There is a single road that runs through Avebury, the A4361, which contracts into a little ‘S’ bend as it hits The Red Lion pub, and then stretches out again as it meanders towards Swindon, some fifteen miles away. On the right of this little bend is a small Antiques shop.
This morning, after attempting to reach Silbury Hill and failing (“Who put a moat there?”) I returned to the centre of Avebury and decided to try the Antiques shop. It was closed. I grooved over to the village shop (Avebury is the sort of place where you can groove and shimmy around without anyone thinking it strange), which is a quaint little affair that sold everything you could imagine, including tights.
“Good morning,” said the bearded man behind the counter, smiling jovially. I’ve noticed that most people in the small villages of Wiltshire smile jovially. A jovial smile is quite common around these parts. Not once have I encountered a grin of despair.
“Good morning,” I returned. I had a quick browse around and then took my items to the counter – a bottle of mead and some olive bread.
“You know that antique shop on the corner?” I began. I think that’s a welsh thing, beginning a sentence with ‘you know’.
“When does it open?”
The bearded man scratched his, well, beard.
“He opens most days but at different times. Try knocking on the door.”
We chatted a little while longer, exchanging small talk about Hitler and neo-fascism before I bid him a good day and walked out of the shop.
I knocked on the door of the antiques shop. There was no answer. I looked through the huge glass windows and saw the inside was just full of curiosities and paraphenalia. Isn’t that a great word – paraphenalia – it sounds like it should be a flavour of Angel Delight. Anyway, I stared through the glass windows and saw the door at the back move and an old man appeared. He looked at me solemnly. Or maybe he didn’t. It’s hard to judge the amount of solemness a person can emit from a distance but from where I stood, his solemnity was at least a 5, maybe a 6. Then he smiled, gestured to the door. I waited for him to unlock it and he invited me in.
“I don’t get many people here in March, so I locked up and was at the back, trying to keep warm.”
“Thanks for opening up for me,” I smiled. “I saw the comics and books through the window, and just wanted to have a look through them.”
“Go ahead,” he said, sitting at the counter.
He was old. God he was old. As old as the hills. Some hills are younger than others, I’ll give you that sunshine, but he definitely looked like the older type of hill.
“Are you passing through?” he enquired.
I told him I was living in Avebury for at least six months and had moved into a farm up the road.
“Oh yes, I know the one you mean. I was a farm hand there in the nineteen fifties. I’m seventy four and have had this shop for twenty eight years. It’s closing in April and I will be glad of it. I will retire to my cottage, just four doors down.”
He blurted out this information as if he had been waiting all his life to tell it to me. I think it’s the way it goes as you get older – you just start blurting. But his face was friendly and he had kindly eyes.
The shop really was full of curiosities. Dandy annuals from the 1970s, comics from the 1950s, old empty food tins from the 1940s – Coleman’s Mustard, Roses, Cadburys and so on. There were old coins in old jars, rusty looking penny whistles, vinyl albums, postcards, all arranged rather haphazardly in long room. He stood there, all seventy four years of him, and I wondered what sort of tales he had to tell. I chose a book and then another and asked him for the price.
“Oh, we will do a deal when you’re finished,” he said in a care free way.
I chose another two and took them to the counter. For the four books we negotiated a price and he handed me my purchases wrapped in brown paper.
‘He wraps them in brown paper!’ I thought happily. ‘I could be in a Will Hay movie!’
He looked at me again.
“I’ve always been interesed in the history here too,” he began. “Do you know there used to be nearly seven hundred stones in Avebury, circles within circles, surrounding the village. Now there are just the handful left, the big ones that attract the tourists…”
And he carried on talking and I listened. I don’t know how much time passed. He spoke of Avebury, his youth, his time owning the shop, and all the while he paced to and fro, standing by the window and looking out towards the fields, or returning to the counter and fiddling with the clutter on the desk as he spoke.
Eventually he said “It was great meeting you. Now I will lock the shop again and go to the back room to keep warm.”
At the door he told me his name, Brian, and followed that with “If ever you want to come and visit, even after the shop closes, I am just two doors down the road. I can tell you some more tales.”
And that was it. I left and walked slowly back to the farm, feeling curious about this old man I had met and looking forward to meeting him again in future.