By William Gallagher
IT just seemed appropriate, that’s all. Appropriate, maybe a little amusing, and definitely handy. Clive needed the bridge of his glasses tightened up and here he was back in Edgbaston where he always used to be. He stood on the corner of Frederick Road and Lee Bank Middleway where there used to be a video shop.
Somehow it tickles him that it’s now an opticians.
As he walked inside, a little slowly, one leg a little stiff now and his old glasses slipping a bit, he felt as if he were also holding the door open for his 10-year-old self, racing through, bashing back through his favourite door, always tripping against that same step up. Only remembering at the counter that he never ever rewound. But then only remembering that for an instant as his mind went to whether ET was in yet and how can it still be out? Who’s got it?
ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, anything good by Steven Spielberg, they do not make films like this anymore. Not even Spielberg does. And nowhere stocks them on VHS either.
Clunky, heavy, VHS that seemed so right and great and new then. 10-year-old Clive when everything seemed so right and great and new. He could feel the same urgency he had then but now it was just as a spectator watching an old video of himself. The rushing life and verve of being 10 replaced by the weary experience of being 50. The overriding importance of the latest movie replaced by, well, nothing. It’s just a film. Might catch it at the cinema, might stream it on Netflix, might not bother, probably haven’t heard of it now anyway.
He was thinking that he’d transformed as much as the video shop had and he was thinking that it’s surprising he hadn’t been back here in so long. There must’ve been a day, one specific day, that was his last time apologising for not being kind and rewinding. One day when this vital, important, great place stopped being vital or important or great. Somewhere that meant so much suddenly meaning so little that he couldn’t recall noticing what day all that was.
He’d moved away to university and not come back for a long time so there was no way to know when the video shop closed and the replacement opticians opened. In some ways, though, it was as much a surprise that he’d not come to the new shop since all that watching TV screens from one inch away had soon meant he needed glasses. Then a life – he wouldn’t call it a career – spent staring at computer monitors from barely two inches away, urgently searching for the error in a spreadsheet. That didn’t help. This is what I grew up to be, he thought: not even an accountant, just an office worker with Excel and glasses.
And then he tripped on that same old step.
“Sorry,” a woman’s voice called. “Everybody does that.”
“Yes,” said Clive.
You can change everything about a shop, you can erase its prior life but you can’t remove its bones. That step will trip people up forever and now Clive realised with a jolt that the woman’s voice came from behind the video shop’s counter. It was the same table top in the same place, just now with ads for varifocals, a PC instead of a cash register and a contactless card reader.
Beside it there was a door to the back which now seemed to be where you went for an optician to examine you. Back when he was 10, it was the section that apparently could make you go blind.
The woman at the counter was dealing with someone so Clive sat. That, at least, was new. There were no chairs in the video shop, they wouldn’t have wasted the space when they could’ve fitted in another shelf. But then their customers weren’t old men with tired bones as well as weakening, watery eyes. Clive was glad to sit, glad to get a chance to stare around him.
He looked straight ahead at shelves that had mirrors behind him. Sliced by the wooden slats, crossed by the wire supports holding the glasses up, he could see only sections of his face and it looked as if his eyes were floating alone. He took off his glasses so that he couldn’t see himself any more. And found that instead he could see his 10-year-old self much more easily. Of course he could: the young Clive’s eyes radiated outwards, the old Clive’s eyes sank inwards.
There must be one day, one specific day when you stop searching with your eyes and instead watch warily. One day when you’re no longer keen, you’re experienced.
Clive put his glasses back on and turned away from the mirror.
What he saw now might as well have been in split screen, a before and after, as for all the modern shop fittings in front of him, he could see what they used to be. The shelves on the wall were lighter wood than they were but they were the same number, in the same position, at the same heights. Possibly they were a little more shallow but that’s all. There weren’t mirrors behind them before, but then you could never have seen the back of the shelves for all the tapes there.
Then those two floor-standing units were also lighter, somehow a bit brighter but again, they were exactly where they had been.
Now Clive, tired but far more observant than he ever would’ve been back then, noticed wires for the alarms and the little display lights running down from the shelf units into the floor. Form follows function, he thought: the shelves had to be there because that’s where the power was. There are things that cannot be changed, even if they look dramatically different.
Once a shop, a building, a person is built, that’s it. Apart from the dressing, they are the same forever. Yet only Clive could know that today. There’s no doubt that the woman – grief, her name badge says Rachel. Is it always a Rachel? It was back then. He was sure of it. Certainly it had been a woman who would’ve seemed old and impossibly sophisticated to him then and now at about the same age just seems so impossibly young.
Back then if he thought about it at all, it would be to wonder at how you get to work in such a wonderful place. Now he knows it’s the straight economics of what work people can get at what ages. What they can do, what they can afford to do. What they can get while they work through university. That’s true now, it was true then, it will always be true, just with far more student debt than he’d ever had. So it will always be that the person behind the counter of a little shop like this will most likely be a young woman or man. The person does not change, their situation does not change, only what we see of them with our eyes loaded or unloaded with experience.
It works both ways, unfortunately, and the thought makes him feel alone. Maybe when he was 10 he wouldn’t have noticed the Rachel behind the counter but now he’s 50, there’s no chance that this Rachel will notice him.
He could be anyone.
The shop might know him but nobody else here does.
He is anyone.
In that moment, the other customer left, Rachel called over to him, and Clive decided. He’d left the 10-year-old Clive with his eager spots a long time ago, now he stood up and left the 50-year-old Clive with his aches and his disappointment.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m… Steven. Do you do contact lenses?”
There could be a day, one single day, when you choose not to give in.
© William Gallagher 2016