I can remember vividly the first time I visited Rameshi's House of Experience. It was a hazy, sultry summer afternoon, the sort that makes you not want to expend much energy. It was a day for taking it easy, not rushing anywhere. A smell of coffee and freshly baked bread wafted over from the bakery across the road. A few people sat at a table in the shade of a tree. Butterflies flew gracefully in sky hugging the shaded parts of the street.
Medieval houses and shop fronts lined the narrow street. The buildings improbably almost leaning forward so it looked like it was possible to stride from one upstairs bedroom to another. The whole experience was one of stepping back into the past and I guess that was the draw of the place. The early medieval Minster rose imposingly at the far end of the street dominating the skyline of this sleepy town. That’s the way it was intended, bowing its citizens to the almighty power of the church.
I passed a florist, the heady scent of flowers permeated the air. Whilst it may smell delightful for some, my hay fever meant that it started me sneezing. An old lady passing me looked sympathetically at my plight yet keeping a safe distance away from any ejecta. I was eying up whether to stop for a cool drink or even a pot of earl grey when I noticed this old shop out of the corner of my eye.
All the times I'd wandered down this street over the years I'd never noticed this oddity. Whilst most of the shops in the street had bright well cared for frontages, this one looked almost abandoned. Paint flaked like dandruff from the window frames and the windows looked like they could do with a good clean. Above the door a wooden lintel proclaimed 'House of the Experience' in daubed white paint. I loved these other worldly places, usually full of interesting objects, not your normal chain store tack.
The door was ajar, the inside darker than the brightness of the street. Stepping over the threshold into the darkness, I could smell the potent aroma of incense, almost overpowering and cloying. The inside of the shop was dimly lit, and I had to squint at first to make out the contents of the room.
As my eyes got used to the half-light, objects started to reveal themselves. One wall was covered in oil paintings housed in dark frames that were once golden in colour had a layer of dirt and age to them. Experts would say patina. The pictures contained within the frames were of oriental origin. All reds and yellows, they looked as old as the frames that held them. A table on the side wall held lots of interesting objects from the past, they wouldn't have been out of place in a museum. Tactile metal objects that seemed like scientific instruments of yesteryear making me want to feel the curves and dials on them. They were made of brass and had obviously been lovingly cared for over the years. In places you could see and feel where people had touched them. As I touched them, I saw images in my brain of the people who'd held these before. Startled I dropped it suddenly, the images fading. Had that really happened?
On a door at the back of the shop next to a counter was a poster, the paper fraying at the edges. I could discern symbols and lines underneath the achromatic printing. At the top was a logo. 'Rameshi House of the Experience' it proclaimed and underneath 'An Exhibition of Curious Photography'. My eyes got bigger as I ran my fingers over the paper, what was curious photography? The strapline proclaimed 'Be prepared to be amazed and astounded.' This sounded good. There was a warning underneath in very small writing which in the light was very difficult to see.
What a shame I thought, I'd like to have seen that, must have been a past event as the paper was so old.
"Does sir want to see the exhibition" a voice said suddenly making me jump.
I turned and at the counter was a young Indian girl. I have no idea how she had got to the counter, I could swear she wasn't there a minute ago and I was sure she hadn't sneaked past me. Maybe she'd been sat behind the counter all along, and I hadn't noticed. This place was beginning to make me doubt my mind, the intoxicating potency of the air mixed with all these strange exhibits made me feel very light headed.
I'd noticed that the paintings appeared to be moving. Not in some Harry Potter magical kind of way but somehow shimmering in their frames. I'm pretty sure that one of the pictures I'd looked at before had changed from a seascape to an urban scene, or maybe I was mistaken.
"Where did you come from …" I asked
"I have always been here, sir", the girl said, "you just didn't need to see me before"
I shook my head at her statement, the words struggling to get a foothold in my befuddled brain.
"Is it still on", I asked
"The exhibition is always available to those who wish to really see it" a voice behind me said.
Startled I turned around to see a small thin old Indian man standing in front of me. He wore a long white linen gown, had thin round silver framed glasses. He was almost bald with a few wisps of grey hair still clinging to his wrinkled head. He bowed his head slightly to me and I couldn't stop myself doing the same to him.
"The exhibition has always been running, it never shuts to those with an inquisitive mind." He said slowly, "I am Shri Rameshi and this is my humble emporium. It's been a life's work to collect these unusual and highly irregular pieces. We have other rooms that are open to the more discerning individual"
He looked me up and down as if trying to judge if I was one of those.
"You sir seem to have an open mind. Would you like to see the exhibit of Curious Photography?"
I hesitated now, unsure if I should venture out of this main room or make a bolt for the door.
"It is completely safe, you will not come to any harm" he said as if anticipating my anxiety.
"As long as you do not deviate from the path prepared for you..." He added opening the door that led further into the building.
I walked down an impossibly long corridor to the end. As I reached the far door, it opened, and Shri Rameshi was stood there. Somehow, he must have got past me although I don't know how it did it.
I entered the dark room. There was a mustiness to the air which was mostly kept at bay by the strong smell of incense that fogged the air. The room was darker than the first, no windows allowed light in. Candles dripped wax from their wall mounts. The walls were covered in a dark crimson red wallpaper and a curtain of the same colour hung on a far wall. Black and white photographs were hung in plain black frames on the walls. There were many different types from portraits to landscape to street scenes. Each felt as though there was more to the photo than a flat image. As if somehow the photograph was itching to tell me a story.
I stopped in front of a photograph of a trench during World War One. It appeared to be calling out to me. In my mind’s eye I was there with them.
"Do you like these photographs" the man said
"They're really unusual" I said and then added, "it's almost as if they're real"
"Ah well they were taken with a special camera, one which captures more than just a flat image." The man replied producing an old twin lens camera from somewhere. Looking at the camera. It looked steampunk in nature. I wanted to touch it, own it but that first time he held it out of my reach.
"It's been in my family for many years, invented by my Parada. It's very old and delicate."
It must have been years ago as this man looked well into his eighties.
"If you go through to the alcove, you will appreciate the photo better" he said.
Looking up I saw the curtain had opened and the photo I'd been looking at was on a frame in front of a seat. Once again, I have no idea how it got there. This place was spooking me out, yet I felt compelled to carry on. Walking towards the chair, I sat down on its plush velvet cushion. The curtain slid closed, and I was on my own with the photo in front of me. The candles to the side flickered casting the light differently on the photo. The photo shimmered and rippled the images becoming indistinct. I leant forward to try and focus. The inebriating smell of the incense suddenly was gone replaced by the smell of mud and outdoors. I could smell cordite, the smell of recently discharged guns.
"Have you finished taking the photo yet?" A voice said, "I'm getting stiff posing"
I looked around as if to see who was speaking, but the room had disappeared and now all I could see was the scene in the photo. It was as though I was suddenly in the photograph.
I shook my head hoping that the action would bring me back to the present taking me away from the war.