AUTOLYCUS

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Every now and then, a travelling salesmen would pass through the little village where Sarah lived. It was a suburb of a large city, in fact, and travelling into town was cumbersome. Being at the edge of things meant that you were always somehow behind-hand: the latest fashions, the new books were unobtainable in those pre-Internet days. Sarah aspired to glamour, and this was in short supply. Except on the days when the travelling salesman came.

He had a springing gait and a wall eye. His curls hung down his back, which was astonishing at that time. He would prance up the brick path to her door, lugging a large suitcase. Its locks were broken, and it was tied up with string. He would slap the case down (it made a plump sound as it came to rest) and he opened it with a flourish. Holding her breath, she wondered what he had brought this time. Her heart beat so loud that she thought he might be able to hear. “Well Missy? Well? And what is your heart’s desire today?”

Not ribbons or hairgrips, that was for sure. Not purple nylons, not multicoloured cotton-wool balls. Not shoe-stretchers. Not green eye-shadow, not rouge. What Sarah wanted was something she had never seen before, something that would change everything, something that would make her laugh and cry. He laid out his usual wares and she shook her head: “haven’t you got anything really special?”

He looked at her sharply, though she could not tell if it was with the good eye or not. He said softly: “well, as the Bard says, I am a picker-up of unconsidered trifles. Let’s see now. I have purloined gewgaws right across the country, I know which birds fly highest, I know how to fill girls’ ears with honey and I know how to change little things to big ones and back again. Let me look for you, my sweetling.”

He rummaged in the case and brought out a shoebox. Inside it were tiny farmyard animals. They were alive. He took them out tenderly and immediately they began to crop the grass outside Sarah’s door. How sweet they were, how complete! Then he brought out a toy train, with living passengers and real smoke. Then a handsome little man (a slightly bigger box was needed for him), who, in a piping voice, began to instruct her how to cook and how to write a sentence. Then a sugar egg, with a porthole through which she could view a landscape with changing seasons. Then a book which could turn its own pages and read its own stories aloud. Then a bottle of perfume which could change its scent according to her mood. Then, looking intently at her, he reached into the suitcase and brought out one last object. It was a blue shell. He said: “if you could keep one object, which would it be?”

Sarah picked up the shell. It just filled her hand. It had a pearly interior, and looked like a miniature conch shell. The big conches could be used to make sound, but it looked as though this shell had a different function. It might not help you to speak, but it would help you to listen. She put it to her ear.

She was astonished to hear the sea. At ebb she could hear the hiss as the pebbles were exposed: at flow, she could hear the roar as the tide moved in. A breeze whistled in the shell, as if to tell her that the wind and the sea were comrades, in storm as well as calm. Sarah knew then that wisdom lay in her hand, and she realised that everything changes, and yet nothing does. Nature does not discriminate between right and wrong, between birth and death. She turned to the salesman: “this is the one I want.” He packed away all his treasures, and said: “you chose cleverly, Missy. It will serve you well.” He took her money and turned back down the path. Sarah stood watching him leave, with the shell at her ear, preparing herself to hear its austere harmonies for the rest of her life.