During the school holidays I would be taken on the mid-week shopping trip with my parents. I’d look out of my back passenger-seat window and observe the passing scenery, I liked to familiarise myself with the route, turn right here, turn right again, straight over at the roundabout, stop at the lights. As we drove along, I would read as many of the signs on the shop fronts and buildings as speed would allow, and sometimes I’d have questions as we traveled along; “What’s a Breakers Yard? What’s the difference between blue paraffin and pink paraffin? Do Donkey’s wear jackets? Why is Boots a chemist when they don’t even sell boots?”
As we approached the Granada Cinema in Slough, there was a small shop, slightly set back from the road with a very small sign that intrigued me and I always strained to read it as we drove past. The shop was on a slight bend just after the traffic lights so we were always accelerating as we went by, making it even more difficult to get a good look at it. Reading the signs either aloud or just in my head was not only was something to do in the car to break the monotony of the journey, but I also liked to know what was sold in all the local shops in case I or my parents ever needed anything. I thought I was being useful.
In 1973, one of the popular TV shows was Kung-Fu starring David Carradine as a Shaolin monk who travels through the American wild west searching for his brother, using only his high-end Kung-Fu moves and eastern spiritual training to fight for justice wherever he goes. Kung-Fu was a big thing, it had really taken off, and the show’s catchphrases had temporarily entered in to popular parlance. Even at school people would often call each other by Carradine’s nickname of “Grasshopper” (pronounced Glasshopper). It wasn’t just the Kung-Fu programme, many pop groups had started to mention either doing Kung-Fu or Karate, Bruce Lee posters had appeared in the Page poster carousel at Woolworths, and sometimes there would be someone on TV breaking something in half with just the edge of their hand in a special karate chop. If you tried it at home on say your 1973 Music Star Annual it didn’t work, and even if you tried harder the next time, and thought Grasshopper thoughts, then you still just hurt your hand or worse slightly creased the book. There was definitely some kind of special skill involved. I didn’t know the differences between Karate and Kung-Fu but I knew that all of them together were something called Martial Arts.
The next time we went to Slough I made sure I was really concentrating on the hard to read, mystery shop sign. As we set off from the lights I looked directly at it and followed it with a hard stare as long as I could as we passed it by. It might have been wishful thinking but as we zoomed past, I was pretty sure that the sign on the shop said the words Martial Arts. I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure, but seriously, I couldn’t believe it, this was incredible, I started to wonder, what would they sell in a Martial Arts shop? There didn’t seem to be any clues in the window display, there didn’t seem to be one. Would they sell the special easy to break blocks made out of balsa wood that you could break in one chop, or the slightly off-white suits and coloured belts that the people on TV would wear? I tried to look at it again through the steamed up back window as we drove on, but it was gone and too late for questions. On the way back, I primed my parents to look out just before the cinema, my Mother put on her glasses, the shop was more difficult to see this time because the car was now coming down the opposite side of the road, but as we approached I pointed and yelled “That one there, what’s that shop?” My parents went quiet, my Mother licked her teeth, my father started whistling along to the radio (the JY Prog), and then slowly and quite deliberately my Mother delivered the most unexpected and bizarre answer to any of the questions I had ever asked her, ever. Thinking about her response she shifted in her seat as she she continued to stare straight ahead out of the windscreen before eventually proffering her answer “I think they must sell things for married people”. This was not the answer I was expecting, there was no mention of Chuck Norris or Nunchucks. Married people? What has being married got to do with Karate? It didn’t even make sense, what on earth was she talking about? She’d either gone completely mad or somehow mis-read the sign. “Married People”? What did she even mean? What did married people buy? We went to a wedding once and the people who had just got married had been given various household electrical appliances along with some candlesticks and plates. So, just to confirm, I came back at her with “Like a toaster?”, “Yes, maybe” came the answer. I couldn’t believe it, all that fuss, all that interest, all that potential and the stupid little shop just sold toasters. I said no more, I didn’t want to show her up, she was clearly as disappointed and uncomfortable about the whole thing as I was. I lost interest in the shop from then on, and every time we went around the corner I would just concentrate on the lettering on the front of the cinema to see which film was showing, hoping that maybe they’d be something on that we could all go to.
About 10 years later, just after I’d passed my test and finally could drive myself around, I was heading into Slough, I stopped at the lights, I came around the corner as usual, the traffic was slow that day, and as I drew level with the toaster shop in the now stationary traffic I glanced up at the tiny sign above the door which, after all these years still bore the legend, “Marital Aids”.