Henry Wiggins became an orphan suddenly and unexpectedly. It was sudden, as the number 42 bus, with the driver slumped dead at the wheel, neatly plucked Henry’s parents off the pavement at the bus stop. It was unexpected, as it wasn’t their bus. They were waiting for the number 43. A bemused Henry was left standing on the pavement unscathed and parentless, his empty hand no longer holding his mother’s hand.
Since then, Henry had made a surprisingly good start to managing on his own. Routine had always been a very important aspect of Henry’s family life and now he embraced it like a life raft. True, it was the routine imposed upon him by his overprotective parents but no one who knew Henry could blame them for that. Now that his parents had gone only the routine remained and Henry Arthur Wiggins, aged 39, simply carried on doing the same things at the same times as he always had.
Henry was a little puzzled for he was sure that he had never seen the Empire Emporium before even though he walked this way frequently. He felt quite sure that it wasn’t there the last time he had walked by but he couldn’t swear to it. Then again, quite clearly, it was there now, its entrance situated up one of the town’s narrow side streets in Back Lane, its swinging sign creaking in the breeze above the door as it proudly proclaimed:
THE EMPIRE EMPORIUM
Bric –a- brac
For the discerning customer
Henry only looked at bric-a-brac on Fridays as Friday was bric-a-brac day. Monday was shopping day, Tuesday was coffee with Uncle Bill day, Wednesday was laundry day and Thursday was Museum and Library volunteering day. Saturdays and Sundays were for fishing with Dad, reading, watching the television and for playing on his X-box. Routine was everything for Henry and he didn’t cope well with change. Fishing was now off the agenda but he could still read, watch television and play on his X-box, even without parents.
On this occasion, it was a shopping Monday and Henry was walking home with three carrier bags. Some unseen force caused him to stop, glance into the window, then propel him sharply into the alley. He changed direction so swiftly that his trilby fell off his head. He replaced his hat and turned his eager gaze back to the window and confirmed what he thought he had already seen. It was a puddle, lying there on the shelf in the window, surrounded by its own patch of turf and rough soil and neatly framed like a piece of art. Beside it was a carefully positioned manila cardboard sales tag, upside down, thus making it hard to read without entering the shop. The tag read,
Victorian Puddle, circa 1853. £250
On the back, in pencil, were the words,
The Empire Emporium,
Henry and his parents had been avid bric-a-brackers, on Fridays, for years and Henry was wise enough to know that things put up for sale in some of these shops weren’t always what they were cracked up to be so he was not convinced by the label.
“ You can’t sell a puddle!”
And yet, as if to disprove that, there was a puddle and it was for sale for £250.00.
Henry did not remember entering the shop but nonetheless he found himself inside, gazing down at the puddle and feeling a little unsteady on his feet. His routine had been broken and he felt the most overwhelming urge to buy this strange artefact. Almost without thinking, he found himself fingering the lining of his hat where he kept a plentiful supply of the £20 notes that his parents had stashed away in their bedroom.
Luckily, for Henry, his parents had never trusted banks so they had left their only child somewhat cash rich. He was still amazed at just how much money they had managed to stash away under their mattress. It was £17,585.43, to be precise. Henry knew this as he had counted it twice, just to be sure. In fact, he counted it twice every day since his parents had died. There were 879 twenty pound notes, one fiver, two twenty pence coins and three pennies, the odd £5.43 being the change from their last shopping trip, when they had bought £14.57’s worth of food. Henry reasoned that they had been making provision for their old age and now, as they did not have that to look forward to, being dead, then it must be his to do with as he wished.
He knew he really ought to stick to his routine and turn around and come back on a bric-a-brac Friday but his feet wouldn’t let him retrace his steps. He tried. The puddle was contained in a 6 feet by 4 feet wooden frame about eight inches deep. The irregularly shaped watery section, the puddle itself, was about 4 feet by three feet and surrounded by grass and soil. It certainly looked like a puddle. Henry dipped his fingers into the water gingerly and did a little finger wiggle. The greeny-brown water swirled around and then settled again into a caramel-like slab, entombing a tiny fly that really should have known better. Henry rescued the fly with the corner of a piece of paper from his pocket and left it to dry out on the dusty sill. He couldn’t abide any animal, or insect to suffer.
Henry’s feet marched him up to a young man leaning on the counter who wore braces to hold up his grubby denims and sported splendid mutton chop whiskers. His attention was divided between his phone, the newspaper, open at the horseracing pages and a tiny TV screen mounted on the wall.
Henry coughed gently and the young man looked up, as if only just registering his presence.
”Can I help you?” he asked.
“Er, yes,” said Henry. “That puddle in the window…”
“What you mean the Victorian one, circa 1854..?
“It says 1853,” Henry corrected him.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right 1853. You wanna buy it, or what? There aren’t many like that one about, you know. It’s fully authenticated by the Victorian Artefact Society of Great Britain with a certificate to prove it,” he said. As if anticipating Henry’s next question he rummaged around in the drawer under the counter.
“Aha, here it is,” he said taking out a certificate-like piece of yellowing paper.
“There you are, see,” said the young man, unfolding the certificate and waving it in front of Henry.
As Henry had never actually seen any Victorian puddles previously, or certificates of provenance, he couldn’t argue about the veracity of this particular example. To gain thinking time, he copied his father’s old trick, sucking a sharp intake of breath through his teeth whilst stroking his chin ruminatively. He was concerned about potential routine maintenance issues, he explained.
“What if it dries up, for instance? Puddles do that all the time, don’t they?”
“Nah, simple really,” said the young man, sensing a sale, including his commission. “Just top it up every now and then and it’ll go for another hundred years or more!”
“What, you mean just add water?” Henry asked, his naivety on display like a badge on a jumper. ”Any old water?”
“Nah, don’t be daft, mate. Can’t do that! Old water, certainly but not ANY old water! This is a genuine Victorian puddle, you know! You need to get the top- up water from another puddle and the older the better! Victorian, ideally, of course. None of this modern stuff will do.“
He clicked his tongue in derision.
“Don’t you know nothing about puddles?”
Henry deciphered the double negative in the young man’s question and reluctantly admitted that he did, in fact, know nothing about puddles, other than information he had gleaned as a child repeatedly jumping into them and suffering his mother’s ire, the Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh’s cape story and the one in The Vicar of Dibley when Geraldine had jumped into one and almost completely disappeared. How they’d laughed!
Henry gathered himself, removed his black trilby and scratched his head before making a decision that flew in the face of common sense and thus he became the proud owner of a Victorian Puddle, circa 1853. He paid £240 of his deceased parents’ money, with twelve 20’s from the lining of his trilby, having haggled and beaten the young man down by the princely sum of £10. Both were pleased with the deal, especially the young man, who had been instructed “get anything over £200 and you can keep the rest.” A £10 delivery charge was extra of course but a bargain for Henry. Well, he could hardly carry it home, could he? Not with three bags of shopping to carry.
“I’ll pop it round after we close up at 5,” said the young man as he pocketed the delivery charge. He was as good as his word and soon after 5.15 there was a loud knock on Henry’s door and there was the young man. The puddle was on a hand cart, wearing a makeshift lid to prevent or at least to reduce any potential spillages.
“Where d’you wannit, mate?”
Henry wanted it in the centre of his lounge so the two of them manhandled it down the side passage and through the open patio doors, carefully trying to keep all the water in its place. Soon it was installed in the centre of the living room, relegating the coffee table to the sidelines. It was going to be a real talking point, the young man suggested. Just as he was leaving he removed a large liquid filled plastic bottle from his coat pocket and handed it to Henry with a wink.
“A bit of top-up water for you mate,” he said. “I got if from the pond at the back of the old Victorian Town Hall. That’s been there for donkey’s years so that should be OK.”
“Oh, thanks,” said Henry. “That’s really kind of you.” Good manners never went amiss, his mum had always told him.
“No problem,” the young man said, laughing as he went out through the patio doors, his hand cart rattling across the patio as he patted the bank notes in his back pocket. He was looking forward to a good night in the pub with his mates and he had a great story to tell them.
In fact, the puddle was unlikely to become a “real talking point” as Henry didn’t have any friends and talking to himself was not one of his habits. He knelt down beside his new purchase and looked down into it as he wiggled his fingers in the murky water. He had expected to be able to touch the bottom but didn’t feel it. He put his hand in deeper and then rolled up his sleeve and plunged his whole arm into the water. Still no bottom. He sat back on his haunches, thinking, trying to fathom this mystery, to get to the bottom of it. Eventually he got up and went to the broom cupboard where he unscrewed the handle from the broom and slid this vertically into the water. It disappeared briefly and then bobbed back up to float on the surface. Henry sat down on the sofa, removing his hat and scratching his head the better to think about this extraordinary purchase. After a few minutes he had a sudden thought and quickly went up the stairs to the wardrobe that still contained some of his father’s prized possessions.
“I know it’s here somewhere,” he said to himself. He rummaged around and eventually spotted a long thin cloth bag containing his father’s fishing rod which he quickly assembled in the living room. It took only seconds to attach a small lead weight to the line and attach the reel. Then, for good measure, he added a couple of quite large hooks in the way he had seen his father do so many times before. As he stood there by the sofa with the rod pointed towards the ceiling he spotted Mr. Johnson from next door, walking past on his daily dog walk. He waved and Jack the terrier barked silently through the double glazing. Henry waved back.
“Just doing a bit of indoor fishing” Henry mimed as his neighbour went past, scratching his head in puzzlement. Henry decided to draw the curtains before he came back. You know how nosy neighbours can be, his mum used to say.
Henry let out the line, expecting at any moment for the lead weight to touch the bottom but it didn’t. He looked at the reel which stated that the line was fifteen metres long and top quality nylon. 15 metres! That’s fifty feet thought Henry in utter amazement. He stepped quickly away from the edge in alarm, his knees buckling under him as he backed into an armchair. This was no longer just a shallow puddle. It was in fact a bottomless pit.
Henry carefully started to rewind the line with the reel. “That’s funny,” he thought as he wound it up. “Feels really heavy.” Eventually the weight and the hooks reappeared on the surface. Dangling from the end of the line was a metal object that looked like a rather ornate buckle.
Several hours later Henry had fished out an impressive collection of objects from the puddle. He cleaned them in the washing-up bowl using some smelly stuff from under the sink and polished them to a shine on a t- towel. His mum would have been livid! The most attractive of the collection was the buckle he had found first. Henry switched on his computer and typed into the search engine, “Victorian buckles” and there it was!
Victorian shoe buckle, silver, circa 1853. Approximate value; £240.
“Ha, that’s what I paid for the whole puddle,” thought Henry, his laugh echoing loudly around his empty house.
By the early hours of the next morning Henry had cleaned and polished every artefact and identified each one with help from Mr. Google. All were genuine Victorian pieces and some were of considerable financial and historical value. He laid the objects out on the dining room table and put a label beside each one, giving details of what it was, what is was used for and its value. A return visit to the Empire Emporium was called for in the morning, only this time he would be selling, not buying! Even though it would still not be a bric-a-brac Friday but an Uncle Bill coffee Tuesday, Henry reasoned, Uncle Bill would understand. He was keen on fishing too.
“I’ll just have one more go,” thought Henry, lobbing the weighted line into the puddle once more, yawning from lack of sleep as he did so but politely covering his mouth with his free hand. Manners, his mum called it.
The sudden sharp jerk on the line caught Henry completely by surprise and he toppled headfirst into the murky water, which settled back into its smooth greeny- brown texture within moments. Henry, with his hat still firmly on his head, simply disappeared as the water closed over him.
Of course Henry was surprised by this sudden turn of events but he hardly had time to register any sense of panic or danger as he sank below the surface, the fishing line remaining taut as the weights carried him gently downwards. It never occurred to him to release his grip on the rod. The water all around him became crystal clear and Henry was captivated by a shoal of multi-coloured fish which swam up to him inquisitively and then seemed to become his escorts as he sank deeper and deeper. The largest fish in the shoal came right up to Henry and bumped noses with him then swam on downwards, looking back from time to time, waggling its tail, inviting him to follow, as if he had any choice whilst he still held on tightly to his father’s prized fishing rod.
At last Henry reached the bottom. Looking upwards, he could see a tiny window of light where he had entered the puddle and he was briefly reassured by this. He gave no thought to breathing underwater until a string of tiny bubbles escaped from his mouth and hurried their way through the shoal of fish which proceeded to race them to the surface before returning to stop and stare at Henry as if to say,
“Again, please.” Henry duly obliged and the game was played once more.
Henry peered around him in awe. He was in a wonderfully peaceful, subdued, subtly half-lit world of misty greens and browns as if he was seeing everything through tinted film. Plant fronds waved to and fro and brilliantly coloured fish flashed in and out. The bottom was grey-brown silt which swirled around his feet in miniature clouds and followed him in dusty streaks as he moved forward. As he did so the fish regrouped behind their leader and now they followed him. Within a few minutes Henry discovered that swimming was a far more efficient and fun way of moving through the water and soon he was engaged in an aquatic ballet as he dived and swooped through the water with his new friends. He was quickly surrounded by further shoals of fish which had somehow learned of his arrival. Every new shoal displayed different colours, showing off to the new arrival, each vying to outdo the others. When he stopped the fish would dance around him until he joined in again, the water a blaze of slivers of splintered rainbow and silver bubbles, all of which simply had to be chased to the surface, the chase led now by Henry.
During one particularly energetic and acrobatic game, Henry’s trilby finally parted company with his head and as it sank towards the silty bottom the mischievious fish plucked the banknotes from under the lining. As they floated about they became the latest target for the chase as dozens of fish dipped and darted and nosed the notes around in the water. It seemed that they liked the taste too as several minutes later every scrap of the money had disappeared like feeding time in a goldfish bowl. Henry heard himself laughing at such fun, spewing forth yet more bubbles to chase.
Above his head, Henry did not notice that the window of light had grown smaller and smaller until, eventually, it disappeared altogether. Had he noticed it, it is doubtful that he would have been worried for Henry was having the time of his life.
Eventually, having missed several coffee mornings, shopping trips and volunteering days, a number of people became concerned over Henry’s absence. He was always punctual and he never missed a day, they said. After some thoroughly fruitless investigations by the authorities, Henry Arthur Wiggins, 39, was finally listed as a missing person. The investigating team were not only puzzled by his disappearance but also by the unusual collection of Victorian objects laid out on his dining room table. Each piece was neatly labelled. They were also completely baffled by the other very strange object they found in his living room. It looked exactly like a puddle, surrounded by a wooden frame. The dirty green – brown water in it was just six inches deep, with some mud at the bottom.
Nearby, the police found a small manila coloured cardboard label. The words, “Victorian puddle, circa 1853. £250” were written on it in pencil. And on the back, also in pencil, were the words,
“The Empire Emporium, Back Lane, Middleton.”
“That’s very strange,” the police said in their official statement. “There hasn’t been a shop in Back Lane for years.”