Authors: Monica Dickens
Mrs Abinger laughed again. ‘Did you ever hear such a man?’ You could never be quite sure whether George were joking or not, so she always tried to make it a joke, in case he really meant to be rude.
‘He’ll lose you your goodwill one of these days, Ellie,’ said the woman who wanted the cheese and pickles. ‘As it is, I always say, if it wasn’t for you, there wouldn’t be nothing at all sold in this shop.’
‘Get along,’ said Mrs Abinger. ‘I only do the donkey work. George is the brains of this establishment, that’s where it is. He’s got a real head for commerce. You want to see him doing the accounts. Speed? Ready reckoner isn’t in it. I’ll get your cheese, dear.’
In the back-room, she found Mrs Moore mooning over Josephine’s pram, tickling the baby’s face with the tails of the martens which hung round her long white neck.
‘Ah, so you’ve found my Jo,’ she said, and rocked the pram,
as she did every time she came in here. She could not keep her hands off it.
‘That’s why I came down,’ said Mrs Moore. ‘Nanny and the children told me. You are a dark horse, Mrs Ab.’ She had a habit of lazily curtailing people’s names. ‘Where did you have her?’
‘In the hospital.’ Mrs Abinger bent over the cliff of cheese to hide her reddening face. However many lies it meant, she was determined that people should not know the baby was adopted.
‘I wish you’d have told me. I could have brought you some flowers or something.’
‘There’s no call to make a song and dance about lying-in.’ Mrs Abinger bore down on the cheese wire and put the cut triangle on the scales as a formality, for she could guess to a fraction of an ounce after all these years.
‘She’s a lovely baby,’ sighed Mrs Moore. ‘Much prettier than any of mine. How on earth did you and Mr Ab. manage it? I mean – ’ Realizing she had said the wrong thing again, she changed the subject, raising her head to sniff the spicy, ham-charged air of the store room. ‘Bit stuffy for her in here, isn’t it?’
‘I’m afraid of not hearing her if she were to cry upstairs,’ explained Mrs Abinger, who really brought Josephine down because she could not bear to be a yard away from her. Each time she came out here for anything, a warm glow welled inside her, just as if she really were the baby’s mother. It made a treat out of those tiresome trips backwards and forwards between the shop and the store.
‘Oh I see,’ said Margery Moore vaguely. She often forgot to listen to the answer to a question. ‘Well, I suppose I’d better get my things. I wonder where I put my list?’ She picked a mouthful of cheese off the lump, bent to kiss the baby, and went through to the shop, saying: ‘When she’s older, you must bring her up to play with mine.’
Mrs Abinger pounced on the suggestion with disconcerting eagerness. ‘I’ll certainly do that, Madam,’ she said. ‘That will be ever so nice. Just as soon as she can toddle.’ She handed down May Brewer’s pickles triumphantly, pleased that May should have heard the invitation.
That was just the kind of thing she wanted for Jo, who was going to rise far above the Portobello Road. Steps up, one grander than the other, until in no time at all, she was going anywhere and everywhere, and people like the Moores proud to know her. For although Mrs Moore was a very nice lady, with a good address, she kept no style at all. The children sometimes looked ragamuffins, and Nanny had said that Mrs Moore was not above sitting down to a poached egg for supper in the kitchen, which in a Naval officer’s wife, did not seem quite the thing.
When the shop was empty, Mrs Abinger went upstairs to make sure her suet pudding had not boiled dry. She had got so used to popping up and down between the flat and the shop, that she never thought of herself as hardworked, although the end of the day sometimes found her very short of breath. Now that she had Josephine to look after as well, she sometimes did not get a chance to read the paper until she was in bed at night, leaning lopsidedly over towards the candle. They had electricity in the flat as well as the shop, but George could not go to sleep with the light on.
Bob had not yet finished his rounds, so Mrs Abinger put more water into the saucepan under the pudding. They could not have their dinner until Bob was back, because he had to look after the shop while they were upstairs.
They might have taken it in turns to eat, but Mr Abinger liked to be waited on, and a good sit down midday meal together was one of the solidarities of life which Mrs Abinger would not have dreamed of discarding. So they always had their hot dinner, with the table nicely laid, and cups of tea afterwards on early closing days when there was no need to hurry down to see what Bob was up to.
Bob’s idea of looking after the shop was to sit on a stool with the midday racing sheet, his long back curved like a banana, his feet on the top rung and his knees jack-knifed under his chin. If a customer came in, he would unfold himself with such a weary creaking of his joints, and listen to their order with such despair that they quite wished they had not given it. Having dragged himself out to the back store, he sometimes remained
there so long that the customer would come to the doorway to see whether he had died serving her.
Going downstairs again, Mrs Abinger rocked Josephine and clucked at her on her way through to the shop, where she found Bob, peg-topped in bicycling clips, straddling to lift a cardboard box of groceries. Mr Abinger, with a pencil behind his ear, was serving a customer with unhurried dignity.
‘Well, you’re being a time and a half this morning, Bob,’ said Mrs Abinger. ‘Here’s Mr Abinger and me waiting to have our dinner.’
‘It’s that hill,’ complained the youth, exaggerating the weight of the cardboard box. ‘I can’t somehow seem to tackle it on an empty stomach. If only I could have me dinner before I do all these orders.’ It was his eternal grievance that he could never have his own dinner until two o’clock, when the soup at Uncle Ben’s Café was off the boil and all the meat gone from the stew.
‘Folks don’t want their groceries delivered after lunch,’ Mrs Abinger told him. ‘What’s got to be done has got to be done.’ She always spoke kindly to him, for he had no mother. That was why she had employed him in the first place, in the hope of mothering him a little; but he was unresponsive material.
‘It’s that bike.’ He paused on his way to the door, clasping the box, with his stomach stuck out. ‘The front wheel’s too little.’
‘It’s got to be little,’ put in Mr Abinger, shaping a half-pound pat of butter with a flourish, ‘or where would the basket go?’
‘If only I could have one of them box-tricycles like Ellison’s boys have got.’ This was another of Bob’s grievances.
‘Don’t talk to me of Ellison’s if you don’t want a thick ear,’ rumbled Mr Abinger, criss-crossing the wooden patter on the butter. ‘It’s Ellison’s and their like will be the ruin of this trade. Isn’t that so, Mrs Lupin?’
‘Oh, I daresay,’ said his customer, hoping he had never seen her going into Ellison’s for things like candles and soap and barley that were cheaper there than at the Corner Stores.
Ellison’s was the cut price grocery across the road. It employed a manager and three well-paid assistants besides the errand-boys. It was open to the street with all the goods on show, lining the
walls, hanging from the ceiling, stacked on the counter so that the assistants had to play peep-be among the tins and bottles.
An outcrop of cheap crockery and enamelware cluttered the pavement on either side, graded in height like a herbaceous border, blossoming with price labels. Lures were chalked on blackboards in the curly letters which were the manager’s speciality: ‘Oh, look, ladies! What a Bargain.’ ‘Stop! Look! Buy!’ ‘Our prices are so keen we cut ourselves!’
Ellison’s was a permanent eyesore to Mr Abinger. He would never walk on that side of the street, and was engaged at the movement in a campaign to bar the senior assistant from membership of the Avondale Park Bowls Club.
‘Ellison’s,’ he grunted at Bob. ‘I’ll give you Ellison’s.’
‘No offence,’ said Bob. ‘I was only talking. And I say – Ellison’s boys get their dinner at twelve.’ He escaped, leaving the door open and the buzzer going, as Mr Abinger came prowling under the counter flap at him like a gorilla.
The war had been over for nearly six years. Ellison’s had expanded, buying the next-door shop on each side and opening a hardware department and a forest of cheap overalls and dungarees. The Corner Stores had not expanded, but it had not contracted either, because it was as small as possible already. It was one of Mrs Abinger’s great worries that they were always running out of this and that, because there was no room to store enough stock.
They had run out of sultanas when Miss Loscoe came round from the basement flat in Cornwall Road where she lived with her mother. She called it a garden flat and did not speak to the families on the stories above.
‘It’s a funny thing, Ellie,’ said Miss Loscoe, ‘but whatever I want most particularly has always just run out that day. But then, I always say I’m an unlucky person. I wanted to make a fruit cake for mother’s birthday on Sunday. She quite enjoys my Dundees, and gracious knows there’s not much the poor soul
can fancy these days. I was thinking you might like to bring little Josephine up to tea, seeing you won’t be in the shop.’
‘Ellie usually does the stock-room Sunday afternoons,’ put in George, from the bacon machine.
‘That’s right, I do,’ said his wife who knew that Jo would not want to go to the basement flat where Mrs Loscoe brooded like a half-crazed spider.
‘You managed to find time last Sunday,’ said Miss Loscoe, ‘to take the child to the fair, but I suppose I mustn’t expect my poor little tea-party to compete with
She inspected a jar of pickled cucumbers disapprovingly.
‘Don’t take me up so, Dot,’ said Mrs Abinger. ‘It’s very kind of you, but I was thinking it might be too much for your mother. She gets tired, I know.’
‘Mother doesn’t see enough people,’ said Miss Loscoe. ‘She wants taking out of herself a bit more. “A proper old hermit crab you’re getting,” I said to her the other day. I try and jolly her up, you know; she gets so sorry for herself.’
‘I only hope my Jo will be as good to me when I’m old and feeble,’ said Mrs Abinger, who could never keep off the subject for long. ‘Did you want the cucumbers, then? They’re one and ninepence.’
‘I don’t trust that brand,’ said Miss Loscoe, ‘ever since that chutney you sold me last year.’ She pushed the jar away, wrinkling her nose at it.
‘I’ve got a bit of news for you,’ she went on. ‘That Mrs Moore of yours is coming home. I passed their house on my way from the tube at Notting Hill Gate. I saw the vans. I must say, I wouldn’t like my furniture to stand on the pavement for all to see if it wasn’t in better condition.’
‘That’s no news to me,’ crowed Mrs Abinger. ‘Mrs Moore wrote quite a time ago with a list of groceries as long as your arm for us to deliver before she arrived.’
‘I don’t know what she thinks we are,’ grumbled George. ‘Sidney had to make three trips up there with the things, let alone the time it took me to parcel them up.’ Sidney was the undersized boy who looked at you as if he could tell something about you that you wouldn’t want known. He had replaced Bob a
year ago, when Bob had failed to turn up one morning, and never been seen since.
‘Mrs Moore is a good customer, George,’ said his wife. ‘You ought to be pleased she brings her big orders to us when she might just as well go to Whiteleys.’
‘I wish she would then.’ He stopped the bacon machine the better to hear himself. ‘Her kind makes more trouble than they’re worth. What with wanting this and that five minutes before closing time, and those kids picking and stealing among the goods and giving sauce. Who do they think they are? Coming down here in her furs and furbelows, oh so dainty, but all the time on the look out for what she can pick up cheap. Now I ask you. If that’s the gentry, you can have ‘em.’
‘I don’t want them, George,’ said Mrs Evans, tapping on the counter. ‘It’s my gammon rashers I’m waiting for.’
‘I’ll finish them,’ said Mrs Abinger, seeing that George was about to adjust the gauge of the slicer, for people might wait for their rashers until eternity once he started fiddling about with the machine. ‘You go up and get your tea, dear. It’s past your time. The kettle’s on.’
When he had moved out of earshot, she could not help boasting to Mrs Evans: ‘It will be nice for my Jo, the Moores being back. She’ll be going up to play with them, I daresay. The youngest boy is just about her age.’
‘Will she indeed?’ Miss Loscoe paused on her way to the door. ‘Well, they may be nothing so very grand, but at least they will be better for her than the company she keeps now.’
‘What do you mean, Dot? I’m ever so careful who she plays with. That’s one reason why she goes to Mrs Mortimer’s in the Grove, apart from the superior education. I don’t want her to mix with all the riff-raff that goes to the Council these days. Some of those children from up by the railway are very common.’
‘Well, she’s mixing with them now,’ said Miss Loscoe. ‘I saw her playing round the stalls with those Goldner boys whose father is in prison. Saw her
heard her. I wonder at you, Ellie, I must say, letting her pick up such an accent.’
‘But I don’t! Jo in the market? She was to go to tea with
her cousin Violet straight after school. She knows she’s not allowed to play in the streets. You’re mistaken, Dot, surely.’ Mrs Abinger stopped the machine, distressed.
‘Oh no,’ smiled Miss Loscoe. ‘I saw her all right. Not that I come through the market as a rule. I’m thankful I don’t need to, but I have to when I come to your place.’
She buzzed herself out triumphantly. Mrs Abinger began to take off the thick unbleached apron she wore in the shop. ‘I shall have to go and fetch her in. I’m sorry, Doris. I’ll get George to finish you.’ She went through to the back and called up the stairs. She was very agitated. Only something concerning Jo could have moved her to call George down from his tea.
He appeared at the top of the stairs at last, thrusting his long, coffin-shaped head down at her menacingly. ‘Can’t a man get a bit of peace?’
‘I know, dear – I’m ever so sorry. Come and mind the shop for half a minute. It’s Jo – I’ve got to go out.’ Her heart was thumping away all her breath.