The day the knock came at her door was the first day of the rest of Stella Brown’s life.
Until then, Stella had been a nine-to-five company secretary of a medium-sized firm, with a modicum of responsibility in taking minor decisions to take the pressure off her boss. This alleviated the boredom of the office routine. Not that she complained of boredom or was even aware of it. There were, after all, the occasional training courses, usually to get up to date with data processing, which mostly took place in Brighton or some other seaside town. For her, these stays at the coast were not pleasurable because of the location, as she did not like the sea. All that sand blowing around everywhere and fishy smells. But they did mean a break away. A couple of days full of input, learning about ways of “going forward”, “optimizing efficiency” and drinks after dinner with the same colleagues as last time, all look-alikes of herself, the females dressed in business-like blazers and no-nonsense skirts, the males in their collars and ties, maybe loosened up a little for the evening, but not too much.
At home her life also followed a predictable pattern. Her neighbours saw her as a respectable woman who always kept the handkerchief-sized lawn in front of her two-up-two-down suburban house well manicured. Never a weed strayed to anybody else’s garden. She also kept herself to herself, minded her own business and paid her bills on time. In her forty-two years she had been twice divorced and was childless. Better that way, she thought to herself. She had seen from visits to acquaintances who were parents that children and men were a sure source of untidiness. If Stella were to make a list of priorities in her life, she would put tidiness right at the top. Her cleaning lady, Rusza from Croatia, often remarked that there was no real work for her to do when she came to do her weekly stint of 4 hours’ cleaning. But hiring a weekly help was the thing to do, and Stella always made sure that she followed the conventions.
Then came the knock at the door. An unfamiliar rat-a-tat-tat on the decorative, almost immovable knocker that was really only there for show. The knock was unusual, because there was a doorbell whch was much easier to use. A bell which played the Westminster chimes like most other bells in that street. At first she thought there was nobody there. She looked left and right, suspecting some children up to mischief. Then a twinkling shaft of irridescent energy drew her eye down to a little figure about eight inches tall. A homunculus peeping out from behind her border pinks. An old wrinkled face on his little body and wearing a frock-coat and a little top hat. And eyes that radiated a compelling persuasiveness.
“Did you knock at the door?” she asked for want of a better thing to say.
“I did, madam, in a manner of speaking.”
Minding her manners, she did not want to ask how he managed to reach the knocker with his diminutive size. But he explained anyway, seeing her puzzled look: “Let’s put it like this, I makethings happen, your ladyship.”
This emboldened her to inquire, “Do you live in a flask or a kind of jar?”
“Dearie me no,” he retorted. “I am no class of genie! Vainglorious fellas them altogether, too big for their boots, with all that ‘I’ll-give-you-three-wishes’ shit, then you end up worse off than you were before! Keep away from these slippery so-and-sos, colleen!”
She detected an Irish touch in his accent now. Again, he seemed to know what she was thinking, as he said before she could ask any more questions, “And I’m not a leprachaun either, missus! They only turn up with their pathetic act, ‘clicking with their elfin hammer’ stuff on St Patrick’s Day. They do it for the drink, you know! Couldn’t repair a shoe no more than I could fly a jet plane!”
Stella rubbed her eyes and wondered if she was hallucinating. When she opened them again, all she could see was his little shape running at high speed through the lobelia. He half turned round with a cheery wave of his hand, and “I’ll be back, Stella, don’t forget, I can make things happen!”
Somehow, the soap opera she had been planning to watch no longer seemed inviting. “He can make things happen? But I don’t want anything to happen. I’m fine the way I am!”
“You sure?” cackled the voice of the manikin again from just outside her open kitchen window.
“Well, what do you think I want to happen?” she asked, feeling as sure as she uttered the words, that asking would be a mistake… she was being enticed into some bizarre programme that had nothing to do with her real life.
He hopped up on the window sill, crossed his legs and leant forward confidentially:
“For a start, think of your name. Your name is your destiny.”
“Brown?” she asked doubtfully.
“Well, your life may well seem to be brown-toned for the most part, in fact, more beige, I’d say. But we are on first name terms, me dearie. ‘Stella’ holds your fate. And a star you are.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’m the type to go in for show business.”
“No, neither do I, my lass. But it’s not that kind of star I’m telling you about. I am talking about ‘Twinkle twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are’. It’s galaxies I’m thinking about, it’s the Milky Way, it’s … oh my … I have to go, but I’ll be back … .” Down he jumped into the nasturtiums, trampling them with his little galoshes as he made his way out of the garden into the night.
She peered out into the darkness, but couldn’t see the little figure any more.
“My name means star. So what?”
The sky was clear and her gaze reached up to a seven-star constellation pulsating, it seemed, towards her. “…Up above the world so high, a diamond in the sky…”. She remembered the childhood song and involuntarily finished off the rhyme the little man had started.
At that moment a flood of new awareness, a lightness, filled her body and she held on to the kitchen work surface to steady her legs.
“That’s the ticket, tally-ho, but take it steady, me gal!” the voice said in her ear. Starting out of her skin, she turned to see the manikin peeking out from behind her tea-maker. He seemed to have slipped into a new persona now, no longer an Irish countryman, but more like the master of the hunt rallying to action. A moment later, with upraised forefinger, he intoned like a professor:
“We have to consider the following: the simple act of stargazing connects us with our ancestors because we can see what they would have seen. The energy of the stars envelops our planet and holds us in the web of the cosmos. Looking at the stars makes us feel tiny and at the same time great. Best of all…” (here his voice dropped to a conspiratorial hush)…“we can draw the magic of the stars into our lives.”
Stella wondered if her bedtime drink of Horlicks had been laced with something without her knowing it. Maybe the cleaning lady had been tampering with it. She shook her head to try to get the unsettling experience of the last few hours out of it, so she could settle down for a good night’s sleep.
To no avail. She was visited by images of the star constellation she had noticed. The seven stars formed a shape with a small handle attached. “Venus’s mirror” came into her mind. Was there such a thing? She got up and googled star constellations. Right enough, Orion’s Belt formed part of the constellation know as Venus’s Mirror. Used for magic rituals. “I’m not having anything to do with that,” she muttered to herself. Yet she looked out to check if she had really seen that seven-star shape. It had moved across the sky, but it was still there, scintillating and inviting. Inviting her to what?
She got up and reached for her own hand-mirror. Looking at her own face, she could not see any resemblance to Venus. A tidy person with hair tied back in a neat chignon and regular features and eyes that did not show much signs of smiling any more. Tomorrow they would be highlighted with eye shadow and mascara to give them a more dramatic look. But not too dramatic. Discreet to suit her office costume. “But why should I bother to make my eyes look different?” she asked herself. For the first time she doubted that she really wanted the humdrum routine she had slipped into. What else might be out there in the world waiting for her?
Thoughts like these made her toss and turn wakefully, so that when her alarm shrilled into the break of her new day, she switched it off and reset it for two hours later when she planned to call in sick and start to explore what she was going to do with the rest of her life.
After a late breakfast she sallied forth down the path towards the river, enjoying the feeling of playing truant. Loosening her hair from the chic chignon, she threw the hair clasps in the waste bin, did not even stop to pick the one up that fell on the ground and shook her hair down over her shoulders. The sun seemed to approve, smiling down on her and best of all, there were no little gnomes in sight to make her feel strange. She kicked off her shoes and walked on the grass, feeling contact with the ground beneath her in a way she had not done since she was a child. She spread out her arms, embracing the riverside view. Sounds of music as if played by a small band drifted towards her, guiding her direction.
It turned out to be a one-man band by the name of “Slippery Jack” according to the sign propped up on his banjo case. His percussion was produced by tambourines and bells attached to his legs and a drum attached to his back that he was beating by a belt attached to his arm. Other musical instruments, such as whistles and a mouth organ, were fixed to his chest so that he could add musical accents and surprises at appropriate times. Stella joined the small audience that was standing listening, and was soon tapping her feet to the folksy Irish music he was playing. He was a well-built, weather-beaten man dressed in black leather clothes usually worn by heavy metal musicians.
After a while, the busker said he was stopping for a break and bowed to the round of applause and the few coins tossed into his banjo case. Stella approached him: “Are you Irish, Jack?”
“No, I’m from Birmingham. But I’m a fan of Irish music, and it’s fun to play it on my collection of instruments.”
“Is it hard living this way?” Stella wanted to know.
“Well, I guess it is for the guys who do it full time. But this is the way I like to spend my summer.”
The new bold Stella asked: “And the rest of the time?”
“My real job is research at the Cardiff School of Physics and Astronomy,… what’s up, do you want to sit down somewhere?”
“Yes, look, I’ll treat you to a coffee if you like, and I’ll tell you about something I’ve just experienced in the last twenty-four hours. I am not sure there is a physical explanation for it … but it’s the most amazing thing. I think I’ve been magicked!”
“Let’s go!” said Jack, his eyes twinkling down at her.
That was on the second day of the rest of Stella’s life.
“So what’s the mystery?” he asked over his espresso, his eyes crinkling up in amused interest. Suddenly she felt shy of trying to explain her strange visitation, wondering if it had really happened at all, or if she had been dreaming. Yet here she was, opposite a near stranger, having skipped work for no reason and thoroughly enjoying it.
“Well, I had a kind of vision,” she said, trying to sound objective.
“What, like Our Lady of Lourdes?” he prompted her.
“No, more like a goblin, except he spoke in different dialects and lectured me on the stars. He turned up in my front garden and said he could make things happen.”
“Had you been drinking or anything?”
“Nothing stronger than Horlicks.”
“The eye reads omens where it goes.”
“I just thought of Emerson who said when you need to find a sign, you will find one.”
“The thing is, the strange visitor made me realize my life is one humdrum boring routine, so I decided to break out. Today I didn’t go in to work, came out for a walk, ran into you.”
“And here we are, it suits me fine” said Jack. “I could do with a bit of company. Being on the road has its charms, but people tend not to want to associate with buskers.”
“How long have you been spending your summers busking?”
“For three years now. When my wife was alive, we used to go to Ireland or the Mediterranean on holiday. But now these places are full of painful memories.”
“I’m sorry, what happened?”
Jack explained his wife had been a successful business consultant. She sometimes had to take courses abroad. But one time she never came back. Her plane had crashed. All this was said in a voice that betrayed great self-control, three years of practising discipline in grief.
“And you, no partner?”
Stella sketched the stories of her failed marriages.
She held on tight round his waist, with her eyes shut and her cheek pressed against the back of his warm leather jacket, as the motor-bike raced along the motor-way in the direction of Hull to catch the ferry for Rotterdam. The plan was to busk in Amsterdam for a few days before heading somewhere else that appealed to them. Stella had hitched her wagon to Jack’s star.