I like to think that I have retired. This, of course, is nonsense. Yes, I have dropped out of the mainstream and can quite legally call myself a beach bum but even bums have to work if they are not to be found dead in a ditch clutching a half empty bottle of methylated spirits.
The crew are busy working the site but at the rate they are going, it will be a couple of months before the restaurant opens and I can explore the boundaries of my culinary expertise. In the meantime, I must help out where I can.
Marcia’s brother was with us for the last ten days. He provided the much needed muscle power to load the truck up with all our chattels and deliver them here. As a real Black and Decker man (a tool for every job) he fixed up temporary wiring, plumbed in the gas, fitted doors and door locks, unblocked silted up drains and generally made himself very useful. When Marcia had to go into town to buy stock, he tended to the shop, serving customers and with a memory as good as the very best Vingt e Un players, had all the prices locked into his memory in no time at all.
The day before yesterday, however, was his last day as he had to get back to work running the security teams that do all the cash in transit runs between the banks here. An unenviable task and hardly surprising that his working attire includes ballistic vests, AK47’s and pump action shotguns. While he was toting guns, however, I was the only one left to take over the running of the shop.
If you had asked me twenty or thirty years ago where I saw myself ending up, being a shopkeeper would have been way down the list assuming it even made it into my consciousness. I could think of nothing more boring, more grindingly tedious, than flogging tinned and dry goods and the odd penny lollipop. But, in the spirit of us all wiring into the new family enterprise, my turn arrived yesterday morning. It had never occurred to Marcia that I would stand my shift in the shop so she had locked it up and banked the cash before shooting off into town with the truck to buy more stock. Left on my own, I lamented the sight of all the potential customers with my money in their pockets milling about in front of a closed shop. So I opened it.
For customers, I have decided, shopping is a blood sport, the shopkeeper being the quarry. They have their list of requirements already memorised so can shoot it out at the speed of a runaway Gatling gun. I, hearing it for the first time usually was lost by, or soon after the second or third item. Couple this with the fact there is no queuing culture here; I am trying to total up one customers purchases and confusing them with those of a second, third and fourth customer. Marcia’s pricing consists of marking one item of each product. This meant that for each item presented, I had to find it on the shelves and confirm the price. By then, of course, the six items I was pricing had turned into twenty and I had no idea who wanted what and what belonged to whom and everyone was pissed off with me and tugging at my shirt demanding immediate attention. I was wank at shopkeeping and I was even more inept at basic mathematics. How does 17 chicken legs at 150 kwanzas a piece add up to 1,550 kwanzas? I had just lost Marcia 1,000 kwanzas because I forgot to carry the one in my multiplication.
‘EVERYONE! SHUT UP!’ I bawled. There was a stunned silence.
‘Right. You lot stand in a line there and don’t touch anything. Look, but don’t touch. I see you touch, you go to the back of the queue’
Order. That’s what I needed.
After that, it went swimmingly. If Marcia hadn’t marked a price, I rang her and this became a bit of a joke with the clients. Shopping at Tommy’s was turning out to be a bit of a humorous adventure. Since I had no float to begin with, I had no change so encouraged the first customers to buy enough to drill the whole thousand or two thousand kwanza note they were presenting. I had customers who came in only to buy a cold beer at 100 kwanzas and left with hair conditioning products as well. Since they all have the very closest crew cuts here, that was rather like selling ice to Eskimos. A guy came in for a torch. I sold him two torches, one for back up, and four sets of batteries, two sets for back up because, as I explained, it is no use having a back up unless it is guaranteed to work so you should back up the back up. Coincidentally, this came to 1,000 kwanzas, the value of the note in his hand and now in the cardboard box that was my till.
Then I ran out of beer. I had noticed that a lot of local workers were coming in, grabbing a sausage and a beer or two before going back to work. There was no where for them to sit so they stood uncomfortably outside the shop swigging and munching before moving on. All my decent furniture is stored in a tin shack on site so I grabbed a couple of these lads, opened the shack and together we extracted my dining room chairs and set them up in the unfinished Jango along with an old oak kitchen table. Beer and sausage sales tripled until the beer ran out. Apart from hard liquor and wine, the only alcoholic drinks I had left were a few Savannahs, a South African cider, and loads of Spin, a vodka based fizzy drink. Angolans think that Savannah is a beer, a bit sweet but still a beer so when I told them I had run out of beer, they all went for Savannah. I only had enough for one more round so I really needed to get them onto Spin.
‘You know Savannah is made from Apples?’ I said to the crowd.
‘Yes, apples.’ I said, ‘They drink it a lot in England. Well, at least the girls do’
‘Yes, Girls. Savannah is a girlie drink in UK, men don’t drink it, Men drink Vodka. Would you like to try a Vodka cocktail?’
So I sold all the Spin as well.
By now I was absolutely knackered but enjoying the best time I had in ages. I bloody love selling. The shelves were emptying and my card board box was over flowing. Every few minutes I was meeting someone new and interesting. A lot of them were fishermen. The early morning rush is all fishermen. They buy bread and tinned tuna, beer and fruit juice to sustain them on the water. Around 4 pm I get the night fisherman who, about to set out, stock up with the same with the addition of maybe a bottle of scotch to keep their spirits up. They all ask me for my bencão (blessing) for a fruitful trip so I give them matches and cigarettes and tell them I will buy all the fish they catch.
This largesse irritates Marcia but, as I pointed out, successful or not, they come back to our shop. The lucky ones trade their fish and get a shopping credit in their favour. The unlucky ones can open a slate with me so their kids are fed. It all evens out in the end. Marcia says we are earning nothing on the bread, I point out that having bread means the clients buy tuna and tomatoes to make sandwiches. I am doing what the banks should be doing in UK, I am supporting small local enterprise. Together, we will all flourish.
It is the kids that get me, though. For some of them, it is the first time they have ever seen a shop. So they come in clutching a raggedy 5 kwanza note. Three of them and ask if they can buy a lollipop. If I sold them just one lollipop they would share it, each taking a suck before passing it on. I can’t afford to gain the reputation of being a soft touch. As Marcia so often points out, it is a business not a bloody charity and I agree with her but there is a bit of flexibility in everything, isn’t there? So I growl at the kids. I screw my eyes up and try to make my eyebrows beetle and instead of running away in terror, the kids start to giggle. So I growl some more and tell them I am going to EAT THEM and they fall about in hysterics. So I tell them, here is a broom, sweep the shop. The rest of you, pick up all the litter and put it in that oil drum over there. In the meantime, I lift a couple of tins of tuna from Marcia’s shelves and spread it over a few loaves, boil a pan of water, throw a few teabags, sugar and milk in and then we all sit down to munch a sandwich and drink tea. I get a clean yard and they get breakfast in return. As well as a fistful of lollipops. And they pay me five whole kwanzas (50 US cents), I reckon I am on a good deal here.
I was chatting to one customer last night. His father is a vet. I used to own and cherish pedigree dogs, Alsations, but every time they reached maturity, they were nicked so I gave up. Now I have two Bairro dogs. They need their injections, especially for rabies so I asked this guy if he could persuade his father to come down here from the city and do the business, give the dogs the works. Easy deal. That got me thinking. There are loads of kids here who probably aren’t even properly registered let alone up to date on their vaccines. So I rang Marcia’s uncle who is a doctor and asked him a simple question. ‘How much would it cost to vaccinate a whole village?’
Have you ever noticed that the more professional a person, the more awkward they are?
‘How many people are you talking about?’
‘A village’. Christ, this guy has qualifications running out of his ears and he still couldn’t grasp how big a village was.
‘Look’ I said, ‘you just come down here with a bagful of the necessary and if they can’t pay, I’ll just add it to their shop bill. I know you like fish so you can take payment in kind and Marcia has some pretty decent Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon…’
Next week, we have the mass vaccination programme, dogs, kids, anyone else who needs a jab. It will mean turning my bedroom into a surgery but since that will merely require me to make the bed and hide the whisky, it is hardly onerous.
I shut up shop at 2 am. At six this morning, the fishermen came for their tuna and bread breakfast. The hour depends on the tide so in a few months time, I will be serving breakfast at 4 am.
‘Lobsters,’ I said, ‘and crabs.’
‘Loads,’ they replied. ‘just off the pedras’ The pedras are the rocky cliffs just south of here.
They had given up catching them because there was no guaranteed market. They would catch a load but then watch them rot as with the absence of freezers, they had to be sold the same day. With no regular supply, you cannot entice regular customers.
‘OK, lads,’ I said, ‘I have the freezers, I have the contacts in the city, let’s do a deal’
From Army Officer through mine clearance and God knows what else to shopkeeper and now Lobsterman. I will be 53 in May. Let’s see how many other careers I can get a crack at before I start pushing up daisies. In the meantime, the kids will dig me out of bed at six and like a bear with a sore head I will growl at them over a mug of tea. If I don’t find the clients in the city, they could be enjoying lobster and crab for breakfast.
Just as an aside, you know what it is like when you get the munchies at night? Imagine if you had the keys to a well stocked supermarket in your pyjama pocket...