It was the season of sales. The august establishment of Walpurgis and Nettlepink had lowered its prices for an entire week as a concession to trade observances, much as an Arch-duchess might protestingly contract an attack of influenza for the unsatisfactory reason that influenza was locally prevalent. Adela Chemping, who considered herself in some measure superior to the allurements of an ordinary bargain sale, made a point of attending the reduction week at Walpurgis and Nettlepink’s.
“I’m not a bargain hunter,” she said, “but I like to go where bargains are.”
Which showed that beneath her surface strength of character there flowed a gracious undercurrent of human weakness.
With a view to providing herself with a male escort Mrs. Chemping had invited her youngest nephew to accompany her on the first day of the shopping expedition, throwing in the additional allurement of a cinematograph theatre and the prospect of light refreshment. As Cyprian was not yet eighteen she hoped he might not have reached that stage in masculine development when parcel-carrying is looked on as a thing abhorrent.
“Meet me just outside the floral department,” she wrote to him, “and don’t be a moment later than eleven.”
Cyprian was a boy who carried with him through early life the wondering look of a dreamer, the eyes of one who sees things that are not visible to ordinary mortals, and invests the commonplace things of this world with qualities unsuspected by plainer folk — the eyes of a poet or a house agent. He was quietly dressed — that sartorial quietude which frequently accompanies early adolescence, and is usually attributed by novel-writers to the influence of a widowed mother. His hair was brushed back in a smoothness as of ribbon seaweed and seamed with a narrow furrow that scarcely aimed at being a parting. His aunt particularly noted this item of his toilet when they met at the appointed rendezvous, because he was standing waiting for her bareheaded.
“Where is your hat?” she asked.
“I didn’t bring one with me,” he replied.
Adela Chemping was slightly scandalised.
“You are not going to be what they call a Nut, are you?” she inquired with some anxiety, partly with the idea that a Nut would be an extravagance which her sister’s small household would scarcely be justified in incurring, partly, perhaps, with the instinctive apprehension that a Nut, even in its embryo stage, would refuse to carry parcels.
Cyprian looked at her with his wondering, dreamy eyes.
“I didn’t bring a hat,” he said, “because it is such a nuisance when one is shopping; I mean it is so awkward if one meets anyone one knows and has to take one’s hat off when one’s hands are full of parcels. If one hasn’t got a hat on one can’t take it off.”
Mrs. Chemping sighed with great relief; her worst fear had been laid at rest.
“It is more orthodox to wear a hat,” she observed, and then turned her attention briskly to the business in hand.
“We will go first to the table-linen counter,” she said, leading the way in that direction; “I should like to look at some napkins.”
The wondering look deepened in Cyprian’s eyes as he followed his aunt; he belonged to a generation that is supposed to be over-fond of the rôle of mere spectator, but looking at napkins that one did not mean to buy was a pleasure beyond his comprehension. Mrs. Chemping held one or two napkins up to the light and stared fixedly at them, as though she half expected to find some revolutionary cypher written on them in scarcely visible ink; then she suddenly broke away in the direction of the glassware department.
“Millicent asked me to get her a couple of decanters if there were any going really cheap,” she explained on the way, “and I really do want a salad bowl. I can come back to the napkins later on.”
She handled and scrutinised a large number of decanters and a long series of salad bowls, and finally bought seven chrysanthemum vases.
“No one uses that kind of vase nowadays,” she informed Cyprian, “but they will do for presents next Christmas.”
Two sunshades that were marked down to a price that Mrs. Chemping considered absurdly cheap were added to her purchases.
“One of them will do for Ruth Colson; she is going out to the Malay States, and a sunshade will always be useful there. And I must get her some thin writing paper. It takes up no room in one’s baggage.”
Mrs. Chemping bought stacks of writing paper; it was so cheap, and it went so flat in a trunk or portmanteau. She also bought a few envelopes — envelopes somehow seemed rather an extragavance compared with notepaper.
“Do you think Ruth will like blue or grey paper?” she asked Cyprian.
“Grey,” said Cyprian, who had never met the lady in question.
“Have you any mauve notepaper of this quality?” Adela asked the assistant.
“We haven’t any mauve,” said the assistant, “but we’ve two shades of green and a darker shade of grey.”
Mrs. Chemping inspected the greens and the darker grey, and chose the blue.
“Now we can have some lunch,” she said.
Cyprian behaved in an exemplary fashion in the refreshment department, and cheerfully accepted a fish cake and a mince pie and a small cup of coffee as adequate restoratives after two hours of concentrated shopping. He was adamant, however, in resisting his aunt’s suggestion that a hat should be bought for him at the counter where men’s headwear was being disposed of at temptingly reduced prices.
“I’ve got as many hats as I want at home,” he said, “and besides, it rumples one’s hair so, trying them on.”
Perhaps he was going to develop into a Nut after all. It was a disquieting symptom that he left all the parcels in charge of the cloak-room attendant.
“We shall be getting more parcels presently,” he said, “so we need not collect these till we have finished our shopping.”
His aunt was doubtfully appeased; some of the pleasure and excitement of a shopping expedition seemed to evaporate when one was deprived of immediate personal contact with one’s purchases.
“I’m going to look at those napkins again,” she said, as they descended the stairs to the ground floor. “You need not come,” she added, as the dreaming look in the boy’s eyes changed for a moment into one of mute protest, “you can meet me afterwards in the cutlery department; I’ve just remembered that I haven’t a corkscrew in the house that can be depended on.”
Cyprian was not to be found in the cutlery department when his aunt in due course arrived there, but in the crush and bustle of anxious shoppers and busy attendants it was an easy matter to miss anyone. It was in the leather goods department some quarter of an hour later that Adela Chemping caught sight of her nephew, separated from her by a rampart of suit-cases and portmanteaux and hemmed in by the jostling crush of human beings that now invaded every corner of the great shopping emporium. She was just in time to witness a pardonable but rather embarrassing mistake on the part of a lady who had wriggled her way with unstayable determination towards the bareheaded Cyprian, and was now breathlessly demanding the sale price of a handbag which had taken her fancy.
“There now,” exclaimed Adela to herself, “she takes him for one of the shop assistants because he hasn’t got a hat on. I wonder it hasn’t happened before.”
Perhaps it had. Cyprian, at any rate, seemed neither startled nor embarrassed by the error into which the good lady had fallen. Examining the ticket on the bag, he announced in a clear, dispassionate voice:
“Black seal, thirty-four shillings, marked down to twenty-eight. As a matter of fact, we are clearing them out at a special reduction price of twenty-six shillings. They are going off rather fast.”
“I’ll take it,” said the lady, eagerly digging some coins out of her purse.
“Will you take it as it is?” asked Cyprian; “it will be a matter of a few minutes to get it wrapped up, there is such a crush.”
“Never mind, I’ll take it as it is,” said the purchaser, clutching her treasure and counting the money into Cyprian’s palm.
Several kind strangers helped Adela into the open air.
“It’s the crush and the heat,” said one sympathiser to another; “it’s enough to turn anyone giddy.”
When she next came across Cyprian he was standing in the crowd that pushed and jostled around the counters of the book department. The dream look was deeper than ever in his eyes. He had just sold two books of devotion to an elderly Canon.
Everyone calls Dunce ‘Dunce’. Everyone thinks that Dunce is an idiot. I used to think so too but not any more.
Dunce is completely bald and has a really pointed head so the temptation to get him paralytic on his thirtieth birthday, carry him to the tattooist’s and get a nice big ‘D’ smack bang in the middle of his forehead was too much for me. Trouble is he can’t afford to have it removed so he wears a big plaster over it. Gangs of children tease him.
‘What’s underneath the plaster, mister? Show us!’
They swear he has a third eye under there.
My name is Bill but Dunce calls me ‘Fez’ on account of my hat. I’ve known Dunce for over sixteen years. I don’t have to use my memory to work that out; I just count the number of boxes of Turkish Delight I’ve got stashed in my cupboard. Dunce buys me a box every birthday. Dunce thinks that because I wear a fez I must be Turkish (I’m not) and that being Turkish I must like that powder-covered gunk (I don’t, I hate the stuff).
On my last birthday, after saying:
‘No, Dunce, I’ll eat it later,’ and stashing box number sixteen in the cupboard, I decided to take Dunce to the theatre. He’d never been before.
The play was called ‘Death in the Dark’. We had front row seats. Dunce was captivated. He stared at the actors with a gaping mouth.
The lights dimmed to darkness. Kitty Malone, the beautiful star of the show, was stood centre stage. A shot was heard. Dunce jumped right out of his seat.
‘What was that?’ he said.
The lights came back on and Kitty was lying in a pool of blood. Dunce let out a scream then shouted:
‘Someone call for an ambulance! And the police!’
The audience thought that Dunce was an actor, that the play was being cleverly extended beyond the stage, questioning the boundaries of theatre.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Dunce shouted at the audience. ‘How can you carry on as if nothing has happened?’
‘This is wonderful, just wonderful,’ I heard someone say behind me.
Kitty was stoically sticking to her role, thinking that the show must go on, but Dunce was clambering up onto the stage, crying, stroking Kitty’s hair and checking her pulse.
‘She’s alive!’ he shouted with relief.
‘No I’m not!’ Kitty hissed at him through clenched teeth.
That was it; I was in hysterics. What a birthday treat this was turning out to be.
‘I’m acting. It’s part of the play. No one really shot me,’ Kitty hissed at Dunce.
The realisation was excruciatingly slow. I watched Dunce’s face change from shock to confusion to understanding to embarrassment. He made his way back to his seat. He didn’t speak or look at me until the play was over. The play got a standing ovation and we headed for the bar.
Kitty was in the bar too. She smiled at Dunce who blushed. She seemed to be fascinated by the top of his head. She walked over and invited him to her dressing room.
Twelve hours later and Dunce was in love! How about that? And what’s more, Kitty was in love too! And not only that but they were in love with each other! Kitty fell for Dunce. Not ‘fell for’ as in ‘was deceived by’ because there’s no deception where Dunce is concerned, he can’t do it, but she fell from her deceptions towards him. I couldn’t believe it.
‘It won’t last,’ I said to Dunce. ‘Enjoy it while you can but face facts: you are Dunce and she is Kitty Malone. Think about it.’
Dunce told me that Kitty had a thing about ice cream cones, a fetish you could say. She ate six a day. She liked to bite off the tip of the cone and suck out all the ice cream. She had a recording of ice cream van music that she played whilst they were having sex. She was forever stroking the top of Dunce’s head.
Then came the day. Dunce came round looking really worried.
‘Fez, have you seen Kitty? Do you know where she is?’
‘No, I haven’t seen her. Why? What’s the problem?’
‘I had a dream last night,’ Dunce said. ‘I dreamt that I was in bed and I looked at the calendar by the side of my bed and it was tonight. I put out my hand to touch Kitty but she wasn’t there. There was just this cold sludge covering her side of the bed and this smell: vanilla. It was melted ice cream.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘I think that something is going to happen to Kitty. I have to find her before tonight. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow morning alone in a bed full of melted ice cream.’
‘Dunce, dreams don’t mean anything and prophecies are impossible. Sit yourself down. Let’s have a couple of beers.’
I opened a cupboard, reached in to get the beers and a pile of boxes of Turkish Delight toppled over and fell out, breaking open and spilling their contents all over the floor. Dunce looked at the boxes then looked at me. I watched his face go through the same slow transformation from shock to confusion to understanding to embarrassment that I had witnessed so many times before.
‘You don’t like Turkish Delight?’ he said.
I said nothing and guiltily handed him a beer.
Dunce sighed then said:
‘So why did I have that dream?’
‘No reason at all,’ I said.
We sat in silence for a while then Dunce suddenly stood up.
‘It’s no good, Fez, I have to find her.’
Dunce found Kitty in the centre of town, lying on the pavement in a pool of blood. An ambulance and the police were on their way. An ice cream vendor was crying and yelling:
‘I don’t understand! I don’t understand!’
A huge, plastic ice cream cone was protruding from Kitty’s chest. It had fallen from on top of the ice cream shop for no apparent reason, smashed through her rib cage and crushed her heart.
Dunce cried. Then he cried some more. The next day, he cried and the day after that he cried. Three weeks later, he awoke, dressed, ate some breakfast, then cried. The next day, he came round to see me. He was crying.
‘Hello Dunce,’ I said. ‘Do you want a beer?’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ he said. ‘How can you carry on as if nothing has happened?’
‘It was an accident, Dunce,’ I said angrily, ‘a random occurrence. These things happen. You just have to get on with life. Why are you so stupid?’
I regretted saying it as soon as I heard it come out of my mouth. Dunce stared at me with tears in his eyes.
‘A fez is only a severed cone,’ Dunce said. ‘At least I have a point.’
I took off my hat and looked at it sullenly. Dunce had a point that he had a point. If he’d found Kitty a moment earlier… if I hadn’t delayed him with my arrogance, my cynicism…
‘Fez,’ Dunce said, ‘you remember the tears that I cried in the theatre when I thought that Kitty was dead but she wasn’t? I think that the tears I am crying now are the same as those. I didn’t understand what was going on in the theatre and I didn’t understand what was going on when the cone fell on her. I think that maybe we only cry because we don’t understand what is going on. Maybe if we understood what is really going on we wouldn’t cry at all, ever.’
Dunce smiled through his tears and beneath the plaster on his forehead I swear I saw something move.
Copyright © 2014 Mike Russell. All Rights Reserved.
This story is one of twenty that can be yours by purchasing Nothing Is Strange.
20 mind-expanding short stories
Inspiring, liberating, otherworldly, magical, surreal, bizarre, funny, disturbing, unique… all of these words have been used to describe the stories of Mike Russell so put on your top hat, open your third eye and enjoy… Nothing Is Strange!
It’s time to look at another story from M. R. James and this time it’s the super-creepy Number 13! It comes from his first collection of short stories Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. It concerns a hotel with a mysterious room (which may or may not exist) and men coming together over their shared fear. There’s a hairy clawed hand and everything!
I downloaded the above book in Kindle format for free from Amazon.
There was a 2006 BBC adaptation of Number 13 starring Greg Wise and Paul Freeman although, I haven’t seen it. Have you seen it? I’d like to know if it’s worth seeking out.