“I remember you,” the stranger sang, back handling the door, and ringing the hanging bells between the lyrics in Peggy’s head.
Peggy looked up from the compass she was repairing. It had gotten wet and the needle was rusty. The pin was stuck. It would need to be re-magnetised. She had a large magnet that would spin the needle north in a few seconds. It was an easy fix. Fifteen to twenty minutes at most. She had repaired dozens over the years. She had been using a flat screwdriver to remove the glass from an overlap of copper casing that had been dinted in around it. She was half way around when the door swung wide open.
“You don’t remember, do you?” He asked, stepping forward into the dark light of the antique shop. It was that kind of day where the sun dipped in and out from the clouds, so all the lights had to be left on for the darker moments. The sunlight and hanging streams of raw bulbs above the counter transformed every customer into a faceless form in motion.
“I remember they were stringing the Christmas lights around you, making you light up like an angel. You were only sixteen years of age at the time. Sweet Sixteen. A sight for sore eyes, you were. You still are. If only I was back there now.”
His words were quick, but he was walking a slow step towards her. He might even have been older than herself. He had definitely left sixty years behind him.
She finished pressing down around the full circle of the small case by the time his toes touched the bottom of the counter. She expected the glass to pop out, but it was thick and stubborn. A blade was needed to ease it out. She plucked one from the work bench behind her and began pressing the blunt blade gently into the case, careful not to damage the glass.
“The school party,” he said.
She felt the seal breaking. She could feel the glass easing forward, craving to pop out from the case’s grizzly rusty clutch. Any moment now it would drop out and she would catch the small round glass piece on the coarse pads of her fingers. She looked at the stranger’s face, trying to remember Christmas lights being wrapped around her. She shook her head and searched his face for any twitch that might trigger her memory. Nothing.
“You started working in this shop Christmas week. You broke more than you fixed. I never enjoyed anyone breaking things as much. It didn’t take you long to learn. Your mind was a deep well waiting for water.” He laughed, but his laughter could have been mistaken for crying. It was carrying the weight of watchful restraint.
“Did you work in the shop too?” Her mind raced through all the people who had worked alongside her over the years.
“We couldn’t get you out of the shop when you got the hang of it. Billy Finbarr was your only distraction.” His voice reached down into his chest and stayed there at the mention of the boy’s name.
“Billy Finbarr,” he repeated, clearing his throat, “do you remember him?”
She smiled at him and the image of the compass transformed into Billy’s flirty smirky face. He had discarded her so easily when a new girl came to live in the town. Nothing but trouble that Billy Finbarr, her mother used to say. Billy used to say that Peggy was working backwards because she was repairing things that had no use or relevance to the world any more. He wore the latest fashions, listened to the latest records, and spoke the latest slang. Nothing was old about Billy. He replaced his girlfriends with newer, more modern versions at every opportunity. Still, he must be old himself now, she thought.
“You haven’t changed that much since then. You’re still preoccupied with those old objects, aren’t you?” His words slid in between the pictures of her memories.
Peggy spent her days restoring old objects to what might have been if they hadn’t been tarnished, cast aside, or lost. The presence of dust excited her. It was a cover to lift off the past and bring back all its good. Dust encased treasures in sticky webs of mildew, mould, and dirt. The stories that could possibly lie behind each reworked item were endless. She preoccupied herself with cleaning, repairing and displaying; each object brought her back to where everything did what it was supposed to do, and nothing needed fixing anymore.
“I’m sorry, your name is just not coming to me at the moment,” she said, shaking her head and smiling politely.
She flicked the back of the case to encourage it out. A sliver slipped out. It was almost there. A couple more flicks and it should release itself. There. It popped out as if it was never stuck. She placed the dirty glass on the counter and shook out the rusty pin into her curved hand.
“It was a long time ago.” He looked down at her hands at work. They never stopped for thought. They were busy bees with an important job to finish, automatic in their movements, meticulous in their application, and as steady as they had been in their prime.
“It must have been. Aren’t you going to tell me your name? It’ll surely come back to me then.”
“Sandpaper and coke for that,” he said, pointing at her left hand. He stared at her wedding ring and sighed.
“Well you seem to know your way around repairing a compass, if you’ll excuse the pun,” she said, scrapping the less visible side of the pin against the sandpaper to flatten it.
“I’ll just have a look around the shop.” He tapped on the counter softly and walked deeper into the middle of the antique stock for sale in the shop.
Peggy frowned at him and wondered why he wouldn’t tell her his name. She thought she might remember who he was by the time he was finished browsing. She dropped the pin into a glass of coke once she had flattened it as much as was possible with the sandpaper. She cleaned the glass in a small dish of soapy water, dried it, and placed it beside the glass of bubbling rusty coke. Soon it would be pristine too.
She raised her head to look at the stranger again. She examined his outline and watched him lift small objects, inspecting each one closely with his eyes, questioning their past purpose and owner.
His gait seemed familiar. It was comforting to look at. He didn’t appear out of place, like many customers do in a shop full of antiques from other worlds and times. He lifted each item confidently, like he had lifted them before, like he knew where they had come from, like they were his own. She shook her head. She couldn’t place him.
Her eyes returned to the bubbling coke. Onto the magnet. She dried the pin and inserted it back into its base plate, covering it with its glass cover. She rubbed the magnet back and forth over the compass, slowly from south to north and back again, trying to remember the memory the stranger had of her at sixteen years of age. The compass soon found north, and she returned the magnet to the furthest end of the workbench behind her. The compass was fixed. She didn’t want to demagnetise it. It was ready to orient somebody, maybe for an adventure of a lifetime.
“I’m sorry. That memory seems to be gone. It’s a lot of Christmases since I was sixteen.” The stranger smiled as he approached the counter, this time with a red plate in his hands.
“A memory is always with us, even if we forget. Significant emotions are never forgotten. Something will remind us how the memory made us feel and then we’ll remember. Always happens.” The stranger put the plate down beside the compass. The little compass looked insignificant compared to the vibrancy of the large red plate.
“History never forgets, even when nobody records it.” He circled the dust into his fingertips to reveal a shade of light red.
“Fascinating. I’m sure I’ll remember so.” She thought how arrogant he was to suppose that a moment was significant for her just because he remembered it.
“It’s a bit dusty, but the red is like a ruby, don’t you think?” The stranger guided Peggy’s eyes back down to the plate.
“My daughter’s name is Ruby,” she said, picking up the plate to examine the extent of the dust.
“I’ll clean that right up for you, but you will have to tell me your name first. You’re a bit of a mystery now.”
“My wife insisted we have a set of red dinning plates when we moved into our first house. They weren’t too different from these ones. It’s a pity there isn’t a full set. I’d love to have them again, for old time’s sake. You know?”
“I do. Did the others break then?”
“They did. One by one until there was only one remaining.”
“Oh what a pity. Well now you’ll have two.”
Peggy rubbed the heavy dust off the plate with a cloth. It was made of fine bone china. The squiggly lines around the rim seemed to spread out in random directions, like tree roots reaching out for space to grow.
She thought back to her school days when she longed for freedom; to stretch her limbs so that she would appear more grown-up; to stretch her legs beyond the boundaries of the town to explore whatever the rest of the world offered.
She felt sorrow and excitement in her stomach – two conflicting feelings that didn’t make sense to her. She rubbed her stomach as if she could rub them away.
“Gerry Tomalin,” she said, clapping the dust off between her hands.
“Gerry Tomalin,” she repeated, sticking her thumbs into her hips.
The boy who got the girl in trouble, she thought.
“I remember you. We went to school together. How could I forget? You used to work in the shop too, yes that’s right. I remember,” she said, looking at her husband with stranger’s eyes.
“What brings you back into town?” She turned her back on him to walk over to the sink behind the workbench. A quick dip in soapy water was all this plate needed to restore its shine. She turned on the tap, twisted herself around and waited for Gerry’s reply. Her daughter appeared in the doorway of the storeroom just as she was about to speak to him again.
“Ruby,” she shouted, “this is Gerry Tomalin, an old friend from school. Can you believe it?”
Gerry Tomalin is here, she heard her friend whisper in her mind as she placed a red string of Christmas lights around her shoulders. I love you, she heard Gerry say after she told him that Billy Finbarr made her pregnant. Gerry Tomalin, I love you, she heard herself say, staring at his face through a veil at the local church altar. Do you take this man, Gerry Tomalin, for better for worse, in sickness and in health…she heard the priest ask. I do, she heard herself reply.
Gerry Tomalin, if you break one more of those plates…, she heard herself threaten, standing in their kitchen with one half of a broken ruby red plate, just like the one she was about to wash in the sink. We’ll call her Ruby, he said, looking down at their new-born baby.
“Gerry,” she whispered. Her hands turned off the tap and she walked back over to the counter to face her husband.
“I fixed the compass.” She smiled at him the way she did when she was sixteen.
“See?” She shook it and let the pin find its way back to north.