It wasn't that Derek Dayman suffered fools gladly; he simply found their follies a source of unending amusement. Not that he regarded himself as a mere onlooker, arrogantly observing this category from the outside, as it were - not at all. Indeed he knew there were those who saw him as something of a fool himself or, at the very least, as a man of superficial intellect. This bothered him not in the least. The basis on which he chose his friends was his to decide and of no concern to anyone else.
He rather enjoyed holding imaginary conversations with critics of his superficiality. There's nothing wrong with the triumph of style over substance,' he would silently retort in response to a notional, though barbed, criticism of his supposedly shallow character. 'Indeed, there's everything right with it, at least when the substance in question is dull as ditchwater and the style is such as to make you laugh aloud.' To Derek, laughter was more important even than money.
'In any case,' he was fond of arguing (silently, and in his head, of course), 'seriousness should be reserved for serious things.' In this category he included only his happy marriage of more than three decades and his relationship with his brother, despite having nothing in common with his only sibling except the shared memory of an idyllically happy childhood. This, of course, was a rare enough phenomenon to be sufficient cause for their deep mutual affection.
Friends, however, he considered purely as entertainment. In fairness, he felt a reciprocal obligation to be equally humorous in return. The result was an eclectic group of acquaintances - friends would perhaps be too strong a word - with whom he happily spent much of his time after business hours, seated congenially around a table in either pub or club. Each 'friend', as he referred to these varied and amusing drinking companions, had originally been a mere customer before a rise in status, usually following the shared enjoyment of some skilfully told anecdote. More than almost anything else, Derek valued the ability to raise a smile through the witty delivery of a story. Not that he despised courage or loyalty or any other noble virtue; they were simply not what he looked for in a 'friend'.
Keith Easton, though as yet no more than a customer, clearly had greater potential. It was his first visit to Derek's old-fashioned ironmonger's shop but there was immediate warmth between the two men. Derek was quite clear in his own mind that this was a man born to be invited to join his select little school of lunchtime drinkers or perhaps the more measured, though no less diverting, group of early evening habitués of the Lord Raglan - purveyors of fine wines and spirits - and only thirty brisk seconds beyond the six o'clock dosing of his shop door.
Keith was a man after Derek's own heart. He clearly enjoyed a good story and delighted Derek with a clever joke about three Frenchmen competing to define the meaning of savoir faire. Derek gratefully stored it away for later retelling. They were soon exchanging names and information about their domestic situations. Keith was pleased to have found the row of traditional shops on The Green, explaining how heartily he disliked large modern stores and was happy to pay a little more for traditional, personal service. As a newcomer to the area he was looking out for good quality services of all kinds. He would need a good plumber for instance and gratefully made a note of one that Derek was able to recommend.
'At present,' he told Derek, 'I'm all alone. My wife and children - twin girls -they're travelling down tomorrow. They'll expect everything to be shipshape and Bristol fashion when they arrive. The removal chaps have been and gone but there's still a multitude of items I need, For instance - would you believe it? - light bulbs; not one in the place! Unbelievable! And to replace them, I'll need step ladders. Another thing I don't have is an electric kettle.'
Derek began to make a list.
'What about delivery?' Keith asked.
This afternoon suit you? Matthew's about to load the van.'
'Where to, Keith?' Already they were on first name terms.
'Here, let me, Derek." Keith quickly scribbled his address in the delivery book.
Derek noticed it was at the more expensive end of the quietly exclusive Twin Elms Avenue. He gave a small involuntary nod of approval.
Matt, Derek's Saturday 'lad' observed the development of the new friendship with wry detachment. As a sociology student at the local university, he tended to regard such behaviour in his employer as an impartial naturalist might observe the male of some other species ritually testing the boundary of its territory.
In the time Derek had taken to reach first name terms with Keith, Matt had served five other customers. Curiously, Matt noticed, people rarely left the shop irritated by the inordinate length of time it often took to get served. They seemed oddly tolerant of Derek's idiosyncrasies.
Working for Derek suited them both. Each felt well served by the other. Matt - no one but Derek addressed him as Matthew - put in a full day every Saturday and fitted in extra hours around his studies during the week. Derek's generous nature meant Matt made useful money. In addition he was often allowed to make use of the delivery van at weekends. But more than this, he enjoyed working in the shop's quaint environment, taking pleasure in the quirkiness of his employer's nature.
With no particular reason for doing so, Derek mentally considered 'the boy' as he referred to Matt indirectly, to be a typically callow youth. Actually, Matt was reliable, hard-working and wise for his years but this went against the grain of Derek's affected bias against young people. Truth be told, there were occasions when Matt showed greater maturity than Derek himself.
In fact, Derek's only justified criticism of 'the boy' was that he sometimes showed insufficient respect for the older generation. Occasionally, for instance, he would make jocular remarks about the extent of his employer's waistline. Secretly Derek enjoyed this cheekiness, wistfully imagining it as the affectionate behaviour of the son he'd never had.
'I've several other errands,' Keith explained, 'so won't be back at the house for another hour or so.'
'No problem,' Derek answered. 'Matthew can make yours the final delivery of the day.' Without turning round he called loudly, 'Can you put Mr Easton's stuff on first, please, Matthew?'
'Sure,' answered Matthew quietly from just behind his right shoulder.
'Don't creep up on me like that, boy!' Derek scolded unreasonably, adding for Keith's benefit, 'youngsters, eh?'
Keith smiled his acknowledgment of the sentiment.
Matthew took the finished list of deliveries, grinned inwardly and set off towards the loading bay.
'It's been a pleasure doing business with you,' said Keith with obvious sincerity. 'I'm sure we'll be seeing plenty more of one another.'
'I hope so,' agreed Derek with equal sincerity.
'Hey!' Keith exclaimed with a laugh, 'I nearly forgot to pay you! What's the damage?'
Derek chuckled. Thanks, Keith! Let's see, that's one hundred and four pounds exactly.'
'Call it a hundred quid for cash?' asked Keith.
'Actually I'm a bit short of the readies. OK if I pay 'the boy' on delivery?'
Matt, re-entering the shop with the delivery list in hand, noted how quickly Derek's latest 'friend' was adopting the same patronising expressions.
'One hundred pounds, cash on delivery for Mr Easton, Matthew.'
'Right you are, Mr Dayman.' Matt nodded 'goodbye' to the departing Mr Easton then finished loading the van with the usual seasonal goods: sacks of fertiliser, lawnmowers, garden implements and, of course, the numerous household requirements of their newest customer. As he made a final return to the shop to check he'd overlooked nothing, Keith Easton came rushing back in.
'Hello again, Derek,' he said familiarly. 'I've just thought - I could take the kettle with me then I can brew a cup of tea while I'm waiting for your boy to arrive.'
'I think it's already on the van,' replied Derek.
'Oh, never mind then, I'll leave it.'
'Easy enough to retrieve it,' Matt offered.
Thanks Matthew,' said Keith, mimicking Derek's use of the full name.
When Matt returned with the kettle, Keith promised cheerfully: There'll be a fresh brew ready when you arrive, Matthew. See you later.'
It was the tail end of the afternoon that saw Matthew driving into Twin Elms Avenue with the last delivery of the day. He checked the address - number thirteen. Driving slowly, he noted the odd numbers ... nine ... eleven ... fifteen ... Strange, he thought. He pulled up, got out, walked back to check, but there was no number thirteen. He must have copied it down wrongly. He decided to knock on the door of number fifteen. It was most likely the one he wanted.
A pleasant-faced, elderly woman opened it.
'Yes?' she said with a friendly smile. Matt was surprised.
'Mrs Easton?' he enquired.
‘That's right dear.’
So, he'd discovered the right address. However, he was slightly taken aback. This lady was so very much older than Mr Easton. In any case, wasn't she supposed to be arriving tomorrow?
'I've a delivery for your husband.'
'I don't think so, dear.'
'He came into the shop a couple of hours ago....'
'No dear. Mr Easton died fifteen years ago.'
'Oh. I'm sorry.'
There's no need to be, dear. It wasn't your fault.'
'Actually the address I have is number thirteen but....'
'...but there is no number thirteen, is there? The old superstition ... bad luck, you know..."
Further questions established that no other Eastons lived nearby. Nor had any neighbouring house recently changed hands. Matt apologised politely to Mrs Easton for disturbing her and returned, mystified, to the shop,
'Extraordinary,' said Derek, removing his spectacles and thoughtfully chewing one of the earpieces. 'Most extraordinary!'
They had already checked the address given by Mr Easton. No mistake had been made.
Derek was struggling to understand.
'Why would anyone play such a pointless prank? He was hardly the type. It's the equivalent of knocking on doors and running away. It's so...so... juvenile!'
Swirling around elusively in Mart's head, some vital clue was evading his grasp. It slipped through the fingers of his mind like quicksilver. 'It would be a con trick,' he said slowly, 'except we've still got all the stuff he tried to pinch. It's weird.'
Suddenly Derek laughed out loud. A slow smile spread across his features. He shook his head disbelievingly from side to side.
‘The kettle,' he said. 'He stole the kettle!’
‘That's it! I knew there was something wrong somewhere. My God, all that trouble just to nick a lousy kettle!'
'A top of the range kettle, actually, Matthew. Best on the market.' Derek chuckled as if the thought pleased him. ‘The clever thing is, not only have we been robbed, but we almost failed to notice the fact. Remarkable!'
'So, not quite such a pleasant fellow as he seemed. I'll phone the police.'
'No, no, Matthew... no...' Derek waved a dismissive hand, '...really ... what's the point? Let's not overreact.'
Matt felt angry. His trust had been abused. He looked at the thoughtful smile playing at the corners of Derek's mouth and realised his employer felt something quite different.
In fact, Derek felt privileged. To have witnessed such creative guile more than compensated for what, after all, was a trivial theft.
'So ... what are you going to do?' Matt asked. He was already fairly sure of the form Derek's answer would take.
'Do? Why, nothing. What I'd like to do, is buy the fellow a drink. Sadly though, I don't think I'll ever get the chance.'