AIDA AUSTIN: ’Customer service is built on insult and short shrift’

TUESDAY, 1pm. 
In town. I have just reversed my Nissan into a tight spot on a steep hill and entered cavernous premises advertised by a sign which says “Secondhand Furniture and Other Auld Shite”.

 In here, where customer service is based on the principles of insult and short shrift, I must run the gauntlet of its owner, Paul, but first I must run the gauntlet of his auld shite. 

Lamps, settles, tables, and bric-a-brac are all arranged as impediments to movement; injurious obstacles or death-traps. 

Correct footwear helps, but today I am picking my way down into the shadows in small, pointy heels. 

I find Paul, who is smoking in his usual spot in a gloomy nook, on the chair into which he retreats so as to hide from “tourists and other numpties”.

 “Clip-clop, clip-clop in your stupid heels,” he calls up from the gloom, as I approach his chair. 

“What do you want?” he says, as I round the corner. 

“The sale of our house has been agreed,” I say, stepping into a small, open box, which, I find, fits my shoe like a glove. 

“Mind my ******* KNOBS,” he says. 

I extricate my foot from its shoe and then my shoe — along with a couple of lemon-yellow door knobs — from the box. 

“The prospective buyers might be interested in buying my kitchen dressers...” “Get to the ******* point,” he says. 

“I want you to value my furniture,” I say, “I bought most of it from you, so I thought you might drive out and price...” 

“Can you not read?” he says. 

“Read what?” He inhales on his fag, then jabs it wearily at the wall behind him. 

“What are you jabbing at?” I say. 

He jabs, more pointedly, at two signs which he’s hung at customer eye-level, above his head, on a cupboard. 

One says, “Which part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” and the other, “I’m not insensitive, I just don’t care.” “Read the sign,” he says, “Which one?” I ask. 

“Take your ****** pick,” he shrugs. 

I decide to pick the “I just don’t care” one; I feel it has a more hopeful ring to it.

“It will take you seven minutes to drive out,” I say, and “10 to price.” 

“Which is going to enrich my life how?” 

“Think of it as a gesture of altruism.” 

“Read the sign,” he says, “or do I have to read it out to you?” 

He points his fag at the “NO,” sign again; clearly, this time, I don’t get to pick.

 He hands me a cup of coffee, which I might drink with more enthusiasm if I was less afraid of finding fag-ash, or a rusty wing-nut at its bottom. 

I take it upstairs, where I place a deposit on two unusually small and well-proportioned sofas which, despite their wholesome appearance, “came from the same dirty brothel I got that mattress you bought,” and upon which “the old hoor’s clients used to queue”. 

“This coffee is almost drinkable,” I say, “what did you do different?” “I didn’t spit in it,” he says.

1.20pm.

I’m finding it even trickier to navigate my path back up the centre aisle, what with cupboards impaling me from both sides and Paul snapping at my heels shouting, “mind the ******* mirrors, you numpty” at narrow junctures while in broader sections, muttering “clip-clop, clip-clop” under his breath.

1.22pm.

Outside my car, I find myself considering the ancient form of physical punishment called “running the gauntlet” more fully; I feel some empathy for those captive knights of old, forced to run between parallel rows of soldiers who repeatedly struck them with knotted ropes. 

“I’ll drive out to yours tomorrow evening,” he says.

1.21pm.

I climb into the driver’s seat of my car but become aware of a strange tugging feeling about my upper thighs, and a breezy sensation, to which I cannot attend as I am trying to do a hill-start with a tired clutch. 

The engine is at biting point and at such a tense and delicate moment, I don’t have time to decipher what Paul is mouthing at me through the window. 

I am about to release the clutch, when he suddenly opens my driver’s door, releases the hem of my dress from where it is caught, slams the door and points at my thighs, which are bared in unseemly fashion.

I begin to accelerate up the hill. Paul is mouthing something else at me. I don’t think it’s “goodbye”. I roll the window down; I’m right, it’s not “goodbye”, it’s “old slapper”.


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