The Collector

It must have been close to midnight when I came back. There were no lights on downstairs so Judy had gone to bed. She doesn’t normally stay up when I’m out seeing a seller anyway.

I shifted the sack to my other hand. As I crossed the road I checked both ways. Habit, really. Nothing to worry about. No one around at this time of night, just a couple of drunks arguing further down the street. One of them was complaining, the other one trying to calm his mate down. If it was his mate. What did I care.

I opened the front door, went in and bolted it. The hall was dark and I felt along the wall for the switch, not the main one but the one that does the light at the top of the stairs down to the basement.

I put the sack down and flexed my fingers. It wasn’t heavy but awkward. I should have brought a bag, proper job with handles, but I was only planning on buying two. Couldn’t resist them, though, so there were six in here. The sack was all he had. Obviously didn’t expect to make that kind of a sale, had nothing to offer me to transport them. Small point but it made me mark him down as an amateur. Perhaps I shouldn’t have paid so much. Amateurs can go two ways – they can be bullied or they hold out for a silly price. With pros, you know where you are. There’s leeway and you both haggle but you know and he knows there’s a max and a min. Amateurs have no idea. Still, I’ve got them now. That’s what counts.

I picked up the sack again and opened the basement door. There was another light switch here, one I didn’t need to feel for. Left-arm job, up and back to the wall above the door frame. Not where you’d expect. That’s the point. Never know when an extra few seconds might make a difference.

The steps went straight down. The basement’s deep so there are twenty-four steps. The walls and steps are all rough, dark concrete and the handrails, one on each side, are rusty. Still it’s all sound – I’ve checked it out – so no need to waste time and money tarting it up.

Once at the bottom there were two more switches, one to kill the stair light and one for the main one in the room. I flicked them both. Here we go, home at last.

I put the sack on the long table in the middle of the basement. As per normal, I spent a few moments looking around me. I knew them all, of course, every one, and it’s not likely anyone’s going to come down and touch them. Judy knows better than to try. Not many other people come round and for them the door is always locked. Buyers never come here, I go to them. Who does that leave? Just me. This is my place.

I opened the sack and lifted each one out, arranged them on the table and then folded the sack up and put it on the low shelf next to the bags. The collection is neat and organised and I’ve found it pays to keep everything else squared off as well. It’s a good habit, useful to know where everything is. Never know when you might need to lay your hand on something at short notice. Helps not to have to think. Sometimes instinct is all that matters.

Three of them were larger than I remember but that wasn’t important. They aren’t classified by size. Not by colour, either. Nor age. I can see you’re interested.

There’s a connection between everything. Most people don’t get it, but it’s there. It might be no more than a shade of grey here or a curve there. It might be something I feel when I see it for the first time, when I know exactly where it needs to go, next to what, below what, opposite what.

Depending where I stand, I get a different view. I move three feet back, turn round, squat down and there’s a whole different collection each time. Some that I saw before I now can’t see at all. Others I can see but from the other side. They all have to fit together to make sense. Each view has to make sense. Otherwise, what’s the point.

Sometimes I have to move the ones already there to allow for new arrivals. I might see something in Ponders End or wherever and know exactly where it’s going to go, if I move this one there and that one over there. Each move, of course, changes every other view. They’ve all got to work. There’s no point in collecting unless you have a bigger picture. So, if I see something that’s going to make the picture better, I know I’ve got to have it. Nothing else matters. I’ve got to have it. Then I’ll bring it back and put it in the right place, like it was always meant to be there. Now it’s perfect. It’s come home and the world can’t hurt it any more. When I’m down here the world can’t hurt me either. So I’m home too.

Faintly from upstairs I heard the flush of a toilet, the shutting of a door, light footsteps, then silence. That would be Judy.

I should explain about Judy. She’s my wife and I’m her husband so we expect certain things from each other. Unspoken, often as not. No point saying more than you need, something that might give yourself away or commit you. I don’t like breaking a promise. Goes against the grain. So, I try to avoid making them.

Anyway, we understand each other. Up to a point. She keeps the house. I bring in the money. Nothing sexist about that, before you start, just the way things worked out. Something we’re both happy with. We don’t ask each other questions about how these things get done.

Same with the bedroom stuff. Now and then we do it. Course we do. It’s only natural. Thing is, she needs it more than me. She doesn’t need to tell me and I don’t need to ask. There’s no point in throwing a hissy fit about this like you see some blokes do, making a right scene. After all, if I don’t want something why should I go mental about not having it? I want a quiet life and part of that means keeping Judy happy.

So, there are sometimes men about the place. Judy and I have separate rooms we use most nights and I’m when I’m in I’m normally downstairs so it’s not an issue. I don’t want to spook these guys out, make them think they’ve walked into some weird free-love set-up. Most men are happy with the idea they’re pulling the wool. I don’t care. I know what’s going on. Anyway, I got bigger fish to fry.

As for Judy, she’s sensible. She’s got a good situation and doesn’t take the piss. You got to respect that.

Last week there was a bit of trouble, though, and this is really where the story starts.

I came back earlier than expected with a heavy bag. She had this young bloke over, Jake I think he was called, not that it matters. When I came in he was down in the hall. He might have been a bit pissed. Thing is, he had his hand on the door going to the basement.

I dropped the bag and charged. Pure instinct. Before he could move I had him round the neck on the floor, his arm pinned behind his back. Nothing too heavy, just minimum force. All that mattered was stopping him going downstairs.

I wasn’t sure what to do next. I had the initiative so it was up to me to make the next move. Then he started screaming. Fair enough. Look at it from his point of view – strange house, just got shagged, had a few beers, got lost looking for the loo and the next thing he’s in an arm-lock.

Then Judy appears, all wide-eyed. We calmed it down. She went back upstairs, I picked up my bag went down to the basement. Don’t know where Jake went. Legged it if he had any sense.

Thing is, we never mentioned it again. We both knew where we stood.

That night I took extra care looking things over and putting the new ones out. But there was something missing, something wrong. It wasn’t that I thought Jake had gone downstairs but it was the thought that he might have done. That would have spoiled everything. Not because what he might have seen but because this was my place. This was my world. There was a line and he’d crossed it. Fact he didn’t know at the time made no difference. He knew now.

I was down there the whole night and I couldn’t shake it. It had all gone wrong. Privacy invaded, a seal broken. Don’t think I’m going to go upstairs and beat Judy til she tells me where Jake lives and then go and torture him to death for having infringed. Who and when and why don’t matter, or they don’t to me. It had happened. Or it could have happened. Came to the same thing. Wake-up call.

The next bit you might find hard to believe. I’ve built up this collection for the best part of five years, going to all kinds of dodgy places and spending money and time getting it right. A lot of people in that boat would never part with it, no matter what. Me, I saw things different. It was the moment to let go. There’d be something else, when the time was right. Anyway, it was all in my head. I didn’t need photographs, which might take some explaining anyway. Every item, every view, every trick of the light, I could shut my eyes now and see them all just as I wanted them to be. Why did I need the real things? They’d done their job.

So I called Pete. I’ve bought one or two things from him and he’d put me on to several blokes who got me stuff he couldn’t. Pete might have had more idea than most what I had down there but he couldn’t have known the whole story. No one could.

Plus, he’s the only person who’d see the whole thing for what it was. I trusted him. Trust is important. He’d take the broad view. He could keep it, sell it as it was or flog it big by bit. Good luck to him.

I fixed a night Judy was out. Pete rocked up on time, a good sign. He was very polite, very respectful. We drank a beer in the kitchen and chatted but I could tell he was beside himself with curiosity. What was he dealing with here? What was he being asked to take on? These things don’t come up every day. Once in a lifetime maybe. If then.

“So…” he said.

“Let’s go down,” I said. “That’s why we’re here.”

We went into the hall. I unlocked the door and did the left-hand routine with the switch at the top of the stairs. Down we went. Most of the basement was in darkness. I led him into the centre of the room and stood him there. He seemed frozen. His eyes must have been slowly adjusting, starting to take it all in. I walked back to the foot of the stairs, my hand on the switch.

“Ready?” I asked. He didn’t answer.

Then I turned on the light.


Brian Quinn

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