Story by Emmjay
“It is foretold that you will meet an Asian man and accompany him to the Caribbean”
We must have driven past the old curiosity shop hundreds of times. The shop lives on a busy, heavily trafficked major road through the Inner West or perhaps more accurately along the western edge of East. The windows are chock-a-block full of Chinoiserie, huge blue glazed pots and metre tall statues in clutches of wise men in different enigmatic poses.
Today, on a whim, we decided to ease out of the torrid flow, take a breath and survey the proprietors’ wares at first hand.
The sign on the door said “Open”, but its companion instruction “Ring Bell and Wait”, suggested that an audience might or might not be granted. FM rang the bell and stood patiently to attention in the doorway. I scanned the tiny hand-written price tags, suppressing a rising sense of alarm. The kind of concern one might have when one realises that one is about to step in the ring with a much heavier hitter.
Odette, a Chinese woman of a certain vintage with an impeccable English accent appeared and began fussing with objects blocking her way to open the door. She smiled as if welcoming old friends and beckoned us inside.
There were objects in abundance to say the very least. ECLECTICA. There was barely enough room to shuffle along and Odette’s dusting campaign, despite her diligence and amazing energy clearly wasn’t in the ascendancy.
We scanned vases, paintings, porcelain of every imaginable kind, jewellery, silverware, glassware, carved wooden objects and a basket of scrolls that caught FM’s eye. FM pressed on into the deepest reaches of the emporium and discovered a gentleman seated at his desk, immersed in a catalogue. “Hello” she announced our presence.
“Hello” Bruce beamed back. “Are you looking for something in particular ?”
FM explained our mission and asked “Do you have any calligraphy scrolls ?”
Odette looked doubtful and unrolled a spray of delicately coloured flowers not exactly chrysanthemums. She was growing into her scroll dialogue and we moved on to a startling tiger that reminded me of a tattoo on a Yakuza’s back. Startling, yes, but disconcerting too. And white cranes and eagles of indeterminate pedigree.
FM and I exchanged glances – there were some pleasant pieces and some utterly stunning vases but we were playing well outside our economic capacity. I praised Bruce for the amazing breadth and diversity of his collection and FM asked whether he was an unrestrained collector. Bruce insisted with a generous smile that he was an unrestrained DEALER.
Odette engaged FM in some fairly intense scrolling dialogue and Bruce and I struck up a conversation about his life in the mostly Asian antiques business. It turns out that Bruce has been selling Chinese antiques for about 65 years – more than half of that in his present shop. But before that, in, of all places, Jamaica – where he met Odette.
So it’s not difficult arithmetic to work out that Bruce must be somewhere in his 80s and although a lady’s age is not knowable, I’d hazard a similar estimate, if I was not myself a person aspiring to gentlemanly manners.
I suspect that Bruce and Odette might not have been overrun by trade the day we visited – it being a squally damp kind of miserable day. Bruce apprised that it would be appropriate to extend to me his story of how it all came to be thus.
Before Australians in the 1960s turned the grand trip back to the mother country into something akin to a lemming spring festival, Bruce disembarked in London with no luggage to his name and no cash, but documentation to establish his bonafides with the then Bank of NSW branch office – in London. He needed to get to the bank and sitting lost and miserable on a train, he asked an unlikely fellow traveller of Chinese extraction for directions.
The kind man asked him for the address of the NSW Bank in London, and when Bruce told him, he offered to allow Bruce to tag along in the same general direction he intended to go in the first place. They got talking and the chap was impressed with Bruce’s knowledge of Chinese history and ceramic art. They became good friends and kicked on a while.
Some weeks later, the chap told Bruce that he was returning to Jamaica and invited Bruce to accompany him. Not letting his former fortune-teller down, Bruce accepted.
He set up a small general store and took something more than a shine to the Chinese chap’s sister, Odette. Their enterprise prospered in a modest way and when the opportunity came to purchase a bigger supermarket at a competitive price (there being quite a few expats leaving as Jamaica sought independence from Britain), Bruce and Odette took the plunge.
This upset a smaller local shop owner – a Caribbean woman who put a voodoo curse on Bruce. But Bruce, a man tolerating no nonsense responded flat out that he did not believe any of that fol-de-rol. This caused a great deal of alarm amongst the assembled clan – the upshot being that if the cursed person denied the witchcraft, the curse would bounce back on the person who had cast it in the first place.
Bruce said that the woman’s family lost four members within the year and that she fled, never to be seen again.
By this time, notwithstanding his fabulous raconteurial prowess, FM and I were both getting messages from the lunch gods and we started looking for a plausible break in the traffic. I spotted the antique bamboo calligraphy brush pot.
“What a beautiful piece. How much might this be?” said FM, holding aloft the pot. “It’s on special !” said Odette “$40”. We looked at each other with that meaningful look of those who are aware of having a little good natured leg extension, but we felt that the pot was a wanted, nay needed item and Bruce’s stories were more than worth the cash.
So the deed was done, and with our antique bamboo calligraphy brush pot, we thanked our hosts and set off to satisfy our hungers. Odette disappeared back into the shop and closed the door.
And the sign advised the next visitors to ring and wait.