No one called at the Potion Shop in the back streets of Leominster by accident. In fact it got no passing trade at all. You only called there if you were on a definite mission; perhaps a potion to buck up your cows after a hard winter or a potion to stop dogs straying. There were rumours that it would also sell something that would see off a rich relative that was hanging onto life too long, as long as you could get the proprietor on his own and had the right introduction.
So the shop did not do a roaring trade, but it did a steady trade, enough, in those days, to keep the proprietor, his wife, the proprietor’s son and a shop girl. For the potions were well known to be effective, be the drinker a cow or a rich relative, and could therefore be sold at a high markup on the basic raw materials, local herbs collected by the proprietor and his son at full moon, or so it was said.
You would therefore think that the atmosphere within the shop would be pleasant. But the fetid stink of the drying herbs seemed also to have infected the inhabitants. At the centre of this miasma was John Tunley senior, the proprietor. The dry and cloying smell of the herbs had infiltrated his skin, making him as bitter as their taste.
After his first wife’s death he had re-married, some ten years ago. As the son of his first marriage returned to the shop after a rare outing, to deliver an important package to the mayor, he entered the shop to raised voices and his step mother rushing out of the shop in tears and his father profusely apologizing to a customer in the fulsome way that only a shop-keeper can do. Apparently the wrong potion had been made up. Some one or thing that should have died had taken on a new lease of life.
Assurances were passed that it would not happen again. The atmosphere in the shop remained poisonous. John Junior’s heart was in his stomach, waiting for another outburst from his father, they tended to go in packs, and all the time knowing that he really should have a word with his father to calm him down.
After the shop had closed for the night he did find his father alone. “What was that with mother earlier?”
“None of your damned business.” His father strode out without any further explanation while John stayed in the empty shop. There is nothing quite so empty as an empty shop, especially one the contents of which you have absolutely no interest in.
The jars and boxes with their reeking contents looked even more deathly. There seemed no way out of the misery that seeped out of the herbs.
So the days continued. The atmosphere in the shop relaxed to its usual depressed tension. No further incidents occurred but neither did anything happen to relieve the situation.
It was in the days after that the customer first came in. Not the normal customer downtrodden by life and looking for a potion to change things. This one seemed amused by all the potions and was asking so many questions that Mary the shop girl had to hand over to Master John. He asked about various concoctions and in the end bought a herbal mixture that would improve the yield from a beehive. He left the shop and it felt as if something important had left with him. Something that smelled of the fresh outside world and the shop seemed smaller without him.
John Junior realised that he was doing something he did not do regularly in the shop. He was smiling. Then he realised that the young female assistant was returning the smile. For the first time he was aware of her as a person, not just a presence around the shop.
He saw that she was not what the world called pretty. Her nose was too long and her hair too straggly for that. But her smile lit up the shop as much as the customer’s had.
“He was a breath of fresh air, wasn’t he?” she said. Were they the first words she had addressed to him? They were surely not, yet they were the only ones he could remember.
“Get on with your work Mary.” John senior said, as he came in. “What’s going on here? I’ve warned you that if I catch you taking anything from this shop, and that includes my son’s time, you’ll be out of this shop, do you understand?”
The girl nodded, backing away from the force of the outburst.
“And you. It’s what I’ve come to expect from you, you wastrel. Get to the back and start making up the suppositories.”
As John shrunk off he caught the sympathetic look of Mary. It made him feel worse. Filling the suppositories was the worst job in the shop. Not just because of their final destination but also the reek of the secret herbs used. Presumably they had to be strong to be effective in their working environment.
John junior steeled his nose to the task and set about filling the little moulds with the pungent concoction. He had filled about thirty, enough for a week of sales to worried and furtive customers, when Mary came into the room. When he was doing this demeaning task he did not like anyone to see him, but she, without being asked, set about helping him with the task.
“You know, if I had my way I would run a shop that just had nice smells.” she said.
“That’s a nice ambition.” he said, as one does to a child that has said she wants to be Prime Minister.
It was there that his father caught them. Checking on his son’s progress, as he felt he always had to, he came into the back room, saw the two smiling together and thought he saw revolution.
Afterwards John could think that the look on his father’s face at finding the two together was worth the shock. At that time it made him feel sick.
“What are you two up to?” If it was one thing that his father lived in secret fear of it was his son turning on him. His dreams were rotted by it. He knew how badly he treated the boy, but could not think of any way out of it. It was the way he had been treated.
“Nothing. Just filling the suppositories.”
Was that insolence? If his father thought so it would explain the slap. John junior, expecting another verbal assault, was totally unprepared for a physical one. His father, a physical coward, usually found enough pleasure in bullying. He abhorred physical violence in case it gave the victim thoughts of physical retribution. But this was too much for him and he caught his son a firm slap on the left cheek that knocked his head back.
Never having been hit by his father since the age of eleven, for a moment he stood there dazed. Fight or flight, seeing his father standing, huge, in front of him, he chose to fly.
Leaving his father and Mary in the back room he ran out through the shop and, before anyone could stop him, was out into the street. Immediately he was out in the fresh air he felt better. He always did. There was always more balance out here. It was why he always looked forward to running errands, which was normally the only time he could get out of the shop.
He breathed in the fresh air, trying not to think that he would have to return and, walking quickly to increase the distance from the shop.
It was in the freedom of walking around town that the thought first came to him. It was then that he ran into the smiling customer who had been in the previous day, almost literally, as he was turning a corner and almost walked straight into him.
“You’re in a hurry.” said the man.
“Not really.” A couple went passed him, hand in hand and he thought of what it might be like to walk down the street hand in hand with Mary.
“What’s the matter?” The man looked at him with an intent gaze that John found disconcerting.
“I’ve let down the girl I love and I’ve been bullied by my father.” John was surprised to hear himself saying. It had just come out under the man’s look.
The man put his hand on John’s shoulder. “I’m sure you will do the right thing.” he said and John felt as if an electric current had gone through him. He blinked in shock and, when he opened his eyes, the man had gone.
He had been away from the shop for half an hour and the bright freedom was marred by the gloom that he must return to the shop soon. After twisting and turning through the town streets he eventually came back to the even more gloomy shop. Before he could think too much about it he went in, announced by the infuriating little tinkle of he shop bell.
As he arrived at the shop his father was behind the counter. “And where have you been?”
“I went for a walk.”
“You didn’t ask my permission.”
“Did you collect any herbs while you were wandering about?”
“Then it was a waste of time. You should have asked what we were running short of.”
“I just wanted a walk.” The storm of rage he was expecting did not happen. Instead John saw his father staring out of the shop and his head seemed to be shaking uncontrollably. John heard the door open and the bell tinkle.
“What is this? Have you all taken leave of your senses?” John turned around and saw Mary just coming back into the shop wearing her best outfit.
“Are you both trying to drive me to distraction? You both go out without telling me. I get more respect from a wall. Well, if that’s the way you want to play, you can both spend all of tomorrow making up suppositories. See if that will learn you.”
He strode off. John could barely look at Mary but, when he did so, she was smiling.
The next day came and they were both stuck in that fetid room together. John forced himself to speak. “I’m sorry to have brought this on you.”
“I really don’t mind it that much. You just don’t have to think what they are going to be used for.” They were quiet for some time as they concentrated on their task.
“I think it’s the smell.” he said, as, a particularly pungent herb hit his nostrils.
“That’s what’s wrong with this place.” She said and then blushed. “I’m sorry, I don’t like saying anything against your father.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t be saying anything I haven’t already thought.”
“It’s just that there are so few customers that come in. The place smells ill so the only people it really attracts are the people who mean to do ill in some form..”
“What can we do about it?”
“Why don’t we sell things that smell nice. There are so many herbs and flowers that smell wonderful, we could make so many more things with those.” He smiled at her enthusiasm, but he was thinking that it would never work, for he had gained his knowledge of the world from a Leominster side street. Life was not that good.
She held up a completed suppository. “You know how I get through this? Thinking what I would really like to do with it.” They both blushed and laughed.
For some reason the shop and its routines seemed even more loathsome after that talk with Mary. Before life had been bearable because his ambition had been so limited. Those words of Mary’s had given him a glimpse of some other life. That something else could be made of this shop even though he knew he was not the person to do it.
In the days that followed he sensed a certain nervousness in his father, as if he was expecting something to happen. But nothing did and soon that old terrible confidence returned. John junior had glimpsed a new future but it had been snatched away from him and now it would be even harder to change.
“So, are you going to do anything?” asked his step-mother.
“That means never.”
“No, it means when I think the time is right.” John lied.
“If you can stand up to me you can stand up to him.”
He watched his father closely. Occasionally he steeled himself to approach the tyrant and his heart would start beating violently, but, each time, he thought himself out of it and went about his business. At the end of the day he was exhausted. He went to bed a failure.
He felt he could hardly look Mary in the face. Her she was with such plans for the shop and he could not carry out his part of the bargain. A customer came in. It always made his heart race. He hated the tinkle of that little bell and he jumped every time he heard it. But with Mary in the shop he found himself approaching the man rather than shrinking into the shadows, much to the man’s shock, as he was used to the rather dilatory ways of this shop.
The customer was satisfactorily served and John felt a sense of satisfaction. This is what it should be like. He thought about what Mary had said, about what she would like to do with the suppository. For no good reason he went into the evil smelling room, lifted up one of the hateful objects and put it in his pocket.
The family evening meal, a terrible time. His hand went to his pocket as he watched his father eating and drinking in his normal noisy way. There was little conversation at the table, partly because of the noise his father made. He looked at the food his father was eating, but what could he do with it. He went to bed that night still with the suppository in his pocket.
He slept badly and so was the first down for breakfast. As such he was expected to make his father’s pot of tea, his step-mother preferring coffee, despite the complaints of the expense. It was the work of a moment to break the capsule open and drop it into the tea leaves as he waited for the kettle to boil.
The wait was unbearable. Nothing happened during breakfast and he began to doubt the efficacy of this their best seller. It was about ten o’clock and his father was serving in the shop, as a particularly valued customer, a local solicitor, had come in.
The noise could be heard throughout the shop and there was no disguising what had made it. Before John’s smile had faded an horrendous smell filled the shop. His father had gone a brighter red than the low fire he kept in the grate and he ran out behind the counter towards his private quarters, yet the smell remained.
John got the mop and bucket. It was an unfortunate occurrence that the solicitor his father had been serving was such a leading light in the Rotary Club. After that his father seemed to lose interest in the running of the shop. The shop was re-fitted. There was no potion shop in the backstreets any more. What people did for their quiet requisites I cannot say. Instead there was a shop selling the best in soaps and room pomanders, sold by a happy married couple.