First Come, First Served by Eirin Thomp­son

Sharon had waited out all night for a bar­gain, and she wasn’t about to let some­one else get to it first. . .

The People's Friend - - This Week -

WHEN Sharon ar­rived out­side Ring­land’s Elec­tri­cals at four o’clock in the morn­ing, there was al­ready a sig­nif­i­cant queue.

Right up at the front she could see a tent, and then two deckchairs with peo­ple sit­ting on them, wear­ing sleep­ing bags. Most of the other shop­pers were on low stools or mats on the ground.

She must be about 20th in the long snake of peo­ple, all here in an ef­fort to grab the best bar­gains when the doors fi­nally opened at seven o’clock.

Many would be look­ing to buy one of the big tele­vi­sions be­ing of­fered at crazy prices on a first­come, first-served ba­sis. There were some great deals on wash­ing ma­chines, too.

But Sharon had come for the But­ler 2020: the Rolls-royce of vac­uum clean­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to the pa­pers, 10 of them were prac­ti­cally be­ing given away. She was de­ter­mined that one was go­ing home in the boot of her car.

“We must be mad,” the woman next to her said.

Sharon smiled as she set­tled her­self on the ground on her car rug.

“Or des­per­ate,” she replied, glad to have landed be­side some­one friendly.

She snug­gled deep into the huge, thick parka she’d bor­rowed from her hus­band, Keith.

“I said to our Kelly,” the woman con­tin­ued, “‘I can spend the money on you be­fore Christ­mas and you can get what you can, or you can have an en­ve­lope on Christ­mas Day, queue up at Ring­land’s and get twice as much. It’s all the same to me’.”

A younger woman’s head popped into view.

“I said I’d rather queue up and get a new tum­ble dryer, as long as Mum came with me.”

“So here we are, sit­ting out in the mid­dle of the night like two Christ­mas pud­dings.”

“Did you bring a flask?” Kelly asked. “We brought a big one full of tea, but I’m afraid we only have two cups.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me.” Sharon smiled. “I had a cof­fee just be­fore I came out – I thought it would help me to stay awake.”

“I’m the dead op­po­site,” the older woman said. “I’m go­ing to try to catch forty winks. Give me a shake when they roll the shut­ters up, Kelly. I’m just go­ing to rest my eyes.”

Sharon was dis­ap­pointed. For a minute there, she’d thought she’d made a friend to help pass the next three hours.

Still, she’d come pre­pared. She pulled a pa­per­back book from her bag and set­tled down to get through the wait­ing or­deal as com­fort­ably as pos­si­ble.

After an hour, Sharon was feel­ing stiff and her bot­tom had gone numb.

She stood up, did a few stretches and stamped her feet against the cold. She peered in the di­rec­tion of the shop-front, but there were still no lights on in­side.

She could do with us­ing the loo, but she knew leav­ing to look for fa­cil­i­ties would mean risk­ing her place in the queue.

She’d have to tough it out.

The queue had al­ready dou­bled in size. Sharon guessed that the store would only ad­mit the cus­tomers a batch at a time once the doors opened.

Since she was stand­ing up, she tried to do a head-count of all those in front of her. Nine­teen, in­clud­ing Kelly and her mum. Good, that made Sharon num­ber twenty.

The staff were bound to go for a round fig­ure, which meant Sharon would be one of the first in.

She un­folded and re­folded her car rug to try to make a softer seat, then plonked her­self down with her book again.

Sixty more pages would pass an­other hour, and then she’d be on the home straight.

Thirty pages in, it started to rain. Watch­ing as a canopy of brol­lies opened over the heads of the queuers, Sharon be­rated her­self for not check­ing the weather fore­cast in ad­vance.

Be­side her, Kelly and her mum popped up a mas­sive green and white golf um­brella.

“Didn’t you bring one?” Kelly’s mum asked sym­pa­thet­i­cally.

“No wor­ries.” She smiled bravely and pulled the parka’s hood well down over her head. Per­haps it would only be a shower.

It wasn’t. The rain grew steadily heav­ier, and Keith’s coat was soon sat­u­rated.

“You poor thing,” Kelly’s mum said. “I wish there was some­thing we could do.”

Sharon briefly con­sid­ered giv­ing up and go­ing home, but then she re­mem­bered the el­derly vac­uum cleaner she’d be stuck with, pic­tur­ing her­self go­ing over and over the same patch of car­pet, will­ing the thing to suck up the dust and crumbs.

“I’m not giv­ing in,” she told her­self, pulling out a paper hanky and at­tempt­ing to wipe the wa­ter off her face.

She re­ally did need the loo, though.

The shut­ters rolled up at seven o’clock ex­actly, and the queue was bathed in light from the store.

A tall woman in a long black puffy coat swept down the line, count­ing.

“Nine­teen,” she said when she got to Sharon. Which was wrong, but so what?

She tapped the woman to Sharon’s right.

“Twenty! You twenty can go in now.”

All around were signs scream­ing of bar­gains – wash­ing ma­chines, tel­lies, deep-fat fry­ers – but where were the vac­uum clean­ers?

Sharon stum­bled about, eyes peeled for her prod­uct, or an avail­able sales­per­son she could ask. It seemed to take for ever, un­til, half-way across the shop-floor, she saw a sign sus­pended from the ceil­ing.

But­ler 2020 – first ten mod­els £50. When they’re gone, they’re gone!

She threw her­self for­ward just in time to see two cus­tomers each drag­ging a model from the dis­play. That left only one.

She grabbed for it. Just as her fin­gers locked around the han­dle of the last But­ler 2020, so did those of an­other per­son – the woman who had been im­me­di­ately to her right in the queue.

Cus­tomer twenty-one, by her count, who had been wrongly ad­mit­ted.

“I got it first,” Sharon heard her­self say.

“No, you didn’t,” the woman said. “I did.”

“You’ll have to find some­thing else. This is the only thing I came for. I’m sure there are lots of other prod­ucts you could spend your money on.”

Sharon was sur­prised at quite how as­sertive she was be­ing.

“This is what I came for, too. I need it.”

“Well, I need it more. You must be able to find some­thing else in a shop this size.”

“If that’s the way you feel, you find some­thing else.”

All the while they were ar­gu­ing they were tug­ging at the han­dle, pulling it back and forth be­tween them.

Sharon wasn’t quite sure what she said next, or the de­tails of the other woman’s re­torts, but she knew they were get­ting louder and louder, and she was vaguely aware of an au­di­ence form­ing around them. “It’s mine!”

“No, it’s not. It’s mine!” A man in a good suit ap­peared.

“Ladies, I’m afraid I’m go­ing to have to ask you to leave the premises,” he said with an air of au­thor­ity.

“Cer­tainly not!” Sharon replied, sur­pris­ing her­self with her bold­ness. “I have spent the last three hours queu­ing in the dark and the rain to buy this, and I’m not go­ing home with­out it.”

“Well, you needn’t think I’m tak­ing that ly­ing down,” the other woman in­ter­jected.

“Ladies, please. If you ab­so­lutely refuse to leave the store, then I must ask you not to spoil ev­ery­one else’s shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Ev­ery­body has made sac­ri­fices to queue through the early hours, and they’re en­ti­tled to seek out the bar­gains they came for. Will you at least move your dis­pute up­stairs to my of­fice?”

“I will, on con­di­tion that this vac­uum cleaner comes with me.” Sharon said de­fi­antly.

“With us,” the other woman added.

“And I need to use your bath­room.”

“Ditto.”

Sit­ting in the man­ager’s of­fice, hav­ing re­moved Keith’s sod­den coat and used the loo, Sharon found her­self feel­ing calmer.

“I don’t want to fight with you, but that cleaner re­ally is the only rea­son I came here this morn­ing and put up with all that hard­ship out there. I’m Sharon, by the way.”

“Paula,” the woman said grudg­ingly.

“My vac­uum at home is an­cient,” Sharon con­tin­ued. “It’s been driv­ing me crazy for ages. I’ve been start­ing a small busi­ness, and it’s tak­ing up ev­ery spare minute.

“I can’t af­ford to spend hours on house­work, or I’d never have any time with my fam­ily; I’ve got to strip through my chores pretty quickly, and the But­ler 2020 is per­fect for that.”

“I know what it’s like start­ing up a new busi­ness,” Paula said. “I’m half of a two-woman house-clean­ing com­pany. We re­ally had to slog at the start try­ing to spread the word and man­age our ac­count­ing as well as do­ing the ac­tual clean­ing.

“I’ve been watch­ing and watch­ing for a top-of-the-range vac­uum cleaner at the right price. I thought I’d found it when I heard the Ring­land’s ad on the ra­dio.”

The two women com­pared notes on the chal­lenges of launch­ing a busi­ness, the pres­sure on fam­ily time, all the pe­riph­eral ex­penses.

“Of course, there is one way we could help each other,” Paula said after a while.

“Oh? What’s that?”

“If you em­ployed my com­pany to clean your house, I’d keep the vac­uum, but we’d both get the ben­e­fits.”

“I’m not sure I can run to a clean­ing com­pany right now,” Sharon sourly.

“But you run your own mar­ket­ing firm – that’s just the ex­per­tise we need, but can’t af­ford. What if we cleaned for you in ex­change for your pro­fes­sional ser­vices?”

Sharon closed her eyes. Not hav­ing to worry about the house­work for a while would be a huge re­lief.

It would free up ex­tra hours to fo­cus her en­er­gies on re­ally get­ting the busi­ness on its feet, and guar­an­tee her some time with Keith and the kids.

She thought for a few min­utes in si­lence.

“We’d have to be fair to both par­ties – keep a record of who did what for whom, and for how long,” Sharon said even­tu­ally.

“Ab­so­lutely,” Paula agreed. “Does that mean we have a deal?”

“I be­lieve we do.”

“Get what you came for?” a fa­mil­iar voice at the tills asked.

It was Kelly’s mum, shadowed by Kelly and an as­sis­tant with a huge pack­age on a re­moval trol­ley.

“Not ex­actly. I think I’ve done well, though.” Sharon grinned.

“So what will you do with the £50 you’ve saved this morn­ing?” Paula asked as they said good­bye.

“I’m go­ing to spend some of it on some­thing I haven’t dared to buy for months,” Sharon an­swered. “My favourite, su­per-crumbly cook­ies. And I’m go­ing to eat them in the sit­ting room while I fin­ish my book, and not care about the crumbs, be­cause you’re go­ing to vac­uum them up!”

Paula laughed. “With the But­ler 2020, it’ll be my plea­sure.” ■

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