The light of hissing gas lamps lit up the old bookshop. Down below street level, Jeremiah Franklin looked up at the translucent street slab, sensing, more than hearing, raindrops spattering the paving stones, their noise barely perceptible through the door and windows above.
It was four o’clock on a deadly dull Wednesday afternoon in December and Jeremiah felt inclined to close early, though the voice of his father, Harold, rang in his ears, “Stay open to the advertised hour, lad, and people will trust your word … and your prices!”
The bell rang and, before Jeremiah could ascend to the ground floor, a woman with a wet umbrella and an equally wet child, a young boy of about six, began to descend the stairs to the basement and Jeremiah’s desk.
“Good afternoon, do you have such a thing as an atlas of Mexico and the South Americas?” she enquired.
Jeremiah regarded the woman’s comely face, red lips and full form, and the young boy’s rain-soaked countenance. “Why, indeed, Madam, we have a good copy of Whiting’s Atlas, quite a rare item if I may add. He took a hefty volume down from a dusty mahogany shelf. “Please, if you would like to peruse it, well, then there is a reading desk over there.” He gestured to a distant well-lit corner.
The woman smiled and took the volume to the desk indicated. The child sat cross-legged on the floor, playing with a yo-yo.
After a short while, the bell rang once more and Jeremiah heard the heavy stamp of a man’s footsteps. He went upstairs.
The man was tall and solid, “Good day, though it is a cold, wet one! Do you have such a thing as an atlas of the South Americas?”
Jeremiah smiled. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad day after all. “Well, indeed I do, Sir, the singular atlas by Whiting himself! But it so happens that another customer is perusing it at this very minute!”
“Very well, I shall look around in the meantime. Do you have any Agatha Christie first editions?”
Jeremiah pointed the gentleman in the right direction, then descended to the basement to find the child now sitting in his seat, whilst the mother appeared preoccupied with the atlas in the far corner. He tried not to show his annoyance at finding his chair taken. “What is your name?” he asked.
The child pulled a scarf tight around his neck. “It is Roderick, Sir.”
“Indeed, and what is your mother interested in?”
Roderick screwed his face up in thought, “Well, in finding a husband.”
Just then, the man from above appeared. “Well, I found a nice copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but well, I must confess my true interest is in exploration. My name is Frederick Gardner, no doubt you have heard of me?”
“Alas, Sir, no I have not,” said Jeremiah.
“Where have you been, then?” asked the young boy, unimpressed.
Gardner seemed put out. “Where have I been, lad? Well, I’ve met pygmies in New Guinea, full-grown adults, yet your height only. I’ve walked across the Sahara Desert, a thousand miles of sand, guided only by oil barrels on the horizon each day. I’ve been in the great pyramids of Egypt, trekked the endless ice to the North Pole, even been to the moon!”
Roderick stood up, his mouth open, “Been to the moon!”
“Indeed, I have, young ‘un, though ‘tis not well known.” Gardner pulled a small piece of silver rock from a jacket pocket. “See this, lad, this came from the Sea of Tranquillity, given to me by a Selenite, it was. One of the moon’s inhabitants.” He held out a piece of fluorescent silver, the like of which Jeremiah had never seen. The boy took it and they all gasped as it shone a dull silver light, flickering and shimmering in the gaslight of the shop.
Just then, the woman returned. She looked Gardner up and down. He seemed vaguely familiar. “Good day, Sir.”
Gardner smiled. “Good day, Madam, have you finished with the Whiting, that is, the atlas?”
She addressed Jeremiah. “Well I’d like to buy it, but er, this price seems very high. Twenty pounds, is that right?”
Jeremiah coughed. “It’s a scarce item, madam, in that condition.”
She hesitated. “I don’t know. It’s a lot of money. Would you take eighteen?”
Gardner pulled out a wallet and extracted two crisp ten-pound notes. He gave them to Jeremiah and turned to the lady. “An early Christmas present, Madam.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly—”
“I insist, Madam, on condition that you use it!”
“Well, it’s very good of you. I, er … well, thank you, thank you very much and yes I will!”
Gardner gave Jeremiah some pound notes for the Christie, popped it into a briefcase and turned to leave. “Good day to you all.”
“Who are you?” piped up Roderick.
Gardner laughed and fished in his jacket, handing a card to Roderick’s mother. “I don’t live far away. By all means, look me up sometime. I will show you – and young Roderick here – some of the artefacts collected on my expeditions.”
“Will you show us more moon rock, and tell us about the Selenites?” asked Roderick.
Gardner blushed. “Oh, perhaps, we’ll see.” He winked at Roderick’s mother, then was up the stairs and gone.
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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