35. Trouble In The Bargain Basement
Soon after the toffee-making episode a change came over the weather. The air suddenly became crisper and often in the mornings a thin film of ice covered the windows with a pattern of tiny ferns so that Paddington had to breathe quite heavily on his panes before he could see into the garden. Even when he did manage to make a hole large enough to see through his effort was usually only rewarded by the sight of an even larger expanse of white outside.
Almost overnight great piles of fir trees arrived in the market and on the barrows brightly coloured boxes of figs and dates put in an appearance alongside branches of holly and sprigs of mistletoe.
Inside the house there were changes too, as bowls of fruit and nuts began to appear on the sideboard and mysterious-looking lists were hastily tucked into jugs whenever he came into a room.
“Christmas comes but once a year,” said Mrs Bird, when she met Paddington in the hall one morning on his return from the market, “and when it does it’s time for certain young bears to have a bath, otherwise they may find themselves left behind when we go on our shopping expedition this afternoon.”
As Mrs Bird disappeared into the kitchen Paddington stared with wide-open eyes at the closed door for a moment or two and then hurried upstairs as fast as his legs would carry him.
The year before, Mrs Brown and Mrs Bird had taken him to a big London store in order to do the Christmas shopping, and although for some weeks past he had been keeping his paws firmly crossed in the hope that they would take him again, the news still came as a great surprise.
Paddington spent the rest of the morning hurrying round busily making his preparations for the big event. Apart from having a bath, there was so much to do in the way of making out lists and sorting through the various things he wanted to take with him, not to mention finding space, for a hurried lunch, that it seemed no time at all before he found himself being helped off a bus as it stopped outside a large and familiar-looking building in one of the big London streets.
“I thought we would try and do most of our shopping at Barkridge’s,” explained Mrs Brown, when she saw Paddington’s look of surprise. “It’s so much easier if you can get everything in the one shop.”
Paddington peered up at the building with renewed interest for he hadn’t visited Barkridge’s store since his very first shopping expedition and it looked quite different now all the Christmas decorations were up.
Apart from gay displays in all the windows the outside of the building was a mass of fairy lights which hung from some of the biggest Christmas trees he had ever seen in his life and altogether it looked most inviting.
“I think I’d like to do some shopping by myself, Mrs Brown,” he exclaimed eagerly. “I’ve got one or two special things to buy.”
Mrs Brown and Mrs Bird exchanged glances. “I suppose we could let him go down to the bargain basement,” said Mrs Bird as they entered the shop. “If we wait at the top of the stairs he can’t come to any great harm.”
Paddington pricked up his ears at Mrs Bird’s words. He had never been down to a bargain basement before and it sounded most interesting.
Mrs Brown looked at him doubtfully. “Well,” she said, “it is Christmas. But you must promise to be back here in half an hour. We’ve a lot to do.”
“Thank you very much, Mrs Brown,” said Paddington gratefully as he picked up his belongings and hurried off in the direction of some nearby stairs.
“Hmm,” said Mrs Bird, voicing both their thoughts as Paddington disappeared through a door at the bottom. “That bear was in too much of a hurry for my liking. I’ve a nasty feeling in the back of my mind we’re letting ourselves in for trouble.”
“Even Paddington can’t come to much harm in half an hour,” said Mrs Brown optimistically. “Not with shopping to do.”
“If he gets as far as the shopping,” said Mrs Bird darkly.
Unaware of the way he was being discussed, Paddington stood for a moment blinking happily in the bright lights of the bargain basement. If anything it was even more crowded than the upstairs had been and there was so much to see it was difficult to take it all in at one glance.
In front of him there was a big signpost with arrows pointing the way to the various departments and after studying it for a moment or two he decided to investigate the one marked KITCHEN AND HOUSEHOLD.
Apart from the fact that he felt sure the Household department of a big store like Barkridge’s would be bound to have something suitable for Mrs Bird’s present, he had just caught sight of another interesting notice pasted on the wall. It said THIS WAY TO THE FREE DEMONSTRATIONS, and it definitely needed looking into.
Following the arrows, Paddington made his way along a corridor until he found himself standing in a large area full of pots and pans. All around people were shouting and jostling and as he put his head down and pushed his way through he suddenly discovered to his surprise that he had come up against a large table behind which stood a man in a white coat.
The man appeared to be doing something with a piece of old carpet and a bottle and he didn’t look best pleased at the way things were going.
“Look at that!” he shouted, holding up the piece of carpet as Paddington stood on tip-toe in order to get a better view. “Only one coating of Instant One-dab cleaning fluid and already this old piece of carpet looks like new!”
“Come on, ladies,” he cried in a hoarse voice. “There must be someone who wants to buy a bottle. It not only cleans carpets – just one dab on your kitchen sink and you’ll be able to see your face in it. Mirrors, furniture, floors – there’s nothing in the world that can’t be improved by Instant One-dab cleaning fluid. I’m not asking fifteen pence for it. I’m not even asking ten pence. All I want for this giant-size economy bottle is the trifling sum of seven and a half pence.”
Pausing for breath the man looked at the sea of faces in front of him. “Some people can’t see a bargain when it’s held in front of their nose,” he said crossly as no one moved.
“Take this piece of stuff here,” he continued, as he reached out across the table and picked up a shapeless looking object which he held up for everyone to see. “You couldn’t have anything much dirtier than this. Most of you would probably have thrown it away years ago. Yet I guarantee that with one dab of my cleaning fluid it’ll come up as good as new.”
“What?” cried Paddington in alarm, as he clambered up on his suitcase. “That’s my hat you’ve got!”
“Your hat?” exclaimed the man, dropping it hurriedly. “I beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t realize anyone was wearing it. I thought it was one of my old scraps I get off the dustman. I keep a few of them by me for demonstrations you know.”
The man’s voice trailed away as he caught Paddington’s eye. “I was only trying to get rid of your stains,” he said lamely.
“Get rid of my stains?” repeated Paddington, hardly able to believe his ears. It had taken him a long time to collect all the different stains on his hat. Some of them were so old he had almost forgotten how they had got there in the first place, and some had even been made by his uncle in Peru.
“Those aren’t ordinary stains,” he exclaimed hotly. “Some of them have been handed down.”
“Handed down?” echoed the man. “You can’t hand a stain down,”
“Bears do,” said Paddington firmly.
The demonstration man gave a nasty look, “Well, if you want to hand them down any more,” he said, waving the bottle of cleaning fluid dangerously close to Paddington’s hat, “I suggest you hop it. This is very powerful stuff and if the cork comes out accidentally I shan’t answer for the consequences.”
Grabbing his hat Paddington pulled it tightly down over his head and pushed his way through the crowd out of range of the man’s bottle. He didn’t think much of the first demonstration he’d seen, even if it had been free, and he hurriedly made his way in the direction of the second one in the hope that it might prove more interesting.
As he approached the next crowd Paddington paused for a moment and sniffed the air. To his surprise there seemed to be a strong smell of pancakes and as he squeezed his way towards the demonstration it got stronger and stronger until by the time he reached the table he felt quite hungry.
This time the man in charge had a small spirit stove in front of him and he was holding a frying-pan in the air while he addressed his audience.
“How many times,” he cried, as Paddington reached the table. “How many times have you ladies broken your fried eggs in the morning? How many omelettes have you spoilt at lunch-time? And have you ever kept count of the number of times you’ve tried tossing a pancake only to find it stuck to the pan?”
Holding up the frying-pan for everyone to see, the demonstration man paused dramatically. “Never
again!” he cried, as he waved it in the air. “Go home today and throw your old pans in the dustbin. Buy one of my Magic Non-stick fry-pans and nothing, ladies, I repeat, nothing will ever stick again.”
“Why, it’s so simple,” he went on, “even a child of five can’t go wrong.”
“Come along sir,” he exclaimed, pointing to Paddington. “Show the ladies how to do it.”
“Stand back everyone,” he called, as he handed the frying-pan to Paddington. “The young gentleman with the whiskers is going to show you all how easy it is to toss a pancake with one of my Magic Non-stick fry-pans.”
“Thank you very much,” said Paddington gratefully. “I might buy one for Mrs Bird’s Christmas present,” he explained. “She’s always grumbling about her pans.”
“There you are,” said the demonstration man triumphantly. “My first sale of the morning. Fancy all you ladies being put to shame by a young bear gentleman.”
“I can see you know your frying-pans as well as your onions, sir,” he continued, as Paddington gripped the frying-pan firmly in both paws and closed his eyes as he prepared to test it. “Now, just a quick flick of the paw, and don’t forget to catch the pancake on the way down otherwise…”
Whatever else the man had been about to say was lost as a gasp went up from the audience. “Here,” he cried anxiously, “what have you done with it?”
“What have I done with it?” said Paddington with interest as he opened his eyes and peered at the empty pan.
“That was my demonstration pancake,” cried the man, looking all around. “And now it’s gone!”
The problem of where the pancake had disappeared to, was suddenly solved as a disturbance broke out at the back of the crowd and a woman started to push her way through to the front. “My best hat!” she exclaimed. “Covered in pancake mixture!”
“Never mind your hat,” cried someone else. “What about my coat?”
As more and more voices joined in the uproar Paddington decided to take advantage of the confusion. Picking up his suitcase and carrier bag he hurried out of the Household department casting some extremely anxious glances over his shoulder as he went. He didn’t like the look of things at all and he decided he’d had quite enough of free demonstrations for one day.
It was as he was hurrying in the direction of the stairs and safety that Paddington suddenly stopped in his tracks again and peered up at the wall. In front of him was a large poster which he hadn’t noticed before showing a man in a white beard and a long red coat sitting astride a rocket. But it wasn’t so much the picture which caught his eye as the wording underneath.
TRIPS TO THE MOON
VISIT FATHER CHRISTMAS IN THE MOON ROCKET
GET YOUR FREE PRESENT
TEN PENCE RETURN!
After the wording a broad red arrow decorated with holly pointed the way towards a door in front of which stood a group of people.
Paddington considered the matter for a moment. Ten pence seemed very cheap for a trip to the moon, especially as it had cost Mrs Brown almost as much for the three of them on the bus and they hadn’t even been given a present at the end.
Although he’d promised Mrs Brown and Mrs Bird to stay in the bargain basement Paddington felt sure they wouldn’t mind in the circumstances if he took a short trip. At that moment the doors opened and the matter was decided for him as he was caught up in the rush of people all pushing and shoving to get through. In fact it all happened so quickly he only just found time to hand his ten pence piece to the man in uniform before the doors clanged shut behind him.
“Thank you very much,” called the man, touching his cap as Paddington was swept past him. “A merry Christmas to you.”
Paddington tried to raise his hat in reply but by that time he was so tightly jammed against the wall at the back that he hardly had room to breathe let alone move his paws. In fact he was so squashed that it only took him a moment or two to decide very firmly indeed that he didn’t think much of rockets. Apart from the fact that it kept stopping, it was so crowded he couldn’t see a thing. And when it did finally reach the top of its travel even more people pushed their way in before he had a chance to clamber out and it started to fall back down again without his having so much as caught a glimpse of Father Christmas.
Altogether Paddington wasn’t sorry when he heard the man in charge announce the fact that they were back in the bargain basement again and it was time to get out.
“I’d like my present now, please,” he exclaimed, as he pushed his way out behind the other passengers.
“Your present?” said the man in uniform. “What present?”
Paddington gave the man a hard stare. “The one the notice says you get,” he explained.
The man looked puzzled for a moment and then his face cleared as Paddington pointed to the poster. “You want Father Christmas on the fourth floor,” he said.
“We don’t give presents here. This is the lift, not a rocket.”
“What!” cried Paddington, nearly falling over backwards with surprise. “This is a lift? But I gave you ten pence.”
“That’s right, sir,” said the man cheerfully. “Thank you very much. It isn’t often we liftmen get a Christmas box.”
“A Christmas box?” echoed Paddington, his eyes getting larger and larger.
“Very kind of you it was,” said the liftman. “And now if you’ll excuse me I’ve another load to take up.”
With that he clanged the doors shut leaving Paddington fixed to the spot as if he had been turned into a pillar of stone. He was still rooted to the spot several minutes later when Mrs Brown and Mrs Bird came hurrying up accompanied by an important-looking man in striped trousers.
“Where on earth have you been?” cried Mrs Bird.
“We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“Are you all right?” asked Mrs Brown anxiously “You don’t look very well.”
“Oh, I’m all right, thank you, Mrs Brown,” said Paddington vaguely as he recovered himself. “And I haven’t been on earth – at least, I have, but I didn’t think I had and it cost me ten pence.”
The rest of Paddington’s explanations were lost as the man in the striped trousers bounded forward and shook him warmly by the paw. “My dear young bear,” he exclaimed, “I’m the floor manager. Allow me to thank you for all you’ve done.”
“That’s all right,” said Paddington, looking most surprised as he raised his hat.
“Non-stick frying pans have never been one of our most popular lines,” said the floor manager as he turned to Mrs Brown. “And as for the cleaning fluid now look at them both.” He waved his hand in the direction of two large crowds in the distance. “They’re both selling like hot cakes. Since this young bear demonstrated the frying-pan our man can’t wrap them fast enough. And after our other assistant removed the pancake stains from the customers” clothes he’s been rushed off his feet. Anything that gets a young bear’s pancake stain out without leaving a mark must be good.”
“You must let me know if there’s anything we can do to repay you,” he continued, turning back to Paddington.
Paddington thought for a moment. “I was doing some special Christmas shopping.” he explained. “Only I’m not really sure what I want to buy. It’s a bit difficult for bears to see over the edge of the counters.”
“In that case,” said the floor manager, snapping his fingers in the direction of one of the assistants, “you shall have the services of one of our expert shopping advisers. She can look after you for the rest of the day and I’m sure she’ll be only too pleased to help you with all your needs.”
“Thank you very much,” said Paddington gratefully.
He wasn’t at all sure what it was all about but whatever the reason he felt certain that with the help of anyone as important-sounding as a shopping adviser he ought to be able to get some very good Christmas presents indeed.
As she bent down to pick up her shopping Mrs Brown caught Mrs Bird’s eye. “l wish someone would tell me how Paddington gets away with it,” she said.
“You’d have to be a bear yourself to answer that one,” said Mrs Bird wisely. “And if you were the question wouldn’t arise anyway. Bears have much more important things to think about.”