The Bluebottle Boys — Chapter 11, Part 5 — Solihull, late March 1962: Whitfield’s World of Wonder (Section 1 of 3)
It would have been rather difficult for me to have missed Whitfield’s World of Wonder. Not that it was an amusement park, despite its name. It was a shop – not a particularly large one, either – but it was as far as one could get from “unassuming.” It was redolent of flamboyance, from the two “cigar store Indian” sentries outside the front door, to the vaguely mural-like painted décor on the wall outside the front door (in quasi-psychedelic style I’d know well by my mid-to-late teens), to the pied draperies framing the fun house mirrors on the walls, to life-sized marionettes that seemed to pop out at me from every corner, nook and cranny.
It was dimly lit throughout in an odd assortment of vivid colors.
The only counterpoint was the large, dark pieces of furniture, dating from the Regency period through the Edwardian, which I saw scattered throughout the shop with no apparent rhyme or reason. It seemed a mixture of hobby shop, novelty shop, toyshop, antique shop, joke shop and general purveyor of curios, oddities and collectables. Certainly, no one would’ve had trouble finding stock fitting within each of these categories.
I’d just walked through Solihull’s early twilight, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust here.
The high street had been rather busy as I walked down, its shoppers rushing through the crisp, cold air, trying to get items ahead of closing time. Pedestrian traffic had thinned considerably, however, as I’d turned down Drury Lane. Now, as I peered from out of the shop window, I saw no one, either inside or outside the shop, only endless snowdrifts, piled unusually high for a street in town.
“May I help you, young sir?”
The shopkeeper gave me a start. He was about 5 feet 7 inches, and weighed just over eight stone. With his hair thinning to wisps atop his head and his suit rumpled, he was anything but imposing. But his sunken, cadaverous face, with its large hooded eyes, deep-set creases and prominent features, looked like something only Arthur Szyk could’ve created, the eyes glowing in the same way the lights in the shop did. His unsettling smile was a trifle too wide, and faintly reptilian. He made both my heart and stomach lurch for a fraction of a second. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d have that effect.
“I – I n-need some m-more of these,” I stammered, handing him the roll of mirrors that Bethany had handed to me, and rapidly blurting out, “as many as I can get.”
“You certainly do, young sir,” he replied, “and you’ve come to exactly the right place to get them.”
He led me over to the register, opened a dark, narrow drawer facing it opposite a small aisle behind the counter, reached in and pulled out three rather large, substantial rolls of the mirrors, 75 in each roll. “And, of course, you’ll be needing one of these,” he added as he reached into an overhead compartment and pulled down a cloth packet as large as a man’s fist. “And I think it might behoove you to have this,” he said as he opened up a locked cabinet in the shadows and removed a thin, silver chain.
I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out the silver charm. It was solid, and had no holes in it.
“I suspect it’s for this, though I’ve no idea how to thread it through.”
“Let me see it a moment,” he replied.
Seconds later the charm and chain were joined as one, the charm located exactly opposite the clasp. He slipped the chain around my neck and fastened the clasp.
“There, that should keep the charm safe.” His obsequiousness began to fade. “Now, are you as insightful as to the use of the other items?”
I shook my head. He stared at me intensely as if looking through me.
“Then listen carefully. . . .”
© 2017, 2016, 2015 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.
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You’ll learn how Lewis Carroll met and became friends with Alice; how the stories arose; who may have helped Carroll create the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter; why Alice of the illustrations is a long-haired blonde, when Alice Liddell (at least as a young child) was a short-haired brunette; who the model(s) for Alice of the illustrations may have been; why certain illustrations were likely an inside joke between Carroll and Alice; how the real-life Alice had a love affair with a prince; who talked Carroll into making Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a story for all children, not just the Liddell sisters, and so much more.
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G. H. McCallum
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