When she pushed the shop door open, it surprised her to hear the delicate tintinnabulation of an actual bell. Looking up at it she found the little silver shape absurdly pleasing, and after a moment gave up trying to remember the last time she´d seen one on a shop´s door. Slightly embarrassed to realise she was hovering in the doorway apparently staring at the ceiling, she cleared her throat and rummaged in her bag in a purposeful manner, starting for the counter.
A glass topped counter - clear but green tinged through thickness - stretched the width of the shop and housed innumerable small boxes, with little twinkles of different colours catching her eye from each, reminding her of an old sweet shop and giving her a momentary craving for pear drops.
"I'll just be a moment," an elderly male voice called from beyond a doorway with a brown bead screen.
Placing her friend´s order from her bag on the counter she looked around and realised that she was stood in relative shadow. The big windows let in a lot of light but at a stern angle, it seemed; because the sunlight only travelled across to two feet before the counter. She glanced out of the window itself and saw there was a small awning, in the same faded dark green as the frames, blocking the top of the window.
"Now then," the man´s voice startled her in spite of its softness, and she turned to find the owner of it smiling at her from behind the counter. At first she thought she had underestimated his age but when she stepped out of the light and was able to see him clearly he did not appear to be more than 65 or so. He was white haired, though it looked to be thick and healthy, and he dressed in an oversized brown sweater and corduroy trousers.
"I was just making tea, would you like one?"
Although she flinched inside, pleading for this not to be a terribly lonely old man who would refuse to serve her without infinite preamble and feeling bad at the same time for thinking it, she was reassured by his casual tone, and mentally ticking it off as her good deed for the week said
"Yes, thank you very much. That would be lovely."
He nodded pleasantly and disappeared again through the quietly staccato bead screen, apparently content.
Smiling self indulgently she peered through the glass of the counter and flicked her eyes between the hundreds of buttons. Looking up she realised that the whole back wall across the width of the shop was filled with shelves covered in the same little boxes. There was a wooden stepladder to one side in the generous space behind the counter, near to a tired brown leather armchair and an upturned wooden crate with a coaster and an ashtray on it, in which a chicory scented cigar was quietly smouldering.
There was also a tall freestanding lamp, which had evidently been off when she entered, because now it was possible to see things she would have noticed before if it had been light enough. Although the left hand side of the shop´s rear shelving was indeed covered in small boxes, the right was something else entirely. She was in the process of leaning further over the counter to get a better look when he parted the beads again, startling her once more as she was directly opposite the doorway.
"Here we are," he set down a tray on the counter, and poured tea into two mugs from a yellow clay pot. "Milk and two?"
"Thanks." She watched him add milk from a proper jug and then two fat sugar lumps from a bowl.
"Excuse fingers," he apologised, "I appear to have temporarily misplaced my tongs."
Gratefully accepting the hot tea, she glanced again at the glinting wall and tried to focus on its surface but was distracted to hear the bell´s tinkle and feel a breeze touch the back of her hair.
When she turned, she was amused to see a man in his thirties standing in the doorway looking at the bell with a surprised smile. After a moment he glanced back down and saw them looking at him, and coloured slightly. She supposed the two of them in the shadows of the counter, between the sunlight and the lamp light, must have appeared a little ghostly.
"Is this actually a button shop?" The man stepped forward into the shop but kept hold of the open door. "Only I am after a button, but I've never seen a. . .well, a button shop."
"It certainly is, young sir, what type of button is it you're looking for?"
The man released the door, stepping smartly up to the counter and pulling a folded denim jacket out of a bag and flapping it loose.
"I bought new buttons for it quite a while ago but now I've lost one the shop doesn´t sell them anymore."
He seemed quietly irritated by it but equally quietly curious; his eyes flicked between the boxes as she had felt her own do, with a will of their own - being dragged with a childlike compulsion from one twinkling treasure to the next.
"Do you really just sell buttons?" He coloured slightly. "Sorry - I didn't mean it to come out like that, it's just unusual, you know?"
He glanced to her politely as if appealing for support and she happily obliged.
"Oh yes, it is a very intriguing shop, I have to admit, Mr. . .?" She raised her hand politely and his shake was pleasantly firm for such a small hand without feeling fragile or boney - and somehow, she found herself left with the impression of repressed dexterity; as though the tip of each finger had tangibly considered tapping quickly where it gripped.
"Matthew," he smiled again and released her hand, "just Matthew, start with the Mister's and I look for my father!" He chuckled briefly and his two customers smiled politely.
"I'm Miranda," said Miranda.
"Ben," smiled the other, "seeing as we're doing introductions." His smile was pleasant and she returned it with a friendly nod.
"Well Ben," Matthew wiped his hands on the back pockets of his cords, "I'm afraid to say you caught me ´slacking´ as they say, I was just about to serve Miranda here when I was distracted by tea duty, but if you´ll hold on while I take care of her there´s some tea left in the pot, good and strong."
He placed a mug enticingly on the counter and took up Miranda's sheet of paper.
"Aah this is already ready to be picked up, you're in luck! I´m yours already." With a small sigh he bent down and plucked a small paper bag with THE BUTTON SHOP printed on it from a box beneath the register, no different to Miranda´s eye than any of the many others therein. He winced slightly as he straightened again but smiled it off when he met her eyes, knowing she had seen him. He slid the little bag across the glass and patted it almost fondly.
"There we are, your friend pre-paid, so that´s that! It was a pleasure - please do finish your tea, won't you?"
"Oh yes, I wouldn´t leave this, it´s very nice." She rubbed her stomach and laughed, feeling oddly at ease in a way which contact with other elderly people left her cold, and more than happy to spend a few more moments here.
Needing no further endorsement Ben took up the yellow clay pot and poured some himself, with plenty of milk but no sugar - which didn´t stop him commiserating generously about the tongs.
"Well now," snapping open a case and perching a wobbly pince nez on the bridge of his nose, Matthew held the jacket further into the lamplight and studied the buttons.
"I hope you don´t mind my asking," Miranda put in softly, "but why do you keep the awning? It seems you could use the light."
Inspired by her natural fondness of the man she secretly suspected he was unable to climb the ladder and remove it himself now, and no-one had offered to assist. She was preparing to tick off ´good deed for the week´ for the following week as well when a boy of about fourteen strolled through the bead screen and pinched the single bourbon biscuit from the rear of the tray.
"My grandson," Matthew said, by way of introduction.
"Heh heh - I put it there for you, scamp that you are, I knew you´d be along sooner or later."
He did not ruffle the boy´s hair but there was again that repressed dexterity about him beneath his body´s natural movements that somehow conveyed a physical sense of affection without contact.
The boy merely smirked pleasantly and slipped from behind the counter, going directly out of the shop and taking up the broom. The bell continued to tinkle for a few seconds after the door closed and Miranda found herself noticing the dust particles floating around in the sunlight from her perspective in the shadow, which in conjunction with the rhythmic wave-like shooshing of the thick, soft broom on the pavement lulled her for a few moments, and she was unsurprised to find Ben smiling at her when she came out of it.
He didn´t say anything and he looked back toward Matthew again once she became aware of him, but she could see a smile on the corner of his mouth and was comfortably sure he was on a similar wavelength to herself, and remained unabashed by his polite scrutiny.
"The answer to that, my dear," Matthew declared from behind the raised jacket, "is that sunlight fades the colours, and unnatural light is better suited to their preservation."
Clearing his throat he placed the jacket neatly on the counter and kept his eyes on it while he spoke.
"When you bought these buttons, was it because you particularly liked them? Because I do have some."
Ben seemed slightly confused and followed his gaze to the buttons on his jacket as if looking for a clearer definition of the question.
"Mean to say," Matthew continued, "I have another set of buttons for this jacket which I think you might like. But if you like this kind just fine, then I´ll just fetch you the missing one." He was peering into boxes on the back shelf before he even finished his sentence.
Miranda felt herself drop a little from the comfortable, dreamlike state she had felt in; she wasn´t naive; she knew retail was about sales, and that this man owned a shop, but she was still a little disappointed to hear him pitch his sales technique, however nicely it was done, and resolved to finish her tea quickly and go, before her pleasant afternoon was spoilt.
"These buttons are fine, I just need the missing one." Ben kept his eyes on the jacket, as if he was going through the same unjustified disillusionment.
"Here we are," he put a single button on top of the jacket by another; "perfect, wouldn't you say?"
"That will be fine, thank you." Ben pulled his wallet out of his rear pocket.
"These are the other ones I mentioned."
He put the box on the counter and for a moment Ben just looked blankly at them, then his face lit up.
"Hey!" He picked one out of the box and held it close to his face. "Hey! I had these on this jacket when I was 17, man!" Blushing slightly as he noted Miranda´s smile he continued anyway. "I found them on another coat in a charity shop and bought it just to pick them off it! Really thick silver with ban the bomb symbols on them, they were dull and worn but I thought they were the business."
After a moment his face sagged a little from the inside and though his eyes remained on the button they also grew distant, as he quite obviously abandoned himself to memory for a moment, but he was brought out of it abruptly.
"In that case would you prefer them worn?"
"WHAT?" There was a sharp tick as the silver button hit the glass counter and Ben flinched, catching it up again and rubbing it almost apologetically. "I'm sorry, you do worn ones?"
"Oh yes," Matthew exuded calmness and showed no reaction to the over excited look on the younger man's face, "I try to keep three grades of everything in stock: new, worn, and old. Would you like to see - "
"Old." Ben croaked. Matthew nodded and his fingers went to work again around the boxes.
Miranda could see from the extent to which he craned his neck to see into the box, unable even to wait until the old man had brought it over, that Ben was delighted.
"Perfect, perfect!" He moved his feet slightly as though he was just shy of dancing. "I loved this jacket with those buttons on, I wore it that way for ages, until I lost most of the buttons one day. I thought they'd be impossible to replace so I just kept one as a memento. It´s in a box at home; I´ll compare them but I can already see they really are the same!"
"Well now, it will look just as it used to."
"Yes," Ben was again twirling a button and introspectively frowning, which he promptly caught himself doing. "Ha! Sorry. Actually, no, no it won´t. For it to look just how it used to," and he looked between Miranda and Matthew here, smiling widely, "it would have to have a Superman badge with the picture from the cover of Superman Issue #51 from DC Comics. The scary black and white one with red eyes."
He shook his head and laughed, genuinely, at himself.
"I loved that thing."
"DC Superman #51?" Matthew shuffled off into the darker side of the counter to the right, and Ben stiffened.
"Well, now," a lamp went on in that corner and the wall was suddenly lit up with gleaming colours, too many in too small a detail to focus on still, from where Miranda was standing, but almost all were small and round.
"Buttons are also badges, as far as our American cousins are concerned, and I kind of like calling them that myself. So all I sell IS buttons, Ben," he smiled to show the belated retort was kindly meant, "but I do have a lot."
Miranda found herself mesmerised by the wall of badges; pinned to the black felt which covered the face of the wall, hundreds and hundreds of badges and baggies, neatly and sensibly arranged but still excitingly garish and overwhelming to the senses in this calm old fashioned place of perceived practicality.
With little hesitation Matthew turned with his hand on a bag and smiled at Ben with a happy sparkle in his watery eyes.
"Well, now. You know what I need to know."
Ben gulped, and looked at Miranda who sensibly maintained a pleasant non-judgemental smile for him, though she felt a little surreal at present.
"Old?" He croaked. "I know perfect should be better but - " he let the sentence hang and remained pensively poised, one hand raised to the counter and clenched.
Matthew had it in his hand, this much was clear from his posture.
"How did you lose it?" His voice was clear, but muffled slightly, as though concentrated and said through shy lips.
Ben was looking at him but he wasn't really, it was evident even to Miranda as a virtual stranger that he was looking years and years behind him as he gazed unblinkingly at Matthew; and when he did reply, it too was muffled with the murmuring recital of an old memory.
"My older brother, Edgar, and I had a fight. It was over a girl, we were both young and foolish, it was nothing. But he was three years older and much stronger than me, made out for the rugby team - won a few games by himself too, all told," he added with wistful quasi-pride. "I was bookish," with a sneer, "that´s what he always said of me, like some spinster sister simply because I wasn´t interested in sports. So naturally he gave me a pounding. Rolled me into a ditch near the bar we´d been in and left me. I wasn´t badly hurt, but four of the buttons were gone off my jacket, as well as my badge. I spent two hours crawling around in it trying to find them, any of them, blood and snot pouring off my face because I was crying through my busted nose. It was days before I got a chance to go back again, all bandaged up, and I spent a good long time there."
He quieted for a time, not really embarrassed by his monologue but conscious of their interest.
"Long story short I moved away not long after that, and I didn´t speak to Ed again. It seemed the sort of thing we´d sort out eventually but when my father died a few years ago I didn´t go. Partially because my mom went a long time ago, and I wasn´t really needed. But in part because I guess I still didn´t want to see Edgar again. I just had no idea what to say to him, after so long. I´m not angry anymore, I don´t think. But I´ve never known how to start it, never had anything I thought he'd be interested in hearing; what do you say to a man you don´t know anymore after nearly twenty years?"
He petered off again, and was looking at his reflection in the counter. Matthew turned back and walked over to him, slipping the badge out of the bag and positioning it on the lapel of the jacket. For a time, they both looked at it, steadily, and without comment, and Miranda felt both invasive and oddly privileged to be watching.
Ben's voice was firm and he had obviously composed himself a little, but was staring intently into Matthew's eyes.
"I won´t pretend to understand, or to want to, why or how you had these things. But I want to thank you very much, to pay for these things, and then I´m going to go home and tell my brother," he paused for a moment and although he did not bite his lip it trembled, just once, "I´m going to phone my brother, and tell him I found my badge. In fact - "
He looked up sharply from where his head had been dropping with thought, and found Matthew to be smiling and patting the little bag.
"Happened to have two," he said lightly, wandering to the till, "they´re pretty much the same, except for a little scratch."
After a quick glance at a spiral bound notepad thick with post-its and business cards he took off his pince nez.
"That will be £22.50 altogether, please, young sir, and the best of luck to you."
Ben had been loading his purchases into his bag and was now tucking his new treasures into his pocket. He opened his wallet and placed two twenty pound notes on the counter and slid them across to the old man, keeping his fingertips on them. He looked him straight in the eye, nodded and said "Thank you."
Matthew nodded too, and watched him leave, smiling at Miranda but really too keen to be off for goodbyes, and they both heard him laugh out loud with pleasure when the little bell bid him farewell again.
Miranda was very dreamily shaking her head and looking at the glass door, when she realised she could still hear the shoosh, shoo-oosh of the broom. Turning back it seemed Matthew was listening to it as well, because his head was tilted slightly and his eyes were distant.
"Matthew," Miranda said it wonderingly, "does that sort of thing happen to you often?"
"Oh yes," Matthew smiled, still gazing into nothing, "yes most days, something like that."
Miranda watched the dust play, and considered this quietly.
"You must be the happiest man alive."
He laughed a little at this, quietly, more of a vocalised smile, still drifting with the dust in the sun beams. "Yes, yes I might be."
She studied his face for a moment.
"How did you come to be here? In this shop, selling these things?"
After a moment, the trace of a frown creased further his brow, and then he seemed to pull something back into himself; his dextrous hands became animate again, and he gracefully turned and gave her a simply beautiful smile.
"Do you know," he said, "I really don´t remember."