Friday, 29 April 2016

LIFE SENTENCE by Heather Shaw

Now that Roy has taken Ella's clothes to the charity shop, her voice will surely fade away? A month after her funeral was a decent time to wait but what a month it's been. Every time he opened the wardrobe door, her voice droned out.
'You paid way over the odds for that wreath, Roy. Not up to much either, was it?'
'Lunch on a tray again? A slippery slope, Roy, a very slippery slope.'
He chose a charity shop he hadn't been in before, just in case. The thought that Help the Aged or Oxfam supporters might take Ella's voice home with their purchases would be unbearable. But, with any luck, her voice will vanish from the sleeves her arms once slid into, the fastenings she fingered.
He's home now, putting on the kettle, slipping a tea bag into the Keep Calm and Act Dumb mug.
'You're never using that dreadful mug, Roy? Have you seen the state of it? Filthy habit, dunking teabags.'
He tiptoes along the hall and peers up to the shadowy landing. It's no good pretending, is it? Her voice is coming from the spare room where he's piled all her possessions behind a locked door.
Mr. Spock, Roy's Star Trek hero, twitches his pointed ears and advises him to boldly go. Roy puts a toe on the first stair.
He tracks her down to the rosewood, boat-shaped snuff box. When he opens it, her accusations assault him.
'Have you seen the dust on the skirting boards, Roy? A tad more effort, I think. We know what happens to idle hands, don't we?'
'You've never been out in that sweater, not with those trousers.'
Roy slams shut the lid.
There's a bustle in the Flea Market, different from normal Market Days. The arrangement of stalls is the same but bunches of carrots, rolls of fabric and pirated DVD's never inspire this buzz of serendipity. Ella wouldn't come near what she called Other People's Cast-Offs, which, given her attachment to The Antiques Road Show, was strange. But then, as Mr. Spock has often pointed out, human illogic is a constant.
Patting his pocket every few moments, Roy saunters through the rows of stalls. When he arrives at Bits 'n Bobs, run by the gangly woman with a disarray of blonde hair, he stops. Her stall is a mess and, as Roy knows from previous visits, she has no idea what's there.
He's nonchalant, unhurried. He picks up a fake Tiffany vase, a paperback called Of Human Bondage, a necklace made from dirty buttons.
'Anything you fancy?' the woman says.
'I'll have this, please.' Roy hands over a fluted, green glass vase. '50p right? Could I trouble you for a bag?'
She looks surprised but turns away to scrabble in a cardboard box.
Looking straight ahead, Roy reaches into his pocket, extracts the snuff box and slides it into the space left by his purchase.
He buys a coffee at the snack bar, sits on a plastic chair, within sight and sound of Bits 'n Bobs, and waits.
'This is nice.' The tone is enthusiastic. 'There's no price sticker. How much is it?'
The woman holding the rosewood snuff box looks jolly, the sort of woman who'd appreciate the finer points of Star Trek, be happy dunking tea-bags into Keep Calm mugs.
The stallholder pushes her fingers through her hedge of hair, narrows her eyes, appraises the customer. 'Oh yes, a nice piece that.'
'My son-in-law collects snuff boxes,' the woman says,' but he's definitely not got one like this.'
'Boat shape,' the stallholder says. 'Very collectable. It belonged to an old lady who spent a lot of time in the Far East. Shall we say, twenty pounds?'
'As much as that?' Uncertainty wipes out the jolly smile. 'I'm not sure....'
'I could go to fifteen, as a special favour to a genuine collector.'
'I'll have to think about it.'
The stallholder shrugs.
Roy watches the jolly woman wander around the other stalls. Every few seconds, she glances back to Bits 'n Bobs. He creates a family life for her, a devoted husband, a daughter who pops round several times a week, a gaggle of golden-haired grandchildren. The son-in-law, when his job in a caring profession allows, helps out with the garden, decorating, DIY. And in those rare, precious moments he has to himself, he handles his snuff boxes, strokes intricate inlaid patterns, lifts the lids...
What if Ella's voice doesn't fade from the box? He can't risk allowing her malevolence to poison someone else's family.
The jolly woman has reached the end of the row of stalls, is turning back, decision etched on her face.
No! The scream of protest surges up Roy's throat, is swallowed, threatens again. He leaps up. The plastic chair overturns. The snack bar man yells, 'Steady on, pal.'
The Bits 'n Bobs woman glances at him. 'Back again?'
With one hand Roy grabs Of Human Bondage; the other hand envelops the snuff box and slides it off the edge of the stall.
'Thirty pence, the Somerset Maugham novel, ' the stallholder says.
Roy hands over the coins. He feels the jolly woman at his side. The novel is under his arm. The snuff box is in his pocket. Slowly, he walks away. 

Heather Shaw March 2016

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