Miss Thompson’s soft, lilted tone didn’t tally with the perfectly round wire spectacles perched on the end of her shiny nose; nor the hairgrips, forbidding mousey brown curls to break loose. There was an aura of something gentle and pleasing about Miss Thompson; it hovered around who she was, lapping in sleepy waves to saturate every inch of her shop. The sack of potatoes with muck on; the basket of freshly laid eggs; the wooden crate of oranges, each wrapped in tissue paper and the huge slab of cheese that she cut with a wire; everything tinged with love and respect.
Miss Thompson’s shop was at the junction of our cobbled street, and the main road into the city; a corner shop, with three stone steps worn away at the centre, and a door sneck that activated the bell.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays Uncle George’s fruit and veg cart would rumble along the cobbles. As if programmed, Nancy, his old cart horse would deposit a fresh steaming gift on the kerb outside number 2. Old Henry was first out with his shovel. He said horse dung enriched his cabbages.
Miss Thompson always had a nice cup of tea and an iced bun waiting for Uncle George on his return journey, and carrots with green tops for Nancy. There was no competition, though Chinese whispers did suggest there may be a hint of romance in the air.
To a village kid in England’s northern counties in the 50’s, a returned pop bottle was worth ‘three ha’pence,’ sufficient for a few sweets. As I laboured over the choice of dolly mixtures, bulls eyes and gobstoppers, Miss Thompson helped by totting up the cost; several times, as I changed my mind frequently. Decision made, she would replace the jars in the window, behind the Fry’s chocolate sign and pop the goodies into a white paper bag. With a deft flick of the wrists the corners were twisted tight. The dong of the bell as the money drawer opened was accompanied by a wide smile and: ‘Thank you luvvie … and mind that road!’
It didn’t matter to Miss Thompson how long the queue or the amount being spent, each customer was served with courtesy and patience.
Jack Smith, the neighbour’s boy was slow to learn and suffered a dreadful speech impediment. Miss Thompson set him on in the back room stacking tinned peas, corned beef and baked beans. Mid-morning they stopped for ‘elevenses.’ This new, posh word meant a break for Camp coffee or an Oxo cube dissolved in boiled water; and of course an arrowroot biscuit to dunk.
Right now, I’m driving into the city on a fast dual carriageway through the middle of the former site of Miss Thompson’s shop. Each side is flanked by industrial estates and business parks. The now un-cobbled street is home to high rise flats for commuters to London.
I’m doing my weekly supermarket shop where I buy everything from food to clothing; household appliances, garden plants, newspapers and petrol. I’ll visit the food hall for a hot meal to save peeling potatoes and emptying the dishwasher.
What really bugs me is the nuisance of having to find space in the freezer and larder for all this stuff. I really must have a new kitchen. Or maybe it’s simpler to move house, a bigger one as Jeff suggests.
This chore is a real bind. I could be home watching daytime TV, or looking online for that long awaited Mediterranean cruise. Instead I’m in line at the cash out. Why don’t they employ more staff? This is ridiculous, having to wait in a queue. Don’t tell me - it’s a learner. Oh, I’ve no time for newbies; I’m joining the next line.
The woman in front of me has an appalling diet. Sliced white bread, margarine, beef burgers and spam fritters; LARD, no – don’t tell me she’s frying with blubbery fat. Why doesn’t she buy healthy microwave meals like I do?
The cash out girl robotically scans the bar code and chews gum. I swipe my plastic card in the machine and she trots out the, ‘have a nice day’ thing without smile or eye contact.
I drive home, about to pass through the ghost of the corner shop again. I remember Miss Thompson...
Dear Miss Thompson, whose warm commitment and steadfast loyalty to our small community, has gifted me with appreciative memories of a golden age; when people mattered more than ‘stuff.’
*Three ha’pence – regional slang for three half pennies before decimal currency in UK.
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