Sandra was having one of those days when everything seemed grey and mundane. She’d spent most of the morning mooching around children’s shops, pecking over the plastic monstrosities and clucking disapprovingly like a feathered food critique inspecting the quality of the day’s grain. Everything had felt clunky and soulless, monuments to the world’s mass produced fast-food culture. When she was young she was certain that toys had seemed more personal. They’d been more tactile; each object had had its own individuality which enabled them to open a very personal world in the imagination. These chunky red and blue plastic lumps couldn’t inspire anything other than an Orwellian nightmare.
Two hours clothes shopping and a further hour reading in a personality-less coffee franchise had done little to brighten her mood. She was wearing sunglasses in the dark; the world appeared several shades darker than it should and had no saving distant light. All she wanted was a toy for her nephew, something that he could grow up cherishing, but everywhere she looked all she could see were empty chalices of capitalism. Action figures of celebrities, packaged in the hollow laughs of money grubbing company executives; dolls with such lifeless faces that they looked like they’d already popped down the Botox clinic; and speaking teddy bears with awkwardly delivered TV catch phrases that might as well just have been saying “All proceeds will be donated to the board members ‘boat fund’”.
She had needed to get away from the mass of chain shops that were teeming with bleached consumers, nodding to the corporate slogans and opening their slim wallets on command. She’d needed to be somewhere quiet where she could slow down and take her time. She needed somewhere to find solace. So that’s why, as the sun was just starting to drop below the towering concrete horizon, Sandra found herself tottering down a small and slightly grimy passageway. In truth it was actually an old street, cobbles and all, but Sandra’s modern eyes struggled to comprehend a road that was barely wide enough to fit a car. It was a large alleyway, nothing more. It’s unusually close walls blocked out the rest of the world and stood over the narrow causeway like over protective parents, or even, sneering thugs huddled around their fallen victim. The air tasted oppressive, thick with the stillness of lands long untouched.
Sandra’s shoes slipped and tripped over the uneven surfaces of the cobbles as the light faded the deeper she moved down the road. The elderly shop fronts were abandoned with hastily hammered up boards across their windows, most carrying the official emblem of a deserted building: a spray painted penis and slogan stating that “Jezza Sucks”.
As Sandra past the dilapidated shopfronts she couldn’t help thinking that any sensible woman would have felt uneasy at this point and would have considered turning about quickly and giving in to the stark comfort of civilisation, but Sandra found this setting far more comforting than anything she had witnessed that day. It was as if the world was empathising with her mood. It was a barrier from the overly lit desert of personality to which the high street temples of consumerism had been subjecting her. As she walked, she casually stroked her hand along the soft Victorian bricks of the nearest wall, her eyes studying the old surface of the road with delight. This is what she wanted, well not this exactly. She couldn’t give a whole street to her nephew nor did she think the overall tone would be pleasing to someone so young that they still looked at the world with the wonder of possibility, but the personality that this place had was what she needed in a toy. Something distinctive and different. Something that would stir the mind and fuel relentless curiosity.
Sandra paused for a moment, letting her hand fall back to her side, and looked up to take in the feel of the passageway. A very thin layer of mist was starting to collect around her ankles like dry ice at a school disco, helping to obscure the faded yet still hideous yellow lines painted down each side of the antique road. About a metre in front of her, a pool of light spilled out onto the street. It was the soft orange glow of candlelight. The type that does its best to emphasise the dark around itself, rather than illuminating what it falls upon, and it was the only light that Sandra could see. Suddenly she felt alone with her shadows and wished to be somewhere brighter. For the first time since she had entered the alleyway, she felt the oppression of the walls and the emptiness of the air. She started walking again, this time with more purpose, towards the lake of pale orange ahead.
The light was coming out of a shop front – the only shop that hadn’t been boarded up. It looked antiquated, even the windows seemed to be made of old, cheap glass. It had a wooden bay protruding slightly into the street with a matching wooden door to one side. The window frames and door were coated in a thick dark green paint, most of which was now trying to tear itself away to somewhere more exciting. As Sandra neared, she could see a sweeping array of old posters pegged in the window, their writing too faded to be discernible, and a large hanging sign above the door announcing this to be “Bertrand’s Toy and Puzzle emporium”.
The orange light was warming, taking away the evening cool that Sandra hadn’t realised she was feeling. Her arms tingled as she stood outside the window, squinting her eyes to try to get a glimpse of what hid inside. However, the glass was too grimy and the posters too sprawling to allow her any clue of what lay beyond. This could well be, she thought, the answer to my prayers. A little unique, probably family run, shop with interesting and unique toys. She was bound to find something for her nephew in here.
Despite her keenness to see what was inside, her push against the door was tentative and the heavy wood hardly quivered in response. The world of automatic doors and escalators was far, far away. She pushed a little harder the second time and the door jumped awake, swinging back with the suddenness of a falling tree. A high pitched bell tinkled somewhere above her head as Sandra stumbled in after the door and only just managed to catch the handle again before it swung against the wall.
Slightly embarrassed, Sandra turned and closed the door gently, pressing it softly back into its, until recently, unbroken slumber. As she turned back to the shop floor, she took her surroundings in for the first time. Dust lay on everything. It lay on the bare wooden floor. It lay on the broad wooden counter and ancient handle operated till. It even lay on the bearded, sparrow-eyed and bespectacled shopkeep. In fact, if the shopkeeper was to be likened to any animal, then Sandra could think of none more fitting than the tortoise. He had the same wrinkled, loose fitting neck and his lips were held together in a thin line that suggested no teeth lay beyond. He even stood with a slight hunch that gave the impression that an enormous shell was curving away from his back. Something else seemed odd about the man as he stood their, silently watching her through his thick rimmed glasses, but she wasn’t sure what it was. Generations of Englishness oozed into her subconscious and she pulled her eyes politely away and back to the shop.
The rest of the shop was taken up with tables and shelves, all heaving with old and faded cardboard boxes. Only one table didn’t follow type and had on it a small display track for a model railway, complete with a station, little farm house, and a motionless passenger steam engine. It was to this table, with a shy but deliberate nod of hello to the shopkeeper, that Sandra gravitated. The track, like everything else, had a thick coating of dust. In fact, on some parts of the table it almost looked like a snow scene, so thick was the dust.
Sandra was starting to doubt whether this was really what she wanted. She wanted personal, but this was boarding on the creepy and she couldn’t imagine getting anything from here that didn’t need a good scrubbing first. She glanced her eyes around the tables a few more moments, on the off chance that something might catch her eye but, when nothing did, she turned to leave. The shopkeeper stood in front of her, between her and the door.
She hadn’t heard a single one of his steps on the creaky and hollow sounding wooden floorboards. Yet there he was, standing there. Silently. At only three and a half feet tall. Sandra took a few steps back in surprise, knocking the display table so it wobbled slightly and one of the plastic sheep fell over.
“Err hello,” muttered Sandra, trying to recover herself. Waves of guilt were washing over her, making her cheeks became flushed and her mouth instantly dry and stiff. She knew it shouldn’t have, but the sudden revelation of the man’s height had brought back memories of the fantasy novel’s her dad had read to her when she was a little girl. Axe wielding dwarfs, like miniature Vikings, ransacking and pillaging; goblins sneaking in forests, with spindly little hands and pointy noses; and mischievous little pixies, stealing young girls away for no reason other than their dungeon had some extra room.
Desperately, she tried to push these mental images to one side and focus on acting normally once more. The trouble with acting normally, though, is that it is almost impossible to do when you are consciously aware of your actions. Sandra could feel her eyes dancing this way and that, trying to maintain steady eye contact while appearing not to stare. Her whole body bobbed up and down as she tried to bend one leg nonchalantly, without looking like she was trying to diminish the height difference. Worst of all though, she could feel her mouth trembling as she tried to think of something to say, ensuring that every sound that escaped her lips sounded like a coo or rather garbled baby talk.
The shopkeeper seemed not to notice. He just looked her up and down briefly, his small eyes like tiny flies darting up and down her skinny body from behind the thick glass of the man’s spectacles. He just stood their, passively toying with the tip of his long beard, which reached almost down to his waste. He seemed to be weighing her up, using the ancient teller’s instinct of knowing how much money someone has about their person, before deciding which items in his shop he was going to try to sell to her. Suddenly, as if his whole body had let out an electronic ‘bing’, he seemed more focused and intent.
“It’s a lovely piece that, isn’t it?” he said in a smooth if slightly over trebled voice. “It’s a copy of the original 1894 Highland Railway Jones Goods Class, four six zero. The first four six zero to be used in the UK I believe.” He shuffled towards Sandra, forcing her to step to one side as he approached the table. As Sandra watched him with an almost awed fascination, he climbed a couple of hitherto unnoticed steps and then scrambled up onto the table top. Pausing only briefly to set the fallen sheep back on its legs, he nimbly stepped round the plastic figurines and picked up the locomotive from the track.
“This is the perfect present for a young boy.” He said confidently, “I assume this is a present for er.. a relative, a God son perhaps?”
“Nephew” corrected Sandra like a hypnotism victim.
“Ah, a Nephew. Well I’m certain he would love this. Although…” The small shopkeeper paused for a moment, and then glanced around himself with a puzzled expression creased across his face. “Right, yes… although, unfortunately, this is a display model only and we don’t have any more of the Jones’ in stock at the moment.” He suddenly looked forlorn, “We’re waiting for a shipment.” For the first time since Sandra had been in the shop, the man’s eyes drooped. His eyelids acting like hoods, slowly closing down over his eyes and then lifting, as if only by remarkable effort.
“Well, if I were to get him a train set, I doubt he’d worry too much about the class of train. He’s only six.” Said Sandra, feeling slightly sorry for the old man, but wary that this could all be a clever ploy to encourage a sale.
“Ah,” Said the man, brightening up as if a switch had been flicked. “One is never too young to become a gricer. However, we do have some more common models, that come at slightly lower cost and, of course, we have some box-sets which include some track too. Steam, electric or gasoline powered?”
“Steam.” Sandra added promptly. She might as well look at them, she thought. There was a small chance some of the boxed items might have been protected from the dust still to be serviceable and a train set like this, with no chunky brightly coloured plastic visible, was certainly better than any other ideas she had had today.
The shop keeper carefully placed the train back onto the track and then tiptoed back to the edge of the table. Sandra had to fight the urge to lift the man down to the floor, cursing herself that the idea had even crossed her mind. However, the old man didn’t give her time to ponder this as he defied his age and sprang off the table, landing lightly on his feet and toddling back round the counter. Moments later his head appeared slowly as he climbed onto a stool next to the till, where he must have been sat when she had first entered, thought Sandra.
“Ok, well all our boxes, I’m afraid, are stacked in the stock room round back. I have a list though, so if you’d like to look over that, then I can go get any of the items that catch your eye.” He didn’t wait for Sandra’s response but grabbed under the desk and pulled out a thick roll of paper. Like everything else in this place it looked old and grubby, being slightly yellow and covered with indefinable little smudges. Sandra approached and took it carefully, letting it unfurl in front of her. The list appeared before her eyes, and kept on appearing. The roll of tightly wound paper was still unravelling as it hit the floor and rattled along the ancient boards. Finally it came to rest against a table leg, yet it still had loops trying to break free, expanding inside the remainder of the roll.
Sandra stared at the list, written in scratchy hand writing as though it had been scribbled by a blunt quill. It was a rather uninteresting list. Each entry had a letter assigned to it, a list of the boxes contents and the colour and make of the engine. Box F was slightly different however. Its initial entry said: ‘Box F (Deluxe) – Contents: All sets that do not contain themselves, £100.oo.’
Sandra glanced up at the shop keeper. He was suddenly looking wan, as if his nerves had finally cracked and she raised an eyebrow at him questioningly and asked, “what’s in this Box F?” The shop keeper went even paler.
“I put that on in rather a hurry.” He said weakly. “I didn’t- didn’t think of the consequences. I- I just meant all the set’s that had something missing. I was boxing everything you see, and at the end I had some half sets which lacked an engine or pieces of track, but there were not enough pieces left to make a full set between them, so I thought I’d sell them in this extra set. It made business sense to me, I just didn’t think of the consequences.”
“What consequences?” Sandra asked curiously.
“Keep reading.” He said morosely, staring down at the floor. The next entry was again labelled ‘Box F (Deluxe)’ and had the exact same description, but this time the price was two hundred pounds.
“Oh, so it’s really two hundred?” She asked, thinking that if a price alteration was the so called complications then this Shopkeeper was making mountains out of the proverbial mole hill. The shop keeper stayed silent and, to break her mind from the eerie quiet in the shop, Sandra glanced at the next item on the list. It was a third entry for Box F. This time the entry was identical to the first, priced at a hundred pounds. Sandra started to look further down the list; all of the rest of the entries were for Box F. They all had identical descriptions, but with the price oscillating between a hundred and two hundred pounds. “I don’t understand” Sandra finally said, after taking a minute to absorb as many of the entries as she could.
“I told you, I put the first entry on in a hurry. I thought it would be a good way of getting rid of my excess stock. I just wasn’t thinking. It was late, you know?”
“Sorry, am I being stupid here? It looks to me like you just can’t decide what price the box is.”
“No!” howled the wizened man suddenly. “It’s not the price of the box, it’s the box itself.”
“Well, when I went to make the first box F, I put all the half completed boxes in a row and, one by one, I put them into the bigger box of box F. Once I had dropped Box E in, I scanned the contents to check I had everything, as I always do. You can’t go around giving customers the wrong contents. But you see, it was then I realised.”
“Realised what?” Asked Sandra completely lost.
“The contents says “all boxes that do not contain themselves”. And you have to put everything in it. Customers would get very annoyed if you didn’t have everything in there. I’ve not had a complaint for fifty years.”
“I still don’t understand what is wrong with the box, you’d put all the boxes in there that didn’t have all their contents in them.”
“Not all of them.” Said the man sullenly, he’s eyes dropped once more. “All boxes that do not contain themselves, it says. Box F didn’t contain itself. So box F should be in the box, it needed to be in there otherwise the contents wouldn’t be true.”
“So you’re saying that Box F, because it didn’t contain box F, wasn’t complete. Therefore it needed another Box F in it to be complete?”
“So put one in…” Said Sandra still mystified.
“I did, I did you see!” He exclaimed pointing at the second entry on the price list for Box F. I put it in. Luckily I’d had so much track left over I’d managed to fill two Box Fs.”
“So problem solved” Said Sandra in the definite tone of someone looking for a way out of a conversation of which they had never wanted to be a part of in the first place.
“What? Solved? Of course it’s not solved. In doing that I had completed Box F, but if Box F contained what It should contain, then it shouldn’t be in Box F. if it contains itself, then box F should not be in there.”
“Yes, but the Box F inside the other one isn’t complete, it’s only the outside Box F that contains itself.”
“That doesn’t matter.” Said the man waving this away as if it were a wasp trying to get at his toast. “If I’m going to sell it, every Box F needs to have the same thing in it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be box F any more. So I had to assume that the Box F in Box F contained a Box F itself.” Sandra had sudden images of Russian Dolls in the shape of trainsets flooding into her mind, all sitting on a carpet of an ever changing price list. “So I had to take Box F out, because it contained itself so shouldn’t be a part of it’s contents. “
“But then you are back where you started…” said Sandra slowly, “and you’d have to put it back in and then…” She glanced down at the list with the price jumping up and down from one hundred to two hundred pounds. “How many times have you done this?”
“I should have thought about the consequences. I’ve not been able to do anything else since this started, it consumes all of my time. Every moment, every minutes, every second.”
“Why don’t you just change the description of what’s in the box?” Asked Sandra, looking around at the shop laden with dust. She could see, in her minds eye, the poor shopkeeper scribbling away at the scrappy piece of parchment as the shop around him degenerated into it’s current state. Dirt slowly building up around him as he incessantly put one box into another, made a note on his list, and then removed it once more. A sadness that breeched the borders of the universe and stretched on into the void of infinity sat upon her chest and the room suddenly seemed darker and constrictive. Like a cell on death row after lights out.
“Could I buy them off you?” She asked suddenly, surprising herself, but the old man just shook his head, his eyes once again blinking in their heavy laboured way.
“What about a teapot?” He asked suddenly, fracturing the thick oozing melancholy in the air, his tone upbeat as if the last ten minutes had not happened.
“A teapot? I’m not sure my nephew would appreciate one.”
“Of course he would.” Said the small man, jumping down from his stool once more, and waddling towards a table covered in big dusty old boxes. “These are astro-teapots.”
“What are astro-teapots?” Asked Sandra, wondering if she’d missed some cultural trend that this strange old man had somehow picked up on.
“Well, teapots from outer space. They were freshly delivered…” the man paused as he slowly realised that maybe a longer time had elapsed since they had arrived than he had thought, “well they haven’t been taken out the box at least. I was busy” he sighed, the pang of despair funnelling back into voice. “So do you want one?” He asked as he disappeared under the table. Sandra could hear some rustling for a moment and then she saw his head pop up again, accompanied by a large cardboard box. He seemed to carry it with immense ease, despite it being almost the same size as him, and he pushed it onto the counter top with little effort.
Sandra stared at the box suspiciously as the shopkeeper returned to his stool. It hadn’t made a noise as he’d carried it, the teapots must have been packed in very tightly. The man pulled out another, thankfully much smaller, piece of paper and scanned it briefly.
“OK, so one teapot is forty five pounds, two for seventy. What do you say?”
“I er… as I said I don’t know if a teapot is the right thing for my nephew. Could I take a look at them?” Sandra asked, stretching her hand out towards the box. Her fingers had just touched the rigid cardboard when the shop keeper managed to reach over, at full stretch, and bat her hand away.
“No. I’m sorry, you can’t look. I can’t even look.”
“Are you a religious woman?” sighed the Shop keeper as if he had been hoping to avoid an explanation.
“Not really, no.” replied Sandra earnestly. She glanced over her shoulder at the poorly lit and dusty shop. The place lacked any grandness that the world has come to expect from spiritual buildings, but it did have a certain something. Possibly it was just the candle light, but at least this shop seemed to have a soul. It hadn’t been sucked of all it’s individuality and uniqueness like the temples to consumerism she had traipsed around earlier. She looked back at the old man and added, “I mean I believe in God, but I don’t go to church or anything. I don’t really like the organisations themselves, they seem to get in the way of what God should mean to the individual.”
“Excellent, excellent. Can I ask then, what proof is there of God?” Replied the man quickly, like a lawyer working over a witness.
“Proof? Well I don’t know, proof isn’t really something you can talk about when you talk about religious faith is it? You just believe; you just know. You have faith that God is there and that he is watching us and looking after us. “
“Would you say then,” he interrupted, “that proof is unnecessary, almost a nonsensical word when you are talking about your belief in God?” Sandra stared at him before replying. This had to be the most bizarre sales pitch she had ever been subjected to, but, she had to hand it to the old man, it was by far the most interesting.
“I guess so. If you demand proof then you have kind of missed the point, I think.”
“Kind of missed the point” parroted the shopkeeper, “wonderful. You see, I totally agree with you. These teapots are astro-teapots as I said, They are fished from outer space, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. There are millions of them, my contact tells me, whizzing about up there. The finest teapots in the world, all natural. None of this man-made nonsense. Each one is an individual, slightly different to the rest. Unique in their own little way, but all excellent teapots. So shall I put you down for two?”
“Sorry, that is ridiculous. Teapots are man-made things, they don’t exist anywhere other than Earth. I’m not buying one. And I certainly wouldn’t buy one without looking at them first.” Sandra was starting to get exasperated and the old man’s face scowled in incomprehension.
“But you just said that you have faith and that proof was a nonsensical word when we talk about faith. So why do I need to show you the teapots? I’ve explained to you where they come from, I’ve told you they are in the box.”
“It’s not the same, before we were talking about Religious faith, belief in God. You are just making up stories of stupid teapots in space. It’s completely different.”
“Why is it different.” It was the shopkeepers time to become annoyed. The shop around him darkening slightly . “At least I’m asking you to have faith in something that resembles things we know. You’ve seen teapots, you know of space, but you can’t believe in astro-teapots. Yet you already have faith in the existence of something we cannot comprehend; an all powerful, all knowing, all loving thing. Some sort of being that created everything around us and then watches over us constantly. Surely it is easier to have faith teapots from space than in God?”
Sandra was starting to feel uncomfortable. She had never really questioned her belief in God. Partly this was out of fear that if she did start to question it she might lose her faith and along with that would go the sense of self assurance she always knew she could turn to when times got tough.
“Look…” said Sandra forcefully but uncertain of where she was going to go next. “It’s just different. You can see God in everything, you can feel him. I had this moment once, I was down on the South coast, sitting on top of a cliff overlooking the sea, just watching the waves roll beneath me in the pink glow of a sunset and I just knew, I could feel him there. I could see him in everything.”
“Oh… so now you do want proof do you?”
“well it’s not proof as such…”
“It is, it’s a personal feeling of God. A personal proof, like him sneaking into your bedroom at night, waking you up and saying ‘it’s OK I do exist’, and then sneaking away again. It’s proof, it’s just not transferable or testable, but you still are saying you need proof. It’s ridiculous.” Like a teenager throwing a tantrum, the old man lashed out at the cardboard box, nudging it half over the edge of the desk. As in slow motion the box teetered for a moment then fell. Twisting slightly in the air as it made it’s short journey to the ground. It landed with a thud, a louder thud than Sandra had been expecting, and just behind the heavy noise she was certain she had heard a high pitched cracking sound.
She blinked and looked back up to the man. His eyes were closed. Slowly they reopened and he his shoulders shrugged slightly. He took a deep breath and then forced a weak smile towards her, raising a hand in a half hearted apology.
“I’m very sorry,” he said quietly. “I’m not getting much sleep, with the Box F thing and all. Is there anything I else I can do for you? I rather think the teapots will no longer be in a saleable condition.”
Sandra was stunned. She couldn’t quite believe or understand what had happened this afternoon and she felt slightly nervous about venturing another suggestion. Nevertheless she glanced round the shop to see if there was anything that caught her eye. The weak light in the shop and the coating of dust on everything made it difficult to pick out anything of interest.
“I don’t think so,” she said apologetically, “I think I’ll just get him a Teddy or something, there must be some half decent ones somewhere on the high street.”
“Wait there” said the man, and once more scurried away, returning holding a small brown bundle. He climbed back onto his stool and then placed the bundle on the counter. It was a small brown teddy bear, he had orange and black eyes and the fur on his muzzle was a slightly lighter brown. Sandra picked him up and the softness of his fur seemed to relax her fingers.
“Ten pounds.” Said the shopkeeper.
“And?” asked Sandra, staring at the bear, it’s little sewn mouth strung into a slight smile.
“And?” repeated the shopkeeper, clearly confused.
“Does this come from outer space? Is the price going to change? Do I need to be a member of a secret society to buy the bear? What’s the catch with this one?
“Nothing, it’s just a teddy bear. My mum used to make them. He’s a little old I’m afraid, so that’s why he is a bit cheaper, but he’s just been sitting on a shelf the whole time.
Sandra quickly pulled her handbag open and thrust a ten pound note to the shopkeeper before he could say anything that might get in the way of the sale. The sound of the tills bell was music to Sandra’s ears as she slowly walked towards the door, still staring at the bear, a smile on her own lips echoing the bear’s. He was perfect, unique, hand crafted and even with an amazing story of where he came from.
“Thank you” she called out as she left the shop and went back into the dark street beyond. The night was cold, but Sandra didn’t notice as she strolled home.