Episode 3 – The ring

It’s nearly November, I think – I hope. Work is still boring, to some extent. Not many things are sold in the shop, but that’s because nobody comes in. It’s no for a lack of people, I always see them walking past, having a wee nosy in the shop window, but the bell rarely rings. Life is busy though, with balancing lectures, coursework, and regular work. I’ve managed to find a routine of sorts, but I find myself spending a lot of time in the antique shop, doing nothing. Even to me, it sounds boring, but there’s just something about the mess that I enjoy.

There are people who come in, real people, and no all of them are nuts. The weirder thing is they always buy something, proving that there’s almost nothing you can’t find in a hoard. But those kind of customers are fewer than the special ones that come to see Madam Norna, and by now I’ve accumulated a nice wee pile of business cards on the counter, one which I expect Chronos to destroy any day now. How she hands them out them without leaving the shop is still a mystery. I’m always allowed to sit in on these meetings, no one ever objects, and the more I do the more I begin to question reality. In the beginning, the first few weeks, it was easy to laugh and scoff and diagnose them with being mental. But now, it’s harder to ignore the fact that there always seems to be more than one explanation to every tale.

The Madam, living up to her name, rarely comes down, so I have to settle for Chronos, the human-like cat who takes daily joy in irritating me. It reminds me of this story that one of my friends studying psychology told me last year down the pub. This psychologist, many moons ago, went to the arctic on his own to see what would happen to him without anyone to talk to. He slowly began to lose his grip on reality, starting questioning everything, and I can’t remember what happened to him in the end, but he proved that humans need other humans to stay sane. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can prove him right at least. The longer I spend alone in that shop, the more I find myself talking to that feline. Mostly threats, a few warnings. It was a joke at first, a way to vent my frustration, but the last few days I find things just slip out, conversational things, and even though I know he can’t understand me, sometimes, very occasionally, it seems like he can.

Anyway, about a week ago as I was trying to sort through the flimsy old books, I heard the bell ring, and whoever steps through the door becomes of immediate interest. I’ve even started betting with myself to see if I can guess what kind of customer they are. The ones who come into the shop to see Madam Norna always have the same deer in headlights look, lingering in the doorway, unsure if they’ve made a mistake and should turn around and walk back out. The minimalistic business card is usually crumpled or folded in their hands. The other kind of customer is the one who comes in and immediately choses a path to follow, their eyes roaming around wildly trying to make sense of the chaos. Those kind of customers always seem to find something, and it’s usually an item I’ve never seen before, even though I have a regular wee nosy.

This day it was a lassie of medium height, hair rippling down her shoulders in a waterfall of curls. We locked eyes for a brief second and exchanged the obligatory half-smile before she went on her own journey around the shop.

It could only have been a few minutes before I heard her call for me at the counter. As I approached, she was hovering over the glass, like a bee over a flower, enraptured by the sparkle. She was squinting longingly at something inside, and when she noticed me asked if she could see something out.

Now, have ye ever lost something, whether glasses or your keys, and frantically searched everywhere for them, convinced you’ve lost them on the bus. When you do eventually find them, it turned out you’d walked past them a few times, probably even stared at them during your search? It’s like that with the glass cabinet. I can’t tell how she managed to see this wee ring amongst all the grandeur. The ring she wanted was wee, unassuming, engulfed by the rubies and diamonds, fake or no, surrounding it. It wasn’t particularly pretty, not compared to some of the other items in there. Definitely not something I would’ve thought she’d choose. The band was a snake, with tiny scales engraved into the metal, which looked to be silver. This snake was eating its own tail. The one detail that made it stand out was that the snake had two rubies for eyes.

It shouldn’t have made me uneasy, but somehow it did. I handed it over, doubting it’d fit human hands, yet somehow the lassie slid it onto her finger with such ease you’d think it’d been made for her. She began the typical routine of holding her hand out, awing at the ring, moving her fingers this way and that so the ruby eyes glinted underneath the lights of the shop. She was like a pig in shite, exclaiming that the ring was made for her.

I didn’t say anything, though I could feel she was waiting for a compliment. Thankfully, someone else obliged. The Madam descended from her boudoir and told the lassie the ring suited her very well. When questioned on the price, the Madam gave five quid. I’m no jewellery expert, but that ring was worth well above a fiver. I couldn’t understand the low price, but who was I to question my boss about something in her shop? Maybe it wasn’t silver, and those weren’t rubies in the snake’s eyes, but as far as I’m aware they only hallmark precious metals.

The lassie whipped her purse out so quickly I nearly got whiplash, foisting her crumpled fiver in my face. Then came the madam’s condition, although to me it sounded more like a warning. The lassie couldn’t return the ring. A bit of a weird thing to say, isn’t it? I mean we both saw how well that ring fitted the lassie, so why would she return it? Was it faulty? Is that why it was so cheap?

The lassie didn’t seem to care, and without thought just nodded in agreement, and left with the bounce of someone who thinks they’ve grabbed a bargain. After she was gone, I couldn’t help but ask why the Madam had sold a hallmarked ring so cheaply. All she said was that some prices can’t be paid with money, and predicted we’d be seeing the lassie again.

I hate these predictions of hers. I’ve been in that shop weeks and not one of those predictions has ever fallen through, they all come to pass. It’s how they come about that worries me. She predicted the man who’d killed his missus would be back, and he was, screaming and cursing her. Don’t even get me started on that creepy scarecrow. I began to dread the lassie’s return, and until a few days later when the event inevitably happened, I was wracking my brains trying to figure it out.

This time her hair was dishevelled, and she wore no makeup. She was like a before and after photo, or a reality vs. Instagram comparison. I heard the bell go and this may be the solitude induced madness talking but it sounded different, a lower pitch than normal, and my brief joy at the thought of a customer turned sour when I laid my eyes on her. I even backed up a wee bit when she came charging over to the counter where I was like a bull who’s seen red.

She didn’t say a word and just thrust her hand at me. Reluctantly I inspected it and instantly regretted the bacon butty I’d had for breakfast. The finger, which still held the ring, was grim. There were scratch marks that wept with blood, as if the snake itself had been biting her. It wouldn’t come off she told me in a growl so feral you’d think it was my fault. She was in such a state that she even began to pull at the ring so viciously I thought she was going to pull the finger off entirely. I tried to explain that her finger was swollen, and if she left it a few hours then it’d probably come off.

She wasn’t convinced. Her nostrils flared and she protested that her fingers weren’t swollen, as if I were bloody blind, but she was adamant she wanted the ring off, and accused me and the Madam of playing a trick on her. It’s like the Madam is summoned if you say her name aloud because she appeared from upstairs, bringing a welcome air of calm, and – I can’t believe I’m saying this – sanity. It didn’t last long.

She informed the lassie there was no trick, and as she’d exclaimed delightfully a few days earlier, the ring was made for her. Still pulling on her finger, scratching at what little skin she had left, she said she didn’t want it and if we didn’t help her, she’d get her boyfriend to sue us.

 I glanced anxiously at the Madam, feeling the worry crease my eyebrows. I didn’t want to get sued, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I expected this threat might get some reaction, but it’s like the Madam wears a mask, a really good one, that never creases or shows any emotion. She didn’t blink at this threat. The only change to her facial expression was the slight upwards curve of her lips, like she was smiling. In reply, she asked:

“Which boyfriend would that be?”

The question took the wind of rage out the lassie’s sails and she recoiled. I’m getting used to these out the blue revelations from my boss. It’s better not to think of how she knows these things about strangers, otherwise I find it hard to sleep at night. Using the lassie’s surprise to her advantage, the Madam told her the ring wouldn’t come off until she righted what she’d done wrong. She looked to me and commented, as if we were in conversation, about fidelity and about how it was rarer these days when in the past it’d been expected. The entire situation was weird, so these comments never stood out to me.

The lassie found her voice eventually and denied the implication that she was a player, or cheater, or whatever you want to call it, claiming that she’d never do such a thing. Obviously, the Madam didn’t believe her and said her denial would place her in a precarious position If she didn’t change her attitude, or her lifestyle, and reminded her that there was no returns on the ring.

Having vented her frustration out on us, the lassie exited in a comically villainous way by vowing to make the wee shop pay. The bell clattered as she went, as happy as I was to see the back ae her.

The entire thing was…odd, so it took me a few seconds to shake it off and ask the Madam if she wasn’t going after her to convince her not to sue us. With her normal confidence, she stated we wouldn’t be getting sued by that lassie as she wouldn’t have the means to do it once the ring was done with her. She instructed me to put it back in the cabinet when it returned. Before I could point out that she’d said there were no returns, she already disappeared up the stairs like a ghost.

I tried not to think about it, and as the days went by I slowly forgot, until this morning on the way to the shop. Just as I was about to enter, I kicked something on the pavement and heard the metallic chink as it skittered from me. I paused to look at it, as you do in case it’s money, but all I saw were those rubies sparkling in the Scottish rain. My curiosity overcame me, and I bent down to pick it up, and can you believe there wasn’t a mark on it? After all that abuse it got from the lassie trying to get it off, it looked exactly the same as the day I’d first sold it to her. It’d also been on the pavement outside the shop with people kicking it, walking on it, prams rolling over it. Not a scratch, or dent, or chip was visible.

As instructed, I took it into the shop with me, and unusually the Madam was waiting. She exclaimed, with as much emotion as she could muster, that she’d been wondering when it’d show up, and took it from my hands. I told her it’d just been lying on the street outside, and why hadn’t the lassie just come back in with it herself rather than throw it away?

The answer was that she probably hadn’t even noticed it was gone. The madam turned to me then, a serious expression on her face that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

“Let me tell you about the things in this shop,” she said, “Everything in here is meant for someone, somewhere out there, and it’s here waiting for them to find it.”

The only sound I could hear was the slow thud of metal on glass as she put the ring down on the counter. I asked her why the ring hadn’t come off before when she’d been so desperate to remove it. Even though I’d thought it must be because her finger was swollen, I couldn’t understand why the madam had said the ring wasn’t done with her, as if it were alive with an agenda.

The Madam paused, never taking that serious stare from me. She said she’d leave the explanation up to me, and that I was to choose which I was more comfortable with. As if there’s more than one explanation of why a ring can’t come off someone’s finger. It had to be swollen, it had to be, that’s the only logical thing here, in a situation where logic seems to have deserted.

In that shop, reality is lost. Logic, reason, the laws of the world, become unfocused, almost as if they don’t apply. Why is it that nothing is as it should be? Why can the Madam never answer a bloody question? She’s not helping, not with this enigmatic shite she has going on. I’m honestly surprised I’ve never seen her hover over a crystal ball. Well, she can believe whatever she wants, the ring didn’t come off because the lassie’s fingers were obviously swollen. She’d left it outside because she didn’t want to see us, or her pride was hurt, or she only wanted to see us in court. I don’t know, but that ring is just a ring, like any you can buy.

So, why am I dreading someone wanting to see it again?

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