It’s been a few days since my encounter at the club, with the psycho and with Fionn. I was hoping to find some more sand to bury my head in, but I didn’t manage it. So, this morning’ I finally went to the shop.
I stood on the other side of the road so long someone thought I’d been given a *dizzy. I wish I had been waiting on someone from Tinder, I’m sure that couldn’t have been worse than what I was actually doing. I was inspecting the shop front, like by staring at it long enough I could puzzle out its secrets. But there was nothing out of the ordinary, and there never has been just looking at it. I’d been standing staring for so long that I did begin to notice something that was odd. No one walking past the shop ever looked into the window. This may not sound strange, but when I think back on it I don’t remember ever seeing anyone stop and look at the display, and there’s some nice things in there. Even the café next door received a cursory glance from passers-by, and they don’t even have anything in the window.
Why would no one ever look in the shop, even to check their own reflection? I do it, and whoever pretends they don’t is a liar. It was like the shop didn’t exist or was empty to everyone that walked by. But that was impossible. I was staring at it, I’d been inside and seen the hoard, got lost a few times, even added an item or two to the display. There was definitely a shop there, why people never looked inside, why everyone who does manage to find the door always buys something that alters their life in some way, and why the lost souls who come to see Madam Norna always have an impossible problem are all questions I was dying to have the answer to.
How did the Madam know that man, Sutherland, had murdered his missus? Why hadn’t the lassie been able to remove the snake ring when she’d wanted to? What had been up with that scarecrow, and had I just hallucinated those hounds that had chased me round the shop? Every day gets stranger, odder with every second confined by the shop, and now it’s followed me outside, to ma real life.
With what courage I’d managed to gather I went into the shop, heard the bell welcoming me back, the only thing to do so. The shop was empty, no Chronos, the wee shite, no Madam Norna. If I wanted answers, I’d have to go and find them. I went and put my jacket and bag behind the counter and just as I was about to make my way towards the private door, I heard the bell go again. Out of habit I whipped ma head up and saw a couple enter. Thinking back I’m not sure why I presumed they were a couple because they weren’t holding hands or anything like that. They didn’t even speak a word. It was just the way they were in each other’s space, as though magnets were drawing them to one another, two people so accustomed to being in each other’s company that it’s now their natural state. They both walked down one path and then the next, browsing in comfortable silence.
One of them looked sad. He was the taller of the two, dressed smart with crisp shirt and tailored trousers. He was more interested in his boyfriend than the many trinkets and objects in the shop. After they were both finished looking round, they came over to the counter, a black box in one of their hands. I think there were cufflinks inside, if I’m remembering the right box. I’ve looked through the hoard so many times I should know for certain. The smaller one, who had the box in his hand, placed it on the counter and fished around in his pocket for his wallet. I took the box, opening a paper bag to put it in, and casually asked if the cufflinks were for the handsome lad that he’d come in with.
“What lad?” he questioned, stating that he’d come in alone. The cufflinks were a birthday present for his Dad.
I almost dropped the paper bag. I glanced between the lads, from one to the other, expecting the punchline, the obnoxious laugh of someone who’s pulled a successful prank, but there was nothing, just one of the most awkward silences I’ve ever experienced. My entire life’s beginning to feel like the lead up to a punchline, except I’m still waiting. To me, the two lads were as real as each other, both flesh and blood. Yet, somehow, the taller one was…what, another hallucination?
What was identical between the two was the sadness dug into the grooves and lines of their faces, hiding in the furrow of their brows. I didn’t say a word, my voice all but lost to me, and solemnly I handed over the paper bag with the cufflinks. I offered an apologetic smile but knew there was nothing I could say that would explain or make sense of what I’d just done.
The lad and his shadow left the shop, and I kept my eyes on them until they were out of sight of the window. I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding, and when I perched my hands on the edge of the counter, I noticed they were shaking. I didn’t need to look at the private door to know Madam Norna had joined me.
“What was that?” I questioned with a calm I was sure couldn’t last.
“A memory,” was the simple yet cryptic answer.
I stared at her, across the drawers and chairs and books. I noticed her fiery red hair, the impossibly blue eyes, and it was like I was seeing her fae the first time, again. Something in her eyes told me she understood that I knew the world wasn’t what I’d thought. I asked her how I could see this memory.
“They are called memories because they are neither a ghost nor a poltergeist, they have no earthly remains or unfinished business, but the longing they have for a person they left behind or of that person for them is so strong it creates a bridge over the void of this world and the next, so they can always be beside the one they long for. Memories fade with time, ghosts do not. They are harmless, noticed by few, including us.”
I don’t really know how I feel about the term “us”. It suggests I‘ve been initiated into this club I don’t remember joining, and I’m not sure I want to. What I was beginning to understand was that ghosts and memories weren’t the only things I didn’t understand. She invited me to join her upstairs as it was time for explanations.
We couldn’t go into the parlour without making some tea, except this time I wasn’t the one making it. From what I could smell and see the leaves she used looked to be more harm than good. The kitchen itself seemed no different from the last time I was in it. I don’t know what I expected, but shouldn’t things appear changed now? Shouldn’t the walls be brighter, the sky a deeper blue, the pavement a sharper grey? Shouldn’t I be seeing in 4K instead of HD?
Eventually the kettle was boiled, the pot filled, and it was time to go into the parlour. I half expected her to invite me to sit where customers usually do. Was that what I was? She didn’t say anything, and out of habit I sat on the floor and immediately asked her what the antique shop was. Her answer was that it was an antique shop, full of old items waiting for owners to find them. Realising this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation, I pointed out that wasn’t all it was. The Madam liked that I hadn’t phrased it as a question and gave me one of her subtle smiles. According to her, the shop is there for people who need it, as is she. There are things that must be done, and she was there to ensure they were. If this sounds to you an awful lot like fate then you’re not alone, and I said as much.
“The all-encompassing fate, the premise that your life is written for you and everything you do is predestined is not quite true. There are some things that must happen in a person’s life, predefined points that they must live through; as for the rest that is entirely up to them, to a certain extent. If someone strays too far from their fated point then nature will correct them, one way or another. I observe the power of fate, I help it along if needs be, but I am here for other purposes, there are more forces at work than just destiny, but that is for another day. Tell me, how do you think you ended up in this shop?”
That was easy, I’d seen a notice in the window, and stumbled through the door with a CV in hand. By the sly smile she gave me I started to think that wasn’t the right answer.
“There was no notice, I did not place one there.”
The teacup stopped halfway to my lips, close enough for me to smell the bouquet of herbs she’d made it with. I stared at her blankly, my mind takin a few minutes to wrap itself around what she was implying.
“So, I imagined it?” I checked after a while.
Apparently, no. Well, she said not quite. The fact is there was no sign in the window, not a physical one anyway. She reminded me of what she’d told me when I’d first started, about people only entering the shop if they needed to be there. Therefore, I needed to be in the shop, and the only way I’d have gone in was by seeing a job advert in my hour of need.
The handful of brain cells I possess were working overtime, pulling all the information I’d been given together to try and form some understanding. I’ve taken easier exams.
“You’re saying that my working here is a destined point in my life?” I questioned.
The only reply I got was a gentle nod of her head. I narrowed ma eyes.
“What are you?”
Unfortunately, she said it wasn’t time for me to know that yet, but it would come, like so many other things. We continued in silence as she sipped her tea and I tried to swallow mine. I sensed we were beginning a new kind of relationship. I began to feel like she’d never been my boss, but instead, a teacher. I just wish I knew what she was teaching me, and why.
I then proceeded to grill the Madam about everything that’d happened to me since starting my job, and the first on the list was, obviously, the scarecrow. The creepy wee doll that had changed an innocent wee lassie into a demon, and according to the madam caused all the misfortune around her Mum’s pals and neighbours. It met a fiery end in the Madam’s fireplace. I was starving for answers, but the Madam takes her time doing everything. Taking a long sip of tea was more important than putting me out ma misery.
“It was a cursed object, it brings misfortune to all that own it, or rather those who are near the person who owns it. It feeds from its owner’s hatred and anger. There are not many left. It is a rare thing to see.”
It’s quite hard to pick up on what Madam Norna really thinks, her tone is always level, her gaze always calm. I’m getting to know wee signs, wee details that tell me something. One of them is tone. Underneath the silk voice, you can sometimes catch an emotion. She explained the cursed object with some reverence, as if she was happy she’d got to see a rare thing, despite its aforementioned destructive capabilities.
I queried why she hadn’t been more insistent on taking it from the wee lassie if it could cause, and did cause, so much harm. At the time she’d told me to leave it in the shop, but that sentence reminded me that it’d also disappeared from where I’d put it. I, in my voluntary ignorance, assumed the lassie had taken it – more wanted the lassie to have taken it. I checked with the Madam, and yes, that scarecrow did literally climb out the bucket I’d tossed it in and walked out of the shop. I was more than happy to leave the logistics of its escape to ma imagination.
I sipped the tea, more out of politeness. It’s a bit like alcohol, it gets better after a few sips. Sitting on the floor, after more than a month of working in that shop, I realised in that time I’d exchanged very few words with my employer, or whatever she was now. We’d never chatted or gossiped, or anything you’d normally do with a colleague. I still didn’t know anything about her. Perhaps that would come in time, like the other things had.
The front room has a different feel to it when there’s no customers. It’s like a sanctuary, a place people go to be safe, and although I didn’t need help, I still felt like the darker side of what I’d experienced couldn’t get me in there. Perhaps it was the Madam. Everything about her is calm, like still water in a loch, and there’s a touch of the otherworldly, as if she’s not all human.
That sounds daft, what else can she be? I can’t put my finger on it, but at times there’s a streak of the unexplainable about her, on a different level from the rest of the shop.
Next on the list was the snake ring that wouldn’t come off the lassie’s finger. I’d actually looked this one up, or at least tried to, and Google had told me that a snake eating its own tail was called an Ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a cycle. As you can tell it didn’t give me any more of a clue on what the ring had been.
Turns out the snake design is more literal than symbolical. It’s literally a serpent eating its own tail, which translates to someone who destroys their own chances of happiness through the decisions they make. The lassie was being unfaithful to her boyfriend, so the ring wouldn’t come off until she fixed her mistake.
This one was a bit far-fetched for me. If there was such a thing as anti-cheating jewellery, why couldn’t I get it at Primark? I said as much to Madam Norna. That got a delicate chortle. Unfortunately, there isn’t such an object that prevents infidelity, it’d just worked that way on the lassie, and wouldn’t work the same way fae the next person who it ended up with.
I’ve thought about this since. If there’s an item like that in the shop as I speak that can sort out people’s lives for them, then what does everything else do? I’ve definitely said before that everyone who comes in and buys something always seems to find an item I’ve never seen before. Is it like selective blindness? The people who buy things are the only ones who can see it because it’s meant for them? That’s how the shop works, isn’t it? The people who go in and seek help, the people who go in and find a job, and the people who enter to have a look. They all need to be there. I don’t see the objects they buy until they hand over the money because that item isn’t meant for me.
I find it so fascinating. At least most of me does. The rest is afraid I’ll touch something I’m not supposed to and end up cursed for life. I understand why I’m getting paid so well now.
I wasn’t done with my questions though. I finally asked my boss how she knew the things she did about customers. The man on my first day who’d killed his missus, the cheating lassie who’d bought the ring. The Madam had known all of it.
She informed me it was her job to know, and that she could see these things about customers. I didn’t understand what she meant by see. She explained that when a customer was in the parlour, she could essentially read their mind. She didn’t put it that way, but that’s how I understood it. During their conversations whenever the Madam asked a question there were two answers. The one which the customer said aloud, and the other which they thought, subconsciously or not.
I glanced at the sofa where the customers always sat and vowed to never sit there. I was a bit disappointed. I’d wanted her to be clairvoyant, you know seeing into the future, but I’ll just have to settle for telepathic.
The final question I managed to ask her was probably the one I was more personally interested in. Who was Fionn? I told her about how he’d saved me at the weekend from the psycho in the alley. Madam Norna paused here to sip her tea, even though I knew there wasn’t enough left in her cup. It was the first time I’d ever seen her hesitate before answering, and I began to feel like I’d overstepped. There was something in her gaze, something that hurt me to look at, as though it was hurting her as well. It was gone almost as quickly as I’d glimpsed it.
She told me he was an old friend. The reason he’d said we were even was because I’d saved him the first time we’d met in the shop. I didn’t need to dig far to remember the day we’d first met. Sometimes when I’m in the flat by myself I can hear the feral growls rumbling around.
I’d been right. They were dogs, I just couldn’t see them right, although I was assured that my sight would develop in time. The dogs were debt collectors, and Fionn had fallen into some trouble over unpaid debts and had visited Madam Norna to ask for help getting out of it. I don’t know what these debts were, she wasn’t forthcoming about that. Maybe it was a student loan.
They entered the shop to collect Fionn, and make sure he paid his debt, but I’d expelled them before they managed. Not sure how – unless I can wish for things now. If the Madam can read people’s thoughts, does that mean I get a cool ability? I think I’d rather have telepathy than whatever I did to those dogs.
There was one last question I wanted to confirm, about Fionn and her. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask. There was no mistaking what I’d seen when I’d asked about him the first time. I’m not a complete cow, I didn’t want to rub salt on a wound. Thankfully, we both heard the bell on the door ring. It was fainter up here, but it also echoed, lingered in the air like spring rain. Knowing a cue when I saw one I got up and tended to the customer, who predictably parted with some cash.
*a dizzy – Scottish slang; to be stood up.