There are two small boxes of china outside on a table. You know the type: chipped plates and cups with badly superglued handles, a piece of paper with ’50p each’ scrawled in felt tip pen. This is the only thing that suggests to me that I am outside a shop. There is no sign. No opening hours on display. I can’t even see inside as the windows are stained brown with occasional white marks, like tea mottled with gone-off milk.
There is a small patch of glass, however, that is less opaque and I can just about make out the outline of some plants, although they have a decidedly sepia tint. I decide to go in.
The first thing I see upon entering is a woman sat directly opposite the door at the top of a short set of stairs. She is wearing very dark sunglasses and I get the impression that she is staring. With or without me in the shop, I feel like she sits there and stares.
It is no ordinary shop. I realise this almost immediately. My instinct is to take in every detail of the interior so that I can better understand the place I have entered but I do not have time. I feel a strange pressure to perform – act the shopper, immediately.
The few details I manage to process are a table of vases in front of me and a caged budgerigar on my left. Having no interest in vases, I decide to break the silence by talking to the budgerigar. As a child I had pet budgerigars – Nobby and Eric – thankfully, I still remember how to speak a little budgie. I allow my mouth to form a shape I have not made for some time and issue a series of sharp tongue clicks followed by a melodious chirrup, another tongue click and then a quick sharp whistle.
After the somewhat one-sided conversation with the budgie, I decide to now survey the shop. Although no bigger than a living room, it has been split on two main levels with a further level upon which the women is stationed. I now see that she is not alone; a man flaps around her, moving from shoulder to shoulder, grabbing at things on a small worktop. He may be making a cup of tea.
Along the right hand wall are a number of glass display cabinets. Inside are assorted small items – jewellery mainly, trinkets, books, old cameras and figurines. Larger items are arranged perilously on top of the cabinets.
Although the atmosphere is still far from the ordinary, I am comfortable enough to spend time examining the contents laid out on each shelf of each display cabinet. Nothing much pricks my interest as I work my way towards the back of the shop. It is only when I make my way to the second level that I notice them – two incredible treasures amongst the tat. A tin plaque printed with parrots that is clearly old but with colours still bright, and detailing still precise. Two shelves below is a small and delicate Frida Kahlo self-portrait in a wooden frame – the one where she sits proudly with her parrots. These two items are the reasons why I visit shops like this. I want them. They are mine.
As is my way, I decide to ask the price of a small glass pendant in the same cabinet. The man descends down the steps and tells me a very reasonable price. My hopes lift. The parrots could be mine. I nod in a non-committal fashion as if considering very carefully the price and then casually indicate the tin parrot sign:
“How about the parrots?”
“Ah, that’s not for sale,” he says.
“How about the little picture there?”
“Not for sale either, I’m afraid.”
What kind of shop is this? I take a deep breath.
“They’re gifts, you see. I’m a parrot man and friends have bought me these gifts cos of the parrots.”
“They’re very beautiful”
He carefully removes the tin parrot from the cabinet and hands it to me. It is indeed beautiful and now that it is in my hands, even more desirable than before.
“I know about parrots,” he says, emphatically.
He points at each parrot in turn and tells me their names and country of origin. He also knows how much I want this and that I now know that I cannot have it.
Out of kindness, more than anything else, he continues: “They’re gifts you see and if they were to come in the shop and not see them, well…it just wouldn’t be right, would it? That’s why they’re out on display.”
He takes the tin from my hand and slowly returns it to its place at the back of the cabinet. He resumes his place behind the women, who remains in the same position, still staring no doubt.
I allow myself one final long lingering look at the items in a reverential silence.
Then the silence is broken.
I hear a small voice to my left.
I turn to see a green parrot, craning its neck to fix one large black eye on me from atop a cage.
“Hello,” I reply. But before the parrot has time to engage me further, I open the door and push out into the fresh air. I am not a parrot man and am not deserving of the riches it affords. I know that now and I must go.