Most of our village shops had closed gradually over the years having been undercut and replaced by the more competitive supermarkets springing up on retail parks all around the surrounding area. At one time there had been a furniture shop, optician, cobblers, women’s outfitters and an elderly dapper gentleman called Mr Coles owned the sweet shop. I can still vividly recall the sparkling glass counters, polished wood and even now the smell of beeswax and cough candies will transport me back to that sunny little shop with the old bell over the door to alert him to a new customer. The row upon rows of tantalising sweetie jars full of pear drops, toffees, gobstoppers or winter mixture which were ceremoniously removed from the shelf and the tinkling sound they made as they were carefully measured out into the old-fashioned metal weighing scales. I remember being able to be able to buy two ounces of any sweets wrapped in a small triangular paper bag which accommodated my meagre weekly pocket-money. The more expensive and luxurious cellophane wrapped boxes of chocolates, adorned with floral pictures, were kept on the top shelf and no supermarket box to this day has ever been as desirable or as opulent.
In the days long before Health & Safety became paramount, come rain or shine, a huge fluffy ginger tom cat called Duke spent his days sleeping in a padded wicker basket in the corner of the shop stirring only to greet customers especially the children whose legs he would wrap himself around leaving them giggling with delight. A trip to the sweet shop was never the same for me unless I stopped to tickle him under the chin and listen to him purring like my Dad’s old lawnmower. He seldom left the shop although on occasional sunny days he would lie across the doorstep to ensure that he never missed welcoming a patron.
My mother’s birthday was imminent and it was inevitable that I wanted to give her one of Mr Cole’s boxes of chocolates and I reckoned that if I only bought my sweet rations every second week I could save enough with the rest of my pocket-money to buy a small box of chocolate truffles as a birthday present. So determined was I that I ventured into the shop one afternoon after school, my grubby ten-year old fingers counted out my pennies carefully onto the shop counter but Mr Coles said that unfortunately I hadn’t got enough but he could put the chocolates away for me until I did. We agreed that would be the best thing to do and each week I would call into the shop just to check that he still had my box of chocolates and hadn’t sold it to someone else. Of course, now that I’m all grown up I realise that few people would have indulged a young child with a smile, courtesy and endless patience.
Cycling through the village one afternoon after school with my friends I noticed a dirty orange fluffy mound at the side of the road. I stopped to investigate and was surprised to discover that it was Duke who sat trembling in the kerb, terrified of the passing cars, so I propped my bike up against the wall and scooped him up into my arms. He mewed piteously once he recognised a friendly face “It’s alright old fella, I’m taking you home” I reassured him. Duke allowed me to gently place him in the basket on the front of the handlebars of my bike and I was able to guide us both back to the comfort of the little shop with one hand on the handlebars and one gently restraining Duke.
Poor Mr Coles was beside himself with worry when I eventually arrived at the shop but his relief was all too evident when he realised I was returning his companion and it was worth every second of the cautious walk back to the shop. As I left them to enjoy their emotional reunion, Mr Coles hung the closed sign on the door and locked up for the afternoon overwhelmed to have his chum return home safe and well.
A week later as I’d saved enough to pay for the chocolates and I proudly called in with my pennies jingling in my pocket. Mr Coles smiled a greeting whilst disappearing to the stock room as I was reacquainting myself with Duke. He came back with chocolates beautifully wrapped and as I went to count my money onto the counter, he placed his hand across mine and said “Put that away young lady, your money’s no good here today”. Taking the pencil from behind his ear he wrote across the receipt with a flourish “Paid in full with grateful thanks from your friends”.
Of course, the shop has long ago been replaced with a fish & chip shop but the echoes of that one kind act have remained with me throughout my life and whenever I am given a box of chocolates I think of that little shop and my good friends Mr Coles and Duke.