The first day I arrived for work I was a little nervous — what if I wasn’t good enough? What if Roland had made a mistake? All my knowledge of art and objects was from books and museums, apart from my grandmother’s antiques.
I stepped inside the black lacquered front door that was hung with bells and chimes. ‘Hey,’ I said. ‘How are you?’
He looked up from the newspaper. ‘It’s Monday Juliette, so I’m a little dishevelled. That’s a measure, isn’t it?’
I drifted easily into the shop’s routines. I dusted and swept, gift-wrapped parcels in brown paper and string, washed incoming china and traipsed up and down the stairs. In between customers and errands Roland seemed to have limitless time to talk. He made a show of consulting me about my favourite things to do at the weekend, which essential oils I liked the best (these were added to the beeswax polish we used on the furniture), and what I wanted to do with my life. I was flattered by his attention. At three o’clock each day he disappeared to drink and play pool at the pub while I looked after the place until his return just before five.
Many of the customers were regulars. Others were tourists or special occasion shoppers. Some came specifically to be served by Roland, who had a cult following for his antiques blog, and was well known for his amusing, if cutting, assessments of people’s precious old things. I was left to deal with the lover come to buy a little amethyst ring for her heart’s desire; an old man with stains on his tie who came in every couple of weeks to look at the walking sticks: ‘they only let me out once a fortnight on Fridays,’ he said, and settled himself comfortably on a high-backed chair and proceeded to tell me about the discipline of his school years and the vigorous bossiness of his wife — the two were linked, of course; a lonely woman who collected tailor’s dummies, and I must say I was glad these moved quickly as they were the only things — apart from objects made with animal parts — that caused me any distress; and a student who came in once a month to pay off another fifty dollars on the scotch chest he’d put a deposit on last year. I had a brief friendship with one of my customers, a jockey who collected colonial era prints. He also had an encyclopaedic knowledge of diet regimes and how to beat drug testing. Actually I would have taken it further had he not talked quite so much, and been a different build. Size does matter when like me you’re five foot ten and only just grown out of leaning over or sitting as much as possible in order to appear shorter.
How did I so quickly discover all these things about my customers? All I can say is that if you show interest, and you’re not impatient, and you can keep your mouth shut, most people will volunteer plenty of information about themselves.
Morva Brenchley was the exception. She was the most guarded of the customers I encountered in my first month at work. She was an almost glamorous older woman who dressed in tweed pants and always wore pearls. Her curly red hair was courageous, I thought, for a woman of her maturity. It was to her that I’d made my first sale, when, after a few days at work, I’d sold her a painting of Aoraki and his brothers. So it was that I considered her my lucky charm, a potent symbol of promise despite her too rouged cheeks and her bony hands. She bought the painting for the bruised sky, she said at the time, and pointed out that it was a most unusual shade of faded purple and slate grey.
‘Just before a nor-west storm,’ I said. ‘Everyone knows that’s how the sky looks, glowering before a storm. Quite a reasonable frame too.’
‘The frame needs work, young woman. I can see where he’s glued it slap dash. Nothing a lick of gold spray paint won’t fix I suppose. But that sky looks bruised to me.’
She returned to the shop weeks later saying she’d been dreaming about the dolls house, a three-storeyed Georgian-era mansion which she’d glimpsed through the window as she passed one evening.
Its faded pink front swung open to rooms occupied by liveried servants made of wood, and wax-faced gentry lounging on the furniture in the salon. Paintings decorated the pale walls, and there were books and flower arrangements, and chandeliers with tiny candles.
She had me take out the furniture so she could inspect it, and studied the attention to detail — right down to the little leather coal scuttles in the kitchen, and the gilded bird cage, which, we discovered, could be wound up in the base to release the sound of birdsong. She and I played with the house and talked about its enchantment. As we talked she tucked her curls behind her ears and bent to look closely through the windows into each room from every possible angle. Each afternoon she appeared soon after Roland had left, and on the fourth day she said she would like to buy it.
‘Will you negotiate?’ she said.
‘It’s rare,’ I said. ‘There’s been rather a lot of interest in it.’ This of course was an exaggeration. It was surprising how easily lies slipped from my tongue, but I comforted myself with the thought that at least I noticed when I was embellishing the truth.
She looked at me, and said nothing. I studied her shoes — highly polished black leather brogues. Cecily my grandmother reckoned you could tell a lot about a person from the state of their shoes.
I took the salon carpet from the house and gently patted the cream and taupe wool clean of the dust that wasn’t there, and returned it to the room. I rearranged the gentry so they were playing cards. I dusted the bell pulls in the kitchen. I polished the mirrors in the bedrooms, and rearranged some of the statues on the landings of the stairs.
‘They’re playing whist,’ I said.
‘I doubt that you ever have,’ she said. ‘A discount for cash then.’ She curled her lip, turned her head and squinted at me. She reminded me of the boss mare at the horse yard, a big galumphing horse that often nipped and kicked the others to keep them in their place. Bullying isn’t the same as courage, although it has the same heart of self-preservation.
‘It’s a no-trumps game,’ I said. ‘D’you play cards? I learned bridge but I like mahjong more – they’re the same game really. We have a mahjong set around here somewhere of real ivory. Terrible really, the elephants.’
She lowered her chin and raised her eyebrows. ‘Young woman,’ she said. ‘A discount for cash?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ I said. ‘We’re in no hurry. In any case, it’s a very good price for something of this age and in such good order.’
She pulled her leather satchel closer to her body. The bag looked old and battered enough to have gone to school with her.
‘How much is it again?’
Of course she knew how much it was. But we were playing a game, and I was perfectly happy to go along with her pretended ignorance.
I went to the desk at the back of the room and consulted the computer.
‘Sorry, it’s a bit slow today,’ I said. Another lie. I figured the longer she waited, well, the more anxious she would be, but when I looked up she was gazing at the dolls house with a mild look on her face rather than the urgent need I’d sensed in the way she clutched her satchel. As I scrolled down the pages, my punter perched herself on the edge of a bentwood chair and unhinged the dolls house.
‘Here we are,’ I said. ‘Six thousand.’
‘Very well,’ she said. Her eyes roved lovingly over the contents of the house. ‘I’ll take it.’
‘How will you be paying?’ I said, and I shut the laptop and took the receipt book out of the top drawer.
She calmly undid her satchel and removed many rolls of notes held together with rubber bands. She put them on the desk, and I noticed a faint odour of mould and dirt.
‘One hundred dollar bills. I assure you it’s all there,’ she said. ‘But I’m happy to wait while you count it.’
I glanced at the rolls of money, and looked again at her shoes, so bright that my pale hands and were reflected in them. I’d never seen so much cash, nor been aware of the smell of it. But I’d already sold her the painting, and each week I’d managed a few other transactions. This would be my biggest sale and I figured — perhaps naïvely — that there was no reason to treat it any differently, apart from the practical considerations.
‘Congratulations. I know you’re going to get so much enjoyment from it,’ I said. ‘I’ll need your address for delivery.’
She took the gilded cage from the house and wound it.
‘I’d prefer to take it tonight,’ she said.
‘I’m afraid not. I’ll need to pack it for transport, and of course you’ll want to arrange insurance? And as you said yourself, I do need to count the notes.’
She gave me a sharp look of surprise. Her gaze lingered on the top of my head, travelled to my shoulders, and then to my eyes. I waited, and pinched the inside skin of my wrist to stop myself from laughing.
‘Very well,’ she said. As the cage turned and the music played she wrote her details on a piece of paper and handed it to me. ‘Until tomorrow,’ she said. There was a faint blush on her neck, which I took for emotion, perhaps excitement.
I was wrapping the dolls and the furniture in tissue paper when Roland strolled back into the shop late that afternoon. He moved slowly, casually, with long beats of silence between his footfalls.
‘Who bought that?’ he said.
I told him. ‘She paid in cash,’ I said, and gestured towards the top drawer of the desk.
‘Have you counted it?’
‘I have,’ I said. I had been distracted by the amount of cash, and had methodically counted it twice. Afterwards I’d scrubbed my hands.
‘Did she try to negotiate?’ He began undoing the screws that held the house together. It was too large to shift in one piece.
‘I wasn’t negotiating,’ I said.
‘Nice work,’ he said. ‘She owns property round the city, flats, rooms to let, all rough as hell. She collects most of the rent herself – in person, and in cash.’
‘True?’ I said. I thought that would be possibly unwise for a stick of a woman like her.
‘Tough as old boots,’ he said, as if reading my mind. ‘I sometimes give her a discount, depending. She would have been entertained by your stubbornness.’
‘Depending on what?’
‘Ah, the cash flow, the day’s takings, my mood, her hunger for the particular object.’
In Roland’s world, perfection was to be found in the things undone, in holding back, in the unspoken word. We were wrapping the contents of the top floor when he began to rave about the importance of chaos.
‘Personal control, the whole idea of it’s mostly false,’ he said.
I disagreed. After all, hadn’t I chosen to work in this shop? Hadn’t I just sold the Georgian dolls house to Mrs Brenchley?
‘You don’t own anything,’ he said. ‘Gives you more freedom.’
‘I have my horse. I want to own things. Why wouldn’t I want to own things? Anyway, you’re in the business of encouraging people to own things.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah. You’re right about that, but I’d prefer not to be so deep in the mesh of the material world.’ He put all the screws into a little brown envelope, and gently lifted the top floor off the house.
I ignored his metaphysics. I was parcelling up my favourite contents, which I’d left until the last — the little glass birds, and a slightly morose yellow cat. The shop was a transition point for beautiful things to be released into the world, and I couldn’t fathom why Roland would tire of people’s hunger for the beauty he presented to them.
That evening I looked over his shoulder as he tallied up the week’s totals on the computer. It had been a good week, and there was still Friday to go.
‘The money people will pay for this stuff,’ he said. ‘That library desk wasn’t quite as old as I may have indicated, from a demolished council building. Jesus, I got twelve grand for that.’
‘What may you have indicated?’
‘Little bit of exaggeration,’ he said. ‘Gilding the lily. I just take what the market will pay, and often it’s pleasantly surprising.’
I wondered how dodgy he was. After all, dealers through the ages were renowned for their artful devices.
Roland had a deep voice he deployed in a lazy drawl as if he had all the time in the world to consider every idea and its consequence. He wore a chunky onyx ring on the little finger of his left hand, and a tiny silver rod through one ear. Was he handsome or not? Was he good, or was he bad? I quickly learned he was all of these things, a collection of parts to the whole, which could rarely be understood all at once. As was my way in those days I gave him a secret name: the geezer. I used these names to navigate by, and he quickly became a landscape of unique heights and depths, strange weather, and various obstacles.