Marley & Son

by A J Kirby

Despite the fact that the wind is chiselling the top layer of skin from my face, I stand outside and simply stare at our shop for a moment. Absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder, people like my father say, but I’ve not been here for about two months and all I can think of when I see the place is the amount of times when as a child, my father made me stand out here with him, and he’d say: ‘one day son, this will all be yours.’ Like it or not.

Nobody in this story ever uses my proper name. I suppose you can simply call me ‘Son’ or ‘And Son.’ After all, that’s what it says on the weathered shop sign above the door. The sign tells me of my insignificance, in case I ever would forget it. My story doesn’t matter. All you need to know is this: like so many people who grow up in the shadow of a family business, I’ve grown to hate my destiny. I want something different than the poky shop and its hard-luck-story clientele. I want something different than the life that father has laid out for me, as though it is a suit ready for me to try on once I’ve filled out a little bit.

According to my father, my life story is already written. It’s carved into the sad old concrete of the precinct. Graffitied onto the benches in the square. The pigeons carry it like a message between their misshapen talons.

The pigeon gene pool around here is too small. Inbreeding has weakened them. Parts of them are starting to go missing from generation to generation. I watch as one of the latest breed hop-skips towards me, possibly believing me a statue and hence perfect for shitting on. He regards me with a cocked head. Lifts up a club foot. His life mapped out for him too, he recognises my desperate smell. It’s claggy off me, like the stink of disease. He hop-skips away from me.

I’m lassoed out of my trance as somebody grunts. A decrepit, precinct-grey woman is ramming her tartan shopping trolley into my leg. I’ve somehow stumbled into her orbit and she wants me to move.

‘I’m sorry,’ I mutter. An auto-response. I’m always saying sorry before I’ve even had time to decide whether I should be sorry or not. The story of my life; they’ll write it on my commemorative bench in the square when I’m gone.

I move out of her way, crunching across overflowing litter from the bin. I watch the woman as she plots her course along the row of shops. Soon she’s scattering more pedestrians as her flight path drags her into one of the pound shops which bookend the row.

I sigh; try not to look at my reflection in the shop window. Can’t help it though. It’s so cold that the top layer of my skin has frozen off. Underneath, the not properly moulded new skin pokes through. I’m like a burns victim that has undergone extensive facial surgery. You can’t quite put your finger on why it doesn’t look right. Like the pigeons, parts of me are missing. Lost in translation. What these things are, I don’t know. All I know is I’ve definitely been cursed with this Jack Frost winter face.

A set of lads marauds through the precinct now. Their snarls and catcalls precede them. All along the walkways, shoppers press themselves flat against the concrete. I know that I should get out of the way, too, before it is too late, but since I took out membership of Carers Anonymous, I don’t react like I used to.

The boys round the corner and sweep through the square. The pigeons are washed away with the current. The sky seems to turn black. A stray dog whimpers. Here they are, with their low-slung caps, rolling shoulders and sneers. Here they are with their stink of aggression. Here they are, accompanied by the tinny sound of child-like music from their mobile phones.

But I see there is something missing in these lads, too. I can’t see their eyes. Or their ears. Or their hands. To a man, every one of the lads has wedged his hands down the waistline of his tracksuit bottoms, clutching on for dear life in case the next thing that goes missing is their wee willie.

One of them sees me. Knows me. At any moment, the ritual torment will begin. I’m an easy target. They know it. I’m the real ‘wee willie,’ as they delight in reminding me.

Like every Scot I’ve ever encountered, I’m known by the diminutive version of my name. And as if that wasn’t indignity enough, I’m also known as Wee Willie Marley, on account of the fact that my father is also William Marley, and of course, his father before him. I wonder how far this Scottish-doll system can continue. If I ever have a son, will he be known as wee wee Willie Marley? Will these lads still be around to carry on the torment?

I’m about to ask them about this when I feel rough hands pulling me through the doorway and into our shop. In reverse, I see the familiar door with its mesh-windows; I hear the jingle bell.

‘You don’t want to get stuck out there, son,’ says father.

Part of me wants to reach for the door jamb and push myself back out into the open. Being devoured by the hyenas that haunt the precinct would perhaps be preferable to being eaten alive by genetic destiny. But I’ve come back for a reason. The stuff in the bottom pigeon-hole. My other story.

Inside the shop, it is blisteringly hot. We have our heaters installed just above the door to entice in those that may be in two minds. My cheeks itch and burn from the temperature change. Father looks at me quizzically. He always looks at me quizzically. It’s as though he’s seen a video recording of himself when blind drunk. He recognises himself in what he sees, but can’t for the life of him explain why I appear to behave so strangely. He cocks his head, just as the pigeon did, and regards me. I cock my head right back.

Like me, he’s small. About five-four. He has a pinched face and those distinctive (distinctively Scottish, I once thought) wind-chapped features. Thin lips which always seem one surprise laugh away from cracking into a bloody mess.

‘Glad you’re back, son,’ he says, lips-cracking into a tight smile. ‘Feeling better?’

I stumble over my answer. There are other people in the shop. They’re listening too. In fact, the shop’s busier than I’ve seen it in years. Possibly since way back in the early nineties. I would have thought we’d be struggling. Everyone seems to be struggling.

A sound from outside. Five pairs of eyes sweep round, following the path of the menacing lads as they slink past the door, not looking in. Five noses squash against the glass, stare through the barred windows as the lads kick over the overflowing litter bin and shout abuse at the pathways. Finally, they pass.

Father breaks the silence. He coughs loudly and then speaks.

‘We’re safe in here,’ he says, in that well-spoken Scots voice of his. His voice implies (or is supposed to imply) honesty as well as financial prudence. ‘Don’t worry about them. Now, who was next in line?’

Two of the three other people in the shop raise their arms. The other looks too afraid. Father points to this one, and tells him that he is next. When he points, father uses his middle finger; the digit you’d use to flip the bird. This is the only indication of the onset of the curse which always affects the Marley men; arthritis. Soon his fingers will curl into claws. Soon he won’t be able to dial a number on his phone. Soon he won’t be able to grip toilet paper.

The scared man holds out a tired-looking carriage clock for my father to inspect. It’s carried too many passengers to be worth much, but father gestures for the man to place it on the counter anyway.

‘Don’t have no receipt,’ breathes the man.

Father crack-smiles; explains the system as though to a child: ‘We work on trust at Marley and Son. We don’t expect that everybody coming in here will be trying to pawn stolen goods to get their hands on a few pounds. I can see that you’re a respectable man. The clock was probably a gift to recognise length of service. Your father’s?’

The scared man nods.

‘Well, there won’t be a receipt then, will there? All we ask is that you fill out one of these dockets for us. It acts in lieu of a receipt. It’s your story of why the item is so valuable to you.’

The scared man understands. In fact, you can tell that he feels a little bit better about the whole seedy transaction now we’ve made it more personal. This is our special system, and over the years, we’ve found that it works quite well.

As father works, I stand by the counter, basking in the warmth from the portable heaters. The two other clients try to approach me for valuations or to ask how the system works, but I wave them away. I’m not working today. I’m here for my story. Father keeps looking across at me and somehow manages to tip me a couple of knowing winks while still engaging his client in conversation. He’s pleased that I’m back. Worried about my mental state maybe, but pleased nonetheless. Occasionally, the jingle bell from the door tells me that yet more clients are pouring into the shop now that the precinct is clear. This, I suppose, is what they call a roaring trade in our business. Sheepish sheep-people wander in, clutching their once-loved items. They linger by the doorway or in the aisles. They don’t make eye contact. When father rings the till and presents his first client with what looks like a nice wad of notes in return for the carriage clock, the sheep-people look hopeful.

The working day draws to a close. I stare out of the barred-window, through the cluttered window display. I stare out into the cold world and wish I was still wrapped up warm in bed. We’ve entered wet-nosed November when nature turns minimalist–I find myself thinking and yearn for a docket to write the thought down on. I could use such a phrase quite nicely in my story.

When father finishes totting up his balance sheet, he beckons–using his middle finger once again–for me to come over to the counter. He’s crack-smiling again. As I walk towards him, I exaggerate my weakling stoop and try a faint, echoing smile; the kind of smile which makes it look like an effort.

‘How’s the old chest?’ he asks. ‘Better?’

‘Not really,’ I cough. ‘I just came in to get a couple of things that I left here. Doctor’s note still covers me to the end of the week…’

‘It’s been eight weeks now,’ groans father. Absently, he starts keying something into this new computer-operated till system that I vaguely remember him telling me about. Apparently, he can’t really write properly any more, due to the problems with his hands. He can work the computer keyboard using this halting, one digit at a time method. Only just.

‘I know, and I’d come back if I felt up to it, but even making the effort to come in today has drained me,’ I sniff. I chance a shiver in spite of the heating. I pull my Parka closer around me. I feel the sweat start to break out on my forehead. Father might mistake such sweat as a fever and let me off. Give me a lift home later. It’s a tried and tested get-sent-home-from-work trick. Simply wear so many layers that you come off looking as though sickness is seeping from every pore.

‘What is it you’ve left here?’ asks father.

‘Ah, you know; just a few papers. Work stuff… I thought I could work on it at home. Before I came back.’

Father narrows his eyes. He knows that I’m lying. Our work isn’t exactly the kind that you can take home with you. You wouldn’t want to take it home with you. Not if you are in your right mind.

‘I thought I could do some analysis on some of the dockets,’ I say, trying to inject my voice with a new enthusiasm. ‘Put some of those ideas from that marketing course into action. You know–try to develop a database of customers. Work out average return on investment. That kind of thing.’

Father conducts his own analysis on my battered Parka coat. The stupid fur-lined hood. As if I’m in the bloody Arctic. He works out that his average return on the investment he’s put in me would come out in the negative. He hates me for being such a sickly boy. He’s never had a day off work in his life. Not even when the stuff with mum kicked off. Not even when the problems with his hands started.

‘Son, there’s no need for us to market our services these days,’ he says, surprising me. ‘We’re doing well enough as it is. Did you not see all the people here today? They weren’t just here for shelter from the storm. I thought even you would have understood that. Recession’s a dirty word for some people, but not for a pawnbroker.’

I start to feel a little bit sick at the idea. I’ve always compared what we do to vampires feasting on the misery of others. We always seem to do well when everyone else is down to brass tacks.

‘They had old Duxbury on local news last night,’ continues father, warming to his theme. ‘TV crews set up right outside his poxy little shop. They had him as the and finally piece. You know the bit; the bit that’s supposed to be a little more light-hearted than the rest. Anyway, so the reporter introduces the piece by saying something like: “The credit crunch is not all bad news; some people are doing a roaring trade. The old-fashioned pawn broker, for example.” Then they wheel out old Duxbury, and he really does look old-fashioned. Like a dinosaur. But if folk like him can do well out of this crisis, think how well a professional business like us can do?’

Father’s trying to get me excited. It is as futile an exercise as it would be to get me interested in the undertaker business at the time of the plague. I’m just not interested in business. Or in the business climate. Or in how much money we cream in.

‘I’ll come back to work next week,’ I promise. ‘Can I have the keys to get behind the counter now please?’

Father makes as though to hand me the old gaoler’s set of keys but then thinks better of it. Shakily, he claws through the keys and finds the right one. Fumbling, he tries to thread it through the eye of the needle which is the lock. Perhaps he wanted me to see just how bad his hands have become. Perhaps he thinks that the sight of those claws will persuade me to come back and help him out. As he pushes the heavy door with his shoulder, I see the watery hope in his shining blue eyes.

I lower my gaze as I step past him.

The back office looks reassuringly unchanged from before I went on the sick. There’s still the three old desks pushed against the wall, still the one high-stool pushed up against the counter-window. Still, the leaning tower of pigeon-holes, which contain all of the boring, standard forms which we use in our work. There’s still that musty, lifeless smell about the place.

I climb up to the counter. My arse-cheeks sink into the ready-made grooves that I’ve left in the once soft cushioning of the high-stool over many years. The memories come thick and fast. How I used to sit here day in, day out, waiting for something to happen. How the occasional passer-by would step in and ask, ‘Is your father here, son?’ and wait for his return from his lunch hour before passing over their item for a valuation. They trusted old Marley, not this diluted version in his place.

Some people thought me lucky for falling into a job, when jobs around here are so hard to come by. Others, you could tell, felt sorry for me. My story was already written though, and that was how it would always be. There’s not much poetry in pawnbroking. Not much drama in spending your whole life in the company of your straight-laced father. Certainly there’s not much beauty in sitting behind a reinforced-glass window and waiting for the next client to jingle bell through that front door, ready to abuse you for not valuing his possession as highly as he believed it to be.

For a while, I allowed myself to succumb to fate’s will. Meekly I watched as the clock ground out the peppercorn hours. Eventually, I think I started to lose my mind. I started to write on the back of the dockets which were kept in the bottom pigeon-hole. Business was so poor then that we hardly had use for the big pile that father had printed up. And so I had massive scope to imagine a new story for myself. I waxed lyrical; I waned poetical. I described great, joyous, alternative worlds. This story is now the most precious thing in the world to me.

I take a deep breath and reach into the pigeon-holes.

The shock at finding nothing there is almost tangible. It crackles through me like static charge. Where are the dockets?

I move my hand to the back of the pigeon-hole, my own fingers becoming claws of hope. Already, my mind is starting making unlikely alternative explanations for why the stuff isn’t there; it is trying to soften the blow for me. It doesn’t want me to shell out for the full weight of loss all at once; incremental payments are the only way.

Okay, so the dockets aren’t there in the pigeon-hole where I left them. Perhaps they have fallen down the back somehow. Perhaps father’s simply moved them… I feel around the back of the pigeon-holes. Nothing. I feel panic starting to rise up within me. My mind performs an involuntary moonwalk. I know right away that there is no other explanation for the loss of the dockets. I know already that a clanging roller-shutter has descended on this moment. From now on, I’ll be only able to think of time as pre and post loss of the manuscript which was written on the dockets. My life’s work.

I jump down from the high-stool and career back into the shop. Father looks at me quizzically once again.

‘What happened to all of the dockets?’ I shout. ‘The dockets in the bottom pigeon-hole…’

‘Used them up, son,’ crack-smiles father. ‘I’ve ordered a fresh batch now. All of those dockets are now out with clients. And don’t worry; I’ve photo-copied them all for your files.’

‘What about the backs of them?’ I ask, breathlessly. ‘Did you copy what was on the backs of them?’

Father looks confused. As my world collapses around me, all he can do is look confused. ‘Why on earth would I want to do that?’

I smash past him and towards the door. Perhaps I’ll be able to catch some of today’s clients as they walk home carrying their booty; priceless pages of my story. Right now, my epic tome is scattered on the breeze, dying.

My hand claws around the door-handle.

‘Don’t go back out there, son,’ cries father. ‘The lads are circling again.’

I wheel round and face him. About five layers of skin fall from my face. I’m left burning with empty rage. ‘All of my hopes and dreams are outside that door! My stories!’

Father’s eyes soften, slightly. ‘If it’s stories you want son, why don’t you look around the shop. It’s full of stories.’

His middle finger points to the items stacked on the shelves. The carriage clocks and the wedding rings. The dumb umbrellas and the flighty ornaments. The shop, I see, is populated by people’s sad stories; the love-songs of their televisions. The epic poetry of their radios.

‘Don’t go out there, son,’ says father. ‘There’s story enough for you in here.’

My fingers slip from the door handle. Already I notice that they are not straight like they used to be, but curling, like burned paper. I step back into the shop.