“Can you help me pliss?”
The woman was smiling at him. She had the whitest teeth he had ever seen: and the blackest skin.
“Pliss. Can you help me?”
He took the note from the little old dear he’d been serving and handed over her change. He thanked her and told her he’d see her next week and then he turned to the woman.
“Hallo. I need you to help me pliss,” she said. She had a deep and warm voice that sounded like a smile.
Another deep voice came from behind him.
“The first thing you need help with is your English, love.”
His father came round from the other side of the stall. He was rubbing his hands to keep them warm in the chilly autumn air. He had a look of doubt on his face. Perhaps it was scepticism. These two looks are hard to differentiate. Neither is welcoming.
“It’s please,” he said. “Not pliss. Please.”
The woman nodded, her smile continuing to shine. She was tall and solid. The way she held herself suggested a strong frame beneath her bright green and gold turban. She wore a matching wraparound under an incongruous grey coat. They protected her from the cold English weather.
“Thank you,” said the woman to his father. “Can you help me pliss – please?”
His father sniffed. “Depends what you want,” he said.
“I am from Ghana,” said the woman, “From Accra. I am a market trader like you.”
“Like me?” said his father. “You don’t much look like me.”
The son turned to face his father. His father looked at him and looked away, back to the woman. He rubbed his hands again and blew into them. The woman glanced from father to son and back, her smile unwavering.
“A market trader, eh?” said the son, turning back to face the woman. “What kind of trader?”
The woman looked down. There were trays and containers stacked in neat display rows across the front of the stall. She waved a hand across them.
“I am like you,” she said. “I sell fruit and vegetables. The freshest: the best.”
“Second best,” said the father. He pointed at the sign attached to the awning above the stall.
GO WEST FOR THE BEST
WEST AND SON
FINEST FRUIT AND VEGETABLE MERCHANTS
“Go West for the best, it says,” he said, enunciating, reading the words out slowly. His son bit his bottom lip. He looked down at the trimmings and loose paper scattered around the floor of the stall. George pointed to his son and back to himself. “We’re the best: West and son.”
“I’m Joe,” said the son, holding out a hand to the woman. She shook his hand, her stark pale palm cool against his own. She smiled at George, who put his hands in his pockets.
“How can we help you?” asked Joe.
“Thank you,” said the woman. “Thank you indeed.”
Joe smiled. “We’ve done nowt yet love. What can we do for you?”
The woman laughed a bass boom of a laugh. It tailed off with a high pitched fading sigh.
“No,” she said. “I mean yes,” she laughed again. “I mean I would like to have a market stall too. Can you tell me how to get one pliss – please?”
Joe laughed along with her. Her body cavorted when she laughed. She rocked backwards and forwards, sidestepped left and right, wriggled her hips. He couldn’t help joining in.
“I used to have a stall in Accra, in the Makola market,” said the woman, her mouth forming each individual word. “It was a big market; hundreds of stalls, very busy, very busy. Very good food; very good: fresh every day from the farms. And that is only one of the markets. There are lots of markets in Accra. There is one market, the Circle market, it is open all day and all night. You can buy things, get something to eat, anytime of the day, anytime at night. Anytime.”
“Sounds like hard work to me,” said Joe. “Long hours.”
“Long hours, yes,” said the woman. “Ghana is so hot that we sleep in the day and work at night. But I like to work. I like it!” Her laugh boomed again.
“You’ve got no chance,” said George.
The woman stopped laughing. Her smile was still broad and bright but it no longer reached her eyes now. Her head tilted to one side as she looked at George.
“No chance,” he said again. “All the pitches have been taken.”
The woman turned to look at the collection of pitches and stalls laid out along the Moor. Around half of the pitches were occupied by working stalls. Of the remaining pitches, about half had frames erected. The remaining pitches were completely empty. She turned back to face George.
“Who says?” said Joe.
George turned his face away from his son. “Mester Johnson,” he replied. He began arranging the pile of butternut squash in the box marked PRODUCE OF GHANA. “Markets manager. He told me the other day. Going like hot cakes, he says. It’s this new indoor market. Rents in there are too expensive so everyone’s after one of these outdoor stalls.”
“Really?” said Joe. “I thought Johnson was off sick?”
“No, he’s back now. He’s re-coop-er-ated.”
“Has he now?” said Joe. He turned back to the woman. “What’s your name love?”
“Efie. Efie Ansah.”
“Well Efie, the best thing for you to do is to contact this man.” He took a wallet from inside his jacket and picked out a card and wrote on it. “Mister Johnson. If he isn’t there someone else will answer. He looks after the markets in Sheffield. He’ll be able to tell you if any stalls are available. Come back and see me if you have any problems.”
“Wouldn’t waste your time love,” said George, arms folded across his chest.
“You are very kind, Joe,” said Efie, shaking his hand once more. “Thank you for your help. And you Mister George: thank you too.”
“You won’t get anything,” said George.
“Perhaps,” said Efie. “I will try though.” She blazed a smile at him.
“Best of luck Efie,” said Joe. “Let us know how you get on.”
“I surely will,” she said as she moved away, waving and smiling. “Thank you again, and God bless you both.”
The two men watched her head up the Moor. She had a dainty way of walking, placing one foot in front of the other, as if on a tightrope.
“That’s the last time,” said Joe.
George stood with his back to his son, watching Efie glide up the Moor towards the Town Hall. She was like a royal barge decked in green and gold livery.
“How d’you mean?” he said.
Joe paused. “I’m sick of you,” he said. “This is my stall now. I don’t want you around anymore, not after today. You’re done.”
“I were only trying to stop her being disappointed,” said George. “She’ll not get a stall. And anyway, we don’t need any more stalls doing fruit and veg, do we? We’re going to have enough on when the new market gets going.”
“You know what you were doing,” said Joe.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said George.
“You know exactly what you were doing.”