(The Memories of a Shopkeeper)
GOOD STAFF RELATIONS
George and Mabel had been running their corner shop in west London since 1971. By 1977, their children were at school and somewhat independent and George and Mabel felt it was time for a further challenge. It had been suggested that George and Mabel should take over a mini supermarket about a mile away and keep the existing staff.
After some tricky negotiations the shop was theirs. The shop opened and there was very little to do as the staff knew exactly how the shop ran and just got on with things.
George and Mabel were happy, the staff were happy and the customers appeared to be happy.
Two years on, in 1979, there was a very good working relationship between the bosses and the staff in both shops and this story picks up from there.
Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but the event occurring at the time was real and is recorded here for posterity.
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Good Staff Relations
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The incessant shrill of the telephone nudged me out of my daydream. It turned out to be one of many between the two shops. I was startled to hear Wendy on the other end, her voice very thin and shaky. ‘Can you come here straight away, I think there is something you should see before we call the police?’ she pleaded.
I grabbed my coat, the keys to my car and drove in great haste to the other shop wondering what on earth had happened. Wendy; waiting outside the shop and hesitant of step; somewhat grey in the face and drawing heavily on a newly lit cigarette; came to meet me as I pulled up. I could see that her hand was shaking violently.
What’s happened?’ I asked urgently.
‘Please, just come and see for yourself.’ she begged, still with the lit cigarette in her white, shaking hand in the shop, a place she most definitely should not be with a lit cigarette.
As I followed her to the storeroom, I saw that the rest of the staff were huddled in a little group all talking quietly together and looking in my direction. I thought it might have been something I had done. However on entering the store room I caught sight of what she explained was the ‘offending box of baked beans’ on top of the freezer with its top ripped open ready to be unpacked onto the shelves in the shop.
I had completely forgotten about the box.
Instantly my mind cleared. I knew exactly what was in the box and realised that I would have to act my socks off now and give an Oscar winning performance.
I clasped both hands to my face in horror at the initial sight of blood spread over the top of the ‘thing’ in the box. The blood had apparently been transferred to the tissue paper in which this ‘thing’ had been carefully wrapped. Not getting too close to the box myself, I made sure I said all the right words.
‘Good grief, what is it?’ and ‘I’m not touching it, but look, is that blood on the tissue paper?’
This last statement caused more alarm to the staff and another of them lit a cigarette. I began to regret that I had in fact given up smoking myself and just hoped that this would not be the rare occasion when the Health Inspector made one of his impromptu inspections. I wondered how it would look on the Inspector’s report sheet.
Gathering my wits together, I then said ‘I think you should leave it there until George gets back. It could have been put there by anyone.’
There was much consternation with the staff and Wendy thought that the police should most definitely be called. It was all I could do to stop her picking up the phone and dialling 999. I had visions of this making front page news in the local paper or even the Sunday papers. What had we done?
It had been general practice for George and I to go to the warehouse three times a week to collect the necessities for both shops.
On one particular day in the middle of the previous March, we had decided to look round the garden section as it was always good to have some new stock and it was the time of year to expand into garden products.
Amongst the garden figurines, we noticed something human and life-sized, but of course cast in concrete. George was a long time lingering in the garden section and I was getting a bit bored so I went to find him.
‘Dare I ?’ said George with his back to me.
‘I don’t know, dare you what ?’ I retorted.
‘Take it back to the shop.’ I had no idea what he was looking at or to what he was referring and just wanted to get home, so I answered glibly:
‘Yes, I don’t see why not?’ and without any thought, or interest as to what might have been in George’s mind. I just assumed that whatever it was would be offered for sale along with the other items we had bought that day.
I was therefore quite shocked to find this ‘thing’ sitting on the side in my kitchen when I got home that night.
‘I didn’t realise you wanted it for our garden, where are you intending to put it?’ I questioned him, completely not understanding why he might have bought something like that, even to sell in the shop.
‘Oh no, it’s not for here.’ He answered. ‘ I have other thoughts about where it can go. We’ll talk about it when the kids have gone to bed.’
So, somewhat later that evening as the kids finally went up stairs to bed, I tackled George on the matter.
‘What on earth did you get that for? What are you going to do with it then?’
I had been bursting to know.
Now I was well known by the staff for sometimes having a strange sense of humour, and this caused the staff to be somewhat wary of what might happen next.
However, they were in no way suspicious of George who had not shown any tendencies to play practical jokes, or even have a sense of humour for that matter in all the time they had known him. I was convinced that whatever he intended to do with the ‘thing’ would probably change their minds forever, and indeed, there may not be any staff left in the shop afterwards.
George hesitated, wondering whether or not his idea would meet with my approval and it was a while before I repeated my question more forcefully.
George still gave me no clues but went out to the van and returned with several items cradled in his arms. There was a box of baked beans, a carrier bag full of white tissue paper, which looked a bit crinkled and mucky and a tube of glue. George placed these in the middle of the floor and then disappeared into the kitchen and returned with the ‘thing’ which he placed alongside the box of beans.
I was even more puzzled as to what George was going to do. I was not going to ask again, but as he carefully opened the top of the box, removed a number of tins of baked beans, then took out the crumpled tissue paper, all became clear.
The tissue paper had been rescued from a tray of jam doughnuts delivered by the baker that morning, and although the excess sugar had been shaken off, the red raspberry jam which sometimes oozed profusely from the over-filled doughnuts, was still visible in great clumps, stuck sickeningly to the tissue and appeared on first glance like freshly congealed blood.
It was this that George flattened out on the floor, placed the ‘thing’ in the centre and then carefully wrapped the tissue around it, ensuring that there was a liberal measure of bright red raspberry jam visible near the top.
George then lifted the heavy, sticky bundle easing it into the space he had created in the centre of the box from where the tins had been removed earlier. A few of them were replaced to evenly distribute the weight inside the box.
‘Oh my God!’ I said
‘You’re not going to put it in the stockroom like that, are you?’
‘Well, I thought I would.’ said George looking at me in trepidation. ‘It will soon be 1st April and I only want to have a laugh with the girls, they are always playing tricks on me and I don’t get a chance to reciprocate.’
George finished off re-sealing the box with the glue he had borrowed from the kids and put the box back in the van to be taken to the shop the next day and left on the shelves.
That evening the conversation was solely about what reaction there might be from the staff. Would the staff walk out en masse, would anyone have a heart attack, and so the suppositions went on into the night. I remonstrated with him and told him that I would deny all knowledge of what he was doing but he was determined to play his April Fool. So I said no more and in fact put it to the back of my mind.
The staff had been trained to rotate stock according to the sell by dates so the box of baked beans was duly placed at the back of the stock shelves in the storeroom, as it would normally have been.
Time passed –
‘Hey’ said George one night ‘ we can’t be selling many baked beans, either that or the staff are not rotating the stock very well.’
I had to think for a minute before I answered, baked beans… what baked beans?
‘Oh!’ then I remembered. ‘Haven’t they found it yet? They can’t be doing much shelf filling.’ I said sounding a little naive, and knowing full well that if the staff had found and opened the box I would have known immediately. The phone between the two shops would have been red hot with the news.
‘Oh well’ said George ‘We’ll just have to wait.’
I gasped ‘Yes, but you did it and I’m not getting involved. I’ve got cold feet about all this, and I’m sure they’ll guess something is wrong because every time I go to the shop I keep moving that box to the front of the shelf.’
More time passed – 1st April came and went.
All this was flashing through my mind as I stood there gazing from a distance at the box of baked beans and the ‘thing’ wrapped in tissue paper with what look like congealed blood smeared all over it. It amazed me to see how red raspberry jam could so resemble real blood when you didn’t know what it was.
Jenny, one of the younger assistants had perked up a bit and when she spoke earnestly in agreement my thoughts were interrupted.
‘Yes, the box was sealed, so it must have come from the warehouse or the manufacturers, it’s probably nothing to do with any of us here.’
Oh what it is to be so young and trusting, I thought to myself, amazed at the lack of knowledge of what adults are capable of doing to each other.
Anyway, It seemed that all were in agreement that the ‘thing’ and the box of beans should be left where it was until George returned, so I suggested :
‘Well, leave it for now anyway, go make yourselves a cup of tea. I’ll cover the till for the moment and perhaps you could bring me a cup in the shop.’
I was relieved that things were quietening down and that they did not suspect that I had anything to do with it. Not that I did really, I had argued against it all along.
I managed to escape back into the shop and left Wendy, on her third cigarette, with the others close behind her, and Jenny to her tea and biscuits. I was surprised to notice that my own heart was pounding and my hands shaking much like the Wendy’s had been, but I suspected that was with the fear of being found out.
Not much work had been done that afternoon, the girls still did not know what to make of the ‘thing’ that had been found in the box, not that they had examined it too closely with all that blood about. They thought the police would want to take fingerprints. I didn’t like to say that they would only find George’s.
When George finally turned up at the shop he was pounced on by the girls before I could get to warn him that his ‘surprise’ had been found, at last.
I was so busy on the till and could only hear parts of the conversation that was taking place in the storeroom. As soon as I was able, I went to find George who was still being cross-examined by the staff and it appeared that the conversation was still going in circles.
‘Are you sure you know nothing about it?’ queried Wendy.
‘Who me? No!’ replied George.
‘Why?’ ….. George hesitated …….
‘Well alright,’ said George ‘I’ll tell you now you’ve calmed down. It’s been in the shop about six weeks in that box. It was for April Fool’s Day but we couldn’t be sure you’d find it so we just left it there. ‘ George added, his voice sounding desperate. ‘ You’re not going to leave, are you?’
Oh no, George! Thanks. Please don’t say that! I screamed at him silently. I just hoped the staff wouldn’t pick up on the fact that ‘we’ knew all about it, as I had quite categorically and profusely professed my absolute and total ignorance earlier and in any event did not wish to be included in this rather belated April Fool.
However, the staff all graciously agreed that they had ‘calmed down’ and that it was ‘alright’, they had gotten over the shock but insisted that it was a ‘rotten thing to do, April Fool or not’.
Obviously pleased to have extracted an admission from George and solved the mystery, they moved on and started to catch up with the work they had missed all afternoon and the matter of the belated April Fool seemed to be forgotten or at least, placed to the back of their minds. I secretly wondered what the Police would have said. It would probably have been printed in the Police Magazine and made the 6.00 News.
George drank his tea and said he had to do some deliveries. About half an hour later all the deliveries had been packed into the back of the van and he had been handed a list of where they were to go. Unusual, he thought, but after the day’s events anything was to be expected.
He wandered across to the van reading the delivery list, and opened the door.
I had never seen him move so fast. He sprang back in astonishment and staggered back to the shop to be violently sick. I wondered what had happened and went out to look in the van myself.
The girls had gotten their own back, April Fool or not.
Whilst George had been enjoying a quiet cup of tea in the storeroom, Wendy had run home and come back with a large doll, a bonnet and baby’s shawl.
One of the others had gone to the butcher on the parade and ‘borrowed’ two sheep’s eyes from him.
At this point I should tell you that the ‘thing’ that had caused all the consternation that day was in fact a life-sized, concrete human skull, which had been, of course, covered in red raspberry jam from the doughnuts, and not congealed blood as had first been thought.
The girls had placed the sheep’s eyes into the sockets of the skull, the bonnet was placed on the skull and the skull pulled over the head of the doll.
The doll was then arranged on the driver’s seat of the van sitting on a small box to lift it up. It was wrapped in a shawl with its head facing the side window.
Coming face to face with the skull and looking into the sheep’s eyes was what had made George so violently sick after he opened the door of the van.
His joke had backfired!
I kept quiet, and felt I had gotten off lightly this time. After all, George never attempted to take any responsibility for any of the jokes I had played on the staff in the past, so why should I take responsibility for this?
.. oOo ..
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