On top of an antique bureau, I find a packet of crisps. This is not my bureau nor is it my packet of crisps. I turn to the owner of one or both.
He is a little old shopkeeper with a fan of grey curls around the massive bald spot on top of his head. Only after I clear my throat does he take his slippered feet off his desk and come to my assistance. I point at the crisps. “Don’t you have a bin for that?”
The old man titters. “Actually, you’ll find that this is just as much an antique as the bureau.”
“It’s Golden Wonder.”
I shake my head, waiting for more.
At last he holds up the packet for me. I don’t see it at first but then I begin to notice how plain the packaging looks: garish red text on a white background that is outlined in blue. The last packet I ate from was made of bright green foil with a more modernized version of the font. That is odd enough but then I glance up at the top right corner.
I turn to the shopkeeper. “5p?”
He nods. “5p Ready Salted Crisps.”
“How old is this?”
“Manufactured in 1960.”
I take the packet out of his hands and examine it. “But this is still sealed. Are you seriously telling me that these crisps managed to retain shape for sixty years?”
“You’re having me on.” I toss the crisps back at him. “You’ve filled an old packet with stuffing.”
“Seeing is believing.” The old man smiles, revealing yellow speckled teeth. “And tasting more so.”
I smile back at him. Well, not so much smile as smirk. “Wouldn’t opening the packet invalidate the product?”
“Yes, but that would be the private business of its owner.”
“Isn’t that you?”
“I think you’d like to own this.” He peers up at me through his dusty spectacles. “You seem very curious.”
“You do too,” I sneer.
“I am merely promoting my wares, young man.”
“An antique salesman promoting crisps?”
He taps the top of the packet lightly, making a slight dent. “Promoting an antique. A very rare and highly unusual one.”
I can’t disagree with him on that. Still I don’t understand this situation at all. “How did you even come by this?”
“Would you believe me if I said that I used to work on the production line?”
“Not really, no.”
He pulls a face. “I’ll have you know that this here packet of Golden Wonder crisps was one of the first ready salted ever made. You know what that means?”
“Crisps used to come with a little salt sachet that you poured in to improve texture and taste. Golden Wonder was the first English company to put the salt in beforehand.” He wiggles his wispy eyebrows. “Hence ready salted. What you hold in your hands is a very valuable artifact.”
And it is still in my hand. For some reason I just can’t put it down. I examine the outside again. “The packet itself, you mean? I suppose but how much would it go for really?”
The old man’s entire face darkens. “Look, miladdo, are you buying or not? You can’t just fondle my antiques all bloody day!”
“How much are you charging?”
The packet almost drops to the floor. “Twenty pounds? For what?”
“For mystery, more like.”
“Yes,” the old man speaks slowly. “That too.”
For the umpteenth time I run my eye and hand over this bizarre little con. I really feel the packet this time, searching for telltale signs of stuffing or polystyrene inside. I hear something crack. It sounds like it might even be the real thing.
The old man puts his hands on his hips. “You break it, you buy it.”
Reluctantly I reach into my back pocket for my wallet. A crisp £20 note for antique crisps.
“Shall I open it in the shop?” I ask.
The old man wafts a dismissive hand. “You do as you like.”
“And what if I release some noxious salty cloud? Wouldn’t want that in your antique shop now, would you?”
He makes his way back to his desk, tapping every bureau and wardrobe along the way. “Please,” is all he has to say.
I think about opening the top seal carefully but decide to pop it open with the palms of my hands instead. The old man barely looks up from his accounts book. I flip the packet over and peer inside the hole I made.
I can barely believe it. The crisps look like they have been made today. Still I just can’t believe they are fresh from the 60s.
“Well,” I say aloud, purely for the benefit of the old man. “These look suitably nutritious. Salt really is an amazing preservative, isn’t it?”
The shopkeeper slams down his book. “You have bought your antique. Kindly leave the premises.”
I resent both his tone and volume but leave all the same. I slam the door behind me, hoping that the little bell above comes clattering down in the process.
Out on the street, I peer into the crisp packet again. Golden Wonder. It has been a while since I last sampled a crisp. Still my hand pauses as I reach inside. The shopkeeper seems mean-spirited enough to put something into these crisps, possibly something toxic. Maybe that is what this whole antique crisp packet idea is about: tricking some poor dolt into paying £20 for the privilege of being poisoned. If so, why am I considering being that dolt? I should turn back right now and demand a refund. I might have a fight on my hands to get it but I will win.
Nevertheless, through all that negative certainty, I can’t help but wonder if what I hold in my hands is the real deal. What if these Golden Wonder crisps are incredibly well-preserved relics of a bygone era? Well maybe not that but what if they are something special? An odd little treat to find in an antique’s shop.
My fingertip touches the ridge of a small crisp. I see grains of salt bounce off as I bring the thing to my lips. I sniff it. It smells fresh but in an old way: the freshness of mint condition. Well, ready salted condition.
Curiosity brings the crisp to my lips before I know what I am even doing. I don’t even hesitate. I bite down on the past.