I happened in my wanderings upon an old curiosity shop, nestled down those semi-decrepit alleyways peculiar to the West End; one of those of the sort that seem caught in perpetual rot, yet never manage to fully fade. The facade was barren of any detail, just jaundiced plaster and a simple wooden door, above which a loose sign swung in the breeze, screws screeching slightly, and indicating the bounty within to be antiques and similar such things. Having little else to do, I sojourned inside.
Lingering musk – the aroma commingled of age, damp, and dust – crept up my nostrils while my vision accustomed itself to the dim interior, a cacophonous profusion of long-forgotten objects and discarded curios. Automatically, I had allowed the door to close behind me, and was left in a dark cavern of forlorn furniture towered high on either side, a single paltry and bare lightbulb hanging halfway along the length the only illumination. Evidently, seldom does custom find itself here. I am not a small man, but curiosity got the better of me, so I found myself struggling down the hallway, between strange stacks of bureaus, tables, chairs, and stools and broken picture frames erected loosely along the walls, to see what was contained within.
I foolishly expected the spaces within the open out, but they seemed only to draw further in, contracted and constricted like lengths of bowel digesting the miscellanea within, remnants of lives long passed. I found myself at the corridor’s end confronted by what must have been at one time a large room, though inside of which yet more furniture and random objects had formed into a “Y” junction of caverns and paths. A few lamps stuck out amidst the antique thatch like wet black boughs with glistening ends. I ventured right at the “Y” into the collector’s cave.
I decided to raise my voice after I was deep enough within to feel the oppression of trespass. Like a church visited at night, this place had the hushed air of the holy, that a mere wanderer such as myself did not belong. I spoke aloud, faltering slightly in awkwardness:
“Hello? Is there anyone there?”
I awaited a response, standing still while a vast mahogany wardrobe, which dammed a deluge of broken chair legs behind it, loomed over me. This place could not hold true silence, but the mild and muted creaking of strained and stressed timber. I waited, ears pricked. At a distance, not close, yet not so near, weight shifted.
No person seemed to approach. I pushed on within.
The nature of the curiosities seemed to alter the further one wandered, with paintings and photographs in cracked and shattered frames sprouting from amidst the clusters and crude walls of chair and table legs ripped and torn from their absent bodies. All were portraits, old faces, stern and serious, staring at one another without faltering. They watched me move deeper inside.
Every few steps, every few feet, I would stop and listen; a creak, a whistle of wind, yet once or twice, it seemed a footstep, or the placing of a hand upon one of the loosely constructed ridges of cracked objects. Never did the sounds issue from the same position; it seemed then just behind me, then far ahead, then behind the portraits, and in other rooms unseen.
The lights from the disparate lamps seemed to jaundice as I pushed on, yellower glares upon the deteriorating surrounding, the furniture here more broken up than before, portraits faded, countenances being slowly lost, and new pieces added yet still distorted; strange statues of elongated and irregular figures, carven dark-woods loosely humanoid, and loitering like listless homunculus. I tried once more to speak out:
“Hello? I am here to browse,” thinking this reasonable yet not so betraying my anxiousness as the alternatives. I waited once more. Only a few seconds passed before a crash resounded somewhere in a distant room. I moved not a muscle. The calm that followed lingered for a minute, before a creak whispered off somewhere behind me, then another, and another, and another, altogether seeming to me to be approaching. I rushed further in, I confess, fleeing the inexorable advance.
I found myself caught on out-hanging limbs, tripping on stuck out feet, and the air became pervaded with notes of rot. I stopped of a sudden; to my horror, the creaks and strains and lightest of footsteps still coming nearer, there was nowhere further to run, my way blocked by the boundary walls, and a large heavy chest in front of me. Panic birthed the daft idea – I flung myself at the chest. Its lid I wrenched open like an animal, and was knocked back by a wave of the foulest stench, assaulting my nose and eyes. I gagged and staggered, and after a moment regained myself and looked within. The tattered skeleton of a poor old cat slept within the chest, a few strips of withered meat and fur still clinging. A hand slithered onto my shoulder and with a barely stifled scream I turned.
“Oh so that’s where Tiddles went. If you’re still interested, I’ll give the chest a wash and you a discount.”
I cannot tell you what the proprietor looked like, for I fled with a haste previously unknown to me. Out in the cold light of day, I thought to myself that while curiosity had surely killed cat, I so very nearly joined him.