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U3A Writing: Prickly Customer

Cheryl Spry tells of the dramas which unfolded while she was running a corner shop.

I owned a corner shop, with a butcher alongside, then a chemist and a doctor's surgery. I loved the shop, especially the fruit and vegetable section. Everything was fresh and had a unique smell. I felt at peace in my little world. It was such a friendly atmosphere, everyone exchanging their daily news and catching up with each other. No one was in a rush to get back home, especially if gossip was the conversation. Hearsay could be quite intriguing!

Poor Mrs Tyler had ten children, five sets of twins. She was always tired and constantly looking around as if counting to check everyone was there.

She wasn't the only one. I too had to have eyes in the back of my head. Ten boys under eight years of age were a trial for anyone. Some customers would say they would come back later if the Tyler's arrived while they were shopping.

Only my ‘prickly customer,’ as I referred to him, seemed unaware of the chaos around. He appeared to be quite indifferent.

When I saw Mrs Tyler coming down the street, I admit I thought about putting the closed sign in the window. The boys raced in the shop ahead of their mother, scattering in all directions. While I would be busy with Mrs Tyler, they would sneak behind the fruit and vegetable counter. Their cheeks bulging from a juicy, red apple and chins dripping with watermelon juice, they would run around, touching everything with sticky little fingers. I would give them one of my icy looks and they would run away laughing to each other. They were a happy lot, but I decided then and there that ten children were nine too many.

Mr Nelson, the butcher, was nearly fifty years old and had never married. He lived just up the road in a lovely house, and I suspected he must have plenty of money without a wife to spend it. One day he came in to tell me he was getting married. What a surprise. After all, he was quite old, who would want to marry him?

A few weeks later a very dapper looking butcher appeared with his new wife. I felt she looked familiar and mentioned this to her. Well, I couldn't believe my ears. This attractive lady was Mrs Tyler's sister.

Mrs Tyler bought all her meat from Nelson's Butchers, but Mr Nelson had banned the boys after they locked one of the smaller sets of twins in the freezer. Poor Mr Nelson had been very upset with the thought of what could have happened. He felt it better for everyone if Mrs Tyler came on her own to buy her meat.

Mrs Tyler had her sister visiting one day, who offered to go to the butcher for her. During the buying and wrapping of meat, they must have fallen in love. Of course the funny thing is that now Mr Nelson has those same ten mischievous boys as nephews.

My prickly customer came in regularly, and I didn't know a thing about him because he didn't want to talk. I had not been able to draw him out, even though I was, I believe, an expert in eliciting information from people. He would point to an item, muttering to himself.

I tried asking him about his life, but to no avail. He said nothing, just bought his food and left. I found it unnerving and uncomfortable. He had a habit of slipping quietly into the shop. I would turn around and there he was, just standing there.

One day after the Tyler children had been running riot through the shop, my prickly customer came silently through the door, slipped on a lettuce leaf and down he went, flat on his back. He was in great pain and couldn't move.

The doctor fortunately was in the nearby surgery. After an examination he diagnosed a fractured ankle. He mentioned it could have been a lot worse. The customer was in shock and had no one at home to look after him. The doctor suggested he stay in my spare room for a week, until the ankle had mended a little. With a tight smile I agreed. I felt the week ahead was going to be very arduous.

When it was time for my prickly customer to return to his own home, I knew I would miss him. During the previous week I had discovered quite a bit about myself.

Maybe in the future I wouldn't judge people so quickly. How wrong I had been in my interpretation of this quiet man. He wasn't unfriendly or remote. This wonderful old gentleman was merely deaf and when he had a hearing aid fitted, we became the best of friends.

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