written by Siobhan Diston
edited by Lauren Wood
In the midst of a rain-drenched high street stands a shop. It is a small boutique; the word that springs to the minds of passers-by is ‘shabby’, and today no one gives it a second glance as they hurry past, heads burrowed under umbrellas with collars turned up against the wind. Nothing about the old shop-front particularly stands out and the only things people bother to say about it reference the state of disrepair it is in. The window display is sparsely decorated; a worn length of velvet cloth that was once deep red covers the display stand and on it rests a variety of unusual objects. Although some of them are quite commonplace, it’s rather odd that these objects have been grouped together in such a manner and placed with some items that aren’t commonplace at all. A pair of faded pointe shoes sit beside a large antique hourglass filled with a fine ashen dust. Next to that is a set of three jet black candles, only one of which is still lit, the other two flames sunken into the growing pool of wax around the wicks. A battered compass with a large crack in the glass cover lies next to a set of colourless playing cards splayed at the front of the window, the black and red of the cards faded with time.
You stand outside the shop, the rain drenching your coat and plastering your hair to your head. Staring up at the peeling sign above the door, squinting to keep the sleet out of your eyes, the words ‘Otto’s Antiques and Oddities’ can just about be read in gold lettering.
You push open the door, your eyes adjusting to the dim lighting as the high-set windows are covered by exotic veils in rich reds and purples. True to the sign, the shop is indeed clustered with antiques, oddities and things that seem to be some combination of the two. A musky, pungent odour that smells like frankincense pervades your nostrils making your nose wrinkle in disgust. There appears to be no sign of Otto, or of anyone else for that matter, so you quietly walk around the small space, being mindful not to knock anything over in the dark confines of the room. Everything has an air of negligence to it, so much so that you think it must almost be a requirement for everything on display although, oddly, everything is as clean as if it has been recently dusted. You spend a few minutes pondering over what appears to be a large black and white chessboard, only instead of knights battling bishops and kings and queens the figures range from small woven dolls to roughly hewn wooden carvings and even something that you’re sure is a miniature shrunken head, although you hope it isn’t real. You’re enthralled for a full five minutes by the way the light plays on colourful crystals in shades of rose and violet that fill a bookshelf next to old circus equipment. Focusing on your footing, you carefully walk around the chaotic pile of discarded diablo, unoccupied unicycles and tangled tightropes, almost tripping on a stray juggling ball but accidentally kicking it instead. A curse escapes your lips as it rolls across the dark wooden floor, bouncing off a table and getting lost in the depths of the shop. You glance around in fear, despite knowing the shop is deserted, half expecting a reprimand to be uttered at your carelessness. However the room’s silence is unnerving and you set off in pursuit of the ball. Questions of where this Otto could possibly be and even whether the shop is actually open for business crowd your mind.
A chipped grandfather clock silently stands watch as you begin the search. You pass a display case filled with amulets, a mahogany dressing table cluttered with broken pocket watches, each detail of their cracked golden casing being reflected back by the spotted mirror above them. A desk pushed against the wall holds numerous items of jewellery positioned on fantastically carved busts sporting elaborate headdresses from cultures you never even knew existed. An eyeless doll leers at you as you search around the base of a table, the surface of which seemed to have bleached bones carved with runes littered across it. The back of your neck prickles and for some reason you can’t help but feel like you’re being watched by unseen eyes. The ball isn’t found by a chair supporting nothing but a pile of empty gloves; not one of them seeming to have a pair, or by a set of pewter weighing scales that sat on the floor because they were so heavy they were impossible to lift (as you find out while trying to move them).
The back of the shop is filled with dozens more strange artefacts but with a sigh of relief you see the colourful ball resting at the foot of a large marble statue depicting an ancient Greek figure of some kind. After stooping to retrieve the ball you straighten up and a lone shelf on the wall catches your eye. The shelf is nondescript; it’s made from knotted pine and is covered by an old lace veil and you get the impression that it’s not meant to be noticed. Underneath the veil the shelf contains an untidy arrangement of apothecary bottles which vary in shape and size and come in all colours and patterns imaginable. Some have elegantly spun glass stoppers, others have corks wedged into their necks, some bottles contain unknown liquids and others are empty. They look so delicate that you dare not touch them, but you enjoy looking at them for some time before your eyes alight upon a small box at the back of the shelf. It is small, rectangular and flat; at some point there must have been another bottle stood upon it so it could be seen better, but there was nothing on it now. There is writing on it and, reaching out a hand, you pick up the box and bring it closer to your face. The words Cartes de Tarot can be read in fading ink. Replacing the veil upon the shelf, you open the box of cards and carefully flip through them, marvelling at them. Each card depicts a beautiful image that has been exquisitely painted, you think, by hand and you carefully replace the lid of the box as though holding something precious and make your way back through the shop, bringing both the ball and the cards with you.
After placing the ball back amongst the clutter of circus contraptions, you continue onwards towards the door. You look around for a place to pay, or someone to enquire about the cards but the area has many disorderly tables, any one of which could be the right one, or none of them could be. With some difficulty and confusion, you locate what you think must be the till; a desk slightly larger than the others and with a small silver bell discernible on the cluttered surface. You walk over to it and give the bell a tentative ring and wait expectantly. When nothing happens you ring the bell again, a little louder. When still nothing happens you impatiently ring the bell once more and look around the shop for any signs of movement. Turning back to the desk, a small sign next to the bell piques your attention which you could have sworn wasn’t there before. Bewildered, you stare at it curiously for a moment before deciding that you probably overlooked the sign amongst the clutter and read the bizarre message printed on it: “Pay however much you think it is worth”.
After analysing this statement for a few seconds, you search your pockets for some money but you only find a few meagre coins. Filled with dismay, you let out a sigh before placing the cards on the counter and turn to leave. As you raise your hand to open the door you see it: the ring upon your third finger. It is an old ring, left to you when an elderly relative died but you had never really cared for it. Heading back to the counter, you pick up the cards where they had been left and, slipping off the ring, leave it in their place. You carefully tuck the cards into a pocket of your coat and depart from the shop, glad to be leaving and return to the street once more as you begin your journey home. What you didn’t see as you left the shop was a stooped figure emerging from the shadows. As you walk down the rainy high street he walks over to the window, twirling your ring between his fingers, the flickering light from the one still-lit candle reflecting in his round glasses as he watches you leave.