Of course all this happened a long time ago – back in the early 1900’s I suppose, so there won’t be too many who remember Kennedy’s shop in the Haymarket. When the Great War came, it disappeared and a block of offices took its place. Those were the days of hansom cabs, dignity and – yes – gold sovereigns. Some call them the good old days, and perhaps they are right. I think so anyway.
On the Saturday I am writing about, Alfred Smith arrived at Kennedy’s punctually at eight o’clock, just as he had done for thirty years, ever since he started by sweeping their floors at the age of twelve. This Saturday seemed just the same as any other Saturday, but better than a Friday because of the day of leisure immediately ahead, and infinitely better than a Monday with its prospect of the monotonous week ahead of politeness and servility. Six days to be borne patiently – and at the age of forty-two, Alfred Smith was already very patient.
“Morning, Smith.” Clarke was the gentleman in charge of the sundries counter: just another patient chap like Smith, earning his living in the only way he knew how.
“Morning, Clarke. Lovely morning.” Alfred Smith took his place behind his own counter and picked up his checking sheet.
“Another boxful today, I see,” said Clarke chattily, checking his own goods – little photo frames, leather diaries, bookmarks, boxes of pot-pourri, birthday cards, fancy pencils and a hundred and one other knick-knacks and oddments; “nothing for me, though.”
Alfred Smith bent down and looked at the label. In the Manager’s crabbed characters was written, precisely, ‘Department, SOAPS AND SPONGES; For the attention of Mr. Smith.’
Alfred Smith didn’t see anything strange in that, though; for don’t forget this was 1910, and business was a more honest and leisurely affair than it is today.
“Looks like another lot of sponges.” Alfred Smith began undoing the box. “Yes, that’s what it is. It says Best Mediterranean Sponges on this invoice.”
Clarke went on arranging his counter for the day’s work. The shop opened at 8:15 and in five minutes time the first customers would be coming in. It would not be until the afternoon that the fine ladies would stroll around the counters, still fascinated by the novelty of stocks displayed on counters instead of the shelves behind, examining the stock, approving or rejecting at leisure what they could hold in their hands.
In the days before Kennedy modernized the shop, ladies would cry out “Oh, Mr. Kennedy, kindly show me some elastic,” or “I want some more of that pretty blue ribbon you sold me last week,” – and when cut, it would come from one of the multitude of drawers sacred to those who worked in the shop. Now the goods were displayed for all to see, and even handle, despite the notice “It is earnestly requested that our Patrons refrain from handling the goods. R. Kennedy.”
Alfred Smith unpacked his sponges. Outside, the morning sun was sending long shafts of light across the pavements, and the blue sky gave promise of yet another perfect day in early June. As yet, there were not many people about in the Haymarket, none of the crowds that would later throng the thoroughfare and render progress difficult, and at times almost impossible. As he performed his mechanical task, Alfred Smith’s thoughts were back at his lodgings in Putney. His egg had been cold and greasy that morning, and the bacon over-cooked. Eating it, he had determined to complain when his landlady came to clear away – “Mrs. Bamber, permit me to draw your attention to the way in which you have overcooked my breakfast. . .” He sighed. When she had come in he said, as in his heart he knew he would always say, nothing.
It’s Saturday, he thought, I wonder if the water will be hot tonight. He went on unpacking his sponges, sorting them out, checking them off. It’s funny, he thought, here I work every day, unpacking sponges, thinking about sponges, selling sponges, and I can’t even afford a sponge of my own in my bath on a Saturday night. He came to the last sponge in the box.
“My!” he said, half to himself, “That’s a beauty.” He looked at the invoice. “Twenty shillings.” He shook his head. “Must be a mistake. I’ll never sell that.” Still, he held the sponge in his hand.
“Clarke,” he said aloud, “look at this. Best I’ve ever seen in the shop. They want a pound for it, though. Seems a bit pricey to me.”
Clarke looked up disinterestedly. “Don’t know what people want to buy them for,” he replied, breathing on a photograph frame and polishing it on his sleeve; “no use to you or me, anyhow; all right for girls, perhaps.” He snickered.
At the back of Alfred Smith’s mind, a grotesque temptation flashed into existence, so tenuous that he hardly realized it was there. A ridiculous temptation. He put it away from him and went on with his work. And yet – why shouldn’t he? It wouldn’t make any difference to anyone, and never had he seen a sponge of such size and symmetry before, such exquisite quality, such perfection. He arranged his sponges on the counter.
“Good morning, Clarke. Good morning, Smith.” Mr. Kennedy bustled by on his way to open the front doors of the shop. “Fine morning.”
The first customers trickled in, mostly on their way to work, knowing exactly what they wanted, afraid of being late, taciturn with their day’s work before them.
With an effort, Alfred Smith concentrated on his duties. Soon he became so busy that he almost forgot the strange thoughts with which he had begun the day. Almost, but not quite, for subconsciously he knew all the time that there was one sponge that should have been on the counter, and wasn’t; one sponge still in the box, underneath the wrappings. He felt strangely excited – this Saturday was different . . . . . . The customers that morning found Mr. Smith, SOAPS and SPONGES, unusually cheerful and obliging.
After lunch, Mr. Kennedy made his customary round of the departments, fussily particular. With the most obvious secrecy he presented each of his employees with a small brown envelope containing a week’s wages. Alfred Smith gazed anxiously at his own counter to assure himself that everything was neat and tidy, and said “Thank you, Mr. Kennedy,” as politely as ever as the brown envelope, containing two gold sovereigns, a half sovereign, and a florin was handed to him.
“By the way, Smith.” Mr. Kennedy turned back. “You would find a particularly good Mediterranean in today’s consignment. A bit more expensive than usual, so see we don’t have it left on our hands.”
“No, Mr. Kennedy. Certainly, Mr. Kennedy.” Would he notice that it was not on the counter with the other sponges? Could he say it was sold? A sick feeling of disappointment swept over Alfred Smith as his eyes uncontrollably went to the box where that one sponge remained unseen and hidden. But Mr. Kennedy was already at the next counter and Clarke was saying “Thank you, Mr. Kennedy” as he had done every Saturday afternoon since he could remember.
A ridiculous relief left Alfred Smith weak and breathless; and in that moment, his temptation became a reality and came face to face with him. That sponge took on a strange and inexplicable significance, and he knew that once in his life at least, he would know what it was to use what he had spent all his life selling to others. All Sunday to dry, and on Monday it would be back in the shop again, indistinguishable from new, proudly for sale on the counter with all the other sponges.
“That was half a crown I gave you, mister, I want another sixpence.” Alfred Smith came back to earth with a jolt.
“Sorry, madam, my mistake. I offer you my apologies.” He handed his customer another sixpence, flushing slightly and nervously adjusting his tie as he tried to pull himself together. Why all this fuss about a sponge, he thought, I must be going crazy. Nevertheless, his hands trembled uncontrollably when, with no customers to attend to for the moment, he bent down and took the fateful sponge from its hiding place. “My!” he thought again, “what a beauty! The best Mediterranean I’ve ever seen . . . .”
His thoughts flew to the dingy bathroom at Mrs. Bamber’s. The green painted walls, patchy and damp; the chipped and stained bathtub; the dirty taps and the gas geyser, black with age, that stood on an unsteady wooden platform at the end of the bath. “You ought to be used by one of those fine ladies in books,” he thought, “with marble baths and colored tiles on the walls. . .” His imagination fled away with him and his pulse quickened at the picture his mind conjured up.
Hastily, he wrapped up the sponge and slipped the neat parcel into the capacious inside pocket of his light coat hanging on a peg nearby. Supposing Mr. Kennedy had seen him; supposing. . . . Nervously, anxiously, he watched the clock until at last the hands crept slowly round to half past six, and he was free to go out into the warm air of the summer’s evening; free to carry his precious parcel back with him to his fifteen shilling a week lodgings in Putney. His precious parcel . . . .
* * * *
“Oh Alfred, how lovely to see you!” The girl slipped her arm through his and the world spun round and everything was entirely different.
Dark blue water in the bay rippled gently in the evening sunlight, and countless little boats at anchor were reflected crazily in the mirror of the sun. Golden sand greeted the wavelets on the shore and made a pathway to where Alfred Smith stood gazing in bewilderment and disbelief at his incredible surroundings.
The girl looked up at him and laughed in his face. She was dark and vivacious, youthful, yet mature. Her earrings caught the shafts of sunlight, and her companion was dazzled by her beauty and grace.
“You always were a tease,” she laughed. “Fancy pretending you don’t know your little Maria!” She pinched his arm playfully and pirouetted in front of him. “Tell me I look nice and then we’ll go and have that meal you promised me. Dios! I could eat ten dinners tonight!”
Without waiting for an answer, she set off down the street, and Alfred Smith followed her, silent, amazed and – he realized with a shock – unbelievably happy.
As he walked, he tried to think, but the impossibility of his surroundings made thought out of the question. Here he was, Alfred Smith, just out from Kennedy’s, off home to Putney; and yet – where was he? Was he mad? He must be, for in some inexplicable way his surroundings seemed familiar to him – he seemed to recognize the bay, the buildings and, he realized with a shock, Maria too. Every step he took left the old Alfred Smith further behind, and new memories crowded into his mind until their intensity completely blotted out the past.
As they walked, Maria chattered non-stop, and a strange new fire began to flow in the hitherto cold blood of Alfred Smith. He felt light, alive, bursting with good humor and good health. Kennedy’s and the Haymarket were but a faint shadow in his unconscious mind; this was reality. Even when he saw, unexpectedly reflected in a shop window, that his clothes were entirely different from the somber black of his everyday life, he was hardly surprised. The young man who gazed back at him, coolly attired in light clothes, a neat little parcel under his arm, with a ravishingly beautiful girl by his side, bore no resemblance to the Alfred Smith of SOAPS and SPONGES.
Maria stopped and looked back over the magical bay. She caught her breath. “Never have I seen the Mediterranean look so lovely.” Her eyes shone, and the love in them was unmistakable. “It is because I am at last with you again. Don’t you feel like that, too?”
To Alfred Smith, the present was the whole of his existence. Openly, with no thought for the passers-by, he took the girl in his arms and kissed her. The fire from her soft body and her warm lips ran through his whole being, and he knew what they were to each other – and at last he was alive.
Later, as they sat in a little café, an empty wine bottle on the table beside them, and glasses of heady liqueur in their hands, Maria again smiled across at her companion. “I love you,” she whispered, “I love you.” And Alfred Smith laid his own hand over hers and answered, “I, too, Maria. I love you.” Her hand was still in his as they walked slowly home while the warm shadows of the Mediterranean dusk closed in around them.
Through the iron gate in the stone wall, up the flagged path set in a leafy garden of paradise, to the little wooden villa with its balconies and windows opening onto the scented night. On the threshold Maria paused. “Everyone is away tonight,” she whispered, “tonight is ours, ours alone.” So has woman spoken to man through the ages, but to Alfred Smith they were new enchanted words of promise.
Inside, her mood changed. “Now show me my present,” she demanded, dancing away from him and, with excited fingers, she opened the neat little parcel. “Oh, you naughty man!” she laughed, “what a wicked present to bring me! But – how lovely, what a beauty, what fun it will be. I love you my darling, may I keep this always, forever, in memory of tonight?”
And Alfred Smith looked down into her shining eyes. “It is yours, my darling, yours for always, in memory of tonight.”
Later, in the little tiled bathroom, they stood hand in hand beside the marble bath, watching her special present lazily, contentedly, floating in the perfumed water.
Later still, as they slept, the full moon rose above the starlit waters and, looking down, caressed them with her silver light of knowledge and understanding. Thus was another hour engraved on the memorial of time.
* * * *
‘”Morning, Smith.” Clarke took off his bowler hat and hung his coat up on his own particular peg. “Have a good weekend?” He busied himself behind his counter.
Alfred Smith looked up. “Perfect,” he replied. “And you?”
“Pretty good.” Clarke opened a box of colored pencils and laid them beside the birthday cards. “Took the missus down to the coast. Do you good to have a few sea breezes yourself, don’t you think? Only cost us a pound for the lot of us. Cheap enough, eh?”
Alfred Smith smiled.
“Yes,” he agreed, “I suppose you can do a lot for a pound.”
Taking a buff envelope from his pocket, he took out a golden sovereign and put it into his counter till.
“Yes,” he whispered softly to himself as the first customers trickled into the shop, “quite a lot. In fact –everything.”
It was time for me to talk to my father, face to face about our relationship over the past half century. I had reached the early Fall in my life and we needed to get some old hurts and crushing emotions settled. I had spent a goodly part of my life so far traveling over the world from strange places to exotic paradises and rarely found the time in these latter years to talk one on one to my dad.
First of all he wasn’t accustomed to sharing his feelings unless those feelings were anger or, sometimes, disappointment. Disappointment, like the time when, as a teenager, I had lost a good job working for the same defense contractor that he was so proud of working with. I hated the job although the pay was good for a young man of my age and Dad just could not understand why I had skipped work that day. As I waited for him at the gate for the long ride home after work, I could see that he was upset.
“How was work today, Son?” he asked as he approached.
“Oh, you know. Same old stuff, Dad.” I lied.
I had driven him to work and walked into the defense plant, clocked in and, once he was out of sight on the way to his job site, I turned around, clocked out and went back home. I drove back to the plant to pick up my dad as though I had been at work all day as he had been. He knew that was a lie since he had been questioned by plant security about his son who had clocked in and then, a moment later clocked out and never showed up at work.
He didn’t show anger as I expected. He showed disappointment in his eyes as he told me that he knew the truth. I was humiliated by being caught in my lie. Never before had I out right lied to my father. He was a hard man, but integrity was something he valued above all else. He never spoke of that incident again. I never lied to him again.
Even now we didn’t speak of that uncomfortable incident. As I sat down and looked at him, I was strangely feeling apologetic although Dad had made my life and those of my brothers and sister nearly unbearable by his harshness. He expected hard work from his children and wouldn’t tolerate insubordination or “back talk” as he called it.
Today I had to ask him why he was so tough on us. Why was he so demanding of my mother whom he expected to serve him much like a servant? I quietly asked him and he didn’t respond. I guess I knew it was because he worked hard all of his life and he expected the same from his family, including his wife. I knew there was love between them although I rarely saw any show of affection except for a smile for her when he didn’t think we were looking.
“Why did you threaten to never speak to me if I joined the Army?”
Dad’s emotionless posture didn’t change as if he was recalling the harsh combat he and his brothers had experienced during World War II. Dad had suffered the pain of losing his favorite brother, my namesake, during the Battle of the Bulge, Christmas Day 1944. Dad eventually accepted my decision to join the army and was proud to talk about his “officer” son.
“You know, Dad, that I respected you even though we exchanged harsh words at times? Why were you so hard on us?”
I sensed that he knew of my respect. That respect had grown out of fear of his temper at first, then gradually evolved because I realized how hard he had worked to keep his family fed and the bills paid. Times were hard on us and Dad had to walk or hitch-hike to the government office to pick up the “commodities” handed out to the “less fortunate” and out of work coal miners and railroad workers in Appalachia. Oftentimes he had to trudge through mud and slush during the harsh West Virginia winters.
For the next forty-five minutes I talked with Dad about the angst between us over the past years. I finally told him that I understood and, although I couldn’t tell him that I forgave him for the pain caused by his inability to show love, I came to realize that his life molded him that way. His mother was a harsh, demanding woman. I never saw her smile. Dad ran away from his father one day at the age of fourteen never to return. His father was downright mean according to the few times Dad spoke of him. The loss of his older brother, whom he looked up to, during the war made a deep, sad impact upon my father.
“Dad, I understand now. I’m glad that we had this talk.”
I stood up with tears in my eyes as I walked over to his coffin and looked at the man whom I wished that I could have had this talk with years earlier.
“Good-bye, Dad. You’ll be missed by all of your family.”
I turned away and walked from the room. I was at peace with my dad. The one-way conversation between us finally set things right. I hoped that he was at peace now. I now understood that love may be difficult to express sometimes for some people like my dad, but it was there all the time. It was there in his struggle to provide for his family. Although hard on the outside, he was a man of inner strength, courage, and had a deep belief in the values of honesty and integrity.
One of the stories from my short fiction collection, Once Upon a Dark and Eerie...
The Case of the Missing Frog Prince
I’m Detective Piper of the Fairyland Metro Police, and I’ve been called in to investigate the incident of the missing frog prince…
I was standing in the Starlight Ballroom, surrounded by the remnants of the Spring Charity Ball, and dozens of shaken witnesses. The party’s host, Princess Cinderella, was standing in front of me, ready for her interview.
“I know you’re upset Highness, but can you tell me what happened here.”
“It was awful! The Snow Queen crashed the party! I mean, who does she think she is, just storming in here all cold and wind. She wasn’t even invited!”
“What did she do, after she entered the ballroom?”
“She was screaming and ranting, pushing her way through the crowd looking for Prince Ivan. It was so crass, Detective. She was carrying on about some grievance over the Prince’s engagement party. She confronted him and they had an argument, over an unpaid catering fee! She accused him of not paying her for the ice sculptures! I knew she was having money problems, but I had no idea she had been forced to sell her talents as menial labour. How very tacky.”
Considering her former status, I thought that remark a bit hypocritical.
“She was just so upset, livid. She disrupted the entire party shouting, threatening, and then…” The Princess stopped, a sob cutting off her words.
“It’s all right, Highness, take your time.”
She sniffled before continuing. “The whole situation just got out of hand, with nasty words said by both. Then, well, the Snow Queen ended it. She turned Prince Ivan into a frog! A frog, Detective, a frog!”
“Yes, that was rather spiteful. Now, how exactly did the frog, uh, Prince Ivan go missing?”
“Well… as you might imagine the atmosphere was a bit chaotic, guests screaming and running. Everyone was frightened, you see. I’m afraid Prince Ivan simply hopped away unnoticed in the mayhem.”
Her story squared with the other witness I’d interviewed; Princess Briar Rose, Lady Rapunzel, Princess Belle, and Hansel and Gretel all said much the same. That left me to track down the frog from the land of the missing. At least the Snow Queen had been apprehended, but she was swearing she had nothing to do with the disappearance. Now I had to get down to business...
Morning had dawned, but I was no closer to locating the missing Prince Ivan.
Last night had been a busy one. The Prince’s fiancée, Princess Vassilissa, had been questioned, but told me little, spending most of the time weeping into her lace. The Snow Queen had been booked and I’d put out an All Fairies Bulletin on the frog. At first light, I had sent out search teams to comb the swamp, but nothing had turned up so far.
“Detective Piper, I might have something!” Officer Simon waved from across the room; standing beside him was Jack Nimble. I motioned them both over.
“Detective, Jack says he might have seen our missing frog.” Officer Simon turned to Nimble. “Tell him, Jack.”
“Well, I was out on the Evergreen Forest Road, doing my night watchman rounds, just me and my candle. It was dawn, just before I finish up, when I see this shadow. Well, I got my duty, so I go to investigate and I see this frog, jumping along the Enchanted Glade path. I don’t think nothing about it at the time; it ain’t unusual to see a frog headed that way. But later, when I heard about what happened, I figured I’d better come in and report it.”
“You did the right thing, Jack. That could very well be our missing frog.” I nodded at Officer Simon, dismissing them both.
So, the prince might be headed into the Evergreen Forest. It could be he’s on his way to the widow Rose Red, to get the spell removed. Smart frog, Rose was the best sorceress in Fairyland...
I rode out to the forest edge, and then took the path to Enchanted Pine Glade; Rose Red’s cottage was smack in the middle of the clearing. I knew something was off the minute I got to the cottage; the front door was open and Rose never leaves it open. I found Rose inside trying to reassemble her home from a jumbled mess. I’d say there had been quite a fight.
“Hey, Rose. Looks like you had trouble.”
She looked up at me. “Should’ve known you’d show up.”
“What happened? Had to do with a Frog Prince, didn’t it?”
“Oh, yes. He shows on the doorstep, wanting a potion to undo the spell. I say, sure, and in he hops, tracking enchanted frog slime all over my clean floor. Next thing I know I have dwarves busting in my front door, and kidnapping my client!”
Rose stamped her foot. “They thought they could just waltz in here and do what they pleased! The nerve! Well, I sent them running for their mothers! I just wish I could have rescued the frog, though. Stupid goons snuck him out during the melee.”
Rose tilted her head, in that endearing manner she had, and gave me a look. “What did that frog do, he’s so popular?”
“Got the Snow Queen mad at him, for starters.”
“Well, that explains the Frost Elves.”
“Yeah, a couple of them were driving the getaway carriage.”
I frowned. “That means the Snow Queen is still pulling the strings in this mess.”
Rose gave me a sympathetic smile. “They’re probably headed to the Winter Palace.”
I nodded, knowing she was right. I’d better get my parka and some backup. This investigation had turned into a rescue mission.
“Thanks, Rose. Sorry you got caught in the middle of this mess.”
“Not your fault.”
I said good-bye, and headed back to the station to get things organized...
I was standing outside the Winter Palace, bullhorn in hand, backed-up by the Fairyland SWAT team. Inside were the Frost Elves and the frog.
“The Palace is surrounded, give up the frog peacefully!”
The front door creaked open and a Frost Elf popped his head out.
“Not going to happen! You’ll never take the Palace!”
So much for peaceful negotiation. I signaled the team and they let the enchanted swamp gas fly.
The canisters crashed through the stained glass windows and engulfed the interior. I signalled again and the team stormed the Palace. It was all over in minutes and the Frost Elves were in custody.
I marched to the head Elf. “Where’s the frog?”
He flashed me a triumphant look. “You’re too late! The frog was sent to the Kitchen!”
I got a bad feeling and beat a quick path to the Palace kitchen. The smell of cooking meat greeted my arrival. The cook looked up and smiled.
“Just in time, Detective.” He picked up a plate. “Care for some frog’s legs?”
Oh, there was going to be a lot of paperwork to explain this fiasco...
Minute particles of silvery, gray ash floated in the cool evening breeze and trailed in the dimming sunlight. They called out softly to me. They bid me a hesitant farewell and continued to float on the breeze just out of my reach. Part of her final wishes had been fulfilled; I left part of her in a place she had come to love.
Tears blurred my eyes and I felt very alone once again as, finally, reluctantly, vestiges of my life seemingly drifted away into the wake left by the ship. The lights of Juneau blinked in the distance and the ship’s wake rushed away into the darkness signaling that everything must move on. Lights behind me shone from the decks above where couples laughed and closely held to each other as they too watched the distant lights fade. Peering into the darkening mist, I felt the emptiness of her touch next to me. I reached out to wrap my arm around her even as I knew that she was gone.
No, she wasn’t gone. She was there whenever I wanted. I could see her in the smiles, gestures, and innate mannerisms of my children. I could recall my laughter at the goofy little dance she performed each time a favorite song with an upbeat tempo played on the radio. Neither of us danced well, but who cared? In her classroom the young students laughed gleefully as she danced and sang out of tune with them. She made us all laugh and there were many times of much happiness.
Memories of happy times of discovery and the joy of sharing our life filled my thoughts and peacefulness overcame me. I felt reassured that all would be fine and that love keeps memories alive. Shared laughter over mutual pleasures and private jokes brought a small smile to my face as they floated to the surface of my thoughts and washed over the sadness that had seized me a moment ago. The joys that we shared with our children through the years added to the happy memories and reminded me that there were still memories to be made. Each of our children possessed traits of their mother that would keep her memory alive.
The scenery on this voyage was as magnificent as our earlier visit to Alaska. Yes, I missed her spontaneous laughter and childlike pleasure in our wondrous visual discoveries along the way as we cruised the wilderness shoreline overflowing with surprises every mile. She had delighted in pointing out the harbor seals basking in the warming sunlight and the bald eagles that soared in abundance above the fir trees and icy waters. The familiar seals and eagles as well as the other wildlife were still there, but they seemed just a little less playful, a little quieter this trip.
Upon departing the picturesque town of Ketchikan and cruising along the wild coastline, I glimpsed a group of harbor seals lazily enjoying the energizing sunlight among the grey rocks scattered along the shore. Surrounded by her pups and perched atop a large rock, a large mother seal’s melancholic bark seemed to say, “I know your pain. Keep your family around you”.
Graceful bald eagles glided and soared above the cold waves. Perhaps they too sensed and shared my loss. The overwhelming beauty of this wilderness caused me to realize that there will always be beauty in this world. Happiness would return and cheerful memories would fill the emptiness.
I know that there will always be an ache inside that will occasionally surface unexpectedly. Love lost does that. But just as surely that ache will be followed by a smile as I recall the happiness and good times that filled our life together. Our family would keep those memories alive and love would continue to bind us together. Love remembered does that.