Friday, 11 April 2014

Loneliness Merchant by Erica Camills

Without a destination and purpose, she walked on.
            She was young, maybe twenty or twenty one, of average height and build. Her brown hair was swept off her face and tied in a small ponytail, almost fully covered by a light blue flat cap. As she went on through the persistent drizzle, protected by a cheap utilitarian umbrella with the logo of an insurance company, the fingers of wind pulled a strand of hair out of the ponytail and stuck it to the right side of her oval, sunken-cheeked face. The frame of ordinary rectangular spectacles only partially concealed the purple shadows lining the bottom of her pale green eyes. Her neck was wrapped in a blue-black-white scarf, the blue a shade brighter than the one of her faded jeans. A long-sleeved, wrinkled white shirt seemed to be a size bigger than she needed, crumpled under a tight, sleeveless navy sweater which fell to the level of her knees.
            Step-drag-step-drag was the style of her walking, trainers of an ivory colour barely emitting any sound on the cracked stone path.
            A man emerged from the bend on the route.
            In his late twenties, not very tall, with eyes on the border of black and brown and chin-level dark hair with a side-swept fringe, a trench coat in the shade of midnight blue hugged his lean figure, in combination with beige chino trousers and a pair of worn tennis shoes on his feet.
            He came to a halt, as if to prevent the other walker passing by.
            The wind was gaining power.
            Her step wavered a little.
            He clutched his umbrella, one of a greenish shade.
            She stopped.
            “Where are you going?” he asked.
            A melodic, soft tone.
            “No one walks through the town on rainy days."
            Emotionless, she was looking into distance.
            “Do you like being alone?”
            “I’m used to being alone.”
            “Have you heard?”
            He switched the umbrella to his right hand. The force of the wind had meanwhile diminished.
            “Of what?”
            Her pale eyes pierced through him.
            “The shop offering happiness.”
            Her fingers snaked around the metal above the handle of her umbrella.
            “I don’t care.”
            “For happiness?”
            In general.”
            She took a slow step forward.
            ”The ones who walk down this way usually reach it.”
            “The shop or happiness?”
            He smiled slightly. “The shop offers happiness. So, both.”
            “Is that so.”
            The flat voice harboured no sign of interest.
            “Don’t you believe that happiness can be bought or sold?”
            “Isn’t that a common saying?”
            “I was asking about how you see it.”
            “I’m just a common person.”
            “Common people don’t walk through the town on rainy days.”
            Her back straightened slightly.
            “Who are you?”
            The corners of his lips rose further.
            “Are you interested?”
            “I wonder who someone who does that is. Walking through the town on a rainy day.”
            “I’m a merchant.”
            “A happiness merchant?”
            This time only the left corner curled, in an almost sad manner.
            “Quite different goods.”
            “I see. ”
            She paused for a fleeting instant.
            “Good luck with sales.”
            The rim of the umbrella hid her face.
            He made a half-step to the right, in front of her.
            She halted.
            Blackish brown interconnected once more with the pale green.
            “Why are you walking down this road?”
            “It leads to somewhere.”
            “To a shop offering happiness.”
            “I don’t care about where it actually leads. It’s still just somewhere for me at this point. I have to see for myself.”
            She resumed her paused movement.
            He moved out of the way.
            Step, drag, step, drag.

“Happiness welcomes you!”
            An energetic girl in her late teens with long red hair tied in a bun and sparkling blue eyes cheerfully greeted the newcomer.
            Her clothes contrasted sharply with the chilly and damp weather outside the small, brightly lit shop; she was dressed in white shorts and a teal short top that revealed a flat stomach and emphasised her large breasts.
            The pale-eyed brunette folded the dripping umbrella.
            “You really do sell happiness here?”
            “That's a sure thing!”
            The girl gestured towards the shelves on her left. They bore numerous small boxes with attached price tags, an inch of space between each two.
            The young woman’s gaze ran over the lined identical containers.
            “Isn’t happiness supposed to have a different form and shape for every person?”
            “That doesn’t exclude anything, does it?” the shop assistant grinned. “You don’t know what’s in the box. Even I don’t know. It’s forbidden to look inside unless you buy it. Maybe it changes its form and shape depending on the buyer. Or it has no form and shape and only gains one after someone buys and opens it. Who knows? Not me.”
            The brunette fixed her eyes upon the redhead for a while, saying nothing. She blinked.
            “Sorry, but I don’t want to die yet.”
            She turned around and pressed down on a button on the umbrella. The umbrella shot forwards, unfolding again.
            She exited into the rain, leaving behind nothing but the echo of the doorbell.
            “She is the first one. If I am not mistaken.”
            An elderly man in a woollen jumper with a moustache, opaque oval glasses and hunched posture trudged out of a back room behind the counter, supported by an ancient, rough-surfaced walking stick.
            The red-haired girl gave him a glance, disbelief shaping her countenance.
            “She looked pretty miserable at that. If it was me, I’d be glad to spare some cash for a box of happiness.”
            “She merely knows the worth,” the old owner murmured, quietly staring through the window at the downpour.
            Outside, she stopped at the crossroads.
            The merchant, nevertheless, had already continued his own journey.

She sat down at a table with three chairs, a plain glass of tap water in her hands. The umbrella had been left at the entrance, along with the flat cap, wet shoes and her sense of meaning.
            She resented returning to her flat.
            Or inside, generally.
            She did not remember where it started. Since when, upon the signal of a door shutting behind her, the firm, swift hands gripped her mind and shackled her thoughts. Keeping them restrained until the instant when the outside air enveloped her in its embrace once more.
            Maybe walking through the town on rainy days she sought the answer. But she had yet to attain the strength to go further.
            Even now, she was too weak.
            She set the half-emptied glass down on the table and, in her socks, padded to the bathroom. She had a short but hot shower, carried her clothes to her bedroom and pulled on a nightdress and a bathrobe instead.
            While making herself a cinnamon-flavoured rice porridge and a mug of black coffee without any addition of milk or sugar, a single one of the fettered thoughts succeeded in acquiring a tiny shard of freedom.
            It wandered back to the merchant.

Having yet to remove his trench coat, he leant against the cushioning of his cream-coloured sofa, allowing the softness to comfort him. With a tap on the remote control, he switched on the TV and, with his eyes aimed somewhere at the level of a low, light wood chest of drawers on the opposite side of the room, listened to the flow of information coming from a thirtyish female newsreader.
            The construction of a new road. Rising prices of butter. The case of a bribed judge.
            The same, run-of-the-mill words.
            “...committed suicide in his house late yesterday evening.”
            While his brain processed the news, he continued staring at the furniture, unfocused.
            This made the fourth one in the town since the beginning of the month. And six in the previous month.
            Secondary school students, white collar workers, housewives, senior citizens, successful and affluent people.
            Sleeping pills, hangings, bullets, car gas, leaps from the edge of a skyscraper’s roof.
            The circumstances varied to the extent that one could hardly draw a definite link between any of them.
            He was an exception.
            With a sigh, his eyes fluttered close.
            Victims of ignorance and lack of understanding. Understanding of what purchasing an ordinary-looking box labelled with the name of an abstract thing could amount to.
            With the sounds of the weather forecast in the background, currently predicting a week of mild rain with occasional thunderstorms, he stood up and crossed the room to the left-hand wall.
            Entirely made of glass, it was separated into tens of brick-like squares.
            He stretched his fingers as though hoping to reach something. He laid his hand upon the cold transparent surface.
            His reflection returned a slightly quizzical look.
            Had the one who walked through the town on rainy days strayed into the shop that offered happiness?
            The merchant gazed, melancholic, at the falling rain.

“Happiness welcomes you!”
            The red-haired girl halted as she recognised the customer, a mixture of interest, surprise and irritation etched in her features. In spite of the continuous rainfall, she was wearing shorts and a crop top in a light pink hue.
            “Have you changed your mind?”
            “I haven’t,” the brunette responded, glancing around. “I have a question.”
            The red-haired assistant narrowed her sky blue eyes in suspicion and caution.
            “Ask,” she prompted.
            “Has a merchant ever visited this shop?”
            “A merchant?”
            The redhead twisted her neck and called out.
            “Owner! Could you come here?”
            The elderly man wobbled out with the help of his stick.
            His sparse eyebrows raised marginally, in an enquiring manner.
            “How may I be of help?”
            “She’s asking if there’s ever been a merchant in the shop. I thought that Owner might know.”
            “A merchant, Miss?”
            “That’s what he said he was. It was him who told me about this shop. He claimed he didn’t deal with happiness, though.”
            “I see.”
            The owner scratched his head, a bare surface covered by a few wispy, whitened remains.
            “Provided that you answer a question I have for you, Miss, I will tell you about this merchant.”
            “Why did you refuse to purchase our goods?”
            “I don’t want to die yet.”
            “Now, what is your basis for thinking that you would die from happiness?”
            “I believe it’s similar to vitamin A.”
            “Vitamin A?” drawled the redhead in an utterly perplexed tone.
            The owner gave a silent laugh in place of confusion.
            “Very well, Miss.”
            He turned to the red-haired girl with a gentle request.
            “Could I ask you to give us a minute of privacy?”
            She immediately retreated to the back room without a word of complaint.
            The old man sauntered to the brunette’s side, laying a wrinkled hand on her shoulder and squeezing it lightly.
            “You understand what others cannot, Miss.”
            She blinked, inhaling to speak, but then clamping her mouth shut.
            The elderly owner smiled knowingly.
            “I know of a merchant.”
            She gazed at him, unmoving.
            “Do you?”                     
            “Yes. He is somebody whose eyes overflow with joy, is he not?”
            “Now that you mention it...”
            “He is the loneliness merchant.”
            “Loneliness?” she echoed with pursed lips.
            “Loneliness, indeed.”
            “You understand what others cannot, Miss,” the owner repeated.
            “You have refused to purchase happiness for a reason. If you try thinking in a similar fashion about the loneliness merchant, you will be certain to reach the answer.”
            The owner patted her shoulder with the care of one’s own grandfather.

The weather defied the predictions.
            The clouds had cleared during the night and he woke up to a soft blue sky with huddles of white here and there. The air held remnants of the night cold. The surrounding lawns were lush, soothing, serene green.
            He left the trench coat slung over the back of his couch.
            The merchant strolled along the streets, almost deserted at this early hour, his eyes emanating characteristic exuberance. Their nonplussed widening was barely noticeable when they landed upon a lone figure, huddling on a bench in a jacket of dingy white with patches of turquoise. She was staring at a fountain, the sole current of water playfully leaping up and then making a rapid descent.
            The shadows lining the underside of her motionless eyes were a shade darker purple than before.
            He walked over to the bench and stopped by her side.
            The leaves rustled quietly in a rush of breeze.
            “Out even though it’s not raining?”
            She did not give so much as a little start, her voice tranquil as she replied.
            “Clear days could be better for interacting with people.”
            She looked up from the fountain and directed her gaze at him.
            "How are the sales?”
            He smiled.
            “They are the way they’ve always been. Steady as they can be, without any harsh ups or downs.”
            “I didn’t imagine your goods were too popular.”
            He bowed his head with a chuckle.
            “It’s something people will always buy automatically. Unconsciously; you look at it and in the next moment you’ll already have bought it, without really knowing how or why.”
            He slid past her and onto the vacant space on the bench.
            She shifted to meet his eyes.
            “Why did you decide to do such a job?”
            “Sometimes,” he craned his neck backwards, towards the sky, “there are things you just know, aren’t there? You don’t need any logic to justify them, any reason for their presence. It’s a part of yourself – an inseparable one. So following that impulse is natural.”
            “Without knowing why?”
            “Without knowing why.”
            Slowly, he allowed his eyelids to fall closed.
            “Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been convinced that this was what I ought to do. More than deciding or wanting to do it, I needed and had to do it. Not being a merchant with my kind of goods I would be someone else, not myself. I was born for it. It’s the meaning of my life. Call it whatever you like.”
            He opened his eyes and looked at his hand, a cheerless smile on his lips. He stretched the fingers as far as they would do and then balled them into a fist.
            He repeated the action a few times, as though to assure himself that the hand was still a part of his body he had control over.
            “Because I was born with these eyes...”
            He threw the hand up into the air. It made a swishing sound.
            “What do you do? Apart from walking through the town on rainy days?”
            “Nothing like a merchant or a worker at a happiness shop. I’m an ordinary home office translator.”
            “It’s the perfect job for not coming into direct contact with people.”
            “Do you dislike people that much?”
            “It’s not that. I’ve just never learnt how to like them in the first place. How to be around them, even.”
            He exhaled deeply.
            “I suppose being a translator has a charm of its own, doesn’t it?”
            “Forming a bridge of understanding for the ones who would never be able to cross the river otherwise?”
            “That’s one way to put it.”
            “I’ve never really thought of it like that.”
            “Haven’t you?”
            “No. It’s just a job for me, not a meaning of my life. I’m good at it, but I wasn’t born for it. If you are the loneliness merchant... then maybe I’m a pain transmitter.”
            “How so?”
            “Because I was born with this face that shows nothing of what’s going on inside. Be honest with me. Do I look like I’m in pain?”
            “Not a single bit.”
            She bent over to her knees, arms hugging her sides.
            “It’s scary. There’s so much pain inside me. Tearing me apart. Breaking me into shreds. But I look the same. Indifferent. Uninterested. Collected. Once a fragment of the pain pushed through and you could see it. Someone told me to stop making that face. That it was horrible. Terrifying. Full of suffering. At that time, I couldn’t stop laughing. It was just a tiny fragment. One drop of water in the ocean. If they knew how much pain there really is bottled up inside me... frightening. It’s scary.”
            For the first time, he felt as though somebody could understand.

“Say, Owner, why is he the loneliness merchant? To be fair, he hasn’t really got the look.”
            “It's his eyes,” said the owner with a small smile.
            “Aren’t you always saying that he’s the one with eyes that overflow with joy?”
            “It's the instant you look into them...”
            He turned and looked, wearily at his slightly trembling hands. The walking stick stood propped against a wall next to the door.
            “...and then you realise how lonely he is inside.”

“Someone once told me to always look out for a rainbow after rain.”
            She spoke of the memory while seated under a heaven of heavy, almost oppressive clouds, separated into two uneven parts by a seven colour bridge. The gold sunrays bathed both of them, reflecting on the surface of an ancient descant recorder she was loosely holding in both hands.
            The slowly fading echo of the hopeful tones could be heard in the distance.
            “But I quit doing that a long time ago. Since the day I started walking through the town on rainy days, I didn’t care what happened after the rain stopped.”
            “Yet today, you were searching again.”
            “Isn’t that because you are with me?”
            Following a blink of awe, his laughter tinkled through the unmoving air.
            “Sometimes you are so honest it’s almost scary.”
            “I think it comes with being apart from people. From what I’ve seen, the more time you spend with them, the more you lie and hide the truth, to seem appropriate to society. To fit the person you are supposed to be.”
            “When did you become this way?”
            “I don’t know. Since I can remember, I've always been alone.”
            “You've never bought my goods, at that.”
            She gripped the recorder with one of her hands, laying the other on the ground and leaning on it, elbow locked straight. She exhaled with a trace of remorse.
            “I’m used to it.”
            “Then let’s do it the other way round."
            He said before he could so much as begin to think about his words. Or even whether he should say them at all.
            “The other way round?”
            He moved forwards, palms next to her, their faces inches from each other.
            “Your pain... give it to me.”
            A hint of a smile surfaced on her face, tenderness colouring her voice.
            “Haven’t you already taken it?”
            Her hand abandoned the ground in favour of his chest, slightly to the left.
            “Here. Don’t you feel it?”
            The outspread hand had found his heart.
            For a while, he stayed immobile.
            He acknowledged an odd yearning to close his eyes and disregard the flow of time for once.
            “Is that pain?” he breathed at last.
            She rested her head on his shoulder. Her hair, loose in waves in place of the small ponytail, tickled the nape of his neck.
            A whisper wafted up to him.
            “Who knows?”

The road before them was reminiscent of a mountain spring.
            It took a considerable drop right at the beginning and then continued snaking, almost invisible, through large patches of green fields, vanishing completely at one point, with its flow abruptly becoming more powerful and wider after surfacing once more. It was inconceivable to see more than what was presumably a fragment of the whole route. The horizon was closer than the final yards.
            Tall, ancient coniferous trees were overlooking the sea of green, huddling close together as if predicting the approach of the last days of summer. Magnificent greyish hills, in a gentle embrace of veils of fog, kept guard over their herd.
            Above the two of them the sky spread its ambiguously grey canvas, illuminated by occasional sharp, whiteish gleams. The weather forecast for the day had already changed several times since the previous night. Neither of them had counted how many.
            “It seems a long way to go,” he remarked, studying her out of the corner of his eye.
She agreed with a small nod, her attention aimed at the faraway scenery; perhaps their destination, a place where they would find new possibilities. Perhaps something too distant  to be imagined. Unfamiliar. Foreign. Endless.
            And enthralling.
            She awakened from her trance and looked up at him.
            “I was too afraid to walk down it. I thought that I’d never be able to find the way back.”
            “Are you not afraid now?”
            “I’m stronger.”
            Her voice had a ring of both incredulousness and determination.
            A tentative smile bloomed, full and confident.
            “Everything that’s irreplaceable... I’m taking it with me.”
            He shook his head, half in disbelief, half to conceal embarrassment.
            “I really wonder where those lines come from.”
            “It’s called being honest.”
            She chuckled.
            “Being honest and telling the truth without the need to care that you’ll make a fool of yourself.”
            His gaze wandered to a familiar, cracked stone path to the northwest of them.
            “How long has it been since we met?”
            “Time’s always been around.”
            “You can’t escape it. It’s just there and whatever you do about it, it will be. But when you find something special, precious... it’s different. It might come and go, it might change... one day it’s an unshakeable certainty and the next it’s on the verge of disappearing. With all your might, you treasure it, always on the border with fear of losing it. Rewarding and frustrating, fulfilling and lonely, happy and sad... When it comes to something this unique, does a trivial thing like time matter?”
            He sighed, half-grinning.
            “Shall we go?”
            Neither of them spared the old road a last glance.
            They took the first step together, facing each other.
            They moved forwards slowly, to prevent stumbling on the treacherous, unpredictable road; with destination and purpose.
            In the same direction.
            Somewhere along the path, the end of which nobody was able to see, she let out a chuckle.
            “You know, it was kind of ironic that you were the one who told me about the shop offering happiness.”
            A melodic tone, tinged with joy impossible to mask.
            “Because I ran into happiness on my way there.”

“She hasn’t come in a while...”
            The red-haired shop assistant heaved a deep sigh, plopping onto a bed with a frame made of rough, non-lacquered wood.
            “Are you that interested in her?” the elderly owner asked serenely, warming his hands with a steaming cup of herbal tea.
            “She was sort of interesting, wasn’t she? I wanted to find out a bit more about her.    Like what she meant by that vitamin A thingy.”
            She eyed the owner cautiously.
            He laughed quietly, extended his arm and ruffled the mane of red hair.
            “You will come to understand when you have grown up a little.”
            “Phew,” the girl pouted and scrunched up her nose.
            “It is about time to get up, young lady. We have other customers.”
            The girl brightened up a little.
            “Maybe she’ll come round today.”
            With that, she jumped to her feet and rushed out of the room. The owner turned to the single window, noticing a vivid red leaf attached to the glass.
            “Those who have found their pro-vitamin A will not reach this shop anymore,” he said quietly. “Just how many customers make the right choice...”
            “Did you say anything, Owner?” the girl called loudly.
            “Nothing at all.”
            He heaved himself up.
            “Let us open the shop.”

About the author: Erica Camills is an international student and aspiring author, currently living in Devon, England. At present, she is working on several short stories as well as a novel about the nature of memory and its impact on the lives of individuals. 

Image: (c) Nguyen Nguyen