This is the second chapter of John Griffith’s memoir about his time in the village as an art gallery owner.
If you have missed the previous chapters – please click HERE
I still chuckle to myself over a little incident that occurred just before I opened. I was busily setting everything up when a well-dressed gentleman wearing a smart, military style camel coat entered. He was carrying a case from which he drew out a bottle of clear liquid. Without warning he poured some of it over the arm of his coat…and set it alight. Out came a fire extinguisher and, with a few squirts, the fire was out, without a mark on his coat. I bought one for the gallery, immediately, of course.
I was to find the ladies next door were not the only High Street neighbours to add colour to life during my five year tenancy. I was quickly drawn into a rather quirky, close little community that I had had no idea existed.
On the other side of the Street, immediately opposite my premises, two young men pursued their own business’ from the same property. One ran his half of the shop as a greengrocer, the other sold wet fish.
I had just finished vacuuming the gallery one morning when the phone rang. A quavering voice asked for Social Services. ‘Sorry’, I said , ‘you’ve got the wrong number. This is a gallery.’
‘But I…I need someone to do my housework,’ the elderly, croaky voice insisted. ‘I can’t do it myself anymore.’
‘I’m sorry, but you’ve got the wrong number.’ I was now getting a little exasperated, the elderly voice ignoring what I was saying and continuing to insist that he needed a cleaner. Then hoots of laughter in the background made me look up to see the two of them gurning at the window of their shop. On other occasions they would ring me, disguising their voices, pretending to be potential clients, to discuss one or other of the paintings on my walls. It sometimes took me a little while to realize I was being ’had’ but it certainly amused them.
The major group owning the local supermarket just down the road took a little while to realize they were also being ‘had’, too. It came as some surprise to me to discover that the wet fish business was actually a side-line. He was supposed to be managing the supermarket but spent most of his time in the fish shop. Eventually, of course, it caught up with him and he was sacked.
Undaunted, he opened a fish and chip shop in another empty premises in the High Street, and in no time at all had opened four or five more in surrounding towns and villages. Several years later I came across him to discover he had made so much money he had entered the Property Market. That was in the early eighties. No doubt he will be retired now living on some sunny island in Spain or Greece, and probably owns it.
He wasn’t the only canny shop owner in the High Street. Needing a handful of ordinary white candles to show off a range of ceramic candle-holders in the gallery, I paid a visit to the small hardware shop nearby. The middle-aged owner charged me a pound or so, and said, ‘I’ve knocked off ten percent for you. I shall expect the same if I come into your gallery, don’t forget.’ Not so green as their cabbage looking, I said to myself as I left her shop, chuckling.
A little drama was added to the mix when the two Italians running a hair dressing business in the High Street fell out over some financial disagreement and one of them deliberately set fire to their premises. He ended up with a spell in prison.
The dominant figure in the High Street, however, and the one discussed most widely, was the rather dodgy solicitor whose office stood on the other side of my gallery. In appearance more country yokel than business man; tall, all arms and legs with wild fair hair, well-worn tweed suits and trousers at ‘half-mast’, he none-the-less had a serious reputation as a ‘ladies man’. He maintained a wife in the city and a mistress and small child in our town. He also regularly entertained us with his awkward scramnle down the street in pursuit of client’s paperwork carried on the wind.
The time came when the City Council decided to extend the main car-park behind our row of premises. Each of them had fairly long gardens at the back which needed to be commandeered for this purpose. This posed no problem for most of the business’ as the City Council owned them but the Solicitor’s was privately owned.
Seeing an opportunity to make a substantial sum out of it, he refused to sell his plot. Negotiations went on for some time but, eventually the Council lost patience and built the car-park anyway leaving his garden extending into the car-park like a sore thumb. The Council eventually had its way and requisitioned it to complete the work.
The pre-planning of the car-park led to a rather odd incident. One day I saw a man with a clip-board pass down the side of my building to enter the rear garden. Curious, I followed him to find he was a water-diviner employed to check that the drawings the Council had of all the pipe-work and cess pits in the gardens were correct, before work actually started extending the car-park.
Fascinated, I watched as he walked up and down with his copper divining-rods contained within brass tubes held in each hand. I was even more fascinated to see the rods turn inwards, towards each other, over certain parts of the garden, seemingly in response to unseen forces beneath the ground. Waiting for the diviner to finish, the urge to try it myself was irresistible, particularly as I had always been sceptical of the practice.
Seeing my interest, the rods were passed over and I started to cover the ground. To my complete surprise the rods worked for me, too. It was totally unexpected. My delight, however, was tempered by a sudden, blinding headache that disappeared as quickly as it came. I had to assume that the one was connected to the other and decided that a new career in that field was not for me.
© John Griffiths 2017