As soon as the clock struck eight, she heard the bell on the door clang.
“This early?” she whispered to herself with a surprised edge to her voice.
She glimpsed forlornly at the battered, engraved door, as if to reluctantly receive an unwanted yet necessary blessing to start her day. The bell clanged again, and she hurried to the common room and gave it a sweeping look to make sure everything was in place before climbing down the elaborately designed flooring of the silong and headed straight for the big wooden tarangkahan.
She looked up at the ceiling and stared at the mirror installed there, meant to spy on whoever was on the other side of the door. It mirrored an upside down reflection of a man.
The mirror then emitted a tiny green dot on its right-hand corner. It meant that the man was no threat to the Bahay.
She lifted the wide wooden beam that served as the tarangkahan’s lock, pulled open the heavy door, and welcomed her first customer with a smile. He wore a grey buttoned shirt under his coat that had seen better days.
He smiled timidly back and muttered a “Thanks” with his husky yet gentle voice as he stepped in. She led him to the common room and asked him to sit down on one of the antique chairs. He handed her a small bag before he sat down.
“Salamat po. Please fill this up as you wait,” she said as she handed him a glass screen that she got from the pocket of her apron and headed toward the other room at the right wing of the common room. The double door on this wing was widely opened and from the common room, one could see the long workers’ table that had several drawers. It looked weathered yet polished, a striking example of contrasts, much like the Bahay and the purpose it housed.
She stood on the other side of the table—which also had drawers on that side. Facing the common room, she pulled open the right-hand drawer and a pair of worn leather gloves. Beside the gloves was a pair of long thin tweezers, which she picked up as well. She closed the drawer and opened the one under it. She took out an old, rust-free plate that had dents then closed the drawer.
She wore the gloves and opened the small bag. Using the tweezers, she emptied the bag of its contents, carefully placing each item on the plate. When she was quite certain her tweezers could no longer reach for anything other than the bag’s bottom part, she turned it inside out and gently shook the dust that rested there, before putting it back on the table. She eyed the things that she took out from it—a dead, ancient, battered yet precious-looking pocket watch, an intricately designed bottle opener keychain, and a simple yet elegant payneta that looked as old as the workers’ table.
She carefully looked at her male customer, who was still busy fiddling with the glass screen she handed him. She knew him, not personally, but based on the past few transactions she had had with him. Few, yes, but that didn’t mean she could easily forget a face.
He rarely visited this shop, so that meant he either enjoyed the simple life he had or had nothing much to trade anyway, or perhaps both. And when he did visit, he always brought things that would probably not matter much to bigger merchants but still amount to something. And he would only visit if he wished to trade for a gift, either for a child or an adult—both female, perhaps his wife and daughter, she couldn’t say because she never saw a ring. And yet, people these days used varied things to symbolize their being married or engaged to someone.
She returned her gaze to the items on the plate and placed them on a brass scale on the table. She took note of the weight. She then grabbed the plate and turned to the wall which was adorned with old portrait of much older people, and pushed an invisible button to reveal a small opening. She placed the plate inside it; the tiny door sealed itself shut once more.
She replaced the gloves and tweezers in the drawer and retreated to the common room.
As if on cue, the man finished fiddling on the glass screen and looked up at her. He reached out and handed her the glass screen with a smile.
She thanked him and skimmed on the screen quickly. On it were the information about the man, such as his name, age, address, his social security number, and his family—she was right, married with two daughters, and lived on the downtown, too—she assumed she was correct in his simple way of living.
When she skipped to the item to be traded for, she raised her eyebrows in amusement.
“It’s for my eldest, she’s turning seven next week,” he said rather nervously, as if responding to her amused reaction.
She felt herself go slightly red and warm, a bit ashamed when she realized what she might have looked like to the man for him to have felt the need to explain his transaction. But this didn’t seem to bother him; he was still smiling.
“Of course, sir. I understand,” she said, regaining herself. On the glass screen, a word appeared scribbled below the page—it said Approved. “This will be perfect for her,” she added in jest, making the man smile widely. “Very well, if you are ready, sir,” she said, gesturing for him to follow her back to the adjacent room with the long workers’ table.
They went inside the room but did not linger there. On the left was another double door. She pulled it open, ushered the man inside, and sealed it shut.