It was unusual when Mr Johnson didn’t show up for his monthly armoury of medication.
He’s a regular, which is how my suburban pharmacy survives despite the influx of the greedy corporates who undercut prices and overload the market with cheap cosmetics and other rubbish.
It’s called Customer Service. I know my customers, their sores, their rashes and, most importantly, their secrets.
Sure, I stock all that rubbish too – to compete – but the difference is, my customers get the service they want and deserve.
For years Mr Johnson – who is sixty-five – has shown up at 5pm on the first Monday of each month to collect his monthly prescription for blood pressure pills, statins for cholesterol and Viagra. Yep, Viagra. And each time, he quips, ‘This’ll keep the old girl humming,’ and waves the Viagra in front of me, discreetly, so only I can see it.
The first time he made that joke I said, ‘And the old boy,’ in my deepest most jocular tone.
He frowned, and said, ‘Nah mate, I’m not, you know – I only play the right team.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I meant your, you know, John Thomas.’
I’m not good at banter. (And who calls it a John Thomas these days anyway?)
‘Ah, the ol’ JT,’ Mr Johnson said, and cracked a proud grin. He waved the Viagra box around again, and said ‘JJ’s JT is AOK with these on the field.’
He’s not good at banter either.
But he does keep coming back. And why? Customer Service.
Or take Miss Winsome. Ms – she’s seventy-two – she comes in every fortnight and fills a satchel with lipstick, perfume, eye shadow, stockings (never tights, she says, always wore stockings for the boys), and – get this – a tube of personal lubricant.
I mean, she’s dressed up like an overpainted ventriloquist’s dummy, with distended red lips (and red talons to match), a veritable smoke screen of blue eye shadow above thick black lashes, all of which fight for space on a face like a weathered scrotum. You can hear her coming by the jangle of bangles, bracelets, necklaces, broaches and earrings that precedes her, not to mention the cloud of cheap perfume that follows.
But, she keeps on coming back. Customer Service, you see? I usually get Julia, one of the young assistants, to serve her, she’s good with the cosmetic side of pharmacy.
And there’s plenty more like them. Teenagers sneaking condoms, the rugby player with jock itch, the insurance salesman on hormone tablets, the housewife with a History PhD and depression, you name it, along with a host of fumbling pensioners who just want to grab a juicy piece of gossip and a stock of placebos to keep them alive a bit longer. I’m not sure which is more effective, the scuttlebutt or the sugar pill.
So you will understand how unusual it was that Mr Johnson did not show up on that first Monday in July for his monthly arsenal of blood pressure and blood raising tablets (the former safeguards against the latter). I didn’t want to ring in case there had been some tragedy. (Hi, Mr Johnson I’ve got your medications here, oh, your house has burnt down? I am sorry. I’ve got your pills).
As I say, I’m not good at banter.
At 7pm when we closed (early as it is Monday, but later than the Priceline down the road), his medication was still sitting on the counter. Julia and the junior staff had gone and the place had been cleaned up, tills reconciled etc etc, and yet JJ still hadn’t collected his monthly supplies. So I thought, what to do?
And the answer of course: Customer Service.
The next question was, what does customer service mean in this situation? Leave them here until he arrives, maybe tomorrow, or during the week? Ring him up? (No, for the above reasons). Or drop them around to his place?
That was the answer. Go above and beyond, Customer Service in gold plate. Plus I’d get to make sure his house hadn’t burnt down. And plus plus, he needed his blood pressure tablets.
So I hopped into my 1994 Toyota Camry (now there’s a customer service tale right there) and drove round to his house in the dwindling twilight.
It was a pretty grand house too (and not burnt down I was happy to note). Set back in a manicured expanse of lawn, it had a circular driveway leading up to the portico that adorned the triple fronted brick home.
I drove in, and strode up to the jade green door with my little zip lock bag of customer service in my hand. The doorbell sounded a resonant ding dong, and I was toying with the idea of announcing Avon was calling when the yapping of a small dog cut up the night. A moment later a woman cracked open the door and shouted ‘Monty, quiet down!’ A small caboodle type thing glared at me from behind her legs, its pink slip of tongue poking out from a black snout.
I hadn’t met her before; she was not a customer at my shop. She wore a buoyant grey coif, pencilled eyebrows and square spectacles from which dangled a delicate gold chain. Battleaxe is the term my dear late mother would have used. A bit derogatory in my view; I was sure she was a worthy soul.
When she had finished admonishing the dog, she gathered her cardigan around her bosom and said, ‘Can I help you?’
‘Are you Mrs Johnson?’ I said. She nodded.
‘Well good evening, Mrs Johnson,’ I said. ‘I’m Terence Smith from the local pharmacy – Smith’s the Chemist – and as you are probably aware Mr Johnson has been coming to us for his usual monthly scripts. But he didn’t come in to pick them up today, so I thought I’d pop round on my way home to save him the effort.’
I handed her the clear plastic bag of boxes. (I live in the opposite direction but, you know, Customer Service).
‘He’s been delayed at work,’ she said, ‘and no, I wasn’t aware he went to you, I thought he got all his pills from Priceline.’
‘I try to provide a personal service,’ I said, obtusely.
‘So I see,’ she said, ‘and thank you for bringing them over.’ She looked at the contents of the bag.
‘I was concerned to make sure he had his blood pressure tablets,’ I said.
She pulled out the Viagra box.
‘What’s this?’ she said.
‘Viagra,’ I said.
‘Are you sure this is for him?’ she said.
Night suddenly fell with all the subtlety of an anvil. My customer service had revealed one secret too many. How best to answer this? She was staring at me with an eagle’s eye. When I failed to answer she said,
‘I can’t see why he’d need Viagra.’
‘Umm,’ I said, and flushed red.
‘Do you know why he’d need Viagra?’ she said wither head slightly tilted as if coming in for the kill.
‘Umm,’ I said, ‘maybe I had it wrong after all.’
She lifted her brow and stared down her long nose at me. I hadn’t fully appreciated how angular she was. I said,
‘Why don’t you give those back to me and I’ll check back at the pharmacy to make sure who they are for. One of the girls must have put it in the wrong package.’
She was not convinced, the old stalwart.
‘How often does he order Viagra?’ she said.
The dog growled. It must have picked up on her tone. I was trapped.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘not often, rarely in fact. I’m sure it’s more of a wish than a …’ I faded off before I swallowed the foot I was so adroitly levering into my mouth.
‘You said his ‘usual monthly scripts’,’ said Mrs Johnson.
‘The blood pressure and cholesterol pills are monthly,’ I said quickly.
She wasn’t buying it.
She pursed her thin red lips and gazed at me much like I suspect a torturer might do as he decided which horrendous tool to apply to which vulnerable body part. Then she said,
‘I bet it’s the secretary. That damn floozy. Or the young intern he’s been boasting about.’
She put the Viagra box into a pocket in her cardigan and said, ‘Thank you, Mr Smith, for clearing up what has only been a suspicion.’ And she shut the door with a solid clunk.
I drove home in a storm of self-justification. It’s not my fault if JJ has been playing the field. I was just doing customer service. I’m only the messenger, you can’t shoot me. And why shouldn’t it be for them? She wasn’t that unattractive, surely (in the dark with the light behind her as my dear late mother would have said). If you love one another, it can last, can’t it? And if JJ is chasing younger skirt, that’s for him to worry about, not me. I’m not the victim here. Or the criminal. I’m just a suburban pharmacist doing his job. Too well in fact. You wouldn’t get that from the big chains. They’d have left his pills on the counter and he’d likely collapse at home without them.
Or get whacked at home with them.
I chuckled as I drove. JJ’s in for a fight tonight, I thought.
The next day – Tuesday – we opened at 9.30 as usual (the chain store opens at ten). I was at the prescription desk explaining to Mrs Pickering how the suppository worked for her haemorrhoids when Mr Johnson burst in.
‘You bloody idiot!’ he yelled.
He didn’t look freshly dressed. His tie was off and his hair, such as it was, was unkempt.
I excused myself from Mrs Pickering and said, ‘Can I help you?’
‘You’re meant to be discreet,’ he said, spittle bursting from him as he spoke. ‘I trusted you, but you’ve been wholly unprofessional.’
‘How is that?” I said. I knew damn well how, but I had to play the game.
‘You know damn well,’ he said.
‘I was providing a service,’ I said. ‘My customers seem to appreciate that.’
He leant over the counter as much as his little paunch would allow and snarled at me. I could smell the whisky on his breath.
‘She bloody kicked me out,’ he said, and I imagined I saw a tear in the corner of his eye. ‘You’ve just lost a customer, Mr Smith, and damn you, I’ll sue you for breach of privacy and take your down whole damn shop with you.’
With that he stormed out, with such a rush that the sleep apnoea leaflets were blown from their rack and scrambled to the floor.
Mrs Pickering clinched her packet of suppositories. ‘He could use some of these,’ she said, and tripped over to the counter.
As the week wore on we heard no more about JJ and his wandering JT, despite tapping into all the gossip lines that pass through the pharmacy every day.
On Friday however, old Mother Winsome wandered in, humming gaily from within the protective smog of her cologne de jour. She smiled widely at me as she approached the counter. Julia joined me to assist.
‘I’m buying big today, Julia love,’ she said. She pulled a scrap of paper from her handbag. ‘I need three new sets of stockings – one red fishnet – some extra aquamarine eye shadow – the thick creamy one – half a dozen of those packets of Lady Lashes – extra long – the Mud Mascara, and a couple of new lipsticks – I’ll have a look at the scarlets and darker reds in a mo. A bottle of that musk vanilla scent that is on special, some deodorant, and a jumbo sized bottle of that glow in the dark Lovelife Lubricant.’
Julia looked at me and raised her eyebrows.
‘Goodness, Miss Winsome,’ I said, ‘something going on?’
I knew I shouldn’t have asked that, but I was pleased I did.
She smiled her clam like grin and said, ‘JJ has finally left that old bag of a wife, and moved in, after all these years.’
Then she winked and sauntered over to the lipstick counter.