The Shop of Whispers – a Christmas tale

Two days before Christmas I decided I needed a new bowsaw blade and axe handle. Confident neither would turn up in my stocking the decision was made to go to Camelford, a few miles away from where I now live here in Cornwall. Late afternoon rain was blurring the windscreen as I dove along the darkening lanes, avoiding all but the biggest puddled tongues of water lapping out from the verges. A rising wind dragged ragged through the hedges, shuffling the over-arching branches in the valley woods. The old car splashed along roads made river, pushing a cone of yellow light through the fading twilight.

The street was empty of pedestrians as I rumbled down the hill into the small market town. Garlands of coloured lights overstrung the road and danced in the gale, reflecting coloured blurs in the wet tarmac and streaming shop-fronts. They tried, bless them, to spatter some seasonal cheer on the blue-grey evening. Steamed up windows and streaming gutters. Drenched plastic snowmen forcing festive grins at passing traffic.

Tightening my collar and pulling down the peak of my cap, I keyed the car door and walked quickly through the car park. The tool shop and farm supplies across the road was bright and warm inside. I swapped seasonal greetings with a farmer waiting at the counter and we made the customary comments about the weather. I emerged a few minutes later into the wind and wet with a smile. You wouldn’t believe how hard it had been this past few weeks to find a 30 inch bowsaw blade; I now had two. The axe handles would be in stock in a couple of weeks.

The river gushed white under the bridge in the town centre, rushing briefly into the light from the darkland beyond the park then flooding back into darkness on its continued way to the sea. I paused for a look then hurried on up the hill to the small CoOp where I bought bread flour.

On my way back I nearly walked past the junk shop. I was looking more at the Darlington Inn across the road, an old coach-house that shoulders a confident corner into the line of the road and is said to be rather persistently haunted. But as I passed, the shop window caught my eye. The display, if you could call it that, was an intriguing stack of shelves packed with things I recognised and things I didn’t. Most of it was old, much of it was a quiet mystery, some of it was made up of obsolete curiosities with no modern value to anyone other than the curious and collectors.

Despite the winter weather, a rack of old clothing wrapped in flapping plastic was still on display in the street. I looked beyond it and through the damp glass at a cluster of dusty old torches, a rusty model racing car and some other things which I just can’t remember. The contents of this old shop, glimmering with a low golden glow through rain-streaked windows, could not be classified or described. It would be virtually pointless to go in looking for ‘something in particular’. It was late – nearly five o’clock now. The shop would probably soon be shut. I walked on past the door and managed another few steps before stopping. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the unknown, it’s that you never know what it might give you. I turned back and walked in.

You couldn’t really describe them as ‘aisles’ between the towering racks and shelves; more like gaps between the goods where you could just about see what was there. The room was rammed and the contents spilled on into the next room which was, if anything, even more densely packed. I sidled in, trying not to bump anything with my shopping bag. Climbing a few steps, body-swerving around another display cabinet, I found myself in the company of a pretty young woman sitting quietly behind the counter reading a book. Cocooned in a hollow among penknives, model aircraft, corkscrews and jewellery, she was the only other person on the premises. She welcomed me with a cheerful smile and asked if she could help with anything. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be ‘helped’ through this mixed and disparate selection of wares, but I asked if she was about to shut. She explained I still had half an hour so I launched into my own exploration and gave her leave to return to her reading.

Outside, the wind tugged at the street decorations and rushed around the doorway. Rain spattered among the lurching shadows on the window but it was warm and dry inside as I turned my attention to the displays.

There’s an indescribable scent to shops like this, a scent which is probably the closest thing a sense of smell has to white noise. The essence of everything is crowding into the same space, swirling and mixing in a background grey but with some discernible ‘pigments’ emerging in kaleidoscopic confusion around the occasional large item or box of similar things. It’s the scent of overlaid history, the perfume of nostalgia, the smell of ghosts.

Rustling in my wet coat, I first plucked a dim-lit search through trays of toy cars and lorries, recognising some as like those from my own childhood. All were battered and chipped like they’d been played to death by generations of tiny hands. Some had missing wheels or bent axle wires.

Suddenly aware it would take an entire day to explore at this rate I picked up the pace a little. In the yellow electric light, carved Maori figures squinted out at me as I shuffled and squirmed along canyons of coats, leafed through LPs, rummaged through wooden crates of hand-tools. Model trains in model sidings, sat side by side with shoe-shine kits and 1940s gun polish. Military uniforms paraded with fur coats, art-deco ornaments swept elegant lines among garage signs, pots and kitchenware shared space with lamps and lighters, a box of old Georgian and Victorian pennies on the floor gave a rattle when I accidentally nudged it with my toe. Some of the objects were absolute mysteries and explanations demanded recourse to the brown paper labels; strange electrical goods with leads and buttons, combination pocket tools with puzzling attachments, a thing that looked like a large hip-flask with a landing-light attached to it.

The truth is that my descriptions are a distillation of my memory of what was there. Even though it was just a few days ago, I wish I had taken notes to be more accurate about the associations and placings. The whole eclectic mix made up a spinning galaxy of experience which was dizzyingly confusing. Trying to grasp any sense or theme was futile. All I could do was muddle on through as if I was exploring a forest, fuelled by curiosity, happy to delight in what I found but knowing with frustration that there were many fascinating things I had blindly blundered past.

The most valuable thing I found in the shop was the experience. I had wandered in with a vague idea I might find something useful but it now felt like I was in the opening chapters of a child’s adventure book. Two days before Christmas, I had been drawn by a random urge to set foot inside this mysterious, magical old shop. Every one of the items around me was whispering a history to me. Every toy had the prints of tiny hands, every tool the story of use and selection, every piece of clothing had been draped round the warm bodies of living breathing people, every ornament had gazed on the intimacies of lives and relationships, each penny coin smooth-worn by countless transactions with long-dead traders. And here, among the spiralling motes of time, surrounded by the quiet hush of sifting history, sat that beautiful young woman reading quietly to herself, lost in her own world.

Camelford, on the fringe of Bodmin Moor, is an old town that carries a thin mist of mystery draped around it. It’s surrounded by ancient stone circles, Bronze Age burial mounds and it even has mythical links with the magical world of King Arthur. Shuffling around this shop in a half-dream I half expected adventure to call; a voice from the deep basement salerooms which I knew were waiting below but for which I had run out of time. But the call never came and the magic was, if not broken, at least dented when someone else came into the shop as I was about to leave. Maybe they were the ones who heard the historic call of the king, found the way to Narnia, or unearthed the Box of Delights. I cannot say.

What I can say is that I found my own little scrap of magic on the shelves of that shop. Ever since I moved back to Cornwall I’d been quietly searching for an old single-ended spanner to work the griddle on the stove in my living room. I had been using a small double-ended 12mm wrench for the job but it was short, uncomfortable to use and kept slipping off. But among the tools at the back of the shop I found the very thing with a square slot and a £1 price tag. It was an unusual shape, made of black metal and hand-stamped as being a 7/16 inch wrench. I thought it was pretty close to what I needed and laid down my coin for the girl. We spoke pleasantly for a few minutes before I took my leave, turned my collar up and stumbled back out into the fairy-lit street.

Shops were shutting up but lights were still on in most. The wind-blown strings of coloured bulbs still struggled on their tethers over the town. Lights reflected off the trembling wetness on everything. Rain swept in twisting veils through the square. Gutters gushed. The shopping bag squirmed in my hand. My hat was near tugged from my head on the river bridge. But I made it to the car without losing anything, bundled in out of the rain and settled into the calm for the run home. 

Later, feet stretched to a roaring stove, a mug of rum-lace coffee steaming in one hand and mobile phone in the other, I did some online research into the markings on my newly acquired spanner. I was delighted to discover that it too had a history. I believe it was forged in Chicago, USA, some time between 1890 and 1910 and possibly made as a specialist tool for a lathe or a textile machine. I spent some time turning it over in my hand, dreaming into the fire about the places it had been and the things it could have seen and done. It will outlive me by many generations I’m sure but its journey is halted for now beside the stove in my Victorian cottage. You couldn’t say it ‘just about’ fits the griddle-bar, because it absolutely fits perfectly.

Finding it was a very minor miracle but the question now is, did I find it… or did it find me?

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