I was serving Mrs Gardiner and I didn’t notice the children come in.
Mrs G, as she is referred to in our small community, demands my full attention when she’s in the shop. She has a finger in every pie and without her the Country Women, the progress association, and the P&C would collapse.
As I moved quickly gathering items from the list in my hand, I saw them waiting patiently, close to the end of the display cabinet. The little boy, the top of whose tousled head could just be seen over the counter, had his eyes fixed on the lolly jars. The girl, about two years older, was following my every move as I put the items in my customer’s basket.
Her brown pigtails had been plaited painfully tight and looked somehow in keeping with her faded dress which would soon be too small. A couple of stringbags were slung over her shoulder.
Finally, I was able to turn my attention to the children.
“And what can I do for you today, Sir and Madam?” I asked with a small bow.
The hint of a smile touched her lips as the girl solemnly handed me the note she was clutching. I was reminded momentarily of her mother, and the old regret passed through me.
“Well, she chose him.” I mentally berated myself for my vengeful thought. “I suppose it wasn’t Hugh’s fault the sawmill closed.”
I smoothed out the paper the girl had given me and noted the items. I weighed the potatoes, sugar, flour; took a few things from the shelves and assembled them all on the counter. The children watched, wide-eyed and grave.
Then I took down the account book from a shelf and opened it. For the sake of the kids I tried not to frown at the tally already recorded there.
“They’re the ones who are suffering because their father’s out of work. And she, also. Why can I not put her out of my mind? But it won’t do the town any good if I also go under, will it?”
I pushed to one side some of the goods assembled before me – half a pound of dried apricots, custard powder, one pound of broken biscuits – and as I wrote, looked up at the children.
“What have you been doing to yourself, champ?” The little chap had a large piece of sticking plaster partly concealed by the uneven fringe of his hair and instinctively put his hand to his forehead and touched the plaster.
The girl immediately brushed his hand down.
“Billy, Mum said to keep it covered. You don’t want to get germs in it.”
She turned to me. “Fell out of the mango tree,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper. I winced and gave a low whistle. “Must have hurt?”
Billy nodded and pulled up the sleeve of his shirt and turned his shoulder towards me. I leaned over the counter to examine the scar on the soft white skin.
“That’s where he fell down the back steps and landed on the corner of the cement,” the little girl confided. “He’s rather accident prone.”
“I can see that. Did you cry?”
Billy turned to his sister. “Just a bit,” she said.
I held out my hand for the stringbags.
“I don’t know who will look after him next year when I go back to school. It’s my birthday today and I’m six. I’ll be in Grade Two after the holidays. Mum’s going to make my favourite for tea – stewed apricots and custard.”
I looked at the three items I’d pushed to the side and packed them in the bags with the other groceries.
“Well, happy birthday,” I said, and went round the counter to help settle the bags on the small, bony shoulders.
“Silly old fool,” I told myself. “Wait a minute.”
I took two red and white bullseyes from the jar and presented one to each of the children.
“Thank you,” they said in unison and turned to go. The little girl put hers in her mouth and her cheek bulged around the lolly. Billy carefully licked his as his sister reached and took his free hand.
“You forgot to tell him about the time I nearly stood on the snake,” he said.
“You’d better put that in your mouth or you’ll be getting all sticky,” his sister said.
I put the account book back on the shelf and sighed.
“Next time they come in I must remember to bring the conversation round to snakes.”