Do red teddy bears love to rest their furry backs on red pillows?
Apparently, on the shelves of Treasure Island, they do. Especially around the second week of February, when the pillows are heart-shaped.
It’s 9.30 in the morning. I drink in the rich aroma of Masala Tea from the next shop as I raise the shutters of Mr.Shah’s gift shop. Mr. Shah trusts me enough to let me open the shop early on special days like this. After all, I am the only salesgirl among the whirlpool of workforce to have stayed like a stubborn stopper. The rest have drained out. But for the recent hire, Vicky.
The familiar warm and stale air of the shop greet me. I switch on the lights and fans as I begin my survey of the shelves and the aisles. Just to make sure the vigilante rodents had not toppled anything overnight.
I start from the left. The trinkets in plastics hung on the racks, the go-to gift for the broke teenagers, glitter on their racks. Check.
I move to the cut-out and the glass photo frames section. The men with perfect profiles are holding their valentines and trying to look into their eyes. Their valentines in turn are gazing into buyers’ eyes. Seem largely okay. I change the angle of a couple of frames to focus the gaze of the women on me. Check.
The next shelf has an array of octagonal-shaped, gold-rimmed coffee mugs with ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ on them. The mugs are coloured blue and pink respectively just in case the letters should wear off with use. I don’t care much about how they are stacked. Check.
“What the…?” I hold back my cursing even though there is no need. Vicky will not show up for at least another half an hour. Why has he displayed the wooden photo frames after the gap of mugs? It’s too late to rearrange. So, I let it be. Check.
Now, I come to the plaques and quotations. Most of the gifts at the shop mildly mock me but a few baffle me, such as these. How did someone think that writing down your thoughts and feelings on a thin sheet of pulp called paper was not grand enough? Only big chunks of wood would do? Check.
Okay, now it is the turn of the figurines. Each one with a man and a woman in different states of dance or what follows afterwards. A few freestanding and a few encased in glass globes with bubbles blowing around them. But in all of them, it’s always a man and a woman, no change in that! The women with hourglass figures and men with angular faces and V-shaped torsos. Why would anyone want to be gifted something that makes them feel imperfect and tells them whom they should dance with? Beats me. Check.
The door opens.
“Good morning, Aditi! Happy Valentine’s!” Vicky walks in with a goofy grin. I envy his romanticism.
“You are early!” I say, surprised.
“Yes. Mr. Shah asked me to prepare a few e-commerce orders for despatch.” Vicky heads to the backroom with his helmet and jacket leaving behind a whiff of Deo drenched in sweat.
“Will you check the flowers, soft toys and cards sections once, before that?” I shout after him to show I am still his senior. I don’t get any response.
Just knows how to tap a few keys and thinks of himself as a computer expert, I fume silently. I would have been working at an office and typing away on a computer, had I gone to college as I had planned three years ago! I stop the bitterness of my thoughts from spilling over. All for good. Now I know what I love to do.
I rush past the red teddy bears and artificial flowers. They seem to be enjoying each other’s company. Check.
Vicky doesn’t come out, still.
I sigh and decide to go through the cards section by myself. Not many customers come for them anyway. For that matter not many come for the watches, perfumes and grooming kits that form the back display of the cash register either. I had seen a steady decline in footfalls to the shop and the doubling of wrinkles on Mr. Shah’s face in past two years. There are still a few minutes left before he makes an appearance. I check my mobile.
A pink G with lavender hearts and two cats- brown and grey- stare back at me from the search bar. I click on it. The brown cat gives the grey one a flower that is not a rose. The grey one tosses it out without a second thought! Sensible cat, why can’t people be more like her? Next moment they are on the opposite ends of ‘Google’. I don’t know what to do with them anymore. I press the back button. A few more minutes of guilty pleasure are left before my mobile goes into the drawer next to the cash register.
I start typing ‘Va’… Valentine Day Gifts comes up on the search engine. I am spoilt for choices! There are diamond brands that promise ‘Deeply emotional, immediately life changing’ experiences vying with gaming device brands suggesting ‘Tag your player 2 and let them know’ with some chocolate-shaped plastics. I have sold enough gifts in this shop to know that those life-changing experiences and chocolates don’t come cheap. I stumble across something that is within my reach; e-cards. Just then I catch a glimpse of Mr. Shah standing in the narrow gap between the metal railings of the road divider. It will take him a couple of minutes to zigzag through the oncoming traffic and bumble through the door. I turn my mobile off and slip it into the drawer.
I move near the cards by the time he enters the shop. He flips ‘Closed’ to ‘Open’ at the door with the jingling of the bells back from Christmas.
“Good morning, Mr. Shah.”
He nods and moves towards the cash register. He lights a diya and a couple of incense sticks placed at the alcove facing it. Goddess Lakshmi smiles from her photo. I hope for his sake, the gold coins springing from her palm reach the cash register.
“Is Vicky here?” he asks.
“Yes, he is at the backroom preparing the parcels.”
I make a quick visit to the restroom before the customers start coming in. There is a growing leak at the ceiling that hasn’t been fixed for over a month now. The stench seems to have doubled since yesterday. I check my appearance in the stained mirror and step out.
I see a mother with a toddler browsing through the cards, maybe to give it to her busy husband who has forgotten to wish her. I am not a cynic, but the crease between her eyebrows and her pressed together lips tell me so. I point her towards the cards that are a bit passive-aggressive in professing love and she finds the one she likes. I also point her towards heart-shaped pillows and boxes for her little munchkin but she chooses the balloons instead. I ring her up.
As they leave, I gaze at the little boy sitting across the busy road. He is eating the sticky fleshy pods of the jackfruit with his right hand and chasing the buzzing flies with his left. His mother has neatly displayed her shiny steel pots and pans on a thin mat spread on the pavement hoping to sell them. I see his eyes go wide and his hand pointing at the helium-filled hearts the little girl carries from the shop that the dividers have failed to hide.
A group of school girls troop in. I go knock on the door of the backroom and hiss “Vicky!!”. I need backup.
Predictably, a couple of them buy some cheap baubles. The rest of them point at random objects to each other and giggle. I breathe a sigh of relief once they leave.
Then, there is a lull till lunchtime.
I go around dusting and rearranging the knick-knacks. I linger around the art supplies section and pick up a particular favourite of mine, an artists’ pad of 300gsm cold-pressed watercolour sheets. It has a tagline scribbled at the bottom ‘Love yourself, Colour your dreams’.
I wonder if today is a good day to tell Mr. Shah.
The customers start trickling in after 4 p.m. There is a slow increase in the volume for the next three hours before it dries up by 8 p.m.
As I get ready to leave, Mr. Shah clears his throat as if an unsold globe is stuck in it.
“Aditi, I want to talk to you.”
“Now? Mr. Shah”
“Yes… you saw the poor sales today. It’s just not what it used to be, even on the best days,” he says in a voice that struggles to muster courage before saying something awful.
I am the glass globe that has been given a shake.
“I know Mr. Shah. Even I feel it’s about time”
He looks a bit puzzled. I feel a slow release of bubbles.
“Aditi, though I value your work I need someone well versed in computers. And I can’t keep more than one.” He looks relieved once he gets the words out.
Effervescence takes over me and I feel light-headed.
“I understand Mr. Shah. I too wanted to tell you something. I have been offered a partial scholarship at the JJ Institute Of Applied Art. I was about to tell you but didn’t want to leave you in a lurch before the big day.”
He looks sad to see me go. He offers me an extra months’ paycheck and a gift of my choice from the shop. I pick up the artists’ pad. As an afterthought, I grab a couple of red helium balloons. I wish Vicky the best of luck; his eyes tell me I need it more.
“Mr. Shah, you need to get that leakage fixed in the restroom. You don’t want your treasure to be hit by the shitstorm from the corporate upstairs!” I jest as I leave.
Mr. Shah looks bemused.
I step outside, cross the road to reach the pavement on the opposite side. The young mother has tied her wares in a bundle and looks ready to leave. I hand the balloons to the boy, clutch the artists’ pad close to my chest and keep walking till I reach the bus stop.
High above, beyond the mishmash of the slum, high rises, smoke and bubbles, the moon that is not yet full shines on me.
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I was expecting a rap about bubbles. This excellent story is a worthy alternative. It is beautifully poetic.
Sorry, it wasn't a rap😅 Thank you so much for your kind words, Graham. I appreciate them.
I like the way you approached the monotony of checking the stocks, very pleasant to read.
Thanks for the read and your kind words, Kat. Appreciate it!
Beautiful descriptions—I could imagine everything as if I were there.
Thank you for your kind words Sydney. Appreciate it a lot😊
reading the morning checklist was so relatable to me! I do the same thing when I get into work. jJust going through the list and making sure everything is in place. This is a cute "slice of life" story, and it makes me wonder what adventures Aditi will go on to have!
Thank you for your kind words and support, Hanna. And congratulations on being shortlisted 🥳