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Authors: Dorothy Scannell

Dolly's Mixture

BOOK: Dolly's Mixture
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Dorothy Scannell
Dolly's Mixture
A MEMOIR OF LONDON'S EAST END

The Guild's guest speaker told us of his great joy when, walking one day, he espied a lady who possessed an unusual knocker. He offered her £3 for this collector's item and she was thrilled to be able to unscrew it on the spot for him. He said he happily left a knockerless lady holding in her hand his three £1 notes. Did we think he had robbed the lady?

It's the 1950's, and Dolly and her husband Chas are now Grocers and Provision Merchants. Owning a shop was a childhood dream of Dolly's, though it wouldn't have happened had Dolly's rice puddings been a little better. And it is at this relatively advanced age, amid the continuing adventures and misadventures of Dolly's eccentric and hilarious family, Dolly finds a best friend for the first time in her life.

‘You have to laugh with Dolly Scannell. Somehow that Cockney flow of funny tales shakes you up into laughter.'
Evening Standard

For Susan and Harry

 

Chapter 1
Lean Times

‘Lean! Madam, did you say
lean
?' cried my husband, Chas, in life or death tones to the small but belligerent woman facing him across the counter of our North London Grocery and Provision Store. His voice took on an almost high-pitched note as he gazed first in admiration at the bacon rashers displayed on the greaseproof paper, then in incredulous disbelief at the little customer who had examined them with distaste and had, to my husband's shocked amazement, demanded, ‘Ain't you got somethink lean?', thus insulting what my dear Chas was sure were ‘lean Danish back rashers of the finest quality'.

Like a golfer teeing off at the last vital hole in a championship match, the woman took a firmer stance on the lino-covered floor. This movement appeared to go through her body to her head which began to fidget in unison with her feet. Simultaneously with her ‘action stations' stance came her battle cry, ‘My Jack can't eat nothink fat!' Chas inspected the bacon again and, certain in this instance that the customer was not always right, he began patiently and kindly, a tutoring session as to the qualities which should be sought in prime rashers. I knew the little woman would be an unwilling pupil at this seminar, her mind and ears closed to Chas's tutorial; she was sure that in our back room reposed the perfect rashers she sought for her spouse and she was determined to leave the premises victor in this battle. It was, in a way, an affectionate tussle of wills, for neither Chas nor the customer bore any antagonism to the other. At my husband's remark, ‘Bacon's not
supposed
to be all
lean
,' I realised, if he did not, the stalemate had been reached and I went into the back room of the shop where lived our slicing machine. This bright-red monster with its large, round, shining steel blade, sharper than a Samurai sword, never failed to terrify me. When I used it Chas criticised my operating technique, for I arched my body backwards, terrified that the blade would roll out of its sockets towards me. Still clamped in this machine was the side of bacon from which Chas had cut his ‘prime' rashers for little Mrs Jack Spratt, and I cut half a dozen more, arranging them like a fan on the greaseproof paper instead of in a neat, symmetrical pile as Chas had done with his offending package.

I returned to the shop and with a sweeping gesture said to the customer, ‘What about something like this for your hubby, dear?' ‘Ah,' said the woman joyfully, ‘that's more like it.' Then, turning to Chas, she said reproachfully, ‘Why couldn't
you
show me something like this?' adding, ‘Mrs Scannell
always
knows what I want.' I dared not meet my husband's eyes. If he proved to the customer the rashers were identical he would be advertising his wife's dishonesty and the customer's gullibility; if he weighed them up with a smile and sold them he would be advertising his inability to give the lady what she wanted in the first place. With a look of hate for me he wrapped the bacon, knowing full well that the little woman would return at a later date to announce that ‘the bacon Mrs S. chose for her husband was much enjoyed by him.' ‘I suppose you think you're very clever,' said Chas to me, a trifle bitterly, when the customer had gone.

By becoming a ‘shop lady' I had fulfilled a childhood dream. When we were young and living in the East End of London before the First World War, my friends and I had spent hours ‘playing shops' and I wondered why my grandchildren and their friends were not enamoured of the game. Perhaps supermarkets and chain stores do not possess the magic of those small, dark, lovely smelling shops of the Poplar of the 1900s. For us, as children, the next best thing to having shopkeepers for parents was to possess a friend who lived in a shop. One was then the envy of one's companions. I was doubly fortunate, for two of my friends lived in shops; thus I was accepted by a higher class of person than my father's job as a plumber for the council would justify, for we looked upon shopkeepers as extremely rich people.

One of my friends lived in a ‘general' where everything from paraffin to toffee apples was sold, and the other lived at a corn chandler's, and this shop I was sure was the loveliest smelling place on earth. The corn chandler was a handsome man with curling moustaches and a brown overall. His wife, an elegant lady, wore her thick, brown hair piled round the top of her head in large, shiny, sausage rolls. Her long, slim neck was encased in a boned lace circlet and her muslin blouses were tucked from neck to waist, where a stiff velvet band imprisoned the blouse tidily into her long flowing skirt.

The shop was long and dark with a scrubbed wooden floor, permanently dusty, yet with what my mother would have described as clean dust, for it would have been impossible to sell corn, chaff, hay, dried flowers, herbs and straw without this residue. Underneath the counter were wooden bins containing the stock, together with pewter scoops and cans with brass handles for measuring. Sometimes my friend's parents would let me scoop up a measure for a customer, or fill a bag with straw or sweet-smelling hay for customers' rabbits and horses.

I was always glad that my brothers walked past the corn chandler's in a respectable manner, for my friend's mother had said she was very pleased her daughter had such a nice little friend in Dolly Chegwidden. It was almost impossible to believe that she was one of ten children, she was so well ‘kept' and nicely behaved. It would have been dreadful if David or Cecil, the most mischievous of my brothers, had shouted into the shop, ‘Have you any rabbits' eggs today?' and gone into hysterics at their wit, which they were quite likely to do.

Chas and I had become owners of our present emporium more by accident than design. Originally Chas had come to North London to help his brother Rob who owned a busy store. Rob's wife Olive also worked in the shop. She had managed to run the shop during the war years when Rob was a soldier and now she was anxious, after working full time for so many years, to become a housewife again and for Chas to replace her. After Chas arrived, however, the shop became busier than ever and Rob decided that the only thing to do was for him to retire too, and to sell the business. We could not afford to buy it and were faced with not only finding a job for Chas but also somewhere to live as we had let our house at Forest Gate (where we had lived during the war) to move over the shop. It was while we were sorting out these problems that I settled our future by accident. By such strange quirks of fate are our lives determined. If Chas had liked my rice puddings we would not have become Mr-and-Mrs-Grocer-on-the-corner.

Chas always insisted my rice puddings were either too liquid or too solid and had permanently relieved me of attempting his favourite pudding by daringly purchasing a tin of Ambrosia Creamed Rice, at that time an innovation. His brother Rob, although a marvellous grocer, was sometimes conservative in his buying and at the time would not have canned rice on his shelves. He felt such ready-prepared food might prove the ruination of the housewife. I had, therefore, either to go further afield in my ambrosian search or practise rice-pudding making. In our road was a seedy, run-down grocer's, which had obviously seen better days, owned by an elderly man who had been an accountant. His wife having become ill, the accountant, no grocer, was soldiering on alone. One day I espied in the window the tins of my husband's delight, Ambrosia Creamed Rice, and thus began a strange friendship between Dolly and the old shopkeeper.

I would take tea with him in the back room of the shop where a permanently smoking fire had blackened all the walls. I always offered to wash the crockery and make the tea as in this way I was able to sneak in my own tea cloth.
His
tea cloths my mother would have described as ‘black as the ace of spades'. The old boy had a peculiar way of speaking. Commencing slowly and deliberately, he would pause, stand up, take a deep breath and out would pop an enormously long tongue rolled up like a stuffed vine leaf. He would poke this in and out rapidly, just like an ant eater's tongue, then, the storm over, would sit down and resume the conversation. We were rarely interrupted as he had very few customers, so he used to show me his expensive, leather-bound ledgers with beautiful, script-like entries worthy of a multiple store.

One day I arrived at my friend's shop to find him lying on the floor in the back room, his hand bleeding profusely. He had sliced it on the bacon machine and had fainted. I telephoned for an ambulance and took charge of the shop while he was at the hospital. He was back in his shop the next day but, with great emotion, suggested that Chas and I purchase his business. I knew local traders had been badgering him for a long time to sell to them but he didn't really need the money and he just loved to come to the shop every day. There was no point in mentioning this offer to Chas, for we had no money. Our house at Forest Gate was let on a low rent; no one would buy it with a sitting tenant. But, like a jig-saw completed by an invisible hand, the same evening, right out of the blue, we received a telephone call from the agents who collected our rent. ‘Would we contemplate selling our house? One of their clients had taken a fancy to it. The price offered was the price suggested by the old accountant and, before we really had time to think deeply about what we were doing, the matter was settled; Dolly and Chas were Grocers and Provision Merchants.

We prayed we would be able to hold our heads above water and survive the scarcity of customers; asking for a miracle, I thought. Still, at least the initial peace and quiet would give me time to spring clean the premises, for we would be living over the shop. Water was laid to the ground floor only and the whole place was incredibly filthy, but the rooms were large and there was a garden for the two children, even though it was then a rubbish dump. The upstairs rooms were crammed to capacity with pieces of old, broken furniture, carpets and junk, one room filled entirely with wrapping paper, bags and balls of string. During the war years the old man had instituted his own severe economy drive, wrapping his customers' eggs, etc., in pieces of old newspaper, yet at the same time, on the principle that stock is as good as money, he had not cancelled his regular order for greaseproof paper and sugar-bags. This was an unexpected bonus for us, for, packed in their original coverings and cartons, they were clean and usable.

I did not look forward to dealing with ration books, for although the Second World War had been over for eight years rationing was still in force. The books contained tiny sections which had to be cancelled or the coupons cut out. I could visualise irate and starving customers descending on Chas because Dolly had removed too many, or the wrong week's, coupons. Worse still, I might omit to cancel or remove a certain week's numbered coupon and a customer, if unscrupulous (and who could blame a woman with a growing family?), would receive double rations to the detriment of another customer. How could I face a mother needing rations which I had given to someone else? As so often in my life, I worried myself sick about things which either never transpired or settled themselves peaceably. There was no need for my frantic worry about wrong distribution of rationed goods, for in some mysterious way our old accountant had amassed a supply of goods at his wholesalers': rations which were due to him and which, unlike the bags and string, he had never taken up. I expected to serve skeletal customers, for they must have been kept short for the duration, but we never got to the bottom of this mystery. Everything was above board and the unused rations at the wholesalers' were the legitimate allocation due to our shop. Joy of joys, I thought gladly, it doesn't matter if I do give extra rations (by mistake, of course); but, before I could act the Lady Bountiful, rationing ended. I was furious when I thought of the unused allocation. Chas thought me very stupid. ‘Cannot you get it into your thick head, woman, that we can have
all
we want?' But I still wished the powers-that-be had maintained rationing until we had used up our lovely cache, for I might have got the reputation for generosity. ‘More likely Holloway,' was Chas's caustic comment, his memories of a night spent in a police station at his only ever slip into the world of crime still vivid in his mind. I was sure the profligate had won over the thrifty.

BOOK: Dolly's Mixture
13.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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