Saturday 28 February 2009

ShΩpolopolous Girl

The date gets his visa to travel around Europe.
“What about Gambia?” he suggests.
The cheap holiday offer is only valid on a specific set of days.
“Ooh yes!” I cry, “How exciting!”
I picture flamingos and red earth.
“I’m away those days so you’ll have to cover,” Mum says, ending the dream.
“How about Malta?” the date asks.
It doesn’t have the same ring as Africa but I’m up for it.
He keeps looking.
“I’ve been before but I’d definitely go again.”
I think I’m being quite easy-going but the date suddenly gets irritated.
“You don’t want to go anywhere!”
I’m baffled.
“Just choose a place yourself!” he says, pushing his laptop towards me.
“Uh. Athens?”
He grabs the laptop back.
I’m thinking feta cheese, olives, sunshine, the Acropolis, terracotta pots, vine leaves, togas and goats.
Well, it nearly doesn’t happen because our 4.30 train doesn’t show up.
That’s 4.30 AM; otherwise known as Stupid O’Clock.
The screen finally admits it’s been cancelled twenty minutes later.
We join the other panicking group of travellers on a bus heading for Blackfriars. One of the travellers knows of an alternative train.
Alternative in the sense it moves backwards.
My heart shrinks with every lethargic chug of that awful train.
I can’t believe we’re going to miss our plane. It’s our first international trip together.
Even though our gate is already closed, we still run to the check-in.
The airport is heaving.
The easyjet queues are swollen.
I slow down in front of them, breathing fast.
An air steward steps in front of us.
“Sofia?” he asks.
“No, Emily,” I say.
“Athens!” my date cries.
The steward nods and waves us ahead of the queues to the check-in desk.
“Close the gate as soon as you’ve done these two,” he says.
Thank Zeus!
Three hours later and we’re in unexpectedly messy Athens; there’s graffiti all over the place and lots of burnt and boarded up buildings with unfinished roofs.
I’m not put off though; I’m still amazed we’ve made it.
“Maybe our hotel is in the ghetto,” my date says, by way of explanation.
It’s not very sunny either.
In fact it’s spitting with rain when we visit the Acropolis and so windy I almost lose my hat.
The date takes amazing pictures. I cut his head off in mine.
There’s hardly a tourist in sight even though it turns out to be Carnival.
On Saturday the wigs and party hats come out.
We find a pair of oversized orange sunglasses which boosts our popularity in the bars.
A nonchalant barman in a dressing gown serves us up free ouzo shots with cream.
“Markos,” he says, when we ask him his name.
What a hero.
People think we’re locals. We can’t understand a word they’re saying and communicate with our orange sunglasses instead.
They say travelling with the date is the big test. But it wasn’t really.
The real test on this trip was finding coffee for less than 4 Euros.
Who told me Greece was cheap?
I suppose it was revealing in some ways. I now know the date gets excessively irritated by pigeons.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Sugary Shop Girl

Patrick, the retired road sweeper, is writing his will at the counter.
“This is a bit morbid now, isn’t it?” he says cheerfully.
Mum’s been overseeing a lot of his form filling since his wife died. She insists she doesn’t want anything in return but he’s repaying her anyway, in doughnuts.
This week there’s been a record amount of cakes passing through our door.
It used to be just Patrick but now another elderly regular has started dropping them in too. There are currently two lemon muffins on the bottom of the stairs.
There was a time when Patrick only brought in Tottenham cakes; he’d drop them off in packs of four.
Tottenham cakes are like breeze blocks covered in pink icing.
Mum eventually cracked.
“I have to tell you something,” she confessed one day, “we just don’t like the pink ones.”
Patrick didn’t get it.
“But they come from the bakers next door,” he said.
“I know...” Mum winced. “We love all the other’s just the pink ones...”
A part of Mum must’ve regretted speaking out. But somewhere, a landfill site of pink cakes was growing, and she couldn’t cope with the idea of such colossal waste.
Anyway, now he brings us in doughnuts, mainly iced rings but occasionally other types too.
Today it’s three jam doughnuts; one for me, one for Mum and one for my neighbour, who’s on a diet.
Patrick suddenly looks up from his will.
“Never been a wine drinker meself,” he says. “But I had a drop the other day and I tell you what, you can really get hooked on that stuff.”
“That’s why I’ve moved to beer,” I say.
“Makes you fat,” Mum says.
“And sherry?” Patrick says. “How about a nice drop of sherry?”
Mum nods. “Yes, sherry’s okay.”
Later on, he comes back with a bottle of the stuff. We put it besides the lemon muffins and the three doughnuts on the bottom of the stairs; we’re a bit caked out this week and not yet ready to take on this new lot.
It’s not over though.
While Mum’s upstairs, Blanche comes in. She’s slurring her words but I’m up for a chat. She once said she was writing a play so I ask her how it’s coming along.
“If I write it,” she says, “it will be a big hit.”
“Great, then do it!”
“A big, big hit. Better than all this rubbish they do on the telly.”
“Fantastic. So finish it and send it off.”
“No,” she says. “I can’t.”
“Copyright. If I send it off they’ll copy it.”
“So you’re not going to do it?”
She leaves as another customer rushes in to look at a floor lamp.
While I’m switching the lamp on to show him, Blanche opens the door and throws a small box onto the nearest display shelf.
It’s not just any box; it’s a box with the baker’s logo on it.
By the afternoon, there are so many edibles at the bottom of the stairs we’re in danger of tripping up and breaking our necks.
My local Spanish friend comes in with a thermos of coffee.
Oh, what coffee.
It transports me straight back to my days in Barcelona when there was no need for long winded menu boards because coffee was coffee and milk was just milk.
“Ah, what nostalgia!” I sigh.
And then I hear a clatter as Mum trips to avoid the cakes.
I turn to my friend.
“Would you like a doughnut?”
She starts to say no then hesitates.
“Oh alright, go on then.”
One down, I think.
And so spreads the sweetness of our little shop.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Shop Girl Valentine

I make the mistake of telling the date I think Valentine’s Day is stupid.
“You didn’t!” my friend cries, when I tell her. “What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know! I got nervous!”
“Now he’s not going to do anything!”
She’s expecting her boyfriend to propose to her on Valentine's.
They’ve already organised their wedding and honeymoon, now he just needs to get down on one knee.
It’s all backwards in their tradition; her words not mine.
“But it’s so commercial, isn’t it?" I sigh. "It is though, isn’t it?”
Apart from a plasma lamp and a picture frame with hearts on it, I can’t say we’ve really profited from the event.
My friend thinks I’ve blown it.
“I don’t know how you’re going to backtrack now,” she says.
I have to hang up because I’ve got customers. They are two huge Nigerian blokes, so tall they are in danger of being knocked out by the chandeliers.
One of them is holding an electric hair clippers with mismatched cable perilously taped together.
It looks about as safe as rain in a light shop.
They want an adaptor for its two-pin plug. I suggest changing the plug altogether and ask if I should do it for them.
I get my wire strippers and screwdriver.
They watch me closely. They weren’t expecting I could use a tool because I’m wearing lipstick.
One of them sits on the stool opposite me and leans over the counter. He has watery eyes and badly pockmarked skin.
“You are not British. Where are you from?”
“I am, sort of. Spanish-English.”
“Spanish...” he pauses. “Hola.”
“Como esta?”
“Would you marry a black man?”
The question just pops out of nowhere and I’m so surprised I can’t answer.
What black man is he talking about?
Where from?
Can’t he be more specific?
Is he talking about himself?
I think of my date. Why would I marry a random black man when I already have a date?
The tension is palpable. And it grows with every second I delay in answering.
“Well I have a boyfriend so...”
“I’m not asking you if you have a boyfriend,” he interrupts, staring at me. “I’m asking if you would marry a black man.”
“That’s a stupid question.”
His friend, who has been standing by his side looking uncomfortable, agrees.
“Yeah, it’s a stupid question.”
“Look,” I say, “I would marry someone who has a good heart and is well-suited to me, colour doesn’t come into it."
There is silence.
My interrogator nods. “Good answer.”
The atmosphere relaxes. The interrogator’s friend tries to engage me in conversation.
“So how many Valentine’s days have you celebrated with your boyfriend?”
“None... it’s the first one.”
He laughs, as if to say that it doesn’t really count then.
But I learned a while ago that the customer isn’t always right.
It does count.
On Saturday, my date opens the door, grinning.
“Wait here,” he says. “You can’t go into the kitchen yet.”
I smell a surprise.
It smells delicious.
“Okay,” he calls. “You can come in now!”
I'm glad he didn’t take me seriously.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Shop Girl and Fallen Goods

I’m on the phone to mum when a man comes into the shop with a pile of Guardian newspapers.
Late 40’s, cross-eyed and grey-haired; he’s wearing a blue anorak with a name badge around his neck.
Except it’s not a name badge because it doesn’t have his name on it.
In fact it looks like he’s cut out a piece of cereal box and laminated it himself with sellotape.
“Mum, I’ll call you back.”
“I’m selling for the children,” he says in broken English, putting a newspaper down on the counter in front of me.
He runs his finger under the typed price.
“90p, very cheap,” he says.
I look at the paper for a clue but I don’t get it.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m doing for the church.”
“What are you doing for the church?”
“I get money for children. I am charity.”
“What charity?”
“For the church.”
“I don’t understand. Who are you?”
He touches his chest, “I am...” he pauses, struggling with the word that comes out sounding very French, “Volontaaaire.”
“But why are you selling The Guardians for charity?”
Usually people come in with a badge and a money collection tin and we give them something because it’s quicker than not giving them something.
“It’s good,” he says, nodding, “got sport section...”
“I know what The Guardian is,” I say, frowning, “but why are you selling it to me for charity for the same price as Costcutter?”
“For the children. I am charity.”
“Yes but...”
“For church...”
I can see I’m not going to make much headway in my investigation so I end up buying a newspaper and giving him 60p over the odds.
I check that it’s today’s date, which it is, and call Mum back.
“I think I’ve just bought a stolen Guardian.”
“Ah,” she says.
“I don’t really know how it happened.”
I never knowingly buy things that have fallen off the back of the lorry because it would be like encouraging someone to steal from my shop. This is South East London and goods are forever falling off the back of vehicles. Presumably that’s why there are so many traffic jams.
Watches, fake Louis Vuitton bags, cameras, bubble bath, mobiles, Ipods and now The Guardian.
Only last week someone tried to sell me a king-size bed.
“I over-ordered,” the lad said.
Apart from the fact I can only just fit a single bed in my room, I couldn’t help thinking how implausible it sounded.
You’d think you’d take the bed back to the shop, wouldn’t you?
It’s not like an extra pair of tights that you end up keeping because you know they’ll come in handy sooner or later.
“I don’t need one, thank you,” I said, “But good luck.”
Good luck? I thought to myself after. Why on earth would I wish him good luck?
But I worry if I’m not super polite the next thing they’ll be trying to flog will be my chandeliers, and I’m quite happy to do that by myself, thank you very much.

Monday 2 February 2009

Shop Girl Snivels and Dribbles

My date comes back from his travels with a bear hug and coffee beans covered in chocolate.
It’s our first date in six weeks and I want to watch something nice; something that echoes the warm, happy feeling I have inside.
The Indian millionaire film is supposed to be the feel-good movie of the year.
“I cried all the way through,” my cousin says.
I assume she means cried with happiness.
But whoever wrote the poster for it needs to watch the film first.
Feel-good factor?
I would have felt better if I’d stuck my finger in the mains tester.
In no time, I'm blubbing like a toddler who’s got lost in a room full of clowns.
And I really don’t like clowns.
In fact the only thing that could’ve made this film more depressing was if they’d added a few clowns dancing to bangla in the background.
Kids sleeping in rubbish, diving through poo, fighting for survival; it’s not exactly sunny material, is it?
My maternal instincts are on over-drive.
How am I possibly going to save all these little children?
My date glances at me sideways and notices the gleam of snot and tears.
He rubs my knee. But it’s not enough.
I’m still snivelling when I get home.
The thing is, I’m an impulsive sort of person and being impulsive when you’ve got access to internet has its consequences.
A few clicks later and I’m agreeing to sponsor a child.
I don’t know who the child is or where they come from. All I know is that I’m going to have to cancel my Time Out subscription a bit sharpish.
At work I carry on as normal.
My gums are still bleeding and Blanche, sloshed as usual, tells me to buy special mouthwash from the dentist.
The receptionist has other ideas.
“Do you think you are a dentist? How do you know what you need?” she says. “I’ll book you an appointment now.”
To be fair this dentist is miles better than the last one who saw me.
This one shows me a diagram.
After that she gives me four injections in one side of my mouth.
I try to think happy thoughts as she digs the oral claw hammer between my teeth.
I try to sing a soothing song in my head.
I want to ask her if she wanted to be a dentist when she was little.
Maybe this child I’m sponsoring will want to be a dentist.
Fifteen minutes later I’m back in front of the sullen receptionist, my face half paralysed.
“You’re bleeding,” she says.
I’m also dribbling all over myself, but she doesn’t mention that.
She points to the special offer electric toothbrushes.
Eighty quid! Ouch.
“Your teeth are going to fall out,” she says, looking bored.
So I buy the toothbrush.
And floss. And mouthwash. And special toothpaste for sensitive teeth.
A few days later I hear news from the sponsorship programme.
The child is a little boy from Guatemala.
He looks out grumpily from the photo as if someone’s interrupted his playtime.
I try but I can’t see his teeth.
They can’t be that bad though; he’s only three and hasn’t had them very long.