On Portobello Road

Bermondsey at dawn? Been There. Camden Passage at dusk? Done That. So, if it was Saturday, she had to be at Portobello. As European vacationers’ pockets went, hers were precariously shallow. Uppermost on her wish list was an umbrella stand. She could just see it in the minuscule foyer of her rented Connecticut cottage. Not a foyer really but a vestibule, more like, offering only enough space to greet visitors, relieve them of coats, hats and umbrellas. Only she never had a place to stash their brollies when they arrived dripping out of the rain. She could see it in her mind’s eye. Tall, elegant, ceramic preferably, though she would settle for metal. The colors would blend with the deliciously ripe shade on her walls described variously by friends as pumpkin, apricot, tangerine and even persimmon.
Three days into her rambles in the snazzy designer stores of Chelsea, she had begun to despair of spotting just the right one. Her budget stopped short at thirty pounds where even the most ordinary ones had started at sixty. Portobello was a possibility and she had saved her Saturday for the excursion, hadn’t she?
How appropriate that the skies should open and pour rain down the very day she’d intended to find her umbrella stand. Trudging through Notting Hill with her own parasol swooshing in the relentless wind and cold rivulets making their way towards swirling gutters at the kerb’s edge, she convinced herself to stay the course. It would be worth braving the storm, she knew in her bones. How pretty were those white townhouses, their wrought-iron window boxes tumbling over with fluted purple petunias and plump scarlet geraniums. How charming was London even on this weepy morning!
Everything English was laid out for her inspection. Yet there wasn’t an umbrella stand in sight. She drifted unnoticed from one stall to the next knowing that as antiques-shoppers went, she was something of an anomaly with her coffee skin, charcoal eyes and Bombay accent. What would the Indian woman buy anyway? Sales folk spared her a fleeting glance, then looked away as if knowing, in that instant, that her tastes ran far in excess of the lifestyle provided by her modest salary as a teacher’s aide in an American suburban school. Accustomed to the dilemma of coveting eye-catching things way out of her reach, she lived vicariously through the glamorous lives of those with money and taste. Greedily devouring the glossies for years, she’d acquired a discerning eye and a passion for all things beautiful. Why, only yesterday, at the V & A, her heart had leapt at the sight of a gigantic Dale Chihuly chandelier flowing downwards like melting glacial ice from the central Victorian dome.
Then, deeply dejected, just as she thought of turning back and heading towards the Tube, she spied it: the perfect umbrella stand that called her name loudly and urgently, ordering her to inspect it. She blinked hard as if expecting the vision to disintegrate, mirage-like. Its colors were perfect. Still in a daze, she hadn’t quite taken in the shades of orange, red and green that made up a rather complicated design. It wasn’t English, she knew that. Japanese more likely. It had to be Imari. The cobalt-blue undertone indicated this clearly. Closer scrutiny revealed a war-like scene. As she inched slowly towards the object, she felt like John Keats surveying his Grecian urn and marveling at its varied vignettes. Her still unravished bride of quietness, her foster-child of silence and slow time featured a group of women–gorgeous geishas on horseback–dazzling in their kimonos and obies, their hair coiled in elaborate coiffeurs, arm-length pins sticking, like twin antennae, out of their knotted hair. Upon a creamy background, these figures stood out, a palette of warm autumnal colors giving them an air of Eastern dignity. Almost reverentially, she turned the stand around, only to behold a quintet of Samurai warriors possibly fleeing a battle scene on graceful stallions in white, scarlet, auburn and black. The riders wore resplendent kimonos whose complex designs were picked out in raised dots and dashes, a perplexing Morse code. She was enchanted. This was the answer to her prayers, the Holy Grail in her quest for the perfect umbrella-stand.
Heart thudding painfully, she approached the vendor, a florid-faced Cockney.
“That’s a pretty stand you have there.” She gestured towards her find. “What do you know about it?” She took care to sound casual knowing that, at a flea market, it helped never to disclose how badly an item was coveted.
He rose slowly from his rickety stool and walked towards the object of her desire seemingly careless of whether anyone bought or walked away. “Aye. Pretty, that’s for sure,” he agreed.
Every instinct informed her that this was no ordinary piece of Taiwanese ceramic. She could easily have peered herself at the price tag taped to the inside knowing it could say nothing less than a thousand pounds. In fear of spying a figure that wasn’t even remotely within her reach, she preferred to feign ignorance.
“How much is this piece?” she said. There. It was out. The question she most dreaded asking. Holding her breath, she waited.
Turning the tag over lazily, he peered at it with a watery eye. Rain had smudged the figure, causing a vivid streak to form across, right after the pounds sign.
“Seventeen quid, luv,” he said, squinting at the tag shortsightedly.
The air caught in her throat and stayed there. She was rendered hoarse quite suddenly. “Seventeen pounds?” she repeated.  So it wasn’t Imari after all. How mistaken she’d been. She could have sworn it had been cast from finer clay. Crestfallen, she scrutinized his face blankly.
“Aw, awright. I’ll do fifteen. Only for you, mind,” he said, revealing pipe-stained incisors set in a grey-stubbled chin.
Gingerly, she turned the stand upside down, the better to scrutinize the markings on the bottom. Four little boxes in navy blue with slashes and criss-crosses stared cryptically up at her. She gazed at them perplexed knowing they had to mean something she would figure out later. What an ingenious reproduction it was! There was no time to be lost. It met her budget, even if made in Taiwan. The rain, so unwelcome when it started that morning, suddenly seemed like a surly visitor who had left behind an unexpectedly generous gift.
“I’ll take it,” she said. Then examining the contents of her wallet, “You do take credit cards, right?”
“Aye, I do usually, luv, but t’day, my machine’s broke. Must have cash only.”
“Oh no,” she said, excitement plunging, her face crumbling up in disappointment. “I just didn’t exchange enough dollars.”
“Ill take a check,” he said.
Her face brightened. “An American check?” she asked fearfully.
He hesitated for just a few seconds. “Norm’ly I’d say No, but, for you, okay, missy. ‘Tis a soggy day. Rain was ‘eavy an’ all.”
She signed hastily on the dotted line scribbling “Umbrella Stand” on the memo line of her check, while he searched for a box in which to transport her precious cargo. She knew full well that with the service charges banks imposed on both sides of the Atlantic, he was practically giving it away.
Miraculously, the skies had dried and though the sun was still struggling weakly to emerge out of sodden clouds, she knew already that it would be a lovely day.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Two months later, in her Connecticut cottage, she leafed through her mail. Amidst flyers for Boston Market, down comforters and winter wear catalogues, was an unfamiliar envelope adorned with a postage stamp carrying Queen Elizabeth’s profile. With growing curiosity, she fingered the expensive writing paper, glanced at the swollen letterhead that said “Grosvenor Antiques” and read:
Dear Ms. Krishnan:
I trust this letter finds you in the best of health. I know how surprised you will be to hear from me, so let me hasten to explain.
In July of this year, you purchased an umbrella stand on Portobello Road. The salesman was my father Sam, a fisherman by profession. He can tell his haddock from his halibut, not Taiwanese trash from genuine Imari (as perhaps you might have guessed already). I’m sorry he couldn’t differentiate between high-end merchandise intended for my Chelsea store and the cheaper consignments assigned to his weekend stall on Portobello. Indeed, he ruined my business while I convalesced from a recent bout of typhus acquired on a buying trip in Thailand. I must urgently inform you that your umbrella stand is worth a lot more than you paid for it.
Rest easy. I do not expect more money. God knows I have been unable to trace most of my father’s undoubtedly delighted customers as the majority paid him cash. What a stroke of luck that your address was on your check! Considering what the banks charged to clear it, I made a total of about five pounds on your purchase. I am merely writing to inform you what a rare piece of Japanese Imari rests in your possession. I would insure it for at least $50,000–maybe more. As for Provenance, you might like to know that it dates back to the seventeenth century, the Edo period,  and was obtained at an estate auction in the Cotswolds when the movable assets of Lord Edward and Lady Henrietta Asquith of Chipping Norton were being liquidated. I hope sincerely that you transported your umbrella stand safely to the United States and are obtaining maximum pleasure from one of my favorite pieces.
Robert Carter, Esq.         
She sat down on shaking knees feeling a little bit like one of the lucky participants on the Antiques Roadshow. The late-blooming Black-Eyed Susans, freshly clipped from her garden, lay ignored on the table as she re-read her letter.
She knew it! She just knew it! Back home at her little desk, two months previously, when she’d finally found the time to peruse the Web, she’d discovered that those four navy blue boxes imprinted on the bottom stood for Wealth, Nobility, Longevity and Youth, common markings on Edo Imari which, as Mr. Carter had informed her correctly, dated from the mid-1600s. She was hardly an antiques dealer, but those in the trade had long admired her ‘Eye’ and, with the letter nestling in her fingers, she felt absurdly erudite.
Of course, she would write and thank Squire Carter for his generosity and promise to care for his favored piece with all the gentleness and reverence she could muster. She would also invite him to her humble abode to peruse her purchase, if ever his travels brought him across the pond. She was certain he would appreciate the little vignette she has set up in her foyer. For her fortunate London find had spawned more coveted purchases, gleaned from local estate and tag sales that she frequented on Saturday mornings year-round in Fairfield County—a carved Indonesian mahogany demi-lune table upon which rested an Italian ceramic platter, a catchall for her mail. A porcelain Victorian lamp that cast soft shadows on the ceiling at sundown. A stately Dutch pitcher featuring milkmaids in chunky clogs–prefect for holding daffodils in the spring. These were arranged artfully below a gilded, curlicued mirror encircled by a bevy of porcelain plates—two of which were, in fact, Imari from Tokyo inherited from her antiques-loving grandpa. They made suitable partners to her handsome umbrella stand, saluting regally in the corner, holding, to her nostalgic delight, twin walking sticks acquired by her parents, nearly fifty years ago, on their honeymoon in the hills outside Bombay. Every so often, she spun her Imari around, each time charmed anew by its glazed vistas.
Keats would approve. This thing of beauty would be, she knew, her joy forever.
Note: This story was published in Indian Voices: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry by Emerging Indian Writers Around the World. Edited by Jasmine D’Costa, Bombay: Forty Two Bookz Galaxy, 2011, pp. 192-197