Mr. Bell wafts into the shop on a near-winter’s eve, hunched over his stick, little beetle eyes glittering. “You have some books for me,” he tells me at the counter, and so far, so good, though he’s approached my till from the wrong side of the queue.
“Sure thing, what’s your surname?”
“It’s Bell,” he answers, slow and loud, as if I might be foreign or deaf. “B – E – L –”
“Right,” I say. “Got it.”
There’s three books in the cupboard for him. I bring them all to the counter. He paws over them — two Nelson Mandela books, one aimed at children under the age of five; the other a thick tome on Palestine written in 2012. He asks me to keep the Mandela books while he continues to peruse the Gaza strip.
“Your colleague,” he says, “told me I could have this for half price.”
There’s only one colleague who might ever have offered such a thing, and I strongly doubt even he would’ve said any such thing. When I tell Mr. Bell that the book isn’t on our half price offers and probably never has been, he eyes me beadily and frowns. “But you can still give me a discount.”
It’s not a question. It is merely a patently incorrect statement.
“I can match the price on our website, if it’s any lower,” I offer.
Of course, the price is not lower on our website.
“How much is it?” he demands, not even attempting to find the price on the back, despite his pawing.
“10.99,” I say, pointing it out.
“I’ll give you seven for it.”
By now, the queue is seven customers long. I have no choice but to tell him that our price for the book is its retail price, which is, despite his haggling, still 10.99.
“It’s too much,” he protests.
He makes a show of considering whether to take the book or not, hands it back to me. Finally, he pulls out his wallet. “Fine then,” he says. “And a bag.”
“The bag is an extra 5p,” I say, just so that we’re all on the same page and also because I am entirely done with Mr. Bell.
“Fine, fine, I’ll pay with my card.”
Somehow, I’m not surprised when the card gets declined.
“What is wrong with your machine?” asks Mr. Bell.
“Your card’s been declined,” I clarify.
“No, you’ve charged me twice!”
“Oh, no the payment hasn’t gone through. It’s been declined.”
“It’s your machine! What else could it be?”
I look him dead in the eye as I answer: “Your card.”
I deign to try the card on the other till, where, surprise, surprise, it’s declined yet a third time. “Fine, fine,” concedes Mr. Bell. “I’ll pay with cash.” He fishes through his wallet and hands me a ten pound note.
“It’s 10.99,” I tell him. “And 5p for the bag.”
“You think I’m going to try to steal the bag?”
I resist the urge to tell him that’s exactly what I think.
“So one pound and four p more, sir,” I say.
He hands me a pound coin and a small silver piece covered in Cyrilic. “There!”
“Sir, that is a Russian coin.”
He glares at me, truly angered now. “How do you know?” he demands. “Do you speak Russian?”
I take his point. For all I know, the coin could be Bulgarian. Still, “I’ll just need five p for the bag,” I say, handing him back the coin that may very well be Serbian or Belarussian, but is definitely from somewhere in the former Soviet Bloc and entirely not legal British tender.
He takes it back and digs deep into his pockets. Finally, the correct currency exchanges hands. I present Mr. Bell his purchase over the counter and tell him to have a nice day. He grunts in response, and wafts out of the shop, into the cold, dark near-winter’s evening.
His Christmas shopping has only now begun.