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Yesterday, I walked a different way to work.
Only if you have closely observed me, can you appreciate how dramatic that confession is.
I am a remarkable man. Others don't see me that way. They believe that my caution and predictability is a sign of weakness. They're wrong. I have deliberately chosen a life that sets me apart from others.
Each day, billions of men and women wake to complicated lives. They are enmeshed in detail. They work in jobs that they secretly know are beyond their capabilities. They have partners whose needs they don't understand and who they therefore can never satisfy. They belong to a plethora of clubs and organisations that demand too much of their precious time. Their children want expensive trophies they can't supply. They read of people they have never, and will never met, yet they become emotionally involved in the playing out of these people's lives. They become concerned, even fearful about events that will never affect them and even if they did, there is absolutely nothing that they could do that would affect the outcome. Every waking moment, these people are ruled by the clock and the calendar. Divided and divided into ever smaller parts. That bill to pay. That woman to meet. That man to satisfy. A nightmare.
And then there is me.
I live in a quiet, comfortable flat. Some may describe its décor as being of monastic simplicity, but no-one has ever been invited into my world to reach that value judgement. I don't own a radio, television set or a computer. I never read a newspaper and the books that I take out from the library are about people who, if they ever existed, have been dead for many years. I don't wear a wristwatch or own a clock. Every morning I wake at exactly the same time or to the nearest two minutes.
After a leisurely breakfast, I take exactly the same 10-minute walk to my office where I work as a clerk in the public service. My job is perfect. It involves delving into reams of paperwork with absolutely no contact with the public and little interaction with my fellow staff.
I have, in short, so arranged my life that I lead a tranquil and predictable existence.
So being the sort of man I am, why did I with deliberate perversity, choose one morning to take a different route to work?
I can't explain it. I just know that having reached the end of my avenue, nodding briefly but not speaking to several neighbours for fear of being drawn into conversation, I decided to turn right instead of left. In that way, I would gradually circle back to my office.
I had plenty of time to walk the extra distance. I am always at my desk an hour before I am required. I find that people are less likely to talk to someone who is deeply involved in some task before they have ever taken off their overcoat. There was no chance that I would become lost, as the distant roar of the highway where the office is located would always guide me.
Besides, I really know the whole area quite well. When my parents were alive, I would often go out strolling at night, partly to escape the need to answer their inane questions as to my health or how my day went. Sometimes, I would walk for hours, going wherever my whim would take me.
Five years ago, my parents died within weeks of each other. I remember my mother, the last to go, on her deathbed. She looked at me searchingly and asked if I was happy with my life. I assured her truthfully that I was perfectly happy and was surprised when she began to cry. 'I'm sorry,' she whispered before dying, though whom she was sorry for, I could never determine. I therefore resolved never to speculate about the subject.
My parents left me their two bedroom flat and enough money on which I could live comfortably without working for the rest of my life. I briefly wondered if I should quit my job, but it had been such a pleasant and undemanding habit, that I kept it up.
Five years ago, I decided on one direct walk to work and since then, I haven't ventured beyond that route. My office is close to a supermarket where I shop every Friday, so there is no necessity for me to ever venture further abroad.
But yesterday, something changed. I walked a different way to work.
My new route took me into an older section of town. I was mildly surprised that I didn't remember more of this part of town than I did. I reached a section where there was a small strip of boarded up shops. An estate agent, boot repairer, butcher - sad reminders perhaps of once bustling businesses. Now, they stood forlornly neglected, awaiting the wrecker's ball and bulldozer before a new complex was built or the road widened.
And there among the abandoned shops, I found to my mild surprise one place that was unboarded. If it was open for business, I couldn't imagine what business might be as there was no stock in the window.
The shops had all been built in the 1920's with leadlight surrounds and bay windows. I paused before the shop and stared into its window. The walls and floor of the window display were covered in a fusty, crushed green coloured velvet. The window was deep and unlit, the back of the alcove disappearing into deep shadows. Something moved in the gloom and I stared harder. I realised with a start that I was looking into an old mirror that shrank an image of my face into a ball no larger than an orange. There was nothing else in the window.
Intrigued, I looked for a sign that would tell me what the shop was or had been. On the heavy, six-paned door, I found some discreet lettering that read, The Shop of Dark Desire'.
I laughed. Surely this was some absurd remnant from the Flower Power Generation. Mystical dragons, magic crystals, whatever. What a ridiculous name, I scoffed. But even as I mentally tried to dismiss the shop, something prompted me to look closer. Something also caused my hand to drop to the brass handle of the door, twist it down and enter the shop.
I found myself in a tall, dark room, the only light being a fitful gloom seeping in from a dusty skylight. I faintly discerned a bentwood chair, a large, carved counter and walls of empty shelves reaching high up the wall.
'How may I help you?'
The question, coming from the darkest corner of the shop, startled me. A tall, cadaverous man in his late sixties emerged to face me. Judging from his slight accent, I took him to be of Nordic descent. His thick mane of hair, which may have once been blonde, had turned silver. He looked like a fine man who had seen many disappointments.
'I'm sorry,' I said, feeling foolish. 'I'm not a customer. I was just curious. What did you used to sell here?'
'What we still sell,' he corrected me. 'The shop is open for business.'
'But you have no stock,' I objected.
'How can I stock what customers want if I don't know their desires?' he responded.
'Then what is this shop?' I persisted.
He looked surprised. 'But you know. I saw you reading the name on my door.'
Seeing my puzzlement, he continued, 'This is a shop that offers you a way to experience your darkest, most hidden desires.'
'Well then, this is definitely not the place for me,' I laughed dismissively. 'I'm the simplest person I know. I have no dark desires.'
The shopkeeper gave a wintry smile. 'Then I congratulate you. You must be a very rare person indeed. However, many of my customers tell me that when they enter my shop. Each of them was mistaken.'
I glanced dubiously around the empty shop. 'Do you have many customers?'
'A regular trade. Certainly, each person gains full value for what they pay.'
'Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back?'
The man shook his head. 'Oh no, never satisfaction. Surprise, shame, horror, disgust, sometimes perhaps a perverted pleasure, but never satisfaction.'
Despite myself, I was intrigued.
'Well, how does it work? Do you hypnotise your clients?'
He gestured toward a door in the back of his shop. 'Nothing like that. I simply take the customer's money, open the door and they step beyond. When they have finished, they can knock on the door, which is locked and I'll let them back into the shop. If it's at night and I've gone home, I arrange for my trustworthy assistant to stay here until morning. Mine is a family business with a long tradition. My assistant is my daughter.
'Before they enter this adventure, each client is required to sign a release form. This absolves me from any legal claims for mental or physical damage my clients may suffer beyond the door.
'I accept only cash. We have two levels of fee. For an unaccompanied journey, I charge $300. If I am required, I charge $650. I advise each client to seriously consider taking me with them as not everyone who goes beyond the door can find their way back without a guide. Some people foolishly imagine that, having taken the unaccompanied journey option, they can then ask me to bring them back when I take another client on a journey. I can never do that, no matter how desperate the person is.'
'Of course,' he added thoughtfully, 'Some clients who venture beyond the door may choose not to return.
'Clients sometimes do not want a stranger coming with them who will observe their darkest desire. That is their decision. I understand their concern, but there is little today that I could possibly imagine that would surprise or shock me. In time, my daughter must take on the role of guide. It is not something that I wish to pass to her, but it has always been thus in my family.'
'What is behind the door?' I asked. 'If I walked through the door now, what would I see?'
'Nothing unexpected. It is only when you pay your money and sign the release form, that you receive our service. I can't go into details on how the service will appear to you. Each journey is confidential to that client. Each place will be different. I am merely present as a guide. I try never to judge what I see and hear. Sometimes this is difficult because beyond that door lies a totally uninhibited world. One that is not answerable to others. A world that lies beyond convention or the strictures of the law. The only security I offer every client is that I will take every secret to my grave.'
'$300 or $650 is a good deal of money,' I mused. 'What if I step beyond the door and find there is only an alleyway or backyard? What if this is all a trick?'
'Then you could simply step back through the door and demand your money back. I'm not a strong person. You could easily take your money back. Nor am I a thief.
'But this will not happen. Better still, pay the larger amount and take me with you. I would then be security for your money.'
'Cash only,' I murmured, reaching for my wallet.
I never carry credit cards. Indeed, I've never owned one in my life. I like the hefty feel of a thick wad of high denomination notes always in my pocket I counted out $650 and found I still had plenty to spare. What, I asked myself, was $650 to me anyway? I spent little and would always be financially comfortable. My job was simply a pleasant way to fill in my days.
I felt oddly challenged. I wanted to prove that this wasn't all a con-trick. I wanted to prove to myself that I really did understand myself as well as I thought. That knowledge seemed well worth the money.
'All right,' I agreed. 'I'll take the accompanied option.'
'A wise choice,' the shopkeeper nodded. 'And now, there are some papers you must sign. You should read them carefully. Once signed, your contract is irrevocable.'