The kingdom of the leopardskin lady

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This was on Facebook, but I never put it up on my blog proper, largely because of the hazards of search engines. However, I’ve removed some of the more exact details…

The florid, gold-lettered Victorian sign above the door reads ‘S. C—-, Costumier, Furrier’. By the vintage of the signage, old Mr C has been below ground a very long time, but his junk shop still sits on a little side alley off C—– ——, anachronistically placed by a loading bay for a large Sainsbury’s. If you’ve ever spent any time round the area then you might know the shop by sight, or perhaps more likely its owner, an elderly lady with a bold and antiquated hairstyle not unlike that bleached beauty off How Clean is Your House. Throughout the winter months she appears to dress from head-to-toe in leopardskin, but on the occasion of my passing by last week on my way back from the cobbler, had moved on to more modest, summertime attire, sitting reading a tatty paperback in the sun outside her front door.

Were the venerable Mr C himself (a Samuel, perhaps? A Saul or a Sander?) to rise up and wander once more among the rats-in-a-cage ranks of the living, I shouldn’t think he would notice much change in either the façade or the content of his former premises. Even at a passing glance, it is quite extraordinary. Like a crack through to Neverwhere’s London Below, for years I walked past the shop daily and never noticed it, and I have no idea how this can have been possible.

In Mr C’s right-hand window is a jumble of the animal kingdom’s motheaten deceased – rickety bookshelves stacked with patchy-looking foxes standing in attitudes of nonchalance; heads of glassy-eyed deer; antlers of various shapes and sizes, some mounted on wooden shields, others stacked carelessly like old coat hangers against a bookshelf of orange Penguin paperbacks and Jilly Cooper novels. A weasel twists out from behind a particularly young-looking deer face. A peeling cobra rears up in an attitude that might be intimidating if it didn’t look quite so wretched.

I couldn’t say that I like stuffed animals, but I do find them guiltily fascinating, not least because of their age. When you think about it, given the fairly strict rules on what you can and can’t take pot shots at, and the general unpopularity of hunting in this country, most of the critters you see in museums or the windows of taxidermy shops probably met their cordite-scented ends before the invention of bebop. Only a few weeks ago I was looking at the tiger skins at Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire, the passage of Colonel Fife’s bullet still visible through the chest of one of them, and thinking that the last time that particular Indian beastie prowled his jungle beat, my grandfather wasn’t even born. It’s a strange kind of immortality they have, these blown-bulb trophies of long-forgotten hunters and naturalists still posing gamely in cabinets and dusty windows.

Inside the shop, there is no room to swing the dead cat that you could almost certainly find somewhere round about if you looked hard enough. Hanging from the ceiling are racks of old coats, fur and waxed, dresses and jackets – a dusty fashion catalogue spanning at least five decades and ending somewhere in the early 1980s. The moulting fox furs that once adorned the shoulders of ladies of fashion are everywhere. A desk is piled high with hats, mainly crumpled trilbies and torn straw bonnets, with a velvet-covered riding helmet and one of those Alpine caps stuck on top. Bric-a-brac and the relics of the deceased fill every nook, and most of them, I imagine, have rested in peace there for a very long time.

I didn’t have a notebook with me, so recalling the varied contents of the junk shop is a sort of Kim’s game, but among other things I remember seeing a couple of electric fires; a statuette of a German Shepherd bearing the name plate ‘Cuba’; a chrome soda squirter (what are they called?); drawers and drawers stuffed with glassware, cutlery and twee, cutesy floral crockery; a strange, free-standing wooden cut-out, about three feet tall, of a cartoon black man, and an A4-sized painting of Rasputin (labelled, in case there were any doubt as to the subject). Sitting on top of a pile of plates I found a Tupperware box filled with an intriguing substance which upon closer inspection turned out to be cat food and a pile of tiny silver fish.

As I walked out, another market stallholder, wearing a pink t-shirt that read ‘LOCAL BIRD WATCHER’ walked past, turning to the lady of the shop with a grin and a wave.
‘Another wasted day in Paradise!’ He shouted.

1 comment on "The kingdom of the leopardskin lady"

  1. It’s called a soda syphon. Good description though – you must take me there sometime to buy my next fox fur.


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