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The Owl

A carved wooden Owl looked out of a shop window. Staring at the bus stop across the street as if it were a hedgerow full of mice.

     An unremarkable looking woman. Not young, not old, and not married, stood on the pavement and looked in at it, returning the stare. Owls she knew a little about. She knew a little about most things. This was a Tawny Owl, not a little Owl. No ear tufts, or was it the other way round? About wood though, she knew a little less. Guessed she could recognise oak, as that was the same as her photograph box. And she knew what mahogany looked like, as her small table in the lounge had been identified as such by her Father, whose word she believed in anything. The wood of The Owl was neither of these. Hadn't she heard that wood carvings were from lime wood, or apple, or pear? Anyway this Owl was light brown in colour with lighter bands of grain sweeping in a curve from ears to feet. The wood at the bird's breast was lighter still. She guessed, with no knowledge, that this had been the newest wood, the part of the tree close to the bark.

     The Owl was large, over a foot tall, and she was relieved to see that its talons were not hooked into a carved, permanently suffering mouse or vole, but were curled round a thick log complete with carved knots and bark.

     The shop was on the mid-day lunch-break route from her office to the City Centre. She went out every lunchtime to get some air, buy a sandwich, and indulge in a little real shopping and a lot of window shopping. There were always plenty of things she would have bought if she had the money. Strong common sense and a limited budget meant that things she saw and would have liked, but did not need, were left in the shops for someone else to buy.

     This time was different. She did not want anyone else to buy The Owl. She wanted it as soon as she saw it. If she had been with a friend, and her companion had asked. 'Why do you want it?' Her reply would have sounded very feeble. 'Because of the way it looks out.' But that was the reason. The Owl concentrated, as if on a distant goal, and every grainy wooden feather led to its piercing eyes.

<  2  >

     Her head should have walked her away from the window with a calculation of her finances, but her heart walked her through the door into the shop.

     There were other customers but The Owl was close enough to the shop doorway to be accessible. She stood by it and put her hand on its head. It was smooth and just filled her palm. When she touched it something seemed to happen to her for which she could not find a word. The nearest she could get to it was 'cool', which was not normally in her vocabulary. She felt, and it was a new sensation to her, confident. She didn't have to apologise for the way she was with her hand touching The Owl. She did not have to feel vaguely sorry for her presence all the time. She felt as good and capable as anyone, not better, not worse, but as good as any other for the first time.

     The white price tag round the birds neck had turned over and was showing its blank side. Though she was not now resting her hand on the Owl's head, the confidence had remained, and she did not worry what the price might be. Her previous habit of imagining a price of thousands, and going away did not affect her today. She flipped over the tag and bent down to look at the small writing. A hundred and twenty pounds. She felt a flush and her heart and breathing became irregular for a few moments. She let go the tag and put her hand back on the Owl's head. She would have it. She even looked around the shop nervously as if the people already being served were Owl buyers. There was only one couple who were just getting their change and receipt for a wicker washing basket. She was next. It would be hers. Unless, fear struck her, unless it had been bought and they ahd forgotten to move it out of the shop or two put a label on it. Time dragged and the wicker basket transaction seemed to take for ever.

<  3  >

     Her mind raced through a series of lightning calculations. Stop the rental of the video recorder. Ten pounds a month. Forget the usual weeks holiday on the Isle of Wight this year. Use money already saved, sixty pounds. Use the money put away for Council Tax and Water Rates, forgetting the early payment discount. All this was against the pattern of her financial life. This purchase was as alien to her as gambling the money away, or spending it on drink.

     The wicker basket left the shop and the assistant approached her. Perhaps he was expecting the usual response of 'Just Looking,' which he heard too many times a day. She anticipated his question.

     'I wish to buy The Owl please.' She said, turning and indicated the carved Owl by placing her hand on its head again.

     The assistant was vaguely non-plussed, he had not had to work to sell it, or explain it. Not that he could have done much, except to say it was an Owl, carved out of wood, both of which were perfectly obvious. He smiled and nodded at The Owl as if he had been introduced to it.

     She also pre-empted his next question.

     'I haven't got my cheque book with me I'm afraid, and I don't have a credit card. I wish to leave thirty pounds to secure it and I will call in this evening before you close with a Building Society cheque for the balance.' She seemed to rush her words, though trying to speak clearly and deliberately. 'Will that be alright?'

     The assistant still had not spoken, and was reaching for his pen.

     She had a moment of real fear. Was he now going to write on the label, 'Sold to Mr Smith or Mrs Jones' and shake his head at her. Or would he just note her name now, to wait for full payment, and sell the owl in the meantime if he could?

<  4  >

     'Is that alright?' She asked again, anxiously.

     'Of course Madam.' He said. 'I'll just note on the label that it is sold to you. I'll put your name on it.'

     She took her hand from The Owl's head. It was safe now. She could breathe again. 'Harrison.' She said, feeling, as usual, that she spoke her own name very strangely.

     He wrote her name and the word 'SOLD' on the tag. She produced the thirty pounds and walked with him to the till to get the receipt.

     'I'll be back at half past five.' she said. 'Thankyou very much.'

     'That's fine.' He said, 'Thankyou.'

     Outside the shop, she paused and looked at The Owl, her Owl. She was directly in its line of sight and it looked at her now. Not through her. It made her more solid, more real, her shadow was now darker on the pavement.

     As she moved away she half expected the head to move smoothly on its feathered shoulders, but it looked for rodents in the bus shelter again as she hurried back to work.

     She was Secretary to no-one in particular at a College of Further Education. She was accurate and thorough, dealing with enrolments, room allocations, timetables, payments and non-payments, and cafe takings, and anything else anyone cared to ask her to do. She had a colleague, but because this assistant was a permanently flustered woman with 'problems' the bulk of the work fell on the willing shoulders of Joan Harrison.

     'It's heavy.' Said the assistant, as she collected The Owl. 'Are you sure you can manage it?'

     She had paid the balance owing, The Owl, in a shapeless brown paper parcel was hers.

     'Oh yes.' She said. 'I live close by.' This was true, but had she lived twice as far or more, and The Owl had been twice as heavy, she would have carried it home.

<  5  >

     The shop assistant held the door open and she carried her treasure out as if it were the baby she had never had.

     She did live close by, owning, by parental legacy, the ground floor flat of a large three storied terrace house. It was only three streets away from the shopping area.

     The Owl's location in her home had been fixed in her mind from the moment she had seen it in the shop. In the corner of her lounge, by the door, there was a small low table, the mahogany table, which had no particular purpose except to stop the door from banging back against the wall. It also carried a vase of dusty dried flowers. The flowers went into the waste bin, the vase in the cupboard, and The Owl was unwrapped from its brown paper and sellotape and stood firmly in possession of the table, as if it were its favourite vantage in a woodland territory.

     She knelt in front of The Owl with her hands in her lap. It had not devalued, as so many things do on their way home. Its inspirational look across the room was like a beam of power. She put her hand on the smooth head as she said in her mind, though there was no one there to hear had she said it out loud, 'I hope you like it here.'

     As she stepped into the street the next morning she was smiling. This was not a common phenomenon at eight o'clock on a wet weekday morning, even for a placid disposition like hers. Before leaving the house she had rested her hand on The Owl's head and communicated with a thought 'See you later.' As she had felt the wood against her palm she had decided to enrol herself in the pottery evening class at her College. She had often thought that she would like to attend this class herself but hadn't taken the plunge. Her sensitivity had stopped her. The others would all be experts and would giggle behind their hands at her efforts. What was worse to her was, since she worked there, the other class members might think she did not have to pay. She did have to pay, just as everyone else did. Today she knew she would take the plunge and enrol, with no cold feet at the last minute. which had happened a number of times before.

<  6  >

     The Owl, with his head now a little shinier, watched as four terms at the College Pottery Evening Class came and went. She had caught up with the hiatus in her finances which his purchase had caused, and also recovered from the extra expense of the evening classes. During the year as she had struggled to balance her budget she would sometimes catch The Owl's eye. She would smile to re-assure it that she did not regret not having her holiday that year.

     The pottery tutor was used to thick and wobbly things being made by his students, but he saw from the earliest of Joan's efforts, a special quality. Undeveloped and latent as yet, there was a purity and delicacy of form, and a unique style that emerged week by week. Undeterred by failures in glazing and firing, and the problems of space in the small kiln at the College, she began to achieve consistent results. What the Pottery tutor did not know, but might have suspected, was that in her spare time she worked at home, in the lounge, supervised by The Owl, experimenting with colours and designing on a drawing board hour after hour. In moments of doubt or fatigue or incipient failure, a hand on The Owl would suffice to concentrate her mind as keenly as his unblinking wooden eyes.

     At the following Autumn's show of student's work at the College, one show case was filled with the creations of the Secretary, Joan Harrison. The City Museum and Art Gallery asked for the cabinet just as it was, to be loaned for exhibition in the Museum rotunda during the Annual Art Festival.

     Before the Festival the Art Director of the Museum and Art Gallery called at the ground floor flat three streets from the shops, to talk about Joan's contribution. He had made the appointment by post, enclosing his visiting card, from which she learned that he was Mr Henry England. Now in person, in the lounge, the pleasantries over, he explained. 'Exhibits at the Annual Art Festival were normally for sale, was she aware?' Yes, she was aware. 'Would she consider selling her pieces?' Yes she would, if anyone would buy them. He said there was little doubt of that, but Joan was not convinced. The Owl looked fairly sure of itself all through.

<  7  >

     'We will do the catalogue Miss Harrison.' The Art Director said. 'Can you let me know how much you will be asking for them?'

     How much? Joan was standing by the owl and rested her hand on its head.

     Her hand moved on the light brown patina.

     'Each piece.' He said.

     'Two hundred pounds each.' She said with her gaze as fixed and purposeful as her Owl's.

     Mr England and The Owl did not bat an eyelid.

     There were twenty pieces in the showcase. She insisted that the Director choose one piece, without charge for the Museum's Art Gallery. All the rest were sold during the first evening on display. Nearly four thousand pounds.

     She and The Owl had an easier time now balancing their financial affairs.

     The Art Director became a regular visitor to the house three streets from the shops. Mr England, who became Henry after a few months, was a widower of fifty plus. It was not evident whether Miss Harrison took other than a friendly interest in Mr England. Mr England, Henry, was very gentlemanly and cordial but nothing more. The Owl witnessed nothing untoward, and little escaped his keen eyes, in the visits to the lounge of the flat three streets from the shops. He conveyed messages of interest that had been received from other places for displays of Joan's work. He officiated for her, at her request when the local television station made a small programme featuring her. She placed a masterpiece of her art next to the Owl for the camera's benefit, and the whole of the region saw the delicate swirling dish she had made, made lighter still, by the solidity of the brown and vigilant bird. Then the country saw the programme and The Owl became famous because his picture was scratched on the base of every piece of Joan Harrison's pottery. With the advice of Henry England she progressed from a small kiln in her unused garage, to a purpose-built workshop in the previously somewhat neglected garden. She now had a kiln which had cost more than fifty Owls. Not that there were fifty other Owls to Joan. There was only her Owl. She did not attempt to make a pottery Owl, nor did she buy any more Owls, made of wood or anything else.

<  8  >

     Henry retired from his job as Art Director to the City's Museum Service and they were now together more of the time. She did not drive a car, never had, but now she bought for them a new estate-car, to take her work round the country, and after a time, to travel on the Continent to see her pieces displayed in Paris and Amsterdam. She was always glad to get back to the flat three streets from the shops, to rest her hand on The Owl, then put on her overall and start her wheel and kiln again in the workshop.

     When The Owl had lived on the table in the lounge for five years, Joan Harrison took Henry England to be etc. And Henry England took Joan Harrison ditto. He knew, of all their possessions, and they were able to have all the fine things they wanted, that she treasured The Owl beyond all else. He took this knowledge to the grave after fifteen years of marriage. Joan needed to rest her trembling hand on The Owl for some time after, but her life settled into work and memories of the exciting years. The world still beat a path to her door. It had to, she declined to come to the World now. As her adviser, Henry had been invaluable, but she still had The Owl, and its wise counsel carried her through those years when her own faculties were deteriorating. There was now an easy chair next to the table from which The Owl maintained its calm vigilance. She was found in that chair, her hand on the table next to The Owl. She had been a widow for over ten years and was now a widow no more.

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