When I was a child, there weren’t so many shops in the town, which is why our haunt of choice might sound like an odd place for a group of youngsters to hang around. It was the narrowest little shop you could ever have imagined, but it went back a long way, and it was always filled with the strangest of objects. It would have been classed as an antique shop, I suppose, although it rarely contained the usual painted vases and bland little knick-knacks that grace the windowsills of grandparents and the television screens of a weekday afternoon. I expect it had a proper name somewhere, but we never bothered to find it out. Someone with a literary streak had christened it the ‘Old Curiosity Shop’, and that was sufficient should we ever need to refer to it. None of us ever bought anything of course – I expect the old man who owned it resented us a great deal, in fact – but it was fun to comb the shelves and marvel at the wares. I hadn’t spent a satisfactory lunchtime until I’d stroked the varnished backs of dragons, gazed upon the ivory wings of an angel, seen my future in a crystal ball, leafed through an ancient tome, draped myself in moth-eaten finery and been shooed off the premises for meddling. Over time, of course, the stock changed as people bought and donated various items, but you’ll notice that with a shop like that there are always a few oddities that just won’t shift, one of which was the curtain.
Personally, I always doubted very much whether the curtain, or whatever was behind it, was ever for sale. If it was I would have expected the owner to at least give it a clean every once in a while. As it was the only time its veil of dust ever shifted was when the absent-minded hand of a customer brushed its silken folds. It barely moved, and certainly never opened, not in all the years we went there. It became something of a fascination, an obsession amongst us; the hottest topic of debate was always ‘what was behind the curtain’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘why was it hidden there?’
Eventually the ache of curiosity became too much to bear, and one brave soul volunteered to put everyone out of their misery and go and check. He was a serious boy, a couple of years above me, and generally one you felt you could trust. He marched in through the doors with his head held high. For five minutes we all held our breath. When he returned, his face was as solemn as ever and he told us quite confidently:
“It’s the door to a library. Only a small one, but it’s stuffed, floor to ceiling, with old books and manuscripts. Some of them were very recognisable, I think they’ve been put in the shop before.”
I nodded, along with a few others. It seemed plausible enough – after all, old books were a staple of the back shelves. I was happy enough to let it lie, but there are always some people who have to see things with their own eyes before they’ll admit something is true. So a few days later another person made the trip inside to peek behind the curtain, one of the older girls this time. She came rushing out with pink cheeks and shocked eyes to recount her experience. She claimed to have seen a very different display. According to her, the curtain was there to protect innocent eyes from the indecency and depravity of some of the really strange items on sale.
Well, I wasn’t sure whether I entirely believed her, but that pleasant little tale was enough to make me content enough never to risk finding out. Sadly, an occupational hazard of being young is the company of those who find such stories hilarious, and within a week several began to dare each other to go and take a look for themselves. In the end, it was my best friend and his twin sister who were next to go, a decision they took with the aim of shutting them up. He was always very, very quiet, and he walked in very calmly to confront his vision. He returned, still silent and resolute, but with tears welling in his eyes.
“Wow, was it that bad?” One of the jokers looked taken aback. “I hope we haven’t, like, mentally scarred you or anything…”
“No,” he shook his head. “It’s not like that at all. It was like walking into my grandad’s attic. The old man… he must have fought in a war or something, when he was young. There’s just row upon row of medals and banners, bullets and bayonets, a cap and a helmet. And it’s all just hidden away, like he doesn’t want to think about it.”
A sobering thought, and one that made me feel rather guilty for bothering the old man so often. But more than anything else, I was beginning to feel annoyed, particularly after his sister gave her account:
“Oh, I thought they were farm tools, not weapons. There was even photos of horses and things…”
And on she went in a similar vein.You see? Four different people had looked behind that damned curtain, and not one of them had seen the same thing! Such was the contradiction between the stories that before long the world and his dog went charging in there to sneak a look, yet still nothing became clearer. All manner of wild tales began to circulate: the curtain apparently hid all manner of myths and monsters, a cage of wild animals, a coffin, a crucifix, even the remains of human sacrifices. With each account a section of the group was satisfied and no longer concerned themselves with the curtain’s mystery. But somehow I just couldn’t let it alone. At least of those people had to be lying, there was simply no other explanation. Yet there was no other indication that they had been anything less than truthful. Eventually it dawned upon me that I would have to go and see for myself exactly what was behind there.
I chose to go alone. Whatever I found, I didn’t fancy being harassed about it afterwards. I wanted time to think it over properly. So I went along on a day that I was off school with a cold, sniffing my way along, buried up to my neck in thick layers. As I walked the echoes of the previous stories whispered in my ears. What if I did see something I wasn’t meant to? I might never be able to look at the place again. Before I knew it I was standing in front of the silk curtain, gazing fearfully at its folds. They were as motionless as they had ever been, and at the same time they writhed and swayed with possibility.
“Can I help you, laddie?” It was the old man. I jumped and mumbled something incoherent. He smiled and came to stand next to me.
“Ah, fan of the old curtain are you? Yes, funny that, we’ve had a lot of youngsters showing an interest in it recently.” He looked at me.
“What’s behind it?” I whispered.
“Ah, that’s my secret treasure.” He winked. “Most valuable thing in the shop. Want to see?”
“Am I allowed?”
“Of course, my boy, why ever not? You seem like a nice, mature little soul, I think you’ll appreciate it.” I gulped, not knowing what to expect. He put one hand on my shoulder and with a creak of his ancient elbow he reached out and drew aside the curtain, revealing in an instant my own apprehensive face, staring back at me.
Behind the curtain was an antique mirror, the glass frosted over with its own coating of dust and framed with an intricately carved halo of mahogany.
Somehow, I wasn’t surprised.