Avid readers of this column will remember that last month there was some discussion with my assistant Norman about how we would cope in the shop if one of us got ill. As usual, we came to no definite conclusion.
Surprise, surprise, three days later Norman went down with shingles (again). His wife Enid rang in to say Norman was lying in a darkened room. He had only eaten half his boiled egg and she was beginning to wonder whether his personal insurance policy included funeral expenses.
She had rung the health centre to ask about a home visit, but there were no doctors available until a week next Friday, when the lady trainee came back from skiing.
Lending a hand
“Norman’s very concerned that you’ll have to cope on your own,” Enid said. “He wonders whether I should come in and give you a hand. I’ve had experience. I used to work in the pizza takeaway next to the cattle market and it must be very similar.”
I thanked her for the kind offer and said I’d see how I got on. I gave a similar answer to my wife Doreen when she rang later in the day and said she didn’t mind holding the fort for the afternoon while I went to the suppliers.
I appreciate their concern, but I’ve been there before and I guess there are few independent shopkeepers who aren’t familiar with the tension that invariably descends behind the counter when your loved ones decide they want to take over.
My dad told me all about it donkey’s years ago and he was speaking from bitter experience. “Your mother has been trying to get behind that counter for 30 years,” he once said. “If she had, we’d have been bankrupt in a week.
“Chaps don’t want to buy a jockstrap or cricket box from a woman and who can blame them?”
I happen to know that his real reluctance to let my mother work in the shop was that she would have stopped him throwing his cigarette ends down the toilet, going to the pub at lunchtime, playing darts in the storeroom and putting sugar in his tea.
Of course, there must be some couples who work harmoniously behind the counter, exchanging fond smiles over the VAT returns, but they haven’t reached this neck of the woods.
Sadly, more typical is my friend Pellworm, who is in partnership with his wife in a sports clothing shop in the next town. I use the word partnership loosely - they haven’t exchanged a civil word in nine years to my knowledge.
Pellworm keeps the shop open all hours, even on Sundays, to earn the money he would be delighted to pay in alimony, if only his wife would agree to divorce him.
We get quite a few customers who come to us because they can’t get what they want at Pellworm’s, mainly because his attention is elsewhere - like the time his wife was attacking the office door with an angle grinder or cutting the coaxial cable off the till with a bread knife.
Indeed, the only time he gets a bit of peace is on Monday and Friday evenings, when his wife leaves the house to work as a voluntary marriage guidance counsellor.
Apparently, they first discussed divorce in the car from the church to their wedding reception in 1982 and things have gone downhill ever since. When I once asked why they still went on holiday together, Pellworm said he would rather take her with him than kiss her goodbye.
Most of Pellworm’s spare time is spent looking in estate agents’ windows for some premises he could afford to buy as a home and shop and so escape from his exceedingly unsatisfactory domestic situation.
My husband tortures our dog
So far he has been unsuccessful and when he foolishly left the details of a derelict butcher’s shop lying about, his wife responded by cutting the toes out of three dozen Arsenal away strip socks and sticking a four foot high notice on the shop window reading ‘My husband tortures our dog’.
I have to confess it’s not been easy managing on my own, particularly when there are more than three people in the shop, which happened briefly one afternoon.
My mistake was mentioning it to Doreen, who insisted on coming in last week. It was, as I expected, a disaster. She insisted on paying bills before the red reminders arrived and asked questions like why were there still cricket bats in the window in February? She also hid the sugar.
Then yesterday, a minor miracle - Norman asked if he could come back to work. Enid had been forcing him to watch Countdown and turning off the racing, saying it raised his temperature. He appeared this morning covered in calamine lotion and boy was I pleased to see him. Those darts matches in the storeroom become pretty pointless when you’re playing on your own.