This story is also a riddle. I will congratulate anyone who tells me the answer.
A Vast Bit of Hod
by Damien G. Walter
The bloody bell rang again. The bloody bell hadn’t stopped ringing all bloody day. Harold was bloody sick of it. How was he supposed to keep the shop spick-and-span with customers wandering in and out of the place all day like bloody great herds of cattle? If Harold had his way, they’d keep proper antique shop hours; half an hour at lunch, an hour in the afternoon and closed Mondays, Wednesdays and Weekends. Little sign on the door, ‘Customers by appointment only’, then no apparent means of making an appointment. But then it was not a real antique shop, was it? Not in the stricest sense. More like bric-a-brac really. And Harold only worked there, the owners made all the rules.
The bell ringer stood looking around the shop, unaware of his crime. Young man. Not too tall. Slender build. Dark suit jacket, worn with a polo neck, covered his throat. Slacks, brogues. Smart looking, but a little worn out at the seams. Face the product of breeding; domed brow, sharp cheeks, aquiline nose. Clear, very dark eyes. Kind that seemed to look right through things rather than at them. But not monied. Not really. Harold could tell. He could always tell.
The young man’s eyes flicked back and forth over the cluttered shop. Harold leaned one elbow on the sales counter and looked down at his newspaper. The final crossword clue was difficult, fiendishly so, been annoying Harold for an eternity. A Vast Bit of Hod. Really, what kind of clue was that? He took a sip of luke warm tea and considered. The young man carried on looking at the clutter, the kind of way people look at things when they aren’t really looking at them, but only pretending to look to avoid the awkwardness of actually talking to another human being.
‘Can I help?’ Harold knew bloody well he could help, but it was as good a place to start as any.
‘I…yes. How much is this bureau?’
‘That depends what you want it for.’ Harold said, looking at the young man over his tea cup. The young man looked back at him, wide eyed, surprised.
‘Pardon me? What a very odd thing to say.”
‘Just a statement of facts.’
‘But. This is a shop. You sell things. What I do with them is my own business surely?’
‘Oh, absolutely. But whatever you do, you pay the price.’
‘Look. Are you going to tell me how much money you want for it or not?’
‘Not much interested in money. Boring. Tell you what. You want something, you go ahead and take it.’ Harold thumbed a digestive biscuit from the packet next to the teapot, plastic wrapper rustling loudly.
‘Hold on there a minute. Are you telling me I can take the bureau for nothing? What about the rest, can I take that? Could I just empty your whole shop?’
‘You could, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Besides, there’s no point. You can come back any time you like, and take whatever you want.’
‘I see.’ Said the young man, in the way people say I see when they really don’t see at all. He pretended to look at the clutter again, a muscle in his jaw ticking furiously. He wanted to leave, Harold could see that, but he couldn’t quite gather the willpower to walk back through the door. Harold dipped the digestive in his tea, bit the soggy end off with his teeth.
‘Well. I don’t want the bureau anyway, so that solves that problem.’
‘Of course you don’t want the bureau, goes without saying.’
‘Really? Why wouldn’t I want the bureau?’
‘That’s a politicians bureau. Built to hold secrets. See all those little looked doors? It’s not for the likes of you.’
‘Likes of me? What is that supposed to mean? I’m very informed about politics actually.’
‘Of course. But I’d venture you have a thing for the truth, am I right?’
The young man opened his mouth, then bit it shut. He was thinking, Harold could see, that Harold was right. Harold liked being right. He liked it a lot.
‘Yes. Truth. And beauty. They are the most important things for a poet.’
‘Ah yes, a poet! That explains it.’ Harold had know the young man was an artist of some kind. If he had bothered to guess he might have said painter. But the boy didn’t have the vigour for easel work. No, poet. Obvious now he thought about it.
Harold put down his mug of tea, and hoisted himself up from his stool with a grunt. He shuffled out from behind the counter, navigating past a waist high stack of second hand paperbacks and a poorly located hat stand to reach the front of the shop.
‘What does it explain?’ Said the young man.
‘What does what explain?’ Harold said angrily. For the life of him, he couldn’t think what the young man was talking about.
‘You said, “A poet, that explains it.” What is the it?’
‘Oh that. Well, why you are here of course. Now let’s forget the bureau, and I’ll show you a few things you might want more, yes?’
Harold turned the young man around, and moved him a few paces sideways through the clutter. Harold sometimes thought of the shop as a harbour, and himself as a little tug boat moving the customer between walls of antiques, loading them up with purchases and then shoving them back out to sea.
‘Now then, how about these?’
They faced a tall dresser, crafted from some dark wood. Panes of leaded glass protected a chaotic jumble of objects distributed between many shelves and compartments.
‘Now, let me see. Ah, yes, how about this.’ Harold tapped on the glass just in front of a large pair of scissors, captured in a hard leather sheath.
‘Taylor’s scissors. What do you think?’
‘What do you mean, what do I think?’
‘How do you like them? Savile Rowe style, I do believe. Imagine the weight of steel in your hand. Snipping through yards of fabric on the cutting bench. There’s more to tayloring than meets the eye, you know. Clothes maketh the man.’
‘I disagree. It’s the man who makes the clothes.’
‘Yes! Now you’re getting it. What men might you make?’
‘No.’ The young man shook his head as though shedding the wispy remnants of a bad dream. ‘No. Making fine clothes for great men, wearing the scraps they leave behind. Not for me.’
‘Fair enough.’ Harold raised both hands palm up in obeysance. ‘How’s your time keeping?’
The young mans eyes turned with Harolds to rest upon a fine, silver cased fob watch. It had not ticked for some time, Harold knew. But no bother, it would soon spring back to life again in a warm pair of hands.
‘A butlers work is never done. There’s always masters to awake, guests to lodge, dinner services to orchestrate and so forth.’
‘Wait on hand and foot to the aristocracy? Become a lapdog of the bourgeoisie? Betray the proletariat? Never!’
The young man was geting his dander up, and had gone quite red in the cheek. Harold looked at him, in the way a person might look at an overly talkative spaniel.
‘A poet and a Marxist. How delightful. Someone has to be in charge you know. Then the rest of us don’t have to worry.’
‘The rest of you maybe. But not me.’
Harold sighed inside, but resolved to continue. ‘What’s your name young man?’
‘Anthony. Anthony Browne. But I don’t like it. I intend to write under a nom de plume when I am published.’
‘Very wise, very wise. Now I can see I’m not going to convince you of the value of a life in service. Come this way.’
Harold led the young man on with a theatrical flourish, in the process disturbing a large vase on a slender pedestal. Barely managed to stop the whole affair from toppling groundward. Breakages were an uncommon occurrence. The shops clientele were of the careful sort by and large. Which was good, because when breakages did occur they where an absolute nuisance. Three forms Harold had to fill out, all to be filed to different offices in the city. A day slogging through the hustle and bustle. Sitting in barren waiting rooms. Standing in endless queues. And he hated dealing with the counter staff of the Heirophancy. Harold doubted they even looked at the forms. But then wasn’t that the point of regulations, to be pointless?
‘I think I might be in the wrong shop.’ Anthony hesitated, as though wary of moving deeper into the chaotic interior.
‘Well, it’s possible.’
‘Does that ever happen?’
‘Now and again. You could try the pet-shop next door. Rabbit maybe? Or canary? They have a few puppies now and again. Or even the green-grocer. Broccoli’s good.’
‘No. No thank you. Is there anywhere else?’
‘Anthony.’ Harold addressed the young man seriously. ‘You came in here. The chances are, there was a good reason why. Now I’ve been showing you a bit of what’s on offer, only seems fair. But I have a feeling this will be more your style.’
Harold prodded the young man through a rattling bead curtain and allowed him a moment to taken in the back room. Sometimes people gave a little gasp, that echoed spendidly from the polished marble floor. The columns and the high painted ceiling were impressive, the priceless glittering crystal chandeliers were, well, priceless. And it did go back such a very long way. But Anthony was not so easily awed, and remained silent.
‘What is this?’ Anthony indicated a nearby glass display stand, housing what looked like a collision of brass arcs.
‘Naval Sextant. Good quality, good enough for a Captain with his eyes on the Admiralty.’ Harold remembered first touching that item, the ocean vista that unfolded in his imagination. The sight of a dozen spear wielding, naked savages running to the shoreline to meet the landing craft. the final moment of blood and leaking guts in the surf.
‘My grandfather was in the navy. Or I think it was my grandfather. Funny, I can’t seem to remember his name.’
‘Slippery things, names. And memories.’
‘How odd. I can’t think of my mother’s name either.’
‘Ever fancied it?’
‘What?’ The young man looked again at the sextant when Harold nodded towards it. ‘Oh, the navy? Maybe, as a boy perhaps. No doubt it seemed a fine adventure.’
‘Oh yes, very adventurous. Talking of which, what about this? Might not look like much, but don’t let that fool you.’
Tucked between two volumes in a display of ornately bound books, the edge of an old, battered hip flask was visible. Cheap even when it was new, black vinyl grip worn away almost entirely, baring the low grade, tarnished silver body.
‘Rhodesian issue. Given to mercenaries. Been plenty of other places mind. Nile Delta. Spanish Peninsula. Guatemalan Rainforest. And that’s just for starters.’
‘The life of a paid killer?’
‘Oh yes, but imagine the adventure! Life lived beyond the rules. And no man your master, not unless he can pay.’
‘No, this really isn’t…Good Lord, what is that?’
‘What, the shrunken head?’
‘Is it a shrunken head?’
‘Oh yes. Interesting one that. Man name of Carter. Explorer. Penetrated single handed in to the dark continent when it was still just a space on the map saying ‘Here Be Dragons’.
‘I’ve never heard of him.’
‘Why would you? The stories are for the ones who make it back.’
‘And he didn’t? Make it back I mean?’
‘Well. His head did.’
‘But. But. How did it get here?’
‘He brought it with him. Nice chap, talkative. Knew the score. Left with a very nice OC Bible, if I remember correctly.’
‘He brought it with him?’
‘Yes, not uncommon. Quite a number of the clientele like to leave a little gift. Good bit of our stock comes that way. The rest, well, not really my concern that. I’d venture you have a little something for me?
The young man looked aghast. The kind of face a man gets when he remembers a make or break appointment, then realises it was yesterday. Harold watched the young man pat himself down. Found the thing he was looking for in a breast pocket. Pulled out a silver barrelled fountain pen. Held it in his cupped hand, weighing it against expectation.
‘Give it to me.’ Harold said. He found that a firm tone helped immeasurably with the process.
‘I don’t know that I want to.’
‘Did I ask you what you want?’
‘No. Look, I’m not going give you my pen. I write. I have to write. It’s what I do.’
‘That was before.’
‘Before what? Look, I don’t have to put up with this. I’m going to walk out of here right now.’
‘Yes? Do it then. No? You’ll find you can’t. It’s too late Anthony.’
‘Why? What’s happened? Tell me, please. What’s happening to me?’
The young man was rubbing his throat through the turtle neck, the hand clenching and unclenching spasmodically. There it was then, Harold noted with no real satisfaction. Don’t let up now though. Keep the ball rolling. Hammer in the final nail.
‘No. It’s not ‘me’ anymore Anthony. Not ‘I’ either, not any more. Me ended, in that dim stairwell. Was it a stairwell? Or was it a chair and light fitting jobby. Or did you manage it from a door handle? Now that takes some doing, from a door handle’
‘Stop please stop.’ The boy was near to crying. Soon the tears would come, muddying up his face and then the big bubble of snot bursting from a nostril.
‘The pen, Anthony. Give it to me.’
And then he did it, handed the pen right over. Like a little boy giving back a stolen chocolate bar. An odd look crossed his face, some unknown mixture of guilt and relief.
‘Good. Very good.’ Harold pocketed the pen. It would fit nicely with the others. He gave the young man a reassuring thump on the shoulder.
‘Very good sign. Many of our clientele find it so hard to let go, causes all their problems you know.’
‘I’m very thirsty. Can I have something to drink please?’ The young man said in a small, broken voice.
‘Not until this is done. Now I think I may have misjudged you Anthony. This adventurous life is more than you’re ready for I believe. So let’s crack on shall we?’
As they returned to the front room something roared past the the shop window, like a lorry, shaking the shelves and setting crystal glasses chiming. But not a truck. The roads of the city were forever deserted, no traffic thronging the byways, no jams and honking horns and clouds of choking smog. Harold was immensely glad of this, having hated the noise and stink of traffic his whole life. It more than made up for the disconcerting fact that Harold could not identify whatever it was that did go roaring through the roads now and again. The things, whatever they were, moved too fast and somehow he was never looking when they came, they were just a vast roar on the edge of perception.
‘What was that?’
‘Just a lorry, Anthony, Just a lorry.’
They stepped through a dark doorway leading from one section of the shop to the next. Harold flicked a switch, and a row of fluorescent tube lights flickered to life. If you could call the grubby light they produced life. The air in this part of the shop was forever stale. Harold had tried a variety of air fresheners, to little or no effect. The smell of the merchandise was subtle, but overwhelming. Paperbacks were the worst offenders. Not only did the dry pages begin to crumble, but they accrued blooms of black and grey mould. The comics offended similarly, and the garish inks they were printed in maintained a permanent chemical tang in the air. The cassette tapes were another matter all together. Harold did no more than stack them on the shelves, keeping them in roughly alphabetical order by artist, none of which he had heard of because it had been a very long time since he listened to popular music of any kind. The plastic cassette cases were like sealed space capsules. Every so often a customer would crack one open to peruse the liner notes, and a burst of the original owners atmosphere, molecules of breath and sweat and desperate longing would be flung around the shop. The VHS video cassettes, grimed with dust and grit from long storage, the old LP’s that soaked up the essence of a place in to their sleeves. Every item contributed to the crush of lives that filled the room. Lives lived in dreams and delusion, trapped inside the pages of trashy thrillers or the easy listening melodies of yesterdays pop hits.
‘Captain Crisp!’ The young man said with frank disbelief. He stepped ahead of Harold into the room to inspect a glass fronted display case, jammed with the kind of mass produced plastic toys that were sold to children brainwashed by badly animated Saturday morning cartoons.
‘It is Captain Crisp! Amazing!’ He pushed his nose up against the glass to peruse the full selection of toys. ‘Wow! You have every member of The Cereoes in here? They must be worth loads!’
He said loads it in the way an excitable twelve year old boy might say it, as though he had just found the most exciting thing in the world ever. Which in his mind he might very well have. Then he began to sing quite quietly.
‘Captain Crisp, Captain Crisp, and the Cereoes! Captain Crisp, Captain Crisp, leader of heroes. Captain Crisp!’
‘Anthony?’ Harold said in as much of fatherly way as he could muster.
‘Yes?’ The young man answered in an awestruck tone.
‘I want you to have a good look around and find one thing you like. And when you have done that, bring it to me at the counter. Do you understand?’
‘Yes sir. I understand.’
He should have expected as much the moment the young man walked through the door, Harold ruminated as he sat back down behind the counter. That little collection of ephemera was supposed to be for children, and yet more and more of his adult clientelle seemed to have a fascination with the stuff. People didn’t grow up any more, not really. They didn’t realise their own dreams. No lives of adventure. Or even of service. Just the endless cycle of consumption. He took a sip of tea and grimaced. It was stone cold, and sludgy with biscuit sediment. Time for another.
Standing beside the boiling kettle, with the carton of milk in his hand ready to pour, Harold wondered if maybe he could have made more effort to show the young man a few other parts of the shop. Upstairs perhaps. Even Harold could never be sure what he would find when he took a client upstairs. How the stock came and went was a mystery. Just a week ago he had shown a rather pretty school teacher an entire room of glittering gold jewellery, including a fine selection of crowns, from which the woman had politely selected a simple, unadorned gold circlet. Harold had never even glimpsed the display before. Only yesterday, he had been surprised to feel a gush of hot, moist air hit his face as he opened opening the third door on the left. Took him three two hours to find the client, who had gone foraging through the jungle undergrowth, hunched over a rare tropical bloom.
When Anthony returned from the back room, Harold was ready and waiting at the counter. In his hands was the Captain Crisp. On his face a broad and beaming smile.
‘Made your mind up?’
‘Yes thank you.’
‘Want me to wrap it up?’
‘No thank you. Captain Crisp is a protector of the galaxy. He can survive in any atmosphere. He only adopts the persona of mentally ill drug addict Anthony Brown to keep his identity secret from the evil Schizoids.’
Harold wanted to tell the young man he could not have the toy. To make him choose again. To choose better. But there was no helping people. They all got what they wanted in the end. Every last one of them.
The bell rang. The door closed. And the shop was empty again. Harold was looking at one of the cabinets. His cheeks were wet with tears and he did not know why. He kept this cabinet empty, except for the bowl. A very plain wooden bowl, burnished to a high shine by the many hands that had held it. It was the only item in the shop of any value to him. He thought then, as he often had, of taking off with the thing. Of walking out through that door and hearing that bloody bell for the last time. But then who would keep the stock in order? And stop the clients breaking things? Besides, he’d just made a cup of tea, and there was a new packet of hobnobs in the kitchen. And of course, he couldn’t go anywhere until he had finished that crossword.