If I thought about it - and I did, being somewhat given to pointless introspection, even at a young age - I assumed that the seashell lady was probably operating out of some kind of barrow, wheeling her shells through streets broad and narrow like Molly Mallone. Even if she wasn't shifting many units, competing as she was with an entire beachful of freely-available samples, I reassured myself with the thought that at least her overheads must be low. And, I reasoned, she probably had a comfortable side-line in ice creams or hotdogs on sticks. The notion that peddling seashells could be sufficiently lucrative to sustain any more than an itinerant seaside stall never crossed my young mind, yet here we were. Standing on the pavement, me a grown-up now but with a no less impressionistic grasp of retail economics, faced with the fanciful notion that a person could pay high-street rent on the back of a trade in manky old crustaceans.
I’ve walked down this road fairly frequently, and it is maybe a testament to my general obliviousness that I’d never noticed this particular shop before. I mean, it didn’t really stand out; the signage was nothing flash. Faded paint on cracked boards blended into a block of similar low-turnover mall victims, tired but trying. The neighbours were a hair salon named for some hilarious wordplay, a record store with a window display featuring an album released four years ago, and a bridal boutique that just had to be a front for something more sinister. It rubbed up against them without catching the eye particularly, although once you registered the contents of the window cabinets you would definitely look again. There were some impressive individual specimens – oversized conches, a delicately swirling nautilus, the sort of things that would really show your sisters who was boss, from a shell-finding point of view – but pride of place was reserved for the creative output of an artisan clearly possessed of an obsessive attention to detail, a singular imagination, and considerable time to combine the two. Dragons, horses, little dioramas, herds of elephants, flocks of geese, mermaids of course and dolphins of all sizes jostled for space in the window, each lovingly rendered in tiny seashells. I mentally raised my hat to whomever it was that had allowed their need for self-expression to take them to such a bizarre place, and to whatever quirk of the laws of supply and demand had provided that person with retail frontage on the high street. The patina of dust on several of the pieces suggested that this craftsperson was not in step with the tastes of the general public, which made the whole thing more mysterious, as well as totally awesome. Why had I never noticed this treasure house before? Particularly given that even out here on the pavement, the air smelled like those shrimp-flavoured ‘grain snacks’ that I seem to be unable to stop myself buying at the Korean supermarket.
"Oh right, here we are." Ms. Millicent Crow sounded as though this was where we'd been planning to end up all along.
"Is this where we'd been planning to end up all along?" I never know where we're going when we go for our walks. “I didn’t even know this place existed.”
"Yeah, I told you. I want to get a seahorse."
"Oh right, the seahorse. I thought that was just a sort of aspirational goal, like how I want to get a 1970s telecaster. It never crossed my mind that you were planning on actioning it. I didn't think such a thing was possible."
"Well, here we are, actioning it. Watch me."
So we went in, and if you can imagine what a shop that sells seashells might look like, that's how the place looked. Long and thin, low ceiling, shelves, dust. And shells. A lot of shells. When you find them on the beach, seashells come in all the colours of the rainbow, streaks and swirls of purples and reds, subtle yellows and faint tinges of blue. You really have to see them close up, clean, and in good light to appreciate that, though. En masse, in poor light, on dirty shelves, shells are basically cream, the colour people have been painting the villas around here since the mid-nineties. The colour charts call it 'Dutch White,' or 'Belgian Vanilla,' but its more honest name is 'English Tooth,' a sort of nicotine-stained shade of ivory, if the ivory had been soaked in a month of weak morning teas. The light was dim, and the bone-coloured shells sat on long shelves and racks like skulls in a catacomb. And there was the smell, of course. It’s hard to describe the smell, but think about how even a very clean and sun-bleached seashell smells a little when you get up close. Salty, a bit fishy. Dry, sandy, sunny, dead. Multiply that faint smell by the thousands of shells on the shelves here, and you get some idea of the atmosphere in the shop. Not unpleasant so much as pervasive, not going away. You could touch the air, and it made me want to wash.
There was nobody else browsing in the shop, and the counter, half-way along the wall on one side, was empty. The low light and general cobwebbedness gave me the impression that customers were an infrequent intrusion here, and it was pretty obvious that this was the kind of place where an odd-looking man of indeterminate age could quietly appear behind the counter at any point, seemingly without moving or opening any doors. He would be wearing the sort of garment that I think people call a 'smock,' which is a strange word when you mutter it to yourself in a dimly-lit and odd-smelling seashell emporium on the high street.
"What did you say?" we were browsing aimlessly among shells that seemed to be jumbled up, displayed in no logical order. But how would you logically order shells? The logical thing would be to not have a shell shop in the first place.
"Oh, nothing. Um. Smock. Strange word."
"Smock. Sounds like hitting somebody in the face with sock full of meat."
"Ok... why are we whispering?”
“Um, I dunno. Weird.”
“Have you seen any-"
"Can I help you?" An odd-looking man of indeterminate age had quietly appeared behind the counter, seemingly without moving or opening any doors. He was wearing a smock.
"Oh! Ah yeah. Yes. Hello. Do you have any, that is, I'm looking for and I wondered if you had one, I thought maybe - do you have, ah, a seahorse? At all? A seahorse?"
Millicent Crow doesn't usually babble, but the man had the sort of unreadable expression that a police officer wears when his partner is asking you if there's anything else you’d like to mention in any of your other pockets. An expression at once bored and disapproving, accompanied by an uncomfortable silence impossible not to fill with something that feels strangely like a confession.
"I just, I was going to do a picture. You know. Paint it? The ah, the seahorse? I wanted to paint a seahorse. A picture of one."
The man looked around, left and right, apparently checking to see whether there was anybody else in his seashell shop. It was a pointless exercise; we were the only customers, and the thick dust on the floor towards the back of what I was starting to mentally call the 'grotto' looked like it had been undisturbed for a while. He put his hands flat on the counter, paused significantly, then he spoke carefully, as though for the record.
“Mm-hm. To paint?”
The only word for his reaction was this: disgust. This man, standing in his shop full of musty old shells, the dried-up remains of a thousand sea creatures – not to mention the idiosyncratic artworks created in that medium, presumably by his own hands – this man was responding as though we'd walked in off the street and asked him to sell us a human fetus to broil up and serve at lunch with the Queen. He wanted nothing more to do with us, these crass interlopers who had waltzed into his shop and violated some sort of strict, esoteric taboo.
"Ah, no? I thought you might, you know, since..." Ms. Crow made a gesture encompassing what was undeniably the sort of establishment that you would think would sell a seahorse. "I mean like a dried one. You know, stuffed maybe? Not in a tank."
"Do you think you might be getting one?" The mind boggled at the thought of this man's supply chain. Armies of children combing the beaches of the South Pacific, a fleet of tramp steamers ferrying crates of shells to a warehouse in some port town, there to be cleaned and polished in a workroom full of little old nuns operating clanking machinery, powered by a system of leather belts connected to wheel driven in endless circles by a patient musk ox. The retail product would be delivered to the shop once a week by bicycle courier, and this man or the elderly aunt who was undoubtedly back in the stockroom somewhere would sign for it in flowing copperplate, slipping a mimeograph of this week's orders into the delivery boy's saddlebag.
"Do you know where we might be able to -"
"Can't sell a seahorse."
"I beg your pardon?”
He sighed, as though dealing with a slow learner. "You can't sell a seahorse. Not these days."
"That's right. It isn’t legal." From his fleeting grimace, it was clear that he pined for the halcyon days of the unregulated dried seahorse trade. It was easy to assume, looking at the yellowing price tags and the clear lack of custom, that things had not been the same in the dried sea-creatures business since they banned all the cool stuff.
The three of us looked at each other awkwardly. We’d had no idea, walking into his establishment, that we’d be asking this guy to violate the CITES treaty for us. All we wanted was to find a dried seahorse to draw, and now we looked like the sort of people who go about the place shooting elephants and turning their feet into wastepaper baskets. It seemed incongruous that such rules should even apply in this strange little grotto, this otherworldy sea-shell merchant’s where a mermaid fabricated from hot-glued periwinkles was the standard stock in trade. It didn’t immediately make sense that what went on in this rarefied environment could have any material impact on the population of seahorses swimming gaily through the ocean blue, and the fact that this fantastical concern was bound by such mundane constraints as fisheries regulations seemed bizarre when its very existence seemed to fly in the face of basic economics.
We couldn’t press the point. We had no leverage, and I think we felt out of our depth – at sea, suddenly. If the man had an old stock of contraband sea-creatures stuffed behind a loose brick in the chimney, he certainly wasn’t going to stick his neck out for day-traders like us. He didn’t say another word, but his expression was eloquent enough. ‘You people,’ the expression said, ‘you come and you go. You know nothing of the passion of the collector. My stock is wasted on your kind – wasted! Coming in here, babbling about paints and drawing.’ We walked out backwards, and his expression followed us down the street, muttering.
We went that way again a couple of weeks ago, and the place was boarded up. Almost like it was never there, but the air still smelled like starfish.
All of the pictures are by Emily Cater, aka Millicent Crow.
All of the pictures are by Emily Cater, aka Millicent Crow.