It was a brilliantly sunny day, though the wind was chilly. We had known each other about a month, we were still very much in love, young and fancy-free (which is to say unemployed), and we had a free weekday afternoon to wander around this cathedral town that neither of us knew well. I don't think I had ever been so happy in my life before.
I peered around myopically. "One of what shops?" I said, though I could see perfectly well where she was pointing.
"Oh, you know," she said. "One of those shops you've never noticed before, where you go in and buy something, and it turns out to have a horrible curse on it, and when you go back the shop's not there any more. Let's go in."
The shop certainly did look the part. The name above the window was faded and illegible, the window itself was dusty and gave only a vague impression of the goods on display, and the door was peeling and looked to be hanging half off its hinges.
"Are you in the market for a horrible curse?" I said.
She grinned and tossed back her tawny hair. "You never know when one will come in handy. Oh come on. It'll be fun."
I could never resist that grin. I led the way across the road, pushed open the door, and we went in.
Inside, the dust hung on the air, and the light was practically non-existent. A single bulb, possibly about half a watt, illuminated the counter area, and left the rest to whatever light could filter in through the layers of dust and cobwebs on the window. Miscellaneous junk was piled all around us, stacked randomly on shelves some of which had collapsed on to the shelf below, and suspended from the ceiling on hooks. Ginny, more agile than I, was already examining the wares on display. I concentrated on not knocking anything over. I could see paying for something that was horribly cursed or broken, but not both.
"Oh, here we go." The dry dusty voice came from the depths behind the counter, and a thin old man with a disconcerting one-eyed blue stare beneath bushy brows emerged from the gloom. He wore a collarless shirt with a faint blue stripe, brown corduroy trousers, and a burgundy waistcoat whose velvet finish had seen better days. "About blooming time too."
"Pardon?" I said stupidly.
The old man cleared his throat. "Welcome, welcome, sardonic grin, we don't get many customers this time of year, evil chuckle, why don't you have a look around, I'm sure you'll find just the thing you need, sinister laugh." He stopped the sing-song recitation and eyed us up. "That do you? I could put on a false nose if you like."
I frowned. I wasn't sure what to say.
"Something wrong?" the old man said challengingly.
"No, no," I said. "It's just--you don't seem to be feeling yourself in the part, that's all."
Two immense bony hands came up and landed flat on the counter. "I am not 'feeling myself' at all," the man snarled. "How dare you."
"No, I meant--"
"I know what you meant," the old man said with a gusty sigh. "And you're right. I never wanted this job anyway." He looked around his domain without satisfaction. "I just wanted to retire and open a little shop. Pass my few remaining years talking to customers, making friends, being part of a community."
"What happened?" Ginny had come up beside me, sounding sympathetic.
"I didn't read the small print on the lease, did I." The old man's lower lip quivered. "Now it's always the same. Every time. Just as I'm finding out where the good greengrocers are and what times the buses run, someone like you comes in, buys something horrible that's going to mess up their lives, and bang, there I am off again. I'd walk out and leave it for two pins, but then..." He shrugged helplessly. "I've got nowhere else to go."
"That's awful," Ginny commiserated. "And I don't suppose you can die either." I shot her a startled glance.
"I'm three hundred and forty-three years old," the man proclaimed. "I should have died in 1750. I know that because I've seen my own grave. Mourned by loving wife and three daughters. I wonder what they were like."
I must have looked confused. "Do keep up, Terry," Ginny said. "The shop takes care of that end of things. It provides a substitute, so nobody comes looking."
The shopkeeper eyed her appreciatively. "Brains as well as beauty," he said, and leaned closer. "I should get out of here if I were you," he whispered. "I don't want to see you two lumbered with any of this stuff. I'll square it with the shop. There'll be someone else along. Go on, get out of it."
"Why?" Ginny asked.
"Well..." He looked embarrassed. "Most people who come in here, they don't talk to you, you know? Just at you. They don't even notice what you're saying half the time, that's why I've got a bit perfunctory with the routine. And they never sympathise."
"Because they're the kind of people who need to get cursed," I said.
He was startled. "You're not as stupid as you look and all. Exactly. There's always an element of come-uppance involved. Divine punishment, or diabolical--I sometimes think there's not much difference."
"What are the other rules?" Ginny asked.
The shopkeeper shot her a quick, penetrating glance. She grinned back at him, and it must have worked on him the way it always works on me. He cleared his throat and began ticking them off on his fingers.
"One customer per stop, couples count as one. Whatever you sell them must be priced to fit their budget. No spoilers, no refunds, no credit, reversal of curses only at considerably greater expense and only if they catch me before the shop moves, which they almost never do. It's all in the lease. If only I'd read it before I signed the blooming thing." He sighed again.
"So the condition of the shop is not...not obligatory?" Ginny persisted.
"No, no, no. I just don't have the energy these days to keep it clean." The shopkeeper leaned close again. "Look, you're nice young people, I can see that, the shop doesn't have anything you could possibly want. Clear off while you still can. I'll get someone else."
"You're wrong," Ginny said, with a big grin. "There is something I want in this shop."
He sighed. "Well, I tried. What is it?"
I don't know who was more surprised, me or the shopkeeper.
"Oh come on," Ginny said, taking my arm. "It's perfect."
"This is perfect?"
"A small business of our own, a long-established going concern with stock in hand, opening hours at our discretion--"
The old man held up a hand. "It gets antsy if you don't open for two or three days," he said warningly.
"And the chance to travel, to see new places. I grant it wouldn't suit everyone, but it suits me down to the ground." She was determined, and adorable. I was floundering around in my mind, looking for reasons why not.
"I don't want to go around cursing people," I said feebly.
"We don't curse them," Ginny said. "They curse themselves by being mean and nasty. That's how it works, isn't it?"
"Most of the time," he conceded uneasily. "You do get some innocent victims, though."
"Well, I'll warn them off. Or I'll get the shop to sell them something nice instead. No reason why we shouldn't sell blessings as well as curses. And I know that with a little elbow grease and hot soapy water we could have this place looking like a picture in no time. Oh come on, Terry."
"How do you live?" I asked the old man.
"I take money from the till," he said. "There's always plenty in there, and it's always the right sort for wherever you happen to be." His eyes turned to Ginny dubiously. "Are you absolutely sure, miss? It's wilful, the shop is. It don't...that is, it's not nice. When I was first here, after I found out what I'd got myself into, it was really nasty. Some horrible curses people got then."
"And since then?"
He blew out his haggard cheeks. "Well, not as bad...just sort of hopeless. It's like its heart's not in it any more, you know? But if you was to take it over and give it a new lease of life, well, I don't know..."
"Terry?" Ginny was looking up at me. "Say the word and we'll forget the whole thing. If you don't like it, I don't either."
I only hesitated for a moment. I had been looking around while they had been talking, and I could see potential in the place. And from what the old man was saying, what you got out of the shop was fairly closely related to what you put into it. "If you want it," I said, "then so do I. But of course you know we can't afford it."
"Nonsense," she said. "Anything sold in the shop, remember? How much have you got?"
"Fifty-three pence," I said. "I blew my last two quid on those coffees."
"And I've got forty-seven," she said. "That works out nicely. Hand it over." She turned to the shopkeeper. "I'll give you a pound for the lease to this shop."
For a moment the old man simply stared, uncomprehendingly; then a smile spread over his face, a genuine smile that took years off him.
"Done," he said, taking a piece of rolled-up parchment from his pocket and handing it over in exchange for our coins. He put the coins carefully in the till, which we could both now see was full of money, and closed the drawer quietly.
"At long blooming last," he breathed, and crumpled slowly to the floor. By the time we got round the counter, there was nothing there but the clothes he had stood up in.
"What on earth have you got us into?" I said, a little faintly, as the windows went dark for a moment and a faint rumbling sound from under the floor vibrated the soles of my feet.
"I don't know," Ginny said, as light returned. It was the brilliant blue daylight of the Mediterranean, and a gang of kids ran by shouting something that sounded Italian. "That's half the fun." She opened the till and took out a handful of brightly coloured notes. "Dinner's on me."