by Alan Frackelton
part 1 of 2
The first time I met Abernathy, he told me a secret: my uncle kept a flask of Glendronach in a hollowed-out copy of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. That day I never got the chance to ask him where my uncle kept the book, because he and Abernathy spent the next half an hour arguing about Ted Hughes. I was eighteen years old, and it was my second day working at Hammonds, the secondhand bookshop my uncle had owned and run by himself for nearly thirty years.
Listening to his spirited vindication of Moortown and Birthday Letters, it was hard to believe that my uncle was recovering from his second stroke in as many years. He’d been out of hospital less than a week, and the day he left he’d still managed to open the bookshop in time to catch the lunchtime shoppers.
Even so, my father used the opportunity to suggest that perhaps it was time Stephen sold the bookshop; the fact his brother had always managed to scrape a living from it meant as little to my father as the fact Stephen kept it going simply because he loved it.
As always my uncle had thanked his brother for the advice, but politely ignored it. He might have done the same if my father had been the one to suggest he take me on, but that was my idea, and Stephen said yes right away.
Though, if I’m honest, asking him for a job in the first place had been more whim than anything else. When I left school I spent weeks trying to figure out what to do next, narrowing my options to a choice between university and something else; the problem was, I couldn’t decide what that something else might be. I didn’t really think it was spending eight hours a day in a secondhand bookshop, but as my father never tired of pointing out, I couldn’t sit around on my backside doing nothing forever.
The idea of university certainly had its attractions, but I didn’t feel ready for another three or four years of study. A job was a job, and with my uncle at least I wouldn’t have to go through the bother of an interview. I think he understood my reasons, but he never asked me to explain them. “Be here at nine-thirty sharp Monday morning,” was all he said, and that was that.
Hammonds looked and smelled the way a secondhand bookshop is supposed to look and smell: dark and cramped and musty and wise. My uncle spent my first morning there as an employee asking me if I’d read this book or that one, gently tapping the spines with a fingernail, reproaching me with, “Well, Thomas, you should,” when I shook my head or said no, which was often.
To get me started he lent me a copy of Hughes’ River; I knew he loved Hughes, and that’s why I accepted it, but it would turn out to be one of the gestures I would always love him for. I hadn’t read much poetry outside of A-Level English classes, but as I made my way through Hughes’ book there were moments when I thought I was close to understanding a little of my uncle’s passion for him.
I wasn’t converted overnight, but he laughed the next day when he asked for it back and I lied and told him I was still reading it. In the end he agreed to take the price of the book — it was a mint copy, a first edition — out of my wages.
He was still chuckling to himself about that twenty minutes later when Abernathy came in and asked him what was so amusing. He was dressed in a well cut charcoal grey suit that had seen better days, no tie, the top button of his shirt missing. I couldn’t make a guess at his age, but I took him to be one of Stephen’s regular customers. That he knew my uncle well was clear from his manner and the warm smile that was as much about his eyes as his mouth.
When my uncle introduced him as Abernathy — no first name — it took me a moment to connect it to the curio shop next door. Despite the sign hung inside the door (10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon-Fri, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat) Abernathy’s Curios always seemed to be closed. It put me in mind of the Mary Celeste, or those frozen-in-time museums where everything is gas-lit and the staff wander around in period costume.
I was intrigued, but before I could ask about it Abernathy let me in on the secret of Stephen’s whisky stash, and ignoring that, my uncle told Abernathy why he’d been laughing. With a smile Abernathy suggested he might have done better lending me Keats or Hardy, and neither of them said a single word to me for nearly half an hour. Their argument had the flavour of habit, the back-and-forth of old friends who clash as much out of respect for each other as faith in their own point of view.
From the start, I was never quite sure what to make of Abernathy. At times he struck me as a sad, rather lonely man, someone who had struggled with his fair share of sorrows. But he smiled like no one else I’d ever met, the way he smiled in greeting the first time I met him; with his eyes not just his mouth, and it cast his age and whatever those years might have done to him into some undefined, unimportant blind spot.
Whenever I asked my uncle about him, his answers were satisfactory yet vague, but I got used to that, the way I got used to Abernathy’s random appearances, and the way he always seemed to fit exactly into the rhythm of my uncle’s moods.
And in no time at all Abernathy seemed to learn everything about me. He knew when I thought I’d fallen in love, when my father was putting pressure on me to decide once and for all what I really wanted to do with my life, when I was feeling generally confused or uncertain. And he knew when I began to worry about my uncle’s failing health, the way he knew about Stephen’s own concerns before he ever voiced them.
* * *
Eighteen months later my uncle’s third stroke knocked most of the life out of him. What was left leaked away, slowly, over the following weeks, and watching it happen was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. I gave no thought to the shop, what would happen when the blessing finally came and Stephen passed on, but he had taken care of that. He left a will, and Hammonds to me.
My father waited until the day after the funeral before making it clear that he wanted me to sell the shop. The argument went on for days, but I was resolved, and despite my grief over Stephen, I drew a grim satisfaction from my father’s use against me of exactly the same futile arguments he’d used against his brother. When he finally relented, I felt relief, but not gratitude. If I had asked him, I know my father could not have named the Ted Hughes poem I read aloud at his brother’s funeral.
* * *
Abernathy had been there, at the back of the church, but I did not talk to him again until I showed up late the following Monday morning to open up Hammonds on my first official day in charge. But that wouldn’t actually happen for another two hours. Abernathy chose that day to show me his curios.
In the nearly two years I’d been working with my uncle, and despite Abernathy’s constant peculiar presence in our lives, I had never once stepped inside his shop. In the way I got used to Abernathy’s comings and goings, I got used to passing his shop each morning, dark and seemingly closed, and the few times it occurred to me to ask him about it, he’d simply tell me he’d hung the closed sign early and leave it at that.
That morning, a week after burying Stephen, the shop was dark and shut-up as usual, but as I paused outside Hammonds with my uncle’s keys in my hand — I couldn’t help but think of them as his — I heard a bell ring above a door, and a moment later Abernathy appeared at my side.
He asked me how I was doing, and I told him honestly that I did not know.
“In any hurry to open up?”
I smiled, and quoted my uncle. “Mondays are always slow.”
We both laughed, remembering.
“Come this way,” Abernathy said. “I want to show you something.”
I was curious enough to follow without asking any questions. The bell chimed again as he opened the door to his shop and closed it after me. He paused to make sure the latch was turned.
What I noticed first was that like the bookshop, Abernathy’s Curios contained more than its tall narrow space should have allowed. Deep shelves lined every wall, and a single long table ran the length of the shop, creating two narrow aisles. More shelves lined the wall behind a dusty, glass-topped counter, with only a thin bar of space given over to accommodate a door.
I didn’t know what I’d expected, but what I saw was a junkshop. Just inside the door a coat stand bulged with all manner of garments thrown one atop another, topcoats and mackintoshes and parkas and windcheaters, most stained and torn and missing zippers or buttons.
The table was crowded with Antiques & Collectables, or so the sign cellotaped to its edge proclaimed, but it was a stretch to describe the haphazard arrangement of cracked ugly Toby jugs, chunks of driftwood, stained and dented tin boxes, handmade clay ashtrays and all the odd, broken, nameless things surrounding them as either antique or collectable. A similar mix of objects occupied the shelves. Sun-faded statues of dogs and shepherdesses, tin soldiers and hairless petticoated china dolls missing an arm here or a leg there, coffee mugs and wine glasses grouped together according to how damaged they were.
Side by side with gas lamps and Bakelite telephones were mismatched sets of cutlery bound together with elastic bands and paint brushes with their bristles held fast by decades-old clumps of yellow or magnolia. I even spotted one or two books, water-damaged paperbacks and hard covers minus their spines or dust jackets.
I stood there for minutes taking it all in, until finally Abernathy asked for my opinion. When I turned to face him he took one look and burst out laughing. It went on for so long I actually saw tears in his eyes.
* * *
Eventually he managed to compose himself enough to ask me if I’d join him for a drink. He led me behind the counter to the back room, a tiny windowless box furnished with two ancient brown leather armchairs, a filthy sink, and a makeshift kitchen arranged on a table in one corner. Somehow it was one of the cosiest rooms I’d ever been in. Abernathy produced an expensive-looking bottle of whisky and two clean tumblers, and we sat down facing one another, as though about to play chess. He chuckled again, and raised his glass is silent toast.
“So,” he said.
I smiled. “Am I missing something, Abernathy?”
“That’s a hard question to answer.”
“And that’s a typical Abernathy answer to a question.”
“So it is,” he said, smiling himself. “Do you think I’m guilty of false advertising, then?”
“Well, it could be worse. At least you actually own the shop.”
“If I was to say, ‘yes and no’, do you promise not to waste that fine double malt by throwing the glass at me?”
The conversation rambled the way conversations with Abernathy always seemed to, but it was never empty. Before he finally told me to go next door and make some money, we toasted my uncle, and sat in silence missing him for a while. I wondered if he’d ever brought Stephen to the shop like this, but somehow the question seemed unnecessary. I think he answered it anyway, a message contained in his warm parting smile.
* * *
A year later I’d somehow managed not to sink Hammonds into irretrievable bankruptcy. I was settled, and happy. I read Laura Riding and John Ashbury, Eavan Boland and Ted Hughes, trying to find in their words clues to the lessons my uncle had only had time to begin teaching me. I even started writing myself, nervous marks filling the pages of a notebook, here and there the rare surprise of a sentence I was happy with.
Abernathy came and went the way he always had, his curio shop fading back into that part of his life, and mine, it had always occupied, something he might dust off and call into service again when he felt the time was right. The world turned.
Nothing really changed until I went to a gallery to look at a painting, and fell in love.
* * *
Abernathy knew, of course. Three days after I’d met Kelly, he came into the shop and stood browsing the bargain shelves until I’d finished with my first customer of the day. He opened the door for her and smiled and made her smile back. Then he turned to me and said,
“I bet I can guess why you didn’t open up yesterday.”
All I could do was grin foolishly, proving him right.
“What’s her name?”
I told him everything.
“Kelly,” I said. “She’s an artist. I didn’t know that when I met her, but it was because of her paintings that we met. She did the cover art for a collection of poems written by a friend of mine, this amazing picture of an old farmhouse with hundreds of birds exploding out of it. All kinds, eagles and sparrows and pigeons, even an albatross. I loved it. So Peter, my friend, told me what he knew about the artist.
“Her name was Kelly Spenser, and even better he’d heard that she had some paintings in a show in town, including the one used on the cover of his book. He gave me the details and I went down to the gallery on Saturday to check it out. A couple of other artists had work in the show, but the owner of the gallery had put another of Kelly’s paintings in the window, and before I went inside I stopped to look at it. It was a snow-scape seen through a blizzard, with all these traces of shape and colour behind the white. I really had to pay attention to figure out what they all were. There was a car up on bricks, a green VW, and right next to it a clown doing a handstand, and behind him buildings stacked on their sides but with life still going on in all the windows. Weird, but once I knew what was there I couldn’t stop smiling.
“There were three more inside, just as good. I spent the whole time I was there looking at them. The farmhouse painting was even more incredible full size. I gave up trying to name all the species.
“Next to it was a portrait of a beautiful but sad-looking woman, all this sorrow in her eyes. Hung on the wall behind her were dozens of masks of her own face, each one frozen in a different expression, happiness and anger and passion and fear.
“The last painting was another landscape. Kelly loves landscapes. This one had a city way off on the horizon, surrounded by a huge wall and dark towers with smoke curling out of them. Even the sky behind it was all thunderheads and nightmare. Only, walking towards it was a thin girl dressed in rags, holding her hands out in front of her, and they were filled with light. Blinding if you looked at it. Walking towards that dark city.
“When Kelly appeared beside me I had no idea she had painted them. I just started talking to her, I guess because she was there and I had to share everything I thought about the paintings. I’d look at her every now and then and she’d look at me, and then we’d both look at the paintings again. There’s this line from one of Peter’s poems that goes,
‘You enter a crowded room to greet your lover and the room becomes empty.’
“It was like that, because I don’t remember anyone else actually being there.
“I don’t know how long we talked, but Kelly just stood beside me and listened. She never spoke a word, and when I ran out of things to say I looked at her again, properly this time, and that’s when I saw it.
“She smiled and nodded, and there was something in her eyes, the same thing that had been in my voice while I was talking about her paintings. Is there a word for that, Abernathy? Anyway, I asked her what else could she show me, and then she laughed and said that was exactly what she’d been about to ask me.”
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Alan Frackelton