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Serendipity

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The sign writer puffed coming down the ladder and stood back. Miriam came out of the shop, an envelope in hand, and looked up with him. He'd painted the Y so like the pewter jug that it could have been a photograph.

"Lovely," she said. "Lovely. Want a cuppa?"

The sign writer tapped his fingers and made a face. "Signs is meant to sell things, miss. That word don't mean nothing. Still," he said doubtfully, packing his toolbox, "I expect you know what you're doing."

"'Serendipity' is finding wonderful things where you least expect it. Perfect for my junk shop, don't you think? Want a cuppa?"

He shook his head, took the envelope, packed the van and was gone.

When Miriam arrived the next day, hardly having slept for worrying about being ready, the bright shininess of the fresh paint shone out from the drab neglected street, the old camping shop on one side and the second-hand bookshop on the other. She popped into both to invite them to the 'wine and cheese' for the grand opening tomorrow, but took a moment to gloat again at the front of her very own shop.

One day, when she'd up-marketed as she hoped, she might add the word 'Antiques' to Serendipity but right now it was time to get in there and finish the unpacking and everything else that needed to be done. Dad couldn't get here to help until after work, but he'd be great when he came and would at once see what needed doing. He'd say: "Have you made a list?" She smiled to herself and made one at once. First things first. The window. It had to be dressed so people could be looking.

She squeezed into the tiny window with some empty boxes and the cream velvet to drape over them, and the scissors and the staples and the Grand Opening notice.

Oh yes, she popped back to get the other notice that was necessary. "Castles and Attics Cleared. Treasures Sought." She'd copied that from a big London shop which she thought was cute but practical.

She arranged her lucky pewter jug that the sign writer had copied on the shopfront, right where it could be seen and leaned a new Not For Sale notice on it. She'd taken that jug from tiny stall to bigger stall all around the country.

She struggled back with the beautiful little showcase that she'd put the jewellery in later, and more boxes and cream velvet for the other best things she'd choose if only she could get everything unpacked. She worked and hummed and blessed her Dad for helping her with the other half of the money she hadn't been able to save, and worked and hummed and wished he were here to see how happy she was with a proper shop as she had always dreamed. She worked and hummed and went in and out of the tiny window and thought she might collapse before she'd finished.

She was kneeling awkwardly on the floor pinning out a lace parasol when this guy knocked and knocked on the window, beckoning her out. "Tomorrow," she mouthed. "Open tomorrow." The knocking continued despite her shaking head. She smiled to herself, thinking of her years on the little stalls, begging for a passionate customer like that. Knock, knock. She rolled her eyes, winched herself out of the tightening space and unlocked the door. "Not till tomorrow, sir. Be glad to see you then. I open at 9.30."

"Police," he said.

"Shouldn't you be showing me your badge or pass or whatever?" she said but stepping back so he could come in, picturing her bloodied body. A brand new shopkeeper cut up and neatly packed in one of the cardboard boxes. "Well done," he said, showing her his picture quickly. It could have been any rather overweight, thirty-year-old with lots of hair but she supposed it was him.

"I'll be quick, miss. I'm looking for something. I've had, like, a tip-off."

The rules of receiving stolen goods are bored into people like Miriam from day one. She could quote every one of them. Her Dad had been fierce about her absolute integrity on this. "If you are suspicious, don't touch it," was his constant advice. And even if this guy did find something, he'd confiscate it, she'd sigh and could get on with getting ready. She forced a smile and waved a hand for him to search the shop. "Want a cuppa?" she said, hoping that sounded like the honest open person that she was.

"The jug," he said, not moving from the door. "The jug painted up on the shop? I guess you got it? It's on our long list. That means decades, miss. Some bright spark saw it last night - could you get it please?"

Miriam had frozen. She had been six years old in a tiny junk shop in Oxford when she had fallen in love with the jug. Her Dad had bought it for her for a few pence and she had collected jugs for a while after that and then … well that jug wasn't just a jug. It had changed her life. She couldn't just hand it over to some man who said he was police.

"It's not worth anything. It's just my lucky talisman. Look, could I just verify that you are genuine with your head office?"

He frowned but nodded, wrote his details from the card and accepted a glass of water whilst she got the number from her telephone book. Miriam had a strange but convincing conversation with the police station and nodded to him. "Seems you are the real thing, inspector," she said.

"Now could you get the jug please?"

"There must be millions of jugs like it. It cost …"

"Could you get it please?"

It's only a jug, she repeated over and over to herself as she squeezed back into the window and took it down from its little niche. Maybe he'd let her buy it back later?

He took it, looked at the bottom of it, checking a notebook. It just had a six on it, she remembered, nothing about where or what it was, because it was just an ordinary jug.

"This is it," he said. "Good. Where's the base?"

Miriam laughed. The base was ugly and hefty and far too deep to show with the jug and anyway it didn't quite match. "The base? You've got your foot on it, sir. I'm using it as a door stop for nice days."

He smiled now, which made him look less like a murderous assassin, and lifted it happily. He was just about to put it on a flimsy little writing desk she'd French polished herself, before she pushed a full box over to him instead. He put it on there with a satisfied grunt. "That's what we're after. Your telephone?" He talked into the phone and almost immediately there were two more officers, in uniform this time, crowding out the small shop.

With tools and some difficulty they levered open the base. A slim black canvas bag was all that was in it and a few yellowing papers inside that. Yet they were all cheering and pleased with themselves and left with the base and the bag.

"Here's the jug back, miss. We might come and get it again but you can have it for now. Now sit down. I want all the details and your details. How much the jug cost and …"

"Only a few pence, but by now that jug must be worth best part of £30," she said.

He nodded. "You will have to answer a lot of questions. I expect you want to know why. There's a will in there. An important one. There's been a major family fall-out about this missing will. That was half the trouble. Then there are the proofs of shares which went missing. Miss, it's a very long story but all you need to know is that there is a reward for them. The bright spark who spotted the jug will get a bit and you will get the rest."

"Well that's nice, "Miriam said, picturing herself and her Dad having a slap up meal at that restaurant they'd always wanted to go to.

"If we can prove you didn't steal it, you get fifteen percent."

"That's nice," she said. "And I didn't steal it. It was on a stall in Oxford and I … " Think before you speak, her Dad had taught her. "Fifteen percent of about how much would that be?" she said.

He sat back, motioned her to sit down, got out a sheaf of paperwork and named a figure.

Miriam sat down and was silent.

That was her father paid back in full, a proper house somewhere nice instead of living over the shop, and holidays and savings and being able to give to charity and …

"I didn't really sort of find it, did I? It was just with me all the time. Do I still get the reward, do you think?"

"You've looked after it carefully for how many years? Twenty-four? And somehow, when you were only six you saw it and said 'I'm going to have that and look after it.' I think that deserves a reward."

"Wow," she said. "Wow." It was hard to take it all in. But it wasn't yet quite time to retire. She had a business to run.

"Would you mind awfully if I were to come and answer everything in a couple of days' time? I'd like to open my shop and maybe hire an assistant so I could come any time you wanted me to answer all those questions? What do you think?"

A car came for him and she saw him off with a wave.

She struggled back into the overcrowded window and put the jug back right where it was.

"If you aren't a serendipity, I don't know what is," she said, patting its handle. "Now, where's my list. Oh good heavens. Serendipity's one thing but I've got to pay for the wine and cheese for tomorrow. Maybe I should have asked for an advance." 

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Friday, 02 December 2022

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