I never knew the name of the shop. I used to study the flakes of grey letters hanging above the main window as a kid. I fancied it spelled out “Fudge” but it might as well have spelt out “Fridges”. Not that it actually helped identify what the shop sold.
The main window was so clogged up with junk and dusk that you couldn’t really make anything out except for a kind of hazy indistinct mess. We would push our eyes right up against the glass to see if we could peer through some gap. But the best I ever got was the movement of some grey blob among the dust.
We were afraid to just go in. Parents wouldn’t even look at the shop and we never saw anyone else go in or out. It might have been one of those places where they didn’t allow children at all and then we “might see something we shouldn’t.”
We had been playing with coin coppers on the pavement across from the shop when Ciarian came by. He was the same age as us but twice as big and our resident bully at the time. In the long run of things he was unimportant, but right then he was a sort of catalyst.
He stomped over our coins on the ground and was going to pick on Mick, the smallest of kids. The last time he did, he took all Mick’s coins and including one of mine that I had lent him. So I stood up to Ciarian, pushed myself in front of him. My personal rebellion must have caught him off-guard because he didn’t push me out of the way (which he could have done with ease), instead he took a very small step back. But his bravado was matchless and he laughed at me.
“Wimp!” he yelled at me. “Look, you’re shak’in,” (actually he was shaking, I was fine). He pointed down at me. “If you’re so tough, go get something from that shop.” He jabbed his thumb at the fudge shop. Mick and the others all inhaled at the same time.
But I was determined. Armed with my few remaining coins in my pockets, I pushed in the main door. A little bell sounded and the door closed neatly behind me.
An old man looked up from the counter. He was covered in old-person’s wrinkles. His face was not defined by shape but by the lines made by the wrinkles. He wore round-rimmed spectacles, which he lifted off his nose when he saw me.
“Well, well, well, young man. Are you here on business or pleasure?” His grin stretched and pulled the wrinkles to their limits. I could barely make out his eyes, so deeply set in folds of skin.
I didn’t say anything. I looked around, trying to spy something familiar. But there wasn’t anything. The light was too low and everything was drenched in very deep shadows. The walls were lined with objects I couldn’t make out and there was an odd smell soaking the place.
A growling sound came from the back of the shop. “Excuse me, young man. The old ball and chain is calling.” The old man turned slowly and went into the back. His motions seemed painfully slow like he was a giant robot from some Godzilla movie. Being a kid at the time, I had no idea what ball and chain meant. I imagined some sort of monstrous dog out back. The image in my head froze me to the spot.
But my curiosity was stronger than my fear. I broke free and ran up to the counter and studied the items underneath it. Though the dusty glass pane on one shelf there was a selection of snow-balls: they each contained statues of three women but each ball was subtly different. On one it said Fate and had three women in grey smocks, on the next it said Destiny and the three women looked like crying angels and the next said Love and showed a young girl, mother and grand-mother. There were also ones titled Fear, Death, Life and Hope and more behind that I could just about spy.
Above that shelf there were action figures, which I thought I knew all about. But I didn’t recognise the brand or the figures themselves. They didn’t seem to be of any one particular movie, TV series or comic book. They weren’t even those weird Japanese ones. There was a superhero-like one with a cape and mask and a plastic bit you tuck on to make him look like he was shooting lasers from his eyes, another wore only animal furs and had club and animal skin cape, one wore an astronaut suit and had some sort of laser gun and another one was dressed as a samurai with a sword that was marked “glow in the dark”.
No prices were tagged to any of them. In the background there was the constant low sound of the old man talking to something.
I went over to the wall opposite the counter. There were numerous shelves containing books and I quickly scanned the titles. But I couldn’t make out the letters. They weren’t written using the English alphabet.
“Well, well, well, young man. Are you still looking? Have you found anything interesting?” The old man had reappeared and was leaning again on the counter. He wasn’t even looking at me, just reading some newspapers there.
With my courage used up, I ran out. Ciarian had vanished having taken Mick’s coins and leaving him with a sore shoulder.
But that little visit had sparked something. I was curious and now fearless: a dangerous combination. I knew that it sold toys, but toys unknown to me. I wanted to go back, I wanted to see what else was there. I wanted to buy something.
The following week I ventured back to the shop. I went alone and didn’t tell my friends. I pushed the door very slowly, hoping not to ring the bell but it still chimed. Some tall man was standing at the counter. He glared at me with barely hidden malice and shivers ran down my back. I nearly left right at that moment.
But as I said, I felt fearless. I stepped in and just stood there. The old man winked at me from behind the counter, his whole face animated by the movement of the wrinkles.
The customer turned his back to me and talked in hush tones to the old man. This customer was wearing a long raincoat that went right down to the tops of his shoes. I could see they were covered in mud.
I noticed two things that told me that this guy was not like everyone else. First the smell, like burnt toast or when my mum used to leave the dinner on too long and the whole house would stink of smoke and burnt food.
The second was the bulge in his back. It was just about waist height. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except it moved occasionally and when it did, something moved all the way down to his shoes.
Three times the man scratched the bulge and seemed to rearrange himself. But on the third time, I saw something: a small red triangle peeked out from underneath his raincoat but only for a moment.
I was about to bolt right then. But then the old man called out my name. I froze like stone. He knew who I was. He said, “Don’t come back here for a little while, young man. Am going to be having some very dark customers coming. They might not take kindly to children, particularly curious ones.” From the way he said it, I got the impression that these dark customers didn’t just not like children but did bad things to them.
I had nightmares for the next week. Demons with huge bat wings and monsters made of shadow chasing me through a never-ending store where I couldn’t read the signs to find my way.
I didn’t go back for much longer than a week, actually quite a while. I was seventeen the next time I did.
My father had been dead two years by then. I was bonking-off school that day. Well in truth I was bonking-off from everything. I wasn’t dumb, far from it. We had a computer at home and I could program and even hack a little. I traded my warez on BBSs.
I was flunking school too. Didn’t give a crap, everything the teachers said sounded like bullshit to me. My mother didn’t seem to care either. She didn’t care about much after Dad’s death.
I was walking down by the shop that day and I stopped. Perhaps it was my rebellious nature that pushed me to go, fighting against my natural instincts.
The little bell chimed. The place hadn’t changed. The old man was there, at the counter reading some papers. His wrinkles formed into a large grin. He said my name and then asked, “How are you doing my young lad? I heard about your poor father. Tragedy.”
“I’m okay. Wanna buy something.”
“You already have. It’s in the making. These things take time to unfold.” The old man twisted around and shouted to the back something I couldn’t understand. Something responded. “Would you care for some tea?”
“What’s ‘in the making’?”
“If I tell you, I’ll ruin the surprise.” At that moment, an old hunched lady appeared from the back of the shop, rattling a tray with tea and biscuits. She stared at me with eyes that dripped viciousness. She slapped the tray on the counter and wobbled back into the darkness of the shop.
I took some of the tea and biscuits. “Do you know anything about these new fangled machines? Can’t get it to do anything.” Behind the counter he had an old BBC Micro computer. A small screen showed 3D vector graphics of a box.
“What are you tying to do?”
“Well, this is meant to be a room and I’m trying to put doors in it. It’s a game I’m building…”
“Can I try?”
The old man smiled and let me behind the counter. I took me less than thirty seconds to figure the interface and add the doors. He had a hand-drawn map he wanted to put in and so I helped him, suggested improvements and customisations, where monsters and treasure should be put. “You have a knack,” he said more than once, his old face smiling at me knowingly.
The old man left me alone while he attended to some customer. I glanced up and saw a green skinned man (with a kind of cone shape head) in a very shiny suit. Obviously it was some Star Trek fan dressed up, I thought to myself.
Later more customers distracted the old man. I was surprised; I had imagined that customers were an infrequent thing. I looked up and saw a couple; the woman was incredible with long blonde hair that danced in curls on her shoulders. There was something ethereal about her and her eyes seemed far a way. I didn’t even register the man. I hunched my shoulders I focused back on the computer. I think I caught the old man winking at me.
He pretty much left me alone and after a few hours I had inputted (and improved) his design. His little game was cute, I asked for a copy and he warmly agreed, digging out an old floppy to put it on. I thanked him as I left, something I didn’t do at that age.
I went home and then spent the night expanding and improving it. I send a copy of it to some of my online buddies who enjoyed it, asking for more.
It is only with hindsight now that I realise it was this point that changed the direction of my life. I started writing and designing computer game though I became more interested in the building of the game rather than the programming. I went to college, got a degree, got a good job designing games and even got married. All this time I never thought of going back to the shop.
It wasn’t until my mother got sick that I came home. My wife returned with me. She was a computer programmer, working in the same company. We couldn’t have kids sadly, another story not worth repeating here.
But it was one evening, late, that I was walking through town that I passed the shop. I went in.
Nothing at all had changed. The old man greeted me as if I was an old friend. Asked how I was. Told him about my wife and my mother. But I was older and a lot more aware and subtly I asked him, “how’s business?”
“So so,” he replied.
That was about as subtle as I was willing to be and so I asked him what he sold here, what did this little shop sell? He laughed a hearty laugh.
“Something similar to what you do.”
“What I do?”
“Come, I’ll show you.” I followed him into the back of the shop. The old woman was there, weaving something. He brought me to a door and said, “This is my latest project. I must warn you before I show you that some that have seen this process have gone insane. But I know you. I know it is safe for you.” His wrinkled hands grasped the doorknob and light poured out from the widening gap.
I can’t tell you what he showed me, not yet. I will, I promise.
It changed me. I came back the next day and the next day. I asked him about it, learnt about it and even sat in with him while he worked. The curiosity from my childhood was now burning me. But what surprised me more, was the questions he asked me and that he seemed impressed and even thoughtful about my answers. “You have an instinct,” he would say again and again.
But the other world intruded and dragged me back to a reality I’d rather have avoided. My mother died.
The wonders in that shop faded in my mind and the world seemed blacker. And eventually my wife and I returned to our home and work.
But in time I found myself thinking about the shop and its odd customers. So I told some ‘white lies’ to my wife and claimed I was going on business trips and returned regularly to my old town and that shop.
I often brought my laptop and asked the old man’s advice on my own work. He kept saying that he felt too old for this age. I talked about ‘modernising’ his setup a bit, how you use even a simple computer to help organise things but all he would say is “my old computer did everything I needed to” (he was referring to the old BBC Micro computer behind the counter).
An important life lesson I’ve learned is: it isn’t a good idea to lie to your wife. She started to suspect I was having an affair. I think she may have even hired someone to follow me but I’ve never been bold enough to ask.
But before things got me into real trouble it was the old man’s wife that offered a solution. As I was helping the old man late on evening, she tapped me on the shoulder with her long cane “you should bring your wife around for tea next time.”
So I did. She didn’t know what to expect and she was quietly surprised entering that little shop. We went upstairs to their living room and the old lady brought us tea and biscuits. It was awkward, I didn’t know what to say and they didn’t know either. But then the old lady said to my wife “I have something to show you. Please come with me…” she took her downstairs and I guess showed her what the old man did. She never told me though and refuses even today to tell me what she saw.
But when she returned she appeared a little shaken but there was a smile on her lips and she hugged me tightly. Her eyes told me “I understand now”.
The old man was uncharacteristically nervous. “I’ve got something to ask of you. You see we’ve been doing this a very long time, an Age in fact. We want to retire but the work must go on. You know how to do all the things the work requires and you are both bright and creative people who know this modern grey time. Would you be willing to take over?”
I was giddy with excitement, I wanted to blurt out ‘yes!’ but I didn’t know about my wife. I knew this would mean quitting our jobs, losing contact with our families and friends and even to a degree losing touch with the world.
It was my wife that quietly answered ‘yes, we will.’
So now we run this little shop. We’ve tidied it up, setup a web site, modernised it a bit, but not too much. My wife deals with the customers more than I do but we share the load and participate in everything. We’ve lost our names, but that’s okay, it comes with the job.
The old couple went on a long holiday that I suspect has no real end. We occasionally get postcards but they’re of places that don’t actually exist.
You see we’re all storytellers. Every story we weave tells something about being human. But often the stories become bigger and even more important than the story builders. That’s why we no longer have names and the old couple don’t remember theirs.
Now I promised I would you I tell you what the old man showed me: when I looked into that room, I saw a world floating in the centre of its own universe. Before my eyes he arranged the stars, shaped the lands and drew rivers. He sculpted cities and place figures among its plains. He added themes and atmosphere as if sprinkling sugar. He weaved stories like wispy strands of spirit through it.
He built worlds of imagination.
Our customers pay good prices for the stories that we create. For without them they would be nothing. They are fragments of ideas wishing to exist, born out of the imagination of humanity. Sometimes when I watch TV or read a book I catch glimpses of the worlds that the old man or I had created, always a little distorted but the essence of it is there.