‘Good morning, Sir, may I be of some assistance?’ The voice was clear, and yet weighty, as if it had been doing little else but accreting gravitas for decades. Hamish stood in the middle of the shop – at least, it appeared to be a shop, and he’d entered from the high street end of the shopping centre, so it really ought to be a shop – and looked at the man who addressed him with something akin to confusion. ‘May I be of some assistance, Sir?’
The speaker stood behind a heavy mahogany counter, its surface burnished by the application of untold thousands of elbows over the course of untold decades. He was immaculately dressed, red silk cravat bubbling out from under the well-starched collar of his clean and perfectly pressed linen shirt. He sported braces and carefully waxed whiskers and held a quill pen in his right hand, a hand poised over a heavy-looking, leather-bound ledger.
‘Where am I?’ asked Hamish. ‘I mean to say, what shop is this?’ Hamish was definitely confused now as he attempted to process his surroundings. Behind the shopkeeper, if that was what he was, a wall of small pigeonholes soared up into a murkily indistinct roof space, chased by a long wooden library ladder whose apex, presumably the point at which it was joined to the wall by a greased metal rail, was merely inferrable by virtue of geometry. There was the occasional flutter of wings.
‘I beg your pardon, Sir?’
‘What is your trade, man?’ Hamish was beginning to feel ill at ease, and could sense the oncoming rush of vertigo, the dizzying plummet from intellectual curiosity into simple panic. His Saturday was, it appeared, running out of control. At least, it was running out of his control. He hadn’t felt comfortable for weeks, and nothing seemed to be going his way, neither work nor play. Definitely not the play. The previous night had put the seal on it all. And today the pigeons were coming home to roost. That probably explained this hallucination …
‘Ah, our trade? We at Master Orpheus Jeremiah’s Ordinatarium deal in properties, Sir, primarily lost properties, Sir.’ The man peered at Hamish over his pince-nez. ‘Master Orpheus Jeremiah at your service, Sir.’
Hamish looked around the shop once more. It looked as if it hadn’t changed in a hundred years. No, wait, two hundred. And yet Hamish had never before noticed the small oak door that languished beneath a painted wooden sign that swung indolently in one of the many corners of the town’s spankingly new shopping centre. Not until this morning when, having woken alone in his bed and having pieced together exactly why this had happened, he had decided to attempt to shop his way out of trouble. After all, it was what Sue was no doubt doing, so why not he? ‘Lost properties you say?’
‘Indeed sir, that is correct. Lost properties are our alpha and omega, our raison d’etre, our milieu.’
‘In the middle of Kingsmead shopping centre?’
Orpheus looked at Hamish owlishly, his eyes glint with a slight overtone of pity. ‘Do people magically avoid the mislaying of properties in such a place, Sir?’
‘No, of course not, but …’
Hamish regained a modicum of composure through sheer force of will, and began his answer once more, starting afresh from the beginning. ‘No, of course properties can be misplaced anywhere, even in a shopping centre, but it seems an odd place to set up an establishment such as yours, that’s all I meant.’
‘Like all establishments, we are but slaves to the market,’ explained Orpheus. ‘We must ascertain where the greatest demand for our services is to be found, and then we must seek to satisfy that demand.’
‘We must seek to satisfy that demand.’ Repeated Hamish, mostly to himself. ‘That is an obligation we must all fulfill, not merely those of us in “establishments”, I fear.’ Hamish’s subconscious pulled aside one of its thick, heavy curtains to expose the proscenium arch that framed the memory of the last demand he had failed to satisfy. It was this failure, this leaching of his professional troubles into his personal life, that had led him to attempt a retail-based therapeutic regime. Naturally, as he lacked the gene for shopping that had mutated beyond all recognition in Sue, he had passed through the shopping centre without purchasing so much as a cup of coffee. He had, in fact, entered just the one shop, this dealer in lost properties in which he now stood, more confused than ever.
‘We are all servants to something, Sir. It is our unique fate to forget that this is our place at the very moment the greatest demands are placed upon us. It is at this moment that we demand service for ourselves, and it is in this moment that we are deserted by the thing we serve, and being so deserted, our reason for being forsakes us.’
Hamish stood silently as Orpheus tripped his way through his philosophy, and watched as he dipped his quill into the small, stone inkwell and scratched a new entry into his ledger. Again the flutter of wings. Hamish approached the counter and increased the aggregated total of burnishing elbows by two. Now merely a few feet from the flock of pigeon holes, he noticed the small leather bags tied at the top with leather strips that occupied each space, and the small, enamel plates tacked to the lower part of the space’s frame. Both bags and enamel plates showed signs of age: some practically brand new; others worn, torn and battered. ‘You have another storage facility for larger items, yes?’ Enquired Hamish, as he deciphered his name from amongst the upside down words that rolled around the freshly inscribed sentence in the ledger.
‘These are the properties we hold: only these.’ Orpheus slid the ladder three feet to his left. ‘They are organised thematically, and listed nominally.’ He said, as he mounted the first rungs. He swept his right arm over the pigeon holes in an arc, pausing briefly as he spoke. ‘Music, art, sport, humour, sex, cooking … A place for everything, and everything in its place.’ He pointed to a ragtag selection in a corner. ‘Miscellaneous.’
Hamish squinted, trying to make out the rest of Orpheus’s inscription, but to no avail. He was feeling peckish. ‘Well, thank you, Orpheus, for your time.’ A chill passed through him. ‘Someone just walked over your grave.’ He muttered to himself.
‘I’m sorry, sir, that was clumsy of me,’ said Orpheus.
‘Well, I must be getting to lunch,’ said Hamish, trying to hide his discomfort.
‘Oh no,’ said Orpheus, twisting round on the ladder, ‘you can’t go yet, we haven’t ascertained the whereabouts of your lost property.’
‘I haven’t lost anything, and I …’
‘Oh,’ Orpheus interrupted, ‘but you most certainly have, Hamish. Why would you be visiting us otherwise?’ Orpheus was scanning the mass of pigeon holes, muttering ‘Hamish, Hamish, Hamish,’ to himself as he did so.
‘And how come you know my name?’ Asked Hamish, who was beginning to become seriously worried.
‘It’s a poor servant doesn’t know his master’s name,’ said Orpheus without turning. He continued scanning the massed ranks of pigeon holes, muttering to himself. ‘It won’t be long now.’ Hamish coughed. ‘Aha! Here it is! A simple case of misfiling. You haven’t run over a pigeon lately, by any chance?’
As Hamish shook his head he saw it again, a twisting flutter of black and white falling from an overhanging tree a few short yards in front of his car’s relentless, irresistible progress. The two magpies were presumably fighting when they fell, their manichaean vortex neither good nor evil, but one tumbled flightless as the other found its air and swooped up at the last possible second. The unlucky one simply fell like an autumnal leaf in front of his eyes, and he knew its fate before it hit the road in front of the driver’s-side wheel, before he heard the click of its beak against metal, before it turned the warm promise of spring cold with its hobbesian death. Good night mister magpie.
‘One for sorrow,’ said Hamish, absent-mindedly.
‘Ah, of course.’ Said Orpheus. ‘I had quite forgotten you were a player.’
‘Well, after last night, that point is debatable,’ said Hamish. ‘I’ll sign for it or whatever and then I’ll go.’
‘No need,’ said Orpheus, ‘All is now as it should be. Everything is in its place. We’ll look after it now. Enjoy your lunch.’ At this he descended the ladder, put a sign on the counter that read ‘Out to Lunch’ and vanished through a small door that opened out from the wall of pigeon holes.
‘Oh. Right. Whatever.’ Hamish walked out of the shop and almost collided with Sue, who was festooned with shopping bags.
‘Oh, hello Hamish,’ she said. ‘Where did you spring from? I’ve found you a lovely new leather jacket.’
‘Hello Sue,’ said Hamish. ‘You’ll never guess what just happened to me.’ A muffled beep struggled to escape from its clothy confines.
‘You can tell me after lunch,’ said Sue. ‘Was that your phone or mine?’
Hamish stopped. Swiped. Smiled.
‘Oh,’ said Hamish. ‘The play. Its been extended.’
‘You see? No need to panic. There is need to eat, mind. Amongst other things. Shopping is a serious business.’
An hour later, Hamish, looking slightly dishevelled, sat back down at the corner table in the small Italian restaurant they favoured. Two minutes later, Sue walked up to the table and sat down next to him. She adjusted her top and kissed him. ‘Well,’ she started, ‘you certainly seem to have found your mojo.’
‘A place for everything, and everything in its place,’ said Hamish.
‘What was it you wanted to tell me?’ she said, sipping her wine in a fruitless attempt to hide the ear-to-ear smile she sported and which their waiter had already noted.
Hamish smiled. ‘Oh, it’s nothing important,’ he said. ‘Dessert?’ He caught the waiter’s eye. It winked at him.