A Good Memory for Faces
'I do believe you're becoming vain'
The shattered mirror
The bright April sunlight percolated through the net curtains in the kitchen, highlighting a solitary cobweb above the old welsh dresser. Time for a bit of spring cleaning thought Beryl, as she began to rummage busily under the sink for dusters and polish; she would clean the entire house from top to bottom and surprise her husband, Harold, when he returned from work.
By mid afternoon the tiny terraced house was immaculate. "There! Bright and shiny as a new pin!" she declared to her rosy reflection in the hall mirror. Noticing there was still a huge unsightly smear in the middle, she began to rub at it rather too energetically and soon the whole thing began to slip sideways, dislodging itself from its place on the wall.
Beryl gasped as she attempted to secure it, but the heavy, oval-shaped frame was too cumbersome and came crashing face down onto the hard, wood-block flooring with a resounding thud. Somehow she summoned up the strength to turn the mirror over to survey the damage, although she was sure it had broken even before kneeling down to look. It was a typical case of Murphy's Law.
A huge crack, jagged as bolt of lightning ran right across the centre of the mirror. Beryl began to cry, her hot tears falling onto her now distorted reflection. She'd never really liked the mirror but had grown accustomed to its unchanging presence as it had hung sedately in the hallway for the past thirty years - the reflection which gazed back at her had certainly changed over the years though. The mirror had been a wedding gift from Harold's parents and had welcomed Beryl into her new home as he'd carried her proudly over the threshold as a radiant young bride. It had greeted her when she'd brought each of her three babies home and now it was witnessing her kneeling on the cold floor peering at the shattered image of a woman well into middle age. The framework too, was splintered and broken and it was as if Beryl was mourning the death of an old friend.
Harold will be annoyed; he loved that mirror, she thought, as she tried to regain her composure, but he's a reasonable enough man; surely he'll understand it was a genuine accident. I know he won't be angry with me. Maybe I'll treat the whole thing light-heartedly; after all he's got a good sense of humour.
Beryl was never short of an appropriate witty remark to bring light relief to an otherwise tricky situation but at that moment the only thing she could think of concerning mirrors was the old saying about seven years' bad luck. And although she wasn't superstitious, the unwelcome thought made the whole affair seem even more distressing.
Harold rounded the corner at the top of the street; it was a glorious afternoon and the sky was just that shade of blue one normally only sees in a paint-box. He whistled a tune to himself as he walked, feeling reasonably content with his lot in life. The usual inviting aroma wafted out of the local chip shop, but Harold, as always, resisted, knowing Beryl would have prepared something far more appetising. What would it be tonight'? Toad in the hole, a nice, crusty, meat pie or a steaming plateful of Lancashire hotpot? Mere "Fish 'n chips" is no match for good old home cooking of the type I'm used to, he thought cheerfully.
Beryl glanced at her watch; it was five-thirty precisely and Harold was never a minute late. She went to the front door to meet him, leaving the inner hall door firmly closed behind her to deliberately obscure the fallen mirror; but Harold would sense immediately something was amiss. He always let himself in. As Beryl opened the door she noticed how happy he was that she'd come to greet him and regretted her clumsiness with the spring cleaning even more. And then, on the spur of the moment she thought of something witty to say: "You've got a good memory for faces haven't you?" she asked him in a nervous, high pitched voice as he stood, slightly bewildered, in the doorway.
"Yes, love, you know I have."
"Well, that's good, because I've just broken the only decent mirror in the house." Beryl began to cry again from pure relief, now she'd told him.
For a few awkward seconds Harold appeared as shattered as the unfortunate mirror but then he laughed at Beryl's witticism and put his arms around her. "Don't cry love; between you and me I never liked it anyway and I think it had a bit of woodworm too. We'll go into town on Saturday and buy a new one." He seemed more concerned that his supper wasn't waiting for him on the table when they went through to the kitchen.
Now it was Beryl's turn to be confused and she wouldn't let the matter drop so quickly - not after all the tears she'd shed. "But I thought you loved that mirror," she said, still surprised at his attitude. "You almost fell over backwards with gratitude when your Mum and Dad first gave it to us."
"I know, but it was all they had to give us in those days and it would have been impolite to refuse. Don't distress yourself any more. It's served its purpose over the years. Now how about we eat out tonight? And I don't mean the chippy."
"Yes," Beryl agreed, cheerful again, but still finding it incredible that they'd lived for thirty years with a mirror that neither of them liked.
The rows of terraces where the couple lived had shops on every corner, most of them quite indistinguishable from the next one. If you spent too long in the pub as Harold did the following evening it was fairly easy to become disorientated. He walked in what he assumed was the right direction and found that considerable time had elapsed before he was willing to admit he was lost. What's the matter? he asked himself, losing your marbles already? He paused briefly to get his bearings, breathing in the brisk evening air which sobered him up slightly. Lived here since I was a lad... know these streets like the back of my hand... he mumbled as he walked to the end of the street but didn't recognise the name above the shop on the corner.
And then he saw it. In the centre of the shop's main window was an ornate looking mirror. Lavishly embellished with gilt scrolls and two pairs of captivating cherubs, it was easily the most eye-catching item on display.
For some reason unknown to him, Harold was irresistibly drawn to it as if it possessed some intense magnetic field. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and even allowing for the glare of the shop lighting it was well-defined and clear, appearing more like a photograph than a reflection. Harold had a definite feeling he was being watched; he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck beginning to bristle. But there was no-one around; the street was deserted apart from a barking dog at the other end.
Harold knew the proprietor would have shut up shop hours ago, he looked at his watch - it was well past eleven - and decided to go home, if he could find the way. But a persuasive voice inside his head kept asking questions: why don't you buy that mirror? It'll look grand in the hallway. Wouldn't Beryl be pleased? It's your anniversary soon... what better present than this?
He had his cheque book handy but common sense told him the shop couldn't possibly be open so late. He'd better make a note of the address and return during daytime. He peered at the door for details and caught sight of a sign which said quite simply:
ANNIE'S ANTIQUES - OPEN
The owner must have forgotten to turn the sign over, Harold thought, but curiosity overwhelmed him as he gave the door a gentle push. It opened. A bell tinkled above it and although the sound was by no means alarming, he felt his heart almost miss a beat as it momentarily startled him.
"Hello," A shrill voice seemed to come from nowhere, it was the voice of an wizened old woman with a continental accent and Harold immediately felt more at ease once he was aware of her presence. But then he became deeply shocked by her physical appearance; she was not just old, she was positively ancient. Dressed solemnly, entirely in black, she seemed an unlikely proprietor for a corner shop. Harold was reminded of a Hammer movie he'd seen many times: "She." He'd always liked the bit right at the end when Ursula Andress steps into the flame of eternal youth a second time and becomes incredibly old, eventually crumbling away to dust. This old woman looked as if she might do exactly that.
"You must have forgotten to put your closed sign up," Harold said, pointing to the notice above the door.
"No... always I open... come in... you like my beautiful mirror? You want see better? I show you..."
Harold was stunned. How could she know he was interested in that particular item? Perhaps she saw me admiring it through the window he thought, but he didn't remember seeing anyone lurking behind the display. Maybe she has a spy-hole somewhere, he told himself.
"Yes, I like it and I'd love to see it," he replied as he tried to clear a lump in his throat which was now as parched as a dried up river bed. "Our hall mirror got broken recently and the one you have looks just about the right size to replace it."
The old woman went to fetch it from the window.
"Is beautiful... yes? Is very old... very precious - unique." She paused for a moment and appeared incredibly sad as if in mourning for her distant youth. "There is old legend... once were two mirrors and together they make special magic. I old now and never in my long life I can find other one. Maybe legend true, I not know."
Harold nodded and agreed it was certainly the workmanship of gifted hands. As for the legend he inwardly dismissed it as nonsense; most old things have some story attached to them and anyway whatever would he do with two such mirrors in a small terraced house?
He was more concerned about the price; something so unique would be expensive. He searched for a price tag but there was none; there didn't appear to be any prices on anything in the entire shop, but that wasn't unusual in small shops like this. "Well, that's an interesting tale, but I only need one mirror and it would be ideal in my hallway. How much is it?" Harold asked, coming straight to the point, never one to procrastinate in matters of money.
"For you, I make special price," the old woman said, her wide eyes sparkling with the prospect of a sale. There was something hypnotic about them which now caused Harold to believe her without a shadow of a doubt. "Only a hundred pounds... your wife no like... is okay... you bring back."
Harold didn't remember mentioning anything about Beryl and for a moment he felt as if the old woman had the power to see into the very depths of his soul. He felt entranced and it was not an unpleasant experience; it was a soothing feeling as if she was analysing his thought processes, sifting through them and deciding if he was a suitable purchaser for her mirror.
She held the mirror in front of him and as he gazed at his reflection he could have sworn he appeared younger; the lines on his face were not so deeply etched, his complexion appeared fresher and his greying temples seemed not quite as grey as when he'd combed his hair that morning.
Don't be silly, he told himself, it's just your imagination. Of course you look young - wouldn't anyone next to this old biddy? Mirrors can sometimes be deceptive like that. Doesn't Beryl always say so herself when she's been shopping for a new dress? She'll come home, try on her purchase, look in the mirror and declare in a disgruntled voice: well, it looked all right in the shop!
Harold decided that a hundred pounds was slightly more than he wanted to pay for a replacement mirror, but he knew he would be able to claim on the household insurance for the old one. This mirror was special, as the old woman had said: unique, an unrepeatable offer not to be missed. "Yes, I'll take it," he said, decisively, reaching for his cheque book.
The old woman smiled broadly, unashamed of her well-rotted teeth. While Harold wrote out the cheque she began to wrap the mirror, expertly tying the package with string and humming a little tune to herself as she did so. It was a tune which sounded almost as ancient as she looked.
It was possibly Harold's imagination or a trick of the light but as he glanced up from his cheque book he caught sight of a reflection in the mirror, just for an instant, as the old woman was parcelling it up. It was the face of a newborn baby.
When the old woman had finished she shuffled out from behind the counter, and glared at Harold with her intense cobalt blue eyes. She grabbed at his elbow with her frail, aged hands surprising him with the firmness of her grip, "Now, before you go, you make me little promise... yes?"
"Yes," Harold agreed before he had any idea what she would ask of him. It was as if she was somehow mesmerizing him, controlling his mind in some way.
"The other mirror, you try to find it... yes? Perhaps you succeed where I fail." There was a desperate, pleading look about her as her piercing eyes stared back at him.
Harold agreed again and before he had time to say goodnight he found himself outside again on the pavement inhaling the cold night air. He glanced at his watch; he'd been inside the shop for less than ten minutes but it seemed like an eternity. His mind was now his own once more and he was able to find his way home easily. The shop was so near to his house - only a few streets away. How could he possibly have become so disorientated when he came out of The Rose and Crown earlier?
What a strange old woman, he mused as he walked through the narrow cobbled streets with his new purchase tucked securely under his arm. I'll take Beryl along to her shop one day, I'm sure she'll find Annie's Antiques extremely interesting.
Beryl was worried; Harold was usually home from the pub by now. She opened the front door and peered out into the dimly lit street. Noticing a man in the distance with a rectangular parcel under his arm, she shrugged her shoulders and went back inside to put the kettle on. That can't be him, she told herself, unless he's won something daft in the weekly raffle.
"Surprise!" Harold declared jubilantly as soon as he arrived home, "I've brought you an anniversary present." He explained about the shop and its decrepit proprietor.
"Oh, you shouldn't have!" Beryl responded, scolding him gently in mock displeasure as she was in the habit of doing whenever he gave her an unexpected gift. She carefully opened the well-wrapped parcel and gazed at the mirror in all its magnificent splendour.
"Do you like it then?"
"Ooh, Harold it's smashing!" Beryl squealed excitedly, then remembering what had happened to the last mirror, quickly corrected herself, "err.. I mean it's beautiful." She threw her arms around him and gave him a genuine kiss full on the lips instead of the usual peck on the cheek.
Harold began to fix the mirror onto the wall while Beryl went to open a bottle of sherry which her sister had brought back from Spain the year before. She was saving it for a special occasion and now was as good a time as any to celebrate their anniversary even if it was a few days early.
"Here's to the next thirty five years," Harold said raising his glass in a toast, once the mirror was securely mounted on the wall. It looked grand as he supposed it would. Although larger and a different shape than its predecessor it wasn't too overbearing for the narrow hallway. He was pleased with his new acquisition and Beryl seemed delighted too.
The following day was a Saturday and the sun was shining in bold defiance of a few threatening clouds. The couple decided they would walk to the local shops rather than make their usual weekly bus journey into town. "I can buy a couple of pork chops for Sunday dinner at the butchers and you can show me that shop you found last night," Beryl said as they prepared to go out. But Harold seemed oblivious to her words as he stood admiring himself in front of the new mirror.
He was experiencing the same feelings as when he'd first noticed it in the window of the old woman's shop. It seemed to him that not only was the mirror making him look younger but it was making him feel younger too. Standing before it seemed to drain away the tension in his joints, soothing those niggling aches which a man of Sixty five gradually learns to live with as he gets older.
"Harold Jenkins!" Beryl announced in a raised voice, "I do believe you're becoming vain in your old age!"
"What? Oh, yes.. nearly ready, love," he said, in a far away voice as he adjusted his tie meticulously for the umpteenth time.
A few hours later they were struggling home with their weekend shopping in the driving rain. Beryl was annoyed because her washing would be soaked and Harold felt irritated because he'd been unable to locate Annie's Antiques. "It's got to be around here somewhere," he'd remarked repeatedly as their search for the elusive corner shop proved fruitless.
"Never mind love," said an optimistic Beryl "you can always look in the Yellow Pages when we get home - with a name like that it will probably be on the very first page." But it wasn't in the Yellow Pages at all and even the landlord down at The Rose and Crown had never heard of Annie's shop. Something didn't add up and when Harold received his bank statement he noticed his cheque in payment for the mirror hadn't been cashed.
Over the next few months Harold became a different person; looking in the mirror was now his favourite pastime. At first Beryl had humoured him, thinking he was in the throes of a mid-life crisis but eventually she found his behaviour tedious and irritating, especially now he was paying far more attention to himself than to her. She became jealous, although she was not quite certain what she was actually jealous of. To her, Harold looked much the same as he had always been but now he'd acquired a certain confidence which he hadn't possessed since his early twenties.
Whilst doing her dusting one morning, Beryl found herself scrutinizing her own reflection. There didn't appear to be anything different or unusual about it - why should there be? It was the reflection of an ordinary woman, who although no longer in the prime of life, was not yet ready to be put out to grass. It was exactly the same reflection as she had seen in the old mirror and common sense told her that whatever was affecting Harold was purely a figment of his imagination. But even so, she began to harbour a secret desire that this new mirror might meet with the same fate as the old one.
"What on Earth's the matter with you?" Beryl would ask impatiently, as Harold now spent a full ten minutes combing his thinning hair before setting off for the pub on a Friday night, "Can't you act your age?"
But Harold would just laugh and go on admiring himself even more, until Beryl who knew a bit about Greek mythology would wonder if he would eventually pine away and die like Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection.
Beryl was exasperated now. Perhaps he's got a lady friend, she would muse, as it occurred to her to search his pockets for love letters and check his shirt collars for smudges of lipstick - but she found nothing.
When one is past forty one's true character begins to show on one's face. Each new line and wrinkle is said to represent some negative trait (unless, of course, they are laughter lines, which are viewed as positive). But to Harold, every time he looked in the mirror he would see the opposite happening. The burden of years was gradually becoming lighter, falling away. Had he stopped to think for a moment and looked in a different mirror he would have seen the way he really was but for some reason it never occurred to him to do this. He would wonder about the old woman and her curious corner shop and wanted to ask her in more depth about the legend she'd mentioned and he needed to know why she hadn't cashed his cheque. He took to wandering around the streets late at night hoping to find the elusive shop but would only end up walking aimlessly around in circles.
One evening when Harold was out on one of his futile searches there came a knock at the door. It was an old peddler; as old as the hills, Beryl thought by the look of him. Dressed sparsely in clothes which were little more than old rags he looked as if he might blow away on the next gust of wind.
"I don't want to buy anything thank you," Beryl told him firmly.
"No, no.. is okay... maybe you sell me something? I give you plenty money... look." He withdrew a bundle of twenty pound notes from his jacket pocket and thrust it unceremoniously into her hands.
"But I have nothing valuable to sell you," Beryl explained; we're ordinary people and we haven't accrued any heirlooms or collectibles over the years."
"Ah... but your mirror she is beautiful, you must sell." His eyes lit up like two shining gemstones, as he pointed to it, "I give you fair price. What you want? Five hundred pounds? A thousand? I give you plenty money. More maybe?
Beryl couldn't believe her eyes she'd never seen so much money in her life. Just think of all the things we could do, all the places we could visit, she deliberated, Harold won't be annoyed if I can get this much money for his mirror - we can always buy another one and after all he did give it to me as a present. And the way things have been with Harold since we got the blessed thing I'll be glad to part with it!
"Yes, I'll sell it to you for two thousand," Beryl agreed, thinking the peddler would haggle for one and a half, but immediately he started count out the neatly bound bundles of banknotes. Soon the little old peddler was disappearing into the night with the mirror tucked under his arm and a smile on his ancient face.
Ten minutes later Harold was back and straight away went to look in the mirror which to his distress was no longer there. Before the shock had time to register on his face an elated Beryl rushed towards him with a pile of banknotes.
"I've sold the mirror... I've sold it to a peddler," Beryl gasped, unable to catch her breath in the excitement of it all. "He gave me two thousand quid for it! Now we can go on all those holidays we've missed out on over the years!"
Harold reacted with a look that could only be described as murderous before bursting into tears, "It made me look younger... it made me feel younger..." he sobbed inconsolably.
Beryl was shocked; she'd never seen a grown man cry before. She calmly went upstairs to the bathroom and returned with Harold's shaving mirror which he hadn't looked in for some time. "Look. Harold this is the real you," she said firmly, pointing to his reflection, "the real you who I love. I don't know who you were seeing in that dreadful mirror but it wasn't you, This is you, this is your face. You've got a good memory for faces haven't you? Surely you can remember your own."
Harold eventually calmed down and was soon back to his normal self. He and Beryl stayed up far into the night and talked about the things they'd do with the money. They counted it several times over, and Beryl was ecstatic with the remarkable sale she'd made.
And now must leave them to live out the rest of their lives in happiness.
A few miles away or maybe a few hundred, a little old man danced merrily to an ancient tune in the quiet confines of a lock-up garage. On one wall hung an ornate-looking mirror. With swiftness which was incompatible with one of such advanced years he placed an identical mirror on the opposite wall so that one was reflected perfectly in the other. Then positioning himself halfway between the two he stood silently and waited for the magic to work.
Some may search and never find
Others leave their luck behind
Many will wonder but never know
This special magic from long ago.
A shattered mirror - and shattered memories
' Mirror mirror on the wall...'
'Mirrors' - a song by Sally Oldfield
A history of mirrors
© 2015 Stella Kaye