Going Greene: The Rime of The Greene Grocer

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Everything in the shop looks as if it is wilting. The stalks of celery lie flaccid and pale in the veg bin, and once tidy bunches of red lettuce and chives droop in sullen, unruly heaps. The boxes of cereal and macaroni and nappies are covered with a thin sheen of dust. What meats remain in the cooler are gray and unappetizing, like the refreshments at a wake. For nearly a week now The Greene Grocer has wallowed in an odd malaise, a ghost ship foundering in a windless sea.

Perhaps it’s time to call it a day and start again tomorrow. I gather my things, turn out the lights and head for the rear door; but I’ve forgotten to lock the front door and flip the “Open” sign. As I turn to retrace my steps, the door bells chime and the exquisite Mary Robins Higgins walks into the shop. She is radiant and beautiful – a pleasant and unexpected contrast to the dreary miasma in my store.

“Hello, Simon,” she says in her dulcet drawl.

“Mary Robins!” I fumble. “I was just leaving – I mean, hello.”

“Well, then,” she replies with a smile, “my timing is perfect. What do you say we get some dinner?”

“Right,” I manage to say. “Yes, that would be nice.”

I lock the front door and she grabs my arm, guiding me toward Mitzi’s Bar and Taxes, the saloon next door. Mitzi, a certified public accountant by day, serves delicious American fare by night in her colourful and seedy establishment. The proprietor herself shows Mary Robins and me to an appropriately secluded Naugahyde booth. Mary Robins orders two watery, tasteless beers and stares tenderly at me for a few moments. I get the hint.

“Sorry I haven’t called since New Year’s, Mary Robins,” I offer. “I’ve been so busy in the shop. But of course, I’ve thought about you every day. I’m glad you came by.”

Marys Robins continues to smile, but she says nothing. Instantly, it dawns on me why I have worn an albatross round my neck lately: I am depressed, and it is because of her. I must admit that my visit to the palatial Higgins home at Jericho on New Year’s Eve has dampened my spirits. I hadn’t realised precisely why until now, but seeing Mary Robins has enlightened me. I no longer believe I am good enough for her.

But I must also admit that I have cocked things up royally. I really should have called.

“Simon,” says Mary Robins, breaking her silence and reading my mind. “I am the same person this year that I was last year. Nothing has changed. I like you, and I want to spend more time with you. Forget about the house and everything else you’re hung up with, and focus on me. Can you do that?”

Deep in the recesses of my mind a fresh wind begins to blow. It is faint at first, but it soon gathers strength until the ghost ship I had been stranded on for the past several days picks up speed and sails blissfully out of troubled waters. Before long, Mary Robins and I are engaged in delightful conversation, and everything feels like it did before. Time flashes by and all too soon it’s time to go. Mary Robins leans close, a mischievous grin playing around her lips.

“Now,” she whispers puckishly. “What’s this I hear about a case of condom mints?”

© Middlechurch Musings, LLC

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Going Greene: The Accidental Environmentalist, Part 2

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Business is quite brisk at The Greene Grocer these days — truly the mutt’s nuts — and I am afraid I don’t have enough arms or legs to keep the shop running properly. I shall need an employee.

The question now is, “Whom among the town’s parade of eccentrics shall I choose?” I put the question to one of my regular customers: a stout, country woman called Sandra Bullock. Unlike her famous namesake, Sandra is as ugly as the back of a barn door, and perhaps as wide; but she’s delightfully funny, with a 24 carat heart.

“Well,” Sandra offers with a gleam in her eye, “you could ask Stella Lee from up near Devil’s Port. She’s the one who writes all them poems. Modeling herself after Sylvia Plath, she says. But she probably wouldn’t work for you long, if you know what I mean.”

“Very funny,” I reply. A literary bumpkin, this Sandra Bullock. It occurs to me that life in Chipping Norton is like living in an American version of The Vicar of Dibley.

“You could always ask Dog Walker,” says Sandra, now grinning from ear to ear.

“Sorry, Sandra, old girl,” I say, “but who is Dog Walker?”

“Real name’s Clarence Williams, but everybody calls him Dog Walker on account of all them dogs he totes around. You seen him. He likes to dumpster dive out back of Mitzi’s Bar and Taxes.”

“Oh, now you’re just taking the piss, Sandra,” I say. “What about you? Are you available part time?”

“I reckon I could give it a try!” she says, gleefully scurrying behind the till. At that moment a familiar slate blue Subaru eases to a halt outside the shop window, and the taut young woman who visited the shop weeks ago emerges, her mobile phone affixed like a growth to her ear.

“Good morning, and welcome to The Greene Grocer,” chimes Sandra Bullock. The young woman raises her little finger in acknowledgement and sweeps across the room to the coffee section without interrupting her cellular monologue. She paws one bag of coffee, and then another, finally selecting the perfect one, which she plops down in front of Sandra at the till.

“Is this coffee locally grown?” the young woman asks over her mobile.

“It’s coffee, darlin’,” is Sandra’s sweet reply. “And this is Virginia.”

“Yes, I realize that,” retorts the young woman with well-practiced arrogance, “but is it locally grown?”

Sandra’s mouth works up and down for an imperceptible second, but no words come out. An instant later she answers, “Why yes, darlin’, it certainly is. Let me ring it up for you. Is there anything else I can get you today?”

The young woman pays for her coffee and breezes out of the store, engaged once again in vigorous one way conversation. I look at Sandra in utter amazement, and she beams back at me before we both erupt in howls of laughter.

“You’re hired!” I say, wiping away tears of joy.

© 2014 Middlechurch Musings, LLC

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The “Real” Chipping Norton, Virginia?

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So many readers have asked which real town is the model for Chipping Norton, Virginia. I’ll never tell…unless somebody guesses. What’s your best guess? (Thanks to my dear friend Nathan Beck for this wonderful picture of a “random” Virginia town.)

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Going Greene: Auld Lang Syne

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“Look for the green mailbox with our name on it and take a left. That’s our road,” Tommy Higgins had said.

A crystal ribbon of water snakes its way between the tawny hillocks, and cattle graze lazily amongst the scrubby hemlocks and jutting rocks. Everything is beautiful — even in the dead of winter — but nothing is familiar, and so I am relieved to see the name “Higgins” on a battered mailbox by the roadside. I have spent the better part of an hour rattling along in Bubba’s borrowed beer lorry through the pristine Virginia countryside. Crammed in the back of the lorry is a spectacular array of groceries from the shop: my belated Christmas gift the the Higginses.

I turn the wheel to the left and drive along a gravel country road for almost a mile without seeing any sign of humanity. I am relieved when a house — a very large house — appears through the trees; and I caress the rickety lorry to a halt to ask for directions. The front door is easily eight feet high, and a polished plaque bearing the words “Jericho 1782” names the dwelling. I grab the enormous brass knocker and drop it once upon the huge oak door. In a moment the door swings open to reveal the exquisite Mary Robins.

“Jesus!” I say. “Is this your house?”

“Happy New Year to you, too!” says Mary Robins Higgins. “Please, come in!”

“Is this your house?” I find myself repeating.

“Yes,” says Mary Robins with gentle patience. “The family’s anyway. Higginses have lived here for 230 years. It’s a bit drafty, but it’s home.” I am impressed. Then I am embarrassed, because I’ve just brought a truckload of groceries to a woman with a mansion.

“Where’s Tommy?” I ask, feigning composure.

“He’s out on the property getting dinner. He insisted on pheasant,” replies Mary Robins. In the distance I hear the sound of booming gunfire. Mary Robins proves to be a delightful conversationalist and I am a touch disappointed when Tommy returns. The two of them show me round the enormous home and its grounds, and as the sun sets along the western hills of the Higgins property, a lugubrious servant rings the dinner bell. I cannot recall ever having seen a table quite so opulently laid out. Even the pheasant is delicious. After dinner we make our way to a cozy fire in the great room, and Mary Robins and I find wonderfully overstuffed seats. Tommy, however, pantomimes an exaggerated stretch and checks his watch.

“Oh, would you look at the time?” he yawns. “Better hit the hay!”

“Tommy,” I say. “It’s nine o’clock on New Year’s Eve. You can’t be serious.”

“Pheasant hunting’s hard work, ol’ man,” he drawls, faking another yawn. He winks at Mary Robins and is gone.

Sitting very close to me, Mary Robins picks up our delightful conversation where we left it before dinner. The hours slip by like minutes, and before long she looks at me and says, “Happy New Year, Simon.”

© 2013 Middlechurch Musings, LLC

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Going Greene: Jiggle Bells

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It is Christmas Eve and a gentle hush falls over Chipping Norton. Night has fallen clear and cold, and millions of stars wink down from the inky blue sky. I am delighted that Tommy Higgins and the exquisite Mary Robins have spent the entire day lending a hand in the shop. I have grown quite accustomed to having them around, yet it occurs to me that I have no idea how they have so much time to spend with me. They have no visible means of support; still, they come and go as they please, refusing my insistent offers to pay them for their labors. I must find a polite way to ask them about their circumstances.

They have invited me to attend the Lessons and Carols service tonight at St. Crispian’s Church in Leek Road, and I have eagerly accepted. However, they tell me, there is a very special event we must witness first: tonight is the annual Chipping Norton Jiggle Bells Parade in the Main Street. The Greene Grocer is in the Main Street, so the three of us bundle up and settle into lawn chairs on the sidewalk outside the front of the shop. The parade starts, they say, in about ten or fifteen minutes.

It is a strange colloquialism, “jiggle bells.” In England we use the term “jingle bells,” and I’m sure they do in America, too, because I have heard the song played on radio the entire holiday season. But Tommy and Mary Robins insist that the correct vernacular is “jiggle bells,” and I am eager to assimilate.

Tommy and Mary Robins turn their gaze expectantly down the road, and so I do, too. Before long the parade participants appear as a sudden, rushing mass of humanity emerging at once from a shop at the end of the long main street. It is dark and they are distant, but I could almost swear that they are all stark naked. An instant later my fears are confirmed and I see, with no small amount of horror, precisely why this event is called the Jiggle Bells Parade. Aside from hats and glow sticks and a few jingling bells, the revelers are as naked as a herd of hippos.

I force myself to look at their faces, but this is a poor choice because I recognize many of my regular customers, whom I suspect I won’t see quite in the same way hereafter. Fortunately, considering the cold and possessing some lingering shreds of modesty, most of the participants are at a full jingling, jiggling sprint. A handful of intrepid souls, however, are sauntering boldly down Main Street; and leading the fleshy vanguard is Bubba, wearing far fewer bells than one would have hoped. Spotting us in front of The Greene Grocer, he stops and gyrates in a manner I shall never be able to erase from my memory, then he proceeds along the parade route without a care.

“OK,” says Tommy Higgins with his All-American smile. “Time for church.”

© 2013 Middlechurch Musings, LLC

 

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Going Greene: Hark! The Herald Angel Sings

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Another Friday evening, and once again The Greene Grocer is packed to the rafters with customers. Bubba, as it turns out, owns a small local craft brewery; and his supply of excellent beer is as endless as his enthusiasm to sell it. Tommy Higgins, who is here tonight with the exquisite Mary Robins, is very pleased with himself for having engineered this lucrative new arrangement, and he has not stopped at the libations. He has arranged for musical entertainment, soliciting the services of an authentic Virginia  bluegrass band, led by two bearded and flanneled chaps called Pickens & Grinnen.

Bubba has unscrupulously perpetuated the myth that I am English nobility of some sort, and perfect strangers have sidled up to me all night to get a selfie with “Lord Greene.” My protestations have only encouraged Bubba further, and I am now told that he has been telling my customers that I was lately the Prime Minister. One otherwise delightful young woman has even asked me to introduce her to my friend Benedict Cumberbatch.

Twangy banjo and delicate mandolin mingle with the sound of jumbled voices and the smell of fresh produce. An ancient man, well into his cups, begins a creaky jig in time to the music. His Rip van Winkle beard sways in synch with his slim hips, and his eyes sparkle with innocuous mischief. Others join in: two dancers, then ten, then nearly everyone. Before long the shop is a sort of hillbilly mosh pit. I fear for my new shipment of melons.

To my utter surprise the boisterous crowd begins chanting “Mary Robins! Mary Robins!” and a handful of burly lads lift her up onto the small stage, where she stands next to Pickens & Grinnen. She is smiling, but clearly embarrassed. Someone hands her a microphone and after a moment she opens her mouth.

In my life I have marveled at the wondrous, ethereal music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  I have stood trout fishing in the middle of a Scottish chalk stream and listened to the unmatched music of God’s earth as the crystal waters rushed by me. I have even thought about Heaven, imagining the glorious voices of the angels, rank upon rank, singing with incomprehensible beauty, filling my entire being with wonder and awe. Nothing in my life up to this point, however, has prepared me for the sound I hear when Mary Robins Higgins begins to sing.

I am overcome by sensations I have no words to describe, and tears well up in my eyes. Here in my lowly grocer’s shop, in obscure little Chipping Norton, Virginia, amidst farmers and minstrels and brewers, I taste an unexpected morsel of Heaven on Earth.

© 2013 Middlechurch Musings, LLC

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Going Greene: Nobility

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Contrary to what you might believe, the green grocer business is not all glitz and glamour. Certainly, there are rock star moments. For example, Tuesday I received a shipment of gourmet Chinese chives — an item none of my competitors stock (or have even heard of). When word gets out, I may need a bodyguard.

Yet today has been disastrous by comparison. The meat fridge is on the blink, and the delivery chap dropped off an enormous load of condom mints, whatever those are. I have no idea how long it will be before the mustards and relishes I actually ordered will arrive.

Worse, the combination pub/coffee shop has not done well.  Unveiled on the same day of my chive shipment, my new attraction has served exactly one customer. I know it is only Friday, but I cannot discern why people aren’t flocking to The Greene Grocer to get craft beers and exotic coffees. I have put twelve hours of work in already today, and the prospect of sitting alone in my shop for another six hours waiting for beverage customers is numbingly depressing.

And worst of all, it has been four days since I’ve seen the exquisite Mary Robins. I have discovered that I would trade every rock star moment I’ve ever had for ten more minutes with her. I simply can’t get her off my mind, and I am certain she has no idea.

Through my shop window I can see the pink and lilac palette of the twilight sky. A gigantic Chelsea tractor glides to a halt in front of the shop and Tommy Higgins’ friends Bubba and Mike clamber from the cabin. I watch them as they head round the back of their truck and fish out several beer kegs, clattering them along their edges toward my shop entrance. They repeat this process several times, never once entering the shop. After twenty minutes the storefront is littered with expensive craft beer, and the the two men bound inside.

“You ready, your majesty?” bellows Bubba. “Gonna be a mob of people here in a minute! We brought you some extra beer.”

“Sorry?” I say.

“Oh, don’t be sorry,” says Mike with a goofy grin. “It’s no problem!”

“No,” I say, “I mean the bit about the mob of people. What mob of people?”

The sky is now the deep, amaranthine colour of fresh plums. As if on cue, first of Bubba’s people begin to arrive, each holding an identical baby blue flyer. The flyers read, “Enjoy a free pint on us at The Greene Grocer. 6:00 sharp! — Lord Greene.”

“Lord Greene, Bubba?” I say. “Really?”

Bubba and Mike doff their caps simultaneously and bow deeply in mock deference.

“Time to get busy, Simey,” says Bubba, grinning from ear to ear.

© 2013 Middlechurch Musings LLC

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