My thoughts were suddenly stopped. I looked around me. I was in a narrow road, a few shops with darkened fronts, flats in the upper stories. There was a chestnut tree behind the buildings, slowly moving in the wind.
Then I recognised the building I had stopped in front of: it was the junk shop I had bought the diary in, a few days ago. I looked around again. The street was empty, nobody could have observed me coming here. Why had I come, anyway? Shaking my head, I entered the shop.
As soon as I opened the door, I was struck by the smell of age. Everything in here smelled of it; the giant, wooden cabinet filled with hunting jackets, the fine china porcelain on the cupboard, the portrait showing some uniformed personality on the wall. All of it, I felt, would just fall into dust if I picked hard enough at it with my finger, or even just my eyes. Mesmerised, I kept standing like an ass, until the small man behind the counter started speaking.
He, too, smelled of age, but he was the only thing in here that looked it, too. Bent back, furrowed face with a long nose right in the middle of it. A thick pair of glasses enlarged his mild eyes.
“I recognise you. You were the gentleman who bought that diary a few days ago! Yes, that was quality. Haven’t seen anything quite like it for decades now. Manufactured in Vancouver, I think.” His movements were erratic, apart from his slim fingers, which seemed to run along some invisible strings in the air while he was speaking – maybe he had been a musician once? “Oh well. What can I do for you? I must admit, we lovers of old stuff haven’t had it easy the last years, so I’m not sure what I can offer you. See for yourself; we’re pretty much empty. Over there, maybe,” he poked in the direction of a table with a hill of bits and pieces on it, “there’s still a few things in there, I think. Just have a look.”
I strolled over to the table, going around the cupboard with the porcelain on it, and looked at the accumulation of junk. A few screws, a broken Champaign glass, a blunt silver knife with an elaborate engraving at the end: and a small package of tarred textile, which I looked inside. I found a small pipe – quite heavy for its size – and another package, this time untarred.
“Oh yes, that’s quite the find,” said the old man, who had clampered over to me and was now looking at the package, adjusting his glasses. “A sailor left it here a few months ago. Or was it years? Ah, it doesn’t really matter. Everything kind of flows together for me anyway. See this here?” He pointed at a small emblazoned “Produced in Belize” on the bottom of the inner package. “Latin American tobacco, in a tarred jacket, to protect against spray water on the Atlantic. There was a time when you could smell this tobacco on every street.” He smiled, sadly. “This is most likely the last package you’ll be able to find in all of London.”
“I want to buy it”, I said. It was stupid, but the package did have some sort of attraction, if only that of being the last one. “Oh sure. That makes two pounds – or you know what, take it. The tobacco’s most likely gone anyway, and I have my own pipe as it is. Hm, while we’re speaking about it, would you mind joining me for a smoke and a cup of tea upstairs? It might be better to continue the conversation there…”
I nodded – I had had nothing planned for the rest of the day as it was – and he led me up an incredibly steep flight of stairs up to a small corridor with a single door, which he unlocked. Behind it was a small room. A piano on the opposite wall confirmed the musician suspicion, and the other walls were filled with books, apart from an orderly-made double bed, a small stove and table – and over that, a giant window going on the inner courtyard. Blinding sunlight fell through; the sun had just started setting, and I had to stop for a second, until my eyes had gotten accustomed.
My host had already started taken a kettle from the stove when I stepped into the room and noticed the large painting that was hanging beside the door. It was another uniformed man, but this one I recognised with absolute certainty. Every single school child in England could recognise that face, even without the enormous crown. I was looking at the brown eyes of Edward VIII. My host had filled two cups when he looked up, followed my gaze and suddenly hesitated. I looked at him. He looked at me.
“Or would you maybe prefer a glass of wine or a good gin? I know not everyone cherishes the good cup of tea as much as I still do.” I shook my head, smiling, and sat down at the table. The two cups and the kettle were steaming merrily away, beside a portrait photography of a young, probably blonde woman, smiling at the camera, with a church’s bell tower in the background. “Oh yes, my wife”, the man said, looking over his glasses at the photography. “We used to live here. Before she died. But let’s speak of something else, I don’t like to remember those things. What about you – we were speaking about memories before, weren’t we? Do you remember a time before the Revolution? But no, you’re probably too young, aren’t you?”
“Before the Revolution? No, I don’t. Should I? Was the world better then?” I smiled at him. He tilted his head and frowned a little. “Oh, come on, are you already writing me off as a senile old knacker? You know, in my age, memories get lost easily, and so I like to keep around things to anchor them where they belong. That doesn’t mean I’m living the past!” Our eyes both wandered off towards the portrait of Edward. “Oh no, don’t you come with that now. You know, if I’m dreaming senile dreams, then so is that half of a continent over there!”
Out in the grassy courtyard stood the chestnut tree I had seen before. I opened the window; the leaves were rustling, and in the background, I could hear a woman sing. The sun was falling on my face, and I closed my eyes and listened.
“It was like an ‘opless fancy, It passed like an Ipril dye…”
I opened my eyes again, and looked at my host. He opened his mouth, as if to say something else, when I heard the store doorbell ring. “Will you excuse me for a second?” He said, and already he was hurrying to the door, in that way old people hurry.
It opened before he could get his hand on the handle. In the frame stood the man with the glasses I had seen a few days ago, but now his eyes were sharp and focused. He was wearing a full party uniform; his right hand was hidden behind his back.
“Gentlemen, you are neglecting your duty to the party. Especially you,” he said, stepping into the room, with his boots stomped on the wooden floor, turning his head sharply towards my host, who looked at him with mouth half open, bringing forward his hand-
-in which he had a gin bottle. He smiled. “We wanted to meet at the pub, remember? And you just let me rot here?” “Oh god, I’m awfully sorry – you know, my bloody memory – “ answered my host with a bloodshot face. “Oh, come on, you know it doesn’t matter. Why don’t we sit down here? The pub was hell anyway, of course they have to hold their damn monthly worker’s meeting right while I try to enjoy my beer. Who’s your mate here?” The two turned and looked at me, the one with a red face, the other still smiling, both with eyes slightly too large through their glasses.
“Why don’t we wait with the names until after some of that in your bottle? I could sure use some on the scare…” I said, still not fully trusting the situation. “The scare?” The newcomer was startled, or at least, he played it well, “oh, you mean my uniform, and, well, that?” he said, pointing at the enormous portrait of the King of Canada behind his back, “please. We can let bygones be bygones, you know.”
He poured two – “you want some?”, I nodded – three glasses out of his bottle. “Now where is – ah, there he is. Thank you very much, much appreciated”, he said, sitting on the chair our host had brought from downstairs.
“Should we make this official then?” he asked, raising his glass. “Sure, and thank George the whomever it was for allowing us to do this sitting”, our host replied, raising his. What should I have done but join them?
“God save the Union”, said the old monarchist. “God save the King”, said the party member.
They looked at me. I had no idea what to answer.
So I just drank.