The Million Pound Shop
I work in an old seaside town. Many quaint shops lurk down cobbled alleys, waiting to mug unsuspecting tourists, but none is so singular as The Million Pound Shop. One lunch hour after walking farther along the quayside than usual to admire fishing boats, higgledy-piggledy in their moorings, I found a narrow lane between two pubs on the waterfront. The first twenty paces promised much. A row of cottages squinted down, like Old Salts mending a cobblestone net. Around the first corner however, my senses were jarred by a conspicuously tasteless shop front. A sandwich board proclaimed: “THE 1,000,000 POUND SHOP!”
I looked contemptuously at the window display. All the low bric-a-brac of a pound shop was there: garish plastic beakers, cheap felt pens that would run dry almost immediately, frying pans with plastic handles, bundled nylon socks. Incredibly, each item was priced at a million pounds. I caught my own reflection gasping in the window. Was it an elaborate joke? Would I really be charged one million pounds for a red plastic bucket and spade? Seeing a lopsided sign saying “OPEN”, I pushed at the door and edged inside.
I affected nonchalance, as if walking into a Million Pound Shop was nothing unusual, but the proprietor didn’t even look up as I set off wind chimes at the door. He was reading a book. I had an overpowering urge to stare at him - to know the face of a man who would bankrupt me over a colouring pad and crayons. Instead I browsed aisles of near-refuse with mounting disquiet. Stooping to check the price tag on a washing up bowl—One Million Pounds—I even had a sensation that goods were sniggering silently at my back. I swiveled round—only to find two ornamental china spaniels staring at up at me with kickable pathos.
The man at the counter was still reading, presumably because he knew people only came in to look. I scrutinized him from behind a display of birthday party accessories. He was a man of stark contrasts: a Lazarus complexion beneath jet black hair—receding yet tied in a pony tail. He wore a pinstriped suit and bright orange shirt along with a necklace of wooden beads.
Feeling once more that stock might be giggling silently behind me, I straightened and despite myself, looked round. This time, plastic garden gnomes stared back. I had an uncanny sense that each was stifling a smirk. It was all profoundly disturbing. And what was the point? Nobody would ever buy anything from such a shop. It was as if the owner was trying to mock ordinary people for being curious. If so, I had fallen for it, and that made the whole charade even more irritating. I marched up to the counter and said a little querulously.
The shopkeeper looked up with a sigh. I could see he’d met my type before and was bracing himself for a tedious recital of justification.
“Can I help you sir?” He spoke like an actor in a sketch and I would have launched into a tirade but for his eyes, which betrayed a perky intelligence I found disarming.
I ended up asking limply: “Does everything really cost a million pounds in this shop?”
He looked shocked.
“Not at all sir. There’s a special offer on umbrellas in the bargain bin. Only £700,000.”
“But that’s ridiculous. They’re only five pounds in the supermarket.”
He shook his head sorrowfully and tutted: “I know. They’re practically giving them away. Ruthless undercutting.”
I couldn’t tell if he was being serious. I guessed he wasn’t.
“You’re telling me that if I wanted to buy, say, that plastic mop, I’d have to give you a million pounds?”
“Then you can’t sell very many,” I said dryly.
“No,” he agreed. “But then I only need to sell one and I’m a millionaire.”
I must have looked blank as he continued:
“Every morning I put out the sandwich board to attract customers, and say to myself: ‘Stanley, you only need one.’”
For a moment his face twitched with humour.
“Are you a millionaire?” he asked.
“No.” I said quietly.
He gave me a look of exaggerated sympathy: “The mop’s out of the question then?”
“Yes,” I turned to go.
“Still,” he hesitated mischievously, “Somewhere a billionaire caretaker....?”
I went out not knowing if I had been insulted or entertained.
I hurried back to the opticians where I worked.
“You’re late back,” remonstrated my squinting boss.
“Thirty seconds, Mr Hickey.”
“And by the time you’ve wiped your shoes, taken off your coat and settled to business, a good deal more. You should be ready to start work on the very dot of two.”
“I was distracted by The Million Pound Shop,” I said, attempting a subtle change of subject as I hung my coat over my chair. “Do you know of it?”
“Of course I do. The whole town knows of it. The whole town is trying to get rid of it. And the owner—whatshisname: Stanley Blake-Nesbitt. Name almost as ridiculous as his shop. The Mayor is trying to close him down. The place jars. This Nesbitt fellow swans in from outside, starts a crazy shop that’s not in character with the rest of the town, especially Flotsam Lane. I mean he’s obviously not in it to make money. It’s like he’s just doing it to annoy.”
That last word seemed to refocus Hickey’s attention on me.
“But look here; there are more important things on hand than Million Pound Shops! You mixed up the filing again and Mrs Rowntree got the wrong contact lenses, third time in a row. She fell down the steps of the Lapwing Hotel and now she’s going to sue.”
In denial about his own shortness of sight, Hickey was always giving people the wrong lenses and then blaming me. If I protested, an alarming shade of red would inch up his face as if he were some sort of human thermometer. In apoplectic rage he would sack me—then phone the next day and demand to know why I was not in work. It was less exhausting to make a few humble noises and keep out of his way.
It was for this reason that I went out for lunch. For the next few days, I found myself buying a sandwich before drifting helplessly towards Flotsam Lane.
“You cannot go back in that shop,” I scolded myself, trying to steer in the opposite direction. ‘You don’t have a million pounds and if you did, you wouldn’t spend it on a washing-up bowl!”
But the Million Pound Shop kept popping up in my thoughts like money signs on an old-fashioned till. Since childhood, possessing a million pounds had exerted a powerful fascination. And even though the amount was no longer stupendous riches —mere coppers to some—the number still felt like a symbol of unattainable wealth. To have lodged in a bank that magical one and six noughts! It was a financial state of grace. The idea that a customer might walk into Stanley Blake Nesbitt’s shop and buy a tea towel set my blood tingling.
At lunchtimes I fidgeted on the quay, no longer entranced by the geometrical misalignments of masts, booms and spars. Rigging tinkling on the breeze only reminded me of million-pound wind chimes that hung in the shop doorway. Leaning over a rust-blistered rail to watch seagulls swoop down on crusts I’d set adrift, I would hear Nesbitt’s words slapping against the quay:
You only need one.
You only need one.
You only need one.
You only need one.
Each cheering and optimistic splash urged me to return to the Million Pound Shop to see if anything had left the shelves. Eventually, I told myself I would just go past and spy in the window—merely to check the place hadn’t gone to one of Flotsam Lane’s dank and sunless walls.
Stanley Blake-Nesbitt was still reading. But this time he did look up as I went in. He had a black eye. Or rather it was scarlet, purple and dark blue. Contrasted against the pallor of his skin, the injury looked startling.
“Second thoughts about the mop?” he asked.
I felt awkward and uncomfortable, just in fact as I knew I would feel. Why had I gone back in?
“No, I was passing and thought I’d pop by. See how business is going.”
He thought for a moment.
“Quite slow. Maybe it’s the location. But you know, I haven’t sold a single thing since I opened.”
Then he smiled. Despite the swelling, his eyes hadn’t lost their merry insolence. I turned so as not to dwell on his disfigurement. This time, I had no sense of stock smirking behind my back. Perhaps it was my imagination, but merchandise moped on the shelves as if it were a Sunday. I noticed umbrellas were down to £600,000 in the bargain bin and was about to point this out, but found myself saying instead:
“You’ve...you’ve got a black eye.”
Nesbitt touched the swollen area in acknowledgement and nodded: “Occupational hazard.”
I must have looked baffled. He went on: “Apparently, opening a Million Pound Shop is like waving a red handkerchief at a bull.”
“Wasn’t that your intention?” I asked.
He started slightly.
“I didn’t open this shop to get punched in the eye by my customers, no. I expected a few bouncing cheques. Shoplifters perhaps. But not physical violence.”
I was intrigued: “A customer hit you? Bought something for a million and punched you?”
He shook his head and leaned on the counter despondently.
“No. Some woman came in with her friend. Asked for a roll of sellotape. So I placed a roll in front of her. She opened her purse and took out a pound. And I said: ‘No, you’ll need a million of those.’ She told me I was ridiculous. I didn’t deny it, and asked if she wanted it wrapped because the paper was free. She flounced out with her friend, in a rage. Anyhow, ten minutes later a large man burst in and said I’d insulted his wife, and that he wasn’t leaving without a roll of sellotape. I told him that stealing expensive items from shops could land him in jail and he hit out.”
“Incredible,” I murmured.
“It seems,” he sighed, “that once a community of people decide your face doesn’t fit, they feel they can change it with impunity.”
“Did you report it to the police?” I asked.
“Yes. They told me I’d asked for it.”
I found the story hard to believe. Yet as I left the shop, an old woman came out of a narrow house across the lane. She gave me such a filthy look, I felt I’d need a shower to wash it off.
I hurried back to Hickey’s Optics, perturbed by what Stanley Blake-Nesbitt had told me. You were an outsider in Bigley Bay unless your family had lived there five generations, and that mild xenophobia had always amused me. Now I saw that beneath the town’s postcard charm there lay a deeper intolerance. True, the Million Pound Shop was eccentric and unsettling, but that didn’t make it right to persecute the owner. I felt he was the most interesting person I’d met in a long time. Perhaps ever.
Hickey was fiddling with a stand of frames when I walked in through the door. He frowned at the clock. My punctuality seemed to annoy him almost as much as my tardiness. I told him of Stanley Blake-Nesbitt’s black eye.
“I know all about it,” he snapped, “Foster did it.”
“He owns both pubs outside Flotsam Lane. Can’t stand Nesbitt or his stupid shop. And if you’ve any sense, you won’t go in there again. You should know better than to strike up conversations with somebody the town can’t abide. It might put off our customers if it gets round that you go in there. We don’t want to be tainted.”
“I’ve only been in twice.”
“Yes, well word gets round quickly in a small town like this. And you’re causing this business enough trouble as it is. Did you know Mr. Vellaise got the wrong frames? Those were women’s frames you gave him.”
“He chose them. Didn’t you say the customer is always right?
“In our line of work, the customer is always blind. For goodness sake, if you were working in a clothes shop, you wouldn’t let a man walk out in a dress would you?”
He seemed unaware that he was myopically taking men’s frames from one stand and placing them on a stand of women’s frames. Like the Million Pound Shop, I decided to let it go.
I forbade my feet to amble towards Flotsam Lane and began instead to take a light lunch at the Lapwing Hotel. I enjoyed sitting alone in the garden at the back, indulging in a half of beer and The Times crossword. Just occasionally Stanley Blake-Nesbitt would catch my mind’s eye. A fleeting recollection of his orange shirt or wooden beads would leave me curious to know if he was still waiting with the dogged faith and patience of a mystic for that single customer.
A month later, idly taking up a local newspaper that had been left by a previous diner at my garden table, I dropped a crab sandwich all over the headline:
Break In At Million Pound Shop
I flattened the paper in front of me. There was a photograph of Mr Blake-Nesbitt holding a brick. The copy ran:
“Stock was stolen from window of The Million Pound Shop in Flotsam Lane behind Barnett’s Quay on the night of Friday 25th May. According to the owner, it could be the largest robbery of its kind ever to take place in the county. Mr Blake-Nesbitt was quoted as saying:
‘This heist was breathtaking in its audacity. One hundred million pounds-worth of stock was taken after a brick was put through the shop window. Over 100 items went missing including priceless stanley knives, mug trees, polyester socks and packets of plastic Red Indians. As items of that value are impossible to insure, I am personally devastated. The robber was obviously local, as he used a local brick. It’s a unique form of silent brick only found in the area, which accounts for no-one in the neighbourhood hearing a smash.’ "
I had just enough lunch hour left to get to Flotsam Lane and then back up to work for two o’ clock. I left my beer to go flat as the newspaper.
Beside the 1,000,000 Pound Shop sign, two workmen squidged putty around an expanse of new glass. The door was open and I hesitated to the tinkling of windchimes. Stanley Blake-Nesbitt, was just visible: elbows on the counter, unshaven chin cupped in both hands. His shop interior looked even more glum. My lunch hour had elapsed, but even then I might have entered but for the sight of umbrellas at £500,000 in the bargain bin.
As if to confirm that a cloud hung over the place, large ponderous raindrops began to mottle the cobblestones. I hurried back along Flotsam Lane, mentally rehearsing excuses for a late return to work, and walked straight into Hickey. He was stepping out of Foster’s pub and shortsightedly bumped into me.
“You!” he spluttered, “What are you doing here? You should be at the shop!”
As always with a shock encounter, I floundered: “There’s ... there’s still three minutes of my lunch hour left.”
Hickey’s reply was almost drowned out by a croak of thunder overhead.
“You’ll never get up to the shop in three minutes! What were you doing in Flotsam Lane anyway? I thought I’d forbidden you to go that...that shop!”
I raised my voice over a sudden downpour: “I didn’t go in. It was The Mercury’s headline ...”
Rain hissed between us as I held up the paper. He snatched it and glared at the front page. His face reminded me of a glass being filled with tomato juice.
“Ridiculous!” he shouted as drops thudded onto the paper and pinged off his nose. “He did it for the publicity of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if a man like that were to put the brick through himself. Something’s going to have to be done! The whole town’s a laughing stock! He’s not from here. But it reflects on where we live and the businesses we have built up.”
The sky fell in; rain strafed the pavements and blistered in puddles. Dribbles ran amok on Hickey’s face, which for some reason led me to imagine him trying to wrest an umbrella from the bargain bin of the Million Pound Shop and being charged £500,000. Whether he read my mind or disliked my involuntary smile in the middle of his rant, I don’t know, but he suddenly screamed: “There’s nothing funny about it! You’ve nothing to smile about! In fact, you’re sacked!”
Cramming the newspaper down on his head to protect his thinning hair from plastering rain, Hickey stalked off, accompanied by a theatrical roll of thunder. Of course he phoned me the next day: “What time do you call this? Skulking at home when there’s lots to do. People’s eyes don’t test themselves, you know.”
I was almost relieved when Hickey went down with a chill and I was left to run the shop alone. On the back of several peaceful days came a lobster fisherman in bifocals to have his eyes tested.
“I must need new glasses,” he said sitting in front of a chart, “Keep getting me thumbs nipped. Is that an R...? And I didn’t want to miss that Nesbitt feller getting run out of town.”
“An R, I think.”
“No. You mentioned Mr Nesbitt?”
“Oh that one. He’s in trouble over The Mercury’s front page. It sent a fair old ripple down the quay. There was a str’ordinary general meeting of the Bigley Bay business association at the Lapwing Hotel last night. To discuss closing that shop down.”
“The Million Pound Shop?” I asked, stepping in front of the eye chart.
“Yes, the Mayor and a deputation are going down there at two. Mrs Foster, she said: ‘throw him off the quay. Putting it about we’re all villains’. But the Mayor wants it done civilized like. I thought you’d know all this. Mr Hickey was there last night. Now, I suppose that’s a Z ... That be a J ... The next row is just blurry ... Hey! Where you off to? Is the test finished?”
Leaving the lobster fisherman in front of a chart with only one eye tested, I collared my coat and rushed out. Certain Nesbitt had no idea that a crowd of Hickey’s and Foster’s would soon be marching into his shop, unannounced, to close it down, I hurried along winding streets towards the quay. Mouth barely able to constrain my tongue, I burst in through the doorway of the Million Pound Shop. But Stanley Blake-Nesbitt was not alone. To my frustration, a middle-aged man and an attractive young woman were surveying the shelves in amusement. Nesbitt raised an eyebrow at the manner of my arrival and I thought it better for the tourists to move on before blurting out my news.
I sidled awkwardly to the nearest display—a row of china Little-Bo-Peeps. Feigned interest became real when I noticed a crook trembling. Each shepherdess—even some of the sheep - appeared to be mesmerised by the tourists. The shop was charged with a peculiar atmosphere: a sense of goods craning forward, agog with excitement. Several pencil cases, leaning out too far, had tumbled from the shelves. An eerie radiance emanated from plastic flowers and brightly-coloured clothes pegs. A globe was slowly revolving as if to give all the countries in the world a look. The garden gnomes were almost jumping up and down. The shop had sniffed money. Stock was taking in the man’s gold watch and tanned skin - the hard edge beneath his relaxed demeanor.
“She’s got everything,” the man laughed, “But not this.”
His words had an antipodean twang. The young lady looked vexed and said: “You’re crazy.”
“No. No. This is so good. I can’t pass this one up. What a birthday present.”
“Henry. A blue plastic purse? For a million pounds? She’ll divorce you.”
“Now you’re talking.”
The shop seemed to hold its breath. The goods glowed ever more garishly, the colours almost bursting.
“Henry you can’t do this. I won’t allow you to do it.”
“And who are you to stop me?”
“I’m ...” the young woman went pink, “Your secretary.”
He tossed the purse onto the counter of the Million Pound Shop in front of Stanley Blake-Nesbitt. The shopkeeper barely blinked. His gaunt features shaped neither surprise nor delight.
“Bloody hell,” hissed the secretary in exasperation, “You could spend that on me!”
“Alright what do you want?” he pointed to a shelf behind Nesbitt. “Excuse me, I’ll take a plastic rainhat as well.”
“You’ll look great in it ... Do you take credit cards?”
“I do sir,” said Nesbitt gravely.
The secretary’s face flushed, tears only a blink away.
“Here you go,” the man laughed, “Two million, huh?”
He looked straight at Nesbitt as if certain his money would have bought a moment of intimacy. As if expecting the shopkeeper to betray—if only in his eyes—that it was all a good joke. Stanley Blake-Nesbitt however, was inscrutable.
“Would you like them wrapped sir?”
“Yeah... Hey! Is that extra? “
Henry looked round to see if his secretary appreciated the joke. Noticing me for the first time, the meltwater in her eyes froze back.
“All part of the service,” murmured the shopkeeper.
“Heh. Heh. Hey what are you looking like that for girl? This is something to tell your grandchildren!”
“Sir. Your card. The purse. The hat. Your receipt and gift voucher. £100,000 off your next purchase here.”
The man guffawed and followed his secretary out of the door:
“This is too, too good. What did she say before we left? Spend your stinking money how you like! Wait till I tell ... Hey what’s wrong with you? Can’t you see...” His voice went weaving in and out of sea breezes and away down Flotsam Lane.
“Of course,” said a deadpan Stanley Blake-Nesbitt, “A shop like this thrives on the tourist trade.”
I hardly heard him. All around us merchandise was silently cheering. It was even more disconcerting than millions being squandered like monopoly money.
“The stock,” I stammered.
“It seems to be ... ”
Stanley Blake-Nesbitt gave me a quizzical look. I broke off. Maybe only I could see rubber gloves waving their hands in celebration; garden gnomes linking arms and dancing round and round; packets of scouring pads swinging to and fro on a rack. I felt like cheering too, but blinked instead and rubbed my eyes. Was I seeing things?
“Did you come in to make a purchase?” Nesbitt smiled.
I suddenly gabbled: “The Mayor! Do you know about the general meeting? There’s a delegation arriving here at two to close you down.”
The shopkeeper paled almost to translucence.
“I came to give you plenty of warning.”
At this moment, we both heard a babble of voices. Nesbitt stepped from behind the counter and stuck his head round the door.
“Not quite enough, it would appear.”
A large crowd, headed by the Mayor in full regalia, funneled round the corner of Flotsam Lane and advanced up an aisle of whitewashed houses towards the shop. When Nesbitt stepped out onto the cobblestones, a mob bulged and surged behind the Mayor’s spreadeagled arms.
“Goodday sir,” said the people’s representative, above shouts.
“You don’t get a customer for months,” said Nesbitt with a puzzled smile, “and then dozens arrive and form a queue.”
“We are not here,” said the Mayor with some hauteur, “to purchase anything from your vulgar and tasteless shop. We are here to shut it down.”
From behind the barrier of the Mayor’s arm, I saw Hickey glaring fiercely at me. In frantic semaphore he indicated that I should duck back inside the shop and flatten myself on the floor.
“It’s not a sex shop,” said Nesbitt, “or masseurs.”
“Get out!" jeered a voice.
“It is lowering the tone of the area,” snapped the Mayor. “We are a friendly town, I like to think we are welcoming—but we don’t care to have this sort of thing going on.”
“What sort of thing?” asked Nesbitt, in bewilderment.
“Million pound shops.”
The crowd harrumphed approval of this. Stanley Blake-Nesbitt puffed out his cheeks, crestfallen.
“Well, this comes as something of a blow. It seems a great shame, now I’ve settled in here and business has shown signs of picking up.”
“How can your business ever possibly pick up?” snorted the Mayor.
I heard my own voice inadvertently blurt out: “He just sold two things. A hat and a purse.”
Heads turned towards me, craning, muttering in astonishment. Hickey’s head sank, clasped in anguish.
“You sold something!” spluttered the Mayor.
“Two things,” said Nesbitt simply.
“So you’re a millionaire?” asked one of the crowd.
“No,” the shopkeeper replied, “A multimillionaire.”
The crowd looked dumbfounded. Even a little dazzled.
“I’m saddened that you want me to shut down a lucrative business,” said Nesbitt, “However, I believe the wishes of the local community should always be respected. I will close the shop now. And, to defuse any ill-feeling, donate £100,000 to the Council for improvements to the children’s playpark.”
In fluorescent light cast by The Million Pound Shop, Stanley Blake-Nesbitt flourished a pen, scribbled into a chequebook and tore out a donation for the Mayor. One person began to clap, then stopped. With a polite nod to myself, Nesbitt walked towards the crowd. Hair couldn’t have parted easier for a comb. The deferential way people shuffled aside suggested either the donation or his new status as a millionaire had bought Nesbitt a grudging respect.
I never saw Stanley Blake Nesbitt again. I often wonder what became of him and what he did with his small fortune. But a new climbing frame in the children’s playpark was not his only legacy to the town. There are now several Million Pound Shops scattered about the sea front, one of which is Hickey’s Million Pound Emporium. “A clever man with amazing ideas,” Hickey said later of Nesbitt, “That’s what this country needs. People with vision!”
He closed down Hickey’s Optics—or rather, he sold the business to me. So now there’s an optician’s in Flotsam Lane. Plastic sunglasses are only £700,000 in the bargain bin, and stands of frames sometimes revolve of their own accord to snigger at tourists whose curiosity gets the better of them. I haven’t had a paying customer yet. But, as I tell myself every time I hang up the eye test chart:
U O N
L Y N E
E D O N E
Y O U O N L Y N E E D O N E
Y O U O N L Y N E E D O N E Y O U O
N L Y N E E D O N E
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First published in Albedo One (Ireland)
Editors: David Murphy, John Kenny, Frank Ludlow, Peter Loftus, Roelof Goudriaan and Robert Neilson
Mission: To showcase the best in modern short fiction with a view to promoting Irish and international writers. To bring foreign language writers to a wider audience through our translation project. And to encourage new writers through our Aeon Award, international short story contest.
Ian Wild is a writer and composer from Co. Cork. In 2009, he won the Fish Short Story Prize and received a literature bursary from the Arts Council. Broadcast works for RTE Radio include a comedy trilogy, Way Out West, and 20 stories for Fiction Fifteen. He has a collection of short stories, The Woman Who Swallowed The Book Of Kells, published by Fish, and a volume of poetry entitled Intercourse With Cacti (Bradshaw Books). The North West Playwrights Award and runner-up spot in the Bridport Short Story Prize are amongst his other literary awards. His highly successful musical comedies The Pirates in Short Pants, Marco Polo’s Toilet Brush, Reds Under the Beds and Spaghetti Western appeared in Cork Midsummer Festivals from 1999. He was workshop leader for the Munster Literature Centre from 2003 – 2006.