The Extraordinary Curiosities of Ixworth and Maddox
The sign on the shop front read:
The Extraordinary Curiosities of Ixworth and Maddox.
Hours: Monday to Friday: 12:00–17:00.
Saturday and Sunday: 10:00–15:00.
It was written in a tidy, delicate script, a clue that those who owned the business were intent on offering only the finest quality goods.
The shop, a well-kept building of grey brick with a slightly lopsided roof, was owned exclusively by one of the gentlemen listed on the shopfront sign: a Mr. R. Maddox, the name which—remarkably—had been on the deed to the property, #17 South Molton Lane, Mayfield, London, United Kingdom, for one hundred and eleven years.
For those unfamiliar with the layout of London Streets, South Molten Lane runs in an east-westerly direction one block south of the flashier South Molton Street, which is home to some of London’s finest shops. Two places with names nearly the same, yet as different as night and day.
South Molton Street is posh and stylish, visited by artists, oil barons, television personalities, and those used to getting what they want. South Molton Lane is its opposite: a simple alleyway to some, not even a street at all to others. A small place tucked well out of the way of the bustle of other more famous routes. Yet to those with a nose for such things, South Molton Lane has an energy all its own.
For many years, the Extraordinary Curiosities of Ixworth and Maddox wasn’t a curiosity shop at all but was a shop run by an herbalist from Ipswich who rented the space from Mr. Maddox. It had been an honest business, complete with an overweight tabby named Liquorice, who had a habit of dozing with his fat bottom pressed flat against the front window display. The shop had been a neighbourhood fixture with quality goods at fair prices, a helpful and kind owner, and excellent customer service, yet it never really found success. Regrettably, this story is not about an Ipswich herbalist. He went out of business. And he moved to Buckingham after meeting a sweet and sour woman named RoseMary at a police auction.
Number 17 sat empty and abandoned for many years and fell into disrepair, as things lonely and forgotten often do. Its cheerful exterior grew shoddy and tired. There were rumours it had become a meeting place for hermits. Locals gossiped it was the clubhouse of a sinister gang where men in dark suits gathered to carry out mischief and all kinds of evil deeds not worth mentioning within these pages.
And yet, London realms change: lanes are reversed, one-way streets become thoroughfares, broadways are opened, passages and secret walkways are forgotten, pavement is moved, shouldered left or right. Buildings rocket skyward; others come down. Life forgets the past and races forward to accept the future. Just so, change came to South Molton Lane, for one blustery Friday in January, someone returned to claim the abandoned shop.
The shopfront underwent a remarkable transformation.
At first, the changes to the outside were minor: small adjustments only someone familiar with the area would notice, like the ageing of one's own face. Door trim restored; the store entranceway cleared and swept of rubbish; blinds put up; the old herbalist sign taken down. As time passed, the changes became more noticeable: windows were replaced; cracked bricks repaired, the roof re-tarred. By the middle of February, the shop was near unrecognisable from the rundown place of old. Strangely, and much to the surprise (and concern) of the business owners in the neighbourhood, all of these repairs—even the large ones—seemed to occur after dark, for no one living or working in the area of South Molton Lane could ever remember seeing any workmen about the shop during the day.
One could ask the nosy retailer from the antique shop across the lane, the one who went out for a newspaper on the first day of March and noticed the shop’s door had been painted the colour of a ripe plum—he could’ve sworn it had been a dull grey the day before. Or ask the Oxford Street chocolate maker who always chained her bike inside the South Molton Passage—she noticed the shop window, which had been covered in old newspapers for as long as she could remember, was now clear and shone like a brightly lit stage overlooking the lane.
Yet, by far the most mysterious thing about the newly renovated South Molton Lane shop (henceforth known as the Extraordinary Curiosities of Ixworth and Maddox) were the two strange gentlemen who appeared to own it.
The first of these two, Mr. Ixworth, was a short, slightly ruffled fellow who had one of those funny I've a bit of chocolate on my lip moustaches. He said little and talked with few, but when he did speak, his thoughts were measured and wise. He seemed a man at ease; he held a calm about him that was difficult to put to words.
The second man, Mr. Maddox, was handsome for his years. He was polite and sincere yet not one to use one word when two would do. His bustling, dithery personality was a sign of his terrific talent for chitchat (no matter what the subject). Mr. Maddox was a people person, and once settled in the neighbourhood, he became known to all. Yet, despite his outgoing and easy manner, many who had dealings with Mr. Maddox often suspected he was a man with a secret. And indeed he was.
How Chloe Ashley—a normal, everyday girl who went to school, rode the bus, did chores and loved books—came to be friends with Mr. Ixworth and Mr. Maddox is a tale, like many, born from a single coincidental moment.
Chloe’s story begins on an April Thursday, a day some would call ordinary—which is a silly thing to say, for London is no ordinary city, and even the most boring day in London is an extraordinary one. A person need only walk its streets to get a sense of its history. And for those with a keener sense, its magic. For there are a good many magical things both above and below London’s tangled streets and alleyways. But magic was far from the thoughts of eleven-year-old Chloe as she walked along busy Brook Street. She was thinking about her troubles, for she had just had the worst day of her life.
“Here’s some pocket money,” Mum had said that morning, sliding two crisp bills toward Chloe as she was eating breakfast at the kitchen table. “This should last you the week. Don’t spend it all at once, and make sure you lock the door when you leave, okay?”
Chloe stopped, a spoonful of cereal poised between mouth and bowl, milk dripping like pearly teardrops. “I thought Dad was taking me to school?” she said.
“He’s already left,” said Mum distractedly. “Something about a meeting. So-and-so from the accounting office. You have your Oyster Card?”
“Of course,” said Chloe. “How would I get to school without it?”
Chloe pushed her breakfast away and watched Mum collect her things in a whirlwind of measured movements: dashing about in her new suit, gathering papers and housekeys, checking the contents of her briefcase with care. The night before, Dad had made an unusual offer after hearing Chloe had gotten an A on her history project. “That’s my clever Chlo’,” he’d said, folding his newspaper. “How about I drive you to school in the morning? No sense you getting up early to catch that bus. This can be your, hrmm, reward.”
It was typical for Dad not to keep a promise. He was always forgetting about Chloe: unsigned tests; a late pickup after the cinema; a missed permission form for a field trip to the London Transport Museum that Chloe had been desperate to attend. Mum wasn’t much better: on Chloe’s last birthday, Mum had presented her with a candled cake covered in almonds. Chloe had just rolled her eyes. She was allergic to nuts!
Chloe got up from the kitchen table to pour her leftover milk down the sink. She tried to push her bitterness aside. It was a regular struggle between her two selves. There was a part of her, not the average, pale lanky girl with dark hair that everyone saw on the outside, but a separate, reasonable self, who knew why she had to come home to an empty house. This mature half understood why it was necessary for her to make her own dinners and put herself to bed. Her parents weren’t bad. On the contrary, they provided a comfortable home; they never yelled or got especially angry, nor did they force her to live beneath a staircase or cooped away in some dingy attic. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Ashley's only failing—a problem that probably affects parents the world over—was they were busy.
Too busy for her.
Mr. Ashley was a manager for a very old, very snooty, privately-owned bank. During the week, he acted like a strange faraway spirit who only talked to Chloe and Mum by telephone. His calls usually came around six o’clock, his words like a list of bullet points: Filing. Editing papers. Completing forms.
Like Mr. Ashley, Mrs. Ashely had a busy job. She was an up-and-coming agent at Wilbur and Smithers Estate Agents and Premium Letting Services. She was away nearly as much as Dad thanks to a hectic schedule of home showings.
Chloe tugged on her backpack and slumped off to school.
Iris Sturgeon was Chloe’s best friend. They had grown up together on the same street and had gone to the same schools since they were three. When Mum and Dad bought the house on Wood’s Mews and her family had moved from Lisson Grove, Chloe had made a pact with Iris to remain friends. But there were times Chloe felt Iris was growing up faster than she was. Iris’s bubbly personality made it easy for her to make friends, which often made Chloe jealous.
“What’s wrong with you?” said Iris as they emerged into the hallway after second period. “You didn’t say a word the entire class.”
Chloe had been feeling quieter than usual. “Nothing. Just bored. I guess?”
Iris shouldered her schoolbag, leading the way into the busy hallway. “Do you want to come to my house after school?”
Chloe was about to say yes when they were suddenly interrupted by two girls who stopped to ask Iris something. Chloe waved to them shyly but didn’t speak.
“So?” said Iris after the girls had gone. “Coming over?”
“Of course,” said Chloe. “Why?”
“Just wondering,” said Iris. “I've asked Olivia and Sophie to come too. You remember them? We were going to watch this new show Sophie and I found over the weekend.”
Chloe had been in the same class as Sophie the previous year. She was funny and outgoing. All the boys in her year were always talking about her. “Oh? Them?”
Iris frowned. “They're fun. You like them.”
Chloe was used to Iris surprising her, but today it seemed annoying. “We did something with Olivia last week,” said Chloe. “I thought it was just going to be you and me today?”
Iris rolled her eyes. “Oh, Chloe. You always do this.”
“Always do what?” Chloe snapped.
“This. What you 're doing. It's like you don't want to be friends with anybody.”
Chloe was about to say something else but closed her mouth. Iris was right. Struggling for her friend's attention in groups made Chloe tired. Half the time she ended up not saying anything at all.
“I do,” she muttered.
Iris gave Chloe a chilly stare. “Well, it's up to you. If you don't want to come, you don't have to.” She walked away.
Chloe was late getting to her next class. Mr. Barnes, the mathematics teacher, had a thing for punctuality. He didn’t take kindly to stragglers.
“Sorry everyone,” announced Mr. Barnes as she came in, “I’ll pause our lesson now. Chloe has arrived. Welcome, Chloe. Thank you for attending my class. We’ll just wait while you find your seat. Take your time.”
Chloe slunk to her desk. Around her, many of her classmates were trying to conceal their laughter. Brice Sadberry, the wickedest boy in Chloe’s year, snorted and pointed. Chloe sunk low in her chair, face red.
Last period didn’t get any better. Chloe scored poorly on her musical assessment and would need to write it again. When the bell finally rang, she waited for everyone to clear from the classroom before she packed up her things.
Chloe messaged Iris on her mobile. “Mum said I have to come home after school,” she lied. “Maybe tomorrow?”
Iris responded almost immediately. “K.”
Chloe immediately felt bad but didn’t feel up to apologising. Sometimes saying sorry was hard, especially when she was still feeling hurt. Thankfully, the bus wasn’t full when Chloe boarded outside the school. She found a seat near the back and put her head down against the window. At George Street, she was distracted by a group of girls walking on the pavement beside the bus, Iris among them. Olivia and Sophie tagged behind her chatting. A rotten finish to an already rotten day.
She got off the bus in a dark mood. Somebody was honking a car horn more times than necessary. Why were London drivers so impatient? As she rounded a corner onto South Molton Lane, Chloie decided she would visit her favourite bookstore that afternoon. She wanted to take Mum’s instructions seriously and not spend all of her pocket money. She didn’t want to be one of those children who ignore everything their parents said. But Chloe loved books above all else. Reading would be a welcome distraction and a way to forget what had happened at school. Chloe cringed just thinking about it.
The bookstore was warm and welcoming, and soon she was paying for an intriguing new mystery. When she got home, she would curl up in her room and forget. As she neared Davis Street, a grape-size raindrop hit her nose. A backdrop of dark clouds had begun to descend on Mayfair at great speed. Her house was a few blocks away. If the rain would just hold off a bit longer, she might make it home without getting drenched.
As if answering a dare, the clouds began to dispense a torrent of plump raindrops. In only a few short moments, the narrow lane ran deep with rainwater and Chloe was soaked. Fearing for the contents of her rucksack Chloe ducked into the narrow doorway to number 17.
The space offered little shelter. Turning her back to the street, she noted the opening soon sign that had been tacked to the door. Beyond the smoked glass, a light was on. To her left, a curtain had been drawn across the window display, but a sliver of light poked out into the darkening street. Chloe wiped her breath from the pane, and a fresh gust of wind splattered raindrops onto her back. She could make a dash for the antique market, but her rucksack was soggy as it was. Number 17 was her best option. Perhaps the owner wouldn’t mind if she waited out the rain inside. She grabbed the door handle. It was warm. For a moment, she thought she could feel a tremor, like a pulse coursing into her hand. Setting her uneasiness aside, she pushed the door open, and a flurry of angry rain compelled her inside.
Chloe closed the door behind her. The sound of the rain grew quiet, like someone drawing a bath in a faraway room. She stood for a moment, drip-dripping on a doormat. The shop was small, and its dim interior had a cosy charm. A high ceiling had been fitted with hanging lights in the shape of dark starlit tulips that cast a pleasing light on the wide hardwood planks below. To the rear of the shop, beside a doorway that led away to a darkened storeroom, was a chunky wooden countertop; an old-fashioned cash register sat near its open end.
The shop’s most noticeable feature was a raised stage showcasing an assortment of rare oddities—a handsome puppet theatre with mulberry curtains, the backdrop painted with summer hills and a wide-faced moon. Chloe had never been one for stuffed animals—or dolls, for that matter—but the allure of the tiny theatre was undeniable. Beside it lay a collection of dazzling hand-painted paper fortune tellers depicting enchanted animals: reindeer walking upright and tigers dressed in robes of purple and silver, each waiting for a child’s frantic fingers. There were other sights—so many enchanting things to behold! A model railroad running on a wide loop of track; a spooky casket coin box, wherein one could place a coin at the short end and a skeleton’s hand would emerge from a trap and draw the coin within; a circus-themed jack-in-the-box; painted teapots in the shape of mushroom houses; framed maps of countries unknown (where was the Land of Hobb?).
Yet, it wasn’t the amazing merchandise, nor the cosy interior, nor the shop’s smell of wood, old books and caramel reminiscent of a kindly grandmother’s kitchen that had Chloe awestruck. It was the extraordinary spectacle in front of her. Tiny, man-like creatures dressed in colourful tunics and breeches and well-buckled boots were nipping about in pairs, to and fro, setting up, sweeping, tidying. Small pale forms with delicate features and large heads. Bright wide eyes and pointed ears, a slender line for a nose. Each beautiful, yet with a sameness that made them hard to tell apart. Some of them had bewitched the merchandise—or so it seemed—for a gleaming accordion and an old fashioned ice-cream maker were floating above their heads, guided by little hands toward the display.
Who could blame Chloe for staring at the tiny feet scurrying to set up the shop? Or the nimble hands holding tiny tools? For it was an uncommon sight that only a handful of people in London’s long history have ever seen, the sort of tiny beings one would expect to see popping out beneath a misty-toed elm of Hyde Park or slipping silently out of St. Pancras’s narrower alleyways or some other black corner of the city. Brownies are renowned for their secretive ways, after all.
Everything—object, broom, cloth, mop–stopped. The accordion and ice cream maker sank gently to the floor.
For a moment there was a standoff in the tiny shop: wide-eyed Chloe staring at the busyness of brownies; the brownies staring back, alarm fresh on their faces. Chloe flinched, and the brownies scattered, cramming through the door to the rear of the shop in a quick and disorderly line. Chloe made a frantic turn, wanting very much to be out and away, but somebody was blocking the exit. A short, slightly ruffled fellow with one of those funny I've a bit of chocolate on my lip moustaches.
“I'm afraid I can't let you leave,” said the man.