Art Pact 199 - No call for bread


"There's no call for it," the shopkeeper says, shuffling brightly-coloured packets of sweets across the countertop. She sweeps them with her left arm, her right hand open at the edge to catch the packets as they topple off. Each one of the packets is a different colour, but all adorned with a beaming anthropomorphic strawberry who looks out with dead eyes. She has been doing this ever since I came into the shop. Each packet that falls into her hand she carefully arranges into a column of identically coloured packets in the display rack on the front of the counter so that there are now five stripes (yellow, purple, red, orange, green) stretching the height of the rack - although there must be far fewer yellow packets than the others, since the yellow column is only just a touch more than half the height.

"No call for it?" I ask, incredulously. She turns back, pushes her glasses up her nose, and gives me a long stare as if she had never seen a man come into her shop before. It is possible she hasn't - all of the other men around here seem to work, it's like something out of the nineteen-fifties. I let my eyes wander over the shelves while she scans me. Perhaps nineteen-fifties is being a bit generous.

"No call for it." she says.

"No call," I repeat, "for bread?"

"Man can't live on bread alone," she quotes. A yellow packet falls into her hands and without taking her gaze off me she brings it up until it is in her peripheral vision, then drops it into the correct column. She's like a bastard offspring of an owl and a pick-and-place machine. I try not to look her in the eye, but it is impossible. Every time I let my gaze return to the front I feel it being pulled towards her as though she has some sort of tractor beam or hypnotic powers. I force myself to count the cans on the shelves, to read the brand names of the washing powders (powders! in the twenty-first century!), to try to guess quite how long the wilting vegetables have been in their boxes in the tiny fresh produce section. It is not enough, and like a moth coming back to a flame to get burnt my vision keeps returning to her. She has an inscrutable expression on, as though I had suggested that she stock up on pornographic magazines or french truffle oil.

"I wasn't suggesting it should be the only thing in the shop," I say - perhaps unwisely. She scowls. Definitely unwisely. I hold up my hands, backpedal: "I mean, I know you know that. Sorry. I was just.. are you absolutely sure? People don't want to buy bread around here? Not for their morning toast?"

"Why on earth would people eat toast in the morning?" she asks. "What do you think this is, Hollywood?"

I don't think I'd have been less confused if I'd walked out of the house that morning and discovered that I was living in Hollywood. How can she not have bread? This is England. Time to try another tack.

"Perhaps there's a bakery somewhere nearby," I say. She shakes her head. "Really?"

"Of course not!" she says indignantly. "Why would there be a bakery nearby! I've just told you there's no call for bread around here. What would they do? How would they pay their wages? You can't make a living selling one wedding cake every month you know!"

Having bought a wedding cake within the last year, I know that this is not so. I am pretty sure that the people who made our wedding cake are living in a hotel on a tropical island at the moment. If they'd made the cake out of phoenix eggs it could hardly have been more expensive. But I do not mention this. I am sure that it will be seen as further impudence, and I am already getting nowhere fast. Perhaps I will be unable to get bread here, but I will need to get other things from the shop in the future, it being the only one reachable without a forty-five minute cycle.

"Well I'll take some flour, then."

"No flour."

"No flour?" I ask weakly.

"Not much call for it." She turns back to her sweet packets, and with a final flourish whips the last three into her hand and sorts them into their correct places. There are equal numbers of all the colours besides yellow, and she shakes her head sadly. "I knew it. I knew they were trying to cheat me. Look at this!" She indicates the columns. "Look at it!"

The abrupt change from being her adversary to her confidante catches me entirely off-guard, and I murmur politely, unable to control my mouth into any sensible utterance.

"How... Who... What's wrong with it?" I finally manage.

"They're cheating me out of yellow flavours!" she says, shaking her head and looking at me as if I were an idiot for not spotting something so obvious.

"They're all the same flavour," I tell her. "They're all strawberry. Look."

It's true. They all say strawberry. The packets are some kind of promotional colour scheme, although in favour of what I don't know. Gay pride? I certainly keep my mouth shut about that. She doesn't seem the type to be open-minded about modern sexual mores.

"They're strawberry, yes, of course," she says. "But these yellow strawberry flavours are worth more than the purple strawberry flavours."

"They are?"

"Of course they are! They must be! How rare do you think yellow strawberries are? They don't grow on trees, you know!"

"I know, they grow on the gr-"

"They're trying to cheat me, just because I'm not some big-city supermarket."

"Sorry," I say, "can I just get this straight? You think that the sweets in these packets are made from yellow strawberries, and that you're being discriminated against in distribution because of the size of your shop?"

"Exactly!" she says.

"They're not even made from actual strawberries," I tell her, "let alone yellow ones."

She stares at me as if I've just trod on her cat.

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