I pace about the shop, searching. Clutching the velvet bag, secured tightly with a ribbon, I scan my shop for some nook, crevice or other opening. Perhaps it is just me being paranoid, but something was amiss with that last visitor. Most of my clientele are friendly, forthright, and pleasant. This one, though observing the standard pleasantries, had a distinctly foul air about him. Though at least he didn’t notice – or declined to mention – the literal foul air about the shop. I should have that looked after.
Finding no obvious hiding place in my rather spartan shop space, I quickly mount the stairs and proceed up, with heavy clomps on the hardwood. On reaching the landing, I stop. I experimentally stomp my foot on the floor and am rewarded with a dull, hollow sound. Interesting. I go back downstairs and examine the wall containing the staircase. Mounted in frames are example diagrams of my wares atop a smooth hardwood panelling. Though quite obvious to me now, this is the first time I noticed some un-accounted for space underneath the stairs.
A quick mental calculation reveals at least four cubic metres of space not utilized. Its funny to think that I’ve lived an worked here for some months, but still have very little idea of the construction of my abode. Mr. Melnik merely handed me the key with a smile and it didn’t occur to me to ask of the building’s history or features beyond the superficial. I can recall no mention of a cellar or cupboard beneath the stairs. Finally putting down the forgotten velvet bag, I take up a screw driver and resolve to examine the wall.
Mindful of previous damage I have incurred by way of careless curiosity, I probe first with my fingernails at the seam between two panels. Searching, for some catch or evidence of a hinge.
“Aha” I exclaim when my nail feels something more solid, metallic. I prod and dig – and break a nail.
“Dash it!” I look at my broken fingernail and wonder if any woman in this city sports a set of immaculate nails. I think of all the typists, pianists and tinkerers and find it an unlikely prospect. Chiding myself for my carelessness, I switch to using the far more resilient screwdriver. I spend some time prodding and prying. It’s stuck fast. Applying a bit more force, I am rewarded with a horrible squeaking and finally, a crack.
“What have I done? I must be off my rocker.” I look at the ugly crack in the panelling I have created and note for the first time that what I had found was merely an iron nail. Through the scarce few millimetres I have revealed, I see blackness. I decide against prying any further.
I feel a soft rubbing against my leg. I look down and see my pet cat, Azriel, looking resplendent with her too-perfectly groomed fur. I kneel down and stare into the saucers of her eyes.
“Meow” She says, hopefully.
I point to the crack in the wall, “You see? There has gone my security deposit. Let that be a lesson to you concerning the pitfalls of curiosity.” I pat the poor kitten who, delightfully oblivious to the finer points of human existence, proceeds to purr.
I will have to engage a builder to fix it now. Doubtless, Mr. Melnik would be less than impressed with me damaging his rather nice panelling. Feeling quite foolish, I return to my desk, flopping into the chair and tossing the screwdriver carelessly on the floor. Azriel follows and sits in her usual corner of the rug under my desk, still purring.
A sudden wave of loneliness washes over me. I realize I’ve been in New Babbage almost a year, and although productive, I have made precious few friends. I’ve always had my nose in some book, tinkering with some contraption, or performing calculations while taking tea alone in my little flat upstairs. Some life I have made for myself. Perhaps the Fop back home was right about one thing, perhaps I have become a frightful bore.
In fact, that verdict, spoken to me rather rudely when I spurned his affection, was the very turning point when I decided to emigrate. Still, I have lost something. Back home, I used to be quite social. Attending balls, tea socials, exhibitions. Chatting with my friends, enjoying the warmth of their company – and getting absolutely nothing done. Weighing these two distinct extremes in the scales of my mind I come to the growing resolution that they are not mutually exclusive. I could have FUN if I wanted to, surely.
“I’m not some frumpy old maid, not yet.”
Azriel noisily produces a hair-ball.
“Well, thank you Miss! Staunch support, you are!” I reply, voice dripping in dramatic irony. However, one look at that adorable furr-ball, and I melt. In resignation, I clean up the mess while she looks on, seemingly amused at the scrubbing motion. Her rather disgusting outrage did, however, break me out of my melancholia.
A faint smile appears on my face as I look up, glancing between a narrow gap in the blinds. It’s a lovely evening. Spring had come early to New Babbage. Surely, it would be a waste to spend it fretting about my shop in a fit of paranoid delusion over some less-than pleasant customer, or sulking over some minor wall damage.
In my minds eye, I picture a pleasant walk down Front Street, and pint or six at the Gangplank. The smile broadens. That’s the ticket! I could even TALK to people, perish the thought. I laugh heartily. With a new resolve I make ready to depart, donning my new hat. Glancing in the mirror, I try a couple of different angles. Its cutting-edge style will take some getting used to. Simple, yet elegant, and delightfully devoid of the bundles of feathers and flowers that seemed to be the rage only a few months ago. Apparently, it is of French design, created by a woman who is causing quite a stir in Paris. Though likely that was said merely to encourage its purchase, and realizing I may very well look ridiculous, I will be bold for once. This is the perfect opportunity to try it out on the discerning public.
As an afterthought, I deposit my notebook and invention into my carpet bag. Best to keep it with me where it is safe. Perhaps I could swing by and see if Dr. C. is at home on the way. I could consult with him, clear up some of my mysteries – and perhaps pry him away from his work with the promise of a mutually enjoyable evening out. Grand idea. The company of such a handsome and engaging chap would surely elevate my spirits.
I douse the lamp, open the door, and step out into the mild spring evening.