Jarvis Poulter studied the ancient cabinet carefully. It had two doors, ornately carved, in the upper part, three gracefully slender drawers beneath and taloned feet which snatched fiercely at the saleroom floor. Fashioned from olive wood or cedar, it was undeniably scruffy, its corners knocked and cracks showing here and there, but Middle-Eastern in origin and utterly in keeping with the theme he planned for his bedroom. He measured it, squinting through half-moon spectacles at the small figures on his tape (sterling; he never could stand metric). Yes, perfect. Just a little alteration would make of it a wardrobe, and the drawers below would accept his meager collection of sweaters and his nightwear – eminently suitable.
Poulter positioned himself so he might be seen from the rostrum.
“Lot 421, a cabinet, believed to be Moroccan. Fifty for it?” The auctioneer asked.
Silence. Rows of inattentive heads, noses buried in catalogues.
“Forty then. Twenty! Come on, must be worth that?”
“Alright. Last chance. Ten. I’ll not go any lower…”
“Five.” Piped Poulter in his thin nasal voice.
“Got to be ten. Want it?”
Poulter sniffed. “Alright.”
“Ten then. Anybody?” Catalogues shuffled uncomfortably. “Ten it is. Sold.”
Poulter was secretly pleased with the price. He told the auction porter this, as he helped maneuver the cabinet into the back of his pick-up truck.
“Well, you certainly got a lot of tonnage for your money.” The porter grunted, from the heavy end.
Poulter would not enjoy his drive home. Never a natural driver, other traffic terrified him so the quiet roads, before rush hour really started, were a blessing. He felt uneasy, though, because something, somewhere, was knocking.
Was it a wheel bearing? His mechanical sense was no better than his road sense, but someone had told him once that a worn one of those would make a knocking noise. So – was it a wheel bearing? He looked down towards the place where he thought the noisy wheel might be. It could be. It would be another repair bill! His local garage-man would rub his hands together with ill-concealed glee – Poulter was his most gullible customer.
So preoccupied was he with the wheel he had forgotten the road entirely, and the road, with a justifiable dislike of being ignored, left him.
Panic! Hauling on the wheel, Poulter managed to yank the old pick-up back into line. It skidded; it slewed.
With crunch and thud Poulter’s prized cabinet unshipped itself and crashed onto the road. He drew to a halt with a heartfelt groan, hardly daring to confront the consequences of his foolishness by looking in the mirror. When he did, the sight offered little consolation; for there was the cabinet, lying drunkenly upon the tarmac, miraculously undamaged: it was not the cabinet which drew his eye, though. It was the prostrate figure lying half-pinned beneath it!
“Oh, my Sainted Aunt!” Exclaimed Poulter. (Poulter was accustomed to summoning his Sainted Aunt in times of crisis). “I’ve killed someone!”
‘Someone’, however, was still moving. By the time Poulter reached him, his victim, uttering a stream of invective, was wriggling free of the wooden tombstone. A small man of apparent middle age in working overalls, he shouted angrily at Poulter: “Bloody hell! What d’ye think ye’re doing, yer old fool? You bloody near slaughtered me then!”
“I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry!” Poulter jabbered as he dabbed at tears of relief behind a grey handkerchief. “Are you – are you badly hurt?”
“Dunno.” To Poulter’s amazement his victim was clambering to his feet, dusting himself off. “Nay, no harm done, lad! Don’t upset yerse’n, now. But lissen, next time brake before the corner, right? Drive into it, don’t try and brake ‘alf-way round!”
“Yes, yes.” Humbled, Poulter felt he should try to make amends. “Look, can I give you a lift anywhere? Are you going far?”
The little man stared at Poulter intensely for a moment, as if an important decision depended on his answer. “Aye,” He said. “Awreet. But first we’d better get this big coffin of your’n back on t’ truck. Back up, will ye?”
For so small a figure the little man was surprisingly strong, and together he and Poulter managed to restore the cabinet, distressed but entire, to its place in Poulter’s pick-up truck. Poulter drove away with his new passenger sitting, and breathing rather heavily, beside him. A horn sounded its impatience.
“Call me Albert.” Said the little man. “What’s tha name, lad?”
“Oh, I’m – please call me Jarvis.” Poulter rarely revealed his Christian name, but there was something very easy and familiar about Albert. He almost felt he had found a new friend. Jarvis Poulter had few friends. In fact, he reflected as he pulled out onto the main road, he had no friends.
A squeal of brakes; angry shouts; things which happened to Poulter a lot, and for reasons he didn’t entirely understand.
“Bloody Stephen!” Said Albert. “Yer a right twaddy of a driver, Jarvis! Yer nearly mashed that poor lad! He wouldn’t mind so much if ye got going, but ye’r that slow!”
“I am, aren’t I?” Poulter agreed. “I wish I could do it better.”
“I said I wish I could drive quicker.”
Albert tightened his seat belt. All of a sudden, for some reason, Poulter’s foot slipped across to the pick-up’s clutch. His hand flicked down to the gear lever and he dropped a gear. His right foot tweaked the accelerator just enough, and the pick-up answered him with a throaty roar. As his speed in the new gear increased, Poulter eased his steering to the right and pitched into the bend in front of him. The back of the vehicle, notwithstanding the weight upon it, drifted gently. The tyres sang. Ahead, evening traffic was gathering.
“What’s happening?” Poulter cried. His hands, his feet seemed not to belong to him. He was a marionette on mysterious, unseen strings, his limbs dancing over the controls, his balance perfectly attuned to the pick-up’s new-found vigor. “I can’t stop!”
Fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour, lanes of traffic on each side, yet somehow a path – a snaking, narrow path – between. Eighty, ninety! Now weaving an impossible course, touching gas, brakes, opposite lock on the corners, controlled drift through swerving lane-changes. Sirens, blue flashing lights behind him at first, then receding.
“Lost ‘em!” Albert said triumphantly.
“Help me, please!” Screamed Poulter.
“Nay, lad! Tha’s doing awreet by tha’sen.”
Cars, lorries, buses, traffic great and small flashed by as Poulter, gibbering, clung to the wheel. Traffic lights turned green in fright at his approach, open-mouthed pedestrians and protesting cyclists parted before him like the Red Sea before the staff of Moses, and in a matter of moments the pick-up had come to rest outside Poulter’s home. The engine switched itself off. Frozen in horror, Poulter stared through the windscreen as overheated metal ticked back into shape.
“What have I done? What have I done?”
Albert glanced about him. “Well, I think yer’ve driven ‘ome. This isn’t my ‘ouse, so it must be your’n.” He undid his seat belt. “Right, let’s get this cabinet off t’ back and inside, then ye’d better take the truck soomwheer and park it.” Poulter seemed incapable of movement. “Coom on, son. The filth’ll be round in a minnit!”
“The police? Oh my god!” (Somehow Poulter’s Sainted Aunt was just not adequate on this occasion). “But they’ll trace me! Their computers…”
“Aye, they’re bloody fast nowadays. So it’s a good job y’ reported it stolen yesterday, in’t it? But if yer think about it, t’ thieves aren’t likely to have brought it back to your house, so yer’d better take it soomwheer they might ha’ left it.”
“No! I mean no. You see, I didn’t report it stolen!” Poulter shook his head helplessly.
Albert ‘s leathery face creased in a slow smile. “Aye, lad. Yer did.”
Much later, when Poulter’s cabinet was safely indoors and after the police had visited him with the news they had recovered his vehicle (‘Joyriders, probably sir. We’ll need to hold onto it for forensics for a bit, but you should get it back in a couple of days’) Poulter faced Albert across his kitchen table. With the help of several pills his mood had recovered. “What was it?” He demanded. “You did that to me, didn’t you?”
“I don’t see how yer can say that! You were driving!” Albert replied. “Yer made a wish, didn’t yer? Yer got yer wish.”
Poulter’s laugh was a particularly abrasive, braying sound. “Wish? What wish? Absolute nonsense! You crossed the road without looking! I had to swerve to avoid you. After you collided with my cabinet I was unnerved – and then you were rude and aggressive about my speed. I reacted. That’s why I drove so irresponsibly!” Though this version of events had scant regard for the truth, he rather liked it. It would do no harm to reapportion some of the blame.
“Nay, lad!” Albert said quietly. “Ah weren’t hit by t’cabinet. I were inside it.”
Poulter sniggered. Then Poulter guffawed. Finally, Poulter snorted.
Albert said: “Ah’ve been trapped in theer, lad, I have.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Poulter snapped. “You simply can’t be serious!”
But Albert was serious. And the sincerity written on his face was sufficient to convince. “Yer moost ‘ave heard me knockin’, lad. Yon’ cabinet’s got a false back, see? T’crash loosened it, otherwise there’s no way out.”
Poulter shook his head. “ Oh, really! When did you get in? How long were you in there?”
“About four hundred year this time. That’s if yer stick to t’Gregorian calendar, o’ course.”
A long silence. Eventually, Poulter began to cackle, a noise that was, if anything, even more unpleasant than his snigger, or his guffaw, or his laugh. “Four centuries? Wishes? You’ll be telling me you’re a genie next!”
“Aye lad. Ah don’t like the word, but tha’s what I am. That’s me.”
“You really believe this, don’t you?” Poulter sneered. “Alright, so, if I were to wish for a royal banquet to appear before us on this table, right now, you could make it happen, I suppose.”
“I wouldn’t mind sommat to eat, if tha’s offering, but I won’t do that, no.”
“Can’t do that, you mean.”
“Won’t. See, there’s a lot of competition amongst us genies, and I’ll not waste points lowerin’ me’sen to grantin’ that kind of wish. I like a challenge! Then again, tha knowst how it goes. Yer only get three wishes, don’t yer? Be careful what yer wish for. Yer got two left.”
Poulter was of a mind to make a further derisive comment, but something prevented him. After all, the events of that afternoon defied explanation. “Are you really telling me you can grant wishes? I mean, was it you who fixed it so the police thought my pick-up had been stolen?”
“Aye, that were me. Now, ‘ave yer or ‘ave yer not got sommat to eat? My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut!”
It was the least Poulter, convinced though he was that he had a madman for a house guest, could do to oblige, so he sought out some eggs and potatoes in his kitchen and began preparing a simple meal. As he worked, he called through the opened door: “How old are you, Albert?”
“I don’t rightly know. Age doesn’t come into it really. I live life in both directions, y’see – sometimes forwards in time, sometimes back. T’earliest client I can remember were near on two thousand year ago.”
“Really!” (worth another snigger) “Who was that?”
“Why, it were soom chap who had a big speech t’make. There were about five thousand in t’audience and they was all starvin’. Honestly, I didn’t want to do it, not many points in it, see? But he wished for me to feed ‘em. Five thousand fish suppers, he said. Think o’ theet!”
“And you did it anyway?”
“Aye, I had to. He told ‘em I were t’Catering Manager. They would have killed me!”
Poulter nearly set fire to his frying pan. “What else did he wish for?”
“‘E wished for a couple a’ things – used oop his three, any rate. He were a talented lad, ‘im, mind. Could do quite a bit o’ it for hisself.”
“Amazing.” Poulter said drily. “Any others I might know?”
“What d’yer want, bloody references? There were that big fat chap; you might ‘ave ‘eard o’ ‘im.”
“Aye, called ‘isself Henry, or sommat. Wore soom right glitzy clothes but ‘e stank somethin’ awful. Not easy for a lad like that to pull.”
“Henry the Eighth?”
“That’s the chap! He wanted a bootiful Queen, he said. Ah sorted ‘im out a right tasty lass, but ‘e couldn’t hold onto ‘er. Sliced ‘er ‘ead off in the end. See, here’s the thing: you got to be so careful what you wish for, or it turns out bad. Look what ‘appened to the fella with the fish suppers!”
Poulter’s culinary efforts, rudimentary though they were, formed the foundation for a very pleasant evening. By the time Albert and he had concluded their meal, cleaned up (Albert proved almost as fastidious as Jarvis himself), and gone on a tour of the feast of collectables that Poulter kept displayed in his upstairs room, it was late. It was therefore obvious that Albert should stay overnight.
Albert surveyed the made-up bed in the spare room. “Aye, that’ll be grand!” Albert said.
After his day’s adventures sleep evaded Jarvis Poulter. Preposterous though his house-guest’s claim to status as a genie was, he could not entirely wipe the idea from his mind. The driving incident was still fresh, and would remain so for some time. So, as he often did, he read from one of the many art volumes piled upon his bedside table and, as he often did, paused to admire a picture of a favorite sculpture, that of Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’. His eager eyes devoured the graceful curves of the woman cradled in her lover’s arms and he thought how wonderful it must be to own such a perfect work: how magnificent it would look, as the centerpiece of his upstairs collection. How he wished…
Possibly, being so close to the edge of sleep, Poulter might not have noticed the first ominous creaking from his bedroom ceiling, but he certainly noticed the splintering explosion of timber and plaster that followed. He certainly saw the plummeting progress of what appeared, in flashing past, to be a large white boulder which would be impeded not at all by the floor of his bedroom, nor by the floor of the kitchen below that. Only God’s good earth stopped it, with a house-shuddering crash, on the concrete floor of the basement. There it rested, obscured by a veil of dust.
“By ‘eck, lad!” Albert exclaimed as he and his host stared into the crater. “Tha’ needs stronger floors than theet. Yon’ lump weights better than a couple a’ ton, tha’ knows.”
Jarvis, speechless, watched as the dust below them cleared. Broken in two by its fall, Rodin’s masterwork was still clearly recognizable. “But I didn’t wish for this!” He wailed.
“Well, yes, lad. You did. One left now, mind. Use it carefully, like!”
Poulter greeted the morning through fingers which clasped his head in abject despair. His newspaper’s headline, concerning a mysterious ‘Theft of the Century’ from the Tate Gallery, could do nothing to improve his mood.
“What do I do now?” He asked Albert, plaintively. “My house is ruined, and I have a priceless stolen artwork shattered in my cellar. Oh, my Sainted Aunt, what on earth am I to do?”
“I won’t lie to thee, lad. Yon sculpture’s goin’ t’ be missed. An’ the police’ll be wanting to know about things as go bang in the night, if you catch my drift. If I were thee I’d make meself scarce for a while.” Albert advised. But then he added: “O’ course, yer do still have one wish left…”
“Right now,” Poulter admitted. “I wish I could hide somewhere no-one would ever think of looking for me. But I don’t suppose that’d be possible, even for you.”
The auction house porter groaned as he saw a familiar old pick-up, with an equally familiar Moroccan cabinet aboard, waiting by the saleroom doors.
“Not again!” He said to the wiry man in overalls who emerged from the vehicle.
“’Fraid so.” Said Albert. “He wants it put in for t’next sale. Gi’ us a hand, will thee?”
“Why is it so heavy?” Complained the porter.
“Well built, lad; like me!”
After much labor the cabinet was restored to the saleroom.
“I’ll get the paperwork.” Said the porter.
“Aye. You do that.” Agreed Albert. He had already seen the large Chinese urn which stood a little further down the aisle. As soon as he was sure the porter’s back was turned he took the lid off the urn and wriggled down inside it, pulling the lid back after him.
With no-one to sign for it, the auction house agreed their best course was to sell Jarvis’s cabinet, and to donate the proceeds to charity if its owner was never traced. And so the following week’s sale saw the cabinet depart at a bargain price to a new bidder, much to the porter’s satisfaction, because thereafter that strange, troublesome knocking sound in the echoes of the saleroom would finally cease.
After a few years Jarvis’s deserted house would be sold off to a developer, when the remains of the marble sculpture would finally be discovered. It was recognized instantly, of course, but the demolition man, fearing publicity and delay, set about it with his rock spike and reduced it to hardcore.
As for the Chinese urn, it would change hands many times. Valuable as it was, no-one seemed anxious to keep it for long, and eventually it would find its way back to China where, inexplicably, its owner threw it off a cliff.
Albert has never been heard of since.
© Frederick Anderson 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.