Short Fiction by Chris Lewis
Iris wonders what’s the attraction? What’s kept her coming back, week in week out, since she stopped working? These auction days have been a new phase in her life.
There’s the usual murmur of voices and beep of mobiles as she moves among the lots. She looked at the online catalogue yesterday and earmarked one or two items. Lot number five, assorted brassware, including goffering irons, has potential. The items are piled higgledy-piggledy in a cardboard box. They look ready for the scrap heap. But these days, Iris knows what things like ‘goffering irons’ are; she knows they were used to press Victorian ruffs and frills; she knows, despite appearances, that they have value.
She remembers her first visit. Passing under the sign: ‘S.J. Timmons & Son, Auctioneers of antiques, collectors’ items and quality furniture.’ She remembers, carefully filling out the registration slip, the feel of the pen, between fingers and thumb. She remembers how a woman in the office had input her details, striking the computer keys slowly with ornately ringed fingers. There’d been no matching record for Iris’s surname.
‘Not been before, dear?’ the woman had asked, frowning slightly over her glasses. Iris had shaken her head and, finding her voice, asked if she needed to show some form of identification.
‘No, no we don’t need to see anything,’ the woman had said. She’d raised her eyes from the paperwork to look at Iris properly; Iris had smiled, using her walking stick to stand straighter. The woman had pushed an A5 card across the counter, a bidding number. Iris had no intention of bidding that day, but she’d wanted the number. She could still see the bold black digits, four, three, six, against the white background.
Now, with a small movement of her head, Iris studies the room more widely. A man is inspecting lot number five. He is unshaven and tattooed, wearing a black T-shirt stretched tight over his stomach. Gold sequins spell out the words, ‘TRUE CLASS’, across his torso. His right hand is pushed deep into the pocket of his jeans. The T-shirt is an anomaly; most people are wearing coats and hats. One or two have had the foresight to bring umbrellas. Iris hears a woman behind her observe, ‘Ee, it’s tanking down out there.’
Iris watches another man inspect a collection of decorative dishes. He lifts each one out in turn, his head tilted to one side as if to gain a greater insight, before carefully replacing it. He doesn’t look like the kind of man you would expect to take an interest in such things. Long, grey hair slides down either side of his face; his chin, his chest, his stomach, everything else, slides down in sympathy. His face is expressionless, but Iris knows he can see potential in the china.
Generally, the people in the auction room are much older than her. There are a multitude of wrinkles and receding hairlines. People look a bit scruffy and worn at the edges; second hand like the goods for sale. The place is crammed with books, furniture and boxes of miscellaneous belongings. Some of the lots are displayed in glass cases: jewellery and other small, high value items. There’s a lady’s watch which loses time and a host of bangles which are pretty but heavy on your wrist. Iris wonders who the successful bidders will be tomorrow. She’ll be surprised if anything sells for much.
On request, Mrs Timmons, the woman from the office, will take any of these items out of their cases for more detailed inspection. Iris and Mrs Timmons, Jean, are on first name terms these days. As Iris watches, Jean moves away from the display cases.
‘Closing in five minutes ladies and gents,’ she says loudly.
Reluctantly, people start to leave and there are calls of ‘Cheerio’ and ‘Bye love.’
‘We’re closing now,’ she repeats, to people trying to come in and escape the rain for five minutes.
Iris watches as Jean begins to move around the room, switching off the lights. She starts at the back of the room and makes her way round methodically, until only the lights surrounding the exit door are left. Iris tries not to dwell on the image. The sound of Jean’s heels on the floorboards reminds Iris of her own house: empty except for some bags of clothing on the doorstep; unsuitable outfits with buttons and zips, shoes with heels or strappy fastenings. Nearly everyone has left now; often they can’t resist a backward glance, worried that they might have missed a bargain. Iris is the last to leave and Jean holds the door open wide as she makes her way out.
‘See you tomorrow,’ Jean says, and Iris manages a nod.
The auction rooms are on Diamond Street, which runs downhill and seems to tip into the sea at the far end, which is where Iris lives. As the view opens out, you can see the cliffs to the right and industrial Teesside to the left. The sound of the sea is insistent, impossible to ignore, and after it’s rained the sand looks like wet corrugated cardboard. There’s a pier. Out on the pier the waves seem huge, stacked on top of each other and unstoppable, but by the time they reach the shore, they have only a dribble of life left in them. That’s how it looked the day Iris got her diagnosis. The day she found out: why she could no longer turn the key in the car’s ignition; why her balance had deserted her; why she kept stumbling.
Iris walked along the pier that day, looking down, past her feet, to the gaps between the boards and the wet slurp of the sea below. It had been freezing; she’d been glad to seek shelter in the amusement arcade, with its bright lights and warmth. The slot machines all had names on a theme: Gold Mines, Pot of Gold, Golden Games. There was a reassuring ra ta ta tat of money being paid out. The odds were stacked against you, but at least there was a chance of winning.
Today is Iris’s last auction. It is also the day she completes on the sale of her house; she’s decided it’s time to move back in with her parents. It’s what they want. The ‘For Sale’ sign has ‘SOLD’ emblazoned across the top of it. It seems to be a clear declaration of a successful outcome. Diamond Street was built in the Victorian era. It’s composed of three storey properties, with arched doorways and steps galore; Iris knows it’s completely unsuitable. She makes the journey up the street: past the navy blue, the black and white, the turquoise and the red of bay windows. Over the bumpy, hopscotch paving stones.
The auction room is at the top of the street, a new addition, next to the Victorian offices. As usual, a space has been made among the various lots for sale. About seven rows of seats are laid out, eight chairs per row, four on either side of a central reservation. Iris has noticed that the regular buyers liked to stand behind this seating, so that they can get an overview of the bidding. They like to come and go without disrupting proceedings.
Iris always positions her wheelchair at the back of the seating, in front of the central reservation. This way she can see most of the other bidders, as they stand in an arc, either side of her. Once or twice somebody has stood in front of her. It is one of the hardest things to get used to, being invisible. Today ‘True Class’ has made sure she gets her favourite spot. He leans down to whisper in her ear.
‘Thanks for the tip off, lot number five has got my name on it.’ He gives his usual exaggerated wink and Iris winks back, pleased.
Most weeks there are around three hundred lots for sale and the auction goes right through, without a break. Yesterday the weather was cold and grey but today the sun has come out. Coats and hats have been replaced, with short sleeved shirts and bare legs. Splashes of red and purple bolster the grey and beige. At ten o’clock the auctioneer, Mr Timmons, steps onto his platform, adjusts his microphone and makes a start. He wears a tie for the occasion but no jacket. His hands are in constant motion, mimicking his fast-talking mouth. He pauses now and again, to put the bidders at their ease, with his self-derogatory comments.
Iris watches, as each lot number is called out, with a brief description of the goods for sale. Many of the crowd have their arms folded in front of them, trying not to give anything away. Her own hands are resting mutely in her lap. She is wearing gloves, despite the warm weather. The simple act of raising a bidding card is impossible these days. All around her people move unknowingly. One man strokes the stubble on his left cheek. Another man taps a catalogue, on his face, in time with the rise and fall of the auctioneer’s patter.
‘Lot number thirty-nine, a large quantity of paperbacks. Arthur?’
Mr Timmons looks towards one of several men who are tasked with pointing the lots out.
‘Over here, these four boxes at the back of the room,’ Arthur replies.
He moves quickly as each lot is called out: bending down to lift objects out of cabinets, pointing to pictures hung on walls or to boxes laid out on trestle tables.
‘Ten pounds for a start away?’ asks the auctioneer. ‘And twenty, and thirty, and forty at the back of the room. Is anyone else interested now? We’re selling at forty pounds? Sold for forty pounds to number four, zero, five.’
Iris thinks, does anyone really need paperbacks, now that there are e-books? No pages to turn and as many titles as you could hope to read in a lifetime. And of course, if you get rid of your books, you might as well get rid of your bookcases. Technology is her lifeline now. With a chin switch and the right software, she can access the world on her laptop. She has no use for most of her possessions these days. So, it’s fortunate that S.J. Timmons & Son are very efficient at house clearances.
Despite the sunshine outside, there is a cold draft in the auction room. The light comes in through high windows, covered by metal security grills and iron bars. They should make Iris feel imprisoned. But she has a definite sense of freedom, as the contents of her life are auctioned off. It’s nothing; in comparison to everything else, she thinks. She looks down at her body, a bunch of dead muscles thinking.
The good weather seems to have brought people out because the auction room is fuller than usual. And it must have put them in a generous mood, Iris thinks, tuning into the action again.
‘Lot number three hundred and twelve, the final lot of the day,’ says Mr Timmons. ‘Again, out of a house we’ve emptied this week. A lovely, mahogany framed mirror.’ Arthur holds up the mirror.
The whole of Iris’s life seems to swing into view. Walking boots and skis, cook books and lawnmowers. All familiar but strange. It’s as if her life is a set that’s being dismantled. No, not dismantled, distilled, reduced. It’s shrinking every day.
‘I’ll take fifty pounds as a starting bid,’ Mr Timmons says nodding at a lady wearing green, near the front. ‘And sixty at the back of the room, and seventy, and eighty, and ninety with you sir?’ The man nods back. ‘Selling at ninety pounds,’ he looks around the room, one final time, with a speed that Iris envies, ‘to number five, seven, eight.’ The hammer hits the rostrum. ‘And that concludes our business for the day ladies and gentlemen.’
There is a pause. Iris is still trying to assess how she feels when Mr Timmons, John, starts speaking again.
‘I’d just like to say, today has been a particularly good auction. As quite a few of you know, the contents of a house on Diamond Street have just been sold.’
Iris thinks; my toes would have curled with embarrassment once upon a time. Now they just curl. But what the hell? Go for it John.
‘The proceeds will be used to ensure that the right equipment and support is available for the seller who has motor neurone disease…’ Mr Timmons clears his throat. ‘We have decided to waive the buyer’s premium, an unprecedented and not to be repeated decision,’ he laughs.
Iris thinks how much she would like to smile at the spontaneous applause; to thank the regulars, who turn in her direction, giving her the ‘thumbs up’.
Mr Timmons continues. ‘We have also placed some collection boxes on the counter by the door if anyone would like to make a donation to the motor neurone disease association.’
People – people are the main attraction, Iris concludes, as ‘True Class’ escorts her to the office. There is paperwork to complete. As she leaves, she hears the soft chink of coins and the rustle of notes behind her.