Now the essentials of this story happened to a good friend of mine some time ago, and the details of which were told to me recently in an environment I shall not disclose because I believe that too little of this story already lends itself to the subtext so beloved of the mainstream press and publishing industry: the very people to whom, even as I write, I may be trying to level this short piece.
There she was, she explained, in the middle of serving a customer when she noticed, out of the window, the shop owner's grandparents getting out of the their car (the make of which I again shall not disclose lest one is accused of polemic). As my friend, Maria, was lost briefly in thoughts about the people who were going to walk into the shop, the customer asked her how much she owed. She added up the total on the till and said the sum came to six ninety five. The woman smiled without any perceivable condescension and handed over a ten pound note.
As the woman did so, Maria's heart pounded, though this of course had nothing to do with the pleasant, and in fact quite regular, customer standing in front of her. She gave the woman her change and as she did so the grandparents (whose names and social status I shall not divulge for fear of too readily leading the reader any sooner than necessary) came through the door.
As the woman said thank you and started to push the buggy out of the shop, so as she was doing so the grandparents (who were in their late seventies) came in. The woman reversed back towards the counter (perhaps out of Confucian politeness, perhaps due to a more socio-economic awareness), finding some room in the cramped space between the counter and the fridge. The grandparents, in their turn, stood aside, though doing so with rather more room than the hapless mother. As the hapless mother made her way out of the door, the grandfather made of his politeness a glorious gesture, sweeping his hand forward as he let the woman and the buggy pass. Ta she said. Thank you he replied. An acknowledgement or a correction of the diminutive, Maria wasn't sure. And that of course was part of the problem: she was never quite sure how rude these people intended to be.
The grandmother asked Maria how she was, and Maria replied that she was fine, and asked how they were in return. She said they were both fine and added that she and her husband were picking up a couple of items for a dinner that evening. There was to be a dinner party at the house. At the house, Maria said to me, was hyperbole in reverse. It was, I shall divulge, a castle. She had seen pictures.
As Maria and the grandmother chit-chatted a little more, the grandfather's robust presence stood in front of the window, crowding out the wholemeal breads and the organic fruits which sat behind him. The one or two customers who came in during this time, clambered round his bulky body. He also for much of this brief period was smoking a pipe, the smell of which countered the smell of the cinnamon stick Maria had lit ten minutes earlier to give the shop a pleasant and requisite air of organic freshness.
One of the customers who came in was wearing cycling shorts, fleece and a bike helmet. He barely had room to remove his rucksack, and the grandfather had either too little awareness of the problem, or no interest in budging for the purposes of this sweaty cyclist. The cyclist, Maria recalled, looked at the grandfather (possibly at his pipe, perhaps at his monopolising frame or just to match a face to that nasal driven bellowing voice). Anyway, the upshot of it all was that this very regular customer, who rarely spent less than about ten pounds, promptly came up the counter and spent all of forty five pence on a Green and Blacks chocolate bar.
The cyclist thanked Maria, and as he left, glancing up at the grandfather as he did so.
After the door closed the grandfather asked Maria to remind him of her name. She offered it, and the grandfather responded as if he had just recalled it from his own mind, rather than having it repeated to him for what might have been the fifth time in as many months. Usually, he said, it was Anna that would usually be working on Saturday, and his wife, taking something down from a high shelf, asked which one was Anna. Her husband replied that she must know Anna, adding, the pretty girl.
Pretty, flat-faced upper-middle-class Anna was how Maria described Anna to me, and well into the story, and based on another's observations, and not my own sociological over-simplifications, I shall slip the description in.
The grandmother looked at her, Maria said, and smiled indulgently. Turning to her husband she said that she was sorry, dear, but she couldn't remember who Anna was. Very pretty girl her husband replied.
Maria asked the grandmother if Amanda was enjoying London, and the grandmother replied saying that she couldn't wait to move down permanently. Her partner had got a job there a few months earlier, before adding that owning a little shop like this was no job for a girl of Amanda's intelligence. She had been telling her that for months.
Maria asked when she would be moving down, and the grandmother said as quickly as possible, before asking if Maria would like to take over the management of the shop - reassuring Maria with a smile and adding that a bright girl like her would have no problem, she was sure she would be well capable. Maria replied that she didn't know - she would wait and see.
The grandfather boomed that she shouldn't wait forever; Amanda might sell it instead. He was by now showing signs of impatience, presumably missing the anticipated presence of the lovely Anna, Maria surmised. He had also by this stage finished his pipe and was left with his own unassuaged constitution.
The grandmother hurried herself up and asked Maria if she had any fresh parsley. Maria moved from behind the counter over to the window. The grandfather moved imperceptibly, but somehow she managed to grab a bag without asking him to shift his wide girth.
Maria asked if she need anything else. The grandmolther listed a few more items and Maria quickly picked them off the shelves and placed them onto the counter.
By now another customer had arrived. Now this was one of the shop's most frequent customers. She was a woman in her eighties who had been vegetarian for around sixty years. She said she was one of the few people after WWII who didn't spend half her day moaning about the ration book. She also harped on, maybe a little often, about the blessed social utopia Britain could have worked towards in those post war years - the beloved post-war consensus.
In she came with her shopping trolley, a crouched figure whose sprightly presence lay, as many an intellectual challenger had found to their egotistical loss, in the quickness of her mind. She was a single woman who had never married, never had children, had farmed land on the outskirts of Edinburgh for many years and who was not only one of the store's most reliable customers, but also supplied organic vegetables to the shop from time to time. This biographical information was conveyed sometimes by the woman herself, sometimes by customers who knew her well, and of course, sometimes requiring no more than observation on Maria's part.
I could see the scenario developing and eagerly asked Maria to continue.
One moment, Maria said. She needed to offer a little bit more context. Maria herself was not at all intimidated by this woman. She admired her certainly, she explained, but there was nothing in her hard work, her will-power, her intelligence, which alienated Maria. They were all qualities, Maria believed, that were capable of emulation. In fact, the woman would have been flattered if she had known how many people had tried, out of their huge respect towards her, to also emulate her.
Now the Calder-Williamsons (for that was their name) were, by their very blue-blooded nature, not to be emulated. The anecdotes which she had picked up over the months all seemed to attribute a sense of intimidation to the pair of them. How? Well Maria had been working in the shop for several months and little things added up. She listed several of them. One was something the owner's husband had said about the grandparents' house. If my friend ever felt the need to phone the owner when she was at her grandmother's (as she tended to be most weekends, her own parents living in the south of England), then she shouldn't hesitate to do so. Once having phoned, she should let it ring for several minutes. It could take some time before the phone could be reached since the house was very large, and assuming the housekeeper wasn't available. Another thing that bothered Maria was this: Amanda's bank balance left lying around listed the figure of 330,000 in the black. This was a small shop - that sum of money could not have been earned in the five years that Amanda had owned it. A third little thing was a comment the husband casually made about the hassle of owning two flats. To own half a dozen made being a landlord worthwhile, he believed, as if in his irritated assumption lay family and friends who were clearly property developers.
Everything she heard about Amanda and her family made Maria feel shrunken - every expectation she possessed about owning her own flat, every idea about her social expectations, silently laughed at. Therein lay the intimidation - in futility. This, my friend insisted, shouldn't be taken as a simple feeling of personal inferiority. No, life itself felt inferior, as if in some way one had been told that the world was ruled by fate and freedom was merely a childhood illusion.
Yet she saw in this woman, this eighty year old keen mind and active body, a remnant of freedom. When she walked into the shop, Maria felt a relief that was, she said, and she wasn't given to exaggeration, metaphysical.
I looked at Maria eagerly. Well, what was the first thing Mr Calder-Williamson said, Maria recalled, but "Penny, how are you? We haven't seen you in months, positively months." Penny, she said, smiled, shuffled awkwardly, and said, that was true, explained that she was busy, and all but apologized for her earlier absence and her present appearance.
Mrs Calder-Williamson insisted she had no need to apologize, that they had been busy themselves, before her husband butted in saying they had been doing a lot of travelling lately. Then they left, with Penny possessed of what Maria thought was a wretched demeanour, and Maria feeling horribly dejected.
I looked a little deflated myself as Maria told me this. I imagined Penny and Maria standing there, Maria earning 3.00 an hour, she said, Penny thinking of who knows what. What was this resolutely self defined woman thinking in that moment of what Maria saw as humiliation, I wondered.
It was a question my friend had asked herself, and she determined to find the answer to it. Over the next few weeks she asked other customers about Penny. She gleaned from them the simple fact Penny worked land owned by the Calder-Williamsons. She had worked the land (though as her own boss) for thirty years. She was in a fundamental sense, beholden to them. (Though she owned her own farmhouse, the land she leased cheaply.) Maria looked through the vegetarian and whole earth magazines in the shop and noticed frequent mention of lords and ladies (including the Calder-Williamsons) and their good work in wholefoods. Did looking after one's body and the environment necessarily mean giving both over to the people who had controlled those very lives for centuries?
Maria stayed in the job for another month and then left the city, but during that month came to know Penny quite well, and on a couple of occasions went for a tea with Penny on her lunch hour. During her time away they were in contact frequently, writing each other long letters about the problems of intensive farming, the difficulty in getting organic produce into shops, and which countries were better than others at supporting a healthier lifestyle. During these years away, Maria travelled around Britain and also around Europe, found that she was increasingly involved in politics, and a couple of years ago, met me. Every few months, at one of these meetings I am unwilling to detail, we would talk, thrash out certain issues, and leave each other's company with that little bit more resolve.
We are not of course the only people who meet in this environment and swap stories. There are many of us, and many stories, and it's as if the telling of them, as well as the pamphlets we write, the newsletters published, the monthly magazine produced, all contribute to this psychic necessity. Some will insist ours is a political organization; others that we practise literary terrorism. Most, however, will just say that we are beside the point. And they are of course right, because our position is beside the point - that point which overrode all that octogenarian's will; that turned her overwhelming pride into a gesture; that point which sees in British life organisations which define who we are and how we think.
I have no idea how useful our organisation is; how much we finally achieve. What I do know, however, is that my friend is once again working in a vegetarian shop, frequently deals with customers who own chunks of Scotland, and treats them not with the respect they take for granted, but with an underlying irritation. Is she aware that her identity owes less to the continuation of the social norm, than to her own preparation for change? It's as if where before Maria's pride lay in the very characteristics the establishment had bestowed upon her: a middle-class life through education, through the broadsheets she would read, through the social progress she could have been expected to make, through feeling that if she rejected these elements she would have been robbing herself of her identity, over time she had managed to reject these institutions. Yet she retained a strong self despite this, and therein lies perhaps revolutionary consciousness and a sense of optimism. The lengths to which one must go to achieve this underlying sensibility, however, suggests the pessimistic.
I end my tale, then, not as a story might end, but rather as if it were an essay. In some ways that is what it is. I have tried to assay my friend's thinking in relation to talks we've had, to my own beliefs, and shaped them round an incident so small (that moment in the shop with Penny and the Calder-Williamsons) it would not itself pass for the dramatic.
There is, however, a coda to this tale. Penny recently died, and in her will left her business to, amongst others, Maria. This piece of information is, I suppose, why my friend told me about the incident in the first place: that in her telling lay the need to explore her own reasoning. Should she take over the farm, work organically and live under the rule of the Calder-Williamson family? Or should she continue working in these small vegetarian shops where credence is essentially subterranean: her usefulness in wider society minimal, her respect from that society negligible. That is a question she is still pondering. She must decide, she supposes, whether to accept a reasonable amount of public power (as co-proprietor of an organic farm) in return for consensual concession; or whether her integrity demands an anonymous existence. Can she not, she asked me, hold on to her revolutionary beliefs and work land owned by the Calder-Williamsons? That, I said, I couldn't answer. What I did say, though, was that she should read the very story that this conundrum will produce and decide whether, in its telling, it has too much respect for the narrative expectations of fiction in its desire for mainstream publication, and too little for our specific cause. If that is the case, perhaps the story should be disposed of, the business proposition ignored, and the revolutionary fervour retained in our hearts and minds, and through the group of friends who help us to maintain it.
© Tony McKibbin