Mrs. B’s handbag contains a crumpled packet of balsam-infused tissues, a hairbrush with grey hairs attached, a photograph of Mrs. B in her youth (her once glorious, shining mane of jet-black hair must have sent men dizzy), a powder compact (circa 1985), a black leather purse that no longer closes properly and has sent change scattering into the darkest corners of the bag, a half-consumed packet of cough lozenges, a set of keys and a few other items which do not concern us here. What does concern us is the mirror.
It is not a large mirror – how could it be? It is a mirror to fit a handbag, a travel mirror we guess. It is plain and entirely circular with a simple frame. The mirror weighs less than a pound coin although certainly more than a two pence piece but its worth is more than just its frame for, although this is simple as we have already ascertained, it is of silver, and of high quality. The silver is not tarnished and yet the mirror does not have the air of something new.
When we first pick up the mirror we are not, at first, surprised by it. Only when we settle it firmly in the palm of our hands – how nicely it fits there – do we become aware of something odd. Consequently, we find ourselves peering wildly into its depths and doing a foolish dance. We hold out our hand at arm’s length, and then bring it back again, frowning all the time. We set our arm up high and then we attempt to angle the mirror towards an object – anything will do – in order to see that object’s reflection. When we do not see our own reflection in the mirror this alarms us for it is as if we are lost, as if we do not exist or indeed perhaps never existed.
We do not know Mrs. B personally. We found this handbag parked on a bench, a perfectly ordinary bench in a park of ordinary quality (a few good specimen trees, a nicely ordered flower bed, a small duck pond). We were reluctant to look inside the bag from the beginning for fear of being accused of thievery, or of being made a fool of, or of being blown to smithereens. Once we had satisfied ourselves that the bag had simply been forgotten by its owner – some witless old woman (the wear and tear of the handbag giving us a clue to the nature of its possessor) we delved inside to find a name. There was indeed a name on a debit card inside the purse. This name was Mrs. F. Burkowski. We wonder if the ‘F’ is Frances or Francesca or Felicity or some Polish name we are completely unaware of and we think that ‘F’ is not a common start to a name like ‘C’ or ‘S’.
But then we find the mirror and we begin to wonder if the mirror is not at the bottom of all this.
We slip the mirror back into the handbag and decide to take the bag and its contents to the nearest police station. Luckily it is not far to walk and it is a pleasant autumn day. The leaves are crisp underfoot, the sky is blue and the trees in the park are gloriously coloured.
We say not far but by the time we have reached the park gates, we are puffing like a steam engine with the effort of carrying the bag which by now is so stupendously heavy it feels as if it has been filled with stones. We stop for a moment and take the offending bag in the other hand hoping for relief but none comes. A boy on a skateboard shakes his head at us and we feel suddenly accused as if indeed we are taking the bag where we should not.
We cross the road. It is not busy. The traffic is light for it is not rush-hour or lunch time but somewhere in between. Birds are twittering in the hedges and a man carrying several plastic bags is shuffling along the pavement, though his bags are apparently not weighted with rocks but with the simpler things of life.
The bag is so heavy now it has become an effort to walk. Sweat drips off our brow. Our arm muscles scream with the effort and our feet drag.
We arrive at a low wall. We sit down, exhausted. The temptation to look in the bag again has become enormous, weighty, and yet we are afraid. The street looks suddenly ominous – the trees a line of soldiers, the red traffic light the eye of the devil, the man with the plastic bags a veritable demon.
We consider abandoning the bag. We berate ourselves for our curiosity, our stupidity, even our good neighbourliness.
The policewoman at the desk is most polite. ‘Than you sir,’ she says when we explain. ‘I’m sure the owner will be most grateful.’
We ask if she will look inside while we stay. We explain that we think we may have dropped something out of the bag en route; that we want to be sure. The policewoman gives us an almost imperceptible frown but she agrees.
We are so afraid, we feel nauseous. But we are also caught by a terrible need to know.
The policewoman draws out the tissues, the hairbrush, the photograph, the purse, the compact, the cough lozenges and the keys. She pulls out an old bus ticket, a biro, a nail file, a small pink pig like something you’d find in a child’s room and a pair of glasses in a navy blue case. Finally she pulls out the mirror.
‘Is something missing?’ she says, opening the purse.
‘No, it’s all there,’ we say.
‘I need to take down your details,’ the policewoman says. ’It’s just a formality.’ She smiles.
‘The mirror,’ we say.
She picks it up with a faint roll of the eyes. ‘Yes?’
‘It’s very valuable.’
‘Really?’ she says.
‘Incalculably so,’ we answer.
‘I’ll get someone to look at it. We have experts in these things.’ She holds it away from her for a moment, her head tilting a little to one side as she examines it. We see how she does the same strange dance that we did in the park. We observe the paling of her skin, the beads of sweat that break out across her unlined brow.
‘You understand?’ we say, beginning to walk towards the door. ‘You understand how valuable this is?’
We do not look behind us when we hear the sound of breaking glass but we see how the light changes outside in the city; how brilliant it is and how silent.