We were asked to browse around a set of objects and to choose one or more of them to incorporate into our homework. Almost all the objects referenced in this story were exactly as described, though in one or two cases I have adjusted the description a little bit. I also introduced one or two extra objects where the plot demanded them. However the object that is central to the story, the glass condiment bottle, was exactly as described and the words that were moulded into the glass have been reproduced unchanged.
One of the interesting things about this exercise was that it forced me to think about story structure in ways that I'd never had to do before. Time and again as something fell into place in the body of the story, I found that I had to go back to an earlier section to plant a clue so that the later development didn't seem quite so arbitrary.
The rain poured out of the sky in torrents. David huddled himself under his leaky umbrella and examined the timetable screwed to the bus stop. Naturally, he'd just missed a bus and the next one wasn't due for another forty minutes. Drops of water trickled under his collar and wriggled down his neck. The next forty minutes promised to be damp ones.
Across the road a neon sign blinked in a shop window. "OPEN" it flashed. "WE SELL THINGS". It's bound to be dry in there thought David and he crossed the road and went in. The proprietor looked up as David entered. "There's an umbrella stand next to the door," he said. "Put your brolly in there with the others. I promise not to sell it."
"Thanks," said David.
The shop was full of shelves and the shelves were full of bric-a-brac, but everything was clean and sparkling, not a sign of dust or neglect anywhere. The proprietor looked clean and sparkling as well. He was sitting on a stool behind the counter and light bounced in dazzles from his bald head. In contrast to the tidiness of the rest of the shop, the counter seemed rather cluttered. Perhaps the ruler and the notebook could be considered tools of the trade. But what about the pair of Wellington boots? There was an ancient cast iron fireplace in the wall behind the proprietor, though no fire was set in it. The black lead surround was highly polished and gleaming. A shiny brass casing from an artillery shell stood on the hearth. A poker, dustpan and brush sat to attention inside it.
"What sort of shop is this?" asked David.
"Just a shop," said the proprietor, picking up a mug of tea and sipping from it. "Nothing special. If you see anything you fancy, just sing out."
David browsed around the shelves, poking at this and that as he went. He found a small, frizzy haired doll with a manic grin and a sticky-out tongue. "What's this?" he asked.
The proprietor glanced across. "Oh that," he said. "That's a genuine Albert Einstein voodoo doll. Stick a pin in it and Albert Einstein dies a painful, lingering death."
"I hate to tell you this," said David, "but Albert Einstein died in 1955. I think the doll is well past its use-by date."
"That's why it's on special," said the proprietor. "Ten percent off."
David put the doll back. "No thanks," he said, "I don't have any real use for it." Then something caught his eye. "Gosh, these are pretty." He'd found a rather elegant looking chess set. All the pieces were intricately carved representations of Chinese warriors, well armed with swords and bows and spears. The level of detail in the carving was amazing.
"Those are really extra special," said the proprietor. "Each one of those chess pieces is a proper dehydrated soldier from a Ming dynasty army. Don't take them outside into that rainstorm. They'll absorb all the water, shoot up to full size and start waving their swords about and chopping each others heads off, and we don't want that, do we? Far too messy."
"OK," said David. "I'll let them stay here where it's warm and dry. What's this?" He picked up a peaked cap with an ornate badge on it.
"That's a fireman's cap," said the proprietor. "Put it on, and you turn into a fireman."
David put the cap on his head. "Have I turned into a fireman?" he asked. "I don't feel any different."
"Why would you expect to feel different?" asked the proprietor. "Firemen are just ordinary people, like you and me. They're no different to anybody else. But if I were to start a fire going in that fireplace behind me, I'm certain you'd be over there in a flash to put it out. Probably you'd use the same technique my old friend Lemuel Gulliver used when he extinguished the fire that was threatening to burn down Lilliput. You wouldn't be able to help yourself."
David hurriedly took the cap off again and went back to exploring the shelves. "I don't think either of us would enjoy that," he said.
It wasn't long before David came across another treasure. It was an old bottle made of very thick glass. There was no label on it, but moulded into the glass itself was the word "Condiment". The address of the manufacturer was given as:
Daw, Sen and Co
PO Box 9020
But it was the last little touch that made the bottle so intriguing. Etched around the manufacturer's address were the words: "Contents not genuine if seal is broken". What on Earth could that mean, David wondered?
The bottle was filled with a smoky brown liquid. Vaguely seen abstract shapes floated in it and every so often they banged against the side, becoming sharply visible for a frustratingly brief moment and then vanishing again into the murk before they could be properly identified. The stopper in the neck of the bottle was held in place with an elaborate seal which was stamped with an intricate design of interlocking triangles.
"What's this?" asked David. "And what happens if you break the seal?"
"Now there you've got me," said the proprietor. "I don't actually know what it is, except there's a condiment in the bottle of course. I wrote to the manufacturer asking them what sort of condiment it was, but I never got a reply. Probably they went out of business years ago. Too many people breaking the seal to open their bottle and then finding they'd got a fake condiment, I imagine. Serves them right for not reading the small print. After all, what good is a fake condiment to anyone? Mind you, it's not exactly clear to me what use a genuine condiment might be either. From the look of the stuff floating around in the bottle, it might almost be made of slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails for all I can tell."
"If you can get at the stuff in the bottle without breaking the seal, surely it will stay genuine," said David. "So why not just break the neck of the bottle, leaving the seal intact?"
"But then you'd have broken glass in your condiment," said the proprietor. "I don't think I fancy dribbling that on to my food."
"Not if you're careful," said David. "Use a file or a glass cutter or even a nice hard diamond if you happen to have one lying around. Score the glass deeply all around the neck and give it a sharp tap. It should break off quite cleanly."
"I've got an old jewellery box down here somewhere," said the proprietor. "I'm sure I noticed a diamond in it the other day." He rummaged around under the counter and eventually found a polished wooden box. He put it down on the counter and opened the lid. It was full of bracelets, rings, necklaces and chains. He stirred them all around with his finger until he found what he was looking for. "Aha!" He produced a ring with a large diamond set in a fancy clasp. "I remember this," he said. "It used to belong to Marie Antoinette. I took it off her finger myself just after they chopped her head off. Let's see what it does to the bottle."
He moved the ruler, the notebook and the Wellington boots to one side and put the bottle down on the counter. He scored a deep line all the way around the neck of the bottle with the diamond. "That seemed to work well," he said as he put the diamond back into the jewellery box. "How hard do you think I should hit it? We don't want to shatter the glass, do we?"
"Have you got a small hammer hiding somewhere?" asked David.
"Yes, I think so," said the proprietor. He rummaged around underneath the counter again. "Here we go." He brandished a geological hammer proudly. "My friend Thor pawned it about 500 years ago when he was going through a bit of a bad patch. I haven't seen him since, so perhaps he never came out of the bad patch. Pity. Nice chap, though he did have a bit of a temper on him sometimes."
"Are you telling me that's Mjolnir?" asked David. "The Hammer of Thor?"
"Oh no," said the proprietor. "This is just his practice hammer. His dad gave it to him on his fifth birthday. He used it for beating mountains into molehills. He was quite attached to it. Sentimental reasons."
He tapped the neck of the bottle firmly with the hammer and the glass snapped off around the score mark. The bottleneck fell on to the counter and rolled across to the ruler. A few drops of the smoky brown liquid dribbled out of the bottleneck and landed on the ruler.
The twelve inch ruler shimmered and became a twelve inch subway sandwich.
"Oh!" exclaimed David. "So that's what a genuine condiment does. It makes inedible things edible. That could be useful if you're marooned on a desert island."
The proprietor poked the sandwich dubiously. "I wonder what it tastes like?"
"I would imagine it tastes like a twelve inch ruler," said David. He picked it up, took a tentative bite, chewed and swallowed. "Actually, that's not bad at all. Do you want to try some?"
"No thank you," said the proprietor. "You finish it off. I want to try an experiment." He picked up the notebook and flipped through the pages. "I wonder where I put them..." he murmured to himself. "Oh yes – there's the shelf number." He went over to the other side of the shop and returned with pair of ballet shoes which he put down on the counter. Then he picked up the bottle, tilted it carefully and let one tiny drop of condiment fall on to the shoes. There was another shimmer, and then the shoes turned into a light and crispy meringue with a fruit topping.
"I thought so," said the proprietor in tones of deep satisfaction. "I stole these shoes from the Golders Green Crematorium in 1931. They were sitting on top of the urn that contained the ashes of the ballet dancer Anna Pavlova. See what it means? The condiment can only turn objects into appropriate food..."
"But what if there is no appropriate food associated with an object?" asked David. "What happens if you drip condiment on to your notebook? I can't think of any food that is associated with a notebook."
"Well, let's find out," said the proprietor. He dripped some condiment on to the notebook, which shimmered and then turned into a hamburger in a cardboard box. "Ah!", he said. "It's turned the notebook into the lowest common denominator of food. Let's have a taste." He took a nibble and pulled a face. "Yuck! It tastes like cardboard."
"So even the power of a condiment can't make a hamburger tasty or nutritious," said David. "That's useful to know."
"Well, I suppose there have to be some limits on what a condiment can do," said the proprietor. "It isn't magic, you know."
"Isn't it?," said David. "It's starting to seem like that to me." He looked at his watch. "Anyway, this is all very interesting, but I've really got to go. I've got a bus to catch and it's almost due."
"OK," said the proprietor. "Thanks for your help with the condiment. It was really useful. If you find yourself back in the area again, perhaps you could pop in and help me with something else that's been puzzling me a lot. I've got a very old book here, quite tattered and torn. It has a broken spine and there's a faded picture of a dragon on the cover. All the pages in the book are blank. Except on the second and fourth Fridays of every month..."
"That does sound like rather an interesting object," said David, intrigued. "I'll think about it. See you soon." As he left the shop he saw the proprietor dripping condiment onto the old pair of boots. He closed the shop door on the delicious smell of Beef Wellington and hurried across the road to catch his bus. It was scarcely raining at all now. Perhaps that was a good omen.