1990s >> 1994 >> no-1084-december-1994

Short Story: The Shop

John Kingstead made vague promises to unpack and set off down the street as though Venice and Rome had been illusions. He walked with brisk determination, giving the impression that he was an inspector not a shopper.

He marched into the corner shop and stood in a familiar doorway, blinking. The shop he had known all his life had been transformed. The hum of refrigerators echoed all around. Hundreds of slabs of butter were piled against one wall blurring into a sea of margarine tubs. Opposite were bottles of milk, some of them unlikely colours, and various different types of cream. The largest wall and refrigerators around the room were taken up with cheeses.

“What the . . .?” John said in astonishment. A shopkeeper sprang up from his chair. He wiped his hand on his apron ceremonially and offered it out.

“Hello, can I help you?” he asked. Kingstead spun round several times in amazement.

“What have you done?” he wailed. Kingstead’s meaning obviously wasn’t apparent to the shopkeeper

“This morning? Mainly just taking orders and assisting customers.” Kingstead was nervous.

“What have you done to the shop?” he shouted. “You’ve got no bread, no fruit, no meat. You don’t even have a till.” ‘The shopkeeper looked thoughtful for a while and then sudden recognition broke out.

“Is that some kind of Hungarian cheese?” he asked. “We don’t have any but if you like I’ll write it down and order some for you. Were you thinking of trying the job? I just wondered because you were asking a lot of questions about it earlier on and I. . .” Kingstead cut him short.

“I want to know what you’ve done to my shop and where you keep the money.” There was silence as the shopkeeper thought things through. He grinned.

“I get it. It’s a joke. Bread, money!” “It’s no joke. I go on holiday for a month to try to enjoy my retirement and I return to find an imbecile giving away rare cheeses.”

The shopkeeper became suddenly thoughtful and looked Kingstead up and down. “What year is it?” he asked. Kingstead looked at him in amazement.

“Nineteen ninety-four” he answered. The shopkeeper’s eyebrows rose with the surprise of someone who expects something unlikely and is slightly fazed that it has happened at last. More than anything he looked knowing.

“I did suspect that something like this would happen eventually.”

“LIKE WHAT?”

“Why don’t you sit down and have a cup of tea,” he suggested.

Kingstead sat keeping his eyes on the grocer all the time. He still did not trust him.

He had learned to trust no-one during his own shopkeeping years. Even the smallest children with their melting smiles and their equally melting ice-lollies were only waiting for him to disappear into the backroom so they could fill their pockets with sweets. Not even his friends, relatives and even the elderly could count on his trust.

It was the economic recession that had made people desperate. He had seen so many stand across the counter from him with the fear of redundancy in their eyes and who could now only gaze at the luxuries they would have bought in the boom years.

And it was the damned Conservative Party with its open market and competition that had brought it all about. He had no doubt about that. In the post-war years when corner shops were common and the Labour Party was in power there was decency, honesty and prosperity.

The Conservatives had killed corner shops and replaced them with faceless supermarkets. And when he had retired with no son or assistant to pass it to he had sold it to one of the hated Thatcherite conglomerates. They had stolen the spirit he had cultivated. How it had changed! It was full of middle-class titbits that the working class could never afford. It made him feel like crying.

The one bitter comfort that his confused mind could throw up was that at least the conglomerate had not sold the shop to any of the Pakistanis that were infesting the trade. The Black Plague had been successfully averted. The job-stealing, dole-claiming hordes had been kept back in their own backward division of the Earth and the honest working men of the village would not have to face that extra threat to their jobs.

The shopkeeper tinkled with some crockery below the small counter then brought out two steaming cups of tea.

“Now then,” he said softly, and began to explain. “Some people think that places can have auras and that. Like if something bad happens, really bad, it stays with the place and you can sometimes feel it. They do say that’s what causes hauntings, it’s the vibrations of things in the past. But it works the other way too. If two people from different times care about a place a lot, that place can sometimes bring them together.” The shopkeeper paused.

“I know I care about this store very much, and you obviously do otherwise you wouldn’t have come in here shouting like you did. It’s been arranged for us to meet.”

Kingstead stared at him. He was definitely serious.

“Yes. Whatever you say.” The shopkeeper looked around for the newspaper he had been reading and threw it at Kingstead. He read the date.

14 May 2146.

“Am I really in the future?” he asked.

“Yeah, and if I were you I’d make every possible effort to stay here.”

Kingstead wrinkled his brow.

“Why?” he asked.

“Oh come on. I’ve done history. I know what life was like in the capitalist era.”

“What the . . . how . . . you mean?” Kingstead suddenly remembered all the doubts he had about the grocer’s behaviour. Being in the future certainly didn’t excuse that.

“Global socialism. We got rid of money.” The way he said it made it sound like such an ordinary statement. Kingstead was very nearly speechless.

“Oh,” he said, and was silent. “Do you swap things?” he asked hesitatingly. The whole idea was so primitive that it made him cringe, but what other explanation was there?

“No. That’s really the same thing. Just as bad. We give them away.”

“What?” Kingstead shouted. All those beautiful things were being given away to people with no guarantee that the recipients had ever done anything to deserve them.

Without money people would have no reason to work, would they? He thought of how glad he himself had been to retire. But that led him on to how bored he had been after a few months, all the useless hobbies he had taken up to fill his time and that trip they had taken to escape the boredom. His retirement had taught him that human beings are not naturally lazy.

He had chosen to go into business with his father because shopkeeping was a job he loved. In a world without wage-packets, more so in a world without wage-packets, people would still find careers they wanted to dedicate themselves to. In a moneyless world they would be serving the community and themselves, not some fat capitalist whip-crackers. Job satisfaction would increase overnight.

He thought of all his retired friends who wanted to work and could not. He had blamed the ageist attitudes of employers. Now he knew it was money. His heart leapt at the thought of all that could be achieved and produced if the restrictions of money died away.

He remembered products he used to enjoy that were no longer made because they weren’t profitable. In a world without profits he could have them even if he had to make them himself. He looked again at the racks of cheese and butter. There was so much variety. How many people actually wanted Tibetan yak’s butter, apart from Tibetans? But somebody wanted it, so it was there.

He turned to look at the shopkeeper, beaming.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” the shopkeeper asked. Kingstead nodded. “Of course at first we were all mainly just concerned about feeding everyone in the world but once things got going people started to realise just how much the world could produce. There was a huge increase in inventions being realised when patents were no longer needed and thousands of so-called ‘unprofitable’ schemes were tried out. And these are the profits, human happiness.”

He already knew how wrong capitalism was. He had just been following Racism and the Labour Party down a blind alley of excuses for years. Now that he was forced to accept that things could, would and will change he was free to accept socialism. Political beatitude descended over him. At last he knew the answer.

The shopkeeper coughed.

“I could always explain it to you,” he said. In silence Kingstead turned and shook his head.

“Thanks,” he said, in the most genuine way he ever had. “But I think I understand.” They stood in silence again.

“I think that as soon as you leave the shop you return to your own time,” the shopkeeper told him. Kingstead sighed.

“Oh well, I have things to do there,” he said. “For instance, explaining all this to the British Legion!”

And he left the shop, whistling and carrying a pat of Tibetan yak’s butter and a head full of ideas.

Matthew Vaughan-Wilson