Short Fiction

The Old Shop

It was a busy summer evening, the air was scented with freshly cut grass, and all the children of the village were out playing. Jumpers became goal posts, chalk marked out a hopscotch pitch on a concrete pavement. Adult voices became a dreaded enemy, signalling dinner time, or tea. The uncomfortably dark indoors, where children would brave their parent’s warnings of indigestion, bombing the food back their throats, rushing to rejoin the others for more play. These days were also punctuated with regular visits to the local shop, where we would banter with the two seemingly incompatible elderly lady owners, and best friends.

Bridgie was everyone’s favourite of the two. She was a gentle lady, with a kind smile and a great sense of humour. She often warned the children that the 10p jelly snakes were potentially dangerous, lest they be bitten unawares. She wasn’t stingy with the penny sweets either, always willing to plunge the massive silver scoop into the box, just to see a little face light up with excitement, then load the brown paper bag with far more sweets than any of the children had asked for, but the amount they all hoped for, and relieved, received. She was the epitome of the traditional jolly shop keeper.

Margaret or Maggie was the other one, the ying to Bridgie’s yang. None of the children understood a word she said, as each word was rasped and unclear, in a strong north side accent. The children soon learned that asking the seemingly innocent question of what the meaning of these cracked syllables was, could result in dangerous consequences; threats of  “a clip ‘round the ear” or “a word with yer mam” were enough to silence any intrusive 8 year olds. Her tobacco stained fingers were the only instruments she used to pick the delicious penny sweets one by one from the box, carefully counting each one to ensure she wasn’t giving more than was paid for. Maggie was despised, and when she was on shop duty, the children always stayed well clear.

But it was on this particular evening that something very strange happened, something which would change the children’s opinions of Maggie forever. An insight into her past which would show to them that this battle axe, this seeming anti-thesis of her lifelong partner, Bridgie, was charitable beyond what they had ever imagined, and certainly had a heart, despite some young pups claims that it had gone black, withered and died when she was left at the altar by the captain of the Titanic. This was the summer evening that the boy dropped his ice cream.

He was a tubby little toad-like creature, huge milk bottle glasses covered his eyes and his face was filled with a constantly worried expression and more puppy fat than a baby seal. He had maybe one friend, but was ignored by most of the gang as he wasn’t much of a player and he was never particularly engaging to speak to. When asked a question he would turn bright red and begin to tremble. The stunted conversation lapsed into an awkward silence, and the others soon realised that he wasn’t much fun to talk with. The mothers of the village fussed over him, bantering between each other.

“Ah sure, isn’t he the cutest pet you ever seen?”

“Ah, he is ‘dat, but he sounds queer wheezy, and ‘dem glasses make his eyes look like saucers, sure I don’t know how he can see through ‘dem at all.”

“well sure, you know his mammy, she’s always one to fuss over the young ‘wans, sure, he probably don’t need ‘dem things at all”

He was one of those children, loved by parents, ignored by his peers. Stuck in a limbo where his only company was the adult world, every other child’s nightmare, but his only option, until that day…

He had just bought a 90 from the ice cream man, and was calmly making his way down the pavement, when some one of the boys, or tomboy girls, hoofed the ball into the air. The ball soared, and then began to plummet, and almost inevitably, made a perfect landing right on top of the freshly made treat. His lip trembled and his eyes slowly welled up, and the sharp pain of disappointment entered his heart, as it always does in more sensitive children. His crying alerted the entire village to his plight, until quite sharply it ceased again.

The children did not believe their little eyes, but what they were seeing was indeed real. There on that old pavement, sitting next to the boy, giving him a soothing cuddle and some free penny sweets, and other goodies was Maggie; her eyes full of concern, far removed from  their usual cold hearted glare.

Bridgie leaned against the frame of the shop door and smiled, obseving the obvious shock and bemusement of the children. One bigger boy, with some trepidation, slowly approached Bridgie, following her gaze to her lifelong friend.

“How come she gave that fella loads of sweets and she doesn’t give me hardly any?” he enquired, with a hint of annoyance. Bridgie’s eyes sparkled and she grinned. “Sure, doesn’t she know exactly how it feels, to be treated differently all your life? You should be nice to that boy, for he’ll always be true as a friend to you, just like she was always true as a friend to me”.

The boys face wrinkled with confusion at first, but over time he adopted the little boy as a friend, an understudy at first, eventually becoming an equal as the boys grew up into men. The small boy stayed small, and even stayed a little fat, but he was jolly and kind, and remained a true friend to the bigger boy forever, always thankful that someone had taken the time to grow to understand him. And every time the men returned to their little village, they would visit the old ladies, and the four would play snap, or 45, to wile away a lazy sunny evening in good company.

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