The Llakor Project - Year Two Chapter Eight: The Gumball Caper
Heading from the Circus Go Kart Race Race Track towards Edinburgh, we stop on the way to enter a local grocery chain called “Troys”
(When I saw the sign, I asked sarcastically, if they sold a line of toy wooden horses. Turns out that they sell a line of hollow chocolate horses, with a small disassembled plastic soldier that you have to build, hidden inside each horse.)
George has been driving like the hounds of hell are chasing her, despite Charlie telling her that we are in no rush. When we pull into the grocery store of Troys a little after one pm, Charlie tells us we have a couple of hours to kill, so we head for the pub across the street called “The Devil’s Kit” which turns out to be a shrine to Kit Marlowe who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays if you are to believe the pub owner who harangues us about his pet theory over the next two hours and a bit over a very good shepherd’s pie and a series of well pulled Guiness (for me at least).
A little before four, we head into Troys and Charlie begins doing a bit of discreet shopping, toothbrushes, razors, toilet paper, all the sorts of things that you need for a safe house and never get. I know when Charlie is being mysterious just to pull our legs.
Eventually, George explodes, “What the hell did we just do spending two hours in that freaking cult disguised as a pub? We were stalling so that you could get the best price on toilet paper?”
Charlie chuckles, “I think that they change the prices on everything once a week, either right after they close on Sunday or before they open on Monday.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” George is not amused.
While Charlie and George bicker, I have been observing the one other customer in the shop. We are in the shop during the lull before the rush after people get off work. The only other customer is a spry older man who is busy shopping based on the coupons in the weekly flyer. He reminds of Burt Lancaster in his last few films like Atlantic City say - old, worn down and yet still powerful as though the athlete and boxer was still lurking inside the old man’s body, still threatening to break out. Powerfully frail or frailly powerful.
As luck would have it, we hit the cash at the same time and while the workers significantly outnumber us, the bored gum chewing teens have somehow arranged it so that only one cash is open.
While we are doing the - after you, no after you, no no after you - dance, a small child inserts himself into the line and grinds absolutely everything to a halt.
“Your fucking gum ball machines ate me 25 p, didn’t they,” declares the foul mouthed urchin.
The manager is now completely ignoring us, as we work out that Charlie’s cart will pass first and my Burt Lancaster clone will follow second. “Perhaps there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of the gum ball machines. They are supposed to ‘eat’ your money and in return they return a small circular piece of sugar with which to rot your teeth out of your mouth.”
Fucking English literature majors.
“That would be the fucking point wouldn’t it Mr. Fucking Thesaurus. It bloody ate me fucking money and it didn’t get give me no fucking gum ball,” argues our miniature sugar lawyer.
“Well then you have learned a salutary lesson which will serve you well later in life. Sometimes the roulette wheel stops on your number and you win a great deal. Sometimes, the roulette wheel stops on another number and you lose everything. This is life. Sometimes you put a coin in the gum ball machine and you get one gum ball. Sometimes you put a coin in the gum ball machine and you get two or three or four or more gum balls. Sometimes you put a coin in the gum ball machine and you get nothing,’ says the Troys manager.
“That’s not fair,” counters our sugar lawyer.
“Life’s not fair,” responds Troys manager, finishing the argument and beginning to pass our items over his electronic scanner.
“Excuse me,” says the well preserved pensioner from behind me. “I wonder if you could keep an eye on my shopping cart for me. I seem to have suddenly developed an amazing need for gum.”
“No problem,” I assure him. “I would be happy to look after it.”
He heads for the gum ball machines and then returns somewhat embarrassed. “I wonder if you would happen to have change for a Euro. I don’t seem to have any change on me.”
As it happens, I have a ton of change on me from the pub, “Please just take the 25 pence,” I say folding it in his hand. “It would be my pleasure.”
“Right,” he says, “but that makes you an investor.”
While I am trying to figure that out, he walks over to the gum ball machines flipping the coin in the air.
“That’s our man by the way,” says Charlie sotto voice.
“What? That fossil? Have you lost your mind?” I whisper back.
“You did ask for someone who could tickle a safe old school. Doesn’t get much more old school than our Felix,” says Charlie smoothly.
‘Our Felix’ is busy inserting the money that I gave him and intently twisting the knob just a touch and back again... and a touch more and back again... and a teensy touch more and back again.
“Gods Charlie, was that what we were waiting for?” I ask trying not to raise my voice.
“Not a wasted trip. Leave aside the shepherd’s pie which is quite fine, we needed to pass through here to get to Edinburgh anyway. At most we lost a couple of hours. Look if Felix is unsuitable, there are a couple of Scottish fellows that we can speak to. But there ain’t no one nought as good as Felix was, and I doubt that there is anyone who is as good as he is now.”
Felix is rocking the handle of the gum ball machine back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth... like a metronome.
“That’s Felix the Cat?” asks George suddenly. She is talking normally, but after the whispering back and forth of Charlie and me it sounds like she is shouting to the world, “God, he got old. Wonder if he still has it?”
Felix beckons over to the pre teen to join him by the gum ball machine. With a flourish, he pulls out a folded plastic bag from his pocket and shakes it open. All the time, his right hand is rattling the gum ball machine handle back and forth in an ever faster almost angry beat. He hands over the plastic bag to the kid and gets him to hold it under the spout of the gum ball machine. It occurs to me that Felix must have taken the plastic bag from the folded stack in front of me by the cash register and I never saw it.
“Well,” says Charlie with a smirk, “That’s what we are here to find out.”
With a final calculated twist, Felix turns the handle of the gum ball machine just so and the machine empties in a mighty roar into the waiting plastic bag. In fact, the bag is not quite large enough to contain all the gum balls and a few bounce and scatter across the floor. The kid, at Felix’ urgings, grabs and fills his pockets full of gum balls and runs off laughing. Felix walks back with a still full plastic bag of gum balls.
“Well partner,” he says grinning. “It appears that your investment has proved to be unexpectedly fruitful. Care for a portion of your profits?”
“Thank you,” I say taking a sour green apple gum ball. “I would be delighted.”
“You can’t do that,” sputters the Troys manager. “You can’t empty a gumball machine with one coin.”
“I think that I just did,” retorts Felix.
“I mean that its not right,” the Troys manager continues.
Felix flips Charlie and George a gum ball each, “Let’s see who was it that said that with one coin you might get zero gum balls or one gum ball or two or three or four or perhaps more. I believe that it was... you. ‘The fault Dear Brutus lies not in the stars but in ourselves.’”
“My name’s not Brutus,” says the Troys manager shooting my theory about him being an English literature major all to hell... or perhaps not.
“No, I can see from your carefully placed name tag that your name is in fact Phil,” drawls Felix dead pan.
“Felix, if you don’t mind me calling you that,” interjects Charlie. “I have a business proposition to discuss with you.”
“Certainly, perhaps after we finish our purchases?’ replies Felix calmly as the Troys manager seethes.
“Upon further reflection, I have concluded that I don’t really need toilet paper this badly. Perhaps you feel the same way about tuna fish and whole wheat bread?” responds Charlie.
“No, you are correct sir. Even with coupons, the tuna fish here is remarkably over priced. Please let us go and discuss your business proposition,” says Felix.
Leaving our grocery carts behind with the increasingly annoyed Troys manager, we sweep out of the shop to the Jag chewing gum balls from Felix’ grocery bag full.
Getting into the front of the Jag with George as Charlie and Felix get into the back, I say it to her, “Four.”