âI rang up on the fourteenth of the fifth about Gerry and the Pacemakersâ¦â the customer began.
He was a little old man in little shorts that were pulled way too high. His clean-shaven face had those errant patches of wiry grey strands that old-timers inadvertently sport â small clumps of whiskers that had somehow managed to elude the razor. His Buddy Holly thick-rimmed glasses had flip-top shades in the âupâ position.
âAnd we were holding it for you?â I enquired, slowly rising from the stool behind the counter as he nodded. âWas it a CD or a record?â I asked, about to make my way to the far end of the space behind the counter, to the milk crates on their side that constitute the âholdâ box. âCD,â he replied.
âWhat name was it being held under?â I asked, as I pulled out all the CD-sized bags from the milk crates. Although I didnât catch his name, I realised that as it was now the thirteenth of the month, anything put away on the fourteenth was at least a month old; if he had phoned to ask us to put it away, there was little chance that it would still be in the âholdâ box. But I checked each bag just to make sure.
âIâm sorry, Sir,â I explained to him back at the counter. âOur policy is to only hold something for a day without deposit. We need a deposit to hold it for a month. When did you say you rang us to hold it?â
âThe fourteenth of the fifth.â
This time I actually heard him. âFourteenth of May?â I said, disbelief in my voice. It was now mid-November. But he was an old-timer after all; there was probably nobody to bring him into the city. âIâm so sorry, Sir, thereâs no way weâd keep something on hold for six months even with a deposit. But let me check to see if itâs still in stock.â
Only the items deemed âcollectibleâ, âfragileâ or still shrink-wrapped actually contain their discs â they are kept behind the counter or in locked cabinets. All the other CD and DVD covers on display are empty cases, their discs filed â alphabetically by artist â in a set of drawers behind the counter. And, luckily, there was a Gerry and the Pacemakers disc in the drawer â Ferry âCross the Mersey, a live collection of the bandâs best-known songs with an additional smattering of unlikely covers, recorded and released in the 80s. Although it took a while, I located the case and, inserting the disc, popped it on the counter in front of the customer.
âHere you go,â I said. ââGerry and the Pacemakersâ.â
âYes,â he said, âthatâs it. âGerry and the Pacemakersâ.â
âYes,â I said, with a contented smile. ââGerry and the Pacemakersâ. That will be ten dollars, thanks.â
âIsnât it free?â the man asked me.
âIâm afraid not,â I said, proffering a brief courtesy laugh. âItâs ten dollars.â
I stopped laughing when I realised he was serious.
âI thought it would be free,â he said.
I felt myself stand a little taller, heard my voice hardening ever-so-slightly. This is an early step in a process of behaviour I regularly display that is best described as âturning into Basil Fawltyâ. Under pressure, in retail, I frequently find myself turning into one of those tense, coiled, John Cleese characters that, on the verge of emotional explosion, enunciate every syllable through clenched teeth.
âIâm sorry, Sir, this is a shop,â I began to explain in a patronising tone. âThe way a shop works is that I give you stuff in exchange for money. This is known, from my point-of-view, as âsellingâ. From your point-of-view, it is âbuyingâ. So I cannot give you stock for free. You have to give me money for it.â
âOkay,â he said, never losing his pleasant, genial, shorts-too-high, some-whiskers-missed old man demeanor as he handed over two five-dollar notes.
I shook my head after he left, but didnât have any time to think about it because I had a few customers in need of attention.
However, before long, the old man was back.
âLook,â he said, âI got to the corner and decided I donât want it unless itâs free.â
I paused for a moment, attempting to process this information. But it was no use. âIâm sorry?â I demanded.
âWell,â he said, âI thought about it, and realised that it hasnât been quite six months yet; this should still be free.â
âTomorrow will be the fourteenth of November,â I explained, âsix months after the fourteenth of May. We are shut tomorrow. This is as close to six months being up as we can get. But it doesnât matter. I still donât understand â why should the disc be free?â
âYou said that you donât need money after a day, but after six monthsâ¦â
I took a deep, emphatic breath that cut him off.
âWhat I said was, we hold things for customers for a day without a deposit, or a month with a deposit. If we hold it for a day without a deposit, then you have to come in and buy it, or leave a deposit; if you leave a deposit, then, within the month, you have to come in and buy it, otherwise it goes back on the shelf.â
âOh well, I donât want it unless itâs free.â
Another deep breath.
âThis is a shop,â I began again, carefully. âWe sell stuff. Why should I be giving this to you for nothing? Do you go to other shops and ask for things for nothing?â
âNo,â he said.
âThen why are you coming here to ask for free stuff from me?â I was uncomfortable. I didnât understand. I really wanted to, but I didnât.
âI donât know,â he said, âI just thought of it.â
âYou just thought you might come in here and ask for something for free?â
It was no use. Comprehension and I were not within spitting distance of one another. âDid somebody put you up to this?â I demanded, just in case.
âNo. I just donât want the CD anymore. Iâd like my money back.â
âBut I donât understand. Why? You just bought it. I just sold it to you. Why should it be free?â
âI just think it should.â
On the verge of losing it, I tried one more time.
âI still donât understand,â I began, relatively calmly. âShops have been in existence almost from the beginning of time, and they all work the same way: you want something, you exchange something of value for it, in this case, money. When do you get stuff from shops for free?â
âSometimes things are free,â he reasoned, hitching his shorts up that extra half a centimetre or so for emphasis as he delivered what he must have imagined was the clincher. âSometimes you might win something when you go to the club. Then itâs free.â
I didnât know anything about any clubs, but I knew about give-aways on th radio, so I tried to run with that example.
âOkay, so, say you ring a radio station and win something from them, they have to send it out to you.â
âSo why are you trying to get this CD for nothing from a shop?â
âBecause I thought it would be free.â
Now we were going in circles. Ten dollars was not enough justification to embrace the insanity that was slowly creeping over me. I wondered whoâd believe me when, some time in the future, I try to re-tell this story.
âIâd really just like my money back,â the old man said. âIf it isnât free, I just donât want it.â
Iâve never been in this position before, but Iâd been near enough to it to know that no matter how you try to rationalise what has happened, no matter how calmly and sensibly you attempt to reason, there is no way out, really. Itâs much easier just to give in.
âYou know what?â I said, âIâm gonna give you your money back, and then I want you to leave this shop and not come back. Is that okay with you?â
âYes,â he said, all genial shorts-too-high old man again.
I took ten dollars out of the cash register. But before I handed it over I decided to have one more go.
âOkay. Let me try to understand. Six months ago you rang us and asked us to hold a âGerry and the Pacemakersâ CD for you.â
âYou wanted it then?â
âBut you donât want it now.â
âBecause we didnât keep it on âholdâ for you.â
âWould you want it now if it was still on âholdâ for you?â
âOkay,â I said, taking the plastic bag with the compact disc in it over to the âholdâ box, and then sauntering back to the counter.
âHello, Sir,â I said pleasantly, as though Iâd only just caught sight of him. âI suppose you would like the âGerry and the Pacemakersâ CD weâve had on hold for you for nearly six months.â Before he could trick me by saying ânoâ, I dashed to the âholdâ box for the disc, and handed it to him. âHere it is, thatâll be ten dollars thank you, you wanted it, now you have it. The transaction is over.â I put the money back into the cash register as he shook his head and walked out, a little older and somewhat less genial, his shorts still way too high.
I was reeling from the experience, and needed to tell someone about it in order to try to make sense of it, so I rang the boss. When I got to the ââ¦ and he thought it should be free,â part of the story, he said, âWhy? Because it wasnât delivered in thirty minutes?â He couldnât make sense of it either.
Suddenly, a slightly younger, taller, bald man with a moustache underlining an aquiline nose â essentially the spitting image of Jerryâs Uncle Leo on Seinfeld â was standing at the counter with that damn Gerry and the Pacemakers CD.
âThat old guyâs an idiot,â Uncle Leo announced, before I - goggle-eyed and open-mouthed - could say anything about the CD in his hand. I assumed he worked in one of the other music shops along the street and he was going to tell me that shorts-too-high old man had been performing his routine in there as well. I didnât care. Iâd gotten him to take the CD and give me money. The transaction was over.
âHe certainly didnât seem to understand the concept of âretailâ,â I agreed, hoping Uncle Leo did. I didnât want that bloody CD back.
âHe won a competition for a free CD of his choice from the shop two doors down,â the man said, pulling a second, and, truth be told, better Gerry and the Pacemakers CD out of a bag.
Jesus H.M.A.S. Christ! Now it all made sense. The little old man had phoned six months ago about a Gerry and the Pacemakers CD that would be held for him to pick up for free, because you can win free stuff in competitions at clubs. He had won such a competition. It was just that MY SHOP WASNâT THE SHOP RUNNING A COMPETITION THROUGH THE CLUB!
All of this must have gone through my head in an instant, because my immediate reply consisted of the following sentence fragment:
âBut Iâve just beenâ¦â
After a pause, I started to feel remorse. âI absolutely torturedâ¦â
âYeah, heâs an idiot,â Uncle Leo let me off the hook again.
âThatâs as may be, but, knowing that heâs an idiot, shouldnât you have come with him?â I demanded.
âI had to wait in the car,â he explained. âI was in a loading zone.â
âOh, you bloody idiot...â I thought to myself, putting the CD on. âLife goes on day after day/Hearts torn in every way,â Gerry Marsden reminded me as I withdrew those ten dollars one last time from the cash register, defeated.
That shop I was in when visited by the little old man has subsequently closed. That fact that it was on a clear slide towards its ultimate end - too many 'ten-dollar shops' and eBay teaching everyone the cost of everything and the value of nothing - explains why I went to some length to become the sort of shop assistant who would impress Ronnie Barkerâs âArkwrightâ character from Open All Hours.
However, imagine how much funnier the whole âtheatre of the absurdâ incident would have been had we not had a Gerry and the Pacemakers CD in stock. Pants-too-high would have made me search the entire premises, âcheese shop sketchâ-like, until I found something that he actually wantedâ¦ and then he would have wanted to have it for free!