- Published: 30 March 2021
- ISBN: 9781760895914
- Imprint: Viking
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 352
- RRP: $32.99
The Emporium of Imagination
Chapter One Earlatidge Hubert Umbray
A little bit of magic is about to appear.
Earlatidge Hubert Umbray can sense it. Has the nose for it. After all these years of being the custodian of The Emporium of Imagination, he would. He’s fifty-something years old but refuses to keep track of time. Seems time does that well enough by itself.
He pulls his 1954 Holden FJ (perfect paint job, complete with original red leather interiors and bucket seats) into a parking space on the dark street. It is a car that requires a physical key to drive it, a fact he is proud of as he turns off the ignition. A car where the air-conditioning system is the window he now winds down by hand.
He breathes deep. Arriving. Bathing himself in this moment.
There’s a wrinkle in the night air. A silent ripple throughout the township of Boonah. Nothing tangible; simply an unrest. A wakefulness. He knows that people are sticking to their sheets, tossing and turning. They assume that what keeps them awake is the humid mess of another January night, but they are wrong.
Earlatidge opens his car door with a satisfying creak, a noise like that of his hip joints. There’s no one around. No cars, no people. Only the steps of his polished, brown Oxfords on the footpath as he walks to the rear of the car. He arranges his suit, straightens his tie and checks his silver cufflinks, then he reaches 4
into the back seat for his top hat and positions it on his head. Lastly, he takes a firm hold of the handle of his dome-top lunch box. It is the most important piece of the magic to come.
Now things may begin.
He strides down Main Street deeper into the evening, way past the hours when all manner of humanity sat back-slapping and too-loud-laughing on bar stools. Long past the hour when the kitchen hands stopped serving Lazy-Arse-Sunday Pizzas. There are only the stars spread above his head for company and he feels full of the wonder of the world.
With his eyes on those stars, Earlatidge notices for the umpteenth time how small humanity is rendered against the backdrop of sky and the silence of the evening settled about. And in that quiet, he searches for the precise destination.
He stares up at the town clock as he passes. It’s over five metres tall with an oversized u-shaped head taken from the firebox of an old steam boiler. Welded to the sides are wheels, metal curls and swirls, cogs and bits of this and that. The face is complete with nineteenth-century clock hands, an almost comical Dr Seuss-type creation.
Earlatidge notes the time. 3.35 am.
He takes his hat off and pauses with his head hung low to acknowledge the time, what it means to him, before striding into the pre-dawn.
Because he is not merely meandering, Earlatidge soon finds the empty lot. A piece of land that locals have walked past so often they’ve stopped seeing it. For them it would take some noticing to become aware of the rectangle-shaped land squeezed in between The Golden Goose Jewellery Shop and Bart’s Real Estate, but Earlatidge has long since learnt that it is the common, the seemingly insignificant places, where The Emporium makes its home.
Earlatidge stops on the footpath in front of the vacant block holding the lunch box close to his chest. Waits.
Then he hears it. The soft bell of an antique phone. And he knows.
This is indeed the place.
This is where The Emporium of Imagination will stand.
Boonah’s townspeople will not see the shop being constructed or fitted out. No trucks will arrive with inventory. Indeed, what inventory could there be? And yet there is all the lumber that is needed.
Ah, Earlatidge can almost hear the townsfolk ask, ‘Surely there were builders?’
They’ll envisage people with steel-capped boots and concrete dust clinging to the hairs on their legs. Workmen visiting the local cafes and placing orders for Coffee Grande, extra cream, don’t hold back on the sugar, half-caf, decaf, dear Lord, help us all!
Earlatidge drinks his coffee black, one sugar. He considers anyone ordering anything else with a sceptical eye. Especially those who order piccolos. These people are not to be trusted. He has no idea why people buy a coffee the size of something a chihuahua might drink. He’s allergic to such people.
Over the years, he’s also developed an allergy to explaining The Emporium. It makes him short-tempered and itchy-footed.
He used to say, ‘Is this The Emporium of Fruit? The Emporium of Fashion? Of toys or antiques or jewellery? No, no and no! This is something special.’ He used to remind people how imagination works. He’d say, ‘Remember when that toy dinosaur you got for Christmas wore Barbie’s bonnet and saved the world? Or when you watched out your bedroom window for the Care Bear that was going to slide down the rainbow right into your arms? Well, that’s still how imagination works and exactly how the shop is built.’
Now he saves his explanations for the shopkeeper’s ears only, once he finds them. To everyone else he simply states, ‘This is The Emporium of Imagination and it does what it likes.’6
Later, in this town, when night gives way to morning, Earlatidge knows that people will stand at the shop’s door and scratch their heads. But for now, a hushed invitation floats throughout the streets.
Come, meet The Emporium.
The invitation drifts into sleeping households, through opened windows and underneath doors. It weaves its way into dreams and into minds, those tender and cynical alike.
As the night wears on, Earlatidge knows there will be prickles of heat rising on the skin, a sudden thirst in throats. A tremor in the hand, perhaps a twitching eye or a jittery leg.
Earlatidge places his top hat on a nearby bench seat and settles alongside it to watch the township, not with his eyes, but with his mind. Images of the townsfolk come.
At number 19 Milk Thistle Street, a husband draws his wife into a hug and they lie together like a pair of speech marks on a page. She remembers how she used to love this so much; he wonders why they stopped.
In the downtown crook of Boonah at number 20 Ragweed Place, two elderly sisters wake. The older of the two smells lemon sponge cake, though it’s been a long while since she wanted to bake anything, let alone that cake.
The younger sister, with her pair of heavy clodhopper shoes neatly arranged beside her bed each evening, awakes to a sense of lightness and to the music of Tchaikovsky. Swan Lake dances in her head. She squeezes her eyes shut as if that might hold back the longing.
The murmur continues to swell.
Come, meet The Emporium. The lure is not heard with the ears but from within a person’s being. A place inside, where we hear the most important things.
The Emporium has sharpened Earlatidge’s hearing and gifted him with a sight and senses that others don’t possess. He can hear 7
other people’s grief, an ability that is not only auditory, he can also see those moments as clear as motion pictures in his mind. Often, he can smell the event. Hear the sounds. Sometimes he can taste or even feel things relating to their sadness. He will use this gift to understand people’s sorrow and extend invitations to visit The Emporium but also to find the new shopkeeper. This has been necessary for serving The Emporium for almost ten years.
Earlatidge tilts his head, attentive.
Blackberry Lane, Chickweed Place, Ginger-Lily Street, Goosegrass Parade, Mustard Hedge Road . . . on and on. Streets named after weeds. Ah, but one person’s weed is another man’s flower, Earlatidge thinks.
People begin rising from their beds. Earlatidge hears showers run and coffee grinders put to work early. Headaches build behind eyes. There are flutters in chests where nothing has fluttered for a long time. The Emporium is nothing if not a fluttering, but for some people the quickest way to get their attention is to give them a headache. No apologies will be issued.
A little after 5 am, Earlatidge takes one step onto the vacant block of land, places the dome-topped lunch box on the ground and runs his finger over the embossed lettering on the front.
V. H. P.
Vendralium. Hicklepuss. Pigwigglia.
He always takes a long breath before uttering these words. Though they are the start of fantastical things to come, they still make him sad.
Earlatidge clicks the locks on the lunch box, carefully opens the lid and whispers those silly words, some of the last his son ever spoke.
All there is to do then is step back and watch The Emporium come to life. This part never gets old.
First, there is a burst of light emanating from the lunch box followed by pops of tiny fireworks that sizzle to the ground.
A familiar gust of wind swirls upwards, a crackling of electricity in the air as the magic of the shop rises and begins to take its physical form. His face wrinkles in a smile.
Since the shop exterior models itself on the imagination of the new shopkeeper and things that are important to this person, the store looks different in every town.
The building always begins with a door that spills out of the lunch box as a liquid colour and then firms to solid wood.
On this occasion, the door is green. Oh, but it’s so much more than a colour. It is the taste of mint tea in Earlatidge’s mouth and the smell of dew on morning grasses, the enchantment of emerald on a peacock’s feather.
Two windows squeeze out of the lunch box in an elongated rectangle before righting themselves to a square shape and fastening to either side of the door. They are the building’s eyes, observing and waiting.
Bricks clatter from the lunch box forming walls that reach out in all directions like arms until they jostle the neighbouring shops. A scrapping and groaning of brick on wood and steel. A black awning extends like cupped hands over the shopfront.
Wisteria vines snake out and plant themselves on either side of the door. From there, they climb up the doorframe and across the windows until flowers drip down in lilac clusters.
Earlatidge steps back out onto the deserted road. He hears the creak of metal as the shop’s name appears in oversized lettering on the wall above the awning.
Now it is complete.
He closes the lunch box and holds it in one hand.
The Emporium of Imagination has arrived.
Catawampus. A word I’ve decided to take a real shine to in my old age.
In the summer of 1984, a country policeman was selected to play cricket for Australia. And this is what happened.
The first three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and their other buddy Tim, who set out from their campsite before dawn to get help.
There aren’t many rules of singlehood, but I have made a few for myself in the two (if anyone asks, but really it’s four) years in which I’ve been single.
THERE WAS A STONE under my right buttock, but I didn’t want to move.
I know I can do this, I know I can. Whatever anyone else says. It’s just a matter of perseverance.