Shop Around the Corner
A/N: I was sick. Luckily, it was the rare sort of sick I was able to sit down and write this rather spontaneously. First, but I pray not the last Mulberry fic I'll ever do. Yes, a few vague spoilers about the series.
Disclaimer: I do not own Mulberry. I just love it/him so much I go crazy sometimes just thinking about it.
I never knew for sure where he was or why. He was as elusive as a night bird in winter, or something of a migratory creature in spring. Except, he never needed a reason to pop in and arrive or hop off and leave. But even with the flighty nature, somehow I always felt like he was always around. Naturally, we kept a joke about it all. One day I just smiled (since he'd left the shop for no apparent reason), "Didn't you bring me back anything from the moon?"
At which point his palm went up and covered his nose and mouth and then he actually bent down and took off his shoe, upturning it for moon rocks. He said, "It's the rainy season up there I'm afraid."
Then this woman came in from time to time. Her name was Alice. She was a sharp-tongued but an exceptionally funny lady with a bit of a dull life. She was always telling me about her husband. I was always trying to sell her a sparkly gown. The boss always told me she'd get a family discount. Except she was only someone he had worked with in the past. (Which is strange because I never fancied Mulberry working anywhere but…as a chimney sweep or stable hand.) He had horrid bookkeeping skills. Where was I? Oh yes.
"Is Mulberry in?"
Ninety percent of the time, I always had to say no. "It's almost as if he's got another job," I said once.
"Yes, well, that's Mulberry for you," Alice would reply, "He's always on a tear about something. Miss Farnaby…" And Alice would pause softly after the name and I'd keep the silence reverently until she could continue, "…always said he had bees in his bonnet."
I laughed. "Yes. That sounds like Mulberry."
"Of course…" she admitted, "He never really did us much harm," she smiled a little. "The last winter we had in that manor was sure the…warmest one for us."
I'd smile. They were an interesting couple, Mr and Mrs Finch. Whenever I did see her husband with her, he always refused to go in the store, whether 'Mulbs' was there or not. Albert Finch was not the type to be seen in a colorful dress shop. He often navigated conversations toward darts. I looked at Alice again, "Are you sure I can't help you find anything?" I said dutifully.
"Oh no," said Alice. "But I might stop in again on Tuesday, next. Be sure and tell him I was here."
"I will, of course."
Then he'd come in after four in the afternoon, wondering why we hadn't sold anything. I told him, "It's been a slow day."
He frowned and made a noise. "Oh—By the way, have you got a ladder on you by any chance?"
I looked at my invisible tool belt. "Oh—nope, sorry. I must have lent it to someone."
"Who?" he pursued, as if I really had.
"Oh I don't know, the chimney sweep?" My boss then turned away as if to go find the man when I added, "Mrs Finch stopped in today. She was very sad you weren't here. Again."
"Alice!" he exclaimed. Then he shook his head. So I stepped on our little joke with more intrigue, "All those trips to the moon are wearin' you out if you ask me."
Mulberry adjusted his bright waistcoat over black and gave me a peculiar look. For a split second his face fell and his eyes were a bit empty and I got the chilling feeling all his disappearances were out of his control. There was almost like something of a reluctance in his eyes…Until he smiled. And I had to admit…he had the warmest smile. "You're quite right," he said, to my surprise. "Gravity just wears me out down here." And in the fashion of a private joke, chuckled to himself went up to the register.
I often tried to ask him about his family. I thought perhaps he was simply looking after another elderly person—an aunt, uncle, even his parents. But he always shook his head no. Primarily, I was forced to get my information from the Finches, and they never really had any. (They had suspected him a convict once. Though that was all Alice's idea.) Until one day, they were there outside the shop, and Mulberry went out to see them. I stayed by the window (Mulberry gave me a steely glance, but I didn't care) and I heard at one turn in the conversation, "Oh, my," said Alice, remembering something, "Do you think that Mr Smith knows of Miss Farnaby's…?"
Everyone went quiet.
"I thought she said you knew him, Mulberry," Alice picked up, in her own cunning way.
"Well…yeah. I mean, we were blood brothers once."
The wry humor eased their stances until my boss shook his head slowly. "He knows," he said softly. I had to bury my pride and press my ear on the glass. (The customer in the store thought I was nuts, I'm sure.) "He passed away soon after Miss Farnaby did."
"Oh…" Alice glanced at Bert. "I am sorry."
"It's all right, Alice."
A dubious look suddenly descended onto Bert's face, as it often did in front of Mulberry. "…How did you know Mr Smith was gone?"
"…I saw it in the papers."
"I didn't see it in the papers."
"No…I suppose you wouldn't…" Mulberry recovered with a cheerful smile, "It was in the Blood Brother Obituaries, Tibet division."
When he came in later after the visit, my boss shrugged his hands in his pockets and never even looked up at me as he made his way to the back. It seemed to me there was a lot of death in his life.
Except he was the exact opposite. He teased me everyday. "Oh, it's you again." he would say with a sly grin as I came in through the front every morning. He was always there in the mornings…for a little while. "Yes, it's me," I said, smiling.
"Of all the fancy dress shops in town, you just have to walk into mine."
"Well I do. I'm employed here."
I was grateful he had employed me. I was young, and this was my first job. I wasn't quite sure about it in the start, with all the antics of my boss coming and going, but I never regretted it. "Just gonna pop out for a minute," he said.
"As usual," I nodded, stepping behind the counter.
He simply smiled at me. "Isn't there anywhere special that you go?"
"I have to work here!"
"Well—in your off hours."
I had to think. "Not really."
"Don't you have any hobbies?"
"Well…I read a book from time to time and I've been to a football match or two…What! I'm not into space travel like you! Honestly one of these days I expect NASA to come in here and you all will fly away in a space ship with Doctor Who! You carry on like a mad scientist sometimes!"
"Would you like me to be a mad scientist?"
"I pray not."
"A doctor then?"
"Mind you," he prattled on, "I do look lovely in a nurse's outfit."
"…I think you've gone completely crackers."
Mulberry smiled almost devilishly. He suddenly hunched his back, leaving in a stagger, "Goin' off now to Baron von Frankenstein's!"
He was so weird.
But he made me laugh.
We'd play chess sometimes when he was at the shop, while waiting for a customer on a slow day. When one did finally show, especially if it was an older woman, he came forth straightaway and complimented her on her hat. "This dress over here would go lovely with that hat!"
"…The dress is so blinding, I wonder how anyone would see my hat."
And then they'd look to me, the woman, for some proper assistance. But Mulberry was never one to give up. I did so love it when he broke down and admitted he was the owner of the shop. The look on the ladies' faces was priceless.
He admitted he never thought he'd open a shop, but the idea just came to him one day, as if it were angelically sent on a divine wind. He told Alice he used the money Miss Farnaby left him. He told me he could have just as easily tossed it all off in the river, but that this seemed a better idea. I had to agree, "Fish don't seem like they need pounds."
Mulberry laughed. "You're quite right."
Sometimes it hurt to see him alone.
Sometimes I fancied I was in love with him. But somehow I knew there was a purpose in his solitude. I can't explain it. All I knew was he certainly changed every life he met. Even mine. But for someone with so much love for life you'd think he would have had love enough for a woman.
"Mulberry," I said one day, while eating some take-out he brought me for lunch, "Do you ever think about getting married?"
Perhaps he thought I was getting on to him for he blushed and stammered, "I haven't even been asked yet!"
I smiled, lowering the chopsticks. "But you're always alone. Isn't there anyone special in your life?"
"Well…" he thought quickly, blowing air between his cheeks, "…No."
The corners of my mouth turned in opposite directions. A smile, and a frown. I hid my own blush by turning away, smelling the take-out. "This is wonderful by the way, where did you pick it up at?"
"Well there's this little village in Dorset called Tibet—they've got a great Chinese take-away."
Despite his aberrant words and ways…he seemed to take my words to heart at least. After a while, he appeared preoccupied in the store, when he was present of course. But it took a very long time before I ever saw him with anyone. In fact, I was already married by then with two children, a boy, and a girl.
I came into work one morning and Mulberry was hunched over on the counter, staring off into the glass like a little school boy, daydreaming. Somehow, I just knew. "What's her name?" I grinned, setting the keys down somewhere by his arm.
"What's her name?"
I was still grinning when he realized I was standing there, fishing out the name successfully with my womanly ways. "Oh—it's you," he said lowly. "Sly as ever."
"Still not as sly as you, Mulberry," I assuaged him.
He wore that mirthless look of ha-ha the rest of the day, but inside he was really quite gone. I saw him bump into a wall once, and then look at it strangely as if it had really been there all this while. Oh and then there was that time Alice came by and learned the news and beamed ever so proud, almost like he was her adopted son.
But I still hadn't seen her.
All I knew was that 'Hope' was simply in existence. I was a bit preoccupied myself, though. My mother was quite ill at the time.
Then one day, several days after my mother passed, I saw my boss come in. He hadn't bothered to for some strange reason the past two. He looked quite ill himself, and it rather alarmed me. I quickly made him some tea. His eyes seemed sad and his face was unshaven. I'd never seen it that way before. The shadows of stubbles made him appear somewhat beggarly. He didn't even have his waistcoat on. Mulberry was all in black. "Where in Heaven's name have you been? I asked firmly but not loud. "You look terrible. Have you been ill?"
He didn't quite know what to answer, so he said, "All of the above."
"Why didn't you say?"
"Didn't want to…" As if to finish, 'I didn't want to worry you.' But he lost the thought and his eyes, so brown, were quite blank as he looked up at me, "I'm sorry…about your mum."
I blinked. "Oh. Um, thank you. I'm sorry, too…but…Mr Mulberry," I didn't say that often after the very first time he scolded me, "What's happened? What's going on with you?"
He looked down slowly, holding the teacup. "…You made me some tea. I'm drinking it."
"Oh fer—" I shook my head, "Mulberry! For God's sake! Who are you!"
I don't know why I burst out with that particular phrase. It startled him a bit. I just blame it on his two natures—one a crazy nutter, and the other, well…a morose ghost with a penchant for flowery waistcoats. Naturally, the sound of the jingle bell on the glass door startled me. I turned, expecting to see a customer with a hat ready for a compliment, when instead, there was just a young blonde woman standing there. Dressed in a simple blue frock, she had simple, small features, and a pretty face. I admit, my jaw hit the floor a little.
"Hello…Mulberry," she smiled softly, standing there a thin, small frame. Her voice was even lighter than the bell, and kind.
I understood at once, this was the sudden manifestation…of Hope.
They were married in the spring.
A somewhat-senile Bert and smiling Alice were there, watching the couple say "I do" and become man and wife. Albert was of course the best man, and what a good one he was with so much colorful conversation and good spirits. Safe to say, it was the best wedding I ever went to. The music was light and beautiful, and one of the highlights was Bert, singing (even if a little drunkenly). He was charming though. There was a lot of dancing, crying, and gentle winds, coming from the north. My only complaint was that it was a bit chilly, but I know Mulberry never quite felt the cold.
Their first child came a few years later. It was a girl, Springrose. Mulberry never stopped his work—either kind of it. But his wife never minded. I didn't either. And even after we parted ways as I grew older, I met him again one day…down the road. Don't we all…?
-Caliko, Kariko Emma