Tani-san had always been a great one for experiments. As a child, she had attempted to discover which of a spider’s legs was the most important, only to find that it was always the last one. And then there was her investigation into the appallingly low survival IQ among city dwellers, which basically involved her creeping up behind people and hitting them over the head with a baguette. Indeed, her interest in the sciences had continued into middle age, eventually leading her to a very curious line of inquiry — namely, what she could make happen when she stopped going along with things.
One such experiment came about as a result of an incident that occurred on an unseasonably hot day in early autumn when she and her three friends were holidaying in the scenic prefecture of Niigata. They had just left the Garden of Harmony hot springs under something of a cloud when the minivan that was transporting them spluttered to a halt. A problem with the fuel pump apparently. As I say, it was rather warm and before long they were all starting to feel thirsty. So while the driver was waiting for the repair truck to arrive, the ladies went in search of a roadside station that lay “a few minutes” up the road — or so they were led to believe.
If ever a shop looked set to discourage trade, it was the miserable little concern they stumbled on some 20 minutes later. Why anyone would wish to set up business in such a godforsaken spot was beyond understanding: There couldn’t be more than 10 cars a day down that stretch of road. A large wooden strawberry stood outside in an attempt to attract custom, but because its features had been so badly touched up over the years, it had started to assume a lecherous expression.
Tani-san, who by that stage was not only parched but in a very bad mood indeed, was the first to enter the premises, making straight for the refrigerator cabinet, which buzzed as ominously as an electrical relay station. Grabbing four bottles of ice-cold mineral water, she marched over to the payment area.
“Shop!” she called out, slamming the drinks down on the counter.
The muted babble of daytime TV came drifting in from a room at the back. Then, after an unreasonably long interval, a scruffy individual in a sleeveless shirt emerged from behind the yellow curtain. A wholly undistinguished item, he was entirely bald apart from a single tuft of what might have easily passed as pubic hair that sprouted from the middle of his forehead.
“480 yen,” he said, scratching his armpit.
At this, Mrs. Sekiguchi and Mrs. Terakado exchanged sideways glances. You see, there had been a bit of a discussion before they set out for the shop. Mrs. Sekiguchi had insisted that she would buy the drinks because Mrs. Terakado had paid for their mud therapy at the hot springs. But then Mrs. Terakado insisted that she would buy them because Mrs. Sekiguchi had paid for their chalet. As a result, neither of them had brought their wallets. But then Mrs. Ishihama stepped up to the plate, took out her frog-shaped purse, and handed the shopkeeper a 10,000-yen note.
“I can’t change that,” he said with a shrug, “I’ve only got one 2,000 and two 1,000 bills in the till. Haven’t you got anything smaller?”
The obliging Mrs. Ish — who was a little bit light in the brain department — leafed through her stash of 5,000-, 2,000- and 1,000-yen notes.
“I don’t believe I do,” she said, carefully examining each one in turn. “Perhaps if you were to lend me a pair of scissors …”
Tani-san, on the other hand, could have quite easily provided him with the correct change, but she didn’t like his attitude, so she chose not to. Instead, she grabbed the four sweating bottles and handed one to each of her friends, quietly instructing them to follow her lead. The situation was about to get a lot more complicated than it needed to be.
Turning then, she squared up to the owner and drew herself up to her full height, which was well over four feet.
“Now, see here,” she said. “We’re not going to give you any of our money because we don’t like you. But neither are we common thieves. So instead of cash, you’ll just have to accept payment in either goods or services. You decide.”
“What?” said the hapless proprietor, thrown off his game, such as it was.
“Goods or services,” repeated Tani-san. “Which is it to be?”
The little man gave a disbelieving grunt and looked from one to the other.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Is this some sort of joke?”
“No joke,” said Tani-san. “Have you never heard of bartering, the act of exchanging one commodity for another? You give us these drinks in exchange for four penicillin tablets — that sort of thing?”
“Well, penicillin tablets or beaver pelts. Whichever is the most appropriate.”
This met with a perplexed silence. It was as though they had just stepped into the retail equivalent of the Twilight Zone.
“Look,” said the shopkeeper, “I haven’t got time for silly games.” (Although, actually, he had.) “If you’re not going pay for those drinks, you’ll have to put them back.”
However, Tani-san held on to her thirst-quenching beverage, which she had every intention of consuming in the next three minutes.
“Let me assure you, it’s no game,” she said. “In fact, given your current attitude, I would like to propose that we suspend the monetary system for the purposes of this transaction.”
The shopkeeper frowned.
“You can’t just do that off your own bat,” he said. “It’s not your decision. I get the money, you get the drinks. That’s how this works.”
“Yes,” admitted Tani-san, “well of course it is a system that has been found to work, although the downside is that it is extremely boring. Besides, the concept of money only exists by joint agreement. If the majority stop believing in it then it ceases to be a valid means of exchange.”
With that, she turned to her three friends.
“Hands up all those who have stopped believing in the monetary system,” she said.
As before, Mrs. Sekiguchi and Mrs. Terakado exchanged glances because they were not entirely sure what was expected of them. But then Mrs. Sekiguchi slowly raised her hand, followed by Mrs. Terakado, who smiled sheepishly at the shopkeeper. As for Mrs. Ish, she just stood there gazing gormlessly into space until a swift poke in the ribs from Tani-san prompted her to do the same. Tani-san’s vote made it a landslide victory for the barterers.
“I make that four to one,” she said, gazing at the shopkeeper. “So I ask you again: goods or services?”
Now, let’s just take a moment and imagine what it was like to be in his shoes: Week after week, month after month, wasting away in that miserable little hole of a shop with nothing to look out on but an empty stretch of tarmac. When you’re not filling your days with online gambling and daytime TV, you go through the motions of reorganizing the shelves, checking the stock, fixing the strip lights, and touching up the strawberry. But business is so bad that you don’t even bother to keep much money in the till anymore. The only living thing that you have seen in the last 24 hours is a bean goose that flew down on Tuesday morning and did its business on the veranda. But then, just when you are about to chuck it all in and take the gas pipe, real human customers come walking through your door, thus lending some semblance of purpose to an otherwise thankless existence. Yet all you get is this:
“… Well, come on,” urged Tani-san. “Make your mind up. We haven’t got all day. Just remember: We’re not going to give you any money because we don’t believe in it anymore.”
Is it any wonder, in light of the above, that he suddenly lost it?
“Okay! Fine!” he snapped, turning bright red and waving his arms about like a foreigner. “Two can play at that game! As of now, those drinks are not for sale. And neither is anything else for that matter. In fact, now I come to think of it, this is not a shop at all. It’s a roadside exhibition of contemporary foodstuffs. There! How do you like that?”
On the quiet, Tani-san was rather pleased with his return volley, though she was quick to counter it.
“I see,” she said. “In that case, you leave us no alternative but to force your hand. Ladies …”
With that, she unscrewed the cap on her bottle and took a long, refreshing swig of liquid bliss. Needless to say, her three desiccated friends required very little encouragement to do likewise.
“Hey! Hey! Stop that!” remonstrated the shopkeeper with a series of impotent gestures. “You haven’t paid for those yet! Stop it! Stop it, I say!”
Yet his angry protests made not a jot of difference. As soon as the ladies put those bottles to their lips, the die was cast and there was no going back. Indeed, the hard-nosed pragmatist in him realized this and was already planning his next move. One thing he could do was to call the police. The only problem with that was it would take ages for them to get there from Nagano, and in the meantime he would have to hold four middle-aged ladies hostage, which was problematic in itself. In the end, it hardly seemed worth it for a measly 480 yen. All the same, he felt that he should come away from the situation with something — just to save face if nothing else. And so inevitably he found himself playing into Tani-san’s hands, a fact of which he was all too painfully aware.
“All right, all right,” he conceded, slumping defeatedly onto the stool behind the counter. “I give up. What ‘goods’ have you got?”
So then his four troublesome customers proceeded to empty out their pockets, laying the contents on the table in front of him. Before long, there was quite an accumulation of odds and ends. Sifting through the used tissues and the half-eaten candy bars, he alighted on a tubular object, which was like a glue stick but bright yellow.
“… And what, may I ask, is this?” he enquired, holding it up between thumb and forefinger.
“Oh, ah, yes!” said Mrs. Terakado, recognizing it as hers. “Now that is what they call a butter stick. It’s for buttering toast. I tend to carry it around with me in case of emergencies.”
He was tempted to seek clarification on this last point, but decided that it wasn’t worth it.
“And this?” he asked, equally mystified by a small glass bottle containing the dregs of some colorless liquid.
“Knee cleaning ointment,” mumbled a shamefaced Mrs. Sekiguchi, looking to her feet.
He peered quizzically at the label on the bottle and then returned it to the pile of half-melted peppermints, loose hairpins, and out-of-date promotional vouchers, none of which were acceptable recompense for the four drinks. But then he had an inspired thought:
“… You did say goods or services?” he enquired craftily.
“I did,” said Tani-san, eyeing him from across the counter. “What of it?”
“Come with me,” he said.
With that, he got up and led them through the curtain into the kitchen at the back. They then found themselves in the dingiest stockroom that Tani-san had ever seen: thick with cobwebs and permeated by the stench of rotting pilchards. A single naked light bulb illuminated a set of shelves and a large fridge-freezer that sat against the wall, caked in unholy residues.
From one dark corner, he then produced a mop, a bucket, and a box of cleaning materials, which he thrust into the ladies’ hands.
“Clean this place up,” he said. “And we’ll call it quits.”
Feeling rather pleased with himself, he left them to it and headed back through into the kitchen to put the kettle on. Soon he was settled in his favorite corner with a bag of green tea Kit Kats and a dog-eared manga. To add to his contentment on this occasion, there were the soothing sounds of his annoying customers laboring away in the background to pay off their debt — well, three of them were laboring away. Tani-san was supervising, naturally.
Yet it wasn’t long after that he became aware it had suddenly gone very quiet back there. Grumbling under his breath, he set aside the adventures of Astro Boy and headed down the passageway into the stockroom, only to find it deserted and with the back door wedged open.
When he stepped outside into the sunshine, the first things he noticed were the four bothersome ladies sitting along the wall, chatting quietly to each other while they waited for their driver to pick them up. Close by was the fridge-freezer, which they had disconnected and dragged outside into the car park. To make matters worse, they had emptied it of its contents. There was row upon row of ice creams, soba noodles, sandwiches, and rice balls all laid out on the ground in neat lines, thawing in the afternoon heat.
“What are you doing?” he asked, gazing at their handiwork aghast. “You can’t just quit the job half way through and leave all this stock lying around! I’ll lose the lot!”
“On the contrary,” said the ladies’ foreman, feigning offence. “I think you’ll find, on closer inspection, that we have more than fulfilled our half of the bargain.”
“Oh no, you haven’t!” he retorted. “Not by a long chalk!”
“Well, I beg to I disagree,” said Tani-san. “We have. Obviously.”
In the face of her unshakeable certainty, the proprietor was at a loss for words. All he could do was to hold out his arms in mute appeal until, at last, his objections emerged by means of the appropriate orifice — any other, and he would have been in big trouble:
“By what tortuous line of reasoning can you even begin to say that?” came his outraged reply. “All you’ve done is move things around and make a mess. In fact, it’s far worse now than it was at the beginning! Just look at my Green Tea Haagen-Dazs! It’s like a chemical spill!”
“Well, I can’t help that,” Tani-san calmly explained to him. “The deal was very straightforward: We were to reimburse you for four bottles of water, which, by my calculation, equates to 6 minutes of labor from four low-skilled workers on the minimum wage. In point of fact, we actually worked for 7 minutes 47 seconds. So if anything, you owe us. But of course, if it’s so important to get your stock back into the freezer before it starts growing hair, I would be more than happy to renegotiate on behalf of my members.”
I only need add that by time their driver finally pulled up outside the shop, the forecourt had been cleared of all perishable foodstuffs. Moments later, the ladies themselves came marching out of the entrance, loaded high with sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, cup noodles, and chocolate. Tani-san was the last to emerge, closely followed by the angry shopkeeper, who handed her his last two family-sized bags of potato chips as she climbed into the back of the newly-repaired minivan.
“Please don’t ever come this way again,” he said.
Needless to say, she had no intention of doing so, although it wasn’t the last time she saw him. A year or so later, she was at home one evening, half-watching the NHK news when his unflattering mug shot came up on the screen. Reaching for the TV remote, she turned up the volume:
“… so-called mastermind of the Kokan Gang,” said the commentator, “all of whom were arrested last night at a branch of One-Stop in a district of Shibata. For several months, this notorious gang of criminals have been terrorizing lonely convenience stores in Niigata and the surrounding prefectures, forcing retailers to relinquish their stock by rejecting the monetary system. At ten o’clock last night, they entered the Tsukioka branch of One-Stop unaware that Tatsuya Harada, Professor of Economics at Tokyo University, was standing behind them in the queue. With no regard for his personal safety, the professor argued the case for strict monetarist policies for a full 20 minutes, keeping the criminals intellectually cornered until the police arrived.”
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
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