‘£6.66 please,’ and although she gave him a £10 note he didn’t respond to her conspiratorial smile. She was on the brink of making a comment, but something about his neutral manner stopped her. If he wasn’t behaving as if there was something extraordinary here, she could make herself look foolish by pretending that there was. In the end she took the £3.34 change in silence, thanked him politely, and went out.
She’d agreed to meet Rita back at The Toasted Bean. It was no surprise to find Rita already installed at a table and chatting to the waitress as if she’d known her for years. Rita was like that, a quality Harriet envied. She was more circumspect herself, waiting for an appropriate moment to join a conversation, if she joined it at all. She had been that way with the bookshop owner, looking for a chance to talk to him that never came. Rita would have just waded in. But then, Rita wouldn’t have bought the book.
The café boasted an extensive menu, and they settled for paninis accompanied, rather lavishly, with crisps. Harriet had her favourite, pesto and mozzarella, while Rita indulged in some pulled pork concoction that looked overflowing. More coffee enhanced their sense of well-being.
‘How did you get on?’ asked Rita brightly. ‘Anything take your fancy?’
‘No. There was nothing that caught my eye.’ Harriet couldn’t quite explain why she didn’t tell Rita the story of her bookshop adventure. Partly it was because Rita would roll her eyes and make a remark about Harriet having too many books, and not needing another one. It would be said in jest, but recently the comment had taken on an edge. Harriet, having filled all the available space in her own room, had taken over half the bookcase in the living room, the books accumulating as if drawn to each other for comfort. It hadn’t yet become a source of open tension between them, but it could do. Rita’s comparable collection of handbags was still mercifully, if precariously, piled up in cupboards and on the surfaces in her bedroom, and hadn’t begun to invade their shared space. If they did, Harriet thought it would lead to a row. Still, she’d only bought one book, so Rita could hardly complain, and Harriet suspected that the new carrier bag beside Rita’s chair contained yet another addition to her own hoard. The true reason Harriet didn’t reveal her purchase was because she was still puzzled by the whole incident, and wanted to think it out for herself. Besides, if she passed Rita a book with the title The Corruption of Indigo Ibex, she was sure she would be mocked.