Jerusalem artichokes: a short story

Recently, during my weekly shop in Streatham Sainsbury’s, I was searching for the Jerusalem artichokes. When I found them, I noticed there was only one bag left. As I reached to get them, a small Muslim lady elbowed me out of the way and grabbed them for herself.

“Hey!” I said. “Give those back, you vicious, uncivilised Muslim.”

“Who are you calling vicious, you big-nosed Jew,” she said, insulting me without any provocation whatsoever.

I didn’t rise to the bait and very politely said, “Would you please give me them back?”

I knew what the answer would be, so I grabbed the artichokes from her basket before she had chance to reply. Unfortunately, she was quicker than she looked and we both had a strong grip of them when the store manager, and my golf partner, Theodore Yankee, appeared at my side.

“What’s the problem, Richard?” Mr Yankee asked.

“Nothing at all,” I replied. “This lady wanted the last bag of Jerusalem artichokes and, despite me having them first, I was just giving them to her.”

“That’s very decent of you.”

“Yes,” I said. “But I would like one small thing in return. I’d like the lady to cook me a meal, using the Jerusalems, then we’ll say no more about it.”

“What a wonderful idea,” said Mr Yankee. “That should even things out.”

After no little encouragement, the lady agreed. I went back to her house in Streatham Vale, and watched TV while she prepared a Jamie Oliver recipe, using the Jerusalems.

The meal was delicious, but at the end of it, I still didn’t feel as if I had been fully compensated for my loss. That being the case, I decided to stay in her house, keeping the lady under house arrest while she catered to my every need. Things were going quite smoothly when, after 10 days, she told me that all the food in the house had run out.

“Why don’t you let me go out and get some supplies?” she asked.

I thought the question impertinent, so I tied the woman up and set her house on fire, before heading off to Sainsbury’s myself.

When I got there, I bumped into my old friend, Theodore Yankee. I explained what had happened and he agreed that while my actions were firm, they were totally fair, given the provocation I had endured.

I thanked him for his understanding my position. I added that, on reflection, it was only reasonable for me to receive suitable compensation from Sainsbury’s itself. Mr Yankee agreed, and said I could have free Jerusalems delivered to my door each week, for life.

I was disgusted at this derisory offer and told him so.

“Theodore,” I said, “your offer is all very well for myself, but what about my children, and my children’s children? Do they have to come to Sainsbury’s and suffer cruel insults at the hands of Muslims? Do you think it is right that innocent children should be punished in this way?”

Theodore saw that my point was a fair one and ensured that my family would get free Jerusalem artichokes and free delivery of their weekly shopping in perpetuity.

We shook hands and I walked home feeling that, after a long, hard struggle, justice had finally been done.

A much-coveted vegetable: the Jerusalem artichoke

Why a Kindle is not for me

 

I was recently in the British Heart Foundation shop in Brixton with my friends Shonagh and Alex. They were buying a sofa bed, and were spending an age getting it measured, looking at the price, wondering whether it was too much, and generally procrastinating in fine Sunday shopping style.

After a while I became tired of this charming scene, and wandered off to the records and the books. Flicking through the vinyl, I picked up some absolute crackers: a 12-inch single of ‘Let the Music Play’ by Shannon, and a Boney M album.

Holding an armful of vinyl,  I ambled over to the bookshelves and saw a nice volume, entitled Modern Short Stories, on Faber. This had a few old favourites in it: Dylan Thomas, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other worthies whom I’d never read. It was a pound, so I bought it before rejoining my friends at the sofa bed.

When I got home, I read the F Scott Fitzgerald like a greedy child eats ice cream. Having sated my Fitzgerald craving, I settled into a more relaxed perusal of the contents. On the inside cover I noticed a name and year written: Gordon Smith, 1987-88. There was also a stuck down sheet, torn so it only said, ‘The Edinburgh…’ So, this was a school book. Perhaps something to be read at ‘O’ level, as it would have been then.

Flicking through, on p41 young Gordon had written ‘I want to die!’ My heart went out to him, all teenage and Scottish back in the late ‘80s. What could have caused him to despair so?
 
It may have had something to do with the story on which this plaintive statement was written: ‘My First Ball’ by Katherine Mansfield. It appeared that Mansfield’s prose style was not appealing to Gordon. I imagined him there, sitting at his desk in an austere Edinburgh classroom. All he wanted to do was get out and listen to the Proclaimers on his Walkman, but instead he was forced to read about some girl going to her first ball.
 

I turned the page and found that Gordon’s spirits had returned somewhat. He had defiantly drawn a dick and balls. This took me back to my own school days. I remembered a period of about a year, at the age of twelve or thirteen, when the first pubes are growing (or perhaps not quite) and all a boy can draw is the dick and balls. However, Gordon had gone further. No doubt feeling insulted to have been made to read Katherine Mansfield’s girly nonsense, he drew a shower of piss coming out of the dick.

Yes, that’s right, Katherine Mansfield! Gordon Smith is pissing on your prose. Pissing all over your silly story. Gordon Smith doesn’t care about Leila or her first ball! Doesn’t give a damn about it! He’s got a great shower of urine cascading over your turn-of-the-century vignette!

A fine example of the 'dick and balls' school of art

On the following page (I had almost totally lost interest in the actual story by that stage) Gordon returned to his artistic theme. But this time he had drawn just a dick, arising mischievously from the bottom of the page. He’d arguably done a better job here, with detail to suggest the foreskin, and a more mature shower of piss.

Gordon made no further artistic additions to Modern Short Stories, clearly feeling his work had been done. He had survived the Mansfield ordeal, and was possibly stronger for the experience.

What path that book took from the Edinburgh classroom to the Brixton charity shop we will never know.  What I do know is that I felt a gentle thrill from having held the book that provoked such despair and defiance from a Scottish schoolboy.

It also made me realise why I will never get a Kindle. Books are more than words on a page. They are things to be loved and hated and, if necessary, drawn upon. This was an experience I could never have had with a Kindle. Books develop a character over the years whereas a digital file will always remain useful, convenient, but ultimately impersonal.

Thank you to Gordon Smith, and indeed Katherine Mansfield, for reminding me that books, quaint though they might be, remain things to be treasured.

Showing greater artistic maturity: G. Smith's 'dick with piss'