Friday, August 17, 2007

Scorpio's Jewels (Part Three)

The next day dawned slowly but surely, as a pale sun struggled its way upwards through swathes of rolling blue-grey mist. The city streets were oddly quiet - all that could be heard was the occasional cry of a wandering salesman, hoarsely advertising his wares. It was one of these that finally returned the shopkeeper to his bed - "Sugar, get your sugar!" was the call, and suddenly the shopkeeper was awake, with a peculiar sweetness on his lips and a new-found sparkle in his eyes.

With a burst of energy he threw his ragged bed sheet from his scrawny body, and moved swiftly to the narrow slit of light that he called his window. What he saw made his heart leap in the fragile confines of his chest. The rising sun had somehow caught the mist like a prism, and its weak rays had shattered into a multitude of colours that shimmered and flashed in the morning air like the twinkling movement of fish in the ocean. The effect was almost magical, and it seemed to the shopkeeper as if all that he could see - all the crumbling houses with their wearing brickwork - had in some way been reborn, and a little of their old dignity had briefly been restored.

This impression even stretched to the pedestrians shuffling by - the weathered lines on an old woman's face went from betraying her senility to becoming marks of her wisdom, while the lacklustre flowers on a young girl's skirt suddenly appeared to bloom with life. It was as if all the mystery and romance missing from the streets had come flooding back, and as the shopkeeper stood by his window, drinking it all in, his spirits rose for the first time in months.

* * *

The businessman that the woman had mentioned in the shopkeeper's dream was in fact a sportsman, who, in years gone by, had been one of the very best in the land, and whose name had at one time resounded in chants of slavish devotion around every stadium in the country. But that was many years ago, and now, when all that remained of the esteem in which he had been held was the wealth that it had given him, he had decided to return and retire to the place where he had grown up, a place just down the road from a certain dusty little bookshop.

In his old age, the sportsman had tried, and mostly succeeded, to replace the thrill of the game he'd left behind with the risks of business. Where once he had carried the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, now he held the fortunes of many a small business in his hands, or, more specifically, in his overflowing coffers. The influence this gave him over those less fortunate than himself was intoxicating. Sometimes, when a venture of his performed beyond expectations, he relived, for an instant, the feeling he'd had when he strode out onto the playing field, and heard the admiring roar of ten thousand fans erupt around him.

Not surprisingly, in time, this power went to the sportsman's head. He began to fancy himself as a master strategist; a business angel that had climbed through the heavens and achieved almost Godlike status. Eventually, it began to be said that he had become, or perhaps always had been, a man whose pride was so bloated that any attempt to swallow it would have left him choking.

This overblown sense of grandeur manifested itself in the ornate mansion that he built himself; he became like an old feudal lord, living in a castle surrounded by slums, the filth all around making his marble walls gleam in a way his cleaners could never manage.

Under his much-adorned roof little was different. It was said by many of the sportsman's downtrodden servants that the extravagance of his bed compensated for the loneliness inside of it.

The fact was that the sportsman had too much money to attract a woman of integrity, yet too much pride to fall for one that had none. And no other kind of woman ever presented herself, no-one who could see past his riches and mistake the fundamental ugliness of his nature for a thing of beauty. If such women existed in dreams they didn't in reality, so he spent his nights yearning for a love he didn't deserve, and, as his treasure-hoard didn't happen to include a genie's lamp, his wish remained unfulfilled.

Yet the sportsman refused to accept this - he believed that to be loved was his unquestionable right, and maintained that the cause of his deprivation lay not with him, but instead with everyone else. After all, he thought that he was perfect, in both personality and looks, and the fact that no-one ever thought (or dared) to tell him otherwise merely confirmed his opinion.

Every time he glanced in the mirror, as he was wont to do (far more frequently than necessary), the refined visage of an ageing nobleman looked back. And surely, the sportsman reasoned, in rare moments of lucidity, even if his opinion of his looks was ever-so-slightly inflated, the truth couldn't be all that far removed from it. But unfortunately for him, this was exactly what had happened.

The truth was that there was an underlying asymmetry to the sportsman's face that made him undeniably attractive in the mirror, yet downright ugly in real life. The curve of his cheekbones and the turn of his nose appeared so elegant in his reflection, but in the eyes of others, who saw the mirror-image of the image in the mirror, the elegance was flipped for coarseness, and all that had been beautiful was now repulsive.

But the sportsman remained blissfully oblivious to all this, as he possessed no camera, so the only idea he had of how others saw him lay in the many portraits that stared back at him from various parts of the house, all looking just as handsome as the sums he had paid for their painting.

The most impressive of his collection hung opposite the main entrance to the house, carefully positioned to be the first thing seen by any guests that had been invited inside. The sportsman glanced at it as he passed by on the way to his breakfast table, and the sight of it made his spirits soar as high as the shopkeeper's had, earlier that morning.

With an air of perfect self-satisfaction, the sportsman sat down to his morning meal.

* * *

At that very moment, the shopkeeper stumbled smartly out of his house, and slammed his door shut behind him with a flourish. He stood by the roadside in the remains of his best suit - a pair of ancient trousers that had the texture of dried parchment, below a stiff white shirt that was mercifully hidden by a threadbare blazer, which itself had not only seen better days, but by the looks of it, seen a better century too. Yet just like the man he was going to see, the shopkeeper displayed an almost perverse ignorance of his own appearance; he wore his ragged clothes with pride and walked with a dignity that the sportsman would have killed to call his own.

* * *

With a grimace, the sportsman looked down at the milk he had inadvertently spilt over the tabletop in a moment of clumsiness. His distaste was not at the mess - that could be cleaned in an instant - but at its implication; that was a stain that would last far longer. It reminded him that his grace was leaving him, that his days of complete mastery over his body were over. In the past, such an elementary failing of hand-eye co-ordination would have spelt the difference between victory and defeat on the pitch. Now all it signified was the difference between a full and empty glass of milk. And things would only get worse. Above all, in that instant, the sportsman was suddenly reminded that his bones creaked now, and they would not stop creaking, not until the day he died.

* * *

As he walked, the shopkeeper rehearsed what he was going to say - the speech that would hopefully save his business, and his life as he'd known it. Words weren't easy to come by, after all, the last few months had seen his charm engulfed by a flood of angst and self-pity. But little by little, bits of it returned, and a plan began to form in the shopkeeper's mind. The sportsman's reputation for arrogance was common knowledge, so he knew that careful flattery was the most direct route to his pockets. Sycophancy embellished with wit was the order of the day, and the fact that his words would be deliberately chosen purely for their emptiness did in no way diminish their significance. This speech would be the shopkeeper's very own humble little masterpiece; it would not be one that could ever rank among those that lined the shelves of his shop, but it was nevertheless the only thing that could save them all from destruction.

Revelling in the magnitude of his task, the shopkeeper hurried on.

To be continued


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David said...