‘You want… What?’
Rilla hadn’t expected to need to repeat herself. ‘A voodoo doll, several pins, something to stop nightmares in children, something to get rid of insomnia in adults and something that allows you to put curses on other people. Oh, and maybe some sort of spell to cause someone to come out in hives. That ashtray causes people to choke on the cigarette they’re smoking? I’ll take it.’ Rilla realised that the ‘artefacts’ part of the name of Bezzina’s Emporium of Magical Artefacts and Antiquities was quite a bit more significant than she’d assumed. ‘Do these pillowcases really cause the person sleeping to dream about whatever they feel most guilty about? I’ll take them too.’
‘Right. Bear with me a minute.’ The teenage shop assistant disappeared into the back room, brocade dress glinting slightly in the afternoon light, ducking her head to avoid the doorframe. ‘Soph! Ernest!’
Rilla Singh wasn’t usually one to believe in magic. She wasn’t usually one to throw lamps, eat black forest gateaux at three o’clock in the morning or set fire to her husband’s clothes, either, but recently she had done all of those things quite a lot. Desperate times, as her mother used to say, called for desperate measures and occasionally a daytime gin and tonic.
Thus, Rilla found herself leaving her children with her sister for the day, downing a pre-mixed G&T from a corner shop and taking the train to a shabby antiques shop in the arse end of Essex, with three hundred pounds and a shopping list in her handbag.
A moment later, the assistant reappeared with an older gentleman wearing the most awful hand tattoos, and another teenage girl wearing the most awful cardigan.
‘Ernest Bezzina, ma’am.’ The older man shook her hand. ‘Ariel says you’re after voodoo. I’m afraid we only supply that to vetted customers. Besides, voodoo dolls aren’t that prominent in either Louisiana or Haitian voodoo. Nor are the dolls you’re thinking of always used for harm. We tend to call them poppets. Bit of a misconception, really, voodoo dolls. Blame Hollywood.’
‘I can show you our collection of poppets?’ Cardigan Girl offered Rilla a tiny cloth person. ‘This one helps with sleep. A lady in Shropshire makes them, they’re brilliant. She also does charm bags. That’s all we’ve really got in terms of purpose-built magical items, I’m afraid. Halloween wiped us out of spell kits, skulls, that sort of thing.’
‘May I ask,’ Ernest said, as Rilla frowned at the little figurine, ‘why you’re looking for so many objects that can be so easily weaponised?’
‘I need to either kill my husband or make him wish he was dead.’
There was a brief beat of silence.
‘We hear quite a lot of that,’ Ernest said. ‘We have a policy to never sell anything potentially harmful until we know why it’s required. You should know we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone we consider dangerous. I must also tell you that we believe if we believe there to be a real risk of terrorism, we’re obliged to inform the relevant authorities.’
‘We’re not just saying that because you’re South Asian,’ Cardigan Girl said quickly. ‘We tell everyone who asks for anything dangerous, like Ernest said. We’ve had a bit of a problem with white supremacists lately. Oh, God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry—it’s honestly not a race thing, I’m so sorry you thought that—’
‘No, no, that’s not why—I’m crying because my husband has—has —’
The taller girl, Ariel, produced an armchair from somewhere in the depths of the shop, ushering Rilla into it and patting her arm tentatively. ‘Would you like a cup of tea? I’m going to get you a cup of tea.’
‘Oh, um, yes, please.’
‘We’ll get biscuits too. Any allergies?’
‘Okay, no problem.’ Both girls disappeared into the back rooms, and Rilla heard Ariel hiss, ‘I can’t believe you called her a terrorist! We were just talking about microaggressions!’
‘I didn’t think you thought I was terrorist.’ Rilla said after a minute. She accepted the box of tissues Ernest was offering and dabbed her eyes. ‘I know I look like a crazy lady, though.’ She pulled at a thread on her jumper, which hadn’t been washed for several days. One of her daughters had sneezed on it the other day, but Rilla thought it snot-free.
It was not.
‘They’re both paranoid,’ Ernest replied. ‘About terrorism and about bigotry, I mean. We sell all sorts in here, and we attract all sorts. Neo-Nazis or eugenicists after paraphernalia, men who hit their wives looking for something to make them feel less guilty. We once had a middle-aged white gentleman—built like a tank, no neck to speak of, you know the type—come in and ask for a transgender pride flag. Sophey—the small one—gave him the third degree. Thought he wanted to do some sort of ritualistic burning. We didn’t have any flags—that design isn’t really old enough to be considered antique, but we get the odd bit of magical pride flotsam. Anyway, the customer started looking at the clothing, asking what was magical about each of the dresses. It took ten minutes of incredibly intrusive questioning before Sophey realised that the customer in fact wished to wear one of the dresses. She was so mortified that she paid for the dress herself and gave the lady a good website for handmade pride flags.’
‘Did he—she—sue for harassment?’
‘No, actually, she’s still a customer. Came out to her family recently and tells us she’s doing really well. Buys the odd bit of jewellery and some gifts here and there.’
‘That’s nice.’ Rilla gazed at display of magical kitchen goods. Who needed a Georgian soap dish that cleaned itself? Just bloody wash your soap dish. ‘I’m here because two weeks ago my husband was arrested for possession of child pornography.’
Ernest winced. ‘Well, I’d have sent my husband to hell for the same thing. Ah, thank you, Ariel.’ The girls were back with a tea tray, a small table and some chairs. How big was the back room? Sophey poured tea and Ariel offered Rilla a biscuit. She nibbled it tentatively. It was the first thing she had eaten in weeks that didn’t taste of cardboard.
‘Vegan and homemade,’ Ernest said proudly. ‘I’m trying to bake more and eat animal products less. So far I’ve eaten more sugar. I’m sorry, you were talking about your husband.’
‘There’s not much else to say, other than my life is over.’ Before she knew it, the biscuit was gone and Rilla had poured out everything that she could remember from the last fortnight.
‘So now I’m here,’ she finished, ‘because he’s ruined our lives. My children are having screaming nightmares. I’m eating entire celebration cakes in the wee small hours. My neighbours won’t talk to me. It’s… everything we built is…’ Over. Evil. Based on a lie.
Rilla needed more tea. Before she could reach for the teapot, she realised someone had poured one.
The three of them were silent for a minute, each of them cradling their cups.
‘If you’ll excuse the presumption,’ Ariel said eventually, ‘I’m not sure cursing your husband is the way to go. I get it,’ she added quickly, ‘I really do. I once almost… it might not help in the long run, is all I’m saying.’
‘But I’m sure we have some bits and pieces that will help you and your children sleep,’ Sophey put in. She set down her teacup and stood up, clumpy Doctor Martens bumping the chair.
‘We could start with those crystals,’ Ariel said. ‘Some of them are supposed to channel good energy, keep bad energy away, that sort of thing.’ She pulled a lanyard full of keys from her neck and opened a small cabinet full of stones and amulets. ‘Soph, what happened to that amethyst necklace?’
‘Sold it to the lady with the Pomeranians. Maybe—maybe try the candle holder? I think Domenica mentioned there are healing properties in those stones. We could add it to that Victorian candle we got from Gandalf?’
‘Gandalf?’ Rilla asked.
Ariel and Sophey grinned at each other.
‘Gandalf is our nickname for one of our best antiques suppliers.’ Ernest murmured. ‘He’s rather tall and eccentric, you know, and, well, he’s probably old enough to remember when half of his merchandise was made.’
As they spoke, the girls moved around the shop, hands wandering toward different, random, objects. They should have looked rather comical; Sophey was a natural addition to a shop like this: her clothes had clearly been pulled from charity shops, her skin was sallow and eyes sunken, like she never saw enough light, and she needed a stool to reach most of what she was looking for. Ariel looked more like a creature of modern society: her pixie crop was neatly trimmed and adorned with a silver slide, her dress carefully pressed and her eyeliner meticulous around her large blue eyes.
‘Here you go,’ Sophey said eventually. They’d put a dozen items on the table, all various sizes and shapes. ‘How’d we do, Ernest?’
‘The scarf that changes colour depending on your loved ones’ moods,’ Ernest said. ‘Perfect for any parent. Although it could get a little messy, ma’am, given your relationship with your husband?’
‘We’re estranged,’ Rilla said quickly. ‘No love left. Except… maybe I’ll pass on it anyway.’
She inspected the collection in front of her, picking things up and reading every handwritten label. ‘I’ll take all of it.’
The girls beamed and made for the till. Ernest smiled slightly, as though they had passed a test. Maybe they had. Maybe there was a checklist in the shop training manual for ‘how to deal with weepy ladies.’
‘Just so I know,’ Rilla said as she handed over her money. ‘Which of these goods are actively imbued with magic? So I know not to leave them around when the family comes over for Diwali.’
‘Let’s see…’ Ernest peered over her things. ‘The pillowcases and ashtray you’ve looked over. The tea, the tarot deck, the crystals, the candle and the candle holder. Absolutely none of those.’
‘Of course. The tea is just tea. No added funky leaf ingredients either. Tarot cards are just tarot cards, too. You could use them to try communicating with out there, I suppose. But personally I use them to communicate with in here.’ He tapped his chest lightly.
‘Like a mirror,’ Ariel said helpfully. ‘Or a therapy session.’
‘Which you should definitely consider,’ Ernest added. ‘Now, the crystals and the candle: some say they are imbued with magic from the start, others that you must cast some sort of spell to channel the energy through them. You’d have to ask a witch for the particulars, though. I’ll include Domenica’s card, she made most of the crystal pieces.’ He eyed the goods again. ‘Personally, I think it’s about intention there, too. They may not stop your insomnia or your children’s nightmares, but if you make a ritual out of it: clear the house of objects that remind you of your trauma and put them away for when you’re ready to deal with them, make a bedtime routine, that sort of thing, then you’re likely to find it’s your mindset that’s changed.’
‘I understand. What about the silver bangle? The label says it gives clarity.’
‘Ah yes, that one’s definitely magic. Don’t ask me how, but whenever one puts it on, one’s innermost thoughts and feelings are suddenly completely obvious. Maybe not pleasant in the moment, but I’ve found it’s very helpful in the long run to confront one’s feelings head on.’
‘In that case…’ Rilla gathered up her belongings, sliding the bangle straight onto her wrist. ‘Thank you for the tea and biscuits. I’ll let you know how we get on.’
Once the door was closed, Ernest looked at his employees. ‘Cast a healing charm for the poor woman and her family?’
‘Wouldn’t hurt,’ Sophey agreed. ‘Good for you advocating the peaceful route, Ariel.’
‘Don’t get too comfortable. I’m going to curse the fuckers who made those images.’
Sophey reached up and patted Ariel’s shoulder. ‘I knew you hadn’t lost it. Give me a minute and I’ll give you a hand.’
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Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Burke
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