Arthur Brown took to wearing false moustaches. Each and every Monday he would wear a clipped, grey, military moustache. On Tuesdays it was the black handlebar variety, on Wednesdays the brown coloured soup-strainer, Thursdays would see the white Fu Manchu, and Fridays the Zapata, so-named after the Mexican revolutionary, Emilio. Arthur was neither Mexican nor Chinese. He was English and lived in Wigan. He was 59 years old and wore grey flannel trousers. He was not a revolutionary, not even on a Friday. On Saturdays and Sundays Arthur’s top lip remained naked, exposed to the world, sans whiskers of any complexion.
“Good morning, Mr Brown,” Mrs Singh at the corner shop would say to him at 8.30 as he bought his Daily Mail and ten Regal cigarettes.
“Good morning, Mrs Singh,” Arthur would reply and place the exact money down on the counter.
That had been their conversation every morning for fifteen years, ever since the Singhs had taken over the shop. Mr Turner, the previous owner, had vacated the premises by hanging himself in the back lean-to because his sister Lily had told him that the Council wanted to take possession of the shop by compulsory purchase order so they could build a new road through to the planned Wimpey houses on the field at the rear. As it turned out, Lily was mistaken. The Council had no such plans but she thought she was doing the right thing by mentioning it over a tongue salad one Sunday afternoon.
The long-established routine between Mr Brown and Mrs Singh acquired a frisson, or so Arthur believed, with his decision to wear the false moustaches in prescribed order. He loved Mrs Singh and, above all things, wanted her to notice him as something more than a customer. As he picked up his newspaper and cigarettes on Mondays, he would purse his lips and make his military moustache bristle ferociously; on Tuesdays, he would wiggle his handlebar moustache in the manner of a villain in the silent movies; on Wednesdays, he would suck the ends of the oxtail soup-stained whiskers that hung over his mouth like a curtain; on Thursdays, his eyes would narrow and his face would acquire an inscrutable Oriental expression; and on Fridays, he was heard to mutter, “Arriba, arriba!” as he left the shop, bell tinkling on the door behind him. On Saturdays and Sundays, his expression was as blank as it had been for the preceding fifteen years. He was then, simply, Arthur Brown from Wigan who wore grey flannel trousers. The weekends were his control sample.
After six months of the moustaches, Mrs Singh broke the routine on a Friday Zapata-wearing morning.
“There’s something different about you recently, Mr Brown,” she said, peering at him.
“There is?” said Mr Brown, looking at her sideways in the manner of a man ready to protect his hacienda to the death. He drew his hand down over his mouth, tracing the moustache points on both sides with thumb and forefinger down to his chin.
“Yes,” said Mrs Singh. She peered at him intently. “No, maybe not. I thought those glasses were new but I was mistaken. Ten Benson and Hedges, was it?”