This is a short story I wrote a few years back. It comes to mind now in light of my recent travails in life.
Aunt Jemima was very clear in her instructions; ‘Don’t come back until you have found it!’ Her words were still rattling round my head as I stood outside what was a throwback to the Dickensian era of shop fronts.
‘Never in all my life…I’ll report you to the authorities!’ Yelled an older gent as he fell out the door onto the wet and treacherous cobblestones, all the while gasping for air and waving his fist at somebody inside the shop. .
‘Excuse me, are you hurt?’
‘May I help you up?’ I enquired.
‘Get your hands off me!‘ Barked the ruddy faced man as he tried to get his breath back while clutching a brown package the size of a large paperback.
‘Where’s my blasted umbrella? Plots indeed!’
Was all he said before stumbling off down the cobbled street all the while growling profanities and declarations of vengeful intentions.
When he had disappeared into the misty evening I looked at the shop front and was surprised to see that on either side of the solid wooden door were 9 glass squares with a winning line of pontil marks, like naughts and crosses, running diagonally down to the pavement. The rain slithered down these distorted dark panes like snakes on a ladder. I turned the handle, pushed open the slow oaken door and left the cold evening air outside. A slight pungent note tickled my nose as my eyes adjusted to the musty gloom. Inside there was no other furniture of any kind apart from an umbrella stand with 4 lonely black brollies, one of which glistened for attention. The walls were a dark beige colour and covered in framed certificates written in illegibly elaborate copperplate, a long lonely wooden counter slowly came into view along the now distant back wall.
‘Hello,’ I gently enquired before noticing a little brass hand bell on the counter. It gave an angelic tinkle when rung which seemed to flutter around my ears for longer than seemed physically possible and seemed to retreat to a far corner before dying away.
‘Good evening young man, how may I help you ?’ A heavily accented voice seemed to come from the corner of the room where a previously invisible door was now open and a rather tall wispish man was now standing rubbing some warmth into his skeletal hands. He wore a dark three-piece Tweed suit complete with silver fob watch, flower in his lapel, paisley bow tie and a middle parting to his heavily lacquered short ginger hair.
‘ Good evening to you too,’ I replied.
‘ I was wondering if you could help me. I’m looking for something that my Aunt Jemima lost some time ago and is desperate to get back’.
‘ Well sir, you have indeed come to the right place. Would it be a plot or a temper that your Aunt lost?’
A little taken aback I replied ‘ a temper actually .‘ ‘How did you know?’
‘That is not important,’ he said and went on to say ‘If you could just furnish me with some details I shall try and find it for you.’
I then related to him a brief narrative of the events surrounding my aunt’s fall from grace twelve years ago when she she had a childish tantrum during afternoon tea at the Windsor Hotel. It started with a plate of half baked scones and finished with a pot of insipidly weak Earl Grey tea served with milk of all things. Since that spring day she has been unable to summon up even a wrinkled brow or clenched jaw over the most infuriating of events. She seemed to have achieved a zen like acceptance of the world’s faults and was eager to get her fiery side back again. Scones hadn’t been the same since then and no amount of shoddy service or undercooked pastries could rile the furies within her anymore. She even had to forfeit her position as chief judge on the parish fete panel, which was a major fall from grace for a society lady such as her self.
‘Ah, I see,’ enthused the tall man.
‘Now, if I’m not mistaken we should be looking at the west wall, third row down and second column from the right.’
‘Yes, quite a trophy this one sir.’
‘The head waiter brought this to me that very same evening.’
‘You mean to say that all these certificates are …’
‘If a plot or temper is lost and the moment is captured on paper within the day it invariably finds it way to me, where I record it in the great ledger and frame it for later collection.’
Somewhat bemused at this turn of events I ask: ‘ What if nobody writes it down and it doesn’t make its way to you, what happens then?’
‘Well sir, if it hasn’t been written down by someone it wasn’t worth losing in the first place and will find its way back to the loser in due course.’
‘However sir,’ he went on to say; ‘ if the incident has made its way into the national press it is automatically included into our records. We exclude tittle-tattle from the local tabloids as a matter of course. I’m sure you understand the reasoning sir. ’
‘Not entirely,’ I replied but some explanation is better than none I thought to myself.
As I looked over to the west wall I couldn’t believe my eyes. The old gent was already there. Somehow he had walked to the end of the southern counter and half way along the western wall without me noticing and was now delicately removing a framed certificate from the wall. It left a clean square framed by the dust of a dozen years.
‘Quite a trophy.’
‘I shall be sad to see this one go. They all have their own personality you know. Would you like me to gift wrap it for you sir?’ he asked with half a wink in his glassy eye.
‘Yes if you don’t mind, that’s very nice of you to offer,’ I said.
‘It’s all part of the service sir.’
‘Now, how would you like to pay for this sir?’ He asked.
‘Oh, credit card if you don’t mind.’
‘I’m terribly sorry sir. But we only accept two forms of payment here and neither are monetary. I hope you understand how distasteful it would be to be seen to be profitting from such matters as these. I might draw your attention to this,’ he said while aiming his impossibly long index finger at the back wall to a sign that I hadn’t noticed before which appeared to solidify right before my strained eyes. The room was that murky with dust particles that it was impossible to say whether anything was there before or not. There could have be an elephant doing circus tricks in the other corner but I wouldn’t have noticed it unless directed to, such was the nature of the atmosphere in the shop.
The sign was blue but grey, square yet rectangular in shape and for all intents and purposes looked like a roof slate. In Dover white chalk were written the following words:
Tempers……….1 handstand, 2 cartwheels and 3 jigs.
Plots…………1 song, 2 reels and 3 pirouettes.
And then in smaller writing:
Please do not ask for credit as refusal may offend.
‘Is this some kind of a joke?’ I asked.
‘No sir. I can assure that it is not. Jests and Japes is around the corner and quite a different operation if you know what I mean sir,’ he said with a slight lilt to his voice.
‘Ah, I see. It has been awhile since I was back in the home country but I’m sure I can rustle something up. Would you be able to accompany me on the fiddle?’
‘I knew you were of good stock sir. What have ye in mind?’
“Well, The Old Grey Goose is a family favourite but I have a slight weekness for The Drunken Gauger meself.’ I said as I tried to do a handstand against the long wooden counter.