Last Collection | Brian Lewis


 
26 March 2021. 3.25pm.  There are new metal barriers at the main doors of the vacant ground floor office/retail unit on St James’ Row that looks out at the cathedral. The entrance of the unit is set back and elevated and the barriers have been installed to prevent homeless people from sheltering in the recess. The unit, which is advertised as a high profile unit, has been empty since 2018. A recruitment agency, Office Angels, was based there for some years, pink and blue fascia panels, the windows frosted with halo motifs. There used to be another recruitment agency next door, on the corner of Church Street, I forget the name, they moved on around the same time, perhaps earlier, it wasn’t empty for long. The Christian Bookshop moved in. It’s still there, no it isn’t, the fascias and vinyls are missing. White text on a blue field, it wrapped the windows and the boards, I can still see it, if I turn away, the hard, compressed block lettering. I glance back and the lettering is gone. This must have happened when I wasn’t looking. I stare through the windows, no stock, no furnishings, then I stare at the windows, newly papered with contact details. In the months following the move the frontage was bare, just A4 printouts with the name of the shop tacked to the glass, a form of signage, you could work it out from the books on display. They had moved from their old West Street premises next to Carson Stationery & Print. The shops were easily confused as their window displays were unshowy and the exterior decor was a similar shade of blue. I don’t remember when I first set foot in Carsons, it might have been 1996, 1997, I needed some coloured acrylic and they had it. It was a good place for trying things out and thinking about form. It was calm and unhurried. There were trays of Clairefontaine paper, sold by the sheet, loose envelopes of various sorts and sizes, packs of unbranded white card that I used as a base layer for a set of Longbarrow postcards. I picked up other things there, things that were not immediately useful, things that I knew would be useful in time. There was a narrow aisle set aside for wordless contemplation. It became my favourite shop. I went back in 2018 to buy a storage box and found the block under scaffold and Carsons and the Christian Bookshop closed. There was nothing in the window of the stationer to say where they had gone. There was no online sales afterlife. You’d think that it would help the Christian Bookshop to have an address on Church Street, within sight of the cathedral, but it doesn’t seem to have helped them here. The parent organisation is CLC which is short for Christian Literature Crusade. At some point in my childhood I was given a copy of the bible, I don’t remember when, or by whom, I later discovered that I had not been given the bible but a bible, it was a rubbish bible for children. The Evangelicals and their literature were everywhere. I accepted another bible out of obligation. The problem with books that are accepted or bought out of obligation, of course, is that they tend to go unread. You accrue more books in consequence. I don’t know what happened to the second bible. I didn’t spend much time with it. It was hard to know where to start with an unfinished book. Only the front of the cathedral is visible from Church Street, the back end sinks into a slope that levels out at Campo Lane. I understood its position on the slope when I visited the Crypt Chapel and the vaults. I wasn’t alone, I was there with Emma and my mother, we took our time in the nave and the transepts. It has been built and rebuilt many times over and there is no definitive cathedral. There were diagrams and timelines to help us piece it together, the facsimiles and fragmentary versions of itself. We stepped out in soft autumn air, into a flat paved square that I sometimes think of as a piazza or plaza, when the light is in its last flush.

3.30pm.  On Church Street I instinctively turn right for the rear entrance of TK Maxx and then I remember that TK Maxx is closed. It isn’t TK Maxx that I want, I wouldn’t know where to start, I am thinking of the short cut via the shop floor to Orchard Square. The short cut is not a right of way or a permissive path, it doesn’t exist out of hours, it is part of a pattern of use. It can take a minute off a journey. Another cut runs parallel to the square and its shops, accessible at all times, though it is frequently congested with parked lorries and commercial waste bins. It is named Orchard Street but it is little more than an alley. Early in March last year, a few weeks before the city shut down for the first time, Fay Musselwhite sketched out a possible route of a poetry walk with me and Matthew Clegg and Orchard Street was the second stop on the route. We spent a few minutes at the fire exits. The alley had always been of little interest to me but it made sense to make it part of the walk. The act of stopping had changed its meaning. A few weeks later, the walk was postponed indefinitely and the meaning of the alley and the city changed again. I check my instinct and turn left, around the central barriers that divide the tram lines from the bus lanes, and hurry along the old Palladian row, grand buildings trying to look inconspicuous, minimal markings, flagless flagpoles still fixed to the roofs. It was some time before I realised that the Company of Cutlers had its headquarters here. It’s so discreet. I reach the end of the row and skirt the temporary vehicle barriers at the edge of the shopping precinct and head towards Boots, there are several doors, the entrance is now the exit and it takes a few moments to find a way in. The store is not busy. I am here to buy a toothbrush, I quickly find what I am looking for, medium, blue, a pack of two. I think that I should buy something else, as I’m here, but nothing comes to mind. I look for a till. There are no staffed tills in sight and the few staff that I can see are attending to a self-service till that has had to be taken apart. I join a small queue for the self-service tills, the people in front of me are patient and quiet, the people behind me are respectful in turn. After a few minutes a self-service till becomes free and I scan the pack of toothbrushes. I decide to pay with cash so I feed a note into a slot in the machine and the machine does something that I cannot see and then falls silent. It is a judgement. I think that the transaction has failed but a coin appears in a tray and a receipt falls out of the terminal. The receipt tells me that I could have earned 36p in Advantage Points if I had an Advantage Card which I don’t. I leave the self-service area, the terminal screens partitioned by full-length transparent screens, and leave the shop via an entrance that used to be an exit. It is a short walk to Marks & Spencer, a minute on Fargate. The doors are both entrance and exit and I ease my elbow against the nearest one. I make a diagonal path to the greetings cards on the ground floor and look for an Easter display. I make two circuits of the racks but find nothing. I call to an assistant, from a short distance, she guides me to the Easter cards which are with the other Easter things at the edge of the food hall. I thank her and flick through the rack, it is a limited range, I pick out a card with rabbits on the front. I take the card to the payment area and an assistant invites me to step forward. She is friendly and efficient, there is an art to customer service, there is an ethos that I remember, that the service is the same, whether someone is spending £0 or £1 or £100. The card is for my mother. I will post it to her tomorrow. I don’t know when Easter cards became part of our lives, perhaps it started with the move to Sheffield, it was a way of keeping in touch, an occasion without an occasion. Something to remember. The card is left blank for the message and the message is the handwriting, nothing more.

3.40pm. It is only as I step out of Marks & Spencer that I remember the other thing that I meant to pick up in Boots, a pack of assorted plasters, various sizes, fabric, clear and waterproof, there were none in the house when I last looked. I’m not going back for them. I consider WH Smith from a passing distance, on the other side of Fargate, I remember the last time I called in, a few weeks ago, I was hoping to find a book for my mother, for her birthday. I did not have a particular book in mind, I thought that I would stand in front of the books and scan them slowly until a book, a particular book, suggested itself. I walked into the shop and turned left for the first floor book department and stopped in front of a set of blue collapsible barriers at the foot of the stairs. I then made three circuits of the ground floor to see if there were any books on display between the cards and stationery and magazines. There were three books, a cookery book, a fitness book and a slimming book. I picked them up to see if any other books were hidden underneath but there weren’t. The ground floor was empty apart from several members of staff and a man in a thin black jacket who stood reading the magazines from cover to cover. We would all leave with nothing. I used to be a regular at the Swindon branch, once or twice a week, when I couldn’t find a use for my lunch breaks, the short walk from my office to Smiths, what was I looking for, I never found it, slowly but surely I wore out the carpets. I was aimless but looked purposeful in my blue shirt and smart trousers and customers would often mistake me for an assistant. Unless I was due back at the office I would try to help them with whatever it was that they needed help with, where are the ballpoint pen refills, oh, I see them now, where are the ink cartridges, you’ll find them at the end of the next aisle. My father would have known the shop as well as me and he didn’t work there either. They still stock the things he used to pick up there, the multo-ring stamp album refills, 25 quadrille leaves, the same brand, the same packaging, but he is no longer around to weigh them in his hands. He started several stamp albums for each of us, my brothers and me, when we were small. The albums grew as we grew. He didn’t make a fuss about it, or try to force our interest. There were periods when I forgot that it was happening. He was building something that we would come to value later in life. I had a Stanley Gibbons International Stamp Album, a dark brown vinyl cover with coffee cream etchings of the world and its people. Or some of its people. A few leaves of stamps issued in France or Germany would be followed by just one or two stamps for all of Guinea or Guinea-Bissau or perhaps none at all. We knew that this wasn’t the whole story, the only story, the gaps told a different tale. There was no way to complete a stamp album. It was an atlas of cancellations. Years after my father died, my mother and a philatelist neighbour started to sort through the loose, unbound stamps that my father had left behind. Some of the mint British stamps had more value as postage than they did for collectors so my mother put these into little packets and posted them to my brothers and me. Many of them were commonplace, I knew this, yet it was hard to use them as currency. I let them go, one by one, on letters and parcels that I had taken particular care with, to be handled with care and opened with care. The last few I held back. I have them still, a 13p stamp that reproduces a fragment of medieval embroidery, a 29p stamp from a series on the theme of insects with a bush cricket against a yellow background, and a 13p stamp with protons, electrons, and neutrons, the single word ELECTRICITY, and a distant institutional building at the edge of a printed plain. I don’t know why I kept these three. They were all that was left. That’s enough.


‘Last Collection’ is an excerpt from a work-in-progress that draws on an afternoon’s walk around the city of Sheffield.

Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press.



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