John McCullagh August 20, 2005
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The story of Henry Curran, shopkeeper King brought to mind my own recollection.

There never was, and I fear never again will be a shopkeeper the likes of Austin. 

In the short time we knew him, we never learned his surname. It didn’t matter somehow. Like Elvis, he was fully defined by just the one name.

People flocked from all parts of Belfast to visit Austin. We fortunately lived close by. We were students then living in Cromwell Road, of South Belfast. It was early ’71, shortly after decimalization and two years into our Troubles.………..

 

I was walking home from study when I noticed the queue along the pavement. Queues mean bargains. I was in no particular hurry so I attached myself to its end.

It was a queue like none other. Not here the anxious wristwatch consultation or feverish press-forward. Though not indulging in light or casual conversation these people still evidently enjoyed being here. I attempted some mild social interaction, if for no other reason than to learn the nature of the goods on sale, the reason for the queue. I quickly detected a hint of amused resistance to my enquiries so I desisted. They were smiling, winking and nodding, then turning away and I wondered had I caused some offence. From then on I kept my own counsel but still wondered bemusedly. 

When I reached the shop doorway I realized it was a fruit and vegetable shop. Bargains? I wondered. In fruit and veg?

Everybody was proudly clutching a paper bag. It seemed curious but important.

Then I heard his patter. He spoke continuously – in a charming and folksy way, about almost all things under the sun. He needed no encouragement, by way of ayes or nays, nods or whatever, to continue. His monologue was interspersed with amusing expressions of bygone days, idiomatic speech that clearly delighted his enthusiastic audience.

And audience this was!

It was clear that the majority was not there to make purchases at all but for the sheer pleasure of his company, for however brief a period. Many seemed reluctant to leave even after they had been served. The head of the queue was the only place where there was a general press-forward and only, I noticed, by those still slightly out of earshot!

The middle-aged woman in front was being served.

‘Lady, lady’, he said. Every woman was so addressed.

‘And  you’re lookin’ well in your finery! 

Were you just married today?’

She blushed – to the great amusement of the queue. He didn’t wait for an answer.

‘What can I do for you today … aye… aye’

His shop was a complete mess. No goods were on open display, except for the occasional apple or potato peeking from crates or from the top folds of the hessian sacks in which they had arrived from the wholesalers. There was no order or arrangement and it soon became obvious that Austin knew as little about the whereabouts of his stock as did his customers.

Indeed his own role seemed uncertain. He spoke softly to women but, when busy and flustered, he was prone to bark at the odd male customer. To the last man, they took it well. Ordered to ‘find the carrots yourself!’ they’d bow their heads to disguise the broad grin that creased their faces, and ruffle through the hessian bags. It was clear that Austin didn’t understand that he served as a ‘comic turn’ for stressed commuters. One dare not be caught laughing for he thought people might be laughing at him, rather than celebrating his uniqueness. I was convinced not one in that queue would tolerate anyone taking advantage of him or of hurting his feelings.

He had a till that was permanently open, of necessity. The coins were heaped, unsorted, from the edge to its centre and formed a kind of hillock above it.

‘Mister! Mister!’ I heard. This was how he addressed his male customers.

‘I don’t recognise you. You’re new. What would you like?’

With a start I realized he was addressing me. I had given no thought to my purchase.

‘Any tomatoes?’ I spluttered foolishly.

I don’t know! Can you find any tomatoes?’ he asked.

I delved into a few nearby bags. Then I found them.

‘Half a pound,’ I continued. 

I thought this a reasonable amount. I didn’t need any tomatoes.

His look of disgust froze me but clearly delighted the audience. Ducking into the bag he scooped out two large handfuls and deposited them for an instant in the copious pan of his weighing scales. The needle, which shot beyond the three pound mark before returning to half that value, had not had time to settle before he removed them again.

‘Bag?’ he asked.

‘Yes, please,’ I said. 

The audience erupted in peals of laughter.  They could laugh aloud, for the joke was on me!

The mirth ended suddenly as he scowled at them.

‘You have to bring your own bag!’ he explained patiently. 

‘Paper bags are expensive! I can’t afford to buy them!’

They were nodding behind.  They had found a suitable victim!

‘Every one brings their own bag.

Look!’

He pointed behind. The whole queue obediently held their bags aloft. 

I didn’t know where to look for relief!

‘How much?’ I mumbled, for distraction.

‘Two and sixpence,’ he answered easily. He waited for the exchange. 

I was flabbergasted. The new coinage was in place for more than six months. No such monetary value existed.

‘What?’ was all I could say.

The tomatoes would cost four times as much anywhere else. 

There was more amused tittering behind me.  They were annoying him too!

‘All right then’, he seemed to concede. ‘One and ninepence to you!’

I quickly offered him a new ten-pence piece – the equivalent of two shillings, and beat a hasty retreat. My eyes were lowered from the smirking faces of those in the queue.

I walked fifty yards away before bursting into uncontrollable laughter.

 


I had an early finish the following day and called by Austin‘s in mid-afternoon. I was the sole customer. He was clearly waiting for just such an opportunity.

‘Mind the shop!’ he ordered me. ‘I have deliveries to make.’

Without another word he loaded a large cardboard box in the front basket of his messenger bike and wobbled off down Cromwell Road.

He was whistling to himself. He occasionally called up to housewives in upper windows to advertise his arrival.

I glanced behind me at the overflowing till drawer and the motley assemblage of fruit and vegetables. I prayed that no customer would call before his return. 

When he came back ten minutes later he didn’t even ask. 

Still I had passed some test and gained promotion in his eyes for now he called me,

‘Sir! Sir!

Now, what can I get you?’

 


I ought never to have told my flatmates about Austin because from that day on there was competition between us for the privilege of shopping for ‘greens’.

Austin‘s queue grew longer day by day and especially at ‘commuter’ hours.

I remember one day he left the shop to castigate everyone in general.

‘What are you all doing here now?’ he asked in frustration.

‘Do you not know that this is my rush hour?’


 

The emergent Alliance party had its headquarters next door.

One night a bomb exploded outside, destroying both buildings.

We never again heard from, or of Austin.

I would dearly love to learn that he re-opened elsewhere and thrived.



Is there anyone out there who could honestly offer me this reassurance?



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