Roast chestnuts, scented candles, perfumes and soaps all blended to invigorate my senses as I strolled round the Christmas markets each year. Either that or the glass of mulled wine I would knock back made me feel particularly nostalgic for the time of year. Regardless, the buzz of the festive season was here once again and I would wallow in the magic of it all. Set in the foreground of the abbey, the markets were given that Dickensian quality that you got in films.
It was always best to attack the stalls in a slow stroll; any other speed would lead to me being swept away with the throngs of people looking to nurture their festive side. I also took the opportunity to scout out those unique, stand-out gifts.
I followed this routine each December. It truly got me in the spirit for Christmas, until one day eight years ago when the markets took on a different feel: the energy, the smells and entertainment were still the same, but – and I have never really been able to put a finger on it – there was a curiosity to it all that gnawed at me. It was like everything had slowed down and I was being drawn in; but everybody seemed to be going about their business as normal.
A fuzzy sensation enveloped me, causing me to step down a side street lined with Georgian buildings to clear my head. In the distance I could hear flute music and found myself following it, the mellow tones easing my ache.
I bumbled into an alleyway. At the end I saw another market stall. This one was different to the others, though, and it was one that I had not seen in all the previous years.
“Greetings, stranger,” called the vendor. “Please come closer and browse my wares.”
I checked over my shoulder, curious to see why nobody else was at this stall, before walking closer. The transition of day to night in December was often seamless, but the moon and stars had appeared like a jack-in-the-box.
“I imagine that you come here out of intrigue, hoping to find that unusual gift for a loved one.”
“Well, yes, I’m always on the lookout for something a little different,” I agreed.
“Good, good. I’m sure you will find such a gift here.”
The stall owner had long, matted grey hair and matching beard. He wore a rainbow-patterned kaftan and a pair of half-moon sunglasses. His voice had a wizened quality to it, much like a studious professor. I suddenly found myself taken in by all manner of strange objects that any previous thoughts of my headache were fast disappearing.
He presented me with a glass ball to which a pipe was attached; inside swirled a multitude of colours in a smoky haze.
“Before you blow on this you should think of a situation in your life where you were wronged. It will take you back and help make things right.”
I nodded my head and raised my eyebrows, but gently placed the glass ball back on the table. Was this guy telling me he could make me travel back in time?
“If that is not of interest, then how about this?” he said holding out a piece of velvet cloth with gold leaf patterns on it. “If you hold this close to your heart and think of your one true love, then they will be yours forever.”
This sounded tempting, and being a single man, I guess I could have thought of anybody to be with – but that would mean changing mine and somebody else’s life path in an unnatural way. This whole encounter was beginning to take on an eerie feel now and I found myself wanting to leave; even going back to the people swamp of the market sounded like a better idea than getting stuck here. But then, the enigmatic gentleman cast my eye to a tinderbox at the back of the table he stood in front of. It was positioned very discreetly behind joystick holders, ornate mirrors and other paraphernalia. Again, it had the same rainbow pattern as the old man’s kaftan.
“Marvin senses that this has roused your curiosity.”
I should have known better than to trust somebody who refers to themselves by their own name; I was, however, transfixed for reasons unknown by this box.
He took it in his hands and released the catch. Inside was a baby blue powder that smelt of freshly washed linen.
“When you use this you will be able to know what others think and feel. For the advancement of your own life and to avoid certain situations this is a useful substance.”
“Well…” I mumbled. I was not sure he was telling the truth now or if he was trying to fob me off with a small tin filled with washing powder.
“A small demonstration is in order for,” Marvin said.
Before I could summon my voice in protest he blew some of the powder in my face. I winced as my eyes, throat and nostrils burned. I coughed as if trying to remove a chicken bone. The whole effect lasted maybe three or four minutes and then stopped. The pain I had experienced was no more; the tears dried instantly. As I focused in on my surroundings I realised that I was alone: the old man and the stall had vanished. Next to me I found the rainbow coloured tinderbox and a note scrawled on parchment next to it.
Consider this a gift. Enjoy it. May you have a wonderful Christmas. From Marvin.
I shook with anger as I rose to my feet. This old codger had tried to spook me with a load of bogus magic items before blowing powder in my face that left me gagging; and now he was gone. I took the tinderbox with the notion of depositing it in the next bin I came across; however, as I stepped back into the crowded market new sensations pushed that thought far away.
For now I could hear the voices of the people I looked at. Yet, there mouths were not moving. I was able to tune in on one person to another as if I was turning a radio dial. I thought it best to get a coffee from a side stall. But anything I did to cram the thoughts out did not work. Hearing the barista curse me as she took a big handful of loose change made me want to scream. I sat down on a nearby bench and attempted to focus on the thoughts of just one person. But it was no good as people mingled in and out and became lost from sight. Within a few minutes I was drained.
I walked home, barely looking up as I made my way back through the streets.
“Spare any change, please,” I said to a woman passing by. She responded with a thousand-yard-stare.
I pulled my blanket up closer, watching the hordes stampede by the stalls. The clatter of change made me lift my head as a child put money in my tin. I smiled weakly.
Nowadays, this time of year made me reflect on all I had lost in those eight years. What was once a happy vibrant scene, the markets just seemed empty and soulless; swarms of people too preoccupied by their own agenda to consider those around them.
I was not now sleeping on the streets because hearing voices had made me go out of my mind. It was quite the opposite. After I had returned home from my encounter with Marvin, I decided to keep the tinderbox. I went back to the markets each day that Christmas in the hope that I would see him again – to gain further knowledge or to give the box back, I do not know – but he never appeared. However, in the next few days the voices wore off and I put the box in the back of a drawer.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that the tinderbox crossed my mind again when I was going for a job interview. It was a management job for a well-known high street bank. I really needed this. I reckoned that if I could read the interviewers’ thoughts, then I had a good chance of getting the job – even if it meant putting up with the burning sensation and hearing the thoughts of other people for a few days. Well, I succeeded in the interview and I managed to avoid human contact for a few days after too. But as soon as I started the job I realised the powder would help me reach the top: I honed into the thoughts of others, stole their ideas to improve products and presented them to senior management.
The powder and its power gave birth to a whole new me. I only needed a small amount each time. I reasoned that, as I shot through the company ranks, I would be on a fat enough salary by the time the powder completely ran out, so it wouldn’t matter anyway. Even though I kept an eye out for the old man at subsequent Christmas markets, as long as I was earning I was not bothered if I saw him or not.
Four years on, the day came when I ran out of powder. Although I was looking forward to no longer hearing voices, I had learnt not to let the stream of external thought bother me. However, I had not realised how addictive the powder was. The withdrawal effects consumed my very being: I began suffering with uncontrollable shaking and sweating, memory loss and palpitations. I received no sympathy from colleagues who were certain I had stolen ideas from them or that I had been ruthless to; I had even isolated myself from certain family members because of my change in personality. My work suffered, but due to my service to the bank I was put on an indefinite career break. The truth was nobody knew how long it would take me to recover.
At first I had to sweat this sensation out. Eventually, and surprisingly, the effects wore off. I decided not to return to work right away, opting instead to search for the old man. All manner of combinations of words did not help me on the internet. I asked local new age shops and other local businesses if they knew of this character, but nobody had. Often, when I asked about a magic blue powder, I was asked to leave premises.
I spent time in a number of countries considered mystical. Every person I spoke to said the same thing: they did not know of Marvin or the powder. It was utterly useless, but I had to try it; I needed that powder to help me in my job, in my life.
Within a year and a half of leaving work, I had spent out and fallen behind on my mortgage payments. Former colleagues, who I thought I could depend on, were not interested in giving me my old job back – I had not stayed in touch and I’d been away far too long for them to even want to take me on again – or giving me a place to sleep.
And so, here I have been ever since, watching people as I trudge through the streets.
Still, at least I don’t hear voices anymore.