Greengrocer Jack and the Talking Cabbages
Hot, Sticky Porridge
Some time ago, in a place not too far from here, there lived a man named Jack. Now Jack lived a normal life, with nothing exciting ever happening to him. He always got up at the same time each morning and, after washing, made his way downstairs for breakfast. Tea and toast was his favourite, except in the wintertime when hot, sticky porridge replaced the toast. He always said, ‘In wintertime you need something substantial in you, to keep out the cold.’
If you saw him, setting off each day, be it summer or winter, in his heavy, multi-coloured checked overcoat, you would be forgiven for thinking Jack couldn’t be anything but warm (with or without his porridge).
On the particular morning that we are concerned with, Jack pulled the door closed, put the key into his trouser pocket and made his way down the garden path – all as per usual. Then he opened the gate; it squeaked. “I’ll have to oil you, tonight,” he said, pulling it closed behind him, causing it squeak again.
It was a wonderful June morning with the trees in full leaf, the birds singing their hearts out and the sun shining gloriously down when Jack set off, walking the short distance to his place of work, the Wooden Shop. Counting his blessings, he said, “A perfect start to a perfect day
Let’s follow Jack and see how his wonderful adventure began…
No. 237 Bus to Hounslow
“Morning, Jack,” said Mr. Fryer, on his way to the fish and chip shop.
“Morning,” Jack replied. “I’ll see you, later, Mr. Fryer, I’m looking forward to a nice piece of your Rock Salmon, for lunch today.”
“Ok, Jack, bye.” Mr. Fryer said as he turned down the lane disappearing from sight.
Passing the old rectory Jack always took the time to admire the Vicar’s wonderful garden. And today, as always, it looked a treat – picture perfect. Spying a particularly large clump of Sweet Williams, just coming into their own, Jack stopped, and leaning on the old rickety picket fence he enjoyed their wonderful perfume.
“Hmm, that’s heavenly,” said Jack as his mind drifted to days long ago when he grew them in a little patch of garden assigned to him by his father.
“I’m glad you approve,” said Vicar Fernbach as he strolled up to the fence.
“Oh, I didn’t see you there, vicar. It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?”
Glorious,” the old man replied as he lit his timeworn pipe, enjoying the aromatic perfume of the softly igniting tobacco.
“You know, you shouldn’t be doing that,” said Jack, scanning the garden.
“It’s all right, Jack, my wife has gone shopping,” the old man replied, sucking the pipe. “She took the 237 bus to Hounslow – won’t be back till sometime late this afternoon,” the vicar added.
“That doesn’t mean you should be smoking, you know how it plays havoc with your health,” said Jack sternly eying the vicar.
“I know, but let’s keep it as a secret,” said the vicar, winking. “How about a nice bunch of flowers, to brighten up your shop? It might take your mind away from all this smoke.” Vicar Fernbach waved his arms in a mock effort to disperse the smoke haze surrounding him.
“As long as they’re from that clump of Sweet Williams,” said Jack, chuckling, “You know, I have no idea how you ever managed to ever become a vicar, I have no idea at all.”
Knee deep amongst the wonderful assorted blooms, the old man trod carefully until he arrived at the clump of Sweet Williams. Bending down, he cut the wonderful blooms until he had a huge armful, “How’s that, Jack? he asked, proudly displaying the fruits of his labour.
“God! That’s far too many,” said Jack, though taking them anyhow.
“You’re welcome, Jack,” said vicar Fernbach. “But remember, not a word to the missus?”
“Don’t worry,” Jack replied laughing, “Discretion is my middle name.”
After bidding the vicar goodbye, Jack once again headed off down the road. Looking at his watch, he said, “Just enough time to pop into Bennett’s, for my newspaper.”
Entering the small and decidedly musty old shop Jack never failed to be amazed at the variety of sweets on display. Behind the timeworn glass counter, the array of sweets on display was mind-boggling. And the patience that Mr and Mrs Bennett displayed, to the mesmerised children it attracted, was truly amazing
“The paper, Jack?” said Mr Bennett leaving two small children almost hypnotised at the counter.
“Please,” Jack replied. “Exact money today, no change needed.”
“Thanks, see you this evening?”
“You sure will, I can’t go home without a Lucky Bag for my niece, Ally.”
After serving three giggling girls, Mrs Bennett looked up and saw Jack and his huge bunch of flowers. “Why, what lovely flowers, Jack. Where on earth did you get them?” she asked.
“The vicar, gave me them. Here, take some,” said Jack, dividing the large bunch in half.”
“Thank you, thank you,” said Mrs Bennett, surprised at the kind gesture.
Looking at his watch, Jack said, “I had better get my skates on, don’t want the old boss to be at my throat.” Laughing, Jack disappeared through the open doorway.
“Bye,” the happy couple replied.
Placing the folded newspaper under his arm Jack began the last leg of his morning journey…
Standing at the kerb, in his white coat and with lollypop in hand, the familiar figure of old Mr Swan drew Jack on.
“Morning Jack,” said Mr Swan as he scanned left and right along the busy road.
“Hello, Mr Swan. It’s a great day, isn’t it?”
“Lovely, I hope it keeps fine for my holidays,” the old man answered.
“Going anywhere nice?”
“Jill and I are going up to the Lake District, went there once, years ago, thought it about time we tried it again.”
“When are you going?”
“In three weeks.”
“I hope you both have a great time, Mr Swan,” Jack replied, with sincerity.
Spotting a gap in the traffic, Mr Swan walked into the centre of the road holding the metal sign high above him.
“There you are Jack, been doing that for a long time, haven’t I?” And in truth he had, for Jack had been crossing at the self-same point since he was a young child. And now, even a mature adult, he would never even consider doing otherwise. Life can be strange at times, can’t it?
The Wooden Shop
On reaching the far side of the road, Jack stepped onto the path and walked the short distance down the driveway of his place of work – The Wooden Shop. You might think that a strange name for a shop, but it was made of wood – completely, so what better name might it have? The Metal Shop, maybe? Nah. That would be stupid. It was The Wooden Shop, and that was that.
Approaching the tired-looking doors, Jack took the key from his pocket and pushed it home, turning the lock mechanism anticlockwise. The door opened. As he entered the shop the smell of its stock wafted out, greeting his sensitive nostrils. Smell, perhaps, is a rather inappropriate word to describe the wonderful bouquet produced by the amazing variety of fruit and vegetables on offer. Aromatic aroma might better describe it, because the array of produce on sale was mind-boggling. There were apples from England, oranges from Spain, tangerines from Israel, peaches from the Canary Islands and leeks from Wales. There were plums from Cornwall, pears from France, potatoes from Scotland, strawberries from Wexford and cabbages from Lincolnshire. Moving further afield, there were pineapples from Ghana, bananas from Jamaica, melons from The Lebanon, kiwifruit from New Zealand and yams from Nigeria. It was a most remarkable shop, indeed. Entering it was like going on a safari and having a geography lesson all at the same time.
Standing in the doorway, Jack flipped the light switch. The fluorescent tubes spluttered into life. Jack always enjoyed this part of the day. He loved his work and would never, ever dream of doing anything else. Sure, why would he? He owned the shop, was the master of his own destiny – it was a perfect life, and he loved every moment of it.
After placing the bunch of flowers and his newspaper upon the shop counter Jack took off his heavy, checked coat and hung it on the hook on the wall. Then stepping into the small alcove to the rear of the counter, and plugging in the electric kettle, Jack made himself a nice cup of tea. He always said, “It tastes better in a cup, and leaves are far superior that those awful, new fangled tea-bags.”
Pulling himself onto the high stool, next to the till, Jack took a mouthful of tea, opened his newspaper and settled down to catch up with the latest news. It always intrigued him how so much happened somewhere else in the world.
“Nothing much happens around these parts,” he said. And that certainly was the case, up till now. Sunbury was a quiet place in those days, a backwater, but soon, very soon the peace and tranquilly that Jack took so much for granted, was to be shaken to its very foundations…
Flicking through the pages of his newspaper, Jack took another gulp of tea and began reading an article about the wholesale price of fruit and vegetables. It read; ‘Fruit and vegetable prices soaring.’
“Hmm, I wonder what that is all about,” he said, folding the page in half. He continued reading, ‘All around the world the wholesale price of fruit and vegetables is rocketing.’ It continued, ‘Almost overnight the supply of these items has been dramatically cut. While the reasons seem quite varied, from bush fires in Australia to droughts in France and England, from locusts in Africa to floods in Ireland, the outcome is always the same – the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables has been dramatically cut, causing an unprecedented rise in the cost of these commodities.’
“I hope this is just a temporary thing,” said Jack. “We all need fruit and veggies. It will cause chaos if it continues.” Eying the article, he said, “I’ll bet that by this time next month, this news will be ancient history – just a blip, that’s all, a simple blip. Yes, I am sure of it.” So without further ado Jack turned over the page and got on with his reading.
This time an article about mushrooms caught his attention, it read, ‘Mushroom blight wreaks havoc on growers.’ Jack read on, ‘A hitherto unknown disease, blight, is rapidly spreading through mushroom farms across the world. Nobody knows where it originated and how it had been able to spread so quickly.’ “Hold on a minute,” said Jack, “just what is going on here? First we have fires, floods, locusts and what have you, and now there is a mysterious mushrooms blight!” Jack scratched his head, trying to make sense of it, but he couldn’t. He was so concerned he both articles, again.
After taking a last drink from his now almost cold tea, Jack carefully closed the newspaper, placed it beneath the counter, and said, “I don’t have time to dwell on these matters, it’s time to open up shop.”
Pulling the doors open, sending bright rays of sunlight streaming into the Wooden Shop, Jack gazed up the driveway looking for customers. Staring into the clear blue sky he marvelled at the wonderful weather. At times such as this he was glad that he hadn’t taken the advice offered by so many customers and friends down the years, that he should replace the gardens surrounding his shop with tar macadam and concrete. ‘A car park is what you need, Jack,’ one might say. Then another, ‘It is not easy parking on the street, I might have to go to that new supermarket, at the cross.’ But the garden stayed, and despite all these ‘threats’ not one of his customers deserted him. The apple trees, picnic tables and benches, they all remained. Much better than a silly car park, don’t you agree?
Today, as always, Jack’s first customer was little Tommy Tilbert. “Morning, Tommy, said Jack to the young boy.
“Hello, Mr Wilson,” Tommy replied.
“Your usual, Tommy? Jack asked.
“Yes please, Mr. Wilson,” said Tommy, smiling.
Now Tommy had a penchant for fresh, green apples. He loved them. He loved them so much, that on his way to school each and every day, he made a point of calling in to The Wooden Shop, to purchase one.
“I have just received a new batch of apples from New Zealand,” said jack poking around behind the counter. “I have been assured they are something special. Mind you, they’re not green,” Jack warned. “Would you like to try one?” Jack held up a large, dark red apple in his right hand. The fruit was so dark it was almost purple in colour.
Tommy gazed at it, his mouth watering, “Yes, please.”
“Here you are, Tommy,” said Jack as he handed the tempting apple to Tommy.
“Thanks, Mr Wilson,” said Tommy, offering the usual tuppence.
“It’s alright, Tommy. This one’s on me. All you have to do is tell me, tomorrow, how you liked it.
The young boy’s eyes lit up and, taking the prize apple, he placed it carefully into his satchel. “Bye, Mr Wilson.”
“Goodbye, Tommy.” And with Tommy skipped through the doorway and was gone.
Jack was happy that Tommy had accepted the Kiwi apple. It was part of a first consignment from that country, and the importers desperately wanted any feedback as to their quality, taste and customer appeal. Tommy was the perfect subject for this trial; he knew everything there was to know about apples, and then some. Despite coming from a broken family (his father had died when he was only three years of age) Tommy was a good lad, perhaps the best-behaved child Jack had ever come across. He often said, “When I get married, if I have ten children as good as Tommy there won’t be one too many.”
Putting on his brown shop coat Jack grabbed hold of the broom and began sweeping out the premises. It always amazed him how much debris fell from his neatly packed shelves. Yes, the shelves were always neatly packed. Jack might have won prizes if there had been a competition for such an activity. Potatoes, turnips, tomatoes, even yams – and all lined up in perfect rows, with their best side facing out.
“Just because they are vegetables doesn’t mean they can’t be presented as appealingly as apples or oranges,” Jack always said. And that was so very true because each and every part of the produce on display was absolutely flawless.
While sweeping a particularly messy assortment of fallen cabbage leaves into the dustpan Jack thought he heard something, a noise – talking – from the back of the shop. Was someone whispering? In silence, Jack walked to the rearmost part of the shop, but saw no one. He even looked beneath the display counters, but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, nothing that shouldn’t be there.
“Hmm, I must be going dotty, there’s no one here,” he said scratching his head in bewilderment. So taking hold of his broom, Jack continued cleaning the shop of yesterday’s rubbish.
After he had finished sweeping, Jack’s next job was to restock the shelves and tidy them to the picture-perfect condition. He knew only too well that his work would soon ‘trashed’ by vigilant housewives intent on getting the best value for money. That was all a part of the job – he loved it – and he forgave them.
First on the agenda were the potatoes, which took the longest, so he got stuck in right away. When these were finished they were a sight to behold – row upon row of lovely fresh spuds, ready to tempt his most fickle customer. Jack turned his attention to the onions next. He always had three separate displays in this category; Regular, Spanish and Spring. He flew through the Regular and the Spring, but when he began sorting the Spanish onions, Jack came across something that disturbed his concentration completely.
After emptying a Hessian sack of Spanish onions, Jack sorted out the largest, shiniest ones, placing them next to the onions left over from the day before. Standing back to admire his work, Jack felt something was wrong.
“What’s wrong with it?” he asked, scratching his head.
He knew something was different, was not as it should be, but no matter how hard he tried Jack couldn’t see what the problem actually was.
Mrs Sentence coming in for her usual Friday order of potatoes interrupted Jack’s thoughts. Mrs Sentence was a regular. She came in each and every Friday morning to buy a stone of potatoes for the chips she made for her husband and two children. ‘A growing family needs homemade fish and chips once a week instead of that rubbish Mr Fryer offers,’ she always said. Mrs Sentence could be quoted for saying the same, words without fail, each and every Friday.
“Hello, Kitty,” said Jack, greeting her. “Spuds, as per usual?” he asked, by way of politeness.
“Yes, Jack,” Mrs Sentence, answered. “It’s a grand day, isn’t it?”
“Wonderful,” said Jack as he took hold of the scoop and began placing several large King Edward potatoes upon it.
“Oh, will you give me that one?” Mrs Sentence asked, pointing to a particularly large specimen.
Jack reached for the said potato, and scooping it up he noticed something peculiar. Unlike its comrades on the scales, the skin of this particular potato had distinct markings upon it. For a second, Jack hesitated.
“Is everything alright?” Kitty Sentence asked.
“I said is everything OK?”
“Yes, everything is fine, Mrs Sentence. I don’t know what came over me,” said Jack, replacing the offending potato and disguising his confusion. Wasting no time Jack weighed the potatoes, put them into a bag and gave them to the woman.
“That will be two and thruppence,” please.”
“Here you are, Jack, half a crown.”
Jack rung the money on the till and gave the woman her change.
“See you next week, Kitty.”
Bye,” Mrs Sentence replied as she disappeared through the open doorway.
Hurriedly walking to the doors Jack closed them one after the other, securing each with a hefty bolt. He needed some time to think…
“If any more customers come, they will jolly well have to wait,” said Jack, acting nervously, like someone was about to jump out and grab him. Standing stock-still behind the closed doors, Jack’s thoughts raced, his heart pounded as he tried to come to terms with the remarkable thing he had just seen.
“I have seen it, but I still don’t believe it,” he said, wiping his brow. Pondering his dilemma, Jack’s mind continued to race.
Suddenly, he cried out, “I can see it, now. Why didn’t I notice it, before, in the onions? How could I have overlooked something so obvious?”
Breathing deeply, in slow regular breaths, Jack tried composed himself, and control his jittery nerves. “Okay,” he whispered. “Come on, Jack, there must be a rational explanation for it. Yes, there must be…but what is it???
It was a quiet for a Friday morning, the fine weather having obviously attracted the customers elsewhere. “Thank heavens it’s quiet,” said Jack, stepping tentatively toward the potato counter, “I have no idea what I might say if someone were to knock on the door, looking for service.”
Plucking up courage, Jack approached the potato counter. He studied it. Everything appeared, as it should be; row up on row of neatly arranged potatoes, their best sides facing forward, waiting for eager housewives to purchase them. Everything looked right, everything was right, except for one small thing – THE POTATOES, THE KING EDWARD POTATOES HAD FACES, and they were looking right back at him…
Jack rubbed his eyes in disbelief, hoping the apparition might somehow disappear, but it didn’t. He leant over closer, to inspect the potatoes in finer detail. And, yes, they definitely did have faces upon them.
Tearing away, Jack rushed over to the onion counter where he found each and every onion sporting a face, tattooed upon its shiny skin. Beads of perspiration ran down Jack’s face as he dashed around the shop, where the same scene repeated itself at each and every counter. Every vegetable, every fruit had a face engrained upon it. Faces, staring, shocking faces with questioning eyes.
Jack finally stopped running at the far end of the Wooden Shop, in front of the cabbage counter.
“Got to catch my breath,” he said, coughing and wheezing breathlessly. Looking around the shop, in shock in disbelief, he asked, “Am I going mad? – This can’t really be happening.”
“Oh, but it is,” a voice suddenly boomed from behind!!!