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. . .
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.”
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.” ■