Everyone has a weakness. Some people have a weakness for champagne cocktails. Or older men with French accents.
My weakness is old French champagne glasses. Preferably ones that have seen a bit of après-midnight action. Or English pub glasses with real Victorian air bubbles, or those 1950s Babycham glasses with the cute little faun.
Any kind of glasses, actually, they don’t have to match.
Old sunglasses too, come to think of it. Also, gloves (satin evening ones, especially), vintage wedding photos, fountain pens, trophies for long-forgotten tournaments, postcards …
My name is Evie Nicholson, and I am addicted to The Past.
“A child’s teddy bear, circa 1935.” Pause. “Missing one eye. And left arm.”
Max looked up from the printout the auctioneer had enclosed with the delivery, and fixed me with his best withering gaze. It wasn’t the one he used to persuade rich Chelsea wives to buy chaise longues they didn’t strictly need. It was astonishing what Max could sell, simply by draping his lanky frame over it and flashing his Heathcliff eyes. Only now they were looking less Come to bed, Cathy and more I’m going to burn down your house and do something unspeakable to your puppy.
“Would you please explain why you bought a one-armed blind teddy, the stuff of pure childhood nightmares?” he inquired.
“He’s a Steiff, and he was going for a tenner,” I muttered, picking the bear out of the delivery box.
Up close, he was a bit . . . mangy. When I’d spotted him in a box in the salesroom, all I’d seen was his threadbare nose, the fur worn away by thousands of kisses from his sailor-suited owners. I’d seen T-strap shoes and nursery teas and nannies with starched aprons. This brave little bear had once had pride of place in a smart London nursery; I couldn’t stand seeing him waved around by some unfeeling porter, unwanted. He was worth one bid, surely?
“You paid a tenner,” repeated Max, “for something even the moths have moved out of?”
I tweaked the bear’s wonky limbs into an appealing hug. “Someone’s obviously loved him. He deserves a good retirement home.”
“Someone loved Adolf Hitler, but that doesn’t mean I’d be happy to fork out real money to sell him in my shop. With or without eyes.” Max shook the paper again, and it opened up to another three pages. He let out a strangled squeak of horror.
Three pages! I bit my lip, and propped the bear on a bookshelf. I didn’t remember buying quite so much. I’d gone in there with my catalogue strictly marked up and sat on my hands for loads of amazing bargains.
“Honestly, it’s not as bad as it looks,” I said. “I’ll pay for some of those myself. I can always eBay what—”
Max’s hands flew up as if he were warding off evil spirits. “Don’t say that word in this shop!” he roared.
“Sorry,” I whispered.
“Oh, God.” He hunched his narrow shoulders and closed his eyes, squeezing his hand over his forehead in theatrical despair. “We’re going to have to have The Talk again, Evie. Where shall I begin? With the fact that one man’s junk is nearly always another man’s junk?”
“There is a difference between collectibles, and dust collectors,” he began with vicarlike relish. “To succeed in antiques, you’ve got to ignore the item and focus on the person you can sell it to. . . .”
I clamped my lips shut. This was a major bone of contention between Max and me, but for the purpose of filling in the ten minutes until my sister, Alice, galloped to my rescue, I decided to let him do his routine. Antiques for me were all about the lives they’d once been part of. I loved the whispers of the past they carried, the proof that those period films had once been real life. Max, on the other hand, was all about the money. He obsessed about the covert movement of valuables from one wealthy family to another like someone studying the Premiership football-team transfer market, but with Sheraton dining sets instead of soccer players.
His shop in Chelsea, where I worked and he flounced about, provided a small taxable income, most of which was snapped up by his ex-wife, Tessa, but Max’s real work was discreetly acquiring treasures from the impoverished English aristocracy and finding new homes for them in Cheshire, New England, or the millionaires’ mansions on the outskirts of London. A bit like Robin Hood, except he was the only one who made any money, and I was the one who wore the tights.
“Your problem is that you only ever buy for yourself,” he droned on, “and you’re hardly the most discerning—”
“That’s not fair!” I protested. “I spotted some Chanel costume brooches for Mrs. Herriot-Scott. Big camellias, genuine, in an old biscuit tin—no one else bothered to check it.”
I didn’t add that I’d only opened it because I was a sucker for lockets concealing wartime sweethearts, and you only found those by trawling the depths of general house-clearance boxes. And biscuit tins.
Max ground to an abrupt halt at the mention of Mrs. Herriot-Scott, one of his favorite clients. We loved her, and her insatiable desire for expensive plastic.
“Ah, well, that’s different.” His black eyes glittered as he calculated the markup. “What about that Georgian card table Jassy de la Mara asked us to look at?”
I glanced at the door and surreptitiously checked my watch. Max was on the second page, when my bidding had got a bit . . . well, emotional.
“The card table wasn’t right. Reproduction. But I picked up some nice cranberry glass,” I said.
Max’s face was crumpling alarmingly as he read on.
“And I got some Weymss piggy banks,” I added, my voice rising. “For Valentine’s presents? It’s that time of year?”
“My God,” he said, his voice cracking with grief. “Are you trying to break me? Is Tessa paying you to destroy my credit rating as well as my credibility?”
Too late. He’d obviously reached the photo frames, my Achilles’ heel.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said in a small voice.
He thrust the list at me. “Evie, Evie, Evie, not wedding photographs again.” Max clapped a hand to his head. “Do I even have to look at them? What freaks have you snapped up this time?”
Damn, I thought. Max would choose this one afternoon to roll back in after lunch. The one afternoon Lots Road Auctions decided to deliver late. He never noticed half my purchases normally; I was an expert at buying, staging, and reselling before he even noticed the shop looked different.
“They’re good old frames!” I argued. “And if they’re already filled with wedding photos, it’ll give people looking for wedding presents the buying feeling!”
“Hello?! These freaks would put anyone off getting hitched!” Max reached into the box and shoved the top frame under my nose with such urgency that his leather jacket squeaked. “Four eyes and not one of them looking in the same direction!”
If I was being honest, the frames weren’t that special, but I felt so sorry for someone’s great-grandparents, dressed up in their finest and looking so happy, being sneered at and passed over. Chucked onto the unsold pile. What was twenty quid a go?
Plus hammer tax.
I swallowed, and wished Alice would hurry up. I had a bad feeling about where this was going.
Max regarded me with a mixture of frustration and despair. “I’m beginning to think I should start going to auctions myself.”
“Yeah, right,” I scoffed, before I could bite my tongue.
Max hadn’t been to an auction within fifty miles of the shop in five years, on account of his chaise-longue-lizard reputation going before him, and the prices rising accordingly as all the dealers in the room abandoned their bickering and clubbed together in order to see off Max Shacks, the Housewife’s Choice. That was the whole point of having an assistant to do his bidding. Literally.
“It’s all perfectly salable.” I swiped the list of out his hands before he got to the moth-eaten sampler that had made me go all Jane Austen. “If I wanted it, someone else will.”
“That’s the trouble, though, isn’t it? You’ve got more of my stock in your flat than I have in here.” He paused in his ranting and asked curiously, “Speaking of which, did you ever manage to get that knackered Chinese silk dressing screen up your stairs?”
“Yes,” I said, lifting my chin. “It’s giving my boudoir a very Edwardian ambience.”
Max snorted. “You are still living in that sixties block of flats round the back of Fulham Palace football ground, aren’t you?”
“It’s not where you are, it’s . . . what you have around you. It makes me feel Edwardian.”
He sighed and looked down at the list. “Evie, this really isn’t the week to be filling the shop with tat because you feel sorry for it. I’ve got the accountant coming in—we’re living in hard times. . . .”
I’d heard this one before as well, and was easily distracted by the doorbell jangling. The deliveryman had returned. He was backing in under the weight of my final mercy buy, and when he turned round, giving me a full view of what I’d bought, I blanched.
“I know, I know. Why don’t you sit down, and I’ll make you some coffee?” I gabbled, hustling Max toward the tiny office in the back.
Too late. Hearing the bell jingle, Max turned round and staggered back against an Arts and Crafts bookcase in shock.
“Where’d you want this, mate?” the deliveryman asked, weaving slightly beneath the weight of a massive oak-mounted stag’s head. The stag had seen better days. One glass eye was drooping, as if he’d had a dram too many, and both antlers bore traces of tinsel from some recent Christmas party at the auction house.
Max turned to me and widened his eyes until I could see the whites around the bloodshot bits. “Why?” he demanded.
“It looked so noble!” I pleaded. “It just screams stately home! I’ll find a buyer for it, Max, I promise.”
“Who?” We’d reached monosyllables. Not a good sign. Max generally loved the sound of his own voice.
“Um . . .” I racked my brains. “Um, animal lovers? People with hats?”
The deliveryman swayed, but wisely stayed silent.
Max sank onto a mahogany dining chair and put his head in his hands. Then he removed it, and demanded, “How much?”
“Um, I think it’s a good price for—”
“How much, Evie?”
“Two hundred pounds,” I said in a very small voice.
“Nnnggghhh.” Max shoved his hands into his hair and gripped tightly. Along with his suggestive mouth and cavalier way with priceless heirlooms, his hair was one of his redeeming features, being thick and black and tinged with gray, in a sort of rakish Shakespearean-actor fashion. In idle moments, I sometimes pictured him in a doublet and ruff, complaining about the price of lampreys.
Sadly, the hair and the mouth did not make up for the foul temper, the inability to work a credit-card machine, or the biting sarcasm that he liked to think was Wildean but usually made him come across more like a petulant geography teacher. He also habitually wore a long leather coat—the trademark he hoped would eventually get him a gig as a TV antiques expert.
“You are paying for that out of your own money,” he informed me, emphasizing each word with a stab of his finger.
“Fine,” I said, a bit too brightly. “Why don’t you take it out of my—”
“No.” This time his voice was very distinct. “No, you’re already down to a hundred and ten quid for the month, thanks to that filthy Edwardian wedding dress that even Miss Havisham would have used for dust rags. I want the money in cash, in my account, by the end of the month.”
“But it’s February, it’s a short month! And I’ve still got Christmas to pay for,” I protested as the deliveryman inched his way backward out of the cluttered shop. He gestured toward the stag and made I’m not taking that back gestures.
I ignored him.
“Keep them, sell them, I don’t care,” Max went on. “But I want the money. For the freak-show photos, the deformed teddy, the moth-eaten stag, everything. Now, not over time. It hurts me to do this, Evie,” he added, less convincingly, “but it’s a lesson in business. You are here to learn, are you not? Or am I running some kind of flea market?” He paused, then frowned, distracted. “What’s that?”
A long streak of something red had appeared at the window and was peering inside.
“Sweet Jesus! Has that postbox moved?” Max demanded. “I have got to stop drinking with Crispin at lunch—”
“No,” I said, getting up to let Alice in. “It’s my sister. And don’t be rude about that coat—it’s her style statement for this winter.”
“Alice? I’ll go and make some coffee,” said Max and slunk off.
Alice was one of the few people I knew who could carry off a bright-red maxi coat. She was very tall and always gave the impression she was wearing a cape, even when she wasn’t. She was, by profession, an “interiors consultant,” and her swishy efficiency extended from her cowed clients to her enviable wardrobe: Alice spent a fortune on one dramatic item per season and wore it everywhere, referring to it constantly in the fashion singular. Once everyone had fallen under the spell of her “key piece,” she “retired” it (i.e., passed it on to me) and moved on to the next.
Max had once tried to argue that his leather coat was a key piece, but as Alice pointed out, rather brutally, it was more of a meanness issue than a style one. He’d had it so long that on a pay-per-wear basis, it now owed him money. Alice didn’t show her clothes any loyalty, whereas it would take pliers to get that thing off his back.
She swept in, chestnut hair swinging like in a shampoo ad, and I could tell by her eyes, skittering from box to box, that she was itching to tidy up.
“Evie, don’t tell me anything, I want to guess why you SOS-ed me,” she said by way of greeting. “Has Max got the call from Antiques Roadshow? Has he finally schmoozed his way to fame?”
Alice threw one hand dramatically onto her hip and knocked over a Chinese vase with her sleeve.
“Oh, bollocks!” she squeaked, making a grab for it as the vase teetered, then fell off the shelf.
That was the saving grace to her otherwise majestic attitude. Like me, she was chronically clumsy, on account of being nearly six feet tall. Something to do with having longer legs and arms than normal and a center of gravity that seemed to shift with the tides. When we were children, our mother never let us go into the china department of any major department store without fastening our arms inside our duffle coats first.
I made a grab for the vase at the same time she did, and between us we managed to knock it onto a bedroom sofa Max had taken in as part exchange for a Tiffany lamp. It lay in the cushions, looking winded.
“Sorry,” breathed Alice.
“What’s going on?” yelled Max from the back room.
“Nothing!” I yelled back. “Alice was just thinking about buying a vase!”
“Tell her we don’t do mates’ rates in this shop!”
“Don’t mind him,” I said. “He has no mates.”
“I heard that!” bellowed Max.
“Can you lend me some money?” I whispered. “I went a bit overboard at the last sale, and Max is making me pay for everything myself. I know I can sell it. It’d just be a loan.”
“Again?” Alice looked pained. “It’s not that I mind lending you money, but—”
“Okay, then,” I said, trying a different tack. “Would you like to buy the sweetest little Steiff teddy bear? You could start a collection!”
“I thought you were starting a Steiff collection.” She eyed me beadily.
“I was. I’ll throw in the three I’ve already found,” I replied, mentally retrieving the tatty teds propping up my collection of first-edition Beatrix Potter books in my spare room: I’d been going for a ’30s nursery feel, but to be honest, I’d have been equally happy with a Victorian parlor look. “There, you see—you’ve already got four, and it’ll give Fraser something to buy you for Christmas instead of fishing rods and waterproof waders and all that outdoors stuff you’ve dumped in my garage.”
“No,” said Alice firmly. “I am totally anti-collections. As you well know.”
“You’ve already got a collection of unused huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’ gear,” I pointed out. “Can I sell you a stag’s head to complete the set?”
“I’d rather give you the cash.” She paused. “I’ll give you double if you don’t tell Fraser that fishing rod’s in your garage.”
“Done,” I said. “And I’ll give you the money back when I’ve eBayed my purchases for a massive profit.”
“I’ve heard that before too.” Alice reached into her gorgeous silver leather bag for her checkbook.
It was a shame Alice was so phobic about possessions, I thought, eyeing the collection of Art Deco cigarette cases in the cabinet behind her. She was the only person I knew who could actually use the cases for business cards, or mints, or—
“Stop it,” she said, looking up over her lashes. “I know what you’re thinking. I’m this close to calling Mum and telling her to Simplify your flat.” She held up her finger and thumb, then thought for a second and made the tiny space even tinier. “You know she’s itching to do it for a magazine?”
Our mother, Caryl Nicholson—or Carol, as she’d been as recently as 2004—was something of a lifestyle guru in the leafier parts of south London, thanks to her business, Simplify with Caryl Nicholson, which basically dejunked houses so they sold faster. Mum’s spring cleaning had always started just after Christmas; she had to ration her housework so she didn’t run out of stuff to do by midweek. Woe betide Barbie if she got so much as badly cut hair; we didn’t have a dollies’ hospital so much as a sinister Gestapo-style toy abduction squad that spirited away any ailing toys, never to be seen again.
When Alice and I moved out, our father had offered Mum’s ruthless tactics to friends who had the real estate agents coming round, mainly so he could read the paper instead of having it yanked from his hands and ironed. Ten years and three hundred skips later, she ran her own “life laundry” business, and wore a lot of Joseph basics while charging rich ladies top whack to march around their executive residences, barking at them to get rid of anything that hadn’t moved in six months, up to and including husbands and heavy-shedding family pets.
Ironically, the property market collapsing had only made her more popular, and now she had a whole team working for her, including Alice, who was her central London manager. Both their houses looked like something from interiors magazines, even if—privately—I did think the extreme tidiness was a bit At Home with a Serial Killer.
“She won’t want to make over my flat,” I said confidently. “She doesn’t understand my need for ambience. She said my fifties-diner kitchen set made her want to cry.”
“I know,” said Alice.
“What do you mean, you know?”
Alice rolled her eyes. “I mean, she mentioned it. And told a journalist from Good Homes that you were her last remaining challenge. She has you in her sights, Evie. Consider this your advance warning. There.”
She handed me a check for five hundred pounds, and I felt an invisible flock of birds lift my careworn shoulders.
“Wow! Thanks, Alice, I was only going to ask you for a couple of hundred!” I blurted out. “Here, let me throw the teddy bear in!”
I pressed the bear into her hands, and she shrank away as if it might be a carrier of some rare disease, like untidiness.
Then she looked back at me without speaking, and her meticulously groomed eyebrows knitted a couple of millimeters closer together. “Evie,” she said out of the corner of her mouth, “there is something else I wanted to talk to you about.”
That’s when I knew the tip-off and the cash weren’t going to be interest-free.
“Coffee?” Max appeared, bearing an old pub tray with three unmatched porcelain cups, a battered hotel percolator, and a packet of HobNobs. “And would you like to explain, Evangeline, how you offered to make coffee, and I end up making it?”
I noticed he’d smoothed down his wild hair and was looking noticeably more dapper. I squinted. He’d added a red silk scarf. My red silk scarf.
Alice’s steely gaze skated around the shop until it alighted on the stag’s head. Suddenly she flashed a dazzling smile. “Max, this . . . big deer thing is just what I’ve been looking for, to give my boyfriend for Valentine’s Day!”
“Ooh, what a great idea!” I exclaimed. Fraser would appreciate the noble stag, even if Max didn’t. “You see? I knew it would be a perfect gift for the man who has everything! And Fraser can start a collection!”
“I’ve told Evie I want it,” she went on, shooting me a glare. “We just need to talk about a price.”
“Well, I had it marked down at three thou—” Max began, but I cut him off.
“It’s one of the items I was going to pay for myself,” I reminded him. “Out of my own money. So really she should be negotiating with me.”
Max looked foxed.
“I know Evie can’t do negotiations with an audience,” Alice went on. “Do you mind if I insist on discussing this with her outside the shop?” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, look, it’s nearly four already. By the time I bring Evie back, there won’t be much time left for you to close up. Tell you what, why don’t you just let her go now and then you can start in the morning with a nice big sale?”
“But . . . I . . .” Max spluttered.
“Brilliant, thanks so much! Evie, is that your bag? And where’s your coat?”
Obediently, I picked up my bag (Alice’s last-year’s “patent hobo”) and my coat (Alice’s last-year’s “deconstructed cocoon”) and my hat (my own last-year’s Marks and Spencer beret), and let her march me from the wrong end of the King’s Road toward the much smarter end she frequented.
I was allowed to bask in the warm glow of having acted on my antiques instincts for about ten minutes, before the reason for Alice’s sudden generosity was laid before me like the wrong side of a bodged-up table.
© 2011 Hester Browne