A long lost gem from quite some considerable time ago that went AWOL. I have since retrieved it hosed it down, given it a rough shave and I am now, as we speak, shoving it in front of the jury.

It has had a plethora of titles throughout its life, but it can’t settle itself on one. So for now it is simply entitled: Appearances and all that.

So then, Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

Appearances and All That

(Aka: The Colonel/ Careful What You Wish/ Book Judging/ Have a go Hero/ Challenging Perception.)

The annoying bell rattled in a half-arsed manner as the door closed behind Jack. This was much to the relief of the weary Naomi, who had been anxiously clock watching for her reprieve since lunch.

‘Afternoon, how’s you?’ Said he, almost knocking over a display of discount lager as he struggled out of his jacket.

‘Good, it’s been slow though’ said the pretty girl behind the counter in her pleasing Irish cadence. She nonchalantly rubbed her expansive bump, whilst lazily poking till buttons to humour an old lady fishing coppers out her purse.

It was a Friday afternoon and punters had already begun visiting the lazy suburban off-license.

‘Excellent’ Jack beamed, before disappearing into the back room to lob his coat over one of the many glass and aluminium tower blocks of blokey-beer and girly-alcho-pops.

A purchased was finally made at the counter, and the octogenarians’ face lit up as she stuffed the expertly paper-wrapped, litre and a half of gin into her battered faux-leather hand bag.

Naomi was an expert bottle wrapper, much to Jacks envy. She could somehow manage to bloom a rose from the top of any bottle every time. Jack used to practice diligently on cans of Stella Artois. That is, until it eventually occurred to him that drinkers of that nature don’t appreciate such frivolities.

‘Just to help me sleep, Duck, eh?’

“You take care of yourself now, Mrs. Fernshall’, the baby-burdened assistant said patiently, praying their interaction was now resolved.

“You take care of yourself, Dearey. This town’s not safe for a pregnant young girl; not with all them ‘ooligans and what-not about’.

Naomi sighed inwardly as the leathery harridan prattled on at pace. ‘I’m scared to leave me own ‘ouse most of the time. ‘Cept for necessities of course.’ She winked conspiratorially, patting the bulge in her hand bag. ‘All those chav-happy-slappers all happy-slapping themselves all over the place. Drugs should be made illegal! And that’s the end of it!”

‘Ah, right you are, Mrs Fernshall’ said the bun baring booze barista. The whole transaction had taken far too long and her aching fake-smile muscles were on critical. Likewise, her patience-o-meter needle was ticking well over into the danger zone.

Mrs Fernshall gave a reproving sideways scowl at the re-approaching unkempt male staff member. Hugging her scuffed bag to her, she huffed in disgust then hobbled out of the shop.

‘So what’s new and cool then?’ asked Jack joining Naomi behind the counter. He immediately picked up a handy biro and nervously spun it around between his fingers.

‘Not much, boredom. We got robbed the other day. The till is down twenty quid from this morning. We’re out of Orange Reef and I’ve got a craving for a massive bowl of strawberries and mushrooms with barbecue sauce.’

‘Wow really? No more Orange Reef?’ Well that’s my night ruined.’

‘Yeah I know, my mine too.’ Naomi rejoindered in her pleasantly sarcastic Irish lilt. ‘Oh yeah, The Colonel has been in twice today already and the word is he’s started to go on the rob, so watch him. Oh and the post office got done over earlier this morning.’

‘Never a dull moment round here, eh? So…wow, we got hit as well?’

‘Yeah, the bastards, got away with both tills and had a crack at the safe in the back. Oh, and a couple of crates of Stella went too. Feckin’ parp-holes the lottarem! I wish I’d have been here, I would have rung their scraggly necks’, raged Naomi, her cheeks flushed purple as she savaged a party sized bag of crisps.

‘Er, yeah absolutely, you’re twice the woman now you’re pregnant, eh? Nobody got hurt though? Were they armed?’

A man walked briskly into the shop snatched up a newspaper and threw some change onto the counter. He had hurried out again before the bell had even finished its hectic clamour.

‘Cheers!’ Naomi and Jack chorused after him. Naomi casually prodded a button on the till then haphazardly discarded the coins within while Jack continued his anxious pen gymnastics.

‘Nah’, continued Naomi. ‘I don’t think so; it was just a kind of snatch ‘n’ run affair.

‘And wow, The Colonels on the rob, really? I thought he was alright. Smelly, but not a thief?’

‘Yeah, I thought so too. It’s only what I’ve heard though, but just keep your eyes open all the same.’

‘Actually I just saw him up the road, sprawled out on a bench near the supermarket. He was almost out of zombie piss too, so I guess he’ll be back directly.’

‘Oh good,’ muttered Naomi under her breath.

‘Why is he called, The Colonel, anyway? He doesn’t look very patriotic or militaristic. If anything he looks…contagious.’

‘I donnu, guess he was in the army or something. Ah, but god, why can’t people just feck off. I mean, I know I hate working here and it’s boring and everything, but it’s my dad’s shop, you know? Feck off and steal somewhere else!’

‘And just how many freshener sprays do we go through trying to repel his honk anyway?’ Jack helped. ‘I wish something like that would happen when I’m working, you know, just to see what’d happen or whatever’.

‘God sake, don’t say that. Anybody would think this job’s dull. But yeah I see what you mean; it would be an interesting situation. But feck, careful what you wish for, Umpah Bin Laden could bounce through the feckin’ door on an atom bomb or something and hold the place hostage!’

The phone rang and Naomi gave an exhausted sigh. ‘Hello, News and Booze, open ‘til eleven’, her voice swelled, heavy with laboured enthusiasm. ‘Er, eleven tonight sir…or mam.’ Naomi’s’ eyes swivelled. ‘It’s coming up for five now. Yep, that’s PM. Yep, you’ve gotta while yet.’ She rolled her eyes again, ‘Friday. Thank you, bye now’.

Naomi sighed replacing the handset with both hands as though it weighed more than her stomach did. She happened to glance out the door window, suddenly muttered ‘shit-beans’, then tried to duck behind the counter…without much success as she was not in the most agile of conditions.

Without any warning at all, other than Naomi’s hastily constructed expletive and hastier waddle toward the sanctuary of the back store room, the Creepy Guy from the flat above burst in through the door. The irritating bell seemed excited by the arrival of another individual just as annoying as itself and positively jangled with glee.

The spindly man marched to the counter where Jack, who had much less initiative than Naomi, now stood wide eyed and pen in a blur as he realised that he was about to be jettisoned into a conversation with a highly unsavoury character. A conversation from which he could not escape nor hope for reprieve.

The Creepy Guys’ countenance was essentially a toothy, thin-lipped sneer encompassed by sporadic tufts of discoloured stubble all set haphazardly beneath a pair of thick rimmed spectacles.

‘Hello!’ Jack ventured with more confidence and volume than he expected.

‘I can hear the racket from that radio all the way upstairs.’ Yapped the creepy guy in his typical reedy, nasal manner. ‘You-are-disturb-bing-me!’

‘Oh, I’m really sorry; I’ll turn it down then’, yelped Jack trying his best to elude confrontation.

‘I should think so too,’ hissed the scrawny man through the eye of a spittle tsunami. ‘I have rights you know, this store is far too noisy; I should report you lot!’

‘Very sorry sir, didn’t realise the sound could travel so far,’ Jack turned the barely audible stereo down further so that only a bat with a stethoscope concentrating really hard could have distinguished any real sound.

‘There anything else I can do for you…Sir?’

‘Er, yes.’ The Creepy Guys’ demeanour changed to that of a somewhat embarrassed school boy. ‘Is Naomi in? I’m sure I saw her earlier’.

‘Who? Naomi? Er…’ Jack’s extraordinarily sloth-like brain broke gently into a trot. ‘Er, I think she’s, er, I don’t know if she’s working today…’

The creepy guys’ shoulders slumped visibly. ‘Oh, fine then,’ he griped, a touch of acidity in his tone. ‘Give me twenty Labrador Super Kings and a lotto ticket then.’

‘Right you are then’ said Jack turning to the task.

‘I did kind of hope Naomi would be here to serve me; never mind. I always prefer it when Naomi serves me. Hmmm, serves me…’ The Creepy Guy drifted off into a glassy-eyed day dream.

Jack had to cough gently, then slap the cigarettes down hard on the counter to bring him out of it. He was sure he caught a glimpse of drool at the side of the sad acts’ mouth. ‘I wonder if he’s ever been through quarantine’, he pondered.

Meanwhile, in the store room observing the façade on the CCTV monitor, Naomi was congratulating herself on an award winning escape just in the nick of time. But just then, disaster struck. The bell jangled out an angry rhythm. Mrs Hale, the Bookies wife from two doors down blundered in for her afternoon prescription of nicotine and Porte.

Naomi was well aware that Jack feared and loathed both Mrs Hale and the Creepy Guy from the flat above and was going to need support. It was going to take him at least ten minutes to remember how to use the lottery ticket machine. Maybe longer now that he was to be under pressure from a whole queue of impatient, sad and frightful people.

But Mrs Hale will need her prescription fast, it was almost a quarter to drunk! Nothing for it, she would just have to bite the bullet and be subjected to the snivelling, drooling, attentions of the Creepy Guy from the flat above. All she could hope was that she would not have to talk to him for long now that his sale was almost complete. Jack had done well at covering for her though, she would not forget it.

‘Oh hello, Naomi. I didn’t realise you were in today’ said Jack, sounding practically believable. Subtlety was not his forte.

‘Hello, Naomi’ oozed the Creepy Guy from upstairs, who was now so excited he had gone from drooling to almost ejaculating from his mouth. ‘I was so looking forward to you selling me my cigarettes today, such a pity’. You could almost smell the self-abuse on him.

‘Hi, there. Sorry I’m late, Jack; can I help you, Mrs. Hale?’ said Naomi as bubbly as she could whilst making sure she put an emphasis on the latter half of her sentence. She poked a button on the lottery machine and Jack sighed with relief. ‘Thank you!’

‘The usual please, Duck,’ croaked the animated, tea cosy wearing corpse, already mining the exact change out of her moth eaten purse.

Naomi had already got her twenty-deck of cigarettes on the counter before the withered geriatric had even finished her sentence. Naomi then waddled from behind the counter, her pleasantly potted profile almost completely destroying a display of chocolate, and proceeded to try and reach a top shelf Porte.

‘Hey, I’ll get it’, said Jack, having now completed his transaction with the creepy guy from the flat above who was now loitering near the door staring unabashed at Naomi.

‘Nah, it’s alright, I can manage.’ said the blonde girl stretching her chubby fingers for a grasp of the bottle; her maternally engorged bosoms testing the durability of the middle shelf in which was housed nervous, tinkling bottles of vodka.

‘Cheers then’ said the, now positively foaming, Creepy Guy from the flat above as he backed out of the door clutching his procurements to his groin. Only the irritating bell acknowledged his departure. It almost sounded saddened.

Jack glanced out of the shop window after him making sure he had gone. ‘Coasts clear, I think. But The Colonel’s across the street, and he looks like he needs a drink’.

‘He’s no good,’ creaked the crinkled face under the tea cosy from the other side of the counter. ‘He should get himself a job and get off the streets if ya ask me! Never trust a man with no money, my dear, bad news! And he should get himself to church Sundays too.’

Naomi continued stuffing intoxicating items into a plastic bag as the phone rang. ‘So true, Mrs Hale. Hello, Booze & News, open ‘til 11.’

Mrs Hale tottered out of the door which was held open by a foppish twenty-something year old in a tweed jacket and cap. He was then followed by the rush hour shoppers with The Colonel caught up in the tide.

‘We’re open till 11 Madame. Thanks, bye!’

‘Halloo there Chaps, got a long order, sorry!’ bellowed the gentleman, with astonishing confidence and charisma, gently laying down a large gift wrapped bundle of assorted flowers on the counter. ‘Mummy and Daddies vow-renewal bash you see.’

Jack and Naomi worked together to serve this rather well pronounced young fellow-Jack, fetching and carrying for him whilst Naomi did all the important things like the hard sums, the wrapping, flirting, and keeping vigil on The Colonel.

The charming dandy had three cartons of cigarettes, three or four bottles of spirits and four boxes of wine on the counter, all bagged up and ready to go. All sorted well before The Colonel had finished blankly staring at a shelf full of the same cheap cider.

Jack and Naomi could never imagine what took his decision process so long, because inevitably, he always bought the same brand: The slim litre bottles of potent gut-rot that fitted neatly in the tatty pocket of his long and grubby trench coat. And indeed, it was the stores most economical priced beverage for its volume and percentage…and indeed, priced accordingly for those particular pockets.

‘O.K. So that will be, er…I mean, will there be anything else, sir?’ Said Jack, in full brown nose mode.

‘Erm-no, that’s it I should wonder’ purred the gentleman. ‘Oh actually, on second thoughts you’d better empty the till into one of those bags too. Oh and open the safe in the back for me would you?’

‘I’m sorry?’ said Naomi abruptly, with an edge of aggression.

The fop thrashed his flower bundle open and tore out a sawn-off shot gun which he cocked with a spine chilling metallic kuhchunk-chunk. Calmly and with authority he levelled sights on Naomi and stated, ‘I said: empty the tills and open the safe in the back and please don’t try my patience’.

Everyone in the store, bar the assistants and seemingly schizophrenic gunman, murmured a drunken curse of shock and alarm then froze in abject silence.

Jacks’ biro pinged off to clatter loudly in the distance somewhere and he raised his palms high in surrender.

‘Trust funds dried out you see’ smirked the tweedy toff. ‘You know how it is. Besides, it’s nice to finally know where your lots pension and benefits end up.’

You could see the conflict in Naomi’s expression. Half of her wanted to cower behind the counter with her bump and hope a handsome knight on horseback would come along and cut the guy’s head off then carry her away to safety. But the other half of her wanted to vault the counter and repeatedly head butt the young popinjay into the consistence of porridge. However, her better judgement took a hold as the gunman thrust his armament closer towards her. ‘You had better come this way then, sir.’ She growled through gritted teeth.

Just as he was about to follow, the criminals’ eyes narrowed as he sensed movement close behind him. He swung round training the gun on The Colonel.

‘I say, what do you want, Granddad?’ Spat the good for nothing criminal.

The Colonel said nothing, nor did he flinch at the sight of the firearm. He seemed to stare straight through the gunman with impassive, silver-blue eyes, as if he wasn’t even there…and as if he wasn’t even there with a gun.

Sweaty palms clenched throughout the silent room. Once relaxed beer guts were now rigid and compact with fear with an over whelming urge to loose bladder control. Jacks’ bladder was especially spasmodic and he was now doing an irrepressibly little wee-dance.

Just when it seemed as if time had indeed frozen, in this seemingly surreal situation, a proud bottle of something very old, very expensive and very French eased its way through the clammy, sweaty fingers of a rouge-cheeked fat man.

The bottle, deciding that it was preferable to meet its end by its own means than being perforated with shot and defiled, tumbled gently and inexorably to the floor. It exploded upon impact staining the laminated floor blood red.

Everyone present jumped…Including the gunman. The next bit happened all rather quickly:

The glass shards had hardly settled in their expanding pool of claret before The Colonel had a hold of the shot gun barrel with one hand and had twisted it anti-clockwise out of the tweed toting Charlies’ grip. The gunman’s’ legs were then swept from under him, with a forceful kick to the back of the knees that would make Chuck Norris blub.

As the dandy desperado went down, his mangled fingers must have clipped the trigger and the gun went off, flaying the ceiling and showering everyone in plaster dust. Everybody flinched again and held their ears. The gunman fell backwards but was pinned by his neck to the edge of the counter by the flat end of a cider bottle in the Colonels’ other hand.

Naomi and Jack leapt back from the counter in shock at the sudden noise and violence, colliding with the shelving behind them. Over taxed liquor and tobacco products peppered the staff and shop floor.

The thief’s entire buckled body was being supported only by his shattered knuckles caught in the trigger guard, his compressed neck being forced onto the edge of the counter and the Oldman’s seemingly awesome strength.

The Colonels’ stone-cold eyes didn’t cease their relentless withering gaze, into the desperate, wide, wild and stricken eyes of the bandit. He just held him there, emotionless, ever-passive. Not a drop of aggression in his dirty grey whiskery features.

The contorted scallywag struggled and choked in vain for a few seconds, but it only hurt more. His last attempt at clawing at the smelly mans’ cider wielding hand ended in agony, not to mention that concussion and lack of oxygen were getting the better of him.

As quickly as it had started, The Colonel sensed it was all over and released the scoundrel from his vice, now in possession of the shotgun. The exhausted cad collapsed in a pile, dedicating the remainder of his energy to lamely clutching his throat, nursing his broken hand and whimpering like a whipped dog.

Jack and Naomi exchanged a worrisome, wide-eyed glance. Similarly, the witnesses present couldn’t fathom whether this occurrence had turned out for the better or worse:

On the one hand, an ill-mannered, threatening menace to society with a loud gun had just been apprehended by a very brave vigilante in an off-licence full of innocent drunks.

On the other hand, an ill-mannered, threatening menace to society with a beard and discrepancies about personal hygiene, had now just come into possession of a loud gun in an off-licence full of innocent drunks. Were they to cheer? Or were they to simply loose bowel control altogether and flee for their lives?

Things were decidedly awkward for all involved. For the crowd, this was so weird they’d all forgotten to breathe. One rather pickled old lady with yellowy-orange fingertips even fainted.

The cider-armed, gun wielding geriatric continued gazing at the uncouth delinquent, who had by now realised he was completely undone and elected to stop massaging his ailments and cower pitifully, as the mad old fool directed the guns’ barrel into his personal space.

Many a bead of sweat rolled down many a wrinkled brow. Naomi subtly fumbled behind her for something to defend herself with. Before recommencing his nervous jig, Jack subtly allowed the minutest amount of urine to trickle down the inside of his leg.

Calmly, the tramp relaxed his stance. With his prized booze tucked under his arm he cocked the remaining shell out of the firearm. He then jabbed a couple of points on the weapon and it fell apart in his hands clattering to the ground in pieces.

The last person the petrified audience expected to hear from right now was from The Colonel who said in a slightly slurred but dry and respectably pronounced way: ‘Guns kill people, y’ idiot. And usually never the right ones’.

The telephone rang breaking the tension like a badger through a conservatory window. Naomi’s natural reaction was to grab the receiver before she knew what she was doing. The would-be customer on the other end managed to say ‘are you open?…’ before Naomi evenly and decisively said ‘feck off’ and replaced the receiver promptly.

Conveniently, the distant sound of sirens could be heard, making a slight sigh of relief resonate around the room. The old tramp gave a penultimate glare at the ruffian, then stepped over the prone, punished fugitive to pay for his cider (in exact change of course). As he did so Jack caught a glimpse of the metallic twinkle of medals dangling from the mans’ undercoat.

Naomi held up her hands and shook her head. ‘No chance, it’s on the house, Sir. In fact…’ she hauled up one of the bulging carriers full of neatly wrapped and expensive liquors off the counter. ‘All yours. And thank you.’

The silver-eyed gentleman held her cheerful gaze for a moment or two. He then made an almost imperceptible nod of thanks to the beaming girl and shouldered the load. Glancing one last time at the thief, who shrunk back in terror once more, he then disappeared out of the door, the irritating bell dared only softly ‘clink’.

After an embarrassed silent pause the pathetic criminal rose to his not to sturdy legs and looked down at the bits of gun at his feet. He turned to Jack and Naomi, then the assembled horde of alcoholics and whimpered: ‘I’m sorry…I…I’m really very sorry…’ tears blooming in his eyes.

You could hardly believe it was the same man who, a minute earlier, had been roaring at defenceless drunk folk with a semi-automatic firearm. He lurched out of the shop, stooped, cradling his impaired limb.

Naomi broke the unorthodox silence as she quickly grabbed the phone and rang the authorities’ hot line.

‘Yes hello, Police or something similar? Come quick, our off-license nearly just got burgled by a man with a gun. I can hear some sirens nearby, so I think one of your lot has got lost round here somewhere’.

Just as the whole shop began to relax and cease hyperventilating, the door burst open once more. The bell and its mounting exploded into its component parts and scattered itself amongst the rest of the debris on the floor. Hunched over, half propped up against the door frame, with tears rolling down his scarlet cheeks and crimson covering his hovering right foot was the Creepy Guy from the flat above.

‘You shot me, that’s it! That-is-it-this-time! I’m going to report you!’ he screeched at ear popping, seizure inducing pitch.

Naomi could not help but smirk at the pathetic little man. She spoke lazily into the phone once more. ‘Oh, and we’re going to be needing a vet too’.

THE END