“It lay heavily in her hands, the crystal face gleaming, the brass body exquisitely machined. It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with extraordinary precision, as if on ivory with the finest and slenderest sable brush. She turned the dial around to look at them all. There was an anchor; an hourglass surmounted by a skill; a bull, a beehive… Thirty-six altogether, and she couldn’t even guess what they meant.” – Northern Lights by Philip Pullman.
He turns it over in his hands and looks at the golden object. His eyebrows draw together and he bites his lip. Then he sighs.
“So, you’re telling me it was a Secret Santa gift?”
“And you want to know if… um, it’s real?” the guy looks completely lost. He’s probably about my age and it doesn’t make sense why he’s working in a shop like this. He looks a bit out of place. His brown eyes narrow as he squints at the object.
“I was confused at first; I had no idea who would give me something like this. I mean, usually you get a pair of socks or some cheap wine or, you know, a bath bomb if you’re lucky but this… well.”
I wonder if he knows I’m lying. Not that it was a Secret Santa gift; that’s actually true. But I am absolutely lying about me knowing what it was when I first saw it. I didn’t think twice. I knew it was something that I would never use; it would probably end up in my tat drawer with some of last year’s left over Christmas cards, a lip balm I’ve never used and, inexplicably, not one but two radiator keys.
But after my annual re-read of His Dark Materials, I suddenly realised that maybe, just maybe…
“And do you know what it is?” he asks.
I roll my eyes. “Come on, Lyra is my best friend and…”
“Who’s Lyra?” he asks and rubs his face across his eyes. “Is she the girl who gave you this… thing?”
“I found out a guy from accounts gave me this. I was only a temp there for a month! I wish Lyra gave me this. Can you imagine if she was your colleague? No, Lyra Belacqua’s my best friend.”
I leave the word ‘fictional’ out. He doesn’t need to know that. I barely know the guy. He doesn’t need to know everything about me. Like how I befriend fictional characters and sometimes wear leggings as pants and count orange matchmakers as one of my five a day.
“I have no idea who Lyra B…Bel… I have no idea who she is,” the guy struggles and runs a hand through his blonde hair.
“In my professional opinion…”
I raise an eyebrow.
“OK,” he pauses. “In my opinion, I believe it’s a compass. A golden compass…”
I feel my lips curl into a snarl and my finger nails dig into the palm of my hands. It’s either that or launch myself at this flop-haired guy in attack mode. The guy must notice my thunderous expression because he suddenly straightens his back and says: “Um…I’ll go and get my mum.”
I nod and pick up the maybe-possibly-could-it-really-be-an alethiometer and look at it; taking in the beautiful work that has gone into the detail and I hold it close, almost feeling the thrum of its magic. You see, I actually had no idea these existed outside His Dark Materials. I’ve always wanted them to exist but I’ve always wanted everything about that whole series to exist. I’d been convinced that every single dog who even glances in my direction is my daemon.
Everyone knows that my daemon is a wolf.
I’d been walking down my street when I suddenly noticed the building that I could’ve sworn had never been there before. I live in a pretty standard residential area and you’d think I’d notice an old shop with an oak wood door with The Cabinet of Curiosities painted on the window in swirling italic. I peered into the window and saw a huge array of different items. A ring on a pillow with strange writing engraved on it, a magic golden lamp, a sword sticking out of a rock. Naturally, I went in.
Well, it’s not every day you see a shop filled to the brim with supposedly fictional objects.
Now, two weeks later, I’m here again because if anyone could tell me if I was in the possession of a true supposedly fictional object, it would be here. I’d tried asking the alethiometer itself whether it was real or not but it started getting extremely indignant and I don’t have the time or the patience for sassy objects.
A small cough drags me out of my memories and there’s a woman in her early fifties standing in front of me. She has glasses, bright red nails and cake crumbs on the front of her jumper. I like her immediately.
“Oh hello, welcome to The Cabinet of Curiosities, I’m Margaret and I own the place. My son, Scott, told me you may have something for me to have a look at?”
I smile and place the alethiometer into her hands. Her eyes widen.
“Wow, a real alethiometer!”
I splutter. “It’s definitely real then?”
My palms become sweaty.
“Oh yes, my dear. This… this…. this is a rare find. There have been only a few made in the world and you got one. A truth meter! One of the most valuable and useful of the supposedly fictional objects. What a treat! I take it you’ve read Philip Pullman’s masterpieces?”
I mumble something incoherent about knives and Oxford and Will and polar bears and what-even-is-a-pine-marten and Will and benches and Will and benches and Margaret nods along in sympathy.
“And do you know how it works? You just twist each of these three dials to the symbols that relate to a question you have in your mind and it provides you with the answer. Have you tried to use it? Asked a few questions of your own?”
“Well?” she asks and leans closer.
“I sometimes ask it if I’m going to get the job that I’m applying for and whether being able to read a book in a day is an essential skill.”
She nods eagerly.
“And whether I should write a scene in the YA book I’m working on at the moment, to see if it will make sense or if readers will like it or hate it and write scathing reviews about it.”
Margaret nods again, her face wrinkling up in joy.
“But I mostly use it to tell me if I should watch the next episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or whether three episodes in a day is probably enough.”
I cough and Margaret’s smile falters slightly. She looks a bit confused but I can tell she’s too polite to comment on my life choices.
“Oh?” she says diplomatically. “And does it give you an answer?”
“Oh yes. It goes to the camel which means perseverance so; naturally, I should persevere and watch one more episode because, well, no one likes a quitter. And then it goes to the Owl which means night so that means I should watch it until it gets dark because you don’t ignore an alethiometer. It tells the truth and you can’t deny the truth.”
“Mmm, well… what’s the last symbol?” she asks, flicking through a little book that appears out of nowhere. I see a few pages with sketches of different symbols
“Bread which means…”
“Nourishment,” interrupts Margaret. “So this program nourishes your intellect and nourishes your inquiring mind?”
I look at her blankly. “Or… um… make a sandwich…”
I don’t think she hears me because she’s too busy twisting dials and making notes in her little diary.
“Promise me, that if you find any other items like this you’ll bring them in as soon as possible! I would love to catalogue as many as you can find! I aim to catalogue every single supposedly fictional object especially in young adult books. You know everyone rabbits on for the one ring to rule them all and whatnot but young adult and children’s books have the most amazing array of objects in the whole of literature!”
“I promise,” I smile and I take back the alethiometer and wrap it back up in an odd sock I rescued from the dryer. “Anyway, I’d better go. Thank you so much for helping me out!”
I look over my shoulder just in time to see Margaret talking to her Scott- did she say his name was?- about something, her hands waving wildly.
I can’t help smiling and a funny feeling fizzes in my toes.
Someone’s about to find out who Lyra Belacqua is.
[Also on Wear the Old Coat: Letters to Lyra…]