by Sandra Arnold
From the outside, apart from the moth-eaten taxidermy and ferret skulls in the window, The Waiting Room in Whistler’s Lane looks like your average junk shop. The inside is a different story. I used to love poking around in there creeping myself out by imagining the narratives behind each piece. Since my last visit, though, I’ve been fighting the urge to go back.
Whistler’s Lane is best described as idiosyncratic. Named after the sound of the wind whistling through the chimneys of the old brick warehouses, the place had been abandoned for decades until an astute businessman bought the site a couple of years ago, just before demolition day. He converted all the rat-infested buildings into quirky shops, bars and cafes and had the alleyways paved with cobblestones. He commissioned artists to turn bits of rusting machinery into fountains and sculptures and flower-filled containers. Since it opened, the Lane has buzzed with people and pulsated with music, the air filled with aromas of coffee, Italian, Greek and Moroccan food. It seems a good proportion of the locals see the Lane as a respite from the glass and concrete department stores striding across the city. They say they like the sound of the wind which reminds some people of a young boy whistling and others of rustling leaves. Someone even opened a bar and called it Psithurism which, once I’d learned its meaning, sparked my interest in names in the Lane.
Sipping a hot chocolate in the pale winter sunshine, I asked Kyle, the owner, why he’d called his cafe Worms on a Toadstool. He said it was because in a vocabulary test at school years ago he’d misheard the teacher’s definition of epitaph. The story was guffawed over at family gatherings for years, so when an opportunity came to buy into the Lane he decided to immortalise the phrase. When we finished laughing he told me the stories behind some of the other weird Lane names. The Knocking Shop had alarmed local worthies, he grinned, until hand-crafted brass door-knockers appeared in the window. He didn’t know the story behind The Waiting Room because it was closed more often than not, but he speculated that the name was something to do with discarded things waiting for new life. “It’s open today,” he said. “Why not wander over and ask?”
I stepped over the threshold into the dim passageway with its smell of old rooms. Squeezing past sun-faded chests of drawers with spotted mirrors, I narrowly avoided dislodging tea sets, fire irons, crumbling leather-bound books and old wooden clocks crammed on every flat surface. Squashed together on brocade chairs were stuffed rabbits, possums, tin soldiers and a sad-looking doll’s house. A tiny doll with a cracked face and missing arms lay in a baby’s cane pram. But the thing that never failed to freak me out – even more than the doll’s head with no eyes on top of the grandfather clock – was the bride doll that reminded me of Miss Havisham in David Copperfield, fierce painted eyes glaring through her tattered veil. Who were the children who’d once loved these things?
An enormous carved wooden structure filled the back of the shop, its peeling varnished sides and ceiling enclosing a bed covered with a red quilt and gold cushions. There was a sold sign on it that I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered who had bought it and for what purpose. A brothel? An opium den? The purple-haired owner was inside, plumping up the cushions. “It isn’t really sold,” she said, “It’s just to stop enquiries. It’s a waiting room. Hence the shop’s name.”
“Waiting for what?” I asked.
“You’re most welcome to stay and find out,” she said.
Without waiting for an answer she turned the OPEN sign on the shop door to CLOSED and gestured at me to go inside. A dozen people were already settling themselves on the cushions. As I stood there, disconcerted, an old woman smiled at me and patted an empty cushion beside her. I sat down and glanced at the other ‘waiters’, their eyes downcast, their hands folded on their laps. Embarrassed by the realisation that I didn’t belong there, I was about to slink out when the man next to me shifted on his cushion and began speaking. “I opened the body of the last home I did not know.”
I waited for him to continue, but apparently he’d said all he intended to say. Then the others, one by one, unfolded their hands, raised their eyes to the ceiling and spoke a sentence each before re-folding their hands and lapsing into silence.
“All the buried pets under the stones.”
“Don’t wish your life away.”
“She shouldn’t have had so many children.”
“To wash away your fears. To wash away your tears”
“People said they were sea-pods on the beach. But they looked like human babies.’
“Ponder this. All energy is delight.”
“I was riding my bike and breathing in the smells of dry summer grass. I didn’t see the truck.”
“Apart from being a pathological liar, she’s a lovely girl.”
“My dreams vanished like darting fish.”
“He told me my perseverance was admirable, but it really was time.”
“Always too difficult to reach.”
When the last person finished speaking and closed his eyes, I slid out of the room. I saw the owner standing in front of a cracked mirror, gazing at her reflection.
“I thought they’d tell their stories,” I said squeezing past. “But they weren’t stories. They were unrelated fragments.”
Her reflection smiled at me. “Do you think so? Well then, you obviously weren’t listening properly.”
I shrugged and opened the door.
She called after me. “Thank you for your attendance. Next time bring your own story.”
“There won’t be a next time,” I said, hurrying out into the daylight. “I’m not coming back.”
“They all say that,” she said, closing the door behind me. “But you will.”
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. Her flash fiction appears or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Blue Fifth Review and the UK 2017 National Flash Fiction Day international anthology, Sleep is a beautiful colour. www.sandraarnold.wordpress.com