When I was a young boy, I would often run errands for my mother, and occasionally the neighbours, to the corner shop at the top of our street. When requisitioned for such a trip, I would be given the usual briefing to hold on tight to the money, and I would demonstrate my co-operation with this request by clamping my little fist around the coinage that was entrusted to my care. The Pony Express had nothing on me.
These trips usually came with a reward attached so I took them up eagerly, but others on the street did not share my enthusiasm to earn. Some boys shunned the prospect of a reward, which might have brought the wherewithal to buy a couple of Football Chums at least, or a bag of Treets at best (toffee ones please). These ruffians got a bigger kick from demonstrating their finely honed skills in back-answering. The housewife’s appeal for an errand runner would be met with a shout of “Go yourself; you’ve got legs haven’t you?” I was always happy to take up this reward-laden slack.
If my mother, or any other sender, only required a few things from the shop, I would trust them to memory by repeating a mantra made up of the items I was to buy. As I walked to the shop, I would repeat “milk, eggs, tea and tabs”, or whatever other chant was called for, all the way. In case you don’t know, tabs are cigarettes and these, usually five Player’s, were often on the list. Tobacco products would be handed over to children without question back in those carefree, but not smoke-free, days when cigarettes were advertised on TV. Attitudes towards smoking back then were so relaxed that even the Flintsones appeared in a TV commercial for a popular brand of cigarette. Other tobacco ads from that era included a brand that you should smoke “for your throat’s sake”, and another, rather authorative advert informed us that more doctors smoke Camel than any other brand.
The chanting of the shopping list mantra must have been a common practice among errand runners. I remember a TV advert at the time in which a boy on his way to the shop repeated “Plumrose chopped ham and pork” over and over so that he wouldn’t forget. When he arrived at the shop, puffing and panting, and the shopkeeper asked him what he wanted, he blurted out “Plumrose plopped ham and chalk”.
For some errands, however, an air of mystery entered proceedings. Sometimes I would be sent to the shop with only a hand-written note and no money. I puzzled over how it was possible to obtain goods without any cash transaction taking place. Yet, it worked every time; I handed over the note, and the shopkeeper obligingly fetched the goods that were listed. I wondered if the note was some sort of secret code that said I had a gun and I’d use it if my demands were not met.
Of course, those cash-free purchases were all obtained on tick; that is on credit until my dad, or those at my neighbours’ homes, got paid on a Thursday. Most people were paid weekly back then, and so many housewives started up tick accounts to tide them over till the breadwinner brought home the bacon (and bacon sandwiches were had).
One weekday my grandmother, who lived only a few doors from us, was looking after me while my mother was out and my elder brother was at school. My brother came to Gran’s for his lunch and pretty soon after this my mother arrived too. As my brother was up against the clock, my mother gave him a pork pie for convenience. My mouth watered at the sight of him eating the pie, and I told my mother that I wanted one too. She said that she had only bought him one because he had to get back to school, and I would get a sandwich later.
I went into a deep strop about this, but then I hatched a plot that would see me tucking into golden pastry yet! I decided to write my own note and hand it in at the shop, just as I had done many times for others. I didn’t know if it would work, but I was going to have a go at getting my fingers into the pie – literally.
Having sneaked into the bedroom with a pencil and a scrap of paper, I wrote a note in my barely literate hand and then I sneaked off to the shop. I was well known to the shopkeeper and her daughter, having been a regular customer for some time – not least for the delicious blackcurrant penny ice lollies that were available. The shopkeeper’s daughter, Eileen, was very friendly, and I felt no anxiety when she was serving. I remember when we got a puppy and I had been dispatched to buy its first tin of Pal, she said, “But you don’t have a dog,” inviting me to enthuse that we did indeed have a dog now, a puppy called Sham. On the day of my pork pie scam, I was relieved to see that Eileen was serving.
I handed her the note, and as she opened it I watched her reaction closely. She let out a chuckle and then asked who had sent me with the note.
“My mam,” I said.
“And what does it say?”
She smiled and refolded the note, then handed it back to me.
“Tell your mam she hasn’t spelled it properly,” she said, and I carried the note, and my little broken heart, out of the shop.