Antique–a great #writephoto prompt from KL Caley at New2Writing.com, but one that puzzled me. I’ve done a good number of stories with antiques with weird, supernatural or cursed properties. What could I do that was different?
This. And it’s just over 1000 words (and it’s a bit late as I’ve been hung up on book production issues). Enjoy 🙂
The little bell tinkled as an old man came into my antiques shop.
“Do you have a 1917 Penny Black?” he asked in response to my enquiry.
“Er, no. I confess I didn’t know there was such a thing.” What was he talked about? Penny Blacks came out in 1840, for one year only. Depending on quality, they could be worth a couple of pounds, or a couple of hundred thousand. 1917?
“Well, I may come back.”
“Strangers and strange things,” my grandad used to say. He told me mostly funny tales, until I got a little older, when he’d tell me of weird objects that arrived in his shop. I remembered them from the weekends and holidays I’d spent with him, graduating from playing with the ornaments, to rearranging the window displays, to full-on assistant. Going with him to house clearances had been the best. He’d taught me everything I knew. “But not everything I know, not yet,” he’d wink at me.
I bet he’d never heard of a 1917 Penny Black.
A few months later, a man in his forties, who seemed vaguely familiar, came in and asked the same question.
“Funny, I had someone else ask me that recently. I still don’t know that there is such a thing.”
“Oh,” he said, frowning and sucking his moustache. The moustache was an old-fashioned style. Perhaps he was into retro. He left without looking left or right. Most people at least give the place a once-over.
This occasional request for a 1917 Penny Black kept on, about four times over the next five years. Always a man, sometimes older, sometimes younger. Different hairstyles, but he looked familiar, even before he’d asked the question.
It was early autumn, that awkward time between the summer being over and the trees changing colour, when he blew in with a September gale, dressed in a wet raincoat, even though it hadn’t rained for three days.
“Hello,” he said. I gave my usual greeting, cautiously, as I was sure… “Nice place you’ve got here. I wonder, do you do storage?”
“Only for small items, things that would fit in my safe.”
“Ah, perfect. It’s in this envelope.” He produced an envelope, sealed, from his inside pocket. He held it, studying the front, as if committing it to memory. “Look, I may not be back for some time. Do you charge for storage?”
“Normally,” this was ridiculous, “But not for something that small, unless you need it insured.”
“No, you are my insurance, effectively. Please don’t show it to anyone. If anyone comes in asking for a 1917 Penny Black, ask them what they know about it. If they don’t tell you exactly what’s on the envelope, don’t give it to them.”
“Okay.” I was frowning, but also beginning to wonder about the previous visitors. I took the envelope. “Do you want to give me your name?”
“You’ll work it out.” His smile was so infectious, and so familiar. He felt like family. But he left, opening the door to another gust of wind, the distant sound of thunder echoing in on it.
It was another year before someone came in asking for a 1917 Penny Black, but it wasn’t the same man. I asked what he knew of it. That started a rush, of people who did not seem to be related to each other, let alone the original person, coming in and asking for it. None seemed to know anything more about it, although a couple tried making something up, and one described a 1840 Penny Black accurately.
It quietened down for a while, although my antique business was booming. I suspect these visitors helped to create the illusion of prosperity. I started looking around for new premises. As it happened, the free space near the old railway station was coming onto the market, so I got in and secured a long lease on the warehouses and workshops, as a private deal.
We’d had our ‘Moving Sale,’ and I’d closed and locked the front door. All the stock save for the last bits in the showroom was already in the new premises. The few papers I kept in the safe I’d put in my backpack. The ‘1917 Penny Black’ envelope was with them, safe as always. I put on my backpack, stowed my empty lunchbox in my briefcase, walked out of the back door and round to my car.
A gang of people rushed me, knocked me to the ground, and grabbed the briefcase. They’d gone before I could draw breath to scream. I rolled over, got to my feet, and hoicked the backpack straight again. The contents of the backpack were safely in the new safe at the warehouse before any other madmen could come dashing after me.
The next week, the man I recognised, even though he must have been nearly eighty, walked into the new shop.
He grinned at me. “Found you! Is everything well with you?”
“Yes, fine, although…” I told him about the briefcase blunder.
“Ah, so the big question, do you have a 1917 Penny Black?”
“What do you know about it?”
“I know that October the first is too late,” he replied, grin still in place.
I took him into my office, put the coffee on, and opened the safe. “Here it is. It’s not a 1917 Penny Black, though is it.”
“And have you worked out who I am?”
“I think you’re family, but I can’t work out who.”
“I’m your grandfather’s brother. After the war I was taken in by a Swedish family. I didn’t know who I was then, shock you know. And later, after they’d given me this,” he waved the envelope, “as they couldn’t give me anything else under the property laws, I remembered. But people were after this, and for good reason.”
“What is it.”
“An 1855 Treskilling Yellow.”
Not surprisingly, as I’d been keeping a vague interest in stamps for some years, I gasped. The last one sold had fetched over two million US dollars.
“So what next? And how have you been coming in at different times, older, younger…”
“Ah, well, in the future, some very rich person has developed a time machine. And if you don’t sell this now, that rich person won’t exist.”
He handed over the envelope. “Shall I come with you to Christie’s? You’ll need proof of ownership and the chain of provenance. I have those. And we have an appointment for tomorrow.”
I opened my mouth and shut it again.
My assistants could handle tomorrow’s sale without me.
© J M Pett 2022