Grandad Biggles?

quarto.jpg The tenth time Pat told me she really would retire from the Quarto when her husband left the university, I had to believe her. ‘You must advertise for a replacement,’ she had said firmly, ‘Now! You’ll want time off soon, and then it will be too late.’

My recent advertising method of propping my old bike with a poster outside places where customers were liable to congregate did not seem appropriate, so I took out the smallest space possible in the St Andrews Citizen, which cost a horrific £48. When I assembled the sheet of paper listing all the duties of the New Book Buyer, I discovered what a bargain I have had all these years with Pat, who realised what we needed and ordered it, with only the occasional suggestion from me. She had probably read half the fiction herself. She read reviews as a matter of course, searched for the best discounts, and became such an expert on what golfers want that customers tell us that we must have the widest selection of new golf books in the world. Then the applications started coming in. All employers must have experienced the CV that has been printed off the computer with regard for the previous job in prospect, and the scribbled note, with no CV or referees announcing, ‘I read your advert and realised that this is just the job for me!’ Pat went for a week’s holiday as the deadline approached and left me to do the short-listing. The staff, normally a fund of local information, suddenly became very unhelpful:’Well, I can’t remember if that was the one who drinks, or not.’ And darkly, ‘You’re not interviewing any blokes?’

‘Yes,’ I said, getting politically correct, ‘they might be strong on golf; we should at least consider that possibility. Anyway, what’s wrong with blokes, we’ve employed blokes.’ ‘They were students,’ I was reminded, ‘or Saturday staff.’

I had hoped that Julie might take over from Pat, but she and her husband have moved since he retired. We miss her too:one day we were discussing whether it was preferable to have Louis the Fat or Pepin the Short in your family tree, a discussion that didn’t go very far since neither of us had any idea what differentiates them apart from their names.

‘Better than Biggles, anyway,’ said Julie reminding me of the customer who had insisted that Biggles was one of her ancestors. ‘If you had to have someone fictional in your family tree, who would it be?’ I asked. Julie shrugged. ‘The girls would probably say Eeyore.’ Before I could stop it, I heard myself say. ‘But that would make you a centeeyore.’ Before she left, she plucked up the courage to tell me how she had once felt sorry for a customer who had no sterling left and bought him a £5 book in exchange for a cigar, which her aficionado brother-in-law later told her was worth £30.

I practiced my interview techniques on the staff, finishing with the trick question, ‘If a middle aged American woman came into the shop and asked you to recommend a good read, what would you say?’

‘No!’ said Frederique, ‘You will sack me!’ and proceeded to give exactly the answer I had hoped for:’I can’t tell her what to read, she must tell me what she likes!’ – as did everybody else, except for the candidate who dropped in to the shop to interview me. ‘I should tell her she should read something typically English,’ she said. ‘Dick Francis!’ I tried to ask her about her knowledge of Scottish authors, but she was already enthusing about Frederick Forsyth.

‘The customer is your best resource,’ I had written in my manual for student helpers, How to Run The Quarto. Unfortunately, I lapsed myself, and when asked for The Rabbit-Proof Fence just before Christmas instead of asking for further details replied, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have it, but I do have a book* about stopping squirrels taking stuff from your bird-table.’ The following day the Sunday papers showed me that The Rabbit-Proof Fence was not a manual, but a film about a wretched Aboriginal childhood; furthermore, there was also a novel by the same name. There seems to be a competition in recent years to have experienced the worst childhood. Angela’s Ashes providing the Irish variety, A Child Called It the American and Bad Blood the English paradigm. These authors have near total recall whereas my own memories are fragmentary and probably unreliable. The worst punishment I can recall was being sent to my room for telling my father he was worse than Hitler for removing an axe from me, when I had just discovered how superior weaponry reverses the balance of power, and was enjoying chasing my elder sister round the shed. It puzzled me for many years that he was just going to reprimand me over the axe, but snapped at the Hitler taunt.

The winter evenings were becoming so quiet that out of boredom I dialled Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Then, as Pat had predicted, I took some time off. When I returned, the staff reported that a mystery person had been phoning the shop about some competition but refused to say what it was all about. Millionaire eventually tracked me down and asked me the crucial eliminator. The customers turned to stare as I repeated, ‘How long is the River Niger? … You’re not allowed to tell me,’ I told them. Ten seconds does not give time to allow for Mercator’s projection or all the wiggly bits, so my answer was ridiculously short of the Niger’s 2540 miles but after cross-questioning relatives, staff and customers until I was in danger of having no friends left to be my ‘phone-a-friend’ and finding only one person who named a length nearer to the actual Niger than mine, I started to fantasise about dealing in books that presently I can only covet. Before Millionaire failed to phone back, I had two nights of reliving the sort of nightmare we had experienced when I persuaded the staff to enter the local town quiz. We did wonderfully well at the start, but then the gaps in our knowledge began to show. We didn’t know who had won the 1978 World Cup or who was the BBC’s motoring presenter, and the opposition’s knowledge of Alistair Maclean equalled ours of Shakespeare. Finally, I failed to give the real name of the Mississippi Mauler. We left to prop up the bar muttering unsportingly, ‘Ask them questions on embroidery!’ only to discover that mysteriously barmen can’t see women customers unless they are wearing low cut tops or are under thirty.

Neither of which applies to Pat’s replacement (I didn’t employ the bloke, as despite his admirable golfing and retailing qualities, he seemed at a loss to think of any recently read book he could enthusiastically recommend that we stock.) She’s now learning her trade. ‘Hmm,’ she said sardonically, as she read The Quarto’s Health and Safety Policy the council had forced me to register. ‘Good thing you put in that bit about not drinking the bleach or the book restoring liquid, I mightn’t have known that.’

I think she’ll do.

*How to Stop Squirrels Egregiously Misappropriating Seeds from Your Bird-Table.

Copyright Margaret Squires 2005.


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