When I took over the business from my dad the year Rochdale were relegated from the Football League and strong men wept in the streets, he gave me a piece of advice.
We were fishing in the canal at the time and I’d just hooked what felt like the biggest pike on the planet, only to find it was a mudfilled Hoover bag tangled up in a bicycle wheel, but even so I’ve always remembered what he said.
“Never go into business with a woman, particularly a wife or girlfriend. Your mother has been trying to get behind that counter for 30 years, and I know that if she did we’d be bankrupt in a week. Chaps don’t want to buy a jockstrap or a cricket box from a woman, and who can blame them? Pass me those maggots.”
Of course, I happen to know the real reason for his reluctance to let my mother work in the shop was that she would have stopped him throwing his fag-ends down the toilet, going to the pub at lunchtime, playing darts in the store-room with his mate from the taxi-rank and putting too much sugar in his tea.
He also enjoyed a bit of peace and quiet when the shop was empty – as it often was – and he certainly didn’t get that at home with my mother and that awful parrot. But even so there’s a lot in what he said.
At first sight, the scenario may look promising: “Can I make you a coffee?” says your partner with a fond smile.”We don’t seem too busy this afternoon so I thought I’d nip to Tesco. Salmon steak all right for supper – and a nice bottle of Chablis?”
Of course, in real life, it usually doesn’t work out like that, as my friend Monty knows only too well. He’s in partnership with his wife in an independent sports clothing shop in the next parish. I use the word partnership loosely: they haven’t exchanged a civil word for nine years to my knowledge.
Monty keeps the shop open all hours, even on Sundays, as he desperately tries to earn money for the alimony he would be delighted to pay if only his wife would agree to divorce him.
We get quite a few customers who come to us because they can’t buy what they want at Monty’s, mainly because his attention seems to be elsewhere – like the time his wife was attacking the office door with the angle-grinder she bought in a B&Q cut-price sale or cutting the coaxial cable of his till with the breadknife when he was giving change for a Charlton Athletic shirt.
Indeed, the only time Monty seems to be guaranteed a bit of peace is a couple of hours at home on Monday and Friday nights when his wife leaves the house to work as a voluntary marriageguidance counsellor.
Apparently they first discussed divorce in the car from the church to their wedding reception in 1988 and things have gone downhill ever since. When I once asked why they still went on holiday together, Monty replied that he would rather take her with him than kiss her goodbye.
Most of Monty’s limited spare time is spent looking in estate agents’ windows for some premises he could afford to buy as a home and shop and so escape from the living hell in which he resides.
So far he’s been unsuccessful, and when he foolishly left the details of a derelict butcher’s shop lying around, his wife, in an orgy of revenge, cut the toes out of three dozen Arsenal away-strip socks and stuck a four-foot high notice on the shop window reading:”My husband tortures our dog,”
An extreme case, I grant you, but few independent shopkeepers who work with their wives or partners will be unfamiliar with the tension which can descend behind the counter when your better half decides she wants to take over.
The only time my wife helped in the shop was when my devoted assistant Norman went down with shingles the year Skinner Normanton got a hat-trick for Barnsley in the second round of the Cup and strong men danced in the streets.
It was a disaster. She reorganised the entire stock so that no one could find a thing, paid bills before the red reminders arrived and asked damnfool questions like why were there still cricket bats in the window in January? She also hid the sugar.
I stood it for a week and then a miracle happened: Norman asked if he could come back to work. His wife was forcing him to watch Countdown and turning off the racing on TV saying it raised his temperature.
He arrived moaning softly and covered in calamine-lotion, and boy was I pleased to see him? After all, those lunchtime dart-games in the storeroom soon become pretty pointless when you’re playing on your own.