On a dreich, dismal day in December, the clouds draped over the town like an oppressive shroud. The greyness soaked into the soul of anyone venturing outside, forcing hands deep into pockets and hunching features in defence against the all-pervasive cold. The man looked up at the menacing clouds and shuddered. Lowering his gaze, he surveyed the High Street and breathed a slow, deep, vapour cloud of despair. Ten years of austerity had hit the town hard and the shops, once bustling hubs of commerce, were now mostly boarded up and ghosts of their former selves. Fleetingly, those clouds had broken with the promise of a new vision for the future, only to be snubbed out by the spectre of an invisible global malevolence.
The man had known sorrow. His slight frame, permanently hunched, belying his true height. Sallow, leathery, pock marked skin covered his face with a permanently wet nose from too many harsh winters. A pair of thick tortoiseshell glasses masked sunken eyes, protection against the bitter wind. His general appearance was reminiscent of a cadaver, emitting its deathly pall of dourness and drabness, so befitting of his environment.
Suddenly, the heavens opened, and searching for sanctuary, he dashed towards a still open charity shop. Bursting through the door, the shop assistant was momentarily startled by the frightful sight of such a sodden figure. It took her a few moments to gather herself before she said, “We close in ten minutes!”
The man nodded, took off his glasses, dried and replaced them, before nonchalantly picking up an old jigsaw box from the shelf. He winced at the idyllic chocolate box depiction of a forest cabin scene. No sooner had he read the title, New England Cottage in Autumn, than the corner of his mouth twitched upwards! His interest aroused, he lifted the spectacles from his nose until they perched precariously on his balding pate and brought the box closer to see the full palette of muted colours. The insipid spectacle sapped his soul, from the cabbage green hues of the grass, to the timid violets of the shrubs, the subtle scarlets of the trees and the greyness of the cabin. “Simply awful,” said the man and the twitch flickered into a smile. Turning the box over he noticed the sticky tape sealing in the contents, then a wry smile flashed and fixed itself on his face as he read from a handwritten sticker on the side, “250 pieces – all present!”
Hurriedly, he took the box to the cashier and reached for his wallet. “Lovely picture,” she said as she wrapped the box, “do you do many of these, sir?” John’s response took her by surprise. “No, never, can’t stand them!” As she tried to process what she had just heard, John’s thin slit of a mouth sprang into a beaming smile. “It’s a gift for my parents, you see. They’re housebound and oh my, in these dark and troubled times, they will absolutely love it!”