This is a collection of stories which are kind of writing themselves. They come into the shop, and then get stuck inside the shopkeeper’s head. And as the shopkeeper doesn’t have a very big head, this seemed the best way way of emptying them out again. That is to say, sharing them. No, they’re not true stories. They are, rather, a mish mash of the kaleidoscope of life experiences that pass through our emporium….
Jay’s far too hot. He can feel a bead of sweat inching down between his shoulder blades, and a ball of concomitant rage boiling up from somewhere in his groin. His skin tickles, tingles, until he can bear it no longer and he snaps his arms out wide, bellowing with frustration.
He fumbles for one of several pipes rolling around in the detritus under his bed, and removes a wad of base from his bedside drawer. He’d heard Jen go out a few minutes before, so fuck it. He will smoke. Right there. In his room.
Jen is Jay’s mother. They had long ago forsworn a normal familial relationship as each had descended into their own lonely, addicted hell. Jen had tried hard: when Jay had been at school he’d been sent off every day with polished shoes and an apple, and his sister Jasmine had always had neat cornrows and pristine white socks. But that was before. And this is now. And Jasmine is dead. The days of cornrows and apples have all dried up, just like the dusty-dead flowers on the mantelpiece, and the row of hopeless brown plants stuck precariously outside the kitchen’s grease-encrusted window.
He curses as he burns his thumb on the lighter and drops the crack on his bed in pain. Eventually he gets it to smoulder, and inhales, raspingly, waiting for the rage to calm, and the light to blur, and the hurt inside to grow numb. A few puffs is enough, and soon he lies back on the stink-wrinkled counterpane, spread-eagled, motionless, pacified.
Jen would in all likelihood be out until gone 11: she calls it her karaoke evening, but in reality every evening is the same, however she tries to conceal it. Occasionally she pulls in the pub; then it’ll be JD and coke and a cheap Indian, and she’d roll in in the early hours, everything askance, nothing where it should be. Usually, it’s White Diamond round the clock-tower and a portion of chips on the way home. And then she’d start in on him, droning on through a haze of boozed-up cigarette smoke about how it was all his fault, all her fault, how faulty the world. The sound would go on in his head long after she’d stopped talking, and he couldn’t bear to see his mother like that, sprawled, without dignity, snarling-drunk, bitter.
He knows he has time until she gets back, if she came back tonight, but they’d had words earlier. In which he’d called her a whore, and wherein she’d called him a waste of space. Big hurtful words leaving wheals that would be hard to heal. He wasn’t taking any chances: he would go out. See if he could score off Lenny. Chill a bit. Check whether Chantelle was back from Birmingham yet. Kill time ‘til later, ‘til after his mother had passed out on the sofa. That’s if she hadn’t thrown him out again. Last time he’d called her names, she’d thrown all his clothes in a bin bag and left them on the doorstep. She’d had to take him back in after the police rang her a few days later, mind. He’d been in custody overnight after assaulting a security guard at the library, and ‘no fixed abode’ wasn’t going to help his case any.
Lenny was out, the bastard. Never there when you wanted him. And yet, just when you were trying to go straight, he’d appear at your elbow, like a pale, insistent weasel, with bags of candy to suit all tastes and a hard-to-refuse pay-me-later policy.
So he goes to bang on Chantelle’s Mum’s door. Chantelle was once his girl, his princess. When he’d been 17, 18, 19, they’d been an item, see. She was younger than him, and her Mum was tough, got her out in time, sent her away to her Aunty’s in the Midlands. She’d gone to beauty school and done alright for herself, had Chantelle, and Jay was secretly proud of her. But also angry. Angry that she’d abandoned him. He doubts that her Mum will let him in, but he’s heard his princess is back in town. He needs to see her.
“Alright Mrs. Jacks?” he mumbles, when, much to his surprise the door opens. The large lady who now appears from between the plastic fronds of a pound-shop strip curtain is not someone you’d mess with, and Jay has always been slightly scared of her. He takes a step back. “Chantelle home?” he asks.
“No business of yours even if she is,” replies Mrs. J., her lovely singsong lilt belying the hostility he knew she harboured towards him.
“What you wanting, Jay?” says Chantelle, appearing behind her mother. She is wearing tight little cut-off shorts, and a barely there t-shirt, and everything inside him lurches for the want of her. She smiles sadly. “You mustn’t come round here, you know that. Tell your mother I said ‘hi’, though.”
A flash of her long athletic legs and she vanishes into the fried-food-scented gloom of the flat.
“The answer is no, Jay. Always will be. Go home.” And with that Mrs. Jacks shuts the door firmly in his face.
So it’s like 9 o’clock in the evening. And he’s got no money. And he’s got four hours to kill before he’ll even consider going home.
He pulls a spliff out of his shirt pocket and heads down to the bereft patch of scrub that passes for a playground on the estate. Sitting on the seesaw, he lights up and takes a long, steady toke. And then another. Five puffs and he’s down to a stub: he flicks it into the bushes, amused by the prospect of giving some scavenging pigeon or curious alley cat an unexpected high should they chance upon it.
At his back in a cold blast he can hear the clank of the chains on the dormant swings. He shivers, buttons up his jacket and heads out into the high street, his head spinning from the mixture of drugs and the fact that he had forgotten to eat again today. He’s sweating again, and his thoughts are coming through in the wrong order.
Most of the shops are shut already: it’s that sort of neighbourhood. The off licence bouncer is standing at the door – obviously a quiet night for them then. The chip shop chippie is washing his floor already. Only one shop has lights full-blaring: the weird place on the corner. He’s never worked out why it stayed open so late. And he’s never been in before….
The shopkeeper’s wife is wondering whether to close early, it’s that quiet. Normally they shut at 10, but there hasn’t been a customer for nearly an hour and she let her new shelf-stacking factotum go home early after he wittered something about clubbing and girlfriends. She’ll make a cuppa and close slowly while she drinks it. There’s half an Eccles cake left from elevenses as well. Perfect.
She walks to the rear of the shop to put the kettle on, and then makes her way back to the counter. It is then that she sees a lurching, dark-eyed figure heading for the shop door. Shit – she should have locked herself in. Her husband was always telling her this: if you’re on your own at night, you should run the shop with the door locked, and just let in people you know. Or shut early. That’s what he says. But she’s loathe to do either: business is so bad that every extra punter through the door is a possible quid or two in the till. She moves quickly towards the shop door, key in hand, heart in mouth. After nearly ten years of running a shop on the wrong side of the town centre, little scares her, but she is streetwise enough to know that this guy is trouble. She does not get there fast enough, and he has already got his foot in the door. One look at those black, glassy eyes and his shining pale skin tells her all she needs to know: the guy is completely wasted. So she holds the door open for him, extending the courtesy upon which those off their heads usually insist. It’s all about respect, and if she is very careful, respectful, this lost soul may just wander out again.
She breathes evenly, forcing herself to slow everything down, not wishing to show her fear.
“Hi there,” she smiles, “Do you need any help?”
“Help?” says the man. “Yes, I’ll need your help. I need a trophy for my girl.” He is perhaps in his mid-twenties, and swarthy looking. Mixed race in all likelihood, although she’d be hard put to guess his origins. She realises with a start that she is already trying to describe him in her mind, just in case she needs to describe him to someone else later on. His eyes are mesmerising, even though they are glazed and unfocused: deep pools of purple black, almond shaped, with long lashes. His hair falls over his face in a way that makes him look quite boyish and vulnerable. But everything else about him is unkempt, menacing, repulsive. The faint-but-sickly smell, the dirty fingernails, the unwashed clothes.
She manoeuvres herself so that she is standing between the man and the rest of the shop, this in an attempt to head him off, deter him from penetrating the rear of the premises, instinctively wanting to keep him in full view of the road. All the time she is hoping that one of her neighbours will pop in for some change, or to buy a pint of milk, just to break the nightmare sequence and maybe snap him out of his trance. She fingers the mobile in her pocket, hesitating to bring it out.
He starts to look at a row of vases in the window, his back turned to her, incidentally gazing long and hard at the CCTV camera. The shopkeeper’s wife prays that her husband has remembered to change the tape this morning.
She should whip the phone out now, dial for help, now that his attention has wandered. But… she hardly has a crime to report. The man may be stoned, but he is just browsing. Maybe she can get to the till, press the alarm button. She is alarmed, after all. That would scare him for sure. AND it would alert the police. She takes a quiet step back, and then another but jumps when he starts speaking to her again.
“I’m gonna have all of those,” he said, waving his arm towards a set of blue glassware on the top shelf. He half turns round, and notices that she has moved towards the till.
“Where you going? You need to pay attention when old Jay-J is speaking. That’s what you do: you’re the shopkeeper, and I’m the customer. We’ve got to get our roles right.”
“Absolutely,” said the shopkeeper’s wife. “I was moving to get some bubble wrap so I can package your gifts. Would you like them gift-wrapped?” She refrains from adding ‘Sir’: it would have sounded contrived at best.
“Yeah, gift-wrapped,” says the man-boy who may be called Jay-J. He moves towards the row of books on the side wall. She takes advantage of this and moves swiftly to the counter, towards where the wrapping materials are. As she stretches her hand under the counter towards where the alarm bell is, he spots the phone on the wall to her left and mistakes her intention. He roars across the shop floor, sending a pile of pickles flying, spraying broken glass everywhere. All she can think of as he hurls towards her in apparent slow motion is how long it will take to clear up all the mess and get rid of the smell of garlic and vinegar. The sick-twisting terror in the pit of her stomach has been replaced by an almost surreal calm. Even as he knocks her to the floor, she is dialling 999 on her mobile. She lands with a thump, hitting her head against the wall, but she realises, with the perspicacity of those who have passed through fear and reached the other side, that he is not interested in hurting her. He just wants to shop. In peace. She suspects his violent reaction is a simple, physical, automatic response after years of running up against the law. For she is sure that he must have a criminal record.
He rips the phone off the wall, and throws it across the shop floor. And then without a word resumes his quest to find a gift for his girl. She slides her phone back into her apron pocket, praying that the emergency services will just send someone, anyone, to help. Now she doesn’t dare go for the alarm: the sheer volume is likely to send him even more crazy, and he has just shown what a volatile state he’s in. She will concentrate on herding him away from the back room, keeping him near the street and the windows. Her shoulder hurts, and she realises that she must have cut her knee on the broken glass as it is throbbing and feels wet. She takes a deep breath and gets to her feet unsteadily.
Slowly and deliberately she picks her way over to the window display, and gathers up the blue glass set, bringing the pieces one by one over to the counter.
“So what does your girl like?” she asks. “Does she read? Does she like smellies?”
“You just wrap that glass set up and shut up,” he growls.
Casually she glances outside at the street, but there still isn’t a soul in sight, and traffic lights along the road seem to remain permanently green. She feels so alone, trapped inside her own shop with a deranged addict. She feels small. And she wants to cry.
Jay-J appears at the counter, his jacket bulging with things to which he has seemingly helped himself. She puts the glassware in a bag for him. He takes it, thanks her, and then picks up the giant cardboard cut-out crisp-bearing rabbit near the door for good measure. And with that he is gone. Out, into the night. Staggering along right in the middle of the stubbornly empty road. Scattering crisps in every direction like a one-man carnival attraction.
She already has her keys in her hand, and she flies over to the door to lock it. And then she goes into the back room, out of sight. Out of sight of everything that has just happened. Only then does she remember her mobile: a quick glance at it explains why the police have not arrived – she had not managed to press the ‘CALL’ button.
Now she redials, telling the nice control lady everything that has just happened, stuttering, and then finally sobbing out the details. The police promise to attend urgently. Next she rings the shopkeeper, feeling pathetic, fearing a reprimand, needing a cuddle. He too promises to get home as quickly as possible. And then she sinks down the wall, and curls up into a tiny, tremulous ball.
Her watch is telling her that the whole encounter had taken place in under twelve minutes, but her mind cannot process this, for whilst the man had been in the shop, time had seemed to stand still.
A blue flashing light appears against the opposite wall, and she rises to go and admit the police.
“You alright, love?” the first one asks, somewhat predictably.
They ask questions, write a statement, call for finger-printers, make her the cup of tea that she had never quite managed to drink earlier. She points out the CCTV camera, and the officers are soon chuckling: Jay Butler, the idiot, has smiled right on cue, and offered them a perfect image to present with their case. All the local police know him. And his mother. Rumour was that he’d given his kid sister the drugs which killed her.
“We’ll soon round him up, love. Nasty piece of work. With a bit of luck we’ll be able to put him away with this. People like him? You know, they’re scum: you’re trying hard to run a business in this area, and they just mess everything up.”
Jay catches sight of his image in the mirror of the courthouse washroom. He brushes up quite well really: ought to wear suits more often. That’s if he doesn’t get sent down today. His solicitor reckons he’ll be lucky if he doesn’t get a custodial sentence: he has a record of aggravated burglary and assault, and has already done six months in Brixton for putting a security guard in hospital. It didn’t help that he’d failed to show for the first court hearing.
He has no recollection of the evening he apparently robbed the corner shop, or of knocking over the shopkeeper. Even when he was shown a video of himself doing exactly that. He had woken up the next day on Lenny’s couch, surrounded by empty crisp packets and being watched by a giant cardboard rabbit. Must have been some bad shit that Lenny gave him.
In the court he fiddles with his cuffs and picks at his fingernails. It is not like him to be nervous, and it irritates him. The judge calls the name of the only witness: the shopkeeper. Fuck – he had had no idea she would be here. He was going to plead guilty, and they knew that: there should have been no need for her to come along. Has she come to gloat?
And so there he is, face to face with someone whose evening and much of whose trading confidence he had spoiled. Her face is slightly blotchy, shiny. She smiles, slightly. It is obvious that she is far more nervous than he is. He stops himself from smiling back: it would have seemed like a taunt.
She speaks squeakily, just to take the oath and confirm the details of her statement. When asked if she recognises ‘the defendant’, she identifies him as the man that had entered her shop that evening.
They thank her for attending the court, and tell her she may step down. But she asks to speak. Whah? What’s she doing? He looks at his solicitor with concern, although she’s got such great legs and such a short skirt on that it’s hard to look at her for long.
“Thank you for letting me speak, your honour,” she begins, her voice much stronger now. “The events of that evening have had an impact on my business: I am not as blasé as I used to be, and I am more wary of customers. Frankly, the whole thing was shocking. But it has to be said that I had a lucky escape. Jay Butler did not steal that much, and I sustained just a few cuts and bruises. Sending him to prison when he clearly has dependency issues would not really help him. If I were to have any say in the matter, which of course I am sure that I don’t, I would far rather see him on a programme or in rehab. He came into my shop that evening looking for a gift. Well, this is my gift. To him.. Please be lenient, and get him some help.” With this she stares intently at the two policemen who are sitting on the bench opposite Jay. And then she steps down and vanishes into the gloom at the back of the courtroom.
It is a bright sunny Spring day. The shopkeeper’s wife is washing the windows at the front of the shop when she spots Jay Butler heading towards her. She drops the squeegee with a little cry, and recoils visibly, causing him to look pained.
“Just wanted to say thank you, didn’t I. Look, missus, you’ve no need to be afraid of me. I owe you. Judge said I’d have gone down for sure if it wasn’t for you. And now I’m out of rehab. I’m at college. You get any hassle round here? You call me, alright? I’m your man. I knows people. I owe you. Be safe.”
He shuffles his feet, and looks embarrassed, as if has said more than he wanted too, although it was clearly a little speech he had been rehearsing.
“Er, thank you Jay,” she smiles. And holds out her hand.
This story may be slightly more based on real events than the other stories on the site. Just so you know.