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Authors: Dorothy Scannell

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‘The trouble with Dorothy,' confided Chas to Benny and Ade, ‘is that it is impossible to pass the slightest remark to her without her wanting a historical discussion on it. What did he say and then what did you say, what was she wearing, what were you thinking, et cetera, et cetera.' This was where he and I differed. If I made an interesting statement and he replied, ‘How nice for you,' or ‘Fancy that,' I would have felt somewhat neglected, sure that he wasn't listening because he wasn't interested. I told Ade I thought men lived their lives as though they were painting a straight line which faded with the years, so that, looking back, they couldn't remember where it had been, whereas women kept their memories in a tight roll, protected for all time, so that they could unravel it when they felt the need to do so. Ade looked very sad. ‘You do talk lovely sometimes, Dolly. I always mean to tell the girls at work some of the things you say, but what with the noise of the machines and the rush and tear of the factory, I forget a lot of it. In any case, the girls would get you all wrong, they'd think I was friends with a nut case.'

I supposed I was a ‘nut case', really, for all the time I was serving I was two people: one the polite, cheerful, nothing-is-too-much-trouble grocer's lady, the other fantasising the days away, the heroine at times of disaster, the ravishing creature at the hunt ball, the sexiest lovely chased by all the most desirable men, a famous poetess, the bluest blue stocking of all the Girton girls.

Chas was forever trying to get me to say, ‘Is there any-thing you have forgotten, madam, such as...' after I had served a customer. He always did this and often his ladies said, ‘Oh, thanks for reminding me, Charlie, that's the very thing I came in for.' But I hated to do it, it seemed like touting to me. I sometimes did it if his eagle eye was upon me but, coming back from my dream world, the very thing I enquired if they had forgotten was one of the articles I had just served them with. For some strange reason I could only ever think to ask, ‘Have you forgotten your toilet rolls?'

Chapter 9
A Better 'Ole

It was now time to apply for the renewal of the lease on our premises. On the face of it, we had been mad to purchase a business on a lease with only two years to run. We had, however, been assured by our solicitor, who in turn had been assured by the lady owner of the building, that she would be happy to renew the lease. There would be no problem. Like innocents abroad we had believed this verbal assurance. We had taken over neglected premises and at the time the lady was relieved, for there were then empty shops in better condition than ours. Now, of course, after two years of hard work we (well, Chas really) had transformed this profitless desert into a financially successful oasis. Happily and confidently we applied for the renewal of the lease, expecting, of course, to be called upon for a higher rent.

The solicitor, a kindly man, came to convey to us the result of his application to our landlady. He just didn't have the heart to write us a formal letter, for he knew her refusal to renew the lease would be a bombshell to us. So there we were, in a worse position than we had been in before we purchased the business. We would be unable to sell -indeed, eviction could be around the corner.

Because Chas was so worried, I could not afford the luxury of worrying myself. Someone had to keep a bright face on things. We would swim together, but I never liked the idea of sinking together. During the sleepless nights that followed I racked my brains for a solution; then, none being forthcoming, I got in touch with our landlady, and two very strange ladies had a very strange conversation. One would have thought I was phoning for a social chat; all my pleas for a renewal of the lease went unheard by her. We talked of her girlhood, her parents (they were just names on the lease we held) and her migraine. But, by being devious, I gathered the information that she required our business for her son, whom she was anxious to get settled in life. I wondered why she had not thought of this when the old gentleman was there. Well, I suppose I knew, really. She would be getting a gift on a golden platter now, all for free. Then I went off at a tangent and discovered that her son was also a migraine sufferer.

Now, of course, I had to convince her that for a migraine sufferer the life of a busy grocer was an impossible one. (I never told her I was a migraine subject.) After half an hour of persuasive argument our landlady promised to renew the lease. Then followed many days on tenterhooks, for, ‘Yes, she would,' ‘No, she wouldn't,' and whilst chatting to her one day while she was in a negative mood I suggested that we
purchase
the building. A price was fixed, which was gazumped until we finally wore her down by showing her the surveyor's report. A bright young man had called to carry out this survey; he left an older, worried man, having aged at discovering the condition of the building his clients were so
eager
to purchase. Either we had no foundations, or they were being rapidly swept away by an underground river or stream. This, of course, was just one of the minor defects. In the last hour of selling our landlady said, ‘I would like another £50.'

Now that we were complete owners of Scannell's emporium the desire of my life was achieved. Chas engaged
staff
, in the shape of a large, elderly lady and a tiny, elderly man. These two senior citizens were unrelated, unknown to one another and unsought by us. They came into the shop at different times, seeking employment. Chas at first refused their kind offers of help; it was tantamount to slave labour, he thought, but they were both insistent on working; they would work for someone else if not us, but they both preferred it should be us. The large lady would come in each evening and wash the ground floors. The tiny man would attend each afternoon to fill up the shelves.

The old lady was a relic, a ghost, from my childhood, an East Ender with the loud Cockney voice of the street-market vendor. She was very amused when Chas insisted he refill her bucket with water when required, but in the end she gave in, for she could see ‘Charlie boy' (her pet name for him) was worried she would overtax her strength. She said to me, ‘I bet Charlie was a good boy to his mum.' Ever after, when we were having our evening meal upstairs, from below would come an Ada Larkins shout: ‘Charleeeee, more war-'er, boy.' This was requested so often that it would have been simpler for Chas to remain downstairs until the cleaning was finished, but he thought Flo might feel he was watching her do her job to see that she missed no corners. She certainly did not, for she flooded all the floors with such vigour and used so many bottles of disinfectant that our shop smelt like an operating theatre. Sometimes she bought groceries at our shop and always requested ‘eggs, as big as yer farver's'.

She was large, sweaty and lovable. She would talk about our little man as though he didn't exist; he never spoke to her or even looked at her. He ignored her completely; she was not on his planet. He really never heard her, which was fortunate, for her ribald remarks regarding the little man's sexual potentialities worried me a bit. Fortunately these were veiled. She liked him, that was plain to see, and in one way it was a pity he was not a master of repartee, for someone could have enjoyed some fun. ‘I could have Bertram on toast for starters,' she'd remark. His name was not, of course, Bertram, but it was the name she christened him with, and it stuck. He never walked anywhere but took tiny running steps continually. Flo would come in from the garden and say, ‘Bertram's orff agin, trippin' the
f
light
l
antastic.' If Bertram ignored Flo, Flo certainly could not get him off her mind. She possessed a husband somewhere whom she referred to as ‘the Beast', and two daughters, one of whom was ‘It', and the other ‘Her Majesty'.

Our little Bertram was no Cockney. He had been a civil servant. Polite, well mannered, he loved working for us. He was our treasure. I wondered what world he inhabited, for, while he was kneeling down one day filling up the lower shelf, I espied a large tin on the top shelf wobbling dangerously above his head. I yelled a ‘Look out' warning to no avail and dashed round the counter, too late to save the large tin crashing on to his bald head. Bertram looked up, surprised, rubbed the top of his little bald head and murmuring, half to himself, ‘Must be blood dripping through the ceiling,' he resumed his filling-up operations. Unfeeling of himself, he was also unfeeling of the person upstairs whose blood might have been dripping through on to his pate. ‘I told you he's a hard little nut,' said our Flo and put the kettle on to ‘bave Bertram's bonce'. He appeared to have suffered no shock and was on duty the next day, head bruised and scarred, imperturbable as always. However, some months later I was coming in from the garden when I heard thuds and crashes emanating from the cellar. ‘Oh God, someone is attacking our little man, someone must have got in at the side door.' Picking up a case-opener I crept quietly down the cellar stairs. Perhaps I could catch the attacker unawares. Stunned at what I saw, I was at first unable to move, then I crept softly away. Our imperturbable Bertram was throwing cases of tinned goods from one end of the cellar to the other, swearing all the while. Then he went to the other end of the cellar and repeated the process in reverse. He was like a raging tiger. Should I phone for a doctor? How to tell Chas?

As I was making up my mind, into the shop came our Bertram. He gave me the sweetest smile. I decided to say nothing to Chas; it was obviously the little man's way of easing his frustrations, but I was amused when he said to Chas one day, ‘The carmen are not very careful with the goods these days. I am sorry to say I find many dented tins.' ‘Oh, don't worry,' said Charles, ‘I may be able to return the badly dented ones.' ‘Ullage,' remarked Chas to me. I thought he'd gone all prehistoric, for it was the first time I'd heard the word. Apparently it was a hangover from his days in the world of shipping, and could mean the quantity a vessel lacks by not being full, or loss by evaporation or leakage. I hoped Bertram would not discover the latter meaning, for I could visualise another way in which he could ease his frustrations.

I was therefore somewhat relieved when Bertram left our employ. He handed in his resignation the day of the shop-lifter. We were always so busy that, with goods displayed all around the shop, it was natural we should meet up with dishonest people from time to time, although Chas never did. Bertram told me one day that, when we were extra busy, a large, bald-headed man with huge, projecting teeth would stand at the door, smile at Bertram, fill his shopping-bag with jars of pickles, wave at Bertram and disappear. I conveyed this startling piece of information to Chas, who requested the little man to warn him when the smiling man came into the shop again. A few days later Bertram informed Chas that the pickle fancier had visited us once more, leaving with a shopping-bag filled with goods. ‘Why didn't you tell me when he arrived?' moaned Chas. ‘You haven't seen the chap's teeth,' said Bertram darkly. Perhaps our little man had heard Flo's remarks as to his snack-like qualities.

I
apprehended our lady shop-lifter, quite unaware that this was her profession. On Friday evenings, when our shop queue extended outside the shop door and we were serving non-stop, I had often noticed a middle-aged lady on the end of the queue. In dress and bearing she was outstanding: a copy of the Queen Mother in her soft, pastel shades of dress, with beautiful suede gloves and shoes and an air of aristocracy about her. One day I said to Chas and Ethel (Ethel was now our lady assistant), ‘Do you know the distinguished-looking lady who calls on Friday evenings? I haven't served her yet.' I described her, but neither of them had ever seen her. I made up my mind to point out my royal lady to them, for they thought I was imagining her. Many Friday evenings passed before I saw her again. Before I had time to tell Ethel and Chas, or complete serving my customer, the lady was gone. I just
had
to know who she was and why she came, and why she was never served. Without a word to the other two, I dashed out from the shop and met up with my lady who was now on the end of a queue at the greengrocer's. I felt stupid; what on earth could I say to her – ‘Please come back so that my husband may see you,' or, ‘Why this Friday haunting of me?' There was no need for me to speak at all, for when this lady saw me she said, ‘I am glad to see you. Now may I pay you for the packet of biscuits I had?' She proffered a £5 note, a large sum at that time, and walked grandly beside me back to our shop. Chas and Ethel looked amazed as we walked to the counter. They had wondered why I'd dashed off without warning when the shop was full of customers. ‘While I am here,' said the lady, ‘I'll take a quarter pound of your best butter.' She took her change and left. We never saw her again. I had laid my ghost. Our butcher could not believe our quiet acceptance of ‘it takes all sorts'. ‘If I hadn't had her up sharp to the copper shop,' he said, ‘I'd have freatened her wiv it. She'd have had the length of my bleeding tongue!' He was a marvellous butcher, a down-to-earth Cockney chappie. His wife helped in his shop, almost next door to us, and we liked them very much. They, too, worked hard and long, keeping themselves and their shop immaculate, their overalls always starched and snow-white. The meat he sold was of the finest quality, so I was not surprised at his disgust when the ‘foreign' meat shop opened opposite us. He was not afraid of the competition, he had no need to be. Pieces of meat were displayed on hooks in the new shop. Vegetables, fruits and herbs unknown to us Londoners were sold, and spices from the East gave the shop and surrounding area a fragrance reminding one of far-off lands. I always thought of the Wembley exhibition of my childhood: people from the other side of the world, the enormous python, dead of course, in the Malay House.

This new shop augured a further change in the life and scene of that area, gradually to be repeated all over England, and each incursion of ‘different' people caused a stir, often antagonism, because of a fear that the way of life we knew, much as we grumbled about it, would be altered. Often fears were expressed in a jovial way. ‘Cor, that foreign shop smells like Port Said.' ‘I bet they sacrifice goats in the back yard.' ‘You ought to see the mice galloping about in the shop window at night time.'

BOOK: Dolly's Mixture
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