We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed forget who we were. We forget faces and voices, a sunset on a lovely beach or a thunderous night amid the lightning. We forget a lot but we never forget the kindness of a stranger.
I live in a small town with a lively weekly market offering all sorts of goods from fruit and vegetables to meat, from clothes to second-hand books. I love going to this weekly event to get my dose of fresh ingredients and a couple of used paperbacks. There is a stall I have noticed many times held by an old man. I have never seen anyone stop by, let alone buy anything, and I feel sad to think that he comes here every week for little reward. I must at least take a look at his paraphernalia and spend some time talking to him. Sometimes that’s all old people need. Tomorrow is market day and I will keep my promise.
It is a very windy day with the weather trying to get the worst and the best out of people. The wind affects individuals in different ways, some love it, others loathe it. I am not too keen on it myself, especially when it lasts several days but it is not so bad during the summer months. Today is miserable and cold and the sun has failed to make an appearance. Still, here I am making my purchases. As I turn the corner, I can see that the old man is there at his usual spot and I approach the stall determined to find something to buy.
“Hello”, I say.
“Hello young lady.” His voice is soft and educated but his clothes are almost threadbare. He must be cold standing there with not much to do.
“A bit miserable today.” I add.
“It could be worse, it could be raining.”
“Yes” I laugh. “That certainly would be worse.”
He grins at me and I peruse through the goods on the table. It is not exactly junk; there are a couple of good dictionaries probably from the 1970s, some old-fashion instruction manuals for taking care of the garden, several biographies about people I have not even heard of and a lot of little ceramic objects from an era that would have been alien to my young years. A pack of cards catches my attention as it reminds me of the Italian cards my grand-parents had brought back from Italy and that we played in the afternoons whenever we were staying with them. I pick them up and decide that this will be my purchase when I notice an album bound in what looks like leather. There is no notice on the cover and no title so I imagine it must be a photography album and open it expecting images in black and white of people long gone. To my surprise it contains a stamp collection that brings me back to the days in my youth when I had started such a compilation which I never finished. The book is organised in geographic sections the first one being Europe and I recognise many of these stamps. The second section is North America and Canada followed by Russia and the Baltic states with a final area being Asia with some exquisitely designed patterns and colourful images. I don’t know why but this book fascinates me and I know I want it. Call me insane but I am ready to pay some hard earned euros to acquire it, it just feels as if the book chose me as its next owner and would not let me go.
“Do you know where this book came from?”
“It was the property of an uncle of mine who had established contacts with many philatelists around the globe. He was part, I believe, of an International club of amateurs exchanging stamps.”
“Well it is beautiful but don’t you want to keep it?”
“No, it is time for all these old things to find a new home. Just like me. Besides I believe that if I don’t get new carers for these beauties they will end up in a dump or burnt.”
“Don’t you have any family who would like to keep some of these objects as part of their heritage.”
“I am afraid there is no-one left but me.”
I don’t insist as it is not proper to inquire about people’s lives unless they want to share with others so I just nod.
“Well I’d like to buy the pack of cards and the book of stamps. How much will that be?”
“Fifty euros for both.”
It seems a bit of a hefty price to pay and my earnings aren’t very high but the album is begging to come with me.
“I haven’t got enough cash on me but if you give me ten minutes I’ll come back with the money. Please don’t sell it to anyone else.”
“I won’t lovie. I’ll keep it safe for you.”
There is a queue at the cash point and I have to grind my teeth not to say anything to the person in front of me who is taking ages but finally in a flash I get my money. On my way back to the stall there is a little café and I stop by to get a coffee and some croissants.
When I get back the old man has wrapped the book and pack of cards in paper fastened by a little piece of string and somehow, I am very touched by this kind gesture.
“Here,” I say “I thought we could share a drink and some coffee to celebrate my purchases.”
“How kind of you.” I can see tears threatening to fall from his rheumy eyes.
“I didn’t have time for breakfast this morning and a cup of coffee and pastry is just what the doctor ordered.”
“Come lass, take a chair and we can share this breakfast feast and perhaps you can tell me a little about yourself.”
“Oh, there is not much to say about me but I’d like to hear about yourself if you feel like it.”
“Young people are not normally interested in little old things like myself but I’ll tell you what; I’ll tell you how I met the queen of England when I was fifteen and let’s see if we cannot get a giggle or two out of you.”
“Elisabeth she was then. She was not the queen yet there was something majestic about her. She was walking by the river in Windsor with some people. I must add that being very young and us not having a television or reading the papers, I didn’t know who she was. Anyway, she is running towards me pursued by three Corgis when suddenly one of the dogs starts chasing a rabbit and gets trapped around her legs. She was about to fall so I ran as fast as I could and reached her in time for her to collapse in my arms. We both fell to the ground but my body prevented any injuries that she would have otherwise suffered. Once we have both caught our breaths I find nothing more intelligent than to say to her you should keep them dogs on the leash! I thought for a moment that she was going to slap me in the face but instead she starts laughing. By that time, her folks have joined us and are making a fuss to make sure she is intact. I am quite alright she said. This young man just saved me and was telling me about how to keep my dogs under heel. I know I blushed because I could feel the heat on my face. I must have looked puzzled because of one the ladies asked me if I knew who I had rescued. Does it matter? I answered. I later learned that the lady in question was Marion Crawford or Crawfie, as the queen had nicknamed her, the nanny. Anyway, to thank me for my chivalric action I am given a gold sovereign featuring King George V on the face and the reverse is St George and the Dragon. That was a lot of money then and in today’s money we would be talking about £15,000. So that’s how we suddenly had more money that we had ever seen in all our lives. So that’s the story of how I met the Queen. I’ve never seen her again after that but she made sure for years that a card arrived for my birthday signed by her hand.”
“That’s a lovely story! May I ask what you did with the money?”
“When I got home only my uncle was there. The rest of the family was working out in the fields. Foolishly I told him about my little adventure and he insisted in seeing the coin. He was a forceful man my uncle and he demanded to see it. I showed him my possession with reluctance but he just said that it was not gold, that it was a normal sovereign but that it would in any case bring food to the table for several weeks so, well done lad, that’s a great achievement.”
“Did you believe him?”
“At the time I did. I was very naïve in those days and I didn’t think twice when I saw that we had meat and enough food for a long time and even spare cash for some much needed cloth so that my mother could sew some clothes for us. It’s only a few years later that I learnt the truth. My uncle refused to answer any of my questions and persisted in saying that I was not given a gold sovereign but, in my heart, I knew that he had duped me and I resented the trick he had played on me. When he died I took his stamp book from the house and brought it to a collector in London asking him to identify if any of the items was worth anything but the only stamp of any value was not worth more than £100 of our current money.”
“I would have been gutted and would probably have exposed him for the deception.”
“Aye, I hear you and I tried but when I told my family the story they wouldn’t have and it was my word against that of my uncle. I was known to invent stories at the time so nobody took me seriously that time. That served me right!”
“So, you were never able to get anything else out of him?”
“Nope but I kept the stamp book and every now and then I would penetrate some philatelist club and try to get my stamps assessed but always failed to spot anything of much great value.”
“That’s so tragic! But have you shown the book to anyone recently valuations might have changed over the course of time.”
“Nay, I have long abandoned the idea of anything valuable in this book. He must have used the money for some other purpose, I don’t know gambling or something else.”
“Did you search his belongings after his death?”
“I did but I had little time to inspect anything much. Listen lass it’s getting close to noon so I think I’ll pack up for the day and head home.”
“Do you come here every week regardless of the weather?” I ask.
“Indeed, I do. I have a little canopy to cover my stall if the weather is a bit wet.”
“Will you be here next Tuesday Mister …”
“John, you can call me John.”
“OK, I am Alice and it was very nice meeting you.”
“Same here, Alice.”
“Okay, I’ll help you pack.”
“If you wish but it shouldn’t take much time.”
It doesn’t take long and soon he is on his way. I look at him as he drives off in his old van, the very dear old man, and cannot help but feel that he may be very lonely and I swear to myself that for as long as he will have his stall on the weekly market, I will come every Tuesday with coffee and croissants and perhaps the odd book that I have enjoyed and want to share with him. Back home, I unwrap my purchases and remove the paper from the album and look at it again. I cannot imagine how many hours have been spent collecting these stamps, there must be about five hundred of them. I leaf through the pages and on the last one there is a little piece of paper folded in two. It is strange that I missed it earlier and wonder what it could be. It is a hand written note saying that the book of stamps contains a secret and that only a good person will find it. There is no other clue and the note is not signed. I wonder who wrote this and if the secret could be the special stamp that John had been looking for but no, it cannot be as several experts have given their advice and found none of any great value. Still, I paid €50 for it but it seems it is worth a little more. Perhaps one day I’ll take the time to research each stamp and evaluate its value.
The week passes quickly and before I know it, it is Tuesday morning again. I do my weekly routine round the stalls and buy whatever food I need. I stop at the little café to buy two cups of the stuff and a few croissants and make my way to John’s stall. I have also brought with me a book I have really enjoyed and hope that he hasn’t read it and will enjoy it too. It is called The Lollipop Shoes a lovely story by Joanne Harris, best known as the author of Chocolat. I feel like a kid and am excited at the idea of seeing John again but when I turn the corner to the square where his stall is normally located, I see no sign of him. My eyes wander around the area in the hope that he has perhaps set up in a different location but there is no trace of him. The spot where he usually has his stall is empty. To say that I am disappointed in an understatement. I wanted to ‘adopt’ John, as in, become his friend and bring a little happiness to his life and I am gutted that I didn’t think to ask for his address or his phone number. The neighbouring stalls are always the same; there is a stand selling roast chicken and another offering local cheese and opposite, that of a butcher.
I ask the owners of each one if they have seen John but neither of them knows much about him as the old man, in their own words, keeps himself to himself. I am just about to leave with my heart in my throat when the flower lady approaches me.
“Are you Alice?” She asks with a smile.
“Yes, that’s me but how do you know my name?”
“John came by early this morning to say that you might come looking for him and I heard you asking about him to the other stallholders. I’m afraid he won’t be here today but he asked me to give you this little letter and to say that he is sorry to have missed you but he couldn’t stay today.”
“Do you know why?”
“I don’t think he is too well.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“John and I had the occasional chat. He doesn’t talk much but we did share some coffee every now and then and I had the impression that he needed to get some tests done at the hospital. He is a lovely old man and doesn’t seem to have anyone close to him, which is a shame, but I sensed that he had a little secret that he was not particularly keen to share. I am very good with people, I guess it is because I deal with flowers which are gentle and tender things that need care and love and that’s perhaps why he trusted me more than the others around here. He did mention an appointment this morning but I couldn’t be sure what it was as he didn’t share the information with me.”
She hands me an envelope with just my name on it. I take it from her and thank her for her involvement and care.
“He reminds me of my Dad” she says “and I’d like to think that we are a little more than just acquaintances but I do care about the old man. If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.”
I assure her that I will do just that and offers her the cup of coffee and croissants that were meant for John thinking that it cannot do any harm to gift her these little tokens.
“Thanks love. I haven’t had a break all morning and this is very welcome. I understand why John took to you, you are a kind lass.”
It is nothing, I assure her but some customers are waiting by her stall and she must attend to business so we say our goodbyes and I head off home. I resist the temptation of opening the letter until I get home and then not wanting to wait any longer, I tear it open.
You have brought an old man some happiness and for that I’ll always be grateful. My days are numbered but what are left of them are peppered with your kindness. I don’t have any descendants to give any inheritance to but I know that if there is anything to find in the book of stamps you will find it. I spent far too many years looking for a clue and I know that somewhere is a little secret that begs to be discovered. I don’t know if and when I’ll be coming back to the market but if I do, it would be lovely to see you again.
Take care and God bless,
There are no contacts details on the letter or the envelope and I don’t even know if he lives nearby so I run back to the market in the hope that the flower seller is still there. I am too late and there is no sign of anyone else. There is nothing to do but go back home and wait until Tuesday. I don’t even know his surname so there is little hope to find him using the Internet. The week goes by very slowly and I am desperate to go back to the square to see either John or the florist and determined I will not go away without the essential information I am after. Tuesday is finally there and I turn the corner to the square. John’s stall is still missing but I can see the flower lady is present.
I approach her stall where there are no customers at present but it is still very early.
“I am so sorry to bother you but I was hoping that John would have given me his address or phone number in the letter and I don’t know where to start to find him. I came back last week but you had already gone. I am determined to find him and help in whatever way I can. I won’t let it go and I know deep in my heart that we were meant to meet so I won’t give up!”
She looks at me in silence for a second and then bursts out laughing.
“My, my. You are quite something. I don’t know John’s number or his address I’m afraid…”
“But you must know something!” I interrupt her.
“One second lassie. I was just about to say that I know where he lives because I have seen his van parked outside his small house several times.”
Phew, the relief!
“And where is that?”
“It is on the other side of town just by the chemist on North Street. I don’t know the number but it is easy enough, I would think, to find it.”
“Yes, I know the chemist over there. Thank you! Thank you!”
“As I said before he might still be in hospital as he is not back this week but at least you have a way to contact him.”
“Yes, thank you!”
“Here love, take note of my phone number and let me know what you can find out.”
“I will, I promise. You have been so helpful. Bye for now. I am going there straight away but I’ll see you next week in any case and I’ll let you know if I manage to see him before Tuesday.”
I run back home to pick up my car and drive to the chemist on North Street. The van parked outside a small terraced house is John’s. I find somewhere to park a little further down the street and walk back to his front door to ring the bell. There is no answer and give it two more tries. There is obviously no one at home. I am a little disappointed but had been warned he may not be in. I almost kick myself for not having brought pen and paper to leave him a note but I can write the letter tonight and bring it tomorrow.
The letter must be non-intrusive and well penned so as not to offend him. I take a long time to write the right words and end up with a version I am quite pleased with.
You might be surprised to hear from me but I was really hoping to see you again on the market and pursue what was I feel was the beginning of a friendship. You must blame me for intruding so rudely in your life but I had to find a way to see you. I hassled the flower lady until she confessed knowing where you lived. You were not at home so I came back to drop this letter in your box. I am sorry if my attitude seems a bit forceful and I hope you forgive me this little extravagance. I found the note in the book of stamps and would like to suggest that we work together to bring out its secret.
I hope that you find this soon so that we can resume our acquaintance and commence our investigations.
I remain your truly,
PS: You can call me on this number 05.72.13.13.26 or visit me at home, if you prefer. I live on 23 The Quadrant so just the other side of town.
When I drop the letter the next morning there is still no evidence of anyone being home and push it through the slot in the door. Having nothing else to do to kill time, I open the album again and start identifying each stamp to assess their value over the Internet. I have found a website that allows you to check how much a stamp is worth and spend long hours poring over the findings. I have created a little excel spreadsheet where I note the stamp colour, its description, if it has a name, the date, add a description and the position in the book, for example Europe 1 and lastly add any value I can find. So far, and I have covered almost off of the European section, we total a sum of €200 which is not bad considering my investment. I have decided that once I have the final list we will sell the album to a keen philatelist and share the profits with John. By the end of the week, I have almost finished and we are approaching the not so little sum of €1,000. John’s uncle certainly managed to gather quite a collection! By Monday morning I have finished my research and pleases with myself for completing the task. I am sure John will appreciate this little unexpected income. By the looks of it he could do with a little extra cash. My perseverance has paid off as we are looking at €1,200.
Having heard nothing from John at all and driving by this house every day to find it empty, I make my way to the market once more. His stall is still crying with its absence and I visit the flower stand where Anna smiles at me. She wrote her name down on the piece of paper she gave me with her telephone number.
“Still no news?” She asks.
“No, nothing at all but I have left a letter for him in his letterbox so hopefully we will hear back from him.”
I don’t mention the book of stamps as I feel it is a matter between John and me but we spend ten minutes chatting and I promise to keep her updated. Back at home I find the album on the floor. I was sure it was on the coffee table but then my cat, Purdey, likes to push things off tables or any high surface so I am not surprised. I pick it up and notice a small anomaly on the page it has fallen open. A Two Penny Blue stamp seems to have moved in the fall. I carefully lift the plastic sheet that covers the page to put it back correctly when I notice that it seems thicker than the other ones. To my great amazement the stamp on top hides anther one of the exact same size. Looking at it, I see that it is a Red Penny from 1841. That doesn’t tell me much so I google it and find out that the little secret is out of the book! The Penny Red stamp dated 1841 is worth £550,000 or €640,000… My mouth is still wide open when the doorbell rings. I quickly hide my discovery under the book and go to open the door to whoever is intruding in my fantastic discovery. For the second time in the space of five minutes my jaw falls to the floor for at the door is no-one else but John!
“John is that really you?”
“Yes, Alice. It is me alright. I came back home last night and found your letter.”
“Oh, John I am so pleased to see you! But do come in please.”
“Perhaps I should have called?”
“No. Take a seat and tell me how you are. Would you like a cup of coffee and some biscuits or perhaps something a little stronger? You look good.”
“I am well. I am sorry I disappeared so suddenly but I had been doing some tests over a growth on my leg and what first threatened to be a tumour is in fact benign, so I have a few years left in me after all. After my visit to the hospital I spent some time in Cornwall where my late wife and I used to go on holidays. It has proven a very relaxing time and has allowed me to regain my appetite for life.”
“That is such good news! And your timing couldn’t have been more perfect.”
“What do you mean?”
“One thing at a time. First, I am going to open that bottle of bubbly I have kept in the fridge for a special occasion for surely that it the very time to celebrate. I’ll be back in a minute.”
I come back with my bottle of Dom Perignon and two flutes. John is watching me pour the honeyed coloured liquid in the glasses and looks inquiringly in my direction. We clink glasses and take a sip of the refreshing liquor.
“John, you and I have become very wealthy people.”
“How come? Did you play the lottery?”
“Not quite but I have something to show you.”
I grab the album and open it again on the page of my discovery. He sees that there is an empty space in the middle of the page.
“So, one stamp is missing a blue Penny if I recall.”
“You are correct but that’s not the only stamp that is missing.”
“I don’t understand…”
I pick up the blue stamp from the table and waiving it at him I suddenly reveal in my other hand the stamp that was hidden under it and give it to him.
“My Godness, Alice that’s a Red Penny!”
“You know its value?”
“Well, with all the years spent poring over all information available about stamps I have come to know them very well.”
“This little treasure here was hidden under the Blue Penny worth no more than €20 of today’s money. The Red one on the other hand is looking at €600,000!”
“I always knew that the book of stamps had a secret and it was you Alice that revealed it!”
“It was a team effort.”
And so it was that the secret was out. The sale was made and the cash banked equitably between us. John has now sold his little house and moved in with me in my much larger property. We are a real team; the father I had lost so young and me the daughter he never had. We still do the market every now and then and have the occasional lunch with Anna and so we find that life is not so solitary anymore and we don’t forget. We won’t forget anything anymore.
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