Recording the latest episode of The Constant Reader podcast on Needful Things I was reminded of this quirky little number I tossed off in 2016. It riffs rather unashamedly on Leland Gaunt and his crooked curiosity shop, but not entirely seriously…
Like any self-respecting Englishman, I’d been feeling rather circumspect after St Hunniford’s, the local C of E school, had burned down. All those children. Not to mention the teachers. All that homework left unticked… oh, a grave weight hung over me, and no mistake.
However, at the nadir of my existentialism, I was confronted by “Biege” Barry McGee, the otiose local misanthrope. Muchly at odds with his quotidian omphaloskepsis, he had pranced over gaily with a moist smile smeared across his boat race. I welcomed the tricksy dichotomy as a distraction from my gloom, and asked Barry what had prompted his jocund countenance.
“I’m light as a feather,” Barry warbled inanely as we ordered a rancid, overpriced mug of brown from a glass mausoleum masquerading as a coffee emporium, the sort of low-IQ menagerie where mothers go to squawk at one another as their toddlers defecate obstreperously. Barry also requested from the maitre’d a proliferation of profiteroles. Utter obscenity. “I went to that new shop that’s just opened in town.”
“What new shop?” I enquired. I brought the cup of ostentatious crud to my mouth, but my nostrils commanded me to abort the vulgar attempt at social acquiescence.
“Unwanted Baggage,” gurgled Barry. “It’s just opened on the high street, next to the Lithuanian viticulturists.”
I lit a Capstan Full Strength with élan – the Devil take smoking regulations! – and sucked it down in one almighty inhalation. “So what did you buy to lift the weight from your soul, my dear old thing?”
“That’s the thing. I didn’t buy a thing. I gave him something.” Barry’s voice wavered slightly, like an ambitiously stacked tower of pancakes left out in a strong breeze. “I gave him my old budgerigar.”
“Trevor?!” I spluttered. Well that threw me, and no mistake. Trevor was Beige Barry’s one true friend, the loser. And yet here he was, bold as brass and as happy as a Frenchman in a crotchless trouser shop fitting room.
“Indeed,” plumped Barry, posting profiteroles mouthbound and struggling to enunciate. “Can’t fathom it, me old chunterer, but since plopping him orf I’ve felt like a million gallons!”
My eyebrows danced about in eddy-like formations at the sheer curiousness and curiousnesser of it all. I stuffed a fistful of recycled serviettes into my coffee cup to soak up the hideous beverage, thrust the dog-end of my fag into the rotten liquid where it drowned with a fizz, thanked Barry for his appalling company, and pissed off.
The next day I visited this Unwanted Baggage myself. I wasn’t usually in the habit of taking Barry’s moronic advice, but the encounter had rumpled me up and then some. I was all of a doozy. So, there I was, exiting the local Church of Satan Charity Shop and the vomit-green awning of this newly-opened shop caught my winker. It was a weird old tumbledown emporium that looked like it had grown from the bricks rather than been built by men.
Inside, the dusty, mouldering shelves – strange for a new shop, I hazarded – propped up an array of strange and mesmeric junk. Books without covers, bells without clappers, books without covers or pages, portraits of every single Belgian king from Baron Surlet de Chokier to Leopold I, a pair of secateurs, a mountain of dolls’ heads, candles, half a shoe, coins of various defunct denominations, watches, tired leather billfolds, bits of coloured chalk, rings that were no longer circular, swimming costumes partially perished around the gusset, some antique bread, a signed photo of Mixu Paatelainen, a rare first issue of Ringpiece magazine, withering potted plants starved of the chance to photosynthesise, various animal parts, blunt knives, the rotary blade from an AW169 EMS, half a pair of scissors (a scissor, I wondered?), a gyroscope, a second-hand quantum computer, the skeleton of a small bird in a cage (perhaps small enough as to be an ex-budgerigar, I pontificated mutinously), and the biggest cup of tea I’d ever, ever seen. And this was just the toppermost crusty layer of the bewildering array of crap that was stacked many cubits high.
A clacking noise, like a squirrel slung into a washing machine without having first been relieved of its nuts, greeted me, and I turned with a start. A seven-foot pipe-cleaner stood before me, a triumvirate of spectacles balanced delicately on his nose, and a smile that revealed an entire cemetery of munificently crumbling chompers, guzzling upwards like a set of archer’s stakes that had been charged once too many by the Caroline cavalry in the latter half of the Hundred Years’ War. It was this set of teeth that was making the clacking noise. Upon our gazes meeting he clapped his hands together in a peculiar, odd-time-signature Ottoman rhythm.
“Good morning, customer,” said the pipe cleaner, extending his arm, which was all of two metres long, in greeting. I took his hand and shook it stylishly. “My name is Umbleton Turk. Welcome to my shop, Unwanted Baggage. Enter freely, and leave some of the crappiness you bring!”
I nodded. He had a queer sort of accent, a sort of hybrid monstrosity of New York Jewish, Haitian Creole, Ural Russian, illiterate Deep South and working class Australian, with a dash of Raj English and the merest hint of the most vicious of the secessionist French-Canadians. I thought it might be wise to treat this one with caution.
“Well, friend, what do you need?” he asked. “Anything take your fancy?”
“Well, I’ve no need of anything in particular,” I said with triumphal flair. I again studied the menagerie of crap. “Why don’t you tell me about the shop?” As I looked about the queerest sensation came over me – the grave weight hanging over me from the previous day had returned.
“I came to this place after me famlee drownded in that Crete shipping catastrophe,” Umbleton laughed merrily, using a Swiss army knife to prise out a large piece of grout from his teeth. He inspected it with the relish of a ladybird discovering a colony of whitefly larvae, and voraciously swallowed the rocken crumb, smacking his lips as he did so and licking the cement off his long, many-knuckled fingers.
“The shipping disaster that was in the newspapers?” I asked, fingering a dusty Victorian collection of Eric Clapton LPs.
“Indood, indood! The very same. Oh, I lost everything: me mam, me pam, and…” he attempted an arthritic wink, which came across more like a stroke. “…I lost me emotions. Can’t feel a ruddy thing!”
“Nein, guv. I’m as cold as ice! So I opened up this shop, to feed on the feelings of others.” He cast an inspectious eyeball over me, magnified grotesquely through his multi-strata approach to prescriptive ophthalmological lens-based treatment. “I wonder, what do you feel?”
“Me?” I pressed a hand to my chest in mock-something.
“Yes, you, friend. You got any emotions?”
Umbleton quickly clicked his fingers twenty-nine times, and looked at me. “Tells you what. Hand me any trinket of yours, anything you like. I promise you, you’ll feel like a new cove.”
I rummaged around in me pocketses and found me Capstans and Zippo. I brought them out, to Umbleton’s apparent delight.
“I’ll take ’em!” Umbleton descended into a whirligig of decrepit laughter as he swiped the unassuming doobreys and danced a herky-jerky, spidery jig. He shook the box of fags by his ear and gave the lighter a little lick. “Ooh, that’s got a snazzy bouquet, hasn’t it? I’m getting overtones of benzine, a fresh citrus hit of Albanian meth, and what’s that lingering finish? Ah, yes – guilt. Has somebody been a naughty monkey?”
Before I could answer he booted me out the shop, and put the ‘We are indefinitely closed for LUNCHINGS‘ sign in the window. I was left on the pavement to ponder my queer encounter.
Whaddaya know? He was right. All my guilt, all gone.
Next time I burn something down I’ll feel like a million gallons.