When two sisters take on a healthfood store in the east end of Newcastle, they have no idea what lies ahead...

With little experience and even less financial backing they muddle their way through various scrapes including an encounter with an aggressive condom salesman, a feud with the owners of the gym above and a collection of weird and wonderful customers.

But will they survive when a run of alarming events threaten to ruin their business dreams?

The Nut Shop - available at Amazon

Read the first three chapters of The Nut Shop here ...

 

CHAPTER ONE

I had always dreamed of owning a little antique shop but was just beginning to realise that the reality was not living up to the dream.

For the past six years I'd sold old china, furniture and bric-a-brac that I'd hunted down, cleaned and displayed in my overflowing shop on a side street near the beach. Each Sunday my fiancé Peter and I packed the car with baskets of china, books, pictures and furniture and set off to our local antiques market for a day of buying and selling.

Initially I loved the challenge of hunting for a constant supply of stock to fill the shop and spent many contented hours rummaging through boxes of old junk at sales and standing in dusty auction houses waiting with anticipation and excitement as I bid for lots. I also loved the days spent in the shop, happily sorting through the pickings as I chatted to customers as they browsed. Some were collectors looking for pieces for a prized collection, some were dealers, others holiday makers stopping to browse on their way from the beach.

After a while, however, the constant hunt for stock became a bit of a strain and I found myself envying those types of shops where stock could be easily ordered from a wholesaler's brochure to be delivered at a convenient time to the door. The novelty of rising at four on Sunday mornings was also wearing thin. At antique markets the main business of the day, that is the buying and selling amongst dealers, is over before six o'clock in the morning. Rising before dawn was necessary to enable us to drive to the shop, pack the car, drive to the market and unload and set up the stall by at least five o'clock. On dark winter mornings this was not much fun, especially if we had been out on the town on Saturday night.

Also, the fashion for antiques was changing. During the eighties, antique collecting had enjoyed something of a revival. Home improvement magazines and television programmes were full of advice on how to achieve Victorian and Edwardian style schemes and we were all encouraged to go out and scour our local antique shops in search of authentic accessories.

However, this was 1991 and trends were beginning to change. Britain had just been hit by a large Swedish chain store specialising in inexpensive modernistic furnishings. Other retailers quickly took up the trend and fashion followers were moving away from the cluttered retro look towards much more contemporary ideas. Although business was still brisk it was not as frantic as it had been and it was obvious that the boom was over. I was beginning to feel increasingly bored with the business and began to neglect it.

Our wedding day was planned for September and I found that I preferred to spend my weekends searching for shoes and underwear rather than stock.

'How's business?' my sister Lorraine asked during one of our wedding shopping trips. We'd stopped for coffee after spending the morning tracking down sugared almonds in the right shade of lilac. 'You haven't mentioned the shop today, it used to be your favourite topic of conversation.'

'I'm getting a bit bored with it to tell the truth,' I told her. 'My heart doesn't seem to be in it any more.

'Perhaps it's just with the wedding coming up,' she said. 'It's a busy time. Once you're married and life settles down you'll probably be raring to go again.'

'Possibly,' I said. Although I doubted it. Once I lose interest in something there tends to be no going back. 'How about you?' I asked. 'How's work?'

'Same as ever,' she said. 'Late nights, drunken customers, the Ferret on my back all the time. At least you're your own boss. You're not at someone's beck and call like I am.'

Lorraine worked for a wine-store chain and managed one of their busiest branches situated in town, where she rented the flat above the shop. The Ferret was Ryan Ferris, an arrogant power-crazed little man whose constant nit picking and pettiness in his capacity as area-manager made Lorraine's life at work a misery.

'Do you know,' she said, 'I've told him loads of times that the lock on the metal shutter is broken leaving the shop an easy target for thieves and he's done nothing about it. Yet if he finds a speck of dust on one of the shelves he threatens me with a written warning.'

'Silly little man,' I said. We took a few minutes to totally assassinate his character then when we were done Lorraine tidied our cups and said, 'Right what's next?' I consulted my collection of lists.

'Stockings, white,' I said. 'Napkins - lilac, calligraphy pen and gold ink, Boots 17 eye shadow shade - champagne...'

'Ok, ok, that'll do for now. Back to the battle,' Lorraine said and we picked up our bags of shopping and headed back into the throng of shoppers.

The summer passed by in a haze of preparations. Slowly but surely I ticked the boxes on my lists as the weeks passed. I attended dress fittings and Peter worked on his speech. We chose rings and wedding stationery, ordered flowers and booked a honeymoon. The cake was made, cars hired, and our cases lay ready and waiting, packed with swimwear and suntan lotion.

At last, our wedding day dawned and I was woken by rays of sunlight pushing through the blinds and promising a beautiful day.

The promise was upheld. The sun gave a kiss of golden light to a day that could have easily belonged to summer except for the presence of a slightly sharp breeze; a gentle reminder that autumn was waiting nearby.

We married in our local church and I emerged, holding Peter's arm, to the sound of pealing bells, greeted by a fragrant breeze as the last flowers of summer released their scent into the air. We walked beneath arches of jewelled branches to our waiting car, the sun glittering through red and yellow leaves as they swayed gently above us.

The day presented everything I hoped it would; happiness, romance, fun and the joy of sharing it with the people we loved. As it drew to a close, family and friends waved us off with much hugging and joking, and a few tears, and we flew off to the sun.

After three carefree, sun-drenched weeks honeymooning in Florida we came home to resume normal life.

Peter went back to work and I returned to the shop with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

'It's just post-holiday blues,' I told myself as I approached the shop. 'I can't be on honeymoon forever. Once I get into the swing again, everything will be fine.'

I unlocked the door and glancing in the window, saw the old familiar things. A floral tea set, a Victorian jug and bowl, a pair of carved ebony bookends and a hand stitched quilt, all dust covered and sprinkled with dead flies. My heart sank as I stepped inside. The air held a damp mustiness and I shivered. Dropping my bag onto the desk I pulled my coat about me and looked around. The window plinths that had once displayed carefully arranged pieces now exhibited a haphazard hotchpotch of clutter. China and glassware no longer sparkled, a tarnished bloom had crept over the silverware and the beeswax-and-lavender furniture polish lay forgotten beneath the desk.

For the next few months I kept the shop running and it continued to pay me a living, but my heart was no longer in it.

Christmas came and went, and at New Year I resolved to find a new challenge. Something new to get my teeth into. Something that would light my fire. I toyed with a few ideas but it wasn't until a freezing February night that the spark was finally lit.

I had arranged to meet Lorraine for a glass of wine in the pub near her flat. Glad to get out of the biting wind, we made our way to the bar to order drinks. The place was unusually empty. On such a dark wintry night as this most people would have been glad to hurry home through the icy wind and sleet to the warmth and comfort of their own homes. It was too early in the evening for those who came to have a few drinks with friends and try their luck at the weekly pub quiz. A couple were seated next to the fire, still huddled in thick coats and a group of workmen sat at the bar, complaining loudly about the weather.

We carried our drinks to a table in a cosy nook near the fire. Settling ourselves at the table we set about our usual topic of conversation, work. Or more precisely, complaining about work.

'I've had a right pig of a day,' Lorraine said. 'You wouldn't believe the number of complaints I've had today. I think it must have been National Awkward Customer Day and nobody bothered to tell me that my shop had been designated as headquarters.' She took a drink from her glass and sighed. 'I've had complaints about prices being too high and people getting annoyed because we don't stock what they're looking for. Then I had a religious nutcase quoting the bible at me. She told me I needed to repent and then she lodged herself in the doorway spouting off about the evils of drink and stopping people from coming in. I thought at one point I was going to have to call the police to have her forcibly removed.' I couldn't help laughing as she related her day. Talking to Lorraine always cheered me up. She could always make me laugh with tales of her misadventures.

'Then later on I did have to call the police because I caught a shoplifter with three bottles of cider down his trousers,' Lorraine continued. 'I grabbed hold of him but he wriggled free and legged it up the bank with the bottles clanking down his pants.' I laughed at the mental picture that this scenario presented.

'I've had kids in and out all afternoon trying to buy cigarettes and getting abusive when I refused them and to top it all I had an unexpected branch visit from The Ferret.'

'Did he come in to see about having the shutter lock mended?' I asked.

'No,' she answered. 'I did remind him about it again but he was more concerned about the shoplifter getting away with three bottles of cider. He went off it. He told me I have to pay for them out of my wages. Apparently it was my responsibility to retrieve them. I told him I'd already put myself at risk by grabbing the bloke without fishing down his trousers.' I sniggered into my wine. Then he reprimanded me for giving away too many free carrier bags, oh and apparently I don't write heavily enough on the carbon paper in the stock book so he can't read my figures on the copies.'

'Sounds like a pretty crap day,' I admitted. 'But at least it's been eventful. All I do at the moment is to sit amongst a load of old tat, dusting it and trying to sell it.'

'Had any more thoughts about what you'd like to do?' Lorraine asked.

'No not really. I need a change but I don't know what to do. I thought perhaps of opening a little tearoom near the beach, or maybe a gift shop, but nothing really grabs me.' I took a sip of my wine.

'What about the health food shop across the road from my shop?' Lorraine said laughing.

'What about it?

'Well the guy who owns it is selling up. You could buy it.

'Is he really selling?' I choked on a mouthful of wine 'When? Why? How much does he want? A health food shop! I could do that, we could do it together, you and me, run it as partners…'

'Whoa, slow down,' said Lorraine, recognising the danger signs. Once I have an idea in my head I plunge headfirst into it, rational thinking goes straight out of the window. I was off in one of my fantasies, lost in a vision of myself surrounded by pots of fresh herbs, and loaves of brown bread as I ladled lentils into recycled paper bags.

'I wasn't serious,' she said, interrupting the picture. 'I said it as a joke.'

'But why not?' I said. 'We could do organic vegetables, and home-made stuff. We both love cooking. We could sell goat's milk… cheeses… Just think of the lovely window displays; baskets of free-range eggs, jars of herbs and spices….' I could see it all so clearly.

'Chris, listen to me,' Lorraine said, leaning over the table toward me. 'The guy who owns it has practically run it into the ground. When it first opened it was a brilliant little shop but over the months it's deteriorated.'

'A health food shop! You know, I never once thought of that!' I said ignoring her.

'It was well stocked and beautifully set out originally,' Lorraine said. 'But now there's hardly anything on the shelves and when you ask for something it's always supposedly on order and he's waiting for a delivery.' She took a drink then continued. 'I think he's in financial difficulties and can't afford to buy new stock and pay the bills and things. He knows it's going down and he wants to get out before it goes down any further.'

'We'd be a great team,' I said enthusiastically. 'You're good at organisation and dealing with staff, and I'm the creative one, thinking up new ideas, doing all the arty-farty stuff.'

'Chris, there's not much of a business left to take over,' Lorraine said. 'He's lost interest in it. He often closes early and disappears for the afternoon, especially if it's a sunny day and you know as well as I do that you just can't do that when you run a shop, you have to be consistent and reliable. There's too much competition around. If you don't provide a good service there's always another business that will. I reckon he's already lost loads of custom judging by the amount of people I used to see going in and out of the place compared with lately. There used to be a constant stream of customers and at lunch times the queue of people waiting to order sandwiches extended from the shop into the street.' She paused for breath. 'Did you hear what I said?'

'Yes,' I said dreamily. 'A constant stream of customers and queues extending into the street.' Lorraine looked exasperated.

'He's run it down; it's on its last legs. It would be madness to take it on.'

'We could bring it back. Build it up again.'

'You're not listening. I said it would be madness to take it on.'

'It would be madness not to.' Lorraine looked at me then closed her eyes in frustration.

'Let's at least just find out about it,' I said. 'Ask him for details. How much he wants et cetera.'

'Ok, ok,' said Lorraine. 'But, I'm sure you'll change your mind when you speak to him and have a good look at the premises.'

 

I was sure I wouldn't. I had found my next challenge.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

I could hardly contain my excitement as we left Lorraine's flat. Lorraine pulled the door shut behind us and we crossed the road to the health food shop.

'I didn't sleep well last night,' I told Lorraine. 'My head was buzzing with all the ideas and plans I have for the new venture.' She gave me one of her looks usually reserved for those she considers to be beyond help.

'We're just having a look, remember,' she said in the kind of voice people use to explain something simple to a very small child. 'We're not actually buying it. We're just curious, being nosy. We're going to have a look around then leave, so don't go committing us to anything.'

The shop was on a corner site and had two huge glass windows, one facing the main road and one on the side street. The floor above the shop was being used as a gym, and at the back of the property was a shoe repair and key cutting business.

As I opened the door I noticed a 'closed' sign hanging in the window. As I pushed the door open an aromatic fragrance drifted out, a smell that was to become very familiar. A delicious mixture of fresh herbs and piquant spices, newly baked bread and heady essential oils all mixed up together. It is a smell that to this day, the slightest whiff caught passing a health shop transports my mind straight back to our days in the health food trade.

I stepped inside and had my first look at the interior. Dappled sunlight filtered through the blinds, filling the shop with the pale sunlight of a winter's day. A pinewood counter stretched across the rear, dividing the shop front from the kitchen area. Two long pinewood-shelving units stood in the centre of the floor, and matching shelving lined the walls.

The shop had obviously been closed for business for at least a couple of weeks. The shelves were very sparsely stocked; a few packages and bottles lay here and there, and a forgotten loaf of bread stood on a shelf behind the counter.

A tall, dishevelled man came from the back of the shop and made his way around the counter to greet us. Dressed in old jeans and a crumpled tee shirt, his dark hair was tousled and he was unshaven. He looked as though he had at one time been quite attractive but tiredness and neglect had taken over leaving him with a sallow and careworn look.

'Hi there!' he said. 'John Kirk. Pleased to meet you.' He leaned forward and shook my hand. 'So you're going to buy the business?' I opened my mouth to introduce myself but was nudged aside by Lorraine.

'Hello John,' she said 'This is my sister Christine and as I explained to you on the phone she would like to have a look around and maybe ask your advice about a business she's thinking of starting. It's very kind of you to…'

'Yes, yes,' I butted in, pushing her gently but firmly out of the way. 'So, the shop John. Tell us about it.'

John led the way around the building talking as he went. He explained that he was heartbroken to have to leave the place but it was the only option open to him due to family events that were out of his control.

'More like finances out of his control,' muttered Lorraine and I nudged her to silence her, afraid that that he would hear.

I soon realised that the sales figures he was reeling off were obviously highly exaggerated and strangely enough he had always been 'too busy with customers to bother keeping proper accounts.' However, for all his unkempt appearance, with his roguish smile and charming manner it was difficult not to like him, even though I knew that he was inventing facts and figures as he went.

My heart sank as we were shown around the kitchen and I noticed the grimy shelves and cluttered work area. A box on the floor contained cooking utensils where someone had started dismantling the kitchen. My eyes scanned the cooking area taking in a pile of old cutlery, a broken tin opener, an unwashed chopping board and - horrors- near the hob, a saucer holding a mound of cigarette butts. Lorraine gave me a sideways glance and grimaced exaggeratedly and I stifled an urge to giggle.

John gave us a ridiculously magnified figure of how many sandwiches were supposedly prepared and sold daily. I was quite fascinated at the way he could make these embellished statements so sincerely without the least sign of embarrassment. He had such an appealing way that it was impossible to be offended, in fact it just seemed funny, and I deliberately avoided looking at Lorraine as I knew we would be unable not to laugh if we made eye contact. We managed to utter 'Really?' or murmur 'Mmm' in false agreement to his statements even though we were all aware that he was talking rubbish.

John led us through a door at the side of the kitchen that led into the office-cum-storeroom. This was almost worse than the kitchen. Piles of paperwork covered a makeshift desk that had been assembled from an old piece of wood with cardboard boxes for support. The weight of the mound on the surface had caused the boxes to collapse at one side and consequently the floor had been flooded in a torrent of paperwork. Stacks of crates and boxes filled every corner, along with discarded lengths of wood, a broken vacuum cleaner and a dismantled cot. We stood in an uncomfortably small space amongst the chaos and I could sense Lorraine's silent mirth as John said:

'Actually, this office is deceptively spacious.'

The three of us carefully squeezed out of the office and made our way around the wooden counter. The afternoon light was beginning to fade and an ambience of gloom now filled the shop. I realised that the lights were not switched on. As we passed the large freezer and fridge I ran my hand along the glass-fronted doors. They too were off and I guessed, correctly, that the electricity supply had been disconnected.

As John waffled on to Lorraine, I looked around, deep in thought. This place would take weeks of work to get it up and running again. Apart from the mammoth task of clearing out the junk and giving everything a good scrub, I noted that the kitchen needed to be refurbished and equipped, the building needed repainting inside and out and the shelving needed to be replaced or at least repaired. I started making mental lists. Advertising to organise, staffing to arrange, product knowledge to swot up on, suppliers to source... a thrill of excitement and enthusiasm rippled through me and I knew that I wanted to do it.

'...so in view of everything included, that is stock, equipment, fixtures and fittings, I think a figure of around fifteen thousand would be fair.' John's voice brought me back to earth with a bump.

'Fifteen thou...sorry, how much did you say?' I stammered.

'He said fifteen thousand' said Lorraine giving me a Let's-Get-The-Hell-Out- Of-Here look.

'Fifteen thousand,' repeated John confidently. 'I know it doesn't sound much for all this but there's no catch, honestly. I'll be happy with a fair price. I'm a fair man.' More like a mad man, I thought.

'I'm after a quick sale. This shop is a little goldmine. I don't want to leave it, but as I've explained I have no choice. I don't want to get tied up in red tape, just a quick deal and move on. I'm a free spirit you see, money means little to me.'

'Right,' said Lorraine, a bit rudely I thought. 'Well we must be off. Thanks for your time; we'll let you know. Come on Chris we'll go and er ...have a think about it?' She picked up her bag and walked towards the door.

'Just a minute,' I said. 'Fifteen thousand you say?' I turned my head as I slowly scanned the interior of the shop. 'Could you break that down for me?'

'Sorry?' said John. For the first time he seemed lost for words. 'Not sure what you mean...?'

'You know, just run through how you calculated a figure of fifteen thousand. For example, what sum did you include for stock?'

'All right,' he said. 'Now then.' He ran a hand through his dirty hair. 'Let me see.' He regained his composure and said boldly:

'Three thousand pounds.'

'Three thousand,' I repeated. 'And for the fixtures and fittings?'

'Well, ahem, I don't know, let's say about four thousand.' I looked at Lorraine.

'And the lease?' she asked joining in. 'You haven't mentioned how long there is to run on it.'

'Don't have a lease,' said John. The confidence he had shown so blatantly earlier now seemed to be draining away from him.

'I've always had a verbal agreement with the landlord to pay month by month, much easier not to be tied to a contract. No hassle with solicitors fees and of course if you want to move on you can do without any fuss. Makes life much more simple.' He shrugged his shoulders and laughed.

'Oh I'm sure it does,' said Lorraine. 'Except of course that if the landlord decides to throw you out you haven't got a leg to stand on.' John stopped laughing.

'How is your relationship with the landlord?' I asked. 'I take it you are up to date with your rent payments?'

'Oh yes, yes,' said John, resuming the nervous laugh. 'Well almost up to date. I always pay a little in arrears anyway, so it's really not a problem.' Lorraine looked at me and raised her eyebrows.

'So,' I said. 'Three thousand for stock and four for fixtures and fittings, that's seven thousand. What would the other eight thousand be buying?'

'Well. You know. Good will, customer relations, that sort of thing.' The conversation was becoming more ridiculous. It was time to cut through the bluffing and talk sensibly about the business.

'Howay John,' I said. 'The shop's obviously been closed for weeks, there is no good will.'

'But I had loads of good customers...' John started to say.

'Yes John. You had loads of good customers but by now they'll have found somewhere else to shop.' I saw Lorraine pick up a couple of packets from a nearby shelf and begin to examine them.

'As for the stock,' I said, 'There's nowt left. Now that the electricity is off the stuff in the fridges and freezers will be unsellable, and there's not much left on the shelves, hardly three thousand pounds worth.'

'Actually this dried fruit is out of date.' Lorraine said and she threw two packets of apricots back on the shelf.

'So that just leaves fixtures and fittings, most of which seem to have seen better days,' I said. I walked over to the back wall where one of the shelves had a broken bracket and lay with its edge resting on the shelf below. A pile of packages had slid down the resulting slope into a heap, and as I lifted the broken shelf to illustrate the state of disrepair, one of them toppled off, hit the wooden floor and burst, spraying out grains of brown rice.

'Nothing that can't easily be put right,' said John. Beads of perspiration had appeared on his forehead, although it was cold enough in the building for me to be shivering in my thick jumper and winter coat. He lifted the shelf and tried to rearrange the bags of rice into a stack to support it. Another bag slid and joined the one on the floor. He stared at it for a moment and Lorraine and I waited for him to speak.

He turned to face us and thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He looked at Lorraine and then at me and said:

'All right then, just make me an offer.' I took a deep breath wondering if I could keep my nerve. Just go for it I told myself. As my granny used to say 'shy bairns get nowt.' Just say it.

'Ok John,' I said and took another breath. 'I'll give you five hundred pounds.'

Lorraine and John looked at me and then at each other in amazement. Lorraine opened her mouth to say something but changed her mind and turned away in the pretence of examining a poster on the wall that showed illustrations of different varieties of beans with instructions on how to cook them. In the silence that followed I felt my whole body tense and I could feel the heat of my face burning red. I waited for John to laugh at me, or to get angry and shout at me or even throw me out. He gazed at me seemingly deep in thought and I fixed my eye on a black mark that I thought might be a fly on the wall above his head as I found that I could not meet his staring eyes. The black mark began to move slowly up the wall towards the ceiling, and then flew off, out of sight. Finally, after what seemed like hours, he leaned back against the wall, and looking at the floor said quietly:

'A thousand.' I heard Lorraine gasp quietly and she turned to look at us. I shook my head.

'Five hundred,' I said, amazed at my own nerve.

'Eight hundred,' he said pleadingly. 'Or seven, I'll take seven.'

'Five,' I repeated. 'Sorry John. It's my only and final offer.' He hesitated then sighed heavily.

'I'll take it,' he muttered, and then added in a pained voice 'but it must be cash. And I need it soon.'

Back at Lorraine's flat I collapsed onto the sofa. Lorraine dropped her handbag onto the floor and threw her keys onto the coffee table.

'Well!' she exclaimed, flopping into an armchair. 'I don't know whether to open a bottle to celebrate or to have you certified!'

'Break open a bottle,' I said. 'We're definitely celebrating.' I hoped I sounded a lot more confident than I felt. Now that the initial euphoria was wearing off, like always in these situations where I rushed in impulsively, I was beginning to wonder just what I'd taken on. How would I be able to organise all the work needed and how on earth would I finance it? And what had made me think that I could make a success of it if John Kirk hadn't been able to? Although I'd been self-employed for six years and had been able to support myself financially in that time, I was not particularly business-minded. I tended to muddle my way along following hunches rather than logic and I always let my heart rule my head. I groaned inwardly. What have I done? I thought. What will Peter say?

Lorraine came out of the kitchen with a bottle, two glasses and a corkscrew that she set down on the table in front of me. She proceeded to open the bottle and gave a laugh.

'I can't believe what's just happened,' she said. 'I must admit that when we first entered the shop and I saw the state of everything I thought no chance but the more I saw, the more I felt it had potential. It'll be an amazing challenge to take it on and get it up and going.' She handed me a glass of red wine. We both took a sip then she laughed, saying:

'When John said he wanted fifteen thousand I thought he must be off his head and I was expecting you to drop the idea like a hot potato. But when you offered him five hundred pounds, well! I nearly died!'

'So did I!' I spluttered. 'I don't know how I had the nerve really, I was terrified!' We both laughed and Lorraine said:

'But he accepted! He asked for fifteen thousand and accepted five hundred! I couldn't believe it.'

'I know,' I said. 'Neither could I.' Lorraine slumped back in her chair helpless with laughter.

'I thought he was going to throw me out,' I said, wiping my eyes. 'I felt a bit sorry for him in the end. He tried so hard to bluff his way through. Fifteen thousand huh!' I took another sip of my wine and hiccuped. I leaned my head against the soft cushions of the sofa and thought about how desperate John must have been to accept my pitiful offer. It was obvious that he hadn't paid the electricity bill and who knew how many other suppliers would be chasing debts.

'Oh my God!' I said, suddenly sobered. 'Am I mad? Do you think there's any chance I can make this work? Where on earth do I start?'

'Of course you'll make it work,' Lorraine said loyally. 'You'll have it kicked into shape in no time. And yes you are mad.'

'Do you really think I can do it?' feeling a little more heartened.

'Why aye,' she said. 'Anyway, there's time to change your mind if you want to. You haven't signed any legal documents or anything, you can always back out.'

I thought for a moment. At present, all I had to lose was five hundred pounds. I still had the antique shop full of stock, which when sold would be a good start towards financing the health shop. But more importantly than that I needed something to get my teeth into, a new start. My optimism began to return.

'No.' I said. 'No turning back now. I'm going to do it.'

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

After the freezing months of winter, March arrived with an unexpected spell of mild weather. Spring seemed to appear with the changing of the calendar and the previously stark trees now wore a spattering of green that had seemingly emerged overnight. Clusters of crocus sprouted everywhere and daffodil buds were ready to burst into flower at any moment.

Things were progressing well, if a little slowly. After viewing the shop with Lorraine I telephoned the landlord of the health store premises, Mr Stoker and explained that I wished to take over tenancy of the shop. He was very reluctant to allow it initially, believing me to be an acquaintance of John Kirk, and probably fearing that I would be an unreliable tenant. However, after I supplied references from my previous landlord, he agreed, and he was happy to leave me to make arrangements to collect the keys from John.

I telephoned John and arranged to meet him at the shop on the following Friday. I planned to use the coming week to start clearing the antique shop and spent a couple of hours on Sunday evening making a huge 'Closing Down Sale' banner with an old piece of canvas and a tin of red paint.

Early on Monday morning Peter and I hoisted the home made sign above the shop window and secured it by tying the sides to two drainpipes.

'Good luck,' Peter said as he left to go to work. 'Hope you sell everything!' and he kissed me and set off for work.

'Bye! Expect to see an empty shop when you return!' As he drove off I switched on the radio and set about changing price labels and reducing prices.

It was a beautiful morning; still a little chilly but bright and cloudless. The sun streamed through the window illuminating the front of the shop with radiant light and casting long shadows into the rear. As I propped open the door I breathed the salty sea air and a delicious warm breeze loaded with the promise of spring brushed over me. Singing along to the radio, I dragged some pieces of furniture outside and piled them up in front of the shop including a chaise longue that was in desperate need of new upholstery.

By twelve-thirty I had re-labelled everything and had already sold quite a lot of stock. I made a cup of tea and flopped on the chaise longue to sit in the sun and enjoy a well-earned break. I had just taken a first sip of tea when the telephone began to ring and I cursed and got up to answer it.

'It's me,' said Lorraine's voice. 'You'll never guess what's happened. The wine-store was burgled last night.'

'No!' I said. 'What have they taken?'

'Everything,' she said. 'The place has been cleared out. They couldn't get into the safe but they cleared the shelves and the cellar of all the wines and spirits. All the lagers and ciders have gone too, and the Sherries and ports. They've even taken boxes of chocolates and crisps. All that's left are a few odd bottles of mixers and soft drinks.'

'Bloody hell!' I said. 'How did they get in?'

'Walked in through the front door. Remember the broken shutter lock? All they had to do was push open the shutter, jemmy the door and cut the alarm wire

'The Ferret will be in big trouble,' I said. 'He's known about that lock for ages and never bothered to have it fixed.'

'Yeah, well that's the trouble,' said Lorraine 'He's been here this morning talking to the police. He said he knew nothing about a problem with the shutter lock and he's throwing the blame onto me, saying that I left the property unsecured.'

'You're joking!' I said. 'You've reported that broken shutter to him loads of times, the lying little creep. He can't blame you for this.'

'He can and he is. The Regional Manager is on his way here from Head Office now to interrogate me about it. You see, the insurance company won't pay out if the correct security measures weren't in place.'

'You can't let him get away with that!'

'Look, I'd better go. I've just sneaked out to the phone box in my lunch break so I'd better get back and face the music.'

'What time do you finish tonight?' I asked.

'Six o'clock.'

'Right,' I said. 'I'll meet you at the flat at about six-fifteen. I'll bring a takeaway and you can give me an update then. We'll see if we can come up with something to sort this out.'

By five thirty I had cashed up, tidied and locked the shop and was standing outside, huddled in my coat as Peter pulled up in the car to collect me.

'In a hurry to get home?' he asked. Usually he made us coffee and we chatted while I leisurely cashed up and tidied the displays.

'Yes,' I said. 'I'll explain on the way.'

Peter was as furious as I was.

'I knew he was a snivelling little git but I didn't think he'd be so cowardly as to blame something like this on to one of his staff,' he said.

'She needs to prove that he knew about the broken shutter lock,' I said.

'It'll be difficult,' said Peter. 'He's the kind of man who will do anything to save his own skin.'

We arrived at Lorraine's flat at ten past six with boxes of pizza and a tub of coleslaw. Lorraine was just leaving the shop as we pulled up, and she locked the door behind her and pulled down the shutter.

'Hi,' she said. She looked pale and tired and close to tears. She bent down to lock the shutter. 'New lock. Amazing how quickly he managed to have it repaired after the event.'

'Come on,' I said hugging her. 'Let's go up.'

Upstairs in the flat Lorraine picked at her pizza.

'Today has been awful,' she said putting down her fork. 'I got a hell of a shock this morning when I went down and found the place ransacked. The burglars had pulled down the shutter behind them, I suppose to avoid arousing suspicion. As soon as I pushed it up I saw the broken door and the empty shelves. To think that I was asleep upstairs and never heard a thing.'

'What did you do?' I asked.

'I phoned the police first and then Ryan Ferris. Two Police Officers arrived fairly quickly and I gave a statement. I told them the truth, that the lock had been broken for a while.'

'When did the Ferret arrive?' I asked.

'At about nine thirty. He spoke to the police but denied that he knew anything about the broken lock. I got really annoyed and called him a liar and it all got a bit heated. Julie, one of the sales assistants arrived to start her shift in the middle of the argument and she joined in. She told him she'd overheard me telling him about it on the phone but he just accused us of putting a story together to cover our backs.'

'The scumbag,' I said.

'Police Officers kept arriving and leaving all day asking questions and looking around, so Julie spent most of the day making cups of tea. She hadn't much else to do; we couldn't open for business without stock to sell. The Regional Manager arrived after lunch. He believed everything that Ryan Ferris said. He told me that I'd let the company down and gave me a written warning. Julie got a verbal warning. I was really angry at the injustice of it all but I just feel dejected and deflated now.' She pushed her plate of pizza away and sank back into her chair.

'Is there no way you can prove that Ferris knew about that lock?' asked Peter.

'I don't think so,' Lorraine said shaking her head.

'Did you ever inform him in writing?' I asked.

'Yes I did,' Lorraine said thoughtfully and she sat up suddenly. 'Every Friday I fill in the weekly stock figures form in the stock book and send the top copy to him. I remember about three weeks ago, I added a note to the bottom of the form saying that I was concerned that the lock had still not been mended and asking him to arrange to have it fixed. The copy should still be in the book.'

'Where's the book?' Peter and I asked in unison.

'Under the counter downstairs,' said Lorraine and we all jumped up and ran down the stairs, Lorraine grabbing her keys on the way.

Minutes later we were back in the sitting room with the stock book. I flicked through the pages.

'Well there's one thing that the Ferret is right about,' I said looking up.

'What's that?'

'You don't write heavily enough on the carbon paper. There's nothing here, just a few blue marks.'

'Let me see,' she said. I pushed the book forward so she and Peter could see it. 'Oh no!' she said. She took the book from me and turned the pages, counting backwards through the previous Fridays.

'Thirteenth of March, sixth of March, twenty-eighth of February, this is the page,' she said. 'Look, you can just make out a couple of words at the bottom.' We all peered at the page.

'I can see the word remind here,' said Peter pointing at the faint marks scarcely visible on the form. 'And that says have and there's an s and a t here, but that's all I can make out.'

'Well that's the end of that,' sighed Lorraine.

'No it isn't,' said Peter, settling down at the table with the book in front of him. 'Pass me a piece of carbon paper and a pencil. We'll soon fix this.'

Tuesday morning. After an early shower the sun came out causing the wet pavements to sparkle in front of me as I left the Metro Station. The air was fresh and I felt invigorated as I strolled towards the shop.

I arrived to find two women waiting impatiently in the doorway after spotting something they liked the look of in the window display. They bustled in behind me, and a few minutes later bustled out again carrying a small wine table, an umbrella stand and a box filled with various pieces of china.

News of my closing down sale had spread and throughout the morning an endless procession of bargain hunters paraded through the shop. It was hugely satisfying to see the shelves emptying and even more so to see the increasing stack of banknotes and cheques in my cash tin. The telephone rang several times during the morning but each time I was occupied with customers and although I twice managed to race to the telephone and snatch up the receiver it was only to hear the dialling tone as the caller hung up.

By one o'clock I was ravenously hungry and decided that as soon as I got the chance I would nip along to the local deli for a sandwich. After helping an elderly lady carry a basket chair to her car, I returned to the shop and quickly turned the sign to 'closed'. I collected my keys and bag and was just about to leave when the telephone rang again. It was Lorraine.

'Hi,' she said sounding very cheerful. 'Caught you at last. Have you been closed this morning?'

'No, just very busy,' I said. 'You sound chirpy. How are things?'

'Pretty good,' she answered. 'Had your lunch?'

'Not yet. I was just about to go out for a sandwich.'

'Well if you can wait a bit longer perhaps I could come over and join you? I've some news for you and an idea to run past you.'

'Mmm! Sounds interesting,' I said. 'You could meet me at Wild Oats deli in the café upstairs?'

'Right. About half an hour?'

'Ok. See you then.'

The smell of fresh coffee greeted me as I walked upstairs to the Wild Oats café. I walked between the small lace covered tables, with their pretty little vases of narcissi and sat at my favourite table in the bay window. Here I was able look down onto the main street busy with traffic and people. After a moment I spied Lorraine striding along the pavement past the shops. She walked with a spring in her step, hair blowing in the breeze, looking a lot more carefree than she had yesterday.

Presently I heard footsteps tip-tapping up the polished wooden stairs and knowing that it was Lorraine, turned around to greet her.

'Hi,' she said as she breezed in and took a seat next to me. 'Have you ordered yet?' She picked up a menu.

'No I was waiting for you. But never mind that, what's your news? How are things at the shop?'

'Food first,' she said studying the menu. 'Let's get our priorities right.' I was bursting with curiosity but I knew I'd get nothing out of her until she was ready to tell me, so I too picked up a menu.

We ordered home made mushroom soup and wholemeal rolls filled with cheese and chutney that were served with a huge side salad and mounds of coleslaw and potato salad.

'Blimey!' I said when I saw them. 'I'll never eat all that!'

'I'm sure you'll manage,' said Lorraine.

'Right,' I said, picking up my spoon and tucking in to the delicious creamy soup. 'You can spill the beans now.'

As we ate she told me how she'd verbally backed Ryan Ferris into a corner and had produced the book with the copy of her note as evidence.

'You should have seen the look on his face,' she said. 'I told him I'd sent a copy to the Regional Manager.'

'That'll have him squirming,' I said. 'When did you send it?'

'I didn't send it. And I'm not going to.'

'Why not?' I asked, surprised. 'It's your chance to prove him wrong and to have the written warning retracted.'

'Because I'm not bothered any more,' she said. 'I'm tired of the whole company and of being bullied and intimidated. I'm going to resign.'

'Resign!' I said. 'But what will you do?'

'Well it's like this, you see. I've got this sister who's opening a health shop. Thought she might need a business partner?' she said with a grin.

'Oh brilliant!' I said overjoyed. 'I'd love us to be business partners.'

'Are you sure?' she said. 'I don't want to rush you into a decision.'

'Of course I'm sure. I've said all along that we'd be a great team. Although I don't know what makes you think you won't be bullied and intimidated.'

Lorraine laughed.

'Great. I'll write my resignation tonight.'

'Are you sure you're not making a rushed decision?' I asked. 'I don't want to change your mind but have you thought carefully about what you're giving up?'

'All I'm giving up is a load of stress.'

'Yeah, and planning to take on a new load.'

'That's different. This time we'll be in control,' she said. 'Anyway, I know it's the right thing to do. I've felt great since I made my decision.'

'Right then. It's a deal.'

'This calls for a celebration,' Lorraine said and spoke to the waitress who had arrived to remove our plates. 'Could we have two large cream cakes and another pot of tea please?' I groaned aware of my already straining waistband.

 'I've already eaten too much!' I said as the waitress returned with two enormous choux buns bursting with whipped cream and strawberries and smothered in chocolate sauce.

'Stop moaning and enjoy it while we can,' Lorraine said. 'We're going into health foods soon.'

 

Want to read more? Find it at Amazon

 

"Funny and fabulous...move over James Herriot, Christine has stolen your crown!" Stephanie M

 

 Read more reviews