The falling rain spat once more onto the slickening bitumen – another day, another town, yet another thousand doors to knock on. Such is the life of the itinerant salesman, a life spent in a kind of self-imposed solitary confinement, a life spent as a denizen of coach stops and train stations. Each temporary home another degenerating step away from society, another plunging dive toward the gutter and away from the endless rat-race and volte-face of permanent residency. He still needed to own property, to have at least signed a rental agreement on a shoebox apartment; he needed a postal address to keep receiving the bank cheques. His apartment, a postage stamp that stood as an empty and unrewarding testimony to a lifetime spent having doors closed in his face, of having promised subscriptions cancelled. A life dragged across an uncounted number of scuffing pairs of $10 shoes, a life of one thousand quotas left unfilled.
Encyclopaedias, life insurance, time-shares in Madagascar. After enough trudging steps and enough robust rebuttals, they all seemed the same. The same pitch half-finished across the same doorways, the same uninterested housewives, the same rapscallion children, mutely mining their nostrils in the hope of striking buried treasure. He had noticed around twenty variations on the same theme, the same quirks of individuality separated by a half-dozen steps between semi-detached townhouses. When he first began his endless rounds of the countryside he had pitied these suburban fools in their sub-social misery, abandoned and cast aside, cast out before the vicissitudes of the worship of the Almighty Money God and his bespectacled and besotted minions. Now he envied them – envied their unflinchingly inelastic routines, envied their 9 – 5, 5 – 9 schedules.
The sight of another coach house roach-hotel finally threatened to send him over the edge – too many miles walked in his own shoes, too long away from any semblance of unbiased normality. Another dozen houses before he could make that telephone connection to head office, hoping for human contact that didn’t end with a door slammed closed, hoping to sell at least one of whatever it was he was supposed to sell today. It felt like some kind of twisted game, a game played by fate in karmic revenge for his hatred of the middle class – his social betters. It felt like a cruel challenge beyond even Hercules, to sell igloos in India, to sell sand to Saharans.
Something held him here, standing before the little shop, its frontage engrained with shadows beneath the pregnant clouds – something near magnetic about the heavy Victorian shopfront so entrenched amongst mirrored panels of the towering temples to mercantilism as to be almost forgotten. A sign swung lazily, The Bearded Lady: Antiques & Collectables. The lady in question, a buxom Germanic hausfrau disfigured by and the trickling rivers of red streaming down with the rain, choking upon the slow collapse of the sign’s rust-encrusted hinges – out of place on the high street, out of place swinging anywhere besides the front of a disreputable pub.
He had never been one to stop in at and meander through a store of curios, to take time from his complicatedly twisted schedule, to dally amongst the diversions cast in his path, to tempt him into the destitute idleness of the unemployed. He would never put his job at risk; it felt to him even now, set loose almost three hundred kilometres from Head Office that the deeply unsettlingly brown eyes of his Section Chief blazed over his shoulder, constantly assessing his work. Yet the store held him there still. Hands pressed against the windows he tries to peer inside through the grime built up through the ravages of time, a century of endless streams of tobacco smoke, of the heavy killing fog and the uncaring laziness of a cleaning lady long since retired.
The door sat, painted a deep red now half-obscured, rendered an ancient and ruddy brown by the passing fumes of motor cars; sitting heavy in its frame, an oaken colossus, sent forth to defend the merchants within, to leave them unmolested by the proscribed against hawkers and vendors. Erected, it seemed, to repel all but the most genuine and earnest of patrons, set unmoving and steadfast – a barrier against a more violent age, long passed.
He stepped nearer toward that grim doorway, tested the handle – it turned, although an undercurrent of resistance flowed through it. He set his briefcase on the footpath, tested his shoulder against the unforgivingly unmoving portal. The door shuddered against his increasingly desperate assault, the scrape of the door scraping the jamb and the rattling of the doorknob, as if it were laughing and applauding in mockery of his labours. In mockery of his vain efforts to test the truth proclaimed by the sign hanging on the door: Come on In, We’re Open.
With a final, lunging shove the door came unstuck, threatening to spill him tumbling haphazardly into the store. The bell hung as a primitive alarm tinkled softly, muted by the dancing dust motes and still settled air of this building constructed apparently without windows, so perfect was the tinted filtering of the glass. Gas lanterns hung from the walls, as far as he could tell – gas lanterns or near perfect modern reproductions, their guttering light bouncing from disorganised shelves of mouldy, leather-backed tomes, bearing titles that went unrecognised but still cast a shiver rioting across his scalp. The Necronomicon, its spine cracked apart to defeat the heavy lock and chain hung to guard the living from its dark mysteries; copies of the Unaussprechlichen Kulten and of the Book of Eibon threw their weight out from the shelves, bearing down on his already ailing mind.
A cobra, impossibly long and coiled into a jam jar seemed to rear its terrible death cowl toward him, calling him nearer, begging him to pick it up. His hand stretched out, and again he saw it dance inside its formaldehyde bath, turning eyes of shining glass toward him. Entranced by those hypnotic eyes he was trapped, his arm reaching for his death as he felt the danger rise in his chest like a wave, threatening to swamp him – a deer stuck in the headlights.
“Can I help you, young man?” The voice of his own grandmother, comforting and safe although she were at least twenty years in the grave, was whispered near his shoulder. A voice, muffled by the years between his lonely childhood and his depressing adult life. Coming from a wizened crone of no less than eighty, who then turned away, flicking out her wrist. A sheet floated down over the snake’s blind gaze, disguising the scene, settling like a carpet of snow covering an early morning murder.
His tongue flailed mutely in his mouth as he felt a weight lift from him, the crone at his side smiling, understandingly patient, “You look a little confused, child – perhaps you have stumbled across the wrong type of antique store for your delicate tastes.” There was a harsher tone to her voice now, the previously hidden threat echoing from within her, as she looked him up and down. “You’re not trying to sell me something, are you, boy-o? What’s your name? I ain’t seen you anywhere near here before?”
“No…no, I’m here, just staying nearby for a few days, I was thinking that bed and breakfast just down the road…I’m just browsing.” He struggled to force the words from his lips, stuttering in reply to this doppelganger of a woman who had made his boyhood so unbearable. Grandmother had always hated stutterers, and his uncontrollably rebellious tongue had cost him a dozen strikes of her cane on a weekly basis. This hideous reincarnation merely raised one eyebrow, with her hand on her hip, again waiting for him. “Oh, sorry – my name is Grending. Thomas Grending…”
“Well Thomas Grending you may indeed be called, but I can always smell a salesman lad – all that shoe polish and sweat. Don’t you go thinking you can butter me up by buyin’ something on the cheap and then try to sell me some bloody modern rubbish I don’t need! I won’t hear of it, alright?”
Another glass jar sat on the bench before him, vacuum-sealed to protect its fragile cargo – an egg, almost certainly a replica or model, it stood at least thirty centimetres tall, its diameter, too large for hands to grasp. He glanced down, read the tag aloud, to himself – he was never much of a reader. “Bergman’s Wit,” was written on a copperplate sliver at the jar’s wooden foot, surrounded by a mess of narrow plaques – they seemed smaller than the other somehow, although a quick measuring would put paid to that assumption. He glanced at the silver etchings, confirming his suspicions. “Garton’s Carriage, Eberton’s Malice,” he was speaking more to himself than the crone, “what do they mean?”
“They are the names of the previous owners of Bergman’s Wit, lad. The names and their deeds laid bare.”
He stared down at her, not expecting an answer to what was posed as more of a riddle to himself. “I think this is what I came in for, thanks.” She had ruined his riddle, a little parlour game he could play, to idle away the time on the road. “The name rings a bell; in fact, I’m sure this is what I’m after… Bergman’s Wit.”
She stared at him then, eyes alight beneath her fearsome eyebrows. “You are sure, lad? Bergman’s Wit comes at a terrible price – seventy dollars! It must never be opened!” He laughed at the modest price, and was disappointed to hear that no, she didn’t accept EFTPOS or credit cards: she didn’t believe in plastic, imaginary money. He talked her down in price, fifty dollars, as well as the tie around his neck – she called it his noose, in a manner that suggested she knew more than she was saying, darkly hinting at a hidden knowledge. Bergman’s Wit – what ever that meant, whatever it was – felt light in his hand, although he regretted parting with his hard-earned money and uniform tie – there would be hell to pay back at the office.
The door swung open, as he applied what was almost a feather’s touch, and the old woman shouted at his back as he stared intently into the bell jar; her shouted command could have been a warning – or it could have been a curse: “It must never be opened!” Staring at the shifting turquoise and crimson patterns moving across the egg’s surface he walked out into the street, his sample bag sitting forgotten beside the door he now heard slamming shut, the sound of locks turning in conformation of his exit. It hadn’t been doing that in the shop, of that he was almost certain, it had been royal purple, resting on a cushion of blue velvet.
He pulled at the handle of the jar, until he heard the pop of the seal being broken, the rush of air flooding in. The egg cracked almost simultaneously, losing its kaleidoscopic skin as it did so, the crack dancing around its surface.
The old woman cursed as the beast erupted from the jar – it seemed too soon for him to have fallen into the trap she had laid out for him. They never could resist themselves, could never reject temptation. At least this time she had not forgotten to ask for his name, it had been at least a century since the creature had been renamed. At least a century – no wonder it was so hungry, the poor little thing. She put her fingers between her teeth and whistled. The creature turned to her, his tongue lolling from his mouth, panting like a lovesick wolf. Already she was mentally filling out the new display card: Grending’s Folly.
This is why I have posted so infrequently lately, other than the screenplay, the competition entries and the metaphorical scrunching of electronic paper…the prompts for this Lovecraftian monster came from Sunday Scribblings with both Modern and Wit, from Story Dam The Antique Store, Steph from BekindRewrite with Echo before the Cry; Ailing Mind; I hope not; Pick it up; and Building Without Windows and finally from 3 WordWednesday with Cancel; Elastic; and Labour.