Issue 110, Spring 1989
When the new shopkeeper arrived in the village he aroused great curiosity along with some scorn. He was deemed refined because his fingernails looked as if they had been varnished a tinted ivory. He had a horse, or as my father was quick to point out, a glorified pony, which he had brought from the Midlands, where he had previously worked. The pony was called Daisy, a name unheard of in our circles, for an animal. The shopkeeper wore a long black coat, a black hat, talked in a low voice, made his own jams and marmalades and could even darn and sew. All that we came to know of, in due course, but at first we only knew him as Barry. In time the shop would have his name, printed in beautiful silver sloping script, above the door. He had bought the long-disused bakery, had all the ovens thrown out and turned it into a palace which not only had gadgets, but gadgets that worked, a lethal slicer for the ham, a new kind of weighing scale that did not require iron weights hefted onto one side, but that simply registered the weight of a bag of meal and told it by a needle that spun round, wobbling dementedly before coming to a stand-still. Even farmers praised its miraculous skills. He also had a meat safe with a grey gauze door, a safe in which creams and cheeses could be kept fresh for an age, free of the scourge of flies or gnats.
Straight away he started to do great business as the people reneged on the shops where they had dealt for years and where many of them owed money. They flocked, to look at him, to hear his well-mannered voice and to admire dainties and things that he had in stock. He had ten different flavored jellies and more than one brand of coffee. The women especially liked him. He leant over the counter, discussed things with them, their headaches, their knitting, patterns for suits or dresses that they might make, and along with that he kept an open tin of biscuits so that they could have them if they felt peckish. The particular favorite was a tiny round biscuit, like a holy communion wafer with a thin skin of rice paper as a lining. These were such favorites that Barry would have to put his hand down beneath the ruffs of ink paper and ferret up a few from the bottom. The rice paper did not taste like paper at all but a disc of some magical metamorphosed sugar. Besides the favorite biscuit, there were others, a sandwich of ginger filled with a soft white filling that was as sturdy as putty, and another in which there was a blend of raspberry and custard, a combination that engendered such ecstasy that one was torn between the pleasure of devouring it or tasting each grain slowly so as to isolate the raspberry from the custard flavor. There were also arrowroot and digestives but these were the last to be eaten. He called the biscuits bikkies and cigarettes ciggies. He was not such a favorite with the men, both because he raved to the women and because he voiced the notion of bringing drama to the town. He said that he would find a drama that would embody the talents of the people and that he would direct and produce it himself. Constantly he was casting people and although none of us knew precisely what he meant, we would agree when he said, “Rosalind, a born Rosalind,” or, “Cordelia, if ever I met one.” He did not, however, intend to do Shakespeare as he feared that, being untrained, the people would not be able to get their tongues around the rhyming verse and would not feel at home in bulky costumes. He would choose something more suitable, something that people could identify with. Every time he went to the city to buy stock, he also bought one or two plays and if there was a slack moment in the shop he would read a speech or even a whole scene, he himself acting the parts, the men’s and the women’s. He was very convincing when he acted the women or the young girls. One play was about a young girl who saw a dead seagull and in seeing it, her tragedy was predestined. She was crossed in love, had an illegitimate child and drove a young man to suicide. Another time he read scenes about two very unhappy people in Scandinavia who scalded each other, daily, with accusation and counter-accusation, and to buoy himself up, the man did a frenzied dance. Barry did the dance, too, jumping on and off the weighing scales or even onto the counter when he got carried away. He used to ask me to stay on after the shop closed simply because I was as besotted as he was by these exotic and tormented characters. It was biscuits, sweets, lemonade, anything. Yet something in me flinched, foresaw trouble. The locals were suspicious, they did not want plays about dead birds and illegitimate children, or unhappy couples tearing at each other, because they had these scenarios aplenty. Barry decided, wisely, to do a play that would be more heartening, a simple play about wholesome people and wholesome themes, such as getting the harvest in safely. I was always privy to each new decision, partly because of my mania for the plays and partly because I had to tell him how his pony was doing. The pony grazed with us and consequently we were given quite a lot of credit. I shall never forget my mother announcing this good news to me, flushed with pride, almost suave as she said, “If ever you have the hungry grass on the way from school, just go into Barry and say you feel like a titbit.” In telling me this so casually, I saw how dearly she would have loved to have been rich, to entertain, to give lunch parties and supper parties, to show off the linen tablecloths and the good cutlery which she had vaselined over the years to keep the steel from rusting. In these imaginary galas she brandished the two silver salvers, the biscuit barrel and the dinner plates with their bouquets of violets in the center and scalloped edging that looked like crochet work. We had been richer but over the years the money got squandered. Barry liked us and was even a favorite with my mother, to whom he did not talk about dramas, but about the ornaments in our house, commenting on her good taste. It was the happiest half year in my life, being able to linger in Barry’s shop and while he was busy read some of these plays and act them silently inside my head. With the customers all gone, I would sit on the counter, swing my legs, gorge biscuits and discuss both the stories and the characters. Barry in his white shop coat and with a sharpened pencil in his hand would make notes of the things we said. He would discuss the scenery, the lights, the intonation of each line, and when an actor should hesitate or then again when an actor should let rip. Barry said it was a question of contrast; of nuance versus verve. I stayed until dark, until the moon came up or the first star. He walked home but he did not try to kiss one or put his hand on the tickly part at the back of the knee, the way other men did, even the teacher’s first cousin who pretended he wasn’t doing it, when he was. Barry was as pure as a young priest and like a priest had pale skin with down on it. His only blemish was his thinning hair and the top of his head was like an egg, with big wisps, which I did not like to look at.