Phi’s job hunt wasn’t as easy as he’d anticipated. After failing to bake at the baker’s and groce at the grocer’s, Phi found himself standing outside Mr. Reese’s Mysteries and Sentimentorium. The name of the shop fit impossibly over the door, with the flaking gold letters wriggling and weaving their way across the faded purple shop front. The hanging sign dangled precariously and shoppers tried to avoid walking directly beneath it. The look was charming, like an old book that had been read too many times. Despite the shabby exterior, everything inside the shop was gleaming. The windows were crystal clear, showing off racks of bottled Emotions – pure and cocktailed – all boasting to be the cheapest and best in the country.
Animals paced, flapped and bounced in their cages. The fuzzy little gigguls chittered, pointed and laughed at passers-by; the dusty-coloured furballs shook like pompoms as they held their bellies with their tiny hands. The feelones pawed around their cages, brushing up against the bars any time someone came near. The funny-rabbits hopped and snickered, while the f’wish bubbled away dreamily as it swam laps around its bowl.
Phi liked the look of the old shop. It was interesting, especially when contrasted with the butcher’s next-door, a shop with a plain white sign and even plainer text that simply read “Meat”.
Stepping through the old, broken door was like shaking the water from your ears after swimming. From the muted Sunday morning crowds, Phi popped into a cacophony of barking, squawking, yowling and howling. The animals clamoured to catch the attention of the new visitor.
“Hello?” ventured Phi, as he stepped down an aisle of Emotions. The bottles were all different sizes and colours, with neat, handwritten labels. He wandered past Glumness, on to Lugubriousness, followed by Melancholy and Moroseness, then Sadness (light through profound), and finally on to Woebegonity, before stepping out the other end of the aisle and standing before the unattended counter.
Phi rang the rusty old bell with a disappointing thunk. He called out again. Something crashed to the ground in a back room, accompanied by a series of curses. Mr. Reese emerged from the recesses of the shop, dusting off his old suit jacket, which had holes worn in places that shouldn’t ever get holes. The old man fit his shop exactly: everything from his flaking exterior to his precariously hung smile and faded purple tie made it feel like you were looking at the incarnation of the establishment itself.
“What’ll it be?” he announced toothlessly, squinting at his visitor. “We’ve got a school special on Confidence. Exuberance is half price. And I’m tryin’ to clear out some old stock of Paranoia. You can basically have that for free if you want it.”
“Why would I want to be paranoid?” asked Phi.
“That’s the spirit!” Mr. Reese said, gummily.
“Are you all right?” asked Phi, gesturing at the old man’s bleeding hand.
“This? I’ll be fine. Nothin’ a bit o’ Pluck won’t cure! That and a good sticking plaster.”
“I’ve come to ask about a job.”
“A job? What sort of job?”
“Uh…I don’t know. I was hoping you could tell me. I’d like to work here.”
“Is there a sign up?”
“Yes, a sign. In the window. Asking for help.”
“Ah. Should be. Not that I was lookin’ for help, y’see, that’s just where I keep all my signs. I wonder where that one’s got to…”
“So…you’re not looking for help?”
“No. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use some.”
“So you are looking for help?”
“You got any previous experience?”
“Well, I’m very good at –”
“How strong are you?”
“Second strongest boy in school. And that’s just ‘cause Danny Wilkes got held back. He’s twice my size. Besides, everyone knows I’m faster.”
Mr. Reese grabbed a walking stick from behind the counter, leant over and clacked it against Phi’s knees.
“That’ll do. Can’t be worse than my old things!” he cackled. “Anything else you think I should know?”
“I’ll work hard. I pick up most things easily.”
“Yes…I could pick up boxes. But that’s not what I –”
“Fine. You’re hired!”
“Yup. Pretty headstrong, though, ain’tcha? Not like I’ll get many other people looking for jobs without my sign, though.” Mr. Reese extended his hand to Phi, who took it, bewildered.
“Ain’t you gonna ask about the pay?” said the old man.
“Well too late now, you’ve already agreed to work. Guess you’re working for free!” he cackled.
“Just a little joke!” said the old man, clapping Phi on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll fix your sense of Humour one of these days. Can prob’ly even do you a deal on some old backstock. But right now, you’ve got some lifting to do.”
“Of course! When else do you want to start?”
“I guess I could start right now.”
“You guessed right. Come on, this way.” Mr. Reese hobbled off into the back of the shop.
Phi struggled with the hinged countertop, fiddling with the latch and shoving at the thing to unstick, but he couldn’t get it to budge.
“Are you coming or not?” hollered Mr. Reese from the back. “I don’t want to hire and fire someone in the same day!” His chortling turned into a series of sharp coughs.
Giving up on the latch, Phi hopped over the counter and followed the door through to the back of the shop. It took his eyes a few seconds to readjust to the dingy lighting. He groped through the darkness until he came to the door leading to the storage room. He cursed as he tripped over a box on the floor.
“Careful with those!” called out Mr. Reese from around the corner.
Phi followed the old man’s voice past a tiny kitchen and down a small flight of stairs to a miniature laboratory, squeezed onto a coffee table. There was barely enough room for one person to stand in the cramped little room. Beakers, test tubes, burners and titres were all huddled precariously on the table, some held by clamp stands above the others for want of space. Mr. Reese was carefully pipetting something into one of the beakers.
“What are you doing?” asked Phi, trying to peer over the old man’s shoulder.
“Bah!” Mr. Reese jumped as a green cloud started fuming from his beaker. He dropped the pipette and hustled Phi out of the room, slamming the old metal door behind him. “See what you made me do?”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!”
The old man clapped Phi on the shoulder again. “It’s all right. We’ve just got to leave it to air out for a little while.” He flicked a switch and something began whirring on the other side of the door. Phi watched through a porthole in the door as swirling vortices curled their way through the dense green fog and the emerald mist drained away. “Sensitive things, Feelings. Just a dash too much Care and your Love turns to Envy. Only one sixteenth of an ounce of Injustice can sour a pound of Sorrow into Vengefulness.”
“What was it you were doing in there?”
“Just checkin’ up on one of my experiments.”
“You do experiments back here?”
“Of course! Explorin’ the whole emotional spectrum, a fraction of an ounce at a time. How else do you think I come up with all the variants you see on the shelves in the shop? Guesswork? I’m always findin’ new mixtures. Just the other day I discovered that if you mix a bit of Hope with a hefty portion of Longing and chuck in a little bit of Confusion, you get a great base for synthesising most things in the Cathartic series. It’s great fun. Never got to do much of this at the Factory.”
“You worked at the Factory? What was it like?”
“Oh yes, many years. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard, high-precision work. We had to produce the entire emotional spectrum to pump into the air, so’s people could feel everythin’. We had to make all the Emotions, but in just the right proportions. You want to give people the ability to feel, but not influence how they feel. Tricky business, very exacting, but no fun. Not like I get to have now in my little lab!”
“If you’re choosing what you make, why do you have so many bad Emotions out front?” asked Phi. He backed away nervously from the green smoke seeping under the door.
“You’ve got a whole shelf full of different kinds of Sadness.”
“Sadness ain’t bad! It’s a very important Emotion! Where would we be without Sadness?”
“Everyone would be happy!”
“No they wouldn’t. Wouldn’t know what Happiness was. Not without feeling sad every once in a while. How can you have one without t’other? Get all sorts in ‘ere, you know. Sometimes people are bored of feeling happy. Or they want to feel sad, so that they really appreciate it next time. Not my business what people do with their Feelings. Just so long’s they pay for ‘em!”
Mr. Reese led Phi back up to the store room. Phi’s eyes had readjusted to the dark a little, and he waded his way past the city of box skyscrapers into the room, where there was barely enough floor space to stand. In one corner, a girl was walled in by boxes. She sat with a lantern and a quill, carefully labelling each bottle with the neat calligraphy Phi recognised from out front.
“This here’s my other assistant, Aula,” introduced Mr. Reese. “She’ll show you what’s what. I’d better go clear up the lab.” He shuffled out of the room.
Aula continued writing her label, with her tongue poking out the corner of her mouth in concentration. Only when she had finished and eased the bottle back in its box did she look up to inspect her new co-worker.
Phi ran his hand through his hair, suddenly conscious of his appearance. He had sharp, defined features, as if an illustrator had sketched him in a moment of inspiration, and – as an afterthought – added a scribble of hair for good measure.
Aula must have been about Phi’s age, fifteen, or maybe even a bit older. Phi always had trouble telling with girls. She had pretty, round features. Her tousled hair was strung through with a blue ribbon, that failed to stop her curls tumbling down her face. She had deep, blue, inquisitive eyes that flitted here and there, seeming to question everything they saw. They skimmed over Phi, appearing to ask, “Who are you?”
“I’m Phi,” he said and – for some bewitching reason he couldn’t explain – he thought it would be a good idea to lean nonchalantly against the nearby step ladder. The thing began to fall under his weight, and he caught it with a stumble. He stepped away from it with a nervous laugh.
“I guess you’re supposed to be the brawn around here,” said Aula, looking Phi up and down with a frown.
“Mm. Definitely not the brains,” she concluded, her eyes laughing. “That step ladder’s not just for posing on, you know. This half of the room has boxes with labelled bottles; they can go up on the shelves.”
Happy to move quickly on from how much of a fool he was being, Phi grabbed the ladder and got to work. Aula continued with her labelling. Phi wondered how many boxes he would have to stack before they’d moved on from his awkwardness. Was it awkward? He felt awkward. She must feel awkward, too. Right? Clank, clank, clank went his feet up the ladder. Aula’s pool of light winked at him out of the corner of his eye. Is it weird to look at her? I want to look at her. I haven’t looked at her since I started stacking boxes. Is that weird? I’m doing it! He watched her inking the quill, and then carefully tracing out the shapes of the letters. Unable to tear his gaze away, he absent-mindedly clattered his box onto the shelf.
“Careful with that!” warned Aula, looking up from her work.
She’s caught me staring! I wasn’t staring. Glancing. Checking. Phi scrambled clumsily down the ladder. “Ha. Um. Just checking the box was full. I…uh…wanted to make sure you’d told me the right things to put on the shelves,” he said.
“And you couldn’t tell by lifting it?”
“Oh yeah. Well. No harm in being doubly sure.”
“Maybe next time you could – I don’t know – open the box?”
“Yeah. Guess I could do that,” Phi said, grabbing another box with a fumble. When did I become such a clumsy idiot? We have to talk about something that’s not about how stupid I am. “How long have you been working here?” he asked, as the first thing that popped into his head. It was a dull question, and he lost his Enthusiasm halfway through saying it.
“About a year,” replied Aula, frowning as she tried to unstick a crooked label. “How long have you been working here?”
They both laughed, and then fell back into silence. How can quietness be so…awkward? Phi thought to himself as he continued shuffling up and down the ladder. He tried furiously to think of something to say, appalled that talking had become so difficult.
“So –” they both began.
“You go,” said Phi.
“So what’ve you got the job for?” asked Aula.
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you working? I came to work here so I can save up and buy my parents something nice for their birthdays. Think I’m going to get my mum a giggul. I think she gets bored when my dad’s away fishing. Gigguls give off so much Humour it’s got to cheer her up. I never know what to buy for my dad, though. He claims he wants another pair of warm, woolly socks, but I can’t get him the same thing three years in a row.”
Phi struck his relaxing-against-the-ladder pose again. Now I can show her I’m not just an idiot boy! “Oh, well I guess I got the job because I’m a man now and, uh, I thought it was important to learn the value of a hard day’s work,” he said. “Being mature’s important.”
“Being mature sounds boring,” said Aula, pulling out another label.
“Well I’m trying something new,” said Phi quickly, his hand flying through his hair again.
How do I show her I’m not that mature? She looked at him inquisitively. His eyes flicked between hers, and then up to her hair. Without really thinking, Phi tugged the end of the ribbon in Aula’s hair, and pulled it undone. He had no idea why he was doing this. There was something about this girl that made him want to impress her even more than other people. Was stealing her ribbon impressive? What am I doing?
“What are you doing?” snapped Aula. “Give that back!”
Phi dashed around to the other side of the ladder and dangled it at her through the rungs. She grabbed at it, but he snatched it away from her again.
She doesn’t look impressed, Phi thought to himself. He attempted to tie the ribbon into his own hair without great success.
“How do I look?” he asked with a grin.
“Utterly daft,” she said. Aula yanked the ribbon unceremoniously off Phi’s head, and threaded it back into her own tangle of hair.
When they were done labelling bottles, Phi and Aula moved on to restocking the shelves in the front of the store. Aula pointed out some of the broader emotional categories: Love, Joy, Surprise, Anger, Sadness, Fear and so on. More popular Emotions occupied a broader range of the shelf. They each took a shelf and wrote down everything that needed restocking. Once they had their list, they collected the missing Emotions from the store room (“But I just put these away!” Phi moaned), and set about restocking the shelves.
As Aula worked, she tended to dance around the shelves. She bobbed and skipped, humming along to a tune in her head while she put the bottles back on their shelves. She only paused to align the labels outwards, then she would dance back over to the box and grab the next Feeling. Phi watched her with curious Amusement. There was something so sweet about her Obliviousness, dancing along to her own silent tune. Phi couldn’t help but smile as he watched her between the shelves.
“What on earth is she doing?” remarked a customer.
This startled Phi; he hadn’t realised there was anyone else in the shop. The customer – a rotund lady with a lofty nose and a saggy everything else – was standing beside Phi, following his gaze.
“I think she’s dancing,” said Phi.
“I suppose you could call it that,” said the lady snootily. She snickered as she pulled a bottle of Serenity from the shelf to inspect it. Phi laughed along uncomfortably, but their laughing caught Aula’s attention, and her face flushed bright pink. She thwacked the bottle she was holding onto the shelf with a thud, and stormed off to the back of the shop.
Phi skidded over the shop counter after her.
“Aula! Wait a second, will you!” he called out as he dashed to the back of the shop.
She quickly ran out of places to hide in the poky store, and Phi cornered her in the tiny kitchenette.
“I’m sorry,” he said, bobbing his head this way and that to look her in the eye.
Aula crossed her arms and refused to oblige.
“I wasn’t laughing at you,” he said.
“Then what were you laughing at?” she asked, suddenly meeting his gaze.
“I was laughing with that customer!” he said, unable to hold her glare.
“Yeah! Laughing with her at me!”
“That’s not…uh…I…uh…I was just trying to…ah…I like your dancing! I think it’s sweet. I do like it. I really do!”
“Whatever,” said Aula, pushing past Phi.
Phi spent the rest of the afternoon trying to catch Aula’s attention and give her an apologetic look, but Aula spent the rest of the afternoon ignoring him. They stacked shelves in silence. When Aula refused to talk, Phi started thinking of questions to ask: “Where does Envy go?” “How many rows of Envy do we normally stock?” “Don’t you think it’s weird Envy is filed under Anger?” Aula only replied to the questions needed for the job, often pointing rather than speaking.
Phi’s father was disappointingly underwhelmed by Phi’s successful job hunt. The week had dragged as Phi waited to see Aula again, but today Phi was brimming with so much Excitement you could have bottled it. He cradled his precious project as he barged through the shoppers on the high street.
The bustling fishing town of Marsy was embedded stubbornly in the cliffs. Steep pathways zig-zagged their way through each colourful level of town to the yawning waves below. The narrow high street, halfway down the hillside, was always teeming with people on a Friday afternoon.
“I reckon they must all hide away in a dark room and jump out at the end of the week like a surprise party,” Phi once tried to joke with his father.
“That’s work for you,” his father had replied with a face as straight as his pinstripes.
Phi was now fifteen, and he’d reached that age where working life had lost its glamour. There was no more “When I grow up, I want to be the Premier,” or “I want to be a mountain lie-on tamer.” His father, Sir Rayleigh, wanted him to be a businessman. Sir Rayleigh was a businessman, but Phi still wasn’t quite sure what that meant. As far as Phi could tell, they just sat around writing numbers down on paper. Then they’d sit down with other businessmen to talk about what numbers they had written on their paper, and somehow this all “put food on the table.”
When he was younger, Phi had scribbled some of his favourite numbers – like nineteen, and four – on a scrap of paper, and sat down to talk about them with his friend Yan, but no matter how long they compared their papers, no chocolate ever materialised.
As Phi pushed through the crowds, the flood of shoppers became a trickle. He was soon up above the high street in the residential levels of town, where the wind whipped at his face and salted his tongue. Out here – far from the Factory – it was normally easy to feel the Emotions on the sea breeze. A south wind often shivered with Loneliness, while an easterly breeze sighed Tranquillity. The forecast had predicted a strong, lonely wind, but Phi found it uncharacteristically indifferent.
The large, wrought iron gates in front of his house were heavy and stiff. Phi heaved them open just wide enough to squeeze through, then put all of his weight into closing them again. He ran up the path to the front door and bolted through the house to his father’s study.
During the day, the huge, south-facing window kept Sir Rayleigh’s study light and airy, but in the evenings, long shadows sprawled from the desk lamp. A smoky aroma pervaded every crevice of the room. It often twisted Phi’s stomach, reminding him of the time he’d secreted away one of his father’s cigars to smoke with Yan. The results were nauseating.
Then – of course – there was Phi’s father. Sir Anton Rayleigh was a busy man. He wasn’t busy in a frantic kind of way like Yan’s mother; she always seemed to be ten minutes late for some appointment or another. Sir Rayleigh was busy in a calm way: the sort of way that meant when you talked to him, he continued writing down whatever numbers he was working on. If he put his pen down and looked at you directly, you could practically see the invoice for his time, itemised by the second. The effect of this intimidating study – with its intimidating occupant – usually made Phi feel uncomfortable enough to stay away unless it was urgent, but today Phi’s Enthusiasm overcame everything else, and he burst into the room.
“Look what I made in the workshop!” Phi announced.
“What have I told you about running in the house?” said Sir Rayleigh coolly, his eyes still fixed on his work.
“Don’t do it,” said Phi, his grin evaporating.
“And what about shouting?”
“Don’t do it.”
“And barging in?”
“…Don’t do it. I’m sorry, sir. It’s just, today I finally finished making my fishing rod in the workshop.” Phi presented his creation for his father to see, but Sir Rayleigh’s gaze continued to scan over the papers on his desk.
“I see,” said Sir Rayleigh (but Phi highly doubted he did).
“And, well, it’s Friday, sir.”
“Indeed it is.”
“And you said you’d come fishing with me when I finished building my rod. I think it’s the best thing I’ve made so far! The lathe was broken, but I helped Mr. Tavish fix it. And now I’ve got a much smoother finish than any–”
“Perhaps Mr. Tavish needs reminding that getting one’s hands dirty in an oily machine is no way to spend one’s school days. It takes oratory and arithmetic to become a businessman, not sweat and grime.”
“But –” Phi began, not really knowing how to phrase his protest. But you promised? But I like sweat and grime? He shifted from foot to foot.
Sir Rayleigh’s pen finally stopped scratching at the paper on the desk. He sighed and looked up from his work.
“Look, Raphael,” he said. Phi grimaced. “You’re growing up. One day soon – much sooner than you think – you’ll be looking after a son of your own. Don’t make faces. You’ll need to work hard to give him the best life you can. It’s important that you understand the value of a hard day’s work. Focus on your job at Mr. Reese’s, and stop fiddling with your greasy machines.” Sir Rayleigh burned the message into Phi with his eyes.
“Yes, sir,” muttered Phi, casting his eyes to the floor.
“Don’t mutter,” his father said, returning to his work.
Phi cleared his throat. “Yes, sir.”
“Very well. That will be all.”
When Phi returned to Mr. Reese’s, Aula still refused to talk to him. They went about their tasks in silence, which made the day feel endless. By the end of it, Phi wanted to scream, just to hear something other than the clink of bottles being rearranged on shelves. The high street swelled with evening shoppers and Phi still hadn’t convinced Aula to talk to him.
But he had a plan.
When the shop was sufficiently full, Phi seized his chance. He fetched a record from the store room and set it on the turntable stashed under the counter. People could barely talk over the blaring music. A quick, jaunty tune filled the store and Phi leapt onto the shop counter. He clapped along to the music with a grin, cajoling the bemused customers to join in. At this point he broke into a ridiculous dance. Phi had never jigged before and – by any reasonable definition – Phi hadn’t jigged after. His feet jittered this way and that, as if they might stumble across rhythm by accident. He threw his arms over his head and leapt from the counter. He lunged at a hapless customer and spun them round, soon discarding them to grab another.
Suddenly the music stopped.
“What in the blazes is going on out ‘ere?” cried Mr. Reese, only to find Phi had skipped over and started waltzing around the room with him. The crowd began to laugh and cheer, and the clapping only grew louder. “Let go o’ me!” he demanded, but Phi just twirled him around and – out of the corner of his eye – saw a smile creep along Aula’s face.
“Don’t forget!” cried out Phi to the crowd, “Exuberance is half price! And just look how potent it is! Even Mr. Reese is dancing!”
Phi took Aula’s hand and thrust it into Mr. Reese’s, propelling the two of them around the room. Mr. Reese protested at every turn. Phi grabbed a box of Exuberance and started pushing bottles into customers’ hands. “Get it while it’s hot! Don’t all rush me at once now! There’s plenty for everyone!” He emptied the box, hopped behind the counter, and was taking money from the enthusiastic crowd before Aula and Mr. Reese had finished a lap of the store.
Mr. Reese eventually ushered all the patrons out of the store, and hurriedly flipped the closed sign in the window. He spun around and hobbled over to Phi with a look of utter Fury. He chewed his gums for a few moments, looking for the words to explain just how wrong that whole shenanigan had been. With an exasperated sigh, he just hoisted himself back over the counter, shaking his head and muttering inaudibly to himself.
Phi caught Aula trying to stifle a laugh.
“We’re tidying up before leaving,” she said, pulling her face straight again.
Phi moved the empty boxes back to the store room, clapping his hands free of the dust as he returned. He smiled to himself as he looked out across the counter. Aula was mopping the floor, bobbing and dancing with the mop handle to her own silent tune.
He approached her slowly.
“Hey,” he said quietly, rubbing his arm. He launched into his question. The words tumbled over each other, just about managing to come out in the right order. “Do you want to come fishing after work? I made this rod in the workshop. I helped Mr. Tavish fix the lathe, so it’s got the smooth–”
she said simply, smiling.