“Oh Bev? I just want to pop in here for a moment.”
“You go ahead Dawn. My feet are killing me. I’ll wait for you at that coffee shop.”
Dawn bustled into the dark little shop on whose windows were painted ‘Antikvarium.’ Beverly walked purposefully across the street to the modern looking place with big windows, golden lampshades and a blackboard outside advertising ‘coffee’, ‘chimney cake,’ and ‘veal stew’, in English.
Beverly didn’t know what chimney cake was but it sounded a damn sight better than poking about in a glorified dustbin for hours at a time.
Dawn seemed to have an endless appetite for that sort of thing – it was her third junkshop in one morning. You thought you knew a person after being friends for twenty years, but travelling in Europe had brought out a different side of Bev. “Yes, it’s brought out the batty all right,” she muttered.
Maybe it was losing Roger that did it. Well she herself had gone a bit off when Frank passed–polishing furniture all night, knitting suits for the cat, filling the front garden with rocks painted like hedgehogs “for kiddies to look at on their walk home” (she lived next to a primary school). Temporary derangement was to be expected. She sighed philosophically.
When they’d all decided to ‘do Europe’ (with money from Roger’s will, Gracie’s lotto winnings and Bev’s own savings) she’d anticipated something gentler and less exhausting. Instead, at the age of 69, she had discovered that Europe wasn’t her cup of tea at all. Not even London, well especially not London to tell you the truth.
“Good for you, Mum, going out and seeing the world! You deserve to have a bit of fun after all your hard work!”
Her daughter’s emails left her gloomier than ever. How could she tell Fenella the truth? She wished she had someone to share her disappointment with. Gracie was too much into her ‘positive thinking’ yoga fad and Dawn had lost her marbles about the place. Frank would’ve listened. In fact, he would’ve outdone her, complaints-wise.
What would he have made of the gobbledegook languages they used in these parts? The bumpy little cobblestones? They’ll trip you up and break your neck if you aren’t careful. The grim old buildings and scowling statues in the dark winter afternoons? Christ Bev, all this and the 3 o’clock sunsets make you feel like topping yourself. Then there was the substance they called ‘cream’ but was nothing of the sort. I’m not putting baby sick in my tea. And the vegetables! Terrible. Shrivelled, anemic little things you felt sorry for. I’d rather have one of your juicy beefsteak tomatoes any day, my dear. And the pale young people who dressed like television actors stalked about sighing and visibly annoyed by old ladies with foot trouble.
“Frankie, you’re better off,” she sighed under her breath.
A nice young man in a white apron asked politely if she was ready to odour yet.
“Yes, thank you, I will odour,” she suppressed a smile. “I’ll have one of these chimney cakes and coffee.”
“Certainly. Would you like any liqueur in your coffee?”
“We have, for example, Kahlua, rum, kirsch…”
“Oh! Well. Perhaps just a dash of rum please.” The daring of ordering alcohol before noon gave her a mild sense of exhilaration, the biggest thrill she’d had in about five years.
“Are you sure, madame, that you would not like two dashes?” The man asked conspiratorially.
“Why not? At my age, it’s time to live a little, wouldn’t you say?”
He winked at her. He really wasn’t bad looking, in a Gerard Depardieu way (before he’d gone to the dogs, obviously). She beamed back and thought that Europe had its good points after all.
‘Antikvarium’. The word gave Dawn a thrill of pleasure. It reminded her of a hardcover picture book she was given when she was eight years old, The Old Curiosity Shop. That was even before she knew it was a Dickens. The old world! With its kings and mad queens, dungeons, rooks, ravens, harpsichords, cathedrals and tiny shops full of charming knick-knacks. It all brought her back to the days when she’d lie on the floor of her bedroom reading and wondering what object she would purchase, if she were lucky enough to visit one of these places.
“Good morning,” said a spry lady of about Dawn’s own age. Her head was not much higher than the counter, giving the impression that it was one of the objects for sale. Her perm and makeup were very carefully done, so it might really have been the head of an elderly doll.
“Good morning,” Dawn smiled, transmitting through her false teeth the vast happiness she felt at being here.
“Can I help you?” The woman emerged from behind the counter, revealing that the body attached to the head was impeccably dressed in a tailored suit. Dawn suddenly felt rather shy.
“Thank you, I…I’m just looking.”
“And where are you from?” The shop lady chirped.
“Takapuna, New Zealand.”
The lady clapped her hands together in delight. “New Zealand! How beautiful!”
“Oh, thank you. Well I rather like it here actually. So much history.”
“Oh yes,” the shop lady nodded. “As you can see, we have history all around us,” she laughed, gesturing to the jumbled piles of crockery, figurines, war memorabilia, faded postcards, the detritus of long-gone lives.
“I imagine you are wanting a nice souvenir, yes?”
“Well, yes. I’d like something to remind me of my wonderful visit.” She didn’t ordinarily share her feelings but she instinctively felt she could confide in this woman. Dawn said “Do you know, I feel so at home here? Almost as if I’ve been here before!”
The shop lady laughed. “Really? How nice! Perhaps you have?” She smiled and the expression seemed rather unnatural. She would have said ghastly, but that wouldn’t be nice. “Well, in that case we must find something really special. Please, look around and I will bring you some things from the back – the premium collection.
“Oh, I don’t have a big budget,” stammered Dawn, uncomfortably aware of how much she’d already spent on the lace doily and butterfly tea set for Joanie.
“Don’t worry,” the lady answered, “These are precious but not expensive. I keep them for customers who will appreciate curiosities.”
Curiosities. How strange, thought Dawn, that she should have used exactly that word. She felt a sudden dip in her stomach, like being in an elevator that stops too fast, as if she’d been picked up by a large hand, most likely the hand of Fate. It had been preordained that she would come in here! That’s why she’d been drawn to the artistic window design…
Happily she gazed at a collection of cake plates and delicate tea cups shaped like upside-down lilies-of-the-valley. She imagined holding a special tea party for the church ladies on a Saturday afternoon in Takapuna, serving asparagus rolls and lamingtons. She could use that pretty bassoon-shaped vase to hold a bunch of her home-grown tiger lilies.
“And here we are,” said the shop lady, who always sounded as if she had a smile in her voice. “Let’s see what we have here, if you would be so kind as to…”
Dawn anticipated the request, clearing a space for the woman to set down a large cardboard box. With be-jewelled and carefully manicured fingers, the lady pulled up the flaps to reveal what was inside.
“It’s like Christmas, isn’t it?” Dawn gave a little laugh.
“Yes, like Christmas, as you say,” the woman smiled that strange smile.
Dawn stood on tippytoes and peered into the box. The corners and handles of various items gleamed suggestively at her from where they lay nestled in tissue paper.
The lady extracted a saucer and presented it for Dawn’s inspection.
“Let me explain you about each one,” she said, seeming more excited than Dawn.
“This, you see, is a Szenzin design, especially ordered by Queen Victoria. More than one was not produced because there were competitors and in the end she decided not to choose it. The teacup, sugarbowl and teapot have all been lost – this is the last surviving piece. It is whimsical, don’t you think?”
“Yes, yes. I do like the bunnies and bluebells. Lovely,” breathed Dawn. “So Queen Victoria herself might have held this in her hand,” she mused.
“If history had gone differently…And next, we have this: a memorial spoon for the birth of Prince Henry of Spain, who died at the age of three in 1788.”
“Oh, look! It’s not tarnished at all for something so old.”
“Yes, it has hardly ever been taken out of its case. As you see, we take good care of these particular things.”
A handle shaped like a bent elbow caught Dawn’s eye. She pointed.
“And what is this?”
The lady looked at her sharply. “This? This is a little milk jug. Well it is not of the highest workmanship, but…”
“Can you show it to me?”
After a barely perceptible pause, the lady said, “Yes of course.” Gingerly, she lifted it out of the paper and held it up to the low-hanging lamp above the counter, careful to keep the tissue between its base and her fingers.
It was a little bigger than a perfume bottle, translucent white with depressions etched in its surface.
“What a daggy thing!” Said Dawn. “It looks like scrimshaw or something, with the little carvings on the handle. Hang it all, I don’t have my glasses or I could make the scene out. And what is it made of? Ivory?”
“Bone. This is known as the Ferenhazy jug. It belonged to Empress Elszebet Ferenhazy, who lived in the 1600s in the palace over the river. There are many stories about her, but you know this is true of any powerful woman. They should not be believed.”
“Oh yes, some things never change do they? People don’t like being bossed about by a skirt. Reminds them of their childhood.”
“So this Queen used this on her Weetbix?”
The lady looked puzzled.
“The queen put milk in this?”
“Yes, yes. It was hers.”
“Funny,” said Dawn, “Don’t get me wrong, I like it, but it doesn’t seem fancy enough somehow for a queen.”
“Yes,” nodded the lady, “This is the, if you like, embarrassment of the piece. No one knows its provenance.”
“Who made it, where it is from. But it is known without a doubt that it was highly cherished by her ladyship. There is even a painting–one moment, I will find a print for you.” She ducked down to check shelves under the counter.
Dawn picked up the jug and felt its surprising heft. She ran her fingertips over the corrugations made by the carving and felt a sudden overwhelming desire to own it. Imagine, she thought, her, little old Dawn from Takapuna, pouring fresh farm milk out of a jug that had been the prized property of a queen from the 1600s! Roger wouldn’t have cared for it, but, well…maybe it was time to let her hair down a little, do the things she liked to do. She set her jaw in the way she did when she’d made up her mind.
The lady emerged, her blonde hair slightly disordered, and handed Dawn a large roll of glossy paper, a little yellowed with age and ragged at the edges. But when she unrolled it she saw a poster that had retained the richness of color.
In front of a dark background simpered a small young woman, really just a child. Her fair hair was pulled back severely to show a widow’s peak, the rest of it was hidden underneath a black velvet cap to which was attached a silver pin in the shape of an arrow. Her face was very pale, her eyes dark, deep-set and intense, and her mouth twisted a little in its smile. She wore a high-necked white collar constructed in a series of stiff horizontal pleats, the fabric was studded with gleaming pearls. Jutting out from either side of the collar, like skeletal wings, were ruffs of white lace. Her jacket was dark green and black satin, and in contrast the woman’s small hands seemed luminous in their pallor. In one hand, between thumb and forefinger, she held the stem of a red rose. In the other, cupped in her palm, she cradled the bone jug.
“There it is!” Dawn breathed. “Well I’ll be jiggered!” She stared for a while in shock. It was the very thing. All those centuries ago, that elegant aristocrat had held the jug just as Dawn herself was holding it now.
For the second time since she had set foot in the shop, she felt that odd internal thump, the falling-into-place of Fate. Clearly, she had no choice—it was meant to be hers.
Now came the awkward part. She didn’t have much cash left. They were heading back to New Zealand tomorrow and she’d need enough for the taxi and extra-luggage charges.
“Er, how much would it be?” Dawn asked, her mouth becoming dry with anxiety.
“Well, as you know this is a very prestigious item…” began the lady.
Here we go! Dawn thought crestfallen, well whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. Roger left me that little windfall and I can pay with plastic if it comes to that.
“We have always said that we would only sell this piece to the customer who recognized its value. And when such a customer appeared, we would entrust it to him—or her—without asking for payment. And I think–”
Dawn could feel tears of disappointment burn in the backs of her eyes.
“I think that that customer is you. The jug is yours.”
“Eh? You mean for free?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Gosh, that’s generous. Very generous!”
“And, of course, the poster would go with it.”
“My goodness. Well, what a lovely gesture. Thank you very much!”
“You are most welcome my dear. And did you see anything else you liked?”
“Oh well yes, I’m rather fond of a flower vase. It’s shaped like a musical instrument. A clarinet or buboe or a bassoon or something.”
“Ah, the bassoon vase yes.”
Dawn forked over the cash and watched the lady put everything carefully into boxes and an elegant black-and-gold carry bag.
I can’t wait to show the girls, she thought. How lucky I was to see this place!
One month later Bev and Gracie were seated at a little cafeteria called The Cowpoke Creamer on the main street of Takapuna.
“Hello ladies, are you ready to order?” asked a bright young waitress.
“Do you want a coffee Gracie?”
“Oh no, I don’t drink coffee. It strains our nervous systems. And nothing with dairy, either, it makes me sluggish. Tell me, do you have any tea containing parti-colored hyacinth?”
The waitress frowned anxiously.
“Hot water for her,” said Bev, “And a cappuccino for me. Do you put rum in it at all?”
“Er, no sorry we’re not licensed to serve alcohol here.”
“Oh well. Thank you anyway,” Bev nodded and the waitress left.
“You really should pay more attention to your diet Beverly. Coffee with milk is not good for you. Do you know what they’re feeding the cows nowadays?”
“Grass, the same as they were feeding them six months ago before you met Mr Hotpants Yoga instructor.”
Gracie pursed her lips.
“How’s that going anyway?” Bev asked.
Gracie unpursed her lips and smiled. “Wonderful! I’ve found a new lease on life. Who knew that at sixty four I’d be more sexually active than I was in my youth?”
“So this Bevan, what’s his secret? Does he take Viagra or something?”
“Certainly not! He would rather die than take any unnatural supplements. He has developed his unusual prowess through the practice of breathing exercises and manipulation of the peritoneum.”
“What’s that? No, actually don’t tell me.”
“You should try it Bev.”
“Yoga or sex?”
“Either one – something to get the blood going, make you feel like a girl again. Bring out your sensual side.”
“I fear that if my old carcass brought out its sensual side there would be complaints filed at the local Police station. Don’t get me wrong though Gracie, I’m pleased for you. You’ve got the figure to pull it off and you look happy. If Yogaman is bringing a little sunshine into your life, then all praise to him. No, it’s not you I’m worried about, it’s Dawn.”
“Dawn? What’s happened?”
“That blimmin’ jug of hers.”
“Oh, that thing.” Grace sighed. “Is she still going on about it?”
“She’s obsessed. Oh, last week every sentence was the Ferenhazy jug this, the Ferenhazy jug that and talking about getting together for a tea party. Well, she had her tea party this Sunday and I agreed to go thinking it might be a nice chance for a catch up with everyone. I think you had your yoga retreat so you couldn’t go.”
“Yes. It was fantastic, really enlightening.”
“Good, good. Well anyhow, I went early and lo and behold she’d put that ghastly poster up of the girl with the beady rat eyes.”
“Yes, well it gives me the willies at the best of times, but do you know what that daft Dawn had done? She’d set it up on the mantelpiece with candles all around it and little vases of flowers. It reminded me of an altar or some such.
“‘You can’t do that Dawn!’ I said, I mean, it shook me that much I had to cross myself.
“ ‘Why not?’ she says.
“ ‘It looks like you’re making her into an idol,’ I say.
“‘Erszebet doesn’t sing,’ she goes.
“‘For crying out loud, Dawn,’ I said, ‘I’m not talking about American Idol, I’m talking about you treating this picture like it was a holy relic. For one thing it’s blasphemous, and for another, the girls will think you’ve gone senile.’ So of course she sulked.’
Gracie coughed. “Well, you can be a bit blunt Bev.”
“Sometimes a blunt instrument is called for.”
“Did she take the poster down?”
“No, she dug her heels in. But I got her to move the flowers and candles at any rate.”
“Well, is that all? It seems harmless enough.”
“No that’s not all. I haven’t even got to the main thing yet. When we were setting up in the kitchen, I was doing the cucumber sandwiches and Dawn was making the tea blithering on about how thrilling it all was and wouldn’t they love it, when all of a sudden she gave a scream.
“‘Where is it? I’ve got the broom!’ I said, because you know Frank and I had a mouse problem for years and instinct kicked in. I turned around and saw Dawn had spilled the milk and was white as a sheet.
“’Where’s the mouse?’ I said.
“‘It went out there,’ said Dawn, pointing to the hallway so I went racing out after it but couldn’t see a thing. Well, when I came back, Dawn was pouring milk into a different jug, a glass one, and making a pig’s ear of it too, sloshing it all over the place.
“‘What are you doing Dawn? Aren’t you going to use the special jug? It’s right over here.’
“‘No!’ she yelled, just like that. ‘No!’
“‘Allright,’ I said, ‘Keep your pants on. It’s just a mouse. We’ll keep quiet about it and no one will know. Here, let me do that, you’re spilling it everywhere.’
“So she let me take over with the pouring, and she went over to the sink, where the jug was and started rinsing it.
“‘So you’re not going to use the special jug?’ I asked.
“‘Oh no,’ she says all airily, ‘I decided I’ll make it a gallery item instead. I don’t want to damage it. I mean, it’s an antique! I don’t know what I was thinking, really. What an idea! I’ll just take it upstairs and polish it up. Then I think we’ll set it on the mantelpiece next to Erszebet.’
“’Righto,’ I said, and she hurried out, sort of hunching forward with her back to me. I thought to myself, ‘Gallery item’! This is it; stress has finally tipped her over the edge. She’s gone ahead and had that nervous breakdown Frank always said she due for.
“Well, Dawn took her time upstairs and I’d finished setting up the sandwiches and cakes so I thought I’d make a start in on the dishes. And wouldn’t you know it but at the bottom of the sink was a pool of blood.”
“What? Are you sure?”
“I’ve done my fair share of butchering on the farm and I know blood when I see it.”
“Maybe she’d been defrosting a chicken or something? Or cut herself with the fright?”
“This wasn’t the pale, watery nonsense you get when you defrost a chicken. And when you nick your finger you don’t get a half-cup’s worth of thick red goop.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, I ran the tap until it went away, washed the sink out with disinfectant and did the dishes like I planned. And when I threw away the paper towels I used to clean up, I saw that there was the dishcloth, covered with blood. So that made me think Dawn had tried to clean it up herself and didn’t mention it to me. After a few more minutes she came down dressed in new clothes, with the jug in hand.”
“Did you ask her about it?”
“No. And she didn’t bring it up either. In fact she didn’t speak to me again at the party or since. I don’t like it Gracie. Something funny’s going on.”
Gracie nodded, flummoxed. “What should we do?”
“Well, seeing as I’m on the outer with her, I thought maybe you could visit, see if you can get any info. Maybe she’ll talk to you; you’ve always had a gentler way with people.”
Gracie nodded. “OK, I’ll try.”
To be continued…