Down at the Post Office Stores they have one of those little notice boards that displays Parish Council announcements, posters for forthcoming village attractions, ‘Wanted/For Sale’ advertisements, fuzzy photographs of lost cats and the going rate for a quick cut and blow dry in the comfort of your own home. Adorned with clip art and haphazard spelling, the assorted postcards and sheets of luridly coloured paper provide a little light relief while you’re waiting to be served at the counter, and I always cast a quick eye over them in search of a cheap laugh. (In my own defence, I’m actually a kindly soul who as a rule never deliberately gives offence – unless someone’s really asking for a swift kick in the teeth – but that doesn’t mean I’m not sniggering on the inside).
So there I was in the Post Office, patiently waiting my turn in the shuffling queue, smirking at the postcard advertising “Touch Typong Lessons” and ignoring stage-whispered opinions about the quality of this years’ judges of the Carnival floats when, without any warning, a long arm snaked over my shoulder to pin a handwritten card to the board.
I and several other people nearby flung ourselves sideways in a ridiculously melodramatic fashion, as if the arm had a sign saying ‘UNCLEAN’ hanging from it, then self-consciously recovered our composure enough to examine the new arrival on the board. Almost immediately the elderly gentleman to my right said bluntly,
‘What the f*ck does THAT mean?’
I could see his point. The card carried just five words:
APPLY PILGER, BRAMBLINGS.
I glanced back over my shoulder at the owner of the arm, and found myself looking up at craggy man in his early seventies with shoulder length silver grey hair and a glint in his eye which could only charitably be described as ‘challenging’.
‘Go ahead’, the look was saying. ‘I dare you to ask me what amanuensis means.’
Being the daughter of a woman who was famous for calling a spade ‘a bloody shovel’, I lurched immediately into knee-jerk mode. A moment’s mature thought might have resulted in a more diplomatic turn of phrase, but – what the heck, and in any case, he shouldn’t have looked at me like that:
‘If you want a shorthand typist, why don’t you just say so?’
To his credit, he didn’t flinch. ‘Because I want someone who bloody well knows what it means.’
‘Well good luck with that, Sunshine.’
I turned back to the notice board, mentally chalking one up to myself, and flashed what I hoped was a charming smile at the elderly gentleman who had been so perplexed. ‘Highfalutin word for someone who writes things down from dictation’.
‘Like a seckerterry?’
I winced inwardly but nodded in agreement. ‘Pretty much, yes.’
And that was when it all got a bit heated. There was a sort of hiss,as if someone was letting air out of a car tyre nearby and then, from behind me, the Professor thundered,
‘Are you always so bloody rude, woman?!’
‘Are you always such an arrogant sod?’ Not witty, but the best I could manage at short notice.
Behind the counter, Isobel Buchanan’s jaw went slack and the eyes of everyone in the shop swivelled towards the epicentre of the disturbance: the Professor and I – two incomers squared off against each other. Someone, somewhere was probably opening a book on the outcome.
‘He needs one of them machines, is what ‘e needs.’ Offered the elderly gentleman to no-one in particular, and the waiting customers turned into a row of nodding dogs as he concluded grandly, ‘What you talk into.’
The Professor was not only unbowed, he showed no signs of being so much as mildly winded either. I got the uncomfortable feeling he hadn’t had a decent shouting match with anyone in ages and was relishing the prospect of getting stuck in.
‘I know what I want.’ he roared back at me. ‘And I don’t want an illiterate half wit. And I’ll thank you, Sir,’ here he paused to stab an accusing finger at the elderly gentleman, ‘ … not to talk about me in the third person.’
‘What you want and what you need are very different things,’ I retorted, beginning to feel a bit pink around the edges. ‘And you can leave him alone. He can talk about you any way he wants. Plus – he has a point. What you need is a machine, not a human being; something you can shout at to your heart’s content.’
He opened his mouth to answer, but at that moment, Norman Ruskin – who, unbeknown to us both, had been quietly observing proceedings from the back of the queue – decided it was time to step in as peacemaker before we started lobbing tins of fruit cocktail at each other. He swept in smoothly.
‘If I’d known Isobel was laying on a floor show for her customers, I’d have been down earlier … Professor, I’ve been wanting to talk to you for some time – so this is a happy meeting.’ Grasping the fuming academic firmly by the elbow he steered him out of the shop, saying something en route about wanting his advice on scales, or it possibly sales, or even snails … I couldn’t quite make out which because it was swamped by the sound of a car transporter thundering past.
As the door closed behind them, one of THOSE silences descended on the Post Office, and was only broken when someone up at the front of the queue said quietly, ‘I hope he got his money back from the charm school.’
That did it. We laughed. We chuckled. We exchanged notes on what happened and agreed that he was a Very Rude Man. Eventually, I even confessed that I was qualified for the post he was advertising but wasn’t looking for a job and even if I was, wouldn’t consider setting foot inside Bramblings, not even for ready money.
It was, therefore, in a happy frame of mind that I picked up the ‘phone at home and listened to my accountant on the other end of it, telling me that:
(a) HM Inspector of Taxes was demanding an unfeasibly large chunk of my savings and
(b) My net income was currently falling short of my net expenditure, so I was faced with a choice of living in a cardboard box, throwing myself on the mercy of the state and/or finding a way of supplementing my income.
‘Bright, articulate woman like you – shouldn’t be a problem. Little part time job would do it nicely, especially if you also stop spending a small fortune on bird food every month. Must be something around that would suit, surely. Can’t be too many shorthand typists around any more … What was that you just said? I couldn’t make it out through all the sobbing.’
I took a deep breath.
‘I said: It’s funny you should say that …’