Authors: Rebecca Smith
âDon't hurt her. She's a pet,' Gilbert's soft Hampshire voice implored.
Hurting the blue budgie was what Lucy feared, what put her in such a flap. She was balanced on a wobbly stool with a Badger Centre tea towel, not quite able to reach the bird. It was now perched on the rods of a mobile. Her friend Abigail was beside her on a table with a colander and a menu.
âDon't hurt her. She's a pet.'
It was a brand-new budgie. An impulse buy. Gilbert had wanted to show it to them, had opened the slim white box just a fraction. Lucy had wondered if it was kind to be transporting a bird in something the size of a pencil case. How those folded wings must have been straining against the thin card.
âDon't hurt her. She's a pet. She's for a present.'
Abigail handed Lucy a tablecloth. Where the hell was Paul with his bird-holding skills when they needed him most? A customer came in and the budgie flew into another corner.
Paul was on the Common, sitting under a tree, with his favourite book,
The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne
by Gilbert White, a Gilbert who was wholly unconnected in Paul's mind to the Gilbert back home in the cafÃ©. He read the âAdvertisement' at the front of the book with undiminished pleasure.
The Author of the following Letters takes the liberty, with all proper deference, of laying before the public his idea of
which, he thinks, ought to consist of natural productions and occurances as well as antiquities. He is also of opinion that if stationary men would pay some attention to the districts on which they reside, and would publish their thoughts respecting the objects that surround them, from such materials might be drawn the most complete county-histories, which are still wanting in several parts of this kingdom, and in particular in the county of
1 January 1788.
John Vir pulled up the metal shutters. It was a moment that he dreaded, another day. He glanced down the empty road to confirm that the paperboys were, as usual, nowhere in sight. John was not his real name. He was called Jagdish, but everyone, all his customers, called him John. A thick tick book that dated back many years showed that he was everyone's friend. The shop was called âVir and Vir â News and Food'. The other Vir was his brother who only put in an appearance when his family's food stocks got very low and Iceland was closed.
John Vir might have described himself as separated, but he was still married. His wife Pali had been visiting her family in India for the last five years. He imagined her drinking cups of tea and eating mangoes in the sun. The mangoes in the shop were turning mushy, and her abandoned tin of Tibet sandalwood talc was rusting in the bathroom cabinet. He couldn't bring himself to throw it away.
How beautiful she'd been when they'd met, a month before the wedding, so graceful, like a gazelle. But marriage, Southampton and the shop hadn't suited her. The customers annoyed her, their two sons and a daughter, Gurpal, grew up unruly, and her back ached from sitting behind the till. When she'd gone to visit her parents she'd bought a single ticket.
âIn the long run it will be cheaper,' she said. And she had, as usual, been right.
Even now, five years later, there were still things in the shop
that had outstayed her. Some celery soups had petrified in their packets and there was stuff at the bottom of the freezer â¦
He sold everything from
The Lady; Marxism Today, Caribbean Times,
âWe have every spice under the sun,' John Vir told his customers. âJust ask me.' Boxes of fruit studded with dew and drosophila, and vegetables in their prime and past it were in crates on newspaper at the head of the central aisle. Tampax were stacked next to boxes of henna for celebration Mendi hand-painting; all life was there. At the very back of the shop was a silver door to a private chamber. Dead creatures hung inside. When John Vir opened the door an icy wind gusted into the shop. There was speculation that Mrs Vir was spending her holiday inside that cupboard.
Vir and Vir was the only shop that still stocked Spacedust. John didn't want to clear things out. Most of the time he didn't notice, and when something with SELL BY NOVEMBER 86 did catch his eye he thought that perhaps it might be valuable, perhaps a collector or a film company might want it, perhaps his descendants could sell it when 2086 came around.
Gurpal and her brothers were meant to help him in the shop. They were also meant to be at school. When they âhelped out' they sat behind the counter and talked to their friends on the phone. The boys helped themselves to money from the till. Gurpal was addicted to pistachios, Magnums, Feasts, samosas and packets of crisps. John had a recurring dream of the shop melting into a pool of Patak's Curry Paste and cruddy milk, and floating away down the gutter.
Despite the erratic staffing Vir and Vir did OK. He was patronised by students who bought endless copies of the
and lived on Mighty White bread, Hula Hoops, Diet Coke and Sunny Delight. He had hundreds of Asian customers, and people came from all over the city, especially on Sundays, to buy chicken legs, coriander, spices and huge sacks of rice, lentils and flour. He had a licence to sell alcohol and wondered about videos.
Lucy and Paul were favoured customers. They filled their basket with okra and spinach, they experimented with spices and had only occasional lapses into Snickers and Dr Pepper. Lucy bought crazy things: catnip mice, pots of glitter, hair bobbles, spangly combs, candles, Lucky bags, out-of-season Diwali cards. When John went to the Cash and Carry he thought of her.
Lucy didn't hear John Vir open his metal shutters. She woke when Fennel jumped on to the bed and started to fight her feet. She twitched her toes in provocation and opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was Paul's pale neck. He had the very white skin of the red-haired. There were freckles on his shoulders; Lucy liked these, they reminded her of bananas, but he had a stubborn three-week-old spot on one of his top vertebrae. When they made love she had to try not to touch it. Lucy wished that she was in Italy. Somewhere, anywhere warmer, somewhere by the proper sea.
Every morning Lucy went to Vir and Vir to buy a paper, milk and other boring things. When she'd first seen John Vir she'd thought that he looked like Robert De Niro, but that was before she'd seen many films with Joe Mantegna in. The shop opened at 7.30, but at 8.30 Lucy would be one of the first customers. She usually arrived while a man in a white cotton hat
was lining up trays of fresh samosas. If she was late she'd be caught in a crowd of schoolchildren buying penny sweets, 5p bags of corn snacks, and plastic tubs of traffic-light-coloured drinks. âThink of the Es!' Lucy thought, as she resisted the temptation to kick a shover, or give a shiny, pink-ribboned plait a surreptitious tug.
Lucy tried to have the right money ready. If John Vir was busy at the back of the shop or with a delivery, she'd leave it on the counter and shout: âIt's by the till!' Sometimes he didn't turn around, sometimes he did.
The Bluebird CafÃ© occupied premises that had once belonged to Snookes Electrical Stores. Lucy, Paul and Abigail had viewed the place just before it closed down. Mr Snooke had made a sign on brown cardboard saying SAIL in watery blue letters, but no more customers came. The shelves remained thinly stocked with dusty headphones and kettles. Mice had chewed their way through out-of-date sound systems in the stockroom, and made a luxurious home in the box of the solitary juice extractor. At the back of the shop was Mr Snooke's workshop where, in happier times, he'd made his living by repairing Dansettes and hairdryers for students. The students who came to Southampton now brought huge systems with five years' extended warranty. They threw away anything broken. Lucy thought the place was ideal and bought a device for heating one mug of water.
âExactly right,' she said, and nobody knew whether she meant the shop or the gadget. Mr Snooke turned away. He didn't hear them leave, he'd not got around to fixing the bell. They didn't go back until Mr Snooke had gone.
Lucy and Paul moved into the flat above the shop, and with a Regeneration Budget grant from the council, they began the make-over. They took down Mr Snooke's metal shelves and painted the walls the colour of Greek yoghurt. Abigail and Lucy stencilled blue doves below the picture rail and bought stripped pine chairs from the Oxfam furniture store. Â£5 each. The
stockroom became a kitchen with two stoves, two sinks, a freezer and a big American fridge which they called the Chiller. Lucy made a noticeboard from wood, green felt and string. Local craftspeople were invited to enquire within about exhibiting their wares. They bought a fridge counter so that people could see the salads and puddings (segregated), and a hot counter too. They bought tables, plates, cutlery, recycled napkins, glasses, the whole IKEA kitchen experience in spades. They put ads in the local papers, and made a banner for the window saying: THE BLUEBIRD CAFE â OPENING MAY 10. Finally, they went to a wholefood co-op for supplies of food and large quantities of a compound that repelled but didn't endanger the lives of mice.
âI hope you appreciate all the help Abigail's giving you,' said Teague, who was Abigail's boyfriend. âWe are meant to be finishing our PhDs, you know.'
âSo's Paul,' said Lucy. But Paul spent most of his time at Southampton Common. He was a volunteer at the Badger Centre. The subject of his PhD was âClimatic Change and Prickle Density Variation in Urban Hedgehogs', but he spent most of his time bird-watching and clearing out the Small Native Mammals.
The cafÃ© opened on time. It was not a great success. The press stayed away, and most of the tables remained empty. Some students came but ate conservatively. An apple pudding turned brown and had to be whisked out of sight. A tape of the Corrs went down best, and Lucy added Crap Music to her mental shopping list. Just before closing time their Small Business Adviser showed up. Lucy didn't recognise him at first, but Paul did.
âMr Pillory! Good of you to come,' he said heartily.
âCall me Frank,' he told them for the tenth time.
âBut are you?' said Lucy. He was known to them as Frank the Bank.
He brushed some white specks from his shoulders on to the table. Lucy felt her lips drag themselves across her teeth into a smile.