Bottom Shop

Clutching a penny in my hand, I stood transfixed by jars of striped humbugs, liquorice laces, aniseed balls and fruit sherbets, their glass shells reflecting the lights of the corner

shop.

Inside Mrs Taylor, philosopher, counsellor and occasional money-lender, waited with infinite patience. If she was busy she would leave me enjoying the intense pleasure of anticipation. If I was her sole customer, she’d smile and ask: “how much have you got then? A penny…well you could have two liquorice laces and a sherbet…or two ounces of aniseed balls…or jelly babies.”

I nodded.

“Jelly babies then?”

There were two shops in our street. The top shop had a licence and sold beer, spirits and groceries. You could take a jug and have a pint or two, freshly pulled from the cask. Adults liked the top shop but I loved Mrs. Taylor’s at the bottom of the street where a weary woman could sit and unload her problems. There were bundles of firewood in one corner, white candles above, face creams with mysterious names – ‘vanishing cream and ‘Snowfire’ ointment. I knew what vanishing was, but what would ‘Snowfire’ do?

My mother used to spend hours in this shop but I didn’t mind if the cat was there. I would sit on the folded sacks in the corner and the cat would come purring to my knee.

On Wednesdays there was always a good smell -meat, onions and pastry. In their tiny back kitchen Mr. and Mrs. Taylor made meat pies. It was standing room only in the shop, so children had to wait on the step or swing around the lamp post.

On quieter days, in my corner, I listened to the women talking.

“It’s through that bloody Hitler she broke her leg!”

I saw Hitler on the news at our local cinema. He
shouted a lot and waved his arms. Whose leg had he broken?

“She was taking down the blackout curtains and the chair wobbled.”

Had Hitler pushed her…and if so how had he escaped?

‘“Ave you ‘eard about ‘er over the road…Blondie?” I knew Blondie. She wore high heels and a funny fur coat with black blobs on it, like the black chief in Tarzan films, and my mother said she put peroxide on her hair. Her hair was almost white and she had bright red lips and rosy cheeks, just like mine when I’d been sledging. She smiled a lot and I thought she was jolly, but her neighbours always talked in hushed tones whenever her name was mentioned.

“‘Er ‘usband had ‘ardly gone to the war before she started … she should be horse-whipped…somebody should tell ‘er ‘usband…”

The shop bell rang and there she was, blonde hair in a turban, white ankle strap shoes, scarlet lips and a cigarette in her hand.

A rare silence settled in the shop. Five pairs of disapproving eyes noted every detail.

“I’ll have two packets of ‘Craven A’ please, Mrs. Taylor, and half a pound of bacon.”

Mrs. Taylor, who always chatted whilst she cut the bacon, did not speak. Slices of bacon fell rhythmically on to the paper. The silence was so intense I didn’t dare to swallow.

One woman, with fierce eyes, tapped her fingernails on the counter and the cat leapt off my knee in alarm. I could feel my heart thudding. Would they all ‘horse whip’ Blondie here, after she’d got her bacon?

She took her goods with a flourish, paid Mrs. Taylor and went out, heels clicking on the step. Looking back through the window, she tossed her head and laughed.

Marjorie Graham