A Growing Collection
by DJ Burnham
forum: A Growing Collection
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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A Growing Collection


        The insistent clanging of the old-fashioned alarm clock announced another day for Herbert Scrottins. A bony little hand shot out from under the crisply folded sheet, hit the off button and flopped down by the side of the bed. Ten minutes later he was in the bathroom, shaving with his habitual fastidiousness. At 6.30am precisely, he put his empty cocoa mug in the washing up bowl, popped a tea-cosy onto the teapot, placed a bowl containing two scoops of Branny Munch onto the square kitchen table (itself covered with a plastic, green and blue, stripy table cloth), and poured precisely a quarter of a pint of milk onto his breakfast; before adjusting his glasses and seating himself with a view through the window; out into the dappled sunlight of a summer morning.

        Having washed up, stacked everything into its rightful place on the draining board, and drawn the curtains in the living room and office, Herbert instinctively began to walk towards the front door. The beautifully polished door knocker (cast in the shape of a magnifying glass) rapped once, paused, and then three times in rapid succession. Herbert's hand was already on the handle before the first knock rang out, but he let his visitor complete his customary sequence, before he opened the door of his picturesque, two-bedroom, country-style cottage. The open door revealed the postman, in his smart blue uniform and peaked cap, standing with a parcel in his hand.

        "Good morning... Mr. Scrottins... How are you... today?" came the well-practiced monotonic greeting, just as the grandfather clock in the hallway next to Herbert struck 7.30am.

        "Very well, thank you," replied Herbert, as he always did. "And are you well?"

        "Yes... thank you."

        "Good. Lovely day again."

        "Yes... thank you."

        "Indeed." Herbert wasn't one of the world's greatest conversationalists, and this well rehearsed, unswerving exchange suited him perfectly. "The parcel is for me?" He held out his left hand.

        "Yes," the postman gave it to him, "...thank you."

        "Excellent," he said, handing the postman a carefully wrapped brown paper package, which he had been holding in his right hand. "Same time tomorrow then?"

        "Yes... thank you."

        With that the postman took the return parcel from him, turned smartly on his heels, marched back down the garden path, past the orderly rows of flowers and closed the wooden blue gate behind him, before setting off down the lane and disappearing from sight behind a tall dry-stone wall. The garden was slightly damp following the previous night's rain—funny how it always seemed to rain at night here, highly convenient, and he hadn't had to water anything in the entire two years that he'd been there; probably just as well, as he'd never had a garden to tend to before and really didn't know the first thing about it. Despite that there was a magnificent display of hollyhocks, delphiniums, clematis, foxgloves, geums, aquiligeas, sweet peas, pelargoniums, roses, lupins, pinks, verbascums, honeysuckle and hydrangeas, all moving gently in the soft summer breeze. Strangely there were no bees or other insects, but that didn't register with him, having spent most of his life in a city. Herbert closed his front door and carried the parcel into his office. He placed it squarely in the centre of his neat desk and tore the previous day's page off the calender block to reveal Wednesday 12th July 2024. Wednesday was grocery day, so he decided to leave the parcel until later, busying himself with chores in the meantime.

        As the grandfather clock struck 9 am, a knock on the door was answered almost immediately by Herbert. The grocery man stood on the porch with a crate in his hands, which he rested on the ground, as the door swung inwards.

        "Good morning... Mr. Scrottins... How are you... today?" asked the expressionless man.

        "Very well, thank you," replied Herbert. "And are you well?"

        "Yes... thank you."

        "Ah, that looks like everything," he said, pointing to the mixture of cleaning materials, jars, tins, bottles, fruit and vegetables. "The usual 50 euros?" He held out a pink note and the grocer accepted it.

        "Yes... thank you."

        "And here is my list for next week, if it comes to less than today perhaps you could make up the difference with some tins of beans?" he inquired.

        "Yes... thank you," said the grocer, taking the pink note and Herbert's new shopping list, sliding them into the well-ironed front pocket of his overalls.

        "Splendid," he said, handing him an empty crate, which had been leaning against the inside of the door frame. "Same time next week then?"

        "Yes... thank you."

        The grocer took the green crate from the previous week's delivery and set off down the garden path, closed the wooden blue gate behind him and disappeared down the lane.

        "Funny how I've never seen his van," said Herbert out loud to himself, as he watched the grocer march down the road. "Looks very much like the postman, that grocer, perhaps it's a family business, looking after the needs of the village. Sounds just like my old science teacher too." He mulled it over for a few moments, just as he did every week. Maybe he'd ask the postie in the morning, but probably not. Herbert was intrinsically a rather shy man and liked to stick to the script; he knew where he was like that. No, this arrangement suited him perfectly, no need to venture far outside the confines of his little world, no danger of meeting strangers or making hasty decisions, all very orderly, all nicely organised. Yes, that suited him down to the ground, he'd never been one for adventures, or big on social occasions, he was more than happy with his life here. All rather lucky really, the way a hobby could turn into gainful employment, and with the added benefit of working from home. Splendid arrangement all round.

        He closed the door and hefted his groceries into the kitchen, placing the full crate in the centre of the table. Methodically he took each item in turn from the crate and ticked them off on a carbon copy of the previous week's shopping list, before placing them in their rightful places in his gleaming kitchen cupboards. He could've walked in there in the dead of night, in pitch dark, and still put his hand on anything he could think of, such was the orderliness of his domestic arrangements. Once that was completed to his satisfaction, he placed the empty crate by the front door, made a cup of coffee, and carried it into his office. One wall was laid over entirely to shelves, with hundreds of apparently identical books; although 40 bulged slightly more than the rest and were placed from the top left to the middle of the first shelf. Opposite that was a bookcase containing a fabulous array of textbooks. He took care to place the hot cup on a coaster, in order to avoid any stains on the leatherette surface of the desk, and to avoid any spillages damaging the technical equipment lined up across the back edge.

        He pulled on his favourite cardigan (the one with the leather patches on the elbows), placed a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles on his pointy nose, tucked the flimsy arms behind his ears and sat down in front of that morning's parcel. He'd be a little late starting that morning, having dealt with the groceries, but he could make that time up by working later into the evening and it would be no hardship, as he loved his work. Picking up a sharp knife, he cut along the joins in the box, through the parcel tape, opened the flaps, sniffed that special aroma of gum and print that only he could recognise, and lifted out the contents.

* * *

        In 2021 Herbert Scrottins had received a letter from the S.P.A.D. (the State Philatelic Authentification Department) inviting him to join their team. It was an odd title, and he'd never heard of them before—which was curious, given his obsession with stamps—but it was a job which would suit him down to the ground. Now in his late 30's he'd spent the previous 20 years of his life dealing with the bureaucratic minutiae of the European Health and Safety Commission. It meant writing a constant stream of replies, admonishments, guidelines and threats, in the face of an ever-increasing mass of strict measures designed to protect the general public from accidents or contamination. Naturally, he knew every clause and policy that the E.H.S.C. had come up with and had dealt with each case in the same efficient, methodical manner, all of which had served to endear him to his employers. Ironically, however, he'd done himself a disservice in some respects, as recent promotion meant that he now had to deal with people directly, either over the vidphone or, far worse, face to face. Herbert detested confrontation and was pretty uncomfortable with social interaction at the best of times. So when this extraordinary new job offer came in, out of the blue, from the S.P.A.D., he didn't have to think too long before tendering his resignation with the E.H.S.C..

        The S.P.A.D. job came with a country cottage, from which he could work, along with the promise of full retirement benefits and, best of all, a form of employment which, for Herbert, was practically indistinguishable from a holiday.

        He'd started collecting stamps when he'd joined the E.H.S.C.. Letters would come in from all over Europe, as much of its bureaucracy still ran on hardcopy paperwork. With the mail came the stamps. No one else seemed to be bothered with them, so as long as he cut them out and sent the rest of the envelope/packaging for compulsory shredding and recycling, he was allowed to keep them. He was considered to be a bit of an oddity by his work colleagues, but Herbert didn't care about that, and they were more than happy for him to dispose of their envelopes too. Consequently his collection grew at quite a pace.

        The S.P.A.D. were offering him the job of verifying the authenticity of material that had been acquired for their archive. Apparently they'd heard about his interest in philately when he'd started trading and buying stamps with other collectors, and had verified his excellent credentials with his current employers. The job would also give him the opportunity to build on his existing collection, by supplying him with occasional batches of rarer items for his own use. He would be allowed to trade duplicates with other S.P.A.D. employees and by developing a private collection it would act as insurance and a back-up, should anything unforeseen happen to the main S.P.A.D. archive. The job offer letter stated that they had carefully selected operatives throughout the world, all involved in the authentification process and all sharing a mutual love of these tiny paper antiquities; in what was rapidly becoming a lost pursuit.

        The only conditions, should he accept, were that he should assemble all of the possessions that he wished to take with him, along with 20 sets of clothing and a bulk supply of any special requirement items and /or medication. He was a man of simple tastes and excellent health, so although the conditions were somewhat unconventional, he sent the acceptance letter to the specified PO Box by return of post. Three days later a bundle of cash, far in excess of his needs, appeared on the doormat, along with a congratulatory covering letter suggesting that he might like to treat himself to a few luxuries, and outlining the next step.

        Seven more days passed and he had assembled all of the requested items, along with everything else that he wanted to take with him, in the bedroom of his top floor rented apartment.

        As he drifted off to sleep that night, he wondered which removal company the S.P.A.D. would employ. It seemed logical to assemble everything in one room, it would speed the whole process up. He'd handed in his notice at work and to his landlord, and with the promise of fully-furnished accommodation, had donated all of his furniture to the next occupant. It was all pretty threadbare anyway. Well, no doubt all would become clear in the morning.

        Herbert awoke fully refreshed, to his customary 6am alarm. He stretched, yawned and started running over the mental checklist of things to do before the removal van arrived. He'd already arranged for the utilities to be transferred into his landlord's name, once the final direct debit payments had been made, and the S.P.A.D. had taken care of all that at the cottage, as well as directly funding his living expenses. It all seemed too good to be true, but he wasn't complaining.

        It seemed quieter than usual that morning. None of the normal Wednesday morning cacophony of slamming doors, servotrams rumbling past and the sounds of his disorganised neighbours shouting at each other as they rushed to get ready for work. He swung his skinny legs out of bed, bleary-eyed, crossed to the window and flung open the curtains. He rubbed his eyes, cartoon-like, not believing what he saw. Gone were the drab, grey rows of identical buildings, scurrying servotrams, and the morning procession of dejected workers. Gone were the familiar fumes and pollutants. There, bathed in the morning sunshine, were fields of wheat and maize, repeating symmetrically out towards the horizon, where trees dotted the landscape, and the scent of flowers and fresh rainfall on the earth. A road ran along the edge of the nearest field, and next to that a dry-stone wall along the edge of a garden which finished immediately below him, against the cottage in which he stood. Herbert made for the bedroom door - still in his night wear - along the landing and down a set of richly carpeted stairs, briefly explored a living room and office, before heading into a kitchen, coming to a stop in front of a hand-painted sign which read:


        The sign was propped up against three bottles of good quality wine, next to a pretty ceramic vase containing a bunch of fragrant sweet peas.

        As he drew tentatively nearer, he saw an official-looking envelope lying on the table, addressed to him. He picked it up and examined the contents as the dizzy confusion gradually subsided. The letter from the S.P.A.D. contained a full explanation.

Dear Mr Scrottins,

Welcome to you new home.

We hope that you find everything to your satisfaction.

Due to the unusual nature of your employment and the incalculable value of the material that you will be handling, it was necessary for our highly trained Reloc team to transfer both you, and your assembled personal effects, overnight. A light sedative was employed, in order to maintain your slumber status, and to preserve total security in the Reloc process.

We apologise for any disorientation or shock that you may have experienced, but please be assured that it was entirely necessary, both for your personal safety, and for that of the project. You will be handling some extremely rare items in the years ahead. There are several criminal organisations who have started to deal in stolen stamps, as the rarest authentic artifacts can change hands for anything up to 50,000 euros each. Consequently you will appreciate that the whereabouts of our operatives must remain a closely guarded secret, as a lucrative black market, coupled with counterfeiting, threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our archive. Additionally, there is an appalling disregard for the value of life inherent in the criminal mind, so we have made every effort to ensure your well-being.

You find yourself in a carefully selected, secure location and, as promised, all of your domestic needs will be catered for. Each week a delivery of grocery items will be made directly to your door. You will not have to concern yourself with shopping trips, you will simply be required to provide a list of provisions to be handed over with the previous week's empty container. Low level public interaction is of paramount importance, if we are to keep you beyond reach of the tendrils of the criminal fraternity. Your personal profile falls well within those acceptable parameters, which is another reason that you were selected. The only contact you will have will be with the grocery delivery man and the postman. We would request that you keep verbal exchange to a minimum and enclose a set of guidelines for you to study.

All financial concerns will be met by us. You are welcome to alter the arrangement of both the internal layout of your accommodation, and that of the external horticultural features. The existing plants, however, have been selected for low maintenance characteristics. This region also has the added advantage of high soil fertility and nocturnal rainfall, so it should not be necessary to irrigate or tend the horticultural features.

Your daily work assignment will be delivered by post. To assist with the authentification process a full library of philatelic resource is at your disposal in the office area (including postmark, gravure/intaglio, letterpress and lithography i.d.), along with spare magnifying glasses, a microscope, Dandy roller water mark ident equipment, long and short wave ultraviolet lamps for fluorescence and phosphor afterglow confirmation, a chromagraph unit and gum/adhesive analysis micro-sampler. Full instructions will be enclosed with your first assignment. Stockbook albums for your personal use are provided on the shelves in the office area, as is your current personal collection. Bonus enclosures will be made with the assignments, for you to keep and trade with. Trading with fellow operatives will be made via specially designed trading wallets, to be enclosed with your daily assignments returns, as and when you wish.

If you have any further enquiries or concerns, then please address them in a letter and enclose it with your daily assignments returns, as all communication with us will be limited to this method for security reasons.

Welcome to our team of S.P.A.D. operatives and to your new life.

        Herbert carried the letter into his new office, placed it on the desk, and started to leaf through some of the books in the library.

* * *

        It was early evening as Herbert taped up the parcel containing that day's assignment returns, and placed it on the wooden shelf by the front door. He'd treated himself to a peak at the bonus envelope and was pleased, as ever, to find some fascinating new items enclosed. He might go through them in detail later on, but for now it was time for dinner.

        The sun had been set for over an hour by the time that he closed the album he was currently working on. He looked across, with immense satisfaction, at the steadily growing collection of albums on the top shelf. Not bad for five years, he thought to himself. Some of the trading wallets had produced excellent results and he wondered if a few of the other operatives were as keen, or as widely versed as he, because once in a while he'd found that a relatively common stamp had been exchanged for something far more valuable, but he wasn't complaining.

        As he climbed the stairs to bed, carrying his customary mug of cocoa, Herbert reflected on the day. Work had gone well again, executed with typical pride and attention to detail, and there was the promise of another exciting bonus enclosure tomorrow.

        He sipped his cocoa and thought to himself how much he loved his job, his cottage, his life. It really didn't get any better. He placed the empty mug on the bedside cupboard, set the alarm clock for another morning, switched off the light, and settled down for another night's perfect sleep, lulled by the gentle pattering of rainfall outside.

* * *

        Hoolgrax Boo-the-Fourth straightened up and chirruped happily to himself. Out of his entire collection, the human was one of his favourites. The challenge of designing a such a complex Reloc scenario had really paid off with this one. His research into Earth culture and species characteristics had taken several sheddings to assimilate, let alone the countless Reloc proposivids that he'd gone through before finding the ideal subject. It was, as always, all in the planning. Hoolgrax removed the magnisnoops which enabled him to observe Herbert's every move, via their connection with the one-way view dock and via the links with hundreds of microports concealed throughout the cottage and external system. He checked the Artibioenviromic Simulator dials, to ensure that atmospheric gas levels, air pressure, gravitational effects, solar chronometer and seasonal overlay generator were all functioning at optimum. He briefly replaced the magnisnoops to confirm that the Simulbot had already changed into the Postman's outfit, and that the next consignment of stamps had been correctly processed and parcelled. He was tremendously proud of his unbroken success rate with all of his exhibits. It was hard enough to design an Artibioenviromic Simulator program to keep each one alive, let alone to maintain a local normality illusion, as well as creating a manageable self-worth system which would be at once both believable and satisfying to the subject.

        Hoolgrax glided along the circular wall of his exhibit dome, treating himself to a quick peek through the magnisnoops at the morning activities of the lizropod, as it basked in the growing warmth of artificial sunshine.

        Folding himself into the regen shedding cot—akin to sleep for his species—Hoolgrax reflected on the day. The subjects were all in excellent physical and mental health. His plans were nearing completion for the next acquisition and should be ready for submission, via standard etheric transmission, to the Reloc team. It was strange that no-one else came to see his collection of fabulous exhibits, but in truth, he really preferred it that way. Flicking off the glowall, he settled down for another well-earned period of regenerative shedding.

copyright 2006 DJ Burnham.

DJ Burnham has had a lifelong love of Science Fiction. Having recently retired from an exciting sideline in concert promotion for the likes of Roy and Nick Harper, he has found time to pen some stories of his own, many of which have appeared in webzines such as Silverthought, Bewildering Stories and Aphelion. With a full-length novel in the pipeline, he also writes poetry and creates original decoupage-style artwork. DJ Burnham lives in Brighton, England with his wife Sue and their cat. He is a Health Service worker by day and a dreamer by night.

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