‘Sketches of Chagall: A Pinch of Snuff’ – An excerpt from my debut Short Story

He raised his shaky hand to his face and with a little bit too much force, pushed the brown snuff up his nose with an abnormal type of a sniff.“Your mother was a good woman.”

He rubbed his thumb and index finger together over the worn and battered tin in exactly the same way I’d seen him do a hundred times before. He gently tapped the tin lid on the sturdy, oak desk in front of him then he carefully but firmly placed it on the rest of the tin with a quiet click.

I stared, like I always did, at the intricate pattern that decorated that lid. Ottoman, Persian, Middle Eastern, I couldn’t remember. He’d told me before but I have a bad memory even though I’m young. All I knew was that the tin’s pattern mesmerised me whenever I found myself sat here opposite him.

“I knew her all her life. What happened was a tragedy. Your father must be devastated.”

His voice was as hard and as gruff as ever, and his words, just as short and stunted. It was like no other voice I’d heard before. Most people, I’d come to realise, trail their words off at the end, cling onto them like a child holding a balloon in the street, afraid that it will escape their grasp. People seem reluctant to let their words have their freedom. There was nothing like that with this man whose experienced and honest eyes now looked at me. He clung onto nothing his words were released with no sentimentality. Released like pigeons from a basket.

“Yes Sir, he is.”

I replied in a guarded tone that took on a hint of sadness as the thoughts of my mother drifted through my memory when I spoke.

His wrinkly yet strong hands pushed the snuff tin towards me and then just as carefully withdrew it as I shook my head. A shrug accompanied this withdrawal while he raised his fingers from the tin lid, fingers where the earth and mud had made their home amongst the grooves of his knuckles. He repositioned his hands with his fingers interlocked and elbows rested on the wooden desk, a little uncomfortably it seemed. His face pitied my present situation and me. My eyes merely watched his index fingers alternate between pointing up at the bare light bulb that swung silently above my head, and the lying flat. They moved as though he were exercising them.

By the time my eyes had wandered down to the corners of this familiar room, and I’d considered yet again, whether the crack between the skirting board and the floorboard was big enough for a mouse, he’d begun to tap his two index fingers in the way I’d seen my father do whilst he thought of the best way to fix yet another problem in our room.

My eyes had begun to drift towards the developing day through the window. The rattle of the street vendors and the sound of their raucous shouts that reminded me of the many times when shopping with my mother and my younger sister. My sister and I used to chase each other around the stalls, occasionally catching the fruit or old brass bric-a-brac and knocking it off the display tables. We’d stand and agonisingly watch it as it thudded and clattered onto the floor and then we would be made to pick it up and eventually begin our chase all over again. I always let my sister chase me, she was a lot younger and didn’t have the speed to get away from me so I used my speed sparingly, just enough to make it fun for both of us. When we knocked these objects down onto the pavement mother would just look at the two of us and say ‘remember’. She’d say ‘remember’ because the first time it ever happened she immediately stopped talking and bartering with the trader, apologised and then she took both of our hands and led us to the side of the pavement, the stone of the building was quite rough, I remember because as she moved us there I brushed my finger against it. I think it was sandstone or something similar. She then knelt down to our level the way she always did when she would explain something important to us. I was always mesmerised by her eyes at moments like these. Their shape was stern but deep down amongst the hazel colour was the warmth, love and care. On this particular occasion her eyes held our attention as she explained that even though to us it was just an apple or a piece of junk, to the trader it was as precious as gold was to a rich man. One person’s precious and valuable object may not be another’s, which is why it is important to respect everyone and their property. Remember.

‘It was going to be cold’ I thought, as my eyes took in the deep frost of the rooftop that I could see straight ahead. The orange glow of the rising winter sun played ‘peek’ between the gaps of the detached houses across the street as it crept up the vanilla morning sky and fought away the night. The invisible light beams announcing its suns resurrection by making the frost glitter, sparkle and dance which, accompanied by the gliding birds that floated and soared high above like ballet dancers, reminded me of the performances in one of those theatres I’d often sneak into on plac Teatralny. These light beams seeped amongst the clouds that were sparsely floatingly across the world. I preferred the mornings when the clouds covered the world like the thick blanket my grandmother used to wrap around us after a visit to the tin bath. We didn’t own one so once a week we’d all pay a visit to my grandparents and my sister and I would share a bath. The water would often be scalding but the cold outside and the icy feel of the metal on our skin would dull the pain of the heat. Those pieces of white winter glitter that I could now see out of the window appeared to be shying away from the warmth of the slowly rising sun and clinging onto the last remnants of a shadow, any shadow. I stared uncontrollably and my mind drifted. I was now feeling the effects of my lack of sleep but I’m doing it for them I kept reminding myself to keep me from dozing off.

“Right!”

I was suddenly stirred back by the noise of his hands slamming on the desk. I blinked hard and brought myself round. He half smiled at me while he reached across to a different but equally intricate and colourful tin. He took a packet of dog-eared cigarette papers out of the inside pocket of his musty-looking jacket, and slowly pulled one out and placed it on the polished surface in front of him as delicately as you would lay a flower. He carefully removed the lid and with the hand that shook the least took a generous pinch of what smelt like my late grandfather’s pipe tobacco and placed it on the paper. I’d seen my father use pipe tobacco in this unorthodox way and I now sat and watched with fascination as he evenly spread the pipe tobacco along the paper. During all the time he did this he shared his attention between me, sat opposite him and the cigarette he was now gently rolling in-between his fingers.

After removing any strands that hadn’t made it inside the paper he placed it in his mouth and held it with his cracked lips that I could just about make out hidden amongst the mass of coarse, black and grey hair that formed his long beard. He cautiously struck a match and lit his pipe tobacco. The grey smoke drifted up the sides of his long, crooked nose and then seemingly floated to form circles around his dark, deep-set eyes.

“Now listen, you are to come back this evening, about six o’clock, one hour before curfew. You are to take this and use it to buy food for your father, your sister and you.”

He slid his hand forward, awkwardly, as though he was trying to conceal some secret underneath.

“I know you are not supposed to have this at your age but just take it to your father. Keep his spirits up. Anyone asks then tell them I gave it to you.”

I nodded as he withdrew his rough hand. Underneath was a lump of brown folded paper.

“It’s for his pipe.” He added.

I carefully placed it inside my trouser pocket and then he slid the note, which he had seemingly produced from thin air, across the table. I must have looked at him with amazement because he smiled warmly. I remember that when my mother was here, this man used to leave us all open mouthed by his magic tricks whenever we had a family party. Back then I truly believed that he was a wizard or a magician. Even though I’m a few years older I’m still mesmerised by the ease with which he would pull off his tricks.

I nodded and reached forward, the note firmly under the palm of my hand. I drew it close to me. He went back to smoking his hand-rolled cigarette. The separate threads of smoke weaving around the sets of ringlets either side of his face. He placed his hand on the open pages of the book he had been reading before I so unexpectedly walked into his private office.

I slid the creaky chair that I was sat on carefully across the floor, not wanting it to make a sound nor collapse. I was only half successful as the chair legs made an awful deep, screeching sound as the floorboards and the chair legs pressed heavily against one another, despite what little weight I now exerted. He merely repeated that same pitying smile, as I stood up respectfully in front of him.

“The hour before curfew! Remember!”

I nodded once more and replaced my cap before I turned to leave. I placed my left foot down on the uneven floorboard and remembered my blisters. I winced at the pain but not so that he could see it. I’d already been longer than I had intended to be and couldn’t possibly use anymore of his valuable time. I hobbled the short distance between the desk and the solid wooden door that led to the stairs. Just as I reached out to turn the doorknob, I felt a sharp pain in my foot and remembered the gaping hole in the sole of my tattered and worn leather shoe. I lifted my right leg up immediately. As I did this I felt that his dark, hard eyes were now focused on me, now an unwelcome and un-entertaining distraction. I ran my rough hand along the sole of my foot until I reached the splinter. And then, gritting my teeth I pulled it out in one go. I reluctantly placed my foot back onto the unvarnished bare floorboards and turned the cold iron doorknob. The click of the latch seemed to take an eternity and I dared not look back at him. I had outstayed my welcome and he had been as patient as anybody could have been at this time in the morning on a cold, early December day. The door, when it eventually moved, creaked agonisingly as it swung open.

Without realising I’d done it I glanced around and nodded in acknowledgement. He simply raised his head briefly and drew heavily on his rolled up tobacco, the end glowing a fierce orange as he did, and the smoke from it escaping up towards the ceiling. He returned to his book. I made my way cautiously down the stairs that led back down to the streets and a new day.

I gripped the banister and warily placed my sore feet on each of the steps in turn. It would be just my luck and my family’s luck for the next step to be rotten along each grain and for my lightness of weight to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. What a difference to earlier this morning, or later last night, I have no watch so time is irrelevant, but what a difference. Earlier I had bounded up these stairs with urgency, two at a time in some cases, now however, I had been calmed and my urgency has been substituted by caution. I managed to leap off of the final step when I reached it, an act of triumph and a means of self-satisfaction. The hallway I now stood in was even dimmer than the stairway, something I thought was impossible. I stumbled and struggled past the numerous sets of doors that lined this corridor. The closer I got to the door at the end of the hallway the colder I got. I could feel the ice in the air as I breathed in. I could feel the brief second when the inside of my nose froze. When I breathed out my breath seemed to become more defined, more frozen. Now I felt more like the dragon slayed by Krak, the dragon breathing smoke at the people who lived along the banks of the Vistula River. I briefly imagined myself facing Krak and breathed out as much as I could and even bared my teeth occasionally. The cold metal of the doorknob snapped me out of my make-believe world once again.

 

The full story is available on Amazon Kindle at 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sketches-Chagall-Collection-Short-Stories-ebook/dp/B00LLNR8LE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1406311376&sr=8-1&keywords=danny+stockdale

 

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