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The Venus Shell
The Venus Shell
Published by Nemonymous
The Venus Shell

Names can't break you. But they stuck to Stephanie's clothes and hair like burrs. They were broken points she had felt – during this particular war of life or any previous campaign – and if they were typical of the enemy’s weapons then she should really start saying her prayers, assuming she had any prayers left to say, or any God left to say them to. Life was a thing. Time breaks it, time and time again. But large limbs do not snap easily.

As a child, she had been told by her mother that she was a bull in a china shop, as the saying goes, but her mother's phrase became, seeing that Stephanie was a girl, pink cow, not bull. There was something about the new phrase that suited Stephanie's demeanour, her body being thick-set, highly pink like school blancmange and foraging around, as it did, saggily large limbs in gauche fits of unnaturally slow passion for any child. Her mind took strange turns as she negotiated the by-ways of her youth and the changing patterns of self-image. Furthermore, she’d never entered a china shop. There weren’t any china shops in her childhood town in those days. A department store did sell some odd pieces of fine china and and some less-than-fine crockery … but it also sold lots of other things for a Britain those days before Britain breaks it.... breaks itself.

This store didn’t, however, sell venus-shells. They didn’t know that anybody (including themselves) knew about venus-shells and that they might need to sell one, if they had known about it. Supply derived from demand, but you couldn’t demand something that hadn’t been advertised for use. Unless you invented something new in your mind and marketed it as part of a business plan.

A venus-shell was what Stephanie's mother called the family’s favourite piece of crockery in Stephanie's childhood home. Stephanie wondered why it was called a venus-shell – but she and the other children (in turn by age) used it as a piggy-bank. It WAS shell-like, though, and the old denomination coins rattled around in its udder, as she later grew to name one of its appendages. Much later, Stephanie (and her siblings) were older and could use words they couldn’t find to use as children; they hadn’t known that many words existed so they hadn’t even previously looked for them. Words came naturally - unspecified except by the way they were used and the context given. Venus-shell was one such portmanteau word. The most likely scenario is that someone had told Stephanie's mother that it was called a venus-shell – and that was told her by a man she had once known. He was a stranger to Stephanie, since he had left the house soon after Stephanie was born. A self-educated man who one day appeared in the frame of the front door accompanied by the shadows that seemed to follow him – indeed shadows that followed him and nobody else. A cove. A cad. A bounder. A rough diamond. Whose leaving present was what he called a porcelain venus-shell. Most shells of the sea variety weren’t readily breakable … unless you took a hammer to them with a purposeful gusto. Nobody appreciated it was fine Chinese porcelain until he told them – otherwise they’d have taken more care of it. Who wants to be the one who breaks it.

The stranger was eventually sent packing. Stephanie still remembers her Mum talking about the dark form of this stranger slouching down the garden path along with his battered brown suitcase of china wares he sold from door to door. The soft luggage sagging along in his wake.

Stephanie suddenly recalled that it probably wasn’t a leaving present at all. More apt to have been a coming present, a stranger bearing gifts. But his mother had inexplicably allowed this rogue to come across the threshold on the strength of such a weak token of honesty and bonhomie which the venus-shell, on the surface, represented. It was an item that, Stephanie assumed, could be bought in any local market (or car boot sale as many such markets had since become).

Even in those days, war or no war, Stephanie prayed to a God that she knew failed to exist rather than to another God that she knew definitely did exist. But Stephanie prayed that the stranger had never been part of her past, unaware exactly how that part in Stephanie's past had panned out and how many years it had taken. Stephanie was too young at the time to remember the stranger at all, and only heard about him from the lips of her mother, in between quips about china shops and about (even as a child) Stephanie's resemblance to a pink cow inside them. His name? We may never be told.

The years passed. The stranger never returned and her Mum kept telling Stephanie that she was a pink cow in a china shop. She was the only one of her children who had any signal failing – so this pink cow accusation gave her a complex and she became what she was called.

Words stick to you like burrs, it seems. Which brings us back, in a timely fashion, I suppose, to God. A God who - as a sort of dubious present - had granted Stephanie such abject uncoordination and clumsiness in both expression of verbal communication and articulation of the physical joints. Dysbrexia was not even in it.

I lived round the corner from Stephanie and her mother and the other siblings – and I eventually followed in the footsteps of the missing stranger. I felt sorry for the whole crowd of them and I took Stephanie's Mum out to dances. It was nothing more than that. I also picked on Stephanie for special treatment and took her ice skating. The other children in the family, whose faces I forget, seemed far more self-sufficient than Stephanie. She had accidentally smashed that venus-shell, you see, and was never likely to be forgiven. An accident in the making you might have said. Her Mum calling her a pink cow in a china shop must have been very upsetting – but, in hindsight, it was unclear which came first, the accusation or the breakage, when she breaks it, breaks it, although I earlier assumed that the accusation had naturally been instrumental in causing the breakage rather than vice versa. And to deem the shell porcelain was just another means to accentuate the pain.

“Hiya, Steph,” I said as I watched her beaming moonish face bound to the open door on one of those mornings when I came to fetch her to go ice skating. Except the bound was more a thump thump thump like giant apples falling from an apple tree.

Her Mum loomed from behind her and gave me a grateful smile. I knew she liked me, but not enough for me to share her bed. I had accepted that and surrendered any hope in that direction.

You’ll bring Stephanie back in time for tea, her eyes asked. I nodded.

“We’re going to skate together today,” Stephanie said to the open air, hoping that the open air and I were the same audience. I took her by the hand and pointed to the sky, as if the weather would be to blame if we skate together.

She stumbled along, her huge frame swaying from side to side.

We had several quiet, private conversations, so I can’t repeat them now. None of them predicted our future together as business partners. Or more than that. But it was implicit, I guess, in all we said, as if the future was mapped out, frozen and immutable.

Stephanie had stuffed the venus-shell too full of pennies; it was never designed to be a piggy bank, and literally imploded. I could have warned them about that, without even seeing it. And I never did see it. Knowingly.

Relatively late in life, Stephanie went into porcelain as a career. She eventually ran a very popular website where you could order her wares. No door-to-door for her.

I was her partner in this business. I suspect all this was her way of exorcising the past, a way to tug out the stinging-nettles: all the unkind taunts from her family about lack of coordination. To be able to earn a living from fine fragile artefacts that needed to be shipped in carefully designed packaging was both ironic and triumphant. "Thin and vulnerable as the flattened bones of fairies", she often said, her turns of phrase having grown a maturity along with her business expertise. Not that she wrapped the goods herself. My own part in the business was the packaging department which comprised of many girls from the local neighbourhood, all humming as they wrapped and stickered. The area benefited by our concern in terms of employment, a fact of which I know Stephanie was very proud. Her side of affairs was the marketing and finance. A third now shadowy partner was responsible for manufacture. I do recall Stephanie's cow-like presence as it squatted like a giant toad at Board Meetings. She was now running – with my help – the ultimate china shop and she was the archetypal bull, in more senses than one. Not the pink cow at all.

It was rather a large jump in the scheme of things from that smashed venus-shell to this growth into a soon-to-be-international corporation manufacturing and marketing fine porcelain. Indeed, it doesn’t seem like yesterday when we opened the first factory – where the product was further researched by experts in the trade that we had managed to poach from other concerns…and we had a big market throughout Europe.

Stephanie doesn’t spend much time with the business these days. She is into politics and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day she became Head of State. I hear she’s having dinner with the current Prime Minister this very evening. One thin woman with a sneer and a fat one called Stephanie. Not the only one in attendance from the world of High Business, of course, but I’m sure she’d be considered the most important: even more central to the Prime Minister’s machinations on Breaks It than that big noise that the words Breaks It make simply by the look of them. Or them looking at you. Or was my Stephanie an agent provocateur or a Machiavellian in attempts to continue trading porcelain with Europe. A disguised bull against imports from China.

Eventually, heavy Stephanie skated too far on thin ice. The years flew by too fast and missed sticking to the sides of memory. I lost sight of her, and even history itself forgot she ever existed. And meanwhile whoever is in now in charge of Britain is still hoping to mend a broken Breaks It. With pink cow gum upon a varicose venus-vessel.

Stephanie's Mum eventually took me in, though. Pity we're both past it. But I fear I am to be deported, anyway. A stranger in my own country, soft luggage sagging in my wake as I leave.
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