In the greengrocer’s, Len, the owner, and his rake-thin son, Tubby, were serving other customers and so Vernon almost walked out when he feared he’d be cornered by the infuriating assistant with the shaky grip of arithmetic.
“I’m just looking, for the moment,” said Vernon sweetly as the man approached. Playing for time, he dallied over the barrels of apples and pears, inspected with great interest the display of courgettes, celery and fennel, scrutinised some potatoes. This must be how people pass the time at flower shows, he thought.
Len was now saying goodbye to a woman manoeuvring her shopping trolley out onto the street. “Have a nice weekend,” he called after her.
Vernon’s moment had come. He made his move. “What are these?” he asked, picking up a small spud.
“Be with you in a moment, Vern,” Len said. “Just need to get my tea. Derek will sort you out.”
You bastard. He’d been duped.
Vernon was still brandishing the potato and Derek was now prowling around it, a forensic look on this face. “I think,” he said, slowly, contemplatively, as if working up to some great reveal.
Electrified with hate for every fibre of this man, from the top of his ginger head down to the tips of his be-socked toes in their sandals, Vernon knew what was coming and he tensed.
“I think this is what is known as a potato.”
You. Monstrous. Dick.
Derek had whipped the potato from Vernon’s fingers and was now laughing. Not alone. Tubby was hooting away too and so indeed was Len as he came back into the shop clutching a mug. The three of them guffawing uproariously. Vernon attempted a smile. His lips were marble. He tried again. He felt his mouth purse into the shape of a cat’s arse.
“I know it’s a potato,” Vernon said, “but of what type?”
Of what type? Oh god, a duchess. It didn’t matter they were ignoring him anyway.
“Now we’re agreed it’s a potato,” said Hercule Greengrocer, “where do you think it comes from?”
“From whence does it hail?” Tubby said.
“Ooh, very good, Tubs,” Derek said, grabbing the potato back from the pile and holding it up to the light, valuing a diamond.
Duchess gone. Starchy schoolmistress in her place.
“South America.” The voice was portentous, its reveal something hugely clever.
“Not this specific one though.” Oh damn, the duchess had returned.
“All of them did, Sir Walter Raleigh brought them here.”
“He was a sailor and an adventurer,” said Tubby helpfully, Watson to Derek’s Holmes.
Len’s turn now: “He couldn’t have brought back just the one, could he? Mrs Raleigh would have had to send him back to get the rest of the shopping! Tea would have been late that night.”
Abundant hilarity once more. No wonder everyone else went to Tesco. Nobody spoke to you there.
Eventually the ordeal was over and Vernon paid.
“Doing anything nice this weekend, Vern?” Len asked.
“Friend’s funeral.” This will take the wind out of their sails.
“Not Princess Diana’s, I hope,” Derek said, kicking off another round of laughter.
“Yes, as it happens,” he said, making his way out of the shop. The duchess in full flight now, her voice imperious, but with the walk of a silly old queen knocked about by three greengrocers.