49. Too Much Off The Top
Paddington’s friend, Mr Gruber, chuckled to himself when he heard about Mr Curry’s delivery hatch the next day.
“What a good thing it turned out all right in the end, Mr Brown,” he said, as they settled themselves in the deck-chairs on the pavement outside his shop together with a tray of buns and two steaming mugs of cocoa.
“Although I must say it would have served Mr Curry right if it hadn’t. It might have taught him not to go taking advantage of others quite so much. Mind you, Mr Brown,” he continued, “it’s very difficult to get help these days so I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on him.”
Mr Gruber shook his head sadly. “You’d be surprised if I told you some of the trouble I’ve had just lately. If you don’t get help, people just won’t bother to wait. And if you get the wrong sort of help it frightens the customers away. This is our busy season too. Especially with all the American tourists over here for their holidays.”
Mr Gruber went on to explain that English antiques of almost any shape or form were very popular in the United States and that apart from the tourists some dealers came over simply to buy up as many as possible. He waved his hand at all the gleaming copper pots and pans, vases, books, ornaments and other bric-a-brac which lined the walls of his shop and overflowed out on to the pavement.
“I must say I’ve missed your help, Mr Brown,” he said. “Apart from the pleasure of our little chats, one young bear with a knowledge of antiques and an eye for a bargain is worth his weight in gold.”
Mr Gruber disappeared into his shop for a moment and when he returned, he was carrying an old vase.
“What would you say this is, Mr Brown?” he asked casually, holding it up to the light.
Paddington looked most surprised at such a simple question. “That’s an early Spode, Mr Gruber,” he replied promptly.
Mr Gruber nodded his approval. ‘Exactly,” he said. “But you’d be surprised how many people wouldn’t realize it.
“Do you know, Mr Brown, one young man I had working here while you were away actually called it a jug and he was going to let it go for fourpence simply because it had this piece missing. I only just rescued it in time.”
Mr Gruber fell silent as he fitted the broken piece of china back into the vase and Paddington nearly fell off his deck-chair with surprise at the thought of there being people in the world who didn’t know about antique pottery and how valuable it could be. “Four pence for a Spode!” he exclaimed, hardly able to believe his ears.
“Mind you,” said Mr Gruber, “let’s be fair. Not everyone has your advantage, Mr Brown. After all, you’ve spent so much time in this shop I believe you know almost as much about it as I do. If you ever decide to go into business a lot of people will have to look to their laurels.”
Paddington looked pleased at his friend’s remarks. Mr Gruber wasn’t in the habit of paying idle compliments and praise from him was praise indeed.
“Perhaps I could help by repairing that vase for you, Mr Gruber,” he offered.
Mr Gruber looked at him doubtfully over the top of his glasses. Although he had a high regard for Paddington and had meant every word he’d said, he also knew that accidents could happen in the best-regulated circles, especially bears’ circles. However, he was a kindly man at heart and after a moment’s thought he nodded his agreement.
“It’s very kind of you, Mr Brown,” he said. ‘I know you’ll take great care of it, but don’t forget there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip’.”
“I won’t, Mr Gruber,” said Paddington, as he took the vase and its broken piece and laid it carefully amongst some cabbages in the bottom of his shopping basket on wheels.
After Mr Gruber had sorted out some money for a tube of glue from a near-by stationer’s, Paddington waved good-bye and hurried off up the road with a thoughtful expression on his face.
Although he hadn’t said much about it, he was still feeling very upset by the business of the forged oil share. Apart from the feeling of having a fortune slip through his paws there was the matter of losing a day’s interest through not putting the change from his presents straight in the bank and he was anxious to make it up in some way.
Mr Gruber’s chance remark about going into business had suddenly reminded him of a notice which he’d seen in a shop window that very morning.
At the time he hadn’t given it a great deal of attention, but now, as he reached the shop and stood looking at it once again, he began to look more and more interested.
The shop, which was surmounted by a long-striped pole, had the words S. SLOOP — GENT’S HAIR-D RESSING emblazoned across the door and the notice in the window said, quite simply, WILLING JUNIOR WANTED – URGENTLY.
Underneath, in rough capitals, Mr Sloop had added the information that a good wage would be paid to any keen young lad willing to learn the trade.
Paddington stood for quite some while breathing heavily on the glass until he suddenly became aware of a face on the other side watching him with equal interest.
Taking his courage in both paws Paddington pushed open the door of the shop, dragging his shopping basket after him, and raised his hat as he bade the owner good morning.
“‘Morning,” replied Mr Sloop breezily, reaching for a white cloth. “What can I do for you? Short back and sides, or would you like one of our “all-in specials”?
Haircut, shampoo and set – all for five bob? Tell you what – seeing trade’s a bit slack this morning – I’ll give you special bear rates – you can have the lot for three and six.”
Paddington stepped back hastily as Mr Sloop waved a pair of clippers dangerously close to his head. “I haven’t come for a haircut,” he explained, placing his hat firmly back over his ears. “I’ve come about the job.”
“You’ve what?” Mr Sloop lost some of his breeziness as he stared at Paddington.
“It says in the window you want a willing junior,” said Paddington hopefully.
“Blimey!” Mr Sloop stood back and examined Paddington. “You wouldn’t be a very good advertisement, I must say. This is a barber’s shop, not an art school. I’d have to whip all them whiskers off for a start.”
“Whip my whiskers off!” exclaimed Paddington hotly. “But I’ve always had them.”
Mr Sloop considered the matter for a moment. “I suppose I could stand you in the window like one of them ‘before and after advertisements’,” he said grudgingly. “Not that I’m saying ‘yes’, mind. But I don’t mind admitting I’ve been let down badly by the Labour Exchange. Nobody wants to sweep up hairs these days.”
“Bears are good at sweeping,” said Paddington eagerly. “I don’t think I’ve done any hairs before but I often help Mrs Bird in the mornings.”
“Errands,” said Mr Sloop. “There’ll be lots of errands to run. And you’ll have to look after things when I pop out for me morning coffee, Keep the customers happy till I get back. Then there’s the shop to keep clean. It’s not so bad in the week – it’s Saturday mornings. The steam fair rises off me scissors on a Saturday morning.”
Mr Sloop mopped his brow at the thought as he gave Paddington a sidelong glance. “Some people might consider it a lot of work for… er thirty bob a week.”
“Thirty shillings!” exclaimed Paddington, fierily falling over backwards at the thought of so much money. “Every week. That’s over a hundred buns?”
“Done, then,” said Mr Sloop, hurriedly coming to a decision before Paddington could change his mind. “Mind you,” he added, “it’s only a trial. And no reading comics on the sly when me back’s turned. But if you watch points and don’t get up to any tricks, I might even let you have a go with the clippers in a week or so.”
“Thank you very much, Mr Sloop,” said Paddington gratefully. In the past he had often peered through the barber shop window and watched Mr Sloop run his clippers round the necks of his customers and the thought of actually being allowed to have a go filled him with excitement.
Mr Sloop clapped his hands together briskly and licked his lips. “No time like the present,” he said. “I could do with a coffee right now. May as well take advantage of the lull, as you might say. You’ll find a broom in that cupboard over there. When you’ve done the floor, you can give the basins a going over – only mind them razors – don’t go nicking yer paws. I don’t want no bear’s blood all over the place – it’ll give the shop a bad name.”
Having finished his instructions Mr Sloop added that he wouldn’t be long and then disappeared out of the door leaving Paddington standing in the middle of the shop with a slightly bemused expression on his face.
Cutting hair seemed much more complicated than it looked at first sight, and Mr Sloop’s shop, though it was only small, appeared to have almost as many things inside it as a supermarket. Along one wall was a row of several benches for customers, together with a pile of newspapers for them to read while they were waiting, and pinned to the wall behind them were a number of pictures cut from magazines showing the various styles it was possible to have.
The back of the shop was given over to a large cupboard and a number of notices. Mr Sloop didn’t appear to have a great deal of trust in his fellow human beings for most of them were to do with payment and the fact that under no circumstances would any cheques be cashed or credit given.
But it was the business side of the room, where the chair itself stood, that aroused Paddington’s immediate interest, Almost the whole of the wall was taken up by a long mirror and on a shelf in front of the mirror stood row upon row of bottles. There were bottles of hairoil, shampoo, setting lotion, hair restorer, cream, the list was endless and Paddington spent several minutes unscrewing caps in order to sniff the contents of the various bottles.
It wasn’t until he was having a practice snip with a pair of scissors and narrowly missed cutting off one of his own whiskers that Paddington suddenly came back to earth with a bump and realized that he hadn’t even started work. He hurried across to the cupboard and opened the door only to be met by a positive deluge of old brooms and brushes, not to mention white coats, towels and various other items.
As far as he could see, Mr Sloop must have been without any help in his shop for some while, for most of the things were so tangled together it took him all his time to find out which handle belonged to which broom let alone decide on the one to use. It was when the confusion was at its height that Paddington vaguely heard a bell ringing and from his position in the back of the cupboard he suddenly realized that someone in the shop was carrying on a conversation.
“Say, do I get any service in this place?” called a voice with a strong American accent from the direction of Mr Sloop’s chair.
Paddington scrambled out of the cupboard and peered across the room to where the owner of the voice lay waiting with his arms folded and his eyes closed.
“I’d like a trim, please,” announced the man as he heard the commotion going on behind him. “Not too little – not too much – and don’t touch the top. Make it snappy. I have a plane to catch later on and I have a lot of packing to do.
“Look,” continued the voice impatiently, as Paddington hurried across the shop and peered hopefully out through the open door in search of Mr Sloop, “this is a barber’s shop, isn’t it? Do I get my hair cut or don’t I? All I want is to get back to my hotel so as I can make up on some sleep before I catch my plane. I’m that tired. I’ve been on my feet for a week now… .”
The man’s voice trailed away into a loud yawn and to Paddington’s astonishment as he turned back into the shop he was greeted, not by a string of further complaints as he’d expected, but by a long, gentle snore. Paddington had seen some people go to sleep quickly before, Mr Brown in particular on a Sunday afternoon was often very quick, but he’d never seen it happen quite so suddenly. He stood in the middle of the shop for a moment looking anxiously at the figure in Mr Sloop’s chair and then gradually the expression on his face was replaced by one of interest.
Although the man in the chair had obviously dozed off for the moment he’d certainly been in a great hurry. In fact, he’d definitely said to make it snappy. And although Mr Sloop hadn’t actually said he could cut anyone’s hair that very day he had mentioned something about having a go at a later date and he’d also said that one of Paddington’s first jobs would be to keep the customers happy.
As far as Paddington could see, about the only thing that would make Mr Sloop’s present customer happy would be if he were to wake up and find his hair had been cut while he’d been asleep.
After giving the matter several moments more thought, Paddington came to a decision. Taking care not to disturb the sleeping figure, he draped a white cloth round the man’s shoulders and then picked up Mr Sloop’s electric clippers which were hanging from a nearby hook.
After giving a few practice waves through the air in order to get used to the tickling sensation they made when they were switched on, Paddington applied the business end carefully to the back of the man’s neck, making a wide sweeping movement with his paw as he’d often seen Mr Sloop do in the past.
The first stroke was rather disappointing. It went much deeper than he had intended and left a long white path up the back of the neck. The second stroke, on the other hand, didn’t go nearly as deep so that he had to spend several minutes trying to match the two, and he cast some anxious glances over his shoulder in case Mr Sloop returned before he could repair the damage.
In fact, for the next minute or so, Paddington spent almost as much time looking out of the window as he did looking at the job in hand. When he did finally give his individual attention to the figure in the chair his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets with astonishment.
The clippers dropped from his paw and he stood rooted to the spot as he stared at the top of the man’s head. Before he’d started work it had been covered by a mass of thick black hair, whereas now, apart from a fringe round the ears and neck, it was almost completely bald.
The strange thing was it must all have happened in the blink of an eyelid for quite definitely the hair had been there when he’d looked a second before. It was all most mysterious and Paddington sat down on his suitcase with a mournful expression on his face while he considered the matter. He was beginning to regret not having asked for his wages in advance for the more he thought about things the more difficult it became to picture Mr Sloop paying for one day’s work let alone a Week’s.
It was while he was sitting on his suitcase that he suddenly caught sight of a bottle on a shelf above his head. It was a large bottle and it had a picture on the outside which showed a group of men, all with a luxuriant growth of jet-black hair. But it wasn’t so much the picture which caught his eye as the words underneath, which said, in large red letters: DR SPOONER’S QUICK ACTING MAGIC HAIR RESTORER.
Paddington was a hopeful bear in many ways but after using up several spoons of the thick yellow liquid even he began to admit to himself that he might be asking a little too much of Dr Spooner’s tonic. Looking through his binoculars didn’t help matters either for the top of the man’s head remained as shiny and hairless as ever.
He was just toying desperately with the idea of buying some quick drying black paint from a nearby hardware store in order to cover up the worst of the damage when his eye alighted on his shopping basket on wheels which was standing in a corner of the shop and an excited gleam came into his eyes.
Carefully lifting out Mr Gruber’s vase, which he placed on a shelf in front of the chair for safety, Paddington rummaged around in the basket until he found what he was looking for.
Although Mr Gruber had asked him to buy the glue for the express purpose of mending the vase, Paddington felt sure he wouldn’t mind if it was used for something else in an emergency, and as far as he could see this was definitely one of the worst emergencies he had ever encountered.
For the next few minutes Paddington was very busy. Having squeezed drops of Mr Gruber’s glue all over the man’s head, he then rummaged around on the floor in search of some hair to fill the vacant spot. Fortunately, being short of an assistant, Mr Sloop hadn’t bothered to sweep up that morning and so there was quite a selection to choose from.
At long last Paddington stood back, and examined his handiwork with interest. All in all, he felt quite pleased with himself. Admittedly the top of the man’s head had undergone a somewhat drastic change since he’d first sat in the chair – for one thing there were now quite a number of ginger curls, not to mention blond streaks in the long straight black bits – and several of them were sticking out at a rather odd angle – but at least it was all covered and he heaved a sigh of relief as he wiped his paws on the cloth in front of him.
It was as he was pushing a particularly springy ginger curl into place with his paw as a final touch that to his alarm the figure in the chair began to stir. Paddington hurried round the other side of the chair and stood between Mr Sloop’s customer and the mirror.
“That’ll be three and six, please,” he said, holding out his paw hopefully in a business-like manner as he consulted the price list on the wall. If the man looked surprised at the sight of Paddington’s paw under his nose, it was nothing compared with the expression which came over his face a moment later as he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror.
Jumping out of the chair, he pushed Paddington to one side and stood for a moment staring at the sight which met his eyes. For a second or two he seemed speechless and then he let out a roar of rage as he made a grab for the nearest object to hand.
Paddington’s own look of alarm changed to one of horror as the man picked up the vase from the shelf and made as if to dash it to the ground.
“Look out!” he cried anxiously. ‘That’s Mr Gruber’s Spode.”
To Paddington’s surprise his words had a far greater effect than he’d expected for the man suddenly froze in mid-air, lowered his arms and then stared at the object in front of him with a look of disbelief.
“Thank you very much,” said Paddington gratefully, as he withdrew the vase from the man’s hands and placed it. carefully in his shopping basket on wheels.
“It’s got a piece missing already and I don’t think Mr Gruber would like it very much if the rest was broken. Perhaps you’d like to break one of Mr Sloop’s bottles instead,” he added generously. “He’s got some old ones in the cupboard.”
The man took a deep breath, looked at himself once again in the mirror, passed a trembling hand over his brow and then turned back to Paddington.
“Now see here, bear,” he said. ‘I don’t know what’s been going on. Maybe it’s all part of a bad dream, maybe I’m gonna wake up in a minute, but this Mr Gruber – he’s a friend of yours?”
“He’s my special friend,” said Paddington importantly. “We have buns and cocoa together every morning.”
“And this is his Spode?” asked the man.
“Yes,” said Paddington in surprise. “He’s got lots. He keeps an antique shop and…”
“Lead me to him, bear,” said the man warmly. “Just lead me to him.”
Mr Gruber took one last look out of his door to make sure everything was in for the night and then turned back to Paddington.
“You know, Mr Brown,” he said, as they settled themselves on the horsehair sofa at the back of the shop, “I still can’t believe it. I really can’t.”
Paddington, nodding from behind a cloud of cocoa steam, looked very much as if he agreed with every Word.
“If anyone mentions the word “coincidence” to me again,” continued Mr Gruber, ‘I shall always tell them the story of the day you got a job as a hairdresser and knocked the toupee off an American antique dealer’s head.”
“I thought I’d cut all his hair off by mistake, Mr Gruber,” admitted Paddington.
Mr Gruber chuckled at the thought. “I shouldn’t like to have been in your paws if you really had, Mr Brown.”
“Fancy,” he continued, “if you hadn’t knocked his toupee off and put all that glue on his head, he wouldn’t have got cross. And if you hadn’t put my Spode on the shelf he wouldn’t have heard about my shop. And if he hadn’t heard about my shop, he would have gone back to America tonight without half the things he came over to buy. It’s what they call a chain of events, Mr Brown, and a very good day’s work into the bargain. I can see I shall have to go to a few more sales to make up for all the empty spaces on my shelves.”
Paddington looked out through the window and then sniffed the warm air from the stove. Most of the other shops in the Portobello Road already had their shutters up and even those that were still open showed signs of closing for the night as one by one their lights went out.
“And if all those things hadn’t happened, Mr Gruber,” he said, as he reached across for the earthenware jug, “we shouldn’t be sitting here now.”
Paddington always enjoyed his cups of cocoa with Mr Gruber, but it was most unusual to have one together so late in the day and he was anxious to make the most of it.
Mr Gruber nodded his head in agreement. “And that, if I may say so, Mr Brown,” he said warmly, “is the nicest link of all.”
Archive PostsThis post continues from posts that were on the original version of Jammy Toast. If you wish to read the earlier posts in this series, you can now find them over on our archive website which can be found here at Classic Toast. The previous post in this particular series [Paddington Bear #48] can be found here.
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