At first he was unsure of what he was actually seeing.
The sun that now shone brightly through the large shop window – and which, to make matters worse, was further enhanced by its reflection off the recently rain-soaked pavement outside – could surely only generate a light that would be prone to playing tricks. Unleashed in an environment of gilt and glass – not to mention the myriad of mirrors! – he was certain of one thing only: namely, that it could not be trusted.
He preferred an even light. Undoubtedly that of a few minutes earlier – the post-shower illumination, still subdued by the remnants of grey cloud that endeavoured to keep it at bay – offered the kind of gentle suffusion that would have been ideal in his present environment. Strangely enough, as they had entered the shop (he following Julia, of course), he distinctly recalled a brief glance towards the heavens. There had been no purpose in the gesture apart from the automatic Englishness of it; the preoccupation with the somehow random mechanics of the atmosphere and its influence on the general state of any sane individual’s mind.
Not that there was anything untoward in his own psyche at that precise moment: he had been a little bored, yes, but would admit to no more than that. Julia, sensitive to his general demeanour and aware that he was unfamiliar with their precise destination, had taken the trouble to offer him directions to the shop (some tortuous navigation based on other, equally unfamiliar shops), and had promised him, by way of compensation, that it was no more than a few minutes walk from the car. Depending on one’s definition of ‘few’, he supposed that she might indeed feel her description to be accurate – but had he been pressured, he would have needed to beg to differ. Regent Street was, indeed, not that far from where they had left the car – and that had been a trial, finding a parking meter! – but it was also, as any leg-weary tourist would immediately testify, by no means the briefest of thoroughfares in the capital. The consequence of them parking beyond the Oxford Circus end, rather than close to Piccadilly, was measurable in minutes: had they been in transit a little earlier, it might also have been measured in the weight of water that would have fallen on them from the previously leaden sky.
As far as excursions were concerned, this was not one he had been particularly looking forward to; not that there was anything sinister in that, of course. Shopping, in almost any form, failed to stimulate him; and shopping with Julia – who seemed to operate according to a completely different set of rules under such occasions – invariably left him bored. She would have been aware that the combination of both his sense of duty and a subservience to the feelings he held for her would not permit him to allow her the expedition as a solo affair – though that might well have been the most satisfactory arrangement all round, as demonstrated in her attempt to encourage some enthusiasm in him earlier that morning.
“But it’s what she wants!” she had said playfully, hoping to draw him into the undertaking.
He remained unconvinced. A mirror seemed to him such a strange wedding gift – even for someone as ‘unusual’ as Julia’s sister – that he failed to warm to the idea any more than if she had been enthusing over the potential purchase of a doormat.
“It has to be a bit special, of course. I mean, not just any old mirror – which is why I want us to go into town. And why I want you to help me choose it!”
The last comment – added as an afterthought in a desperate attempt to hang on to him in some sense – was so transparent that it died the instant it was uttered. Julia would choose; he might be asked to nod or to comment, but he would not be asked to choose. He might be asked to carry – and there his presence would certainly be something more significant, if not indispensable – but, as always, Julia would drive them forwards, pushing on through the morass of daily transactions which, by and large, passed him by in something of an anonymous blur. He might have feigned an interest (his failure to dissemble when it was politically correct to do so was a complaint she had often laid at his door), but his attitude was dominated by the phenomenal sense of unimportance he attached to the whole venture – even if it was what Laura said she wanted.
On their arrival – an arrival heralded by the ferocious blast from a heater suspended above the door – he had taken little interest in the initial proceedings, willingly divesting himself of the responsibility of being Julia’s chaperone once the smart Assistant had hove towards them from the depths of the shop. As soon as it seemed prudent – that is, as soon as his sensibility told him that Julia was happy to release him – he had slipped away from her side and strolled, arms behind his back, the fingers of his right hand tapping on the reverse of his left.
There was not far he could go, of course. The shop, which was not enormous, was arranged as two aisles, with a partition down the centre dividing the floor space. This singular construction – like its more solid brethren that, on either side, kept a Travel Agents and a Gentlemen’s Outfitters at bay – was hung with numerous paintings, photographs and posters, all elaborately framed and each bearing a small, if not discrete, price tag. Out of habit, he always checked the prices of things first; not because of any intrinsic need to worry about what he could afford to spend (there was no problem there!) but in order to establish the place these objects should occupy within his personal scale of quality and respectability.
The prices were, he had confessed quietly to himself (though without surprise) a little on the steep side; not, he might have added as a caveat, that he had any major expertise in the value of ‘Art’. For what they were – and he recognised many of the posters, so they could not have been that exclusive – he suspected that the asking price had been slightly inflated, presumably to allow for the not inconsiderable rental of the premises and the legendary – if potentially inaccurate – notion that tourists (and Americans especially) would pay anything for trash. Indeed, having recognised that by and large the artwork was over-priced, he had then realised, in some obscure and intuitive sense, that there was also too much of it. Class, something told him, would not have permitted quite so many things on display; there would have been a little more space around the paintings – a little more ‘wall’ – giving, in some odd way, a sense of respect to what was being sold. Lots of space – as he knew from his infrequent visits to the City’s galleries – implied reverence, though there was, he was sure, nothing here to be revered.
This vague dissatisfaction with the establishment, and the sense that somehow Julia had been sold short by whoever recommended the place to her in the first place, had led him to cast a brief glance in her direction. The smart Assistant – who seemed to be dressed in relation to the prices of the objects and not their quality or quantity – had taken Julia in hand, and was leading her towards the small section near the front of the shop where the mirrors – in equal abundance to everything else it seemed – were ranged. He had thought for a moment of returning to her side; of even trying to rescue her – striding over cavalry-like, taking her by the arm, and leading her out of the ambush and into safety. However fanciful and appealing this might have been (and make no mistake, to some part of him it was appealing) any such attempt would have been doomed: firstly, it would not have been what Julia wanted – after all, she had given herself up willingly to the trap – and secondly, it was simply not the sort of thing he did. So, with some sense of resignation, he had resumed his perambulation around the shop.
When Julia had called – that inevitable cry of ‘Mark!’ delivered in such a way that, despite its soft sound and its feminine origins, it bore for him all the hallmarks of an order and none of a request – he had already turned at the end of the shop and was actually heading her way. Two days before he had stayed up late (despite the protests this time!) to watch – again! – a showing of ‘Ben Hur’ on one of the satellite channels. As he moved towards Julia – walking now, though still attempting to imitate a stroll – he was reminded how the shop layout, the long and thin circuit, was akin to the circus where the great chariot race was held. With the finish in sight, was he to be Charlton Heston, victorious with his white Arabian steeds, or Ben Hur’s old adversary, Messala, vanquished at the last?
The smart Assistant was, with some difficulty, holding a large mirror; Julia, standing proudly at her side, as if making the choice was a cause for celebration. Mark, still some feet away, already knew that in this particular tournament Julia would be victorious, and suspected that the part so ably played by Stephen Boyd had been reserved for him.
“Here it is!”, Julia said triumphantly, “What do you think?”
Mark – aware that his contribution to the choosing had indeed been mythical rather than real – tried to suppress the sense of ‘I told you so’ that was rattling around inside his head; the superiority of sub-conscious over conscious and the certainty that, in the end, it would indeed be Julia’s choice of gift. He could not have voiced the thought; with whom would he have shared it?
The mirror itself – now pointing directly at him and in such a fashion as to give the smart Assistant the head and legs of a woman but the slightly larger torso of a man – seemed a little uninspiring. Mark had taken a quick glance at a number of the others that were strewn around Julia in such a manner as to suggest examination and rejection, then struggled to spot any immediately significant difference in ‘the chosen one’. The frame was gilt – but then so were the frames of those discarded, with the exception of two or three wooden ones. One of these, a handsome mahogany offering, was instantly his own preference and had he indeed been allowed to contribute to the debate, then this item would have captured his vote. That of course would have led to all sorts of complications – he and Julia nominating different champions – though he had no doubt that the end result would still have been the same. Perhaps – and this as he had come to a standstill some three feet from the smiling duo – it was best that he had been given no choice at all: to find out for certain that his vote was actually worth less than his partner’s might have been a little too much to take.
It was just at this moment, as he wrestled limply with his theme, that he was suddenly quite unnerved by what he was seeing – by what the mirror showed him, in fact.
“Well?” After her initial ‘Mark!’, it seemed not impossible that this second word might constitute the entirety of Julia’s correspondence with him on these premises. She was anxious for confirmation, for his approval, poised like a cat ready to pounce on anything contrary; even the slightest of indications would have been enough for that hair trigger of hers.
He had heard the word, but was too busy concentrating on what he could see in the mirror to immediately respond. A little above the right hand pocket of his jacket – a brown tweed jacket that he had picked up on a golfing and fishing holiday in Scotland some years before, and which, he might add, had been unquestionably his favourite jacket of all time – he noticed what could only be described as a blemish. He leant slightly forwards (Julia could only assume that he was examining the frame) to confirm his initial diagnosis. It was indeed a blemish, a fault in the cloth, a small patch were the pattern seemed to be broken, out of kilter; as he looked in the mirror – in the bright, playful light – it appeared not as a minor flaw, but as an ugly and unsightly mark.
He brought his right hand from behind his back (where it had maintained its post, fingers tapping throughout) and lifted the edge of the cloth. Taking his eyes away from the mirror for a second, he glanced down, needing to confirm the reality of what he had been shown; indeed, the weave was flawed.
“Remarkable”, he said, looking back towards the mirror.
It had been intended as no more than an aside to himself – some form of internal confirmation that there was something he had lived with for years and of which he had never been aware – but he had evidently spoken it a little too loudly (or perhaps that it had escaped at all was enough) for the mirror to be suddenly whisked out of his line of sight by the Assistant whose triumphant action had been prompted by Julia’s “We’ll take it!” uttered but an instant after his own, more private, contribution.
He remained motionless for a few seconds, watching the pantomime being played out by Julia and the Assistant with the air of someone on the outside; an observer, distanced and with no stake in the game. Once the mirror had been deposited on the counter and a large sheet of brown paper produced and thrown over it – Julia casting a quick, smiling glance in his direction at his point – Mark felt able to move again, freed from the strange paralysis that had descended upon him.
He wanted to confirm still further – as if what he had seen already was not enough! – that there was indeed something wrong in the material of his jacket; he could not comprehend how, after all this time (and perhaps the passing of time was the key) he could suddenly recognise something that had been blatantly obvious for years. To his left several mirrors – obviously not getting on Julia’s shortlist – still hung, huddled together on the wall. Turning, he shuffled almost imperceptibly until he was able to get a clear sight – without appearing to be looking of course, and this was the trick – of his right-hand pocket. A glance towards the door (to check, guiltily perhaps, on the progress of the wrapping; or beyond the counter, to the source of the light) confirmed that his actions had not been interpreted as suspect and that he could pursue his enquiry.
Whether he expected to find that the cloth was actually perfect he could not say. Indeed, had he done so he would have found himself embroiled in another, rather troublesome debate over how he had managed to imagine the blemish in the first instance. However, the mirror he was now concentrating on – this second looking glass – could do no more than confirm the story already told both by its contemporary and, more importantly, by his own eyes without the assistance of any intervening medium. The question he now faced (this as he straightened slightly, trying to come to terms with a rather strange sensation that the revelation had planted in his consciousness) was why – or indeed how! – no-one had said anything to him about the jacket before now. Why was it that after some twelve years of wearing the thing, of being seen in it so much that people even commented on the fact that it seemed a part of him, why was it that no-one had mentioned the flaw?
A noise from the counter roused Mark from the brief trance in which he found himself (standing stationary, staring at something but seeing nothing), and when he refocused, he saw the Assistant supporting a relatively thin oblong brown paper package on its side. Again both sets of eyes were focused in his direction, and the smile from Julia told him not only that she was unquestionably pleased with the result of their visit, but also that it was time to leave and that his assistance was required.
She squeezed his arm gently as he reached her side. It was a gesture she often used to convey a million and one things; but whichever of these, it seemed they were always benevolent and Mark had learned to respond with a certain smile of his own.
“Ready?” It seemed a strange question from her given the minor role he had played in the drama thus far and how, in his own mind at least, the proposition could be more accurately posed the other way round.
“Ready” he said, offering the parallel.
Julia looked at the parcel and Mark, interpreting the gesture, extended his arms towards it.
“I’ll get the door,” said the Assistant definitely, and moving away from the counter left Mark balancing the package on his own.
“Can you manage?” Julia’s smile had now been replaced by a study of more practical concern, though not rising to any great extent of being worried. It was, Mark knew, the sort of thing one ought to say at times like this, just as responsibility were about to be handed over.
He pulled the mirror to his chest and endeavoured to get his right hand underneath it as his left steadied the side. It was larger than he had imagined – larger than it looked, in some strange way – and it seemed as if the grip he had planned for it (a ‘natural’ grip, to all intents and purposes) might be insufficient here. Allowing his fingers to find a degree of comfort in their new, tensed state, he went to lift the parcel from the counter. It slipped instantly – just an inch or so – and landed with a reasonably soft ‘thud’ back on the surface. A breath escaped from Julia. Mark looked quickly at her. It should have been a word, or even a number of words, but knowing what the words might have been – “Careful!” for one – the breath was sufficient admonition for him to take stock of the position and readjust his grip.
At the second attempt – Julia all the while nearby, but without laying a finger on the brown paper – Mark and the parcel moved as one away from the counter and towards the door. Not only was his burden larger than he had imagined, but it was also heavier too, and passing out into the street – being hit by the noise and the smell of the city – he was suddenly concerned about the distance they had to travel to the car and his ability to make it in one piece. Not known for her lucid thought or incisiveness – not in his mind at any rate – Julia, who must have picked up his concern telepathically, was already away from his side and out at the kerb hailing a taxi.
“I know it’s not far,” she said, returning to lead him towards the black cab that was now squealing to a halt in front of them, “but if he doesn’t like it then that’s his problem. And he was going that way anyhow, so I don’t see what he’s got to complain about!”
She was condemning the Cabby before they had even told him where they were going; deciding, in advance almost, that whatever happened she was going to give him a piece of her mind just to let him know where he stood. In the event – as Mark struggled stiffly across the pavement – the Cabby turned out to be more of a White Knight than a Black one, and, seeing his passengers struggling, he actually got out of the cab to give Mark a hand into it. The sudden easing of his burden (surprisingly significant since he had travelled but a few feet with it) came as welcome relief to Mark who nodded his thanks to the driver. Julia – now facing a completely different situation to the one she had envisaged being in – went over the top in her effusive thanks to the man, not only as they climbed into the taxi, but as they set off too, regaling him with the details of their expedition with such enthusiasm that it was almost impossible for him to get a word in edgeways.
Mark, hands clasped together and adjusting to the sensation the sudden effort had left in his fingers (the string round the paper was abrasive too), rested for the brief duration of their journey and watched the other shoppers marching the street, all seemingly carrying smaller burdens than his own. As a backdrop, he could hear Julia’s version of the purchase, and a somewhat gruff voice punctuate her sentences with “Yes, love” and “I know what you mean”.
To a certain extent, Mark imagined – once they were settling within their own vehicle, the gift laying flat, out of sight – that Julia might have felt the taxi ride the most enjoyable part of the whole episode. Not only had the driver – Frank, apparently – turned out not to be an ogre, he also proved to be doubly considerate to the extent of again leaving his cab at the end of their brief journey – “I know it’s not far, love, but I’d ‘ave done the same thing” – to help Mark get he parcel into the boot of his Audi. Julia had paid him twice what he had asked as a fare on the basis, she said, that had he not done so they might have lost a great deal more money. Her statement, uttered as they pulled out into the mainstream of traffic and began to head north, brought two things to Mark’s mind that he had not as yet considered: would he have lost control of the parcel, and how much had it cost anyway? The second question was of little importance, though given some of the prices he had seen displayed in the shop – and if size and weight were anything to go by – then the package now resting in the boot of his car had certainly not been given away! As to his ability to keep a hold of it while they walked Regent Street, there he was a little more concerned. He could not – and this he knew despite any internal bluff – have made it all the way without stopping; indeed, without assistance of some kind. Whether he might actually have dropped it, had lost his grip on the string – which would have been gnawing into his fingers remember – and been witness to, if not responsible for, an almighty ‘crash’, was difficult to say; but as they pulled away from a set of lights, Julia once again offering a brief squeeze of his arm, he too was thankful for Frank.from “An Infinity of Mirrors“