by Phil Manning
Rest Haven was built on a quiet street in a leafy part of the suburbs. It was about as nice a rest home as a rest home could be, which is not ever as nice as a real home.
Valerie had come here, to Rest Haven, at the age of 89, one year after her husband had died.
Her husband had been 87 – her younger man, which had been quiet a scandal back when they had first married – when he passed. He had been run over by a taxi as he bent over to collect the morning paper from the gutter. He, Val’s husband, had always said the ineptitude of poor workers would be the death of him. He had most likely been referring to the staff within his department but it had played true with the shoddy throwing arm of his paper delivery boy as well.
They, her two sons, had not let her see the body until the mortician had reconstructed the face, just in time for the coffin lid to be shut on it. Death did not bend her anymore, not even the death of her husband, not at that age. Death was more common than life as one grew older and acceptance of fate was inevitable.
And so, as many of these life stories go, the sons, being dutiful and kind, placed her in a home where she could be cared for.
She told anyone who would listen that she had been institutionalised, finally, but that it was for her own good, it was just a pity that the food was terrible and the conversation even worse. That is, until Betty arrived and took her to the Day Mart.
Betty was 93 and while her knees and hips gave her no end of grief she was as spry in her mind as ever. Her daughter, or so the rumours went, had brought her to Rest Haven after her last fall.
Betty, who claimed to be a former school librarian, had started her time in the Haven by reorganising the library. The Haven’s library consisted of a few bookshelves in a dusty spare room but to Betty it seemed as though it was of the highest importance. Her system consisted of writing your book name and room number in a ledger; no-one was allowed to return a book to the shelf, they were returned to a wicker laundry basket, to be placed in their proper order on the shelves by Betty.
Val did not like Betty at first, for no other reason than the orderly way in which she took over the running of the library. It showed that Betty was still switched on, and up until this point Val had considered herself the only switched on person at Rest Haven.
Even with this rocky start they swiftly became friends as Val realised it was more fun to tease the others, the ones who stumbled about switched off, out loud, with Betty, than quietly to herself. It gave her an ally in her complaints about the atrocious texture of the scrambled eggs and the quarter of strawberry, which came with their fruit cup dessert.
But what Val liked most about Betty was the way that she dressed. Most of the oldies and staff either wore drab end of days clothes or the standard uniform of the home. Beige and tan and blue. As boring as tapioca pudding. Betty wore bright, garish articles, jackets in sun yellow, dresses in bright orange and pants in eastern purples. Swirls of colour and patterns of flora and fauna. And when Val would ask her where she acquired such wonderful clothes, Betty would smile her dentures smile and say, The Day Mart.
The Day Mart. And then she would change the subject or flit away, as flitty as a 93 year old with bad knees and hips could be.
Val kept a close eye on Betty and never saw her leave the Haven or have any deliveries made that were larger than the occasional letter or catalogue. Her daughter visited with regularity but never brought anything that resembled a new package of clothing. It was a mystery. Which was good. Val was so dreadfully bored by her life in Rest Haven that a little mystery was good for the soul.
So she watched and waited, and waited and watched, with the patience of the old. Which really isn’t that patient at all, time running out and all that, so she quickly decided on a plan to find out what the Day Mart was.
The plan was simple: Val would miss a dose of her night time pills, sneak into Betty’s room and demand the truth, or at least poke through her things while Betty was sleeping to see whether she could find any clues.
Wednesday was as good a day as any. Val skipped her pills and made sure the home felt as quiet as a church with only the odd rustle or grunt disturbing the peace before shuffling down the hall. She found Betty’s room number and tested the door handle. Some residents still kept their doors locked at night; most, including Betty, did not. What was the point? The door swung inward. Val stepped forward into a brightly lit room to find Betty waiting for her, seated comfortably in an armchair.
“You’re just in time,” said Betty.
“Yes, just in time for a visit to The Day Mart.”
In Betty’s hands was an old magazine. It almost looked as old and wrinkled as the hands themselves.
“Well, that’s good,” said Val, never one to be ruffled by the unexpected. “But what on earth is this Day Mart?”
“The Day Mart, well, it would probably be easier to show you, but I’m not even sure it is on earth.” The last part of the sentence came out muffled as Betty leant forward and dropped the magazine, open to the centre on the floor in between them.
“After me, then.” Betty pushed herself up from the armchair, as she stepped forward onto the magazine she reached out and grabbed Val’s hand.
When Val thought about it later she remembered having a flashing thought: this is what being in a washing machine would feel like. A psychedelic washing machine. The world tipped and flipped and whirled and twirled. Colours kaleidoscoped into hazes and swirls and Val felt a terrible tugging behind her eyes.
And then it stopped.
Before she opened her eyes Val could hear a murmur, as if many voices were talking at once, blending together to create a warm background of sound. Her stomach felt like it had been tipped upside down and her brain felt little better. The colours were subsiding though and she hesitantly opened her eyes a crack. Betty’s wrinkled visage was the first thing that swam into vision.
“Are you alright dear? The first step is a doozy.”
Val didn’t reply. She had opened her eyes fully and was staring past Betty at what looked like an open blue sky. A few wisps of white, like the remaining hair on Val’s head, painted the sky. Piercing the blue were the tops of large tents of various bright colours. Some were a solitary colour, other’s a clash of vibrancy. Less of a rainbow of colour and more of a child’s delight; thrown together with deliberate chaos and little control.
The tented area seemed to grow larger before Val’s eyes, until it filled the entire landscape and then shrunk to the size of a small town market. She wondered whether she really had skipped her pills that night, or whether one of the old men had slipped her a Mickey.
“Well, come on then, we don’t have all night.” Betty offered a hand and pulled Val to her feet with a strength beyond her ninety plus years. “One of the good things about The Day Mart is you’re only as old as you feel.”
Val opened her mouth, closed it again, took a step back, then to the side. It was all still there. The tents, the sky and Betty who was smiling a bright white smile. She took Val’s hand and they walked towards the tents.
Val had a spring in her step, her feet seemed to bounce off the perfectly green and springy grass. She felt spry and youthful and if she couldn’t see her aged, wrinkled hands she would have thought that she was in her thirties again. The air smelt young and fresh with hints of rain and autumn change. The babble from the tents grew, shaping and forming into words in languages, some that she knew and some that she did not. There were stalls between tents and in tents. Ladders and ropes pulled people, and some not people, to stalls higher in and around the tents. Some creatures flapped between stalls, others grunted and swung. Voices sang and called, soaring above the melee.
Val saw it all and yet almost nothing at all. Her senses were lifted, heightened, and then deafened. She tried to take pieces in; the hairy little man creature whose hands were the size of garbage can lids, proffering a basket of lilac fruits which shimmered and fluttered. The woman whose feathers rose and fell in a crest from her forehead as she discussed the price of a bowl with what looked like a shivering shrub. Silver light pulsed from a jar as a tiny man made of rock gestured wildly, sending spray of gravel in the air. And on and on and on.
The two women moved further into the crowded market. Betty spoke close to Val’s ear, “I have a jacket I want to show you.”
“That sounds lovely, but I’m afraid I didn’t bring any money,” said Val, spreading her hands wide.
“That is not something you need to worry about, this is my treat, my gift to share.”
Val thought Betty said something else, something about the end, but it was lost in the sound of the market. Distracted, Val cried, “Look!”
A rocket had burst from the top of one of the tents. The trail of sparks in its tail was purple and green and red. The two women stopped and watched the tail of the rocket create an arc through the sky before the rocket exploded into a rainbow of colours that made Val’s eyes widen and mouth drop open.
“The wizards are always showing off. We’re almost there.”
Almost where? Val wanted to ask but was distracted by a table covered in gold pieces. The gold pieces started to hop on top of each other with loud clinks. They first created a head and chest, then arms and legs before walking away, golden chest shining proudly, into the crowd.
“We’re here.” said Betty, holding open the flap to a smaller tent, candy-striped at first, then checked, then swirls. Val could have stayed and watched the swirling pattern of reds and whites change for hours and been perfectly happy but Betty pulled her inside.
There were wooden mannequins lining the walls of the tent. Featureless and without detail the wooden figures moved gracefully, twirling dresses and showing off the lines of jackets. Suited mannequins extended legs or stood with casual ease. The clothes themselves moved with patterns and colours and Val watched, stunned, as thousands of tiny silk worms were putting the finishing touches on the hem of a silk dress.
“Now, where is that outfit,” Betty muttered. “Excuse me,” she said to one of the wooden figures, “Can you please point us to the peacock collection?”
The wooden man bowed his head and extended an arm. The arm ended in a wooden hand with no fingers. The wooden man led them through the clothes. His tuxedo jacket grew a short cape as he walked, which morphed into a top hat, then a waistcoat before settling into a long black coat. The bow tie became a long thin tie, a bower, and then a kerchief in the jacket pocket. He bowed again when they were standing in front of the most beautiful outfit Val had ever seen.
The outfit was loose fitting pants and a jacket. The pants looked as though a piece of the clearest blue-green ocean had been scooped from the sea and melded into a pants shape. They looked as though they would feel like the cool kiss of the ocean on your bare legs and feet on a hot day. They moved like gentle waves lapping at the shore. The jacket looked as though a proud male peacock had spread his wings and crouched down to enfold your arms and chest. The blues and greens and purples moved and fanned like feathers in his tail. His eyes and beak moved from one side of the jacket to the other and the tail crested over the shoulders then swept back down.
Val was mesmerised, watching the jacket preen itself.
The mannequin wearing the outfit knew it was on display, it turned and tilted to catch the light.
“It won’t look like this to anyone else in the other world except you.” Betty said. “To those that cannot see it will just be a nice jacket with a peacock design, but you will always know.”
“How…how can I ever accept such a gift.”
“With grace. This will be the jacket you will pass on in. You will be given a choice as to where to go. The Day Mart will always need more traders, more people to believe.”
Val reached up and the jacket slid down the wooden arms to embrace her, it felt like the warm kiss of spring sun and she knew, in her entire life, that she had never looked more impressive in a piece of clothing.
“What would I have to offer?”
“You could become a Trader, like myself. It will be your choice to return when you pass and you can decide when the time comes. Keep the outfit, no matter your choice. But our time is up.”
Val wanted to protest. She wanted to stay and explore The Day Mart further. But if what Betty said was true, there would be a choice and perhaps, more time.
The walls began to spin, the red and white pattern blurring together like a hard boiled sweet. The tugging sensation was there behind Val’s eyes and the washing machine spun. When she opened her eyes again she was back in Betty’s room. Betty appeared to be asleep in her chair, a slight smile on her face, the faded magazine in her hands.
Val turned to leave, not really sure what to think or do or say and caught her reflection in the mirror attached to the back of the door.
Her peacock jacket preened itself in the low light. Val blinked and the jacket held still, a lovely piece with a peacock embroidered to the right breast. She blinked again and the embroidery had moved to the left. Smiling, she left Betty’s room and walked down the hall.
Val had a few days to show off her jacket from The Day Mart before passing on. She had not seen Betty again, there was no need on this side and if there really were a choice she would see her again, at The Day Mart.
Phil Manning is a writer and podcaster from Adelaide, South Australia. His first novel, The Porcelain Cat, was self-published in January, 2020 and is available on Amazon Kindle. Phil also has a podcast where he talks about books and writing called I Can’t Believe You Read!, and is currently writing his second novel. You can visit his website, https://www.icantbelieveyouread.com/ or follow him on social media for any and all updates.