Watchers

Spectral shoppers and vintage underwear, in Beverley.

wednesday-market-snow

I got the keys for the shop two weeks before Christmas. The landlord trod out his cigarette on the frosty pavement and gave me the tour.  I’d already had a look round with the agent, and since the back room was still full of all the old fittings, I explained again that I’d need this space for stock, boxes and so on.  He said if I wanted any of those old units to let him know.   He’d get the rest taken away and stored.  Since my first visit I had hoped some of the cabinets and shelves might work for my jewellery and ornaments.  Most of my capital was tied up in stock, so I was sharp-eyed for potential savings.

Long ago this place had been a drapery and haberdashery.  The shop was L-shaped, originally having been two separate businesses owned by the same man.  The insurance broker on the corner of the Saturday Market was unconnected, but they had bought the frontage after that first owner sold up in the early 1970s.  Afterwards the place had sold dressmaking and knitting supplies, finally standing empty for over a year until I took over.  The landlord left me there and I stood a quiet moment, alone in the premises of my business – for now.  I needed customers, and fast.  There was a lot of hard work ahead, and I could have done with getting in a week earlier, but now I had to get open in time for Christmas.

On the Sunday night, after a weekend spent kitting out the shop with my fittings and half of the old ones, I met up for a pint with Bryan at the Moulders Arms.  Work was getting worse, he said, although he had to admit he was grateful enough still to be working at all.  I told him about the shape of the shop and my security concerns, how I was going to need a camera or two, even if they only looked the part.  He said he’d get his son to call round.  Jamie worked for a security firm.  Then Bryan remembered the story, or at least that there was one.

‘Fellow who owned those shops was obsessed with the woman from the smaller place.  Thought she was in love with him, although she was happily married.  It was a local scandal at the time, but I don’t know how it all came out.’  He finished his drink.  ‘I’ll ask my dad when he comes for Christmas dinner.’

I smiled, having in recent weeks become gently obsessed with a woman myself.  The house that backed onto mine had been to let for some time until one evening I noticed the lights on.  Over the following weeks I found the lady of the house to be fonder of lights than curtains or blinds.  I’m barely middle-aged, but I felt like a dirty old man as I let myself watch her, although it was more a case of taking an opportunity, being grateful for what was offered.  I didn’t even know her name, let alone whether she knew or cared that I was peering from the darkness of the spare room.  Maybe I wasn’t the only watcher.  I couldn’t see into the houses either side of me.  But it looked as though she lived alone, because I never saw a husband or lover, nothing to inspire envy.  She was a quick dresser, and quicker at undressing, as though the house was cold.  Maybe she should have spent more on heating than light, but I wasn’t complaining.  Her taste in clothing was what you might call retro, and I’m pleased to say she saw that through to the level of underwear.  This made me think perhaps she did it on purpose, was an exhibitionist or whatever it’s called.  Do modern women wear suspenders and stockings unselfconsciously, not with an eye on the attention they’ll attract?  Karen never had.  But this lady took them off as I watched, removing next the big white laceless bra and deep hip-hugging knickers, before bedtime or her bath.  Her hair was pinned up and unfussy, probably shoulder-length if she let it down.

She was of old-fashioned stature, with a proper bust and hips, not the boyish ideal of recent years.  There’s no glamour to skinny, no allure for me.  And yet that was how Karen had tried to make herself during the last years, running every night, even after the gym.  I could understand her wanting to be fit, but the more she did the more she hated how she looked, it was never enough.  And when I told her she was fine already she looked at me with contempt.  I wasn’t lying, but at some point her new life stopped involving me, so what I thought didn’t matter.  She left me for a man she met at the gym.  He was divorced and owned a business.  Well, now so did I.  Admittedly a lot smaller, but it was mine, and all that remained was to get ready and open.

With half my redundancy money standing idle around me I needed to get the stock out on show and the door open as quickly as possible.  Jamie had fixed me up with two empty cameras – he did a lot of those, apparently – and by the afternoon of the Friday before Christmas I was moving stock around to find the best place for everything, resisting the urge to overload the shelves.

‘I’m not open yet,’ I called to the man who appeared inside the door as I bent behind the counter.  ‘But if you see anything you like I can let you have it.’  He made no reply, so I rose to face him, catching a tweedy glimpse of suit and waistcoat before looking into his moustached face.  The dark of his pupils spread rapidly under my gaze, and he was gone, vanished into nothing.

I held on to the counter, thinking I must have stood up too quickly, been working too hard.  Skipped lunch, should have eaten.  And it couldn’t have been anyone, or I’d have heard the old bell when the door opened.  People passed the window and their pale winter shadows crossed the wall inside.  That must have been it, just someone looking in.  I told myself I’d do another hour, and then tomorrow I would open.

Back at home I ordered a pizza delivery and opened a beer.  Along with the old shop fittings in the back room I had found some old box files whose possibly interesting contents I would investigate this evening to the sound of the radio in the living room.  I would also keep a lookout for the cherished moment when the lights went on over the fence.  The first file contained several copies of the Hull Daily Mail from the 1960s which I put to one side, and a number of photographs taken inside the shop years ago.  I saw the glass-topped counter that now housed my jewellery, and behind it rows of little drawers for buttons and things.  I was using those for storage in the back.  The same balding man frowned from most of the photographs, but one showed a dark-haired woman in a crocheted dress standing in front of a different counter.  As I stared the pizza boy rang the doorbell, and I put the pictures in a little pile.  I’m a tidy sort of person.

As I ate, keeping my greasy fingers away from the old prints, I decided to buy a few frames, put up the pictures as talking points in the shop.  Then perhaps if someone was interested they’d tell others, who might stop by for a look and leave with a purchase.  As the beer and pizza went down I indulged in dreams of the shop’s success, allowing myself to become locally celebrated, but drawing the line at having Karen back.  I closed the empty box and with immaculate timing the lights came on opposite.  Another beer from the fridge, and I took myself upstairs to watch.

At nine in the morning I opened and saw brisk trade at the stalls on the Saturday Market for half an hour before my first customer came in.  He browsed without buying, avoiding my eye, and leaving as I attended to a cheery man who spent over a hundred pounds, testing my new card-machine skills whilst obliging me to keep an idiot grin off my face.  And it carried on in much the same way until half past four or so, when things slackened off.  But what a start!  I would have to order more stock on Monday, but had enough in the back and at home to keep trading until it arrived.  I hadn’t planned to open on Sunday, but revised this in the light of today’s takings and the season.  I’d get a couple of days off soon enough, and afterwards they’d all be looking for sale bargains.  I had anticipated this and bought in some pieces for the purpose.

On Saturday night I ordered a curry and looked through the rest of the box files, whose contents included empty bobbins, patterns, and a great many catalogues.  Catalogues for wool, for buttons, and – to my joy – a whole box full of fifties and sixties lingerie brochures.  These vintage items could fetch a pretty penny from the right sort of buyer, but I was going to have a good long look myself first, if I didn’t keep them.  I told you I was partial to the way women used to dress, and this whole experience stirred such childhood memories.  My mother would take me to shops like mine had been, and I breathed in the rich aroma of the places, saw the haughty elegance of the mannequins, then as now at odds with the shapes of real women.  Crouching in my shorts, I would touch the plate glass between little me and the contents of the cabinets.  Now I had the keys to some of those cabinets, but I still spent longing hours peering through glass at the object of my desire.

Christmas was on Thursday, so once I’d converted another few hundred pounds of stock into cash on Sunday I was optimistic for the short week ahead, and resolved to order even more stock tomorrow.  Outside in the dark afternoon I locked the door and was reaching up for the shutter when I saw a young woman standing inside the shop.  Like a fool, I had and shut the place up with a customer still browsing.  Hoping she’d see the funny side, I fumbled open the door and strode into the shop, making all sorts of apologies, to where she stood at the end of the counter.  She was short, petite and gloved. I couldn’t say how old, because her hat covered most of her hair and the shop was in darkness.  She said nothing, but raised her head, looked into my eyes, and disappeared, just like the man had done.  This wasn’t a shadow, unless it was my own, cast by the street lights outside.  But I didn’t believe that.  Nor did I believe that people could just fade away like that, or appear real if they weren’t.  The mind had greater depths than science had plumbed, I was sure, and so that’s what I told myself.  To everyone else I said nothing.

At home I had the comfort of my alluring neighbour opposite, now the one constant in my life.  How I might get onto friendly terms with her remained uncertain, yet I was increasingly sure that with our shared taste in ladieswear (mine stoked daily by the glossy-thick pages of those engrossing catalogues) we could share far more together.  First, I needed to get through three days of trading without being driven insane by vanishing figures.  They did their best.  I put down the telephone after placing my order on Monday morning and rushed to help an old woman reaching for a lead crystal vase on a high shelf.

‘Allow me,’ I said, and startled, she looked at me.  I heard her draw breath, I swear, but she was gone.  I placed the vase on a lower shelf and put the kettle on.  Trade was slower that day, but picked up on Tuesday when I supposed more people were off work.  My delivery arrived mid-morning by which time things were so busy that only with difficulty could I restock the empty shelves, between customers.  Lots of cash, for some reason – I had to shut for ten minutes in the afternoon, to visit the bank.  When I returned, to a shop of whose emptiness I had assured myself before leaving, a middle aged man in an apron was sitting behind the counter in my place.  This time I didn’t look in his eyes, glanced around him, watched his balding head turn to follow me into the shop and back again past him, saw the big fabric scissors in his right hand and there in his left a Gossard catalogue from 1965, exactly the same as the one back at home in the box.  I looked at his face and he left me, his lost mirror image, the keys in my left hand, the paying-in book in my right.

At about ten on Wednesday morning, Christmas Eve, just as I was closing the till, a policeman put his gloves on the counter – I saw them clearly – only to dematerialise when I looked up.  This time it was different, because I wasn’t alone.  There were two customers in the shop, a mother and daughter by the look of them, and as the solid dependable copper atomised into nothing before me I saw them behind him, through the space where he had been, and the daughter was looking at me as though nothing had happened.  Possibly I stared back too hard, as she expressed a desire to leave, but happily not before her mother had spent sixty pounds on her card.

After work I called in at the packed Cornerhouse for a standing drink with Bryan, who told me what his wife Sandra had remembered about the story of my shop.

‘The woman went missing,’ he said, ‘after complaining to her husband about unwanted attentions from the shop owner.  The police had him in for questioning, but there was never a body and he denied everything, so they had to let him go.  It broke him though, and he died soon afterwards.’  My face must have saddened at this, because Bryan asked what I was doing tomorrow, said if I was on my own I could come to theirs.

‘Looking forward to a rest,’ I told him.  ‘Been working hard.’  He didn’t know how hard.  Today had proved that I alone could see the vanishing figures, but at least I saw them only at the shop.  After Bryan went home I stayed and had another.  Thus encouraged I went via Tesco, having decided to introduce myself with a bottle of wine.  No idea what I was getting, hardly drank wine myself, but I tried to get something nice, spent ages thinking.  Women like white wine, don’t they?  But white needs to be cold, and there was no time to put it in the fridge.  Red, then.  Paid nearly ten quid, it must be love.  Happy, I sang to myself as I walked home.

As soon as the lights went on I set off round to her house.  Only took a couple of minutes, even though I had to go back for the wine.  There was no answer when I knocked on the front door, and from this side all was dark.  I noticed the To Let board was still up, an oversight presumably.  Never really came down this road.  Between the houses I could see the light escaping around the blind in my kitchen as I walked down the side passageway to the back garden.  Untended for months, this was a bit of a state, but the lawn was lit through the open curtains and I strode, taking my moment.

The living room was empty – literally empty apart from the carpet, curtains wide at the patio doors.  Nobody there.  Next along was the kitchen, with a door half-windowed in frosted glass, and the window.  I saw her standing there in a green mini-dress, reaching to open and close a cupboard door, taking out nothing, putting nothing back.  The white kitchen surfaces were bare under the glare of the bulb.  As I raised my hand to knock she walked through to the living room and I moved back that way to see her cross the carpet and touch something that wasn’t there against the far wall.  It was feeling very cold out here now.  She turned again, walked the length of the opposite wall and smiled against the window, looking past me.  I stepped out, holding up the wine bottle and grinning back, but still she stared, clearly seeing something I couldn’t.  Every inch real, with a shadow and everything, not like those others, the watchers, the things I’d imagined, believed.  I could see the shape of her underwear through her skirt, and a place where the paint on her toenails had chipped.  She was there before me, just glass in between.  I could have watched her forever, but that wasn’t enough.

I got right in front of her before she straightened and put her head on one side, all mute.  I could hear no sound from inside, and very little out here, until I tapped the glass and she jumped like a waking sleeper.  With a look of horror she stared into my eyes, then the blackness spread, the lights went off, and I was alone in the dark.

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