[For a while I was toying with the idea of reviewing Alec Gurney Melross’ Thirteen Strange Tales (1983), which I had acquired by chance last year in a bookshop in Wigtown. Yet aside from noting that these brief, quirky stories function largely in the same way that A J Alan’s do, any commentary upon them is limited to uncomplicated admiration. It would have been nice to have published selections from Thirteen Strange Tales on Tychy, as I have previously done with Alan’s own stories, but they were written and broadcast too recently to factor out the copyright laws. So I have decided finally to rewrite one of Melross’ stories, portraying its events in my own colours and brushstrokes. My ending differs significantly from his. You can buy the original here and see how the two versions compare, as well as enjoying Melross’ other twelve strange tales.]
A faraway dawn, as colourless as concrete, was now perceptible over Edinburgh, but the city remained in that interval of unearthly stillness that occurs between the closing of the last nightclubs and the scrambling of the first delivery vans. John Kirkup was on his way from his apartment on Leith Walk to the nail bar on George Street which he had to open up this morning. It was so hushed in the vastness of York Place that his footsteps sounded like whispers.
A less intrepid man would have stuck to York Place, but John had opted to take the short cut through Multrees Walk. Even at noon there is something indelibly desolate and spooky about this luxury shopping plaza. The Walk is as narrow and featureless as a school corridor, and swept bare of every living thing apart from two spindly silver birches which look oddly like bollards, standing bolt upright in their scuffed containers. It always appears as if everybody passing through has subliminally agreed upon twice as brisk a pace as normal, and that it is an error to slow down.
Perhaps John had made the calculation that it was too lonely at this time of the morning for anybody to get mugged here. He is a pale, thin man, with the sensitive features of a young minister or a male primary school teacher. But there is an inscrutability to him as well, a dry, lizard-like carefulness to how he notices the passing shops, the absence of other footsteps, and his own clicking rhythmically against the corners of the plaza.
John was nearing that point where he would be too far into Multrees Walk to be able to retreat back from an attacker, but still too far back to reach the safety of the road ahead. Dryly, with his lizard eyes rolling over the shop windows, John luxuriated in the negligible possibility of danger. Then he stopped.
He was outside Lorrimer’s, a store that sold expensive oriental furniture. John recalled somebody in the nail bar sniggering about the trouble that the store was in these days. It was now open for only one Tuesday afternoon a month. The furniture was supposedly made to order, but the orders were never delivered and the madcap customers were always chasing the company through the small claims court.
The window had been made up as a bedroom for several months, so that the furniture now looked as settled and natural as that in John’s own bedroom. The centrepiece was a vast, cumbersome wooden frame that, upon closer inspection, became a bed, with the gleaming panels whittled into intricate, unfathomable designs. The wood of both the bed and the dumpy bookcases that accompanied it was as black and polished as liquorice. On the highest shelf of the bookcase, two of those stone lions from outside a Beijing temple which somehow resemble King Charles spaniels had been reincarnated as bookends. The lions glared all the more fiercely, now cramped and shrunken in cheap, powdery stone. Beneath the bed there was a blood-red rug overset within itself with an olive-grey lattice pattern that was both dense and shimmering.
John had been stopped by a slipper. It stood upright on the rug, dainty and fur-lined, and then John’s eye had focused on the slipper behind it, under the bed, and registered two slippers. Next John had gasped and his breath seemed to be falling unbroken, like a coin dropping down a deep well. The bed was not empty – there was a lady asleep in it.
He waited for his brain to conclude that this was some kind of mannequin – for it to work out the trick – but his brain was unable to catch up. For a start, this lady did not resemble a mannequin. With her head resting back almost upright against the pillows, she was plump and pudding faced, with tiny shut eyelids and a turned-up nose like a little shell. And unlike a mannequin, she was snoring.
She looked wholly unlike the skinny plastic models that usually pose in lingerie in department store windows, with their arms as monstrously angular as those of a praying mantis. This lady was not conventionally attractive but, with her fluffy, naturally blonde hair and her creamy skin, John found her awesomely beautiful. She was the sort of girl who you could wrap yourself snugly around and bury your face in her irresistible hair.
John was still unable to turn from the window and he reeled again at the sight of female detritus – a hairdryer, a makeup kit, a bottle of water – in an alcove in the bedframe. There were no two ways about it: this was a real woman asleep in the shop window.
Then, quite suddenly, the lady opened her eyes.
They were a soft, wondrous blue – almost violet.
She looked straight into John’s eyes and then somehow through them and into nothing. The eyes were gone in a flash and she was rolling around in the bed sheets, arching out like a plump rainbow. Though John could not hear her yawn it seemed to him that the glass in the window was shaking.
She finally lay back in bed, temporarily at peace and gazing contemplatively ahead. She reminded John of an inhabitant of a sitcom that is set in the same, unchanged suburban interior every week. A character who always faces the same wall, a wall which it is always impossible for the viewer to see. She was not looking at him, but what could she be looking at?
The lady was now on her feet and wandering about the bedroom scene. She wormed into her slippers. She felt for the water bottle and raising it to her mouth, froze and then lapped at it quickly, in the pert way that a cat drinks. She was wearing a nightdress as flimsy as a cobweb and the roundedness of her buttocks was displayed with an unnerving plainness. Something in John that was customarily at bay gave a ravenous lurch. He trembled at how he was leering openly at this lady, even though it was surely ridiculous that she could not be able to see him. But she abruptly put down the bottle and opening a door that John had not noticed before, in the far wall, she was gone.
John was staring into an empty shop window scene. It was time to tear himself away. His feet dutifully began to move and they carried him along Multrees Walk, whilst his mind flamed with the injustice of having to leave this mystery behind.
Nonetheless, he had to open the nail bar that morning and he would be there for an hour before the other technicians, Ernest and Cameron, arrived. Two customers were already booked in, a businessman and a corporate lawyer, each for a manicure and a pedicure.
The interlude that followed was snapped up by Michael Worthington. “I have to go to a pub quiz this evening,” Michael bellowed jovially, “and the nails aren’t looking their best.”
Michael sat back and bathed his hands in John’s deft, spinning activity. All at once, John grew tense with the awareness that it might be possible to probe Michael for information about the lady in Lorrimer’s window. Michael maintained a Twitter account called “Edinburgh Explorer,” which promoted each day’s special offers and discounts to the city’s shoppers. After cutting the cuticles and applying the first layer of colour, John had reached that level of relaxed concentration in which he could talk freely.
“Can you keep a secret Mike?”
Michael smirked. Of course he couldn’t.
John still told him about the lady in the window.
“It’s hardly something I can tweet about,” Michael confessed afterwards. “It sounds barking! But Lorrimer’s is a strange place.”
Unexpectedly, Michael began to talk about his brother Ted. Ted, one of the city’s most venerable financial analysts, was currently collecting information about a low-profile Edinburgh businessman called Archie Corpusty. Corpusty, Ted increasingly suspected, was a bounder of the blackest proclivities. His name could be traced to a variety of enterprises that the earth had swallowed up, along with a lot of their customers’ and creditors’ money. Michael had an idea that Ted might have mentioned Lorrimer’s in relation to Corpusty.
The session was suddenly coming to an end. John applied the last of the colour: an infusion of soft greys and blues which, when held still and up to the light, was revealed to be unmistakably Edinburgh’s skyline.
Before Michael left, with his hands folded carefully together, he asked John if he was opening early tomorrow morning.
John was taken aback. For some reason it had failed to occur to him that the lady in the window might reappear.
And so John rearranged his rota at the nail bar, volunteering to open up again the next day.
To begin with, the following morning was a flawless duplicate of the previous one. The same stirring pale sky; the same trail of lonely footsteps like a hen’s pecking in the empty streets. And Multrees Walk was surprised looking completely unaltered from yesterday. As John advanced stealthily down the Walk, his stomach seemed to be filled with fluttering air and the whole of his attention faced the street, straining like an unblinking eye.
John was soon horribly dismayed to hear voices ahead. Nearing Lorrimer’s, he became slower and then finally stopped. There was a crowd of about thirty people, almost all of them men, assembled before the shop window. They were identifiably commuters and all dressed as if on the way to different offices, in thin overcoats and glossy scarves, with briefcases or those mini suitcases that people now wheel to the workplace. This group looked not unlike a protest, albeit an inappropriately bourgeois one. They were obviously engrossed in the shop window and they were exchanging hushed or incredulous remarks.
John next saw that phones were raised, as thick as tombstones, filming.
One energetic-looking fat man began to pound impatiently on the window with his fist. John froze. Over the heads of the crowd, he could just perceive the figure of the lady drifting about inside the room, apparently insensible of the amazement that she was generating.
John felt so aghast and exposed that it was as if he himself was standing half-naked in the window. Part of his secret world, something that he thought had been shared with himself alone, had been added mercilessly to everything else on Facebook and Youtube. He could already picture the headlines and the ways in which they would subtract from the concept of the lady in the window, making her appear clichéd and unremarkable. She would come to occupy the same compartment of the media as flash mobs and novelty art installations. Something that people would linger over for a moment and then forget.
During his break at the nail bar that morning, John called Michael Worthington.
“So you reported this in your Twitter feed?” John did not sound hostile, merely straightforward.
Yet it seemed from Michael’s brusque response that he had altogether forgotten about the lady in the window – indeed, it seemed for a second that he was unfamiliar with John’s own voice – and so John found that he was required to prompt him. Eventually the sun came out again and Michael was chuckling. “I told you man, that’s not news. But where have you seen it reported?”
“There was a crowd outside the window this morning.”
“And she was still there?”
“Yes, but she didn’t acknowledge the crowd.”
There was silence as Michael turned all of this over in his mind. “If any other shop in Multrees Walk had done this I’d be extremely impressed. It’s brilliant to use street theatre and presumably social media in this way to promote a retailer. Though Lorrimer’s isn’t this sort of an outfit. It’s currently in its death spiral – all of the stock, real and not so real, has been sold. You know that no accounts have been filed this year? There is also rent outstanding. Promoting the company, however creatively, would only draw attention to what a calamity it is.”
Michael promised to contact the Edinburgh Evening News, to confirm if they would be running the story in tonight’s edition. He had become curious to hear what they had unearthed about Lorrimer’s.
Midway on his walk home that afternoon, John started. He was going straight home today, for the first time in several days, and his route would take him back down Multrees Walk and past Lorrimer’s.
He continued on his way, now newly alert. The window of Lorrimer’s was empty and there was no sign of either its mysterious inhabitant or of the crowd which had been there this morning. Then all at once John’s mind was racing. A wooden A-board had been planted outside the store and there was an air of freshness and activity issuing from within.
Crunch time. There was nothing else for it but to enter, before the great stone rolled back over the mouth of the cave.
It was cool and gloomy inside, with the only light provided by two unblocked windows at the front and side of the store. John followed the path that had been left between the jostling wardrobes and bookcases, until he had the vague impression of wandering around a subterranean maze. Although everything that surrounded him was beautifully homely, the ultimate effect was pristine and comfortless. It was like being in a house whose owner had no possessions to be stored in his countless bookcases and drawers, and no guests to be seated on these chairs which had congregated together like parliamentarians.
John soon emerged in front of a till. Although it was unmanned, his gaze leapt instinctively across the store to where a small, jocular-looking, almost avuncular figure was standing frozen in the doorway of a back room. The man grinned at him. John hesitated between approaching the figure and continuing towards the light that stretched from a kind of stage door that was surely the entrance to the shop window. Another door opened with a muffled gulp, however, and the lady slipped into the shop.
John’s desire for her was immediately so strong that he could almost feel the hairs rising on his head. His normal exterior seemed to wither away, leaving his true personality exposed and glowing. The lady was dressed only in underwear and her skin looked wondrously warm and soft, as though she had come wrapped in all the perfumes from beneath a snug duvet. For the first time, the lady acknowledged John’s presence. She bestowed a pleasant, conspiratorial smile upon him, and John stood amazed, amazed that they were both facing each other and seeing each other. It was as if somebody on the television had waved to attract his attention.
And John knew that he was reading the lady’s look correctly. Above that kindly smile, her eyes were solemn with desire and, as a finger trickled down to skirt her panty line, he realised that her nakedness was poised to plunge into his hands and arms. Her perfumed warmth seemed to engulf him like a huge wave. He was now scampering after her through the shop and their destination was apparently the stage door to the window. She beckoned, smiling again, and John, dumbfounded, could only follow.
John was at the lady’s heels but then, incredibly, the shop window, with its overly undisturbed bedroom scene, its smooth bedsheets, its shrunken lions, and its threads of furry dust floating across the floor behind the bookcase, was empty. He was alone.
For an unbelievable moment, the emptiness rang in John’s ears like mocking laughter.
John was struck with the maddening desire to say something, but there was nothing to be said. He had not uttered a word since first entering the shop and the whole of the scene that had passed between himself and the lady had been as noiseless as a display of ballet.
There was a click as John heard the stage door shut behind him.
And so, with a growing sense of the inevitable, he was now playing out this scenario in which he was trapped inside the shop window. In retrospect, the trap seemed all too effortless. He shook the door handle and it would not yield, confirming that he was indeed trapped.
John looked up at the street and he at once froze before the panorama of passing shoppers. Nobody even glanced back at him or appeared to wonder why he was standing in the window. Again, that sense of the inevitable and the overwhelmingly futile mounted. He turned back to the door handle; his hand rested on it for a second and then withdrew. The stage door was now surely impregnable and if he flung his body at its surface, it would bounce off like a handful of popcorn.
The tiredness descended upon him with such heaviness that John could not even blink in protest. He knew straightaway that he would be much better after a brief sleep. The world would be set to rights. The bed looked so soft and the sheets so warm and silken that the incongruity of sleeping in the window, in his work clothes and boots, was somehow dispelled.
Even so, John began to strip to his pants.
We join Michael Worthington as he is hurrying along the pedestrian walkway above Waverley Station. He is on his way to George Street, to verify the start of a sale of hats. Despite the nearness of the nail bar to Michael’s destination, John Kirkup was very far from his thoughts, and he therefore jumped when he spotted John’s face floating in the sea of commuters below him. Why yes, that was John – and who was this dumpy blonde girl at his side? Michael craned his neck – over the years he had learned that you never really know a man until you have met his girlfriend. Yet the pair had been washed away by a new wave of faces.
Turning back to the walkway, he bumped straight into the startling vision of Archie Corpusty.
Corpusty looked very frail, close up. A spare figure, dressed almost entirely in black, but tottering along on thin little legs. When he looked Michael straight in the eye and said, “good afternoon Mr Worthington,” it was as uncanny as if a cat had just raised its head and spoken out loud. Michael had never met Corpusty in person before.
Corpusty glowed with geniality but there was a curt, cold glint somewhere in his eye.
“I wonder if you could tell me where my ward is.” He grinned fiercely, almost savagely. “She and her gentleman friend are heading off on a long train journey, to foreign climes, and I would have liked to have seen them off.”
Before he could knit his thoughts together, Michael had gibbered that he had seen them down below.
“Pity,” Corpusty said to himself. “It is a journey that I will no doubt take myself one day. I would have liked to have seen them off.” He looked up at Michael and eyed him shrewdly. “But I shall travel in high style. In first class.”
And with that Corpusty had bowed and was gone.