by Rae Cod
Martin knew the saying; once man’s trash is another’s treasure, but it always amazed him the items that people discarded. Dropping it at the charity shop made them feel better about it, but make no mistake, if all the charity shops closed tomorrow it would be on the rubbish heap.
That’s how much stuff people were drowning in these days, he thought, so much they didn’t know what to do with it. On a typical day, they’d get board games, teddy bears, designer clothes with the labels on them, books, DVDs. That was just the normal stuff. Then you had the weird and (not so) wonderful; the see-through trouser suit (that one sold to a gentleman in a non-see-through pinstriped suit, the toilet seat (binned), the set of false teeth (also binned) and once a box of ashes that turned out to be the family dog, returned to its rightful owner.
It was this last variety of donations that was Martin’s speciality. He had an uncanny knack for predicting which items would be returned for by their previous owners. The ashes, for instance, which were collected by a frantic woman the next day, a dog-eared stuffed monkey which was a kid’s favourite toy that had somehow found its way into the donation bag, and a quilted throw that turned out to be a family heirloom. His partner in crime, Lorraine, (partner in retail really, but she did have a laugh so dirty it should be criminal), swore blind he was psychic and kept trying to talk him into a side hustle as ‘Martin the Marvellous, fortune teller extraordinaire.’ It wasn’t that though, if he could see the future he’d have won the lottery by now.
Truth be told, he didn’t know exactly what it was. He just had a sense when handling some items that they were still loved, that they weren’t done with yet and that someone would be back for them, sooner or later. It was usually sooner. He put these items to one side, on a shelf in the storeroom. His manager was incredibly supportive, in fact, it was her idea after she’d noticed him get it right a few times. The deal was, if it didn’t get collected within a month, it would go back on sale. In five years of doing this only one item hadn’t been collected.
It was an ornately carved mahogany box, winged ethereal beings in soft relief, reaching out for each other in a cascade of limbs, a golden clasp securing the lid. Martin couldn’t open it, neither could he hear anything inside if he gave it a shake.
He’d ended up buying it himself. It was only a tenner and he wanted to hold onto it a little longer, just in case. He left it on the shelf in the shop, a silent sentinel, looking on while items around it came and went.
A few years passed and not much changed. Martin got a little greyer, his jeans a little tighter. Lorraine left to manage a branch across town and work wasn’t as much fun without her, but it paid the bills.
The box sat on the shelf gathering dust, fading into the background, as items left in the same place often do. Martin hadn’t given it any thought. All that changed at five minutes to closing on Friday.
Martin must’ve been in a world of his own because he didn’t hear her come in. He was closing up the cash register and his bones almost jumped from his skin when his eyes flicked up and he saw her standing patiently before him on the other side of the counter.
He was struck by how impossibly tall she was. Martin was no LeBron James, but she must have been at least seven feet tall. Her long white dress skimmed the floor and Martin wondered if she was towering on some killer heels.
‘I have it on good authority that you are an excellent keeper of things,’ she said, in a voice that resonated with the strangest cadence he’d ever heard; it seemed to echo slightly as if the words had reached his brain quicker than they’d reached his ears.
He looked up into eyes so brown they could have been black, irises flecked with white as if her eyes held distant galaxies. Staring into them he got the strangest sense of vertigo-like he might fall in.
‘I believe you have something of mine. A wooden box.’
The image of the carved wooden box popped into his head.
‘Yes Miss, of course. Erm, may I ask, whose authority? About me being a keeper of things, I mean?’
‘The authority, of course. I believe it’s on a shelf in your storeroom.’
‘How did you…’ but she had turned away, seemingly content to take in the contents of the shop while she waited.
‘I can tell you now Miss,’ Martin began, raising his voice slightly as he went into the back room, ‘this box has had us all puzzled.
‘You didn’t open the box.’ It didn’t sound like a question, but Martin replied anyway.
‘No Miss.’ He’d wanted to, of course, he had a curious soul. But something deep inside had told him not to.
‘What’s inside, if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘Eternity. You’ll see it one day Martin, just not yet. Thank you for holding onto this for me.’
‘You’re more than welcome, Miss.
And with that, she left.
Martin never forgot her face, even after he’d forgotten many other things, nor did he stop wondering how she knew his name.
He found it came as no surprise to see her again, as he lay in bed one sunlit morning, struggling to breathe. She looked the same as the day she walked into the charity shop, some forty-three years ago.
This time she held the box open before him. This time he held her gaze as his curious soul fell into her eyes.