The Collector

He enters my house on a Monday morning, grey and drab, and the weather not much better.

I look up from my morning tea – as the years go on, I find I can sustain myself on less and less, until I guess one day I’ll get by on less than nothing – as he knocks quietly and enters. When one of my sources decides to find me, they know that I won’t stand on formality.

“Temple Mount is experiencing heavy mist,” he says nervously, playing with his hands and looking anywhere but at me. I hold the tea in my hands, silent, waiting for him to continue. After a pause, a couple of breaths, he obliges: “Balloonsman’s Guid are currently debating whether they should let anyone know. Still on the edge.”

I take a sip of tea, giving him a calculating look. “What’ll they do?” I ask.

“They’ll shelve it today. They’ll probably decide tomorrow if it means anything or not.”

I don’t need to ask his opinion on whether the mist means anything. If he thought it didn’t, he wouldn’t be here.

The silence stretches, and I’m happy to let it do so. He’s a right to ask something in return, and he knows, and he knows I know.

I take another sip. Finally, he looks up, almost making eye contact. “Do you…?” he begins.

I put the cup down, stand up, lead him into the living room. Two comfortable armchairs jostle for space with five overladen side-tables and two-and-a-half dressers, all of them (including the chairs) laden with pictures, mugs, statuettes, tiny plaster replicas of houses or churches or halls, everything in varying states of precision.

He stands in the middle of the room, a look of muted awe on his face. I squeeze past him, make my way to the shortest, squattest of the dressers – a big hulking thing made of mahogany that I’ve been meaning for six months to replace with something nicer – and pull down a lump of plaster.

His hands twitch involuntarily.

“Is it…” he begins to ask.

I nod, passing him the lump. He handles it gently, fingers brushing the surface. The lump is almost rectangular, with one middle section pushing up like a stepped pyramid. The whole thing is grey, with smudged black markings on it. If you remembered, or if you had a very good imagination, you could possibly see that it was once the image of a church.

He looks down at the plaster figure, while I stand quietly to one side. His expression is hard to read. Neither of us feel the urge to break the silence. But eventually, he takes a deep breath and hands it back to me. I place it back on the shelf.

“Thank you,” he says quietly.

He takes his leave. Once I’ve seen him out, I prepare to go myself.

My procedure before going out has become ritual by this point. I take the thermos out, fill it up with tea, and put it back. I add a few biscuits (wrapped up, of course), a purse full of various bits of small change, a notebook and a stub of pencil, the most up-to-date map I have of the town, and a compass in case things get really bad. I put on a coat, because it hasn’t cleared up yet. I put my cup from breakfast in the sink – I can deal with it when I get back. I take the house key from above the fridge. I lock up.

Temple Mount is up the hill, which means it’s a fair climb from my place down by Monument next to the shore-front. Once upon a time I’d have looked at that as a good hike to get my blood going, but these days I’m willing to sacrifice a few grains for the street-car ride up to Red Valley, which at least saves me half the walking.

The car itself is close to packed, but the commuters all seem subdued, weighed down by the low cloud hanging over the town. It’s like the weather has secretly descended to ground level, leaching all the levity and brightness out of the world. Even the houses on either side of the street seem a little washed-out. Or maybe my eyes are finally going.

It’s a good fifteen minutes of stop-start and slow going until I get off, and even after that I have more climbing ahead of me. As I work my way up the wide expanse of Tower Avenue, I ascend into the cloud. Wetness settles on me, less like rain and more like a mood, a pervasive condition. The weather’s driven everyone indoors who doesn’t need to be anywhere soon: most of the people who pass me on the street are coated- and hatted-up, frowning at the ground or staring into the mid-distance as they make their way to wherever they need to be at as fast a rate as is reasonable. Still: no one seems particularly fraught, so I figure the average resident isn’t too worried about the mist.

I’ve walked up to Temple Mount a number of times in the past. For a while, another collector lived up here – a youngish chap, maybe twenty-five, obsessed with the past in a manner and magnitude that I can only dream of equalling. He approached the hobby as a sort of death-defying adventure, always bored with the easy picks, always on the look-out for an urgent missive by the Balloonsman’s Guild. He’d held a number of meetings up on the hill, and I’d attended quite a few.

When the weather is nice, you can catch the spire of St Anthony’s church – the Temple on the Mount, as it were – from down in Red Valley, or, if you own a step-ladder, even from some of the squares down by home. It’s only as you walk up Tower Avenue, however – only as you broach the curve of the street, following it as it dog-legs gently to the left along the ridge-line – that you see the front of the church itself. All done out in white marble and lapis lazuli, an architectural gem: on a sunny day, it dazzles you with its glare. Today, however, the church looms out of the mist, its tower lost in the low cloud, its facade reduced to a sullen greyscale.

In front of the church is a little square, just big enough for a small crowd or a large discussion, sided with stone benches. I lower myself onto one of the benches, lay my bag next to me, and pull out the thermos. I take a swig of the tea, put it back into the bag, take out the biscuits and start to eat one, less because I’m hungry and more to convince myself I’m not just stopping to catch my breath after the climb. As I di, I survey the buildings surrounding the square.

During the weekend, or one of the three fair days they hold up here every year, the square would be bustling with activity. The roads surrounding it would turn into street markets, with hawkers setting up temporary stalls that they hide gods-knew-where the rest of the time, and cut-rate magicians walking through the crowd on stilts, and the bells proceeding through their carillon every hour. The square proper would be packed, elbow-to-elbow, with locals and tourists. Not so much now, of course – everyone has far more important work to be doing on a Monday morning, leaving me the whole place to myself.

What doesn’t change, of course, are the stores that line the road. The two pubs – The Tower on one side, and The New Tower on the other – are both closed up and darkened, while the hardware store that sits in the shadow of the tower proper looks as shut as it always seems. I’ve never worked out if it really is permanently closed or it just looks that way, and I don’t really feel any urge to do so today either.

In fact, what interests me are a quartet of shops arranged neatly opposite the church itself. One bills itself as a souvenir store, one as a charity shop, one as a second-hand bargain warehouse, and one (somewhat hopefully) as a general store. Tower Avenue splits them up, the souvenir store and charity shop on one side, the warehouse and the general store on the other, like they’re picking teams in a game of football. Despite their signs, by which they tried to differentiate themselves, they all sell approximately the same type of thing: knick-knacks, gewgaws, and other useless cruft.

I get up, stretch, and decide to profile each one in turn. I start with the general store (overly cluttered, its terrible souvenirs packed between tins of peas and packets of noodles stacked person-high), before looking through the window of the warehouse (almost empty, badly-painted vases clustered in groups as if to huddle against the cold), crossing the road, peering into the charity shop (dark, doubtful, but maybe hiding treasure somewhere in its depths), and finishing with the souvenir store (neon-bright in comparison, populated chiefly by primary-coloured tourist kitsch). Each store is the supreme king (or queen) of its own particular kind of mediocrity.

I sigh, and – after consideration, picking the best from a series of terrible entries – walk over to the dim and dusty charity store.

The bell on the door jangles as I enter, although I can’t see any staff. In fact, the place is deserted except for me. Fifteen years ago, even ten, I would have felt like I was somehow intruding, but old age has taught me the special sort of rudeness you can get away with by being geriatric. I turn to my right and start browsing.

The majority of the stuff that sits on the shelves probably started life in the souvenir shop next door, some time ago. Badly-made china mugs with somewhat wobbly illustrations of ships sailing from harbours; pewter teaspoons with strange abstract patterns a decade old along their handles; one last faded dinner plate of what used to be a set…I start to wonder if the charity is in where the profits went, or in my possible act of taking this stuff off of their hands. The next stand is just as bad: the same pattern repeated in different media, cheap-looking walking sticks or sugar tongs or little brass animals whose sole purpose seems to be to clutter up the surface they’re placed on. In fact, I’m half-way around the store (and almost completely through my patience) before I find anything even worth a second chance. It’s a small tea plate, one of many sandwiched together in a pile eleven-high, and it’s only through luck that I decide to look all the way through it. The top five are garishly-painted, lines smeared even before the glaze was applied, or colours faded even though they’ve maybe seen sun for an hour of their pitiable lives, or tiny bubbles sitting in the top layer, distorting the surface and making it feel like something’s always stuck to it. The bottom five are just as bad, all artistic value sacrificed in the name of quick profit.

However. However.

As I pull the middle plate out, I realise I may have found something. It gives off an unmistakable air; not just earnestness – even a terrible artist can be earnest – but of skill and originality and applied effort and, well, soul. The artist (it’s obvious from the brush-strokes, especially when I examine it up close, that this had been painted as a one-of-kind, not reproduced cheaply from some rubber stamp) has painted a scene typical of Temple Mount: the view from Tower Avenue, up the ridgeline towards St Anthony’s Tower. Holding it at arm’s length you can feel the movement of the pedestrians hurrying across the road, the transience of the sapling trees planted along the meridian, the solidity of the tower in the background, watching over all this protectively.

Someone clears their throat, making me jump. A young boy, no older than twenty, stands up from behind the counter, like a juvenile and somewhat underfed djin. His skin is pale and his hair almost the same colour: it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. It takes a little while for his eyes to focus, but once they do he keeps them fixed on the plate I’ve just picked up.

I smile, but that doesn’t seem to perturb him. “Hello,” I say. “Nice place you have here.” No response. I bring the plate to the counter and place it gently in front of him.

“Just that, please,” I say.

He takes the plate in his hands, peers at me curiously, then lifts it up. He examines its front and back closely, opens his mouth, coughs and clears his throat, and tries again:

“Fifteen grains.”

Which is daylight robbery, but I figure he’s probably going to get about three more customers coming in here today, and it’s not like I’m spending my money on anything else. I pull my purse out of my bag, open it up, and root around until I find change approximating what he’s asking: a couple of big silver cable-guild alti worth six grains each and a miscellany of small coins of the sort that congregate around Monument. Altogether worth closer to twenty grains, but shop-keepers are notoriously picky on what particular currencies they’ll accept. The boy is no exception: he grabs the alti up immediately, and dithers over the rest until finally he takes a couple of little copper bits marked with the sun-and-cloud of the Balloonsman’s Guild. I take the remainder and scoop them back into my purse.

“Wretched day we’re having, isn’t it?” I say, if only to make conversation.

He glares at me, like bringing him into conversation is some sort of crime. “Yeah,” he says, and then he glances over my shoulder, out the window, as if to check that yes, the day is wretched, I’m not conning him.

“Still, hopefully it’ll pick up as the day goes by, eh? Sun might burn through the fog.”

No response from the boy, who pulls a ratty paper bag from under the counter, places the plate in it, and holds out it toward me in a gesture somewhat reminiscent of a ritual offering.

I take it and nod. As I exit the door, I hear him clear his throat again. “’ve a good day,” he mutters.

I stop in the doorway, and look back. The boy seems to have forgotten I exist: he arranges something hidden behind the counter and, as I watch, sinks back down – to sit and contemplate reality, to read a book, to sleep, I’m not sure. “Thank you!” I say brightly, as I step back out onto the road.

But as I step out into the low cloud, I decide that it probably won’t clear up. This fog will stick around all day – and when it does, people will start suspecting the worst, and then the Balloonsman’s Guild will make their official announcement tomorrow like my contact said they would. And following that, how many days? Three? Five? One? Before the fog becomes so thick that anyone wandering into it will just emerge half an hour later, confused and disoriented.

I make my way down Tower Avenue, taking care not to slip in the mist-dampened cobbles. It takes me almost as long going down as it does going up, and every so often I stop at the side of the road, resting my knees a bit and looking up at St Anthony’s spire. The first couple of times I stop, it’s at least partly visible, the mist still washing out the colour so it’s more a looming shape, a geometric oddity, than an actual building. The next time I look, it’s no more than a hint of colour against the white. And after that, it’s gone.

I have to wait ten minutes for the cable car back down to Monument, and the car itself is much quieter than it was on the way up. As we make the winding descent from Red Valley, the cloud clears, and the sun decides to make an appearance. By the time I get off, down near sea level, it’s almost summery. Before I head indoors, I look up at St Anthony’s again, but the hill is still covered in mist.

Entering my little house is like the same ritual I did this morning, but in reverse. I put my bag on the table, take out the thermos and the biscuit wrapper, put them in the sink along with my cup from breakfast. I take out the plate I bought and put it on the table. I put my notebook, and the map, and the purse, back in the drawer where I got them from. And I hang the bag back on the peg next to the door.

I turn the kettle on, wash out the cup I used at breakfast, and put a tea-bag into it. As the water starts to boil, I take the plate from the table and wander in to the lounge. With the whistling of the kettle as accompaniment, I start to arrange things on one of the dressers – faded figurines, almost pure white bowls, nondescript glasses with just the edge of an etching left on them, so the plate will fit amongst them.

There is a solid click from the kitchen as the kettle finishes up. I head back and pour myself another cup of tea, scavenging crumbs from the biscuit wrappers as I do so. When I head back into the lounge, I notice that the plate now obscures the lump of pottery that was a church.

It’s probably for the best, I think to myself. The plate’s a lot nicer anyway.

I sit down, sip my tea, and try to remember the name of my friend the collector, the one who lived up on the hill, the daredevil. No amount of memory is going to bring his name back, I know, but it helps pass the time.