She seems to standing in the middle of the road, and experiences a sudden rush of terror. Yet there is no obvious reason for this, since the streets are utterly deserted. It is a silence like she has never heard. Where is everybody? Where have they all gone?
The shop in front of her is familiar – and yet not. It straddles the corner. Someone had done something to the pavement – it has a dip in it and there is an inset strip with bumps in it. What can that be for? And beside the shop a yellow sign with an H and some numbers. It was never there before.
Weeds grow across the door. Some kind of wire mesh inside the windows. No! How can passers-by see the goods, with that there? What is going to entice them in to buy… what will they buy? A Chinese vase – possibly Ming? Or a carved wooden elephant shipped from the furthest reaches of the Empire. The Queen herself possesses such a glorious creature, she might say. It graces the Entrance Hall at Osborne. Such a consolation to her in her widowhood. It might be true, though probably it is not. You have to paint a picture for your mark…potential purchaser. Nobody ever purchases a simple vase or a wooden elephant. Rather, they buy into the romance of Orient, or Empire.
That yellow paint around the door, the faux Grecian columns framing a door that was once purple but now seems to have been torched back to some hideous underlying scarlet. Weeds grow along the threshold. How are the customers to enter, when all is obstructed in such a fashion? It is one of the first rules of shop-keeping – the shop is a welcome haven. It must be warm, though blizzards rage outside. Unlike the street, with its chaos and ordure, the clatter of passing horses and carriages, the shop must at all times be quiet; clean and sweet-smelling. How much nicer to be inside inspecting the merchandise. Purchasing the merchandise.
Churchfields Antiques her shop is called. She remembers it now. Someone has labelled the street on the wall beside it, as if to assist her. The sign looks odd. Surely it used to have a seashell pattern at either end? Surely the lettering was fancier than that?
In her day.
And then she looks down at herself and sees that she is shorter, and that her body has become that of a little boy wearing strange-looking, little-boy clothes in place of her black bombazine. For, like Her Imperial Majesty, she found mourning – for a husband who drank himself to death ten years into a childless, loveless but profitable marriage – a convenient disguise. She examines her hands, so recently gnarled and liver-spotted, and discovers that they are little and smooth. And then she recalls the carriage, coming at such a speed, the driver screaming a warning she cannot hear and has no time to act upon, and the horses out of control…
Everything passes, she thinks. That is why they have stopped me here – whoever they are – on this winter’s day in whatever year and made me – no, made him – look.
I – she – gave her every waking moment to this shop, extracting every farthing from every foolish passer-by; hoarded junk and lied without shame as to its provenance. Those were her masterpieces, she thinks, and that was her fulfilment – the invention of the perfect story, the truly irresistible lie. She married the shop rather than its owner. She gave her life to the shop rather than him. And she died in the street outside the shop, like a dog thrown into the gutter. And now…
The wind blows in over factory roof and terrace, bringing with it a shower of sleet. The boy remembers his now-name, and the when of his present life. Fumbling in his pockets for his gloves, he drags his collar up around his ears and turns in the direction of home.