It is one of the best kept secrets in the world, which often made me wonder how it even stays in business. But, somehow, it does. In fact, I’d have never even known of it if I hadn’t accidentally dived through the doors when I was caught in the middle of the meanest thunderstorm I’d ever seen. We’re talking a real howler here, the kind of thing which – if I was the religious type – would make me suspect that someone upstairs needed anger management classes.
The smell of cooking oil and fresh fish had reached my nose a split second before I looked at the grimy floor. As I wiped the rainwater from my eyes and looked around, I saw nothing but utilitarian tiled walls and a small village of ramshackle stalls. A frying pan hissed in the distance, wood clacked quietly and a few voices murmured. Neon light tubes buzzed. A radio crackled gently.
With the maelstrom showing no sign of letting up, I decided to check out a few of the stalls. I hadn’t expected much. No doubt that the only things that awaited me were food poisoning, brittle phone covers and stuff that still carried the dents from where it fell off the back of the proverbial lorry. Later, I would come to realise that this was also part of the camouflage. That the stalls near the entrance are left unmanned and badly-stocked for reasons that I’ll never understand.
The first sign that this wasn’t an ordinary indoor market appeared when I found the book stall. It was tucked away behind a grim metal-and-tarpaulin shack filled with knock-off tracksuits. Even though I could hear a frying pan sizzling nearby, the only thing I could smell was crisp new paper.
Behind the counter, a guy in a sharp suit and a trilby straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel leaned against a pitted oak counter and flashed me a sarcastic grin. I nodded and mumbled hello before busying myself with the box of books marked “horror”.
I’d expected battered, crumpled old paperbacks from the ’80s, but they all looked surprisingly new. Sure, I recognised the authors and even some of the lurid cover art, but it was totally pristine. Like they had just been printed yesterday. I looked at the guy and said: ‘So, is this an antique book stall or something?‘
He shrugged ‘People forget that all books were new once. Especially the ones that were never written.‘ Tipping his hat, he reached towards the box and pulled out a pristine novel. Seriously, it could have come straight from the press. The cover showed a gothic painting of an ancient city and read “Cabal II: At The Gates Of Midian By Clive Barker” in bright red letters. It was probably a fake. It was almost certainly a fake. It only cost three quid. I bought it.
The next stall I found was tucked between two empty tile-and-brick pillboxes that were filled with sheets of stamped metal and scraps of cardboard. In the gloomy niche between the stalls, it was impossible to miss the display of neon lights.
The constellations of multicoloured tubes glowed Blade Runner bright against the darkness. A red-haired woman wearing a garish, day-glow so-hideous-that-it’s-trendy 1980s jacket leant against the counter and shuffled a deck of tarot cards. In glowing letters, a sign read “Change today! See tomorrow!“. This, I thought, had to be some kind of trendy art installation. Some hipster project that was destined for social media.
Not wanting any mood lighting or a tarot reading, I moved on. The next stall seemed to be a greengrocer’s, complete with cheeky cockney geezer. For a second, I began to pass it by until the guy shouted: ‘Gros Michel bananas! Five for a quid!‘. I remembered some clickbait article I’d read at 2am about foods that had gone extinct. The Gros Michel was apparently one of them. Out of curiosity, I bought five. They were bulky, fat things. To my surprise, they made ordinary bananas taste like cardboard by comparison.
For the next ten or twenty minutes, I wandered. There was a stall selling some heart-shaped herbs called silphium, there was a rickety shack filled with tanks of bioluminescent deep sea fish and there was – I fool you not – a wizard with a big grey beard and a technicolour dreamcoat. There were stairs that went nowhere. There was an alcove filled with movie costumes that seemed to be sold in the same careless cheap way that counterfeit tracksuits are. An old dude with a pipe sat on a cardboard box and played something that he claimed was Beethoven’s tenth symphony on a portable keyboard.
Finally, after wandering for a while, I realised that I’d walked further than I thought. There was no way that this market could be this big. But, after looking around, I spotted the entrance between two empty stalls. It was only fifty metres away. I slipped out, only pausing to turn around and memorise what the building looked like. It looked like a dilapidated office block.
I’d expected some article in the local paper about it. But, after two days, there was nothing. I almost forgot about it until I noticed the horror novel I’d bought. Even though I was sure that it was a fake, I decided to read it. If it was a fake, then it was an amazingly realistic one. The kind of fake that is so good that you really don’t care that it can’t be real.
So, I went back. I expected to find the doors locked and the building empty. But, the market was still there. Soon, it seemed as if the very idea that it could disappear was as comical as expecting gravity to take a weekend off or for the sun to call in sick. This place, I realised, probably didn’t always look like an old office block. A couple of gnarled wooden beams behind a cracked part of a wall I saw on my fourth visit made me think that it probably just looked like an ordinary house a few hundred years ago.
After a while, I wondered if there were any other interesting places hiding in plain sight. There weren’t. At least, I’m pretty sure that there weren’t. Then again, these kinds of places find you, rather than the other way round.