Like The Prose 2021 – Day 12

Today’s prompt continues the five day theme inspired by the Five Stages of Grief. I was asked to write a story about bargaining and it got me thinking about all the ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ stories that are out there, such as ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W.W. Jacobs or all the stories about genies granting wishes. But what about all the wishes we make every day when we say or think, ‘If X happens, then…’? Are we unwittingly entering into a cosmic bargain with the universe? (I don’t think we are, but it’s an interesting concept for a story.)

Follow our protagonist, Jonty, as he enters the Bargain Basement and realises the importance of choosing our words carefully.

Bargain Basement

Jonty hadn’t noticed that the lights were still on in the shop or he might have headed there straight away to wait for the rain to stop instead of standing at the uncovered bus stop, getting wetter and wetter with the unexpected deluge. He’d just thought to himself, “If the bus doesn’t come soon, I’ll find a shop to shelter in,” when he looked up and caught sight of a solitary lighted building amidst the row of closed and deserted shops. The sign above the awning proclaimed ‘Bargain Basement’ – no doubt that meant it would be full of tacky plastic gifts that were made in Taiwan; but beggars can’t be choosers and so he splashed his way through the puddles and then scuttled into the welcoming warmth of the shop.

*

It wasn’t a tacky gift shop at all.  If anything, it resembled a bookshop with carefully delineated sections, each labelled with a specific area of interest. ‘Heaven and Hell’, ‘Health and Fitness’, ‘Spur of the Moment’ and ‘Relationships’ all sounded reasonably interesting, but there were no books on the shelves that ran floor to ceiling around the whole establishment: instead, fat ledgers were arranged in date order, starting with today’s date and then stretching back as far as… Jonty blinked his eyes in disbelief. Surely these records, whatever they were, didn’t really go back as far as 6000 years BC? For a start, anything as old as that would be in a museum, and what were these ledgers for anyway?

He was just reaching a hand towards a rather dusty volume on a shelf that promised ‘Universal Truths’ when a voice behind him remarked, “Please don’t touch the records, Sir.”

Records? Jonty turned to see a wizened, white haired man in an Edwardian frockcoat. He was smiling as he said the words but there was something… sinister about that smile.

“Your paperwork for the current bargain is in the Weather section, Sir.”

Paperwork? Current bargain? A puzzled Jonty let himself be led towards the back of the shop. The man – what was he? A shop assistant? The proprietor? – darted for a volume bearing the current date and pulled it out, carrying it back to the shop counter with a flourish.

“If you wouldn’t mind signing here, Sir.”

He produced a pen – one of those novelty ones that looked like a quill – and then a small bottle of ink.

“Tonight’s transaction is here, Sir.”

Jonty stared at the page in front of him. If the bus doesn’t come soon, I’ll find a shop to shelter in. How was that a transaction?

“I don’t understand…” he began.

“These are your words, Sir? You did say this just before entering the repository?”

Framing the statements as questions didn’t help him to know what was going on.

“I said those things,” he began, “but I wasn’t making a bargain with anyone.”

The man looked at him pityingly. “Bargains are watertight, Sir. Once they have taken effect, the proposing party cannot plead ignorance of any possible consequences – especially when said consequences have been decided by the proposing party.”

Consequences?

“Did you or did you not suddenly find a shop that was still open when the bus didn’t come?” the man asked sharply.

“Well, yes, but… How’s that a bargain? I mean, the shop was already here and open…” Jonty’s voice tailed off. Now he came to think of it, there hadn’t been any lights on in any of the shops, including this one. And he was pretty sure that the shop itself had been different before he said those words – it had been a Gregg’s, not a ‘Bargain Basement’.

“The bus didn’t come, so we provided a shop you could shelter in.” The man sounded business-like. “This is a simple transaction, Sir. It’s not as if you’ve signed away your soul – unlike some of our customers.” He paused meaningfully.

“But I didn’t know I was making a bargain with anyone,” Jonty repeated.

The man tapped long, tapered fingers on the counter. “Your signature, Sir.” He proffered the quill to Jonty.

As if in a dream, Jonty dipped the quill in the ink bottle and signed his name. “Do you get most of your customers this way?” he asked sardonically.

The man looked at him with pity. “Bargaining is built into the human psyche, Sir. And while the majority of them are as trivial as the one you’ve just purchased, some of them have more permanent consequences.”

“Such as?”

The man shook his head. “All transactions are confidential, Sir.”

“Well, just let me look at mine then,” Jonty argued, feeling aggrieved that this everyday conspiracy was being practised without people’s knowledge.

The man hesitated.

“I won’t tell anyone if you let me look,” Jonty continued, then stopped short as he realised he’d used the word ‘if’. Had he just made another bargain unintentionally?

The man’s eyes gleamed. “Do I understand, Sir, that you’re saying you’ll go away and forget everything you’ve seen if I let you look at some of the ledgers now?”

“Yes,” Jonty said impatiently.

“Then if you would just add another signature…”

The man reached under the counter, producing a ledger much larger than any of the ones on the shelves.

“We don’t get much call for this,” he murmured. “Most people make unwitting bargains. Still, you’re in good company – Johann Faustus certainly knew what he was entering into when he made his pact. … If you’ll just sign here…”

Once more, Jonty dipped the quill in the ink and added his signature. The man snapped the ledger shut and replaced it under the counter.

“Where would you like to start, Sir? The new contract allows access to all areas, regardless of whether you’ve made a bargain in that particular field yourself.”

“I…” Jonty paused to gather his thoughts, his eyes scanning the various sections of the shop. “What about ‘Music’?” he hazarded.

“An excellent choice, Sir.”

His companion led the way. Was that the tip of a forked tail peeping out from beneath his frockcoat? Surely not.

“Was there anything in particular you wanted to look at, Sir?”

“Rock music,” Jonty said. Or should that have been ‘Heavy Metal’? All sorts of bands were rumoured to have sold their souls to Satan in return for their music being successful.

“And the year? Or the decade?”

“1980s.” Perhaps now he would be able to solve the mystery surrounding Bon Jovi’s popularity. He reached for a volume marked 1984: that was the year they’d released their first album.

Flicking through the pages, his eye was caught by another name he knew. Rick Allen – wasn’t he the one-armed drummer in Def Leppard? What bargain had he made? Yes, there it was: December 31st, 1984 – “I’d give my right arm if I could be a better drummer.” The shock hit Jonty like an express train – or possibly like the car that had hit Allen’s on the night he made his unwitting bargain. One of the teachers at school had told them the story years ago. The 21-year-old drummer had been involved in a car accident on the A57, just outside Sheffield, his home town, and he hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. (That part had been emphasised by the teacher as a warning to all of them not to do anything so stupid.)  He’d been thrown from car, leaving his right arm inside the vehicle, and although the limb had been packed in ice and reattached in hospital, it had to be amputated soon afterwards due to infection.

“How could you do that to him?” Jonty whispered in horror.

The man shrugged. “The client drew up the agreement; we just honoured it.” Noting Jonty’s disbelief, he continued, “Would that young man have become as famous as he did with two arms?”

Jonty paused. Allen’s story was inspirational. (That was another reason they’d learned about him in school.) He’d been determined to continue his role as the band’s drummer and had realised he could use his legs to do some of the drumming work previously done with his arms. He was back on stage with the band by August 1986.

“You might want to check out the ‘Classical’ sub-section too,” the man told him, searching the shelves and withdrawing a volume entitled ‘1800’.

Thumbing the pages, Jonty stopped at the name ‘Beethoven’. “I’d willingly give up my ability to hear if I could write a few decent symphonies.”

“His First Symphony was published that year,” the man remarked, peering over Jonty’s shoulder. “His hearing began to deteriorate straight away, but it became progressively worse with each successful composition. Still, it didn’t prevent him from writing the glorious Ninth.”

Jonty closed the book with trembling fingers. People needed to be aware of what they were letting themselves in for when they made such off-the cuff remarks.

“But they’ve done very well out of it,” the man said as if reading his mind. Perhaps he was. “Not all of our customers achieve fame on that level, but there are always adequate compensations to balance the losses. Take ‘Housing’ for example…” He gestured in the direction of the opposite wall. “We had a young man, similar age to you, whose wife wasn’t happy with the properties available within their price range. Eventually her husband snapped at her and told her if she wanted to live somewhere fancy like that, it would cost them an arm and a leg. Luckily, they’d taken out a good travel insurance policy before jetting off to Mexico on honeymoon, and the lump sum for loss of limb – I think she lost the arm and he lost the leg – was more than enough to cover the shortfall between the type of house she wanted and the ones they could actually afford. I think they received £20,000 each…” His voice tailed off. “Are you feeling well, Sir? You look a little queasy.”

Jonty was desperately trying to remember all the things he’d said without considering the implications.

“Perhaps this will refresh your memory.” It really was uncanny how the fellow seemed to know what was going through his mind.

Jonty stared at the volume marked ‘Spur of the Moment’. Leafing through, he spotted page upon page of names he didn’t recognise, each one containing apparently innocent statements:

“If I ever get rid of this hangover, I’ll never drink red wine again.”

“If I don’t have a starter, I can have a dessert.”

“If I hit ‘snooze’ on the alarm, I can stay in bed for ten more minutes.”

“You only ever call me ‘Darling’ if you want something.”

“If you’re naughty, Father Christmas won’t leave you any presents.”

“If you don’t eat your broccoli, you won’t get any cake.”

“But these aren’t proper bargains,” he protested. “I mean, people don’t mean those things when they say them.”

The man coughed slightly, jerking his head in the direction of the notice that was chalked on a board by the counter. ‘We do not give refunds.’

“If you enter into a bargain with the universe,” he said, “or with Heaven and Hell if you prefer to think of it in those terms, you get what you asked for and pay for it later.”

His eyes glittered like coals and Jonty felt suddenly afraid. He needed to get out of this shop straight away and expose this conspiracy to the rest of the world.

“The rain’s stopped,” he murmured. “Thanks for letting me shelter here.”

“Goodbye, Sir,” the man called after him as Jonty opened the door. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you – as always.”

*

Jonty stepped out of the shop and headed for the bus stop. He couldn’t for the life of him recall what he’d been doing for the last half hour or so. His mind had gone totally blank.

“If I could just remember,” he muttered. “I’d give anything to know where those missing thirty minutes have gone…”

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