The Sponge - A Fantasy Short Story from Book Town Member Valerie Byron
The Sponge - a fantasy by Valerie Byron
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.”