The Friendship Store

Posted on: October 15, 2012
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By Seema Chatterjee
 
 
The friendship store had opened a year ago and was the most colorful shop on the boulevard. An enormous caravan on wheels, so large was the shop that customers walked through it, as if in a dream. Silvery moons and golden suns glided through the sky, which stretched endlessly through the mock darkness. Stars buoyed through the horizon. Like children let loose in a candy shop, clients would stop in their tracks to survey a passing comet. Confetti in satin paper hung loosely on diabolical clouds, which mischievously collided with one another, dropping golden dust onto their visitors.
 
 
Enticing friendships parceled in bright satiny paper were displayed by the shop window, while colorful streamers ran from one end of the wall to the other. The lights in the shop blinked intermittently between celestial suns and the moons flying by, as if they too had a secret to tell. Sales girls in bright pinafore dresses, with black and white berets helped customers as they entered the store, unsure of what to purchase. After all, how does one shop for something as intangible as a friendship?
 
 
Friendships were available in all sizes and shapes, floating on Venetian gondolas packaged and repackaged in beautiful, colored boxes. Oarsmen with purple berets and crimson boots maneuvered their boats to the delicate shores, in dark Venetian waters, displaying their wares. There were counters selling friendships tied in red and blue ribbons and tables where friendships in jade, olive and emerald gift bags could be purchased at a special price.
 
 
Tiara walked towards the friendship store. The street was buzzing with activity as throngs of customers jostled one another trying to get in. Tiara was astonished. The store held a promise of restoring shattered dreams by packaging affection and kindness, comfort and strength. If you paid, she was told, you could get a bona-fide friendship off the shelf, for nothing in life came for free – even something as basic as a friendship.
 
 
Inside, the store was teeming with people, the glass window reflecting a mood of festivity. Soon there would be a stampede as more people tried to get in, and she decided she did not want to brave the maddening crowd. She would return home and come back another day. Just as she was turning to leave, a well-groomed concierge appeared, his smile so captivating that the unruly crowd stopped in its tracks.
 
 
“Well, well,” he said in a deep compelling voice, “don’t we have a friendly bunch here?”
 
 
His sarcasm was not lost on the crowd but his voice was so captivating that everyone was hypnotized under its spell. “If you all don’t queue up, we will have no choice but to close the doors.”
 
 
A hush fell over the crowd as they quietly formed a queue. In the confusion, Tiara was pushed by the moving line towards the store and was surprised to find herself at the door. Now that she was finally at the store, would she be able to regain the trust she had lost and would this be the answer to the sadness in her heart?
 
 
As she entered, her eyes widened at the sheer beauty of the friendship store. Cobbled streets with elegant kiosks held beautiful wares, as street lamps shone magically over them. Items all over the shop depicted friendships. Friendships could be purchased in the form of a doll, a bottle or even a clothespin. The little placard in white attached to each piece stated what the item stood for. “Silence is golden – friendship beholden,” stated two Russian dolls, one male and the other female, clasping one another’s hand. “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” said the placard of a luminous porcelain biblical urchin in bedraggled clothes, his hands outstretched in a gesture of want. “Get rid of a nasty friend with Rotters’ vanishing gel,” said a candy pink translucent bottle with oozing gel in it. A beautiful wicker wastepaper basket rimmed in carved wood stated, “A bad friend is no friend. Please throw him or her away.”
 
 
A food counter encouraged the shoppers to digest, eat or drink a friendship. “Crisp or cream, this friendship is a dream,” said a mouth-watering doughnut. “Eat this meat, a friendly feat,” stated some cheese and bacon rashers. “Pick or lick, this friendship stick,” stated a vanilla cream oozing with chocolate chips.
 
 
There was such a wide selection of gifts beautifully displayed that Tiara felt her head spin. She tried not to think of her mother who would have helped her make the perfect choice. But had her mother been alive, she would not have been in the store in the first place. She brushed away the tears, which were threatening to fall. She had never known her father, losing him as a little girl, and her mother had been everything to her. So when her mother died a few months ago, her whole life crumbled with her death.

 
 
They had gone skiing to St. Moritz, in Switzerland and Tiara, who had never been much of a skier, struggled with her own skis as she watched her mother effortlessly glide down the snow-peaked Alps, with the grace of a ballerina. Her heart had filled with pride as she looked at the elegant figure sliding over the picturesque mountain in a crimson red ski outfit forming a dot against miles and miles of icy snow! One moment she was there, and in the next she had disappeared over a mountain ridge. Tiara thought she had woken up from a bad dream, her heart in her mouth, as she watched the tragedy unfold before her eyes. They looked for days hoping to find the body, and Tiara had flown back home heartbroken.
 
 
Much to her dismay, her grief and sadness had not ended there, for a few days later her brother Andrew read their mother’s will. Tiara discovered that her mother had left everything to her brother, with only the small cottage next to the main house for her. Her mother had trusted Andrew, thinking he would take care of his sister until his dying day, but she couldn’t have been more wrong. Greedy at his newfound wealth, he gave his sister a small settlement to tide her over for a couple of years, and turned her out of the family house. She had no choice but to move into the cottage.
 
 
Well, at least she had her friends, she told herself. But to her surprise, she found them slowly turning their backs on her, for none of them wanted to have anything to do with an impoverished heiress.
 
 
Tiara could not believe that her life had changed so drastically, in such a short period of time. Taking up a job in a veterinary clinic, helping out a kindly old vet, she shunned the company of people. The long hours at work dulled her sorrow and she was able to block out her loneliness, pouring her love and affection on to the animals. But after six months of amazing fortitude, the floodgates of her emotions burst open and she felt desperately in need of someone to talk to. She needed a friend!
 
 
Well here she was at the friendship store, giving it a final shot, even though in her heart of hearts she was cynical about buying friendship. She had a fair amount saved from her earnings and purposefully she walked over to the most expensive counter. Rich dowagers with silver gray hair, dapper elderly men with gold watches on their wrists and well-to-do heiresses in neutral colored skirt-suits, as well as a couple of snotty teenage boys, stood around this counter. Tiara was shy to break in, but summoning up courage she found a niche, between two elderly gentlemen.
 
 
The objects were very expensive and she wondered how customers could pick up four or five items, when she was struggling to buy just one. The tables at this counter displayed exactly what Tiara needed. ‘Eternal friend’ had a red ribbon around a teddy-bear, packaged in transparent crisp handmade paper with small blue and white crescents dotting the paper. ‘Soul mate’ was the caricature of an old man lying in a box with an orange bow tie. ‘Friend for a rainy day’ was a beautiful blue magnetic metal cloud with paper pins attached to it, which when shaken, fell from the cloud like droplets of rainwater. “How ingenious!”
Tiara thought to herself, but before she could move on, she felt a strong arm brush against her.
 
 

She looked up to find a sardonic young man surveying her quizzically. Tiara ignored him pointedly for she really wanted to get on with her shopping. “Should I opt for this?” she asked herself, as she looked at a bright red cushion, the shape of a heart, with a signboard saying, “Lifelong friend”. Yes, that was what she needed, and taking a deep breath she looked at the price tag – five hundred pounds. My word! That was a lot of money! Yet she wanted it.
 
 
As she moved closer to touch it, she felt a hand in the small of her back. Feeling her color rise, she decided to rid herself of the annoying trespasser. But before she could, she heard him say, “Why would an attractive girl like you come to my store to buy a friend? I would have thought you could have all the friends in the world.”
 
 
“Oh!” said Tiara despite herself. “So you are the owner who sells friendships for a profit.” She sounded so accusing that the young man laughed at her chagrin. “The world is a strange place, my dear. Unless people pay for something, they do not attach value to it. Look at the number of people who come to my store. I sell a need and what is wrong with that? Friendships are available anywhere, but you will find real ones only in my shop.”
 
 
“To make an income on people’s weaknesses or needs is wrong,” said Tiara irritably, not liking the condescending look on his face.
 
 
“I am Anthony,” said the young man extending his hand to take her arm. “And I would like to buy you a cup of coffee, so don’t say no.” Before she could say another word, she found herself being propelled to the coffee shop attached to the store.
 
 

How she longed to wipe the sarcasm off his handsome face, yet she felt she was enjoying herself like never before.
 
 
“My dear,” said Anthony as he pulled her chair out courteously, “I am not a racketeer. People pay for needs. They pay for food. They pay for clothes. They pay for shelter. These are their physical needs. Here they pay for friendships. Friendship is an emotional need, which I pack and sell to fulfill their souls. The world is lost and I help people find themselves. Since you are disparaging of what I do, why are you here?” he added slyly.
 
 
“I don’t know. I wish I did. All I know is that the only real friend I ever had died six months ago and that was my mother,” said Tiara sadly. “I thought my brother and my so-called friends would stand by me after her death, but they disappeared when I needed them most. So here I am paying for something which I thought was the easiest thing in the world to get, even though I really don’t believe one should pay for a friendship.” Tiara stopped speaking suddenly as she wondered why she was pouring her heart out to a perfect stranger. She didn’t even know him! Drinking her coffee quickly, she stood up to leave.
 
 
“You’re talking to me because you know I am your answer,” said the stranger, as if reading her thoughts. “The red pillow is yours. And it’s for free. For every customer who comes here with truth in their heart can walk out of my store with whatever they like. That is why I do the rounds in the store. ‘The lifelong pillow’ is yours.”
 
 
Before Tiara could say another word, he handed the pillow to her. “There are people who collect gems, gold, money and jewels. You have walked into my store, for you want something more valuable – kindness and love. The magical pillow will ensure that you have a friend for life.”
 
 
And planting a kiss on Tiara’s forehead, he disappeared in the crowd, leaving her standing with the pillow in her arms. For the first time in months, Tiara felt she was walking on air, not knowing that her lifelong friend had just walked away.

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