We came to the bus stop and had timed it just right. The number 37 to the Market Square rumbled towards us within a couple of minutes of our standing there.
“Right you are Uncle Wilfred.” He helped the elderly man onto the platform. Then stepped back down to the pavement!
For a moment Uncle Wilfred panicked.
“Eh, Keith lad. You’re not coming with us?” he quavered. “Now what do you need me for?” responded Dad with a twinkling grin. “You’re the expert.” And to me: “Now mind Harriet. You be a good girl and bide by Uncle Wilfred’s decision. He knows best. Now give this fiver to Uncle. It’ll more than
pay for the guinea pigs and all their food.”
“Yes Dad,” I answered meekly.
As I boarded the bus, the full import of the situation fell upon me. I was part of a conspiracy. A conspiracy to give Uncle Wilfred back some dignity. I felt rather pleased with myself. I just prayed nothing would go wrong with Uncle Wilfred’s dicky heart.
“One and a half to the Square,” Uncle Wilfred announced decisively, when the clippie came for our fare.
He gave me the tickets to hold and we smiled at each other, checked for gnet.org. Our adventure had begun!
By the time we were halfway into town, I had learnt a lot about guinea pigs and guessed something about Uncle Wilfred.
In his modest way, he had been quite an important man when he had been judging. He’d not only known all the different breeds of guinea pigs and their finer points of conformation, condition and colour, but he’d also had to recognise all the tricks of showing. Some exhibitors hadn’t been above cheating or offering bribes! But Uncle Wilfred had never been fooled. My respect for him grew by the minute.
WE alighted from the bus at the edge of Market Square. I took Uncle Wilfred’s free hand. It was thin and smooth and felt a bit like holding a wet fish.
His face, however, was glowing with sheer enjoyment as we walked between the stalls. Every now and then he paused, leaning on his stick, to listen to the bantering sales patter, flowing all around us. We came, eventually, to the shop. And went in.
We approached the brassbound counter, where a grey parrot squawked “Hello” in a friendly manner, then went back to hacking at the “Not for Sale” notice on the bars of its cage.
There were quite a few people in the shop. Most of them apparently just looking. But Uncle Wilfred and I had business to do. He stated it with a new ring of authority in his voice.
“A pair of guinea pigs? Yes, we have several in stock. Smooth-haired, Abyssinian, Peruvian, Himalayan,” the round-faced man behind the counter informed us enthusiastically.
“May I examine them ?” asked Uncle Wilfred firmly.
“Why certainly, sir. I’ll take out whichever ones you fancy.”
So the search for my guinea pigs began.
They were all very appealing. I liked the Abyssinians best, with their funny, rosetted fur. Fortunately Uncle Wilfred concurred. So we concentrated on them.
The years fell away from my uncle. Absorbed in his task, he
had become the championship judge again. The shopkeeper sensed his vastly superior knowledge, stopped his quick-sell spiel and waited for Uncle Wilfred’s decision with an anxious frown.
“We’ll take the black boar and the ginger sow,” my uncle pronounced after careful deliberation.
“I’m sure you’ve made the right choice. They’ve come from my best supplier.”
Uncle Wilfred nodded, as if he needn’t be told.
At that moment the shop bell behind us jangled dementedly, as the door ricocheted several times before finally closing.
An extraordinary shock of silence followed, in which we all looked around, instinctively aware that something rather terrible had entered our midst.
I heard a woman whisper: “Heavens preserve us, it’s Harry Thomsett,” in much the same chilled tone as she might have said it was Frankenstein!
He could have been Frankenstein’s monster, for the man was a giant. Broad, brawny and with features that seemed to have been chipped out of granite. He darkened the shop with his presence.
I wished we weren’t so near the counter. I wished we were at the back of the shop, where it was nice and dark. I wished my dad was there. I wished I’d never wanted guinea pigs. Above all, I thought of Uncle Wilfred’s dicky heart and Aunt May’s parting threat. “If he has one of his turns from overexcitement, I’ll hold you responsible.”
Overexcitement! It was here. Barely three strides away. Six foot six of Overexciternent, breathing fumes that implied nearly every cubic inch was saturated with best bitter.
Harry Thomsen, whoever he was, was reeling, rolling drunk!
“Canarily seed. Ah shwant two pund of canarily seed,” he slurred, swaying over the counter.
When he opened the great maw of his mouth, Thomsett revealed he had but one tooth in his head. A front one, that jutted up like a tombstone. I was horribly fascinated by it.
“I’ll just finish serving this gentleman,” the shopkeeper said.
“Ah’m in an ‘urry. Carnsh wait.”
“I really shan’t be long.”
“Wash trouble wit’ folks. Folks won’t oblige. Whole Worlsh is miserable. Full o’ miserable people. Ah’m ‘appy. Whyn’t everyun elsh ‘appy?” Thomsett demanded furiously. “Canarily seed. Thash all ah’m askin’ for!”
“But this customer was first.”
“It’s quite all right,” Uncle Wilfred interposed, prudently. “Please serve this . . . gentleman.”
The shopkeeper thankfully scurried off with a brown paper bag and began to fill it as fast as he could from a seed bin.