The Duchess


Had I paid more attention to the main stories I would have missed the obituary. Centred and low on the page, looking as if it wanted to hide but due to the paucity of words, drawing attention to itself.


mirror lane


Five words to announce the passing of a phenomenon. My breath caught like an old tin box refusing to open and I thought of Mirror Lane. Door knobs which bowed and beckoned, hissed or hid, swayed and sang. Curtains which spontaneously alternated between closed modesty and full disclosure as if announcing and ending theatrical interludes. Awnings which surged to a tormented tempo. Doors which winked and shutters which leaned conspiratorially towards each other. Cobblestones which sighed softly as you walked and gently expelled coloured dust to light your way. Upon reaching the shop of your choosing, you realised that the dust had been shaded to match the shop front, as if the stones knew where you were heading, before you yourself were certain.

I snatched a light shawl which proved inadequate against the snapping wind that caught stray leaves and danced them feverishly along the street and, with gusto, billowed my skirts into a sail and hoisted the tasselled shawl, securing my head as the totem on a tattered pennant. Images of Mirror Lane settled within as the tempest raged around me.

My first visit – three years ago. I had come to the city two years prior, after the death of my parents, with some small means to support myself, and an introduction to Lady Clementine, an eccentric, self-sufficient, busy person, who in-truth did not need a companion. During one of our outings we had been accompanied by her nephew and his friend. I received her blessing, and her nephew’s, although awkwardly and without enthusiasm, when my hand was asked in marriage. A glorious day of anticipation and hope overshadowed by shame and fear as I stood alone at the altar. People, houses, noise rushed by me as I tried to outrun my distress. Mirror Lane sighed with comfort and the cobblestones quietly lit a silvery path before me. Or perhaps it was the cannonballs of despair draining my mind that made the surroundings look lighter than my broken heart. A door opened before me and seemed to propel me in with an invisible prod. Tea set for two, a lilting voice, talking without inquiring. My thoughts misbehaved and returned to that anguishing moment of realisation. An altar. A solitary figure. A silent scream to cease the talk of banal and inconsequential matters as my heart, my life, my being was torn apart as between two oxen pulling in opposite directions. Silent streams of tears. The silence of simply breathing. It was late in the evening when she told me Mr Dimpelberry would escort me home and, that I should return.

I was unsure why I returned to Mirror Lane and The Duchess. Perhaps it was the warm greetings from the shop owners, or the winks and nods from the shops themselves. My internal anguish and pain lightened to match the silver dust that settled lightly over my shoes as I returned, time and again.

Mirror Lane held intrigue. Bows and Bobbins sold broomsticks. Some so large they were angled diagonally across the shop wall, corner to corner. Others so fine that a breath of cold street air would send them fluttering across the counter and over the side to settle lightly on a canary yellow pillow which simply materialised. Kettles and Cups sold pots and pans, and Pots and Tops sold confectionary and cakes. Enjoying a pastel coloured cupcake of feathery lightness, and such a delicate disposition that I was not sure I had eaten anything even after my second helping, I enquired during one visit as to why the owners did not exchange their signs to more accurately reflect their purpose. Matron, reportedly by previous occupation, certainly by nature, with a cherubic face and starlight twinkling eyes, looked at me sternly and informed me softly that I ‘had little imagination’. It was only after a number of visits to Pots and Tops that I realised she had been right, but by that time my imagination had taken full flight.

I wondered how the street would accommodate the demise of The Duchess. She had told me of the history of Mirror Lane. Dilapidated shop fronts. Dirt and grime filling the lane. Rouges and crime spilling over the cobbled stones. Rats and cats settling into a tense but comfortable co-existence.

The Duchess had been the first to venture into the Lane where she opened FiddleSticks. She had been drawn to the neat windows which she said ‘sighed with relief’ with her first footstep into the Lane. It had been a solitary existence as few people ventured down the lane, and no-one came alone, or under foggy, overcast or dark skies. One morning she found the rats and rogues had disappeared and a Mr Dimpelberry cleaning the windows next to her shop, and the next and the next. He opened Springs and Things and within a week the influx began. Within a month Mirror Lane was vibrant, colourful, welcoming and ‘unusually unusual’.

FiddleSticks was the brightest shop in the lane in nature and colour as The Duchess featured silver everywhere, and her shop was a beacon in and for the street – reflecting neighbouring shops in its thick warped old windows, flashing images of people as they wandered along the lane, sparkling with the reflection of stalls outside shop fronts. I wondered if the shop and the lane would be the same immersed in the dull cloak of mourning.

As I approached the arched entrance to Mirror Lane the unruly wind settled and silver stars, silver balls, silver flowers, silver ribbons swayed gently, reflecting the golden arms of the embracing sun. The Lane pulsed with people. Children danced over the stones watching the colours merge from beneath their feet, squealing with delight. The Duchess would have approved. Parents solemnly acknowledged shopkeepers and bowed respectfully to FiddleSticks as they passed. Some laid hands on the door which seemed to sag with each touch but remained resolutely closed.

I stopped to speak to Matron as to the circumstances of The Duchess, but she directed me to Mr Dimpelberry. Mr Dimpelberry was waiting for me and enthusiastically ushered me into his automaton shop. He had reduced the shop from three widths to one, mainly he had mentioned once, to allow others to commence their trade. Bows and Bobbins had thus arrived in the Lane, much to the delight of visitors. On one afternoon alone, I saw more than twenty broomsticks leave the shop. Some wrapped majestically in silks, towered over their new owners. Some so small they could have nestled comfortably in a bird’s nest. This was the first time he had invited me into his shop, and for reasons which I often remonstrated over, I had never felt inclined to enter of my own volition.

He wore a silver band around his arm, ‘a tribute to The Duchess’. I realised with horror that I had no such respectful sign of commemoration, but Mr Dimpelberry waved my distress aside and passed me a silver key attached to a silver ribbon saying softly ‘from The Duchess’. As a wave of pain and loneliness swamped me in a malevolent dark ooze, Mr Dimpelberry began talking about The Duchess, of the early days of the Lane, how the doors and windows had become increasingly animated, how the cobbled stones began to shine under foot, and slowly began dusting the way forward, how time lost meaning there. About the arrival of Pins and Needles which sold haberdashery, fabrics, threads and more; Top to Toe which sold only hats and shoes; Five Fingers which sold sweets of heady deliciousness, and Rare- bits which sold all manner of soft toys – cats that purred while sleeping, puppies that chased their tail, winking bears, scampering rabbits and even a little mechanical mouse that scurried inside a wheel. As he spoke, fissures formed around his mouth and crevasses of untold age scratched his brow. Bantam pockets of smooth skin heralded his retired youth. His face was encased in a brush of vine-like tendrils dancing softly around his face, for he moved his head purposefully as he spoke. His eyes were as bright as his years were long. Like diamonds catching the sunlight their depth of understanding, compassion, insight, memory radiated out. As he spoke of The Duchess’s demise his pain was evident, and like a majestically-soaring balloon slowly deflating, his shoulders slumped. His silence intensified his pain and his pain was reflected in the silence of the room. The ticking, tocking and turning of the automatons had ceased as if understanding his plight and experiencing their own. We sat in silence and only when Mr Dimpelberry raised himself up slowly like an pole being hoisted by ropes, I remembered the silver key.

As the sun, growing tired of holding its head up sank slowly under a vapourish blanket the door opened, and I was sure a gentle push moved me into the shop. Everything was in its place, nothing seemed to have changed since my last visit. But the room seemed dull and listless as if the contents were sagging and despondent. A large intricately-carved wooden box polished to a heavenly sheen was the one item out of place – on a chair where The Duchess would sit with her friends and clients.

I raised the lid and a vaporous miniature image of The Duchess sitting on a chair, in a replica of its larger twin, appeared. The Duchess slowly looked up at me, and then began to speak as if continuing a conversation which had been interrupted by a sip of tea ‘and now, I want you to select a puzzle, something that truly sings to you. I can wait’.

I tried to remember The Duchess’s words of wisdom regarding puzzles and games but could only recall her advice about cards and dice. ‘Dice is for chance-taking. Nothing is certain. You cannot plan, you cannot predict. If you want to continually take chances, then dice is your game. Cards can be remembered and calculated. You have to learn to read your opponent. You have to consider what you are willing to lose. The better you remember, the better you read a person, the more successful you can become. If you want to continually read a person without simply feeling and trusting your instincts, then cards will suit you.’

I moved quietly, intently running my fingers over the pearl-inlay boxes, smooth polished surfaces, rough textures which individually housed a multitude of puzzles and games: dominoes, scatter-and-pickup-sticks, various types of card games such as match-me, happy families, oddsandevens, cards with suits of stars and celestial beings, paper which could be folded into intricate shapes like cranes, fish and animals, tiddle-winks, chequers, board games, kaleidoscopes, marbles, wooden-block puzzles, ideas for charades, skittles, spinning tops, outdoor games such as croquet which did not seem to fit into a puzzle and games shop at all, and then I saw them. The puzzles to which I was always drawn. The wooden cut-out jigsaws. Delicate, intricate. I selected a jigsaw and returned to the chair.

‘A most interesting choice. My own choice, many years ago.’ I looked at the mirage and faintly shuddered again. The Lane did not play terrible tricks on people so I was unsure how The Duchess could be present. But her soothing voice returned my attention ‘A jigsaw puzzler is a matchmaker, matching puzzles and games to people. Consider a jigsaw. A jigsaw provides small images which together make a magnificent whole. You determine which pieces are relevant, at which point in time. You have to decide which pieces you will concentrate on first, which pieces form the core and which pieces are the fill-in. It is not always straightforward.

When determining the right puzzle or game for a person you have to look beyond what is simply provided and consider what should and could be. Sometimes you cannot see the final scene, because it is hidden behind screens of self-denial or bravado. Some people, and of course some jigsaw puzzles, have no clear outline and you have to decide how best to determine which anchor points you will select to begin seeing the full design. Some people and jigsaw puzzles have additional pieces to try and throw you off balance, like shyness or egotism which mask the true character. Some jigsaw puzzles are trick puzzles where the pieces fit together in several different ways, but with only one correct solution just as some people present many personalities, and have different faces for different situations, but underneath there is only one true nature. Some people and jigsaw puzzles are comic, some are distant, some are dark, some are big, some are small. Some are wonderous, some simply won’t hold your attention and you will want to discard them. But once you start, you cannot abandon them, as the task of the jigsaw puzzler is to match the disseminated pieces into one complete whole. And the desire of the puzzle itself, if it could voice its thoughts, is to be made whole. The desire of people is to be made whole, although often they are not aware of this.’

I stared in disbelief deciding whether I should return the jigsaw and select another puzzle, but as if she heard my silent thoughts, The Duchess continued ‘Just as you slowly piece together a puzzle, so you piece together what a person is like, and what kind of game will suit them. You are a rarity. Your ability to piece together a person’s needs and to find an appropriate game or puzzle is extraordinary. It is of a higher level than mine was when I began. You easily select puzzles for clients to match their personality and needs but you also have the gift of developing puzzles yourself. You told me once that these ideas surfaced from an unchartered island within you although you did not know how they materialised. Here Mr Dimpelberry will be your best ally. He has exceptional skills.

I can see you doubt your abilities. Think back’, and before me a cloud of images from some of my past visits rolled forward and The Duchess’s soliloquy continued ‘A young fidgety girl who twitched anything and everything around her. You suggested a game of two disks which she could flick against each other. You called it Tiddle-winks. For the young boy, experiencing deep grief following the death of his parents you suggested a game to be called Domes and Dungeons. While the game would make him slide into dungeons, he also saw that he could climb domes and thus learnt to adjust to the trials and tribulations which life had brought him. For the nervous youth with eyes that roved constantly from left to right you devised a wheel attached to a string, which he could bob up and down, thus helping him to change his perspective. For the young girl reluctant to leave her mother’s side, you suggested a box of sparkling items which were hidden from her view, but in sight of her mother. She began seeking out the treasures gaining confidence in herself. A young child who tiptoed everywhere and would not put hands nor feet on the floor; you suggested inserting into shiny round clear objects, brightly coloured butterflies which shimmered and seemed to fly as they rolled along the floor. She scrambled after them. For the young boy who screamed when he saw dots you devised a game of triangles which fitted together like dominoes, but with numbers on them. The numbers were made up of minute dots and with each new game the dots became larger until he slowly became accustomed to them. The grandfather who worried about his grandchild who spoke using words of only one, two, or three letters, you devised a game, where letters could be placed in word formations in various directions. You called it Scramble. There are so many examples which I could mention, and even if you consider these are not your best, they represent the early manifestations of your insights.

And so just as you selected jigsaw puzzles, I have selected you. FiddleSticks is now yours, so you can help others become whole. The information I have passed to you over the years will come back to you but listen to the street itself and the other shop owners – they are all wonderous sources of memory and information. Remember puzzles and games are for solving problems, for easing burdens, and for making ourselves whole. Whether patrons select their own puzzle or whether you assist them or develop something for them, remember the jigsaw puzzler has an insight into people and personalities that overshadows other puzzlers. And finally, remember that each and every life is one ongoing jigsaw puzzle, especially your own.’

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