It was a grey, wet Monday when I first met him. Monday meant scrambled egg, the chiropodist and an afternoon in the charity shop. As usual, I was glad to be getting out of the retirement home and into the real world for a few hours. I was proud of my little job, they didn’t pay us but you got all the tea you could drink, a full tin of biscuits and first dibs on whatever items came in.Betty was in charge of window dressing. Ever since her husband died, she’d been undergoing treatment for an over-active libido and been advised to ‘express her compulsions creatively in a safe environment’. This morning she’d been creative with a Care Bear and a mug tree. And then there was Jean . . .
"Morning," I said cheerily to the imposing figure behind the counter. She looked up briefly and nodded then went back to rubbing her horse brass. "Any exciting treasures today?" I enquired.
“How about this?” shouted Betty, waving a heavy, dark-coloured paperback with a grey silk tie on the cover triumphantly above her small head.
Jean rolled her eyes. "Stop waggling that thing about and stick it up there with all the others!"
“So, have you read that ‘Fifty Shades of Whatsit?" I asked, curious.
“No, I have not!" tutted Jean. "Books are no use to me, I’ve no imagination. I’ve been tested.”
“No, me neither!" squeaked Betty from the top of the stepladder.
"I don't know who she's trying to kid," whispered Jean, resting her heavy bosom on the counter. "I caught her the other day giving it a good thumbing in the store room." She turned to Betty and boomed "Come on, you can help me make a cup of tea and keep your hands busy."
I couldn't help wondering what it was all about as I buffed up a candlestick. Fifty Shades of Grey? It sounded like some kind of hairdressers' colour chart. I was pondering away, absent-mindedly when suddenly I had the strangest feeling that I was being watched. I looked up and, through the rain-spattered window, saw a grey-haired figure in grey trousers and a grey overcoat, clutching a large cardboard box to his grey jumper. I opened the door and poked my head out into the rain.
"Would you like to come in?" I asked. "Your box is getting all soggy."
But he said nothing and just held it out towards me. I felt a bit shaken but took it from him.
"Thank you," I said, but when I looked up to give him a little smile he was already scurrying down the street through the puddles. I stood on the damp step until he disappeared round the corner, then staggered back inside and slid the soaking wet box onto the counter.
"What's that sodden thing?" bellowed Jean, striding back in with the tea tray, closely followed by Betty, her tiny hand fiddling with her custard cream.
"I don't know," I answered, a little flustered.
"Well, it can't stay there!'" she exclaimed, prodding it with an impatient finger. "It's dripping all over my collectables. What's in it anyway?" She elbowed me out of the way, reached in and produced something long, black and rubbery with a bulbous, knobbly tip.
"What on earth is it?" I asked. Jean shrugged her shoulders.
"I think I know!" interjected a wide-eyed Betty, keenly. "Allow me to give you ladies a demonstration . ."
And before we knew what was happening, she'd plucked the mysterious device from Jean's grasp, and expertly flicked a small switch at the base. We watched in stunned silence as it suddenly began to buzz and vibrate wildly in her eager hand. With a wink, she pointed it downwards and began to lower it . . .
"This is what it's for!" she grinned and slowly stirred her tea with it.
CONTINUED NEXT SUNDAY