To recap: in an exotic development, a Polish/ Iranian (Moroccan, Palestinian, whatever) grocery shop opens twenty yards from my front door. Propelled by a mixture of natural curiosity and that conviction unique to bleeding-heart liberal Guardian readers- that we are single-handedly responsible for the upkeep of inter-cultural relations in our neighbourhoods, given that everyone apart from us probably reads the Daily Express and would like to see all non-white people shot- I pay the new establishment a visit, only to be sent into confused embarrasment by the array of indecipherable comestibles on display. After brief flirtations with a packet of Walkers Crisps and a jar of something-(olives, maybe, or some ghastly Middle-Eastern confection featuring anchovies and fig-juice) I flee the store empty handed, my wretched gaze fixed to the floor to avoid meeting the eye of the stern-looking proprietor. Overcome by Catholic liberal guilt (the worst kind, I can assure you), I immediately become convinced that the fledgling shopowner will have taken my failure to purchase as a sure sign of his failure as a businessman (and quite possibly as a human being) and will return to a life of destitution in the backstreets of Gdansk (Tehran, La Paz, wherever), leaving his once-promising enterprise to be turned into yet another A6 kebab joint, or perhaps a Tesco Metro. And it will all have been my fault- my fault!
That was two Thursdays ago. The following day on my way home from work I was relieved to see the little shop still open, albeit with no customers inside. I make to cross the neon-lit threshold again- thinking of snapping up three of the most outlandish items on display and slapping down ten pounds on the counter with gay abandon- but hesitate at the last minute and instead skulk on by, trying to avoid the gaze of the lonely-looking proprietor, who is slumped behind the counter absent-mindedly fiddling with a mobile phone. This scene is repeated daily for a week- until Friday just gone, when, fortified by two swift post-work pints of Staropramen, I decide there has been enough of this skulking and gazing, and force myself to take the sharp left turn.
I stride up to the counter, exuding exaggerated bonhomie, and grab hold of the first item within reach, which turns out to be a packet of KP Skips (prawn cocktail flavour).
'Just these please mate'
This uneventful transaction complete, I head for the door- then stop in my tracks. After a week of anguished preparation, is this still the best I can do- a packet of fucking Skips, for the love of Christ? I turn around and approach the counter again- I'm going to have a meaningful exchange with this taciturn but no doubt needy grocer, even if it kills me.
'So, you, er, Iranian mate? Or Polish? I see your sign there-'
It turns out he's from Radcliffe, north Manchester, but of Iranian descent. He's set up the shop with some Polish friends of his- they reckon that a shop catering to both communities, both of which are present in growing numbers in this part of town, could be a nice little earner. So far it's been quiet- a bit too quiet for comfort, I get the idea- but he's sure that once 'the Polish stuff' turns up next week business will take off good and proper.
'So- what's this then? This all Iranian tea? Which one do you recommend?'
And so, I become possibly the first convenience shopper in the history of Levenshulme to emerge into the street with a packet of KP Skips (prawn cocktail flavour) and a box of eighty Alghazaleen Ceylon Tea Bags. And of course, with the life-affirming glow that comes from having single-handedly rescued troubled Polish-Persian-Geordie relations along the A6 corridor. It's a job well done.
This morning I pass the shop again, while taking young Frankie to the park (I pass the shop pretty much every time I leave the house; it's unavoidable). Our grocer is leaning on his doorframe; wondering, I suppose, where all his compatriots have got to, and when his long-promised 'Polish stuff' is going to arrive. We stop for a chat. Mo (as it turns out the Iranian grocer is called) leans into the cot and 'goo-goos' the baby for a minute or so. I consider buying some more prawn cocktail flavour snacks, but decide I have done enough for Geordie/ Persian relations for one day, and head off to the swings.
So- from the confused cultural embarrassment of our first meeting, me and the grocer have bonded over our shared appreciation of teabags, and then, seemingly, been fast-tracked straight through polite nodding terms and onto all this- first names, the shaking of hands in the street and the lengthy and extravagant goo-gooing of babies. Frankly it's all moving a little too fast; on reflection I was quite happy with polite nodding terms- the terms we established with the butcher and the woman from the florist in 1999 and have remained on quite stoically ever since, with no embarrassment on either side. Do you think we can take a step back now? Or has a line in neighbourhood shopkeeper/ customer relations been breached here that precludes any U-turn? Where are the Iranians of Levenshulme- do they not need any groceries this week? Should I be putting milk and sugar in my Aljazaleen tea, or just taking it straight? Shall I invite Mo round for a cup? Will this damned 'Polish stuff' ever turn up?
The answers to all these questions right here, just as soon as we have them. Stay tuned.