Suddenly, there was a clatter at the rear door and George Darrowby came in carrying a box of tools and something wrapped in an oily cloth.
“Here I am, Mr Hapstall,” he declared. “I’ve been up since dawn repairing it.”
“The lock,” George explained. “It broke last night as I was going home. I removed the spring and the casing and took it home, where I have the right tools. Didn’t you notice the front door won’t open?”
For a moment, Alfred could only stare at Mr Darrowby.
“What?” he cried. “No. We used the rear entrance. You mean I can’t let anyone in the front door?”
“Have no fear, sir,” George replied. “I shall have this working before you are ready to open the store.”
“I-I’m opening at half-past eight, Mr Darrowby,” Alfred stuttered.
“Just so,” the old man said calmly as he selected a number of tools from his box. “’Tis a wonder that the thing has lasted as long as it has, being the original lock. I would wager that the only people to unlock this door in the past two decades have been me and my son.”
The church clock chimed a quarter past eight.
“Mr Darrowby, please hurry,” Alfred pleaded, pacing up and down. “If anyone comes to the shop early and I can’t let them in – it’s unthinkable.”
“If anyone comes, did you say?” Mr Darrowby replied. “Didn’t you –?”
“You mustn’t panic, Alfred,” Mariah interrupted. “If there’s an early customer we can ask them to use the rear door.”
“No,” Alfred said. “That won’t do at all. I wanted this door to open at exactly half past eight. I’ve planned this moment in my head for years. It’s to be the grand start of Hapstall’s.”
His nervousness was caught up by the other four. Everyone began rearranging the stock, counting the coins in the tills – anything to allay anxiety as they kept glancing at the front door.
George Darrowby was steadily and methodically inserting each tiny, century-old screw and bolt into the mechanism as Alfred hovered at his back.
“What’s that noise?” Tom asked.
“Hmm?” Alfred voiced.
“I think there’s someone outside,” Tom told him. “I’m sure I heard a voice.”
“Are you sure? There must be customers waiting already. We mustn’t open late. There’s nothing else for it. I’ll have to ask them to come in the rear entrance.” Alfred sighed.
“Now just you have patience, Mr Hapstall,” Mr Darrowby said. He selected another tool and began to slowly turn the brass key. “I think we have it now.”
There was a loud click.
Alfred’s sigh of relief was just as audible.
“Thank goodness. And thank you, Mr Darrowby. I’m sorry for my impatience.”
George Darrowby picked up his box of tools as the clock chimed half past eight.
Alfred glanced at Mariah, Rose, Miss Maloney and Tom. The four smiled back encouragingly.
“This is it,” he said. “Let us see if we have any customers.”
He started to pull back the heavy wooden door and gave a gasp of surprise.
“I tried to tell you,” George Darrowby said with a grin. “There were folk arriving as I came in.”
“They’ve come!” Alfred cried, staring at the throng of people filling the street. “Look at them all!”
George helped pull open the door and the crowd surged forward.
“Welcome to Hapstall’s,” Alfred began to the first visitor. “We are very pleased . . . Yes, do go in. Mr Lampton, how nice to see you here. Yes, Mr Bannerman, I don’t wonder you wanted to be among our first customers. That’s correct, Mrs Graine, we sell gloves. Good morning, Mrs Penshire, and welcome to Hapstall’s . . .”
Alfred gave up. There were so many. It seemed most of the town were there.
Someone was waving over the mass of heads. It was Richard Graine. He was mouthing something but Alfred couldn’t make it out over the hubbub.
Another familiar face appeared in front of him.
“Good morning, Mrs Dee,” he called. “Welcome to Hapstall’s.”
“It’s Mrs Biggins now,” she informed him stoutly, sweeping past with the hapless Mr Biggins in her wake.
Alfred didn’t have time to congratulate them before another wave of arrivals followed.
“A good start,” a voice boomed above the others.
Alfred turned to see Mr Bassett. He was alone.
“I came to see how the opening is turning out,” Mr Bassett said. “It would appear I made a wise decision to do business with you, Alfred Hapstall.”
“I can assure you of it, sir,” Alfred replied distractedly. “But please excuse me. I have to see to my customers.”
He pressed his way through to the grocery section where Tom was attempting to serve several customers at once.
To his left Mariah was encircled by people eagerly examining the wares. As she looked up and smiled, Alfred knew she would cope.
They all would, of course. He had the best people about him. And this was just the beginning.