Regulars

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Hasn’t it been a marvellous summer? Naturally, the weather is the chief topic in Ireland, even when we haven’t any. Weather, that is. No weather signifies bad weather.

At least where Johnny Beglwey is concerned. It’s been a great spell, he admitted, but added the caveat that before the start of the long summer, we had no weather at all.

The ‘weather birds’ on Sky News and the BBC, not to mention CNN, RTE, and all the assorted alphabet of new channels, seemed a bit left out of things, and tried their best to look happy for us out there in weather-land. I’ve long suspected that our various weathermen and women love it a tad better when the chart is awash with clouds that, in their potty parlance, ‘bubble up’. Talk of mixed metaphors.

The Irascible One licked the Guinness-froth from his upper lip and took a deep breath.

Then, while we waited upon his considered pronouncement on the matter in hand, he changed his mind, said nothing, and went back to contemplating his pint. Which was nearly as puzzling as going on a sunshine holiday when there was plenty of sunshine here. I can’t understand the folk who booked a Spanish holiday in the middle of our splendid summer. It might have been a few degrees warmer along the Iberian peninsula, but if one only goes to coastal Spain for the weather and the ocean, they might as well have stopped at home and enjoyed what we had here. And then came something of enlightenment from an unlikely quarter.

“You can’t get a Spanish suntan in Ireland,” Little Jimmy Murphy piped up. “I think you have something there,” Dolly smiled from behind a large glass bowl, which she was filling with pot pourri. Grunt, from Johnny Begley. And then we found out why the Irascible One was being so disgruntled. He was off to Spain himself the following Wednesday. It came as little solace to him that he had booked his Spanish sojourn away back in March, when the proverbial ‘many weathers’ were at play in field and village and town and suburb. Even though the leaves were littering pathways, still the sunny skies procrastinated over Autumn. The sun shone on, as though saying that the arrival of autumnal days would happen soon enough. Still, there was the unmistakeable ‘feel’ of autumn in the air even though it was still summery at the height of the day. And underneath it all, the orchards, with heavy-laden boughs, around which tractors and pickers atop mechanical things congregated to harvest whatever variety is in vogue nowadays.

And there’s a hint of nostalgia, too. I’m thinking of the late Gerald Spencer, proprietor of the now-defunct orchards of Silverspring Fruits in county Kilkenny, and his good wife, a lady of the old school, who died some little while ago. Good folk. God rest them both. It’s a cultural thing, I guess. This summer of summers, our heat has been ‘clean’ and not at all like the humid days we have been subjected to in years gone by. September, I gather, has been the warmest on record. And that’s saying something.

September has traditionally been a reasonably good month always to be relied upon to provide a modicum of good weather even at the end of a disappointing summer. Perhaps we really are getting, more and more, Mediterranean-style weather. In which case the weather-birds may have to revise their ‘script’. Less variation in the weather means less to talk about, less clouds and weather fronts for the computer graphic artist to shove hither and thither on our telpevision screen, or from Billy to Jack, as my old grannie used to say. I’d love to know who Billy was and why things went from him to Jack? – whoever he was.

 

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miss flanagan

A complimentary Miss Flanagan story

Shopowner, Tom Foley, plonked the half dozen box of eggs down on Miss Flanagan’s kitchen table. “You couldn’t be up to some people,” he said. “They’d steal the white of your eye when you weren’t looking these days! Go on, open it and you’ll see what I mean!”

Miss Flanagan opened the box. There were only five eggs in it. “See! Customers are even stealing single eggs out of boxes! Nothing’s safe! If this goes on like it’s been going on for the last six months I’ll be out of business. Times are hard enough without all this shoplifting. That’s even a soft name for what’s happening – it’s robbery, nothing less.”

Miss Flanagan got all the details from Tom over a calming cup of tea. He had a small grocery-cum-hardware shop in a rural village, she knew, and had never had a real problem with goods being nicked from the shop until recently.

It could be the recession, he said, but it could also be plain old dishonesty. With his business small he couldn’t afford to be putting in CCTV cameras, he said. Could Miss Flanagan help him, given that she had a lot of experience in this area?

“I’ll certainly try,” she said, remembering how many times she had been called in as a consultant by shopkeepers wanting to reduce ‘shrinkage’.

“I’ve mirrors installed and signs saying ‘thieves will be prosecuted’ but I’d need eyes in the back of my head and then some!”

After advising Tom to do an inventory or stock take when the shop was closed on Sunday she told him that she would be there to act as undercover detective in the following days.

Watching the relieved Tom walk down her path to his car she thought how his father, a former colleague of hers, John Foley, would never be dead while Tom was alive. Their walk was the same. It’s amazing the way genetics carry through in simple things like that, she thought, and the way people’s walks were all so distinctive.

Strengths and weaknesses – that’s what she was looking for in Tom Foley’s shop layout over the next few days and keeping an eye on customers in order to figure out who was pilfering. Wine and hand tools were ‘walking out of the shop’ according to Tom and when it came to tools he suspected a youngster, one Declan Harty, from the locality.

He was fifteen or sixteen but Tom had seen him many times handling the goods and looking at them but never buying anything. “Doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stealing,” she said. “Does he come from a decent family?” “Yes but I’m suspecting everyone these days. It’s terrible that, the way a couple of dishonest customers makes you suspect everyone.” “I know. It’s not easy on honest customers knowing they’re being watched in shops either, but that’s the world we live in, I’m afraid.” She would keep a good eye out, though, she said, when Tom gave her the signal that young Declan was in the shop.

She knew shoplifters could come from all walks of life, though, and be any age, and you could never guess from the way a person dressed. She would have to keep her wits about her over the next while.

Three days later Miss Flanagan was happy with the groundwork she’d done in relation to the checking systems in Tom’s shop but she had caught no one. Yes, she’d checked out his refunding systems. Sometimes customers bought an item one day then ‘returned’ it the next, looking for their money back, when they had simply walked into the shop with the receipt, picked up another item then proceeded to the checkout. The audacity! Like Tom said, you couldn’t be up to some people.

Staff too, were they honest? Even someone at the cold meat counter having a nibble of ham each day was actually stealing and leading to lower profits. No, the only staff member was Tom’s wife, Carmel, who worked there part-time. Right now Miss Flanagan was watching the customers, keeping an eye out for people wearing big, heavy coats when the weather didn’t warrant it. Big coats could have lots of pockets for stuffing stolen items in. She was watching out for people coming in frequently but buying nothing also. These were people who would be eyeing out security arrangements and goods to steal on another occasion, perhaps ‘to order’.

For some people shoplifting actually was a business, she knew. She was watching also for people who were spending more time watching other people in the shop than looking at merchandise. That could be a giveaway – nervous thieves trying to keep an eye on security guards or staff.

A motley crew of customers were in today, during the usual rush periods with a sprinkling in between. All age ranges were represented from busy mothers popping in for milk to pensioners taking time over their choices. The cuts of people’s jibs varied too from the ubitquitous jeans and jumpers to one woman in a long skirt and long boots and men in snazzy salesmen’s suits or farmers’ gear.

Miss Flanagan eyes were getting tired now as she walked round the shop for the umpteenth time, keeping discreet watch on the goings-on.

The following day Tom gave her the nod when young Declan Harty came in. Miss Flanagan made it her business to stay close to him in the tool section. Yes, he was picking things up, looking at them and putting them down – almost reluctantly, she thought. She went closer. “Good hammer that – bit expensive but worth it in the end,” she said. “I bought one like it years ago and it has served me well.” “Yeah,” said the boy, “it’s better to buy a good one even though it’s dearer because you’ll have it for years then. That’s what my Grandad says. He has all his tools for ages.” “He’s a carpenter?” “Yeah. That’s what I want to be too. He’s buying me a couple of things for my birthday so I start my own tool box so I’m trying to decide which one. He bought his first hammer in this shop too. That’s why I’d like to get one here too but it’s hard to decide which.”

Miss Flanagan smiled. Whoever was stealing in this shop she doubted if it was this young chap. Just goes to show that you can never jump to conclusions.

Tom was relieved to hear that Declan wasn’t to blame but the shopkeeper was still anxious. Tools were disappearing – several unpaid for since he did the stock take on Sunday night and several bottles of wine.

“One’s even gone since lunch time while you’ve been here. I know for sure there were three bottles of that white wine there when we opened this morning, now there are only two and none have gone through the till. Whoever’s been shoplifting has been at it again.”

So much for my detective skills, Miss Flanagan thought out loud, but sometimes the darkest hour was before the dawn, she knew, and good old tenacity would pay off in the long run. She certainly wasn’t going to give up yet. If some customer was in the habit of pilfering wine one thing she knew for sure is that they’d be back to steal more, sooner or later. And the evening rush was a good possibility. She would definitely be on duty for that.

Was the same person who was taking the wine also helping themselves regularly to workman’s tools, she wondered? That didn’t seem to fit really – a wine-drinker and DIY addict or tradesman? Maybe it was two different people. She would have to have her wits about her as she casually shopped those aisles.

No luck! She had spotted nothing but had simply been met by friendly greetings from regular shoppers. Tom was lucky in many ways. He certainly did seem to have a regular clientele and knew most of his customers personally. His personality and his caring nature obviously drew custom back to the shop. It was even more hurtful, then, to a person like that to think that customers were stealing from him.

She was back in the shop the next evening before tea time – a generally busy time as people called in after work for tea-time items. Right – the wine shelves and the hardware section – she would make them her targets again.

There were a couple of people in the hardware area already, a man in overalls choosing paint and the regular customer with the long skirt and boots checking out energy-saver bulbs and then a selection of screwdrivers. “Must want to change a plug,” she said to herself. And why shouldn’t women be able to do jobs like that? Of course they should. More power to her! And those bulbs would last months longer than the old-type ones, she thought, as she saw the woman put one in her basket. Miss Flanagan continued her round of the aisles. She had spotted no one taking anything. Would she ever get to the bottom of the ‘shrinkage’ in this shop, she wondered.

The woman with the long skirt was heading for the till, she noticed, but Miss Flanagan couldn’t help staring. She was walking a bit oddly. What had happened to her? Her previously relaxed stride had changed to one marked by shorter steps as if her feet had suddenly become heavy. You could tell a lot by a person’s walk, she knew, but right now alarm bells were ringing in her head.

Heavy, motor-cyclist type boots, with unnecessarily wide tops for a person with thin legs, she thought. Hmmm. Very handy. Was she on to something and was this woman up to something? Knowing she had to act fast she got to the till quickly and exchanged a code word and a quick note with Tom. Next customer, funny walk, it read. Tom was confused. “I didn’t know what you meant,” he told Miss Flanagan when the shop was empty. “That woman, Ali Dunbar, has been coming into this shop for months. A nice woman.” “Perhaps, but did you notice something different about her walk when she was leaving the shop?” Tom still looked confused. “No. She has a bad hip. Gives her jip sometimes. She told me when I asked her about it one time. Awful pain apparently.” “Jip? Or a boot full of your property,” Miss Flanagan said. “What?”

Miss Flanagan explained how she’d noticed the change in her walk after she’d visited the hardware section and the wine aisle. “You’d think if she had a bad hip that she’d have come into the shop limping slightly and taking the same short steps, wouldn’t you?” “I suppose.” “How long exactly has she been a customer here?” Tom thought for a minute. “Since around Patrick’s Day. She’s been renting a house out the road since then.” “About the same length of time that you’ve been noticing an increase in ‘shrinkage’.”

Miss Flanagan explained about the boots and their very wide tops, conveniently covered by a long skirt. One quick movement and a bottle of wine could be placed upside down in that boot. Or popular hand tools quickly slipped in. “She could have bought the boots specially – and cultivated that bohemian skirt image to make it handy for herself to steal. When she had taken something she had to walk more carefully.” Tom Foley was gob-smacked. “Does she have any links with tradesmen – a son or husband who’d need them?” Miss Flanagan asked now. “Not that I know of. She lives on her own, she sells a few crafty things at car boot sales, she told me.” “Maybe more than crafts. Tools – and wine – would sell very nicely if she had a handy outlet for them. We’ll just have to watch and wait – after we have a word with your local Gardai. We have to be absolutely sure before we accuse anyone of anything.” Miss Flanagan was excited.

The local Sergeant had organised a camera to record goings-on in the wine aisle at times when Ms Long Skirt would be in. They would soon have the evidence on tape if Miss Flanagan’s hunch was right. Bingo!

In Tom’s office she was watching the video evidence on a monitor. Ms Long Skirt had just put a pliers and an energy-saver bulb in her left boot. Now she was casually proceeding to the wine aisle. Yes, a bottle of white wine slid under her skirt and upside down, into her right boot in the flash of an eye.

Tom Foley was delighted and toasted Miss Flanagan’s success over breakfast next morning before she got the bus back to Benford. “You’ve probably saved me from bankruptcy. That woman has a string of convictions for shoplifting and I hadn’t a clue. My shop’s not the only place that was suffering because of her but at least you’ve put a stop to her gallop. It takes Miss Flanagan to put the boot in where it’s needed,” he said, winking, and lifting his cup to toast her again. 

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