Another of my early Shortbread Stories, now out of the two year exclusivity agreement. This is the first part of a trilogy.
Saturday mornings, especially in the spring and summer, Sylvie would wander around the local flea markets. Her favourite was down along beside the river. She never had much money these days but now and again she could scrape enough together to buy a pretty plate or a couple of old books. That was until the day she saw the mirror. It wasn’t particularly big, not a cheval type just what she imagined could be called a looking-glass. It had an ornate frame, dark metal squirled and curled and convoluted. Sylvie didn’t know what sort of metal it was but it glowed rather than shone, glowed with a dull, rich gleam. The glass appeared to be undamaged, it was slightly amber in colour and the light fell into it to be reflected back deepened and gilded. It captured her immediately; I know I’d never be able to afford that.
“Good morning miss.” The stall holder was a tiny woman, wizened and bent a little. She was dressed in nondescript dark clothes, a bit of a tangle, a top and cardigan dangling over a drooping, shapeless skirt of dingy cloth. She smelt a little and Sylvie was put off and turned to go on down the pathway and spend her money on a cup of coffee and maybe a piece of carrot cake. “You like my mirror pretty miss? I think you like my mirror. I see you looking, I think, ah yes that miss she likes my mirror.” The accent was hard to place, quite pronounced but not French or German or any others that Sylvie could name.
She didn’t want to encourage the woman, she knew she wouldn’t have enough money to buy the mirror and didn’t want to get into a useless conversation with this grimy little person. “Yes, yes, it’s very nice but I’m not buying today thank you.”
“You like my mirror miss, I know you like my mirror. My mirror likes you miss. My mirror could go with you today. You could have my mirror in your room, you could comb your pretty hair and watch it shine I know you like to do that. I think miss you like my mirror.” She reached out a grubby hand, each finger was dressed with a ring, even on her thumb, old rings, silver with dull stone settings. As the cardigan sleeve fell back more silver jewellery jangled and clanged on the skinny old wrist.
“No thank you, I’m not buying today. It’s very nice but it wouldn’t suit my room.”
“It would look good in your room miss, you could put it beside your window. The colour is good for your room miss.”
Sylvie was a bit spooked now, that was just what she had thought when she had first seen the old artefact propped against a vase on the table. That colour would look really good in my room. She gave her subconscious a serious slap. Leave it now Sylvie, carrot cake is calling, come on get on with it.
“You want my mirror miss, your eyes want my mirror and your soul, your soul too wants my mirror. You buy it now, you buy this mirror and put it on your wall.”
“I can’t afford the mirror, I like it of course but I don’t have enough money. Sorry.” Why was she apologising, this woman was being a nuisance now.
“You give me that twenty pounds and I sell you my mirror. Just twenty pounds.”
“I don’t have twenty pounds, sorry. I can’t afford that.”
“You look.” As she spoke the crone’s hand shot out and grabbed Sylvie’s purse.
“Hey, give me that.” Sylvie snatched her purse back and as she did it fell open in her hand. The skinny old fingers shot out again pulling at the flap of the wallet part. “There you give me that, I sell you my mirror.”
Sylvie couldn’t believe her eyes, there in the wallet folded in the card slot was a twenty pound note. She knew, she knew absolutely that she didn’t have that there when she had picked up her purse. Twenty pounds, that was a huge amount to have left on a Saturday, no way would she have missed that. A tiny smile curled at her lips, well she didn’t know where it had come from and probably later she would remember and it would be disastrous, but right now, this moment she had the money in her hand to buy the mirror. It was so long since she had done something spontaneous, not since she lost the job at the call centre and had to take the part-time one in the museum. The work was so much more interesting but the money was absolute pants and here now in her purse twenty pounds. Oh sod it. She handed the money over, the stall keeper had already started wrapping some old newspaper around the mirror and tying it with string.
As she handed over the parcel her hand brushed against the skin of Sylvie’s palm and it was just like touching stone, there was no human warmth at all. Sylvie gasped and snatched her hand away but the little woman just looked into her eyes with a calm unblinking gaze. And then she just turned on her heel and walked off to the back of the stall where she disappeared into an ancient van.
Sylvie took a step back and admired the looking-glass. She was right and the old woman was right, the mirror frame was perfect for the colour scheme in her room and it looked lovely hanging beside the window. There had even been a hook on the wall left by the last tenants. Sylvie had kept it there with a dim idea that some time she would hang a framed print on it but this mirror was so much better. The room was reflected in the amber depths, glowing back at her golden, misty and unclear. As she stood admiring it she noted that there was a tiny speck just to the side of where her mouth was reflected. Damn I didn’t notice that before. Oh well, it doesn’t matter it’s an antique after all.
That night, as usual she went round to spend the evening with Milly, they had met at Uni, both were short of money, Sylvie because of the part-time nature of her job at the museum and Milly because she was treading the long, difficult road towards a career in classical music. They opened a bottle of cheap wine, cooked some fajitas and settled down for an evening of gossip and sharing hopes and dreams.
“What have you done to your face?” As she asked the question Milly leaned over and touched Sylvie low down on her cheek, “It looks a bit like eczema, you should get some cream for that.”
“I didn’t know there was anything there.” Sylvie’s fingers explored the place and found a little sore spot to the side of her mouth. “Hmm, I’ll get something from Boots. I expect it’s nothing.”
The sun speared in through the tiny gap in the curtain teasing and poking at Sylvie’s eyelids. She groaned, “Oh no, we did it again, cheap wine – headache in a bottle, urgh.” She pushed herself upright and ruffled at her hair, licking at her musty mouth.
“Hello Milly, it’s me. God I feel awful, how much did we drink last night? Anyway, thing is I’m not going to be able to meet you later. That spot on my face has spread, I don’t know what it is but I’m going to have to get an appointment at the health centre tomorrow if I can. Worst of it is I bought a mirror at the market and now all the time I’m walking round the room I keep getting shots of myself looking like the Bride of Dracula. Not only that, this flat must be damp the mirror was fine when I bought it but it’s developed spots in the silvering. Anyway, I’m no company at all so I’ll call you in the week. Bye hon.”
After a morning lolling about in the flat in a desultory way Sylvie gave up mid-day and crept back into the warmth and comfort of her duvet to sleep the afternoon away. As the lights of the evening flicked on around and about she roused and dragged herself upright. Her gaze flicked to the mirror “What on earth.” It was almost opaque, slipping her legs out from under the duvet she took the few steps from her bed to the wall and peered at the lovely amber glass, it was crazed, covered with myriad cracks and splits, a few small slivers of the glass lay on the floor. “I don’t believe it, what a mess. Typical, I knew I shouldn’t buy the darned thing.” Sylvie reached up and carefully she took down the old frame. The glass sent back a million mocking visions of her ruined skin, the rash was worse, some of the blemishes had joined forming patches of angry redness. She slid her feet into her crocs and made her way carefully downstairs to throw the thing into the wheelie bin.
As the old frame left her hands the world spun dizzily, shards of screaming light shot into her brain, her skin ignited with unbelievable pain, her reality exploded and she fell in a heap in the damp street.
The Daily Screech
Murder in the City
A young couple walking to the riverside park early on Sunday evening made the gruesome discovery of a female body lying in an alley off Main Road. The woman had apparently been dreadfully beaten and had suffered horrific injuries to her face and head. The body was identified as that of Ms Sylvie Wright, 26 an employee of the Museum. Her close friend Millicent Roberts told this reporter that Ms Wright was almost unrecognisable so violent was the attack.
Police would like to trace an elderly woman seen foraging in the wheelie bin shortly before the body was discovered.