This morning I had to nip to the post office on the estate where I grew up.
It’s not that far from where I live, only a five minute drive over the hill and a short diversion off a road I use fairly regularly, but it’s not the post office local to us here. In actual fact, the odd time I need to have a letter weighed before posting it I tend to use the one in the centre of town.
However, I was driving back from an unscheduled trip to pick something up, I was in thrown-on, early-morning scruffs with no make-up on, and I didn’t want either to be seen or to take up too much time. And you can park immediately outside my old post office, so I turned off the main road and onto the estate.
What is it about smells and sounds and quality of light that bring back memories so strongly? It was early on a damp, grey, autumn Saturday morning and I was so overwhelmed by a feeling of recollection that I expected to see the ghost of my small self coming out of the paper shop and dawdling back off home, a white paper bag clutched tightly in my hand.
I used to spend a lot of time at those shops. I’d nip in on my way home from school to offload odd snatches of change I’d scavenged or to watch friends as they handed over theirs. On Saturday mornings I’d make the short journey to spend my pocket money there and in school holidays my older brothers would persuade me to run up and fetch them some ‘rocks’, bribing me with a share of the sweets for my trouble.
And then there was Mum, who hated shopping at the best of times and who’d frequently send me to fetch things she’d run out of, asking, usually, that they be put ‘on the book’.
We bought practically everything our household needed from that small block of shops, including all the week’s groceries, either from the double-unit Co-op or from the small grocer’s at the opposite end of the row, the plaster pig in their side window hinting at its original incarnation as a butchers.
In the Dad years, we’d walk round with him to help carry the shopping bags home, a packet of iced gems as reward for each of us if we’d been good. After he moved out, Mum got the grocer to deliver our shopping, phoning her order through on a Wednesday and carelessly running up a tab for weeks at a time. Until we discovered he’d been doctoring the tally in his favour, that is, after which she took her business elsewhere.
In the middle of the row of shops was a haberdasher cum hardware store run by Ken of the sarcastic wit and – what was her name? – his glamorous, back-combed wife, pleasant enough to secure our custom but suited, we knew, to better things. You could buy any non-food item you can imagine in that shop – wool, hair dye, underwear, kitchen utensils, gloss paint, rat poison. If they didn’t have it in stock, Ken had contacts and could get it for you in a day or so, for a price.
I remember standing outside their shop one dark, cold, primary-years tea-time – autumn again – gazing in at the colourful Christmas lights and the tiny, jewel-like bottles of lavender scent in the window. I yearned to get one for my mum for Christmas and was desperate that no-one should snap them up before I could. It seemed like ages before I was able to drag my father in on pay day but the wisdom of hindsight tells me it was probably only a day.
Mr and Mrs whoever-they-were in the paper shop were much sterner than Ken and his wife, their faces permanently disapproving, particularly towards us children. They were never seen together but moved in and out of their workstations like the couple in a weather house, him behind the newspaper counter dispensing tobacco and cigarettes, her caged in the post office, perforating stamps and counting out notes and coins to pensioners. The place seemed huge to me as a child, of course, stuffed to overflowing with pretty, glittery things that I wanted very much. Thinking back to the shop this morning, though, I think they must’ve had to work pretty hard at avoiding each other in such a tiny, confined space.
The glass-fronted sweet counter at right angles to the door was our particular domain. I remember leaving my younger brother at that counter one Saturday morning. I’d already chosen what I wanted to buy – most probably a mixture of loose sweets and stationery for writing or craft – but he, as usual, couldn’t decide. Eager not to miss Swap Shop I left him there, loudly voicing his many options to the glassy-eyed assistant. I returned around lunchtime on an errand for mum, only to find him still there and still talking non-stop at the woman. She looked like she wanted to kill him. I quickly helped him choose and dragged him home before she actually could.
Now-a-days a Link cash machine stands in place of the sweet counter, and the displays of pens, glues and notebooks that I spent hours picking through have been replaced by everyday consumables on shelving low enough to look over and spot shoplifters. I was one of only three people in there this morning and the post office clerk had to be summoned from the backroom where, it seemed, he’d been squeezing his spots.
Outside in the street two old women in macs waited for the bus to town just as old women had always done, but everything else was lifeless. No children hung around on bikes or waited in clusters for their families to emerge from the Co-op, which is co-operative no longer but goes by the name ‘Nisa’ instead. The smaller grocers had its roller shutters firmly clamped down and no-one went into nor out of the hardware store, a chemists now but with perfumes in its windows still.
Families don’t get their groceries from up the shops anymore, it seems. They drive in their cars to huge supermarkets on the edges of town, where they’re enticed to buy things they don’t need by generous offers to buy-one-get-one-free. Before she died four years ago even my mum had moved her custom to Tesco’s. Someone still had to go and fetch the groceries for her, though. She never was a woman who liked to shop.