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The Pink Sofa

Nancy glanced up at the rain-laden sky and not for the first time wished that she hadn’t dismissed the BBC Met Office weather forecast in favour of Accuweather. The Beeb had stated that there was a 90% chance of rain; Accuweather more optimistically reported that there was only ‘a slight’ chance of rain. Both reported that the outlook was improving and that the following day would dawn bright and clear. Nancy knew what she preferred. The thought of sleeping out under the stars was bad enough; the prospect of sleeping out in a torrent of rain was unthinkable but whatever, it had to be done. If only she had had the common sense to put a waterproof in her rucksack. At least she could then have put it over her sleeping bag to keep the worst of the rain off her. How many times had she asked herself “if only I had…”? How many times had she ever taken the slightest notice of her own common sense?

It was 10 pm on an increasingly chilly, damp night. Dark it was not. Oxford Street, London WC1 was never dark with the street lights, the neon lights and the constant flow of headlights from taxis and buses. Quiet it was not. Oxford Street never slept. Nancy snuggled down as best she could in her sleeping bag trying desperately not to kick the body in front of her or lay her head near the smelly feet of the body behind her. If she curled up tight enough she could keep her distance from both.

She was third in the queue and had been since 7 am that morning. According to the blogs she had read she should have been first in the queue but, so it seemed, other people read the same blogs and had beaten her to it. Twenty-four hours, the bloggers wrote - if you want something in a sale desperately enough, and it’s a real bargain then that was how long you should be prepared to queue no matter what the weather. Be prepared they advised - come equipped with a sleeping bag, food, torch, hot coffee, water, ear plugs, warm jacket, hat and scarf, iPhone and earphones - and always keep your money safely secured about your person. Her money was wrapped up in a hanky and secured inside her panties with a huge old-fashioned safety pin. The golden rule she read was never to leave your place in the queue; the blogger failed to give advice on one might do in emergencies. Nancy had taken one glance at the flask of coffee and the bottle of water in her bag and sensibly decided that twenty-four hours of dehydration was the price she would have to pay for bagging her bargain. There would be no “I’m just popping to the loo. Will you keep my place for me?” That wasn’t how it worked. If necessary she would have to cross her legs.

Nancy quietly blasted Accuweather as she listened to the weather forecast that followed Radio 4 10 o’clock news. It would, as they had predicted, be a damp and wet night. “I’m sorry that I can’t give you any better news,” the weatherman said brightly. “So am I, pal,” Nancy muttered to herself as she felt the first drops of water descending from her hair onto her nose.

“Watcha girlie.” Nancy pulled the earphones out of her ears and sat up abruptly as she felt a gentle kick to her shoulder. It was the first time in fifteen hours that anybody had spoken to her. The voice came from the smelly feet behind her.

“What yer after tomorrow? Must be good for the likes of you to be sitting out on the pavement. You come ‘ere often?” The words were spoken by an elderly woman clad head to foot in wet weather gear and covered with a waterproof blanket.

Nancy wriggled round in her sleeping bag until she could put a face to the voice. “First time in a sale queue actually,” she replied, catching the first whiff of the woman’s rank breath.

“That’s what I reckoned. You’re gonna catch your death of cold tonight me girl. That’ll learn you. Just hope it’ll be worth it. Hope you ain’t planning to go the potty tonight because if you do you have to go right to the back of the queue. No-one will let you in again - mark my words, girlie.”

Nancy crossed her legs and squeezed her thighs together. The very mention of the ‘potty’ was enough to send signals to her bladder reminding her that she had not visited the loo for the past sixteen hours. “Just out of curiosity, quite how do people manage to hold on for twenty hours or more?” She asked in the vain hope that there might be an answer to the problem.

At which the woman rummaged in her rucksack and pulled out a china bowl. “This is how we did it in the old days, girl - china potty under the bed - just the job when you didn’t want to go down the yard to the khazi. All you do is use it in the night and throw it towards the gutter when there’s no-one looking. Don’t work so well on Oxford Street - pavements too wide and too many feet in their posh high heels. They don’t much care for going into their posh offices and shops stinking of urine.”

Nancy grimaced.

“You ain’t answered me question, girlie. What is it yer after in the mornin’?” The old woman asked again.

“The pink sofa in the window. I’ve just bought a new flat and I want everything to be pink. I could never afford it if it wasn‘t marked down so much. I just love it.” Nancy replied
politely as she recalled golden rule number two - never, ever tell anyone else in the queue what you are after - lie through your teeth if you have to. “No harm done,” she told herself, “there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance that the old woman would want a pink leather sofa.”

A continuous stream of water fell to the ground from a nearby drainpipe missing her resting place by inches. The rain pitter-pattered on the pavement. Nancy snuggled down in her sleeping bag with her head protected from the rain, her eyes from the lights of Oxford Street and her ears from the drone of traffic. Against all the odds she fell into a deep sleep.

The new day dawned bright and early and eerily quiet. The queue slowly awakened to the sound of birdsong, a phenomenon rarely encountered in Oxford Street.

Nancy stirred and groaned as she felt her legs cramping from their confinement in the damp sleeping bag. Glancing at her watch she marveled that she had survived the night and even slept for a full eight hours. The early morning sun warmed her body and she grinned as she watched steam from the soggy mass that encapsulated her, rise into the sky; the day was looking up.

An enterprising youth walked the length of the queue laden with a heavy tray of steaming styrofoam mugs of coffee. “Three quid a mug,” he called, “drinks, hot drinks.” Automatically Nancy reached inside her pocket for her purse before remembering that her worldly wealth remained pinned in the hanky inside her panties, and worse still remembered that she had now not been to the toilet for over twenty-four hours. “Just another two hours,” she reminded herself. Once the sofa was hers she would sprint for the nearest Costa for the biggest cup of coffee on offer and wash it down with a pint of water. In the meantime, she must put all thought of liquids out of her mind.

Her sleeping bag, swollen and heavy from the rain fought tooth and nail not be returned to its hold-all but Nancy was not to be deterred. Today she would be a winner and nothing was going to defeat her.

By 8.45 the excitement was palpable. The queue was on its feet and its straggly inhabitants busy brushing off the detritus of a night spent on the pavement. Carefully and unseen Nancy removed the roll of notes, now warm and damp from the night they had spent together, and held it firmly in her hand. She was focussed, she was ready. In her mind, she retraced her steps to the pink sofa – in the door, follow the aisle to the left and then a sharp right.

At 8.55 the queue shuffled closer together and closer to the door, their bodies almost touching one with the other. Nancy felt the thrill of the chase. She was on the starting line and any moment now the race would begin.

On the dot of 9.00, the jangle of keys could be heard from within as a dark-suited man unlocked one door after another. The two bodies in front of her were away and she was inches behind pressing on through the now open door, turning left, when without warning a searing pain swept through her body as she felt her legs crumple and she was down – a sea of anxious faces staring down at her. The queue had come to an abrupt, orderly standstill in respect of the girl now lying on the floor.

“You okay lovey?” A middle-aged man with long, greasy, silvery hair and dressed in black leather from head to foot held out his hand to her, “Let’s get you up on them pins, shall we? Can’t have you missin’ out on all them bargains – ‘specially after camping out with all of us reprobates all night. What was it you were after, Missy? By the way, me name’s Archie - Archie Bent, at your service, and yer name is?

Nancy managed a whispered reply acutely aware of the pain across the back of her legs and the ignominy of sitting on the floor of a furniture store surrounded six deep by bargain hunters. “Nancy. The pink sofa. I so wanted the pink sofa for the flat I’ve just rented and now I’ve probably lost it.”

“You hear that, my old cockers?” Archie raised his head and addressed the crowd. “I think the lady deserves the pink sofa, what say you? So don’t any of you now go thinking it’s yours or you’ll have me to deal with.”

“Now lovey, tell me,” Archie asked softly “did you share your little desire with anyone else last night? Oh, forgive me - that came out all wrong. Let’s just try that again!” Archie laughed at his own question. “Did you tell anyone else that you was ‘ere to buy the pink sofa?”

Nancy nodded. “The old woman behind me in the queue. I told her.”

“Tut, tut. Naughty girl. First time at the big sales?” he asked.

Nancy nodded again.

“You come with yer Uncle Archie,” he said taking her hand and striding off in the direction of the pink sofa.

“That sofa! It’s for this lady.” Archie pointed his finger at the sofa as he eyed the suited and booted salesman.

“Sorry, Sir. It’s sold. That lady’,” the salesman raised his eyebrows, cleared his throat, and pointed towards a rotund body bent low over a stick and fast accelerating away towards the exit, “has just bought it and paid cash.”

Lock the doors. Don’t let ‘er out. Round up the staff.” Archie shouted.

Bodies turned on their heels, raced for the doors and locked them, cutting off the old woman’s escape.

“Well, would you Adam and Eve it? I suggest Mr. High and Mighty that you give the old gal her money back. This little lady here wants the pink sofa and she is going to have it, or my name’s not Archie Bent! Then we’ll say no more about it,” Archie demanded. “What yer say, my old china plate?”

“No can do, Sir. It’s gone through the till. The transaction is final. I am powerless to change anything and neither will I,” the salesman said through a self-satisfied smirk.

“Final answer? Ain’t no phone a friend option like?” Archie asked.

“Final answer,” the salesman replied pompously.

“Well, my old china it looks to me like we have what they call a stand-off. Way it seems to me is that the doors stay locked and this furniture sale don’t ‘appen ‘til we’ve resolved this little problem,” Archie said parking himself down on a bed and folding his arms across his chest. “I got all day and so have me mates. What we ‘ave now is a lock-down. Yep, that’s the word.”

“You can’t do that! I’ll call my manager. I’ll call security. We’ll call the police!” the salesman cried indignantly.

“Your manager is now locked in the broom cupboard with your colleagues. Your security man is locked in the khazi most likely with his pants down by now. Looks to me like you’re on your own. Now, what do you call yerself? You look like an ‘enry’ to me,” Archie asked.

“Not that it’s any of your business but my name is Oswald. Oswald Freemantle,” the salesman replied puffing out his chest, “and I am a senior salesman! I know my rights.”

“Pleased to meet yer Oswald,” Archie held out his hand.

“I’ll have your guts for garters young man. This is kidnapping, threatening with menace, theft. It’s … it’s an insurrection - that’s what it is. They hanged men for less in the old days!” Oswald blurted out, red in the face.

“An inserwhat, Oswald? Too many of them syllabubs,” Archie replied quizzically.

“A riot; that’s what it is,” Oswald shouted, on the verge of bursting more than one blood vessel.

“Well, you just sit there like a good boy, speak when you are spoken to and we’ll soon have this inserwhat sorted out. Okay?”

“Bring ‘er over ‘ere.” Archie waved to a man at the back of the crowd. “Sit her down on that sofa - no, not the pink one - next to ‘er new boyfriend - Oswald. Well Maggie - up to yer old tricks again, I see. Never go nowhere without the trusted stick, do we?” Archie said.

“You can’t do this Archie Bent. I got there first - fair and square. The pink sofa’s mine. Not my fault that some young flibbertigibbet hardly out of nappies falls flat on her arse and almost takes me down with ‘er. It’s ‘er you should be bollocking, not me. People like ‘er is dangerous. Now if you don’t mind I’ll be on me way. I’m expecting a delivery!” the old woman smirked.

“You go when I say so and that’s when we’ve sorted this little matter out fair and square. It’s time for Archie’s eBay kangaroo court to spring into action. What do you say, boys?” Archie nodded with satisfaction as heads nodded in favour of the proposal.

“Ridiculous! I’ve never heard anything more ridiculous in my life! What in heaven’s name is an eBay kangaroo court?” Oswald asked.

“I’m just coming to that, Oswald. Patience.” Archie stood up, squared his shoulders and turned to the crowd.

“Friends, Romans and Countrymen,” he began, “We all knows why we is here, don’t we? None of us want pink sofas, leopard skin print chairs, tables with flamingo legs or purple water beds - that my dear friends is why they are on sale ‘ere today. What we do want is a bargain - something we can buy cheap today and tomorrow sell to some mug for twice or even three times the price on eBay. Am I right?”

Nancy watched with astonishment as every head in the store confirmed that Archie spoke the truth.

“Now amongst us today we have a most unusual specimen - a girl who actually wants to buy something and keep it. Now ain’t that remarkable in itself? That little girl - Nancy she’s called - sat out in the rain all night with ‘er ‘art set on one thing and one thing only - the pink sofa for the little flat that she’s just rented.”

“And what ‘appened to Nancy? Our Maggie here wops her across the legs with her walking stick, and whilst she lies writhing in pain scurries on ahead and buys the pink sofa from right under ‘er nose. Not right. Not ethical. Not the way we do business now is it?”

“So, by my way of thinking, Maggie ‘ere ain’t the proper owner of the pink sofa. Imagine if we all behaved like ‘er. Now, what would the public think? We may buy things cheap, treble the price and sell them on but that’s ‘onest business. What ain’t honest is taking advantage of the real bargain hunters. God only knows there are few of them left.”

“So I ask you again Oswald to return the cash to the old gal and sell the pink sofa to my Nancy. Now, there is consequences if you won’t. What I have in mind goes something like this - we will remove your clothing item by item until you are starkers. We will then tie you to that double bed in the shop window and leave you there. You’ll soon be the talk of the town. The front doors remain locked until you see reason. Get it?” Archie asked.

“You wouldn’t. You couldn’t!” Oswald screeched.

“Well, let’s see shall we?” Archie grinned and took two steps towards Oswald; he hadn’t had so much fun in a long time.

Oswald looked around at the sea of faces - they were all deadly serious and he didn’t for one moment doubt that the threat was real.

“Damn you. Damn the lot of you. If you think I’m going to lose my dignity over a pink sofa then you’ve another think coming,” Oswald growled as he walked towards the till, pressed a few buttons and extracted a bundle of notes. “Take your damned money, woman and get out of my shop!”

“Better Oswald, much better. Now take Nancy’s money and put it in the till.”

Nancy stepped forward and handed over the notes.

“Maggie, clear off. Clear off now or we’ll see to it that you never get a place in a queue for the sales again. Count yerself lucky this time. People like you give us ‘onest bargain hunters a bad name and we don’t like it.” Archie pointed to the door.

Maggie knew better than to argue with the king of the queues - others had in the past and had never since been seen in a queue.

“Okay, Nancy? Give Oswald the delivery address and go get yourself dried off. Archie Bent at your service Ma’am!

“Thank you. Thank you so much, Archie. Goodbye,” Nancy said as she turned towards the door.

Two days later the pink sofa was delivered to the little flat above the butchers on Hewlett Street. Nancy took one look at it and decided that it didn’t look right in her little flat. The following day it was for sale on eBay at three times the price she had paid for it.

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