he did not want my grandma to forget him. One May morning, a picture-postcard of the Commonwealth Building, Pittsburgh, landed on the corner shopâs mat. Though addressed to Miss Annie Nash, it contained no greeting whatsoever, nor any indication of the sender, yet Willieâs silent postcard reads like a declaration of intent.
Turn and Turn-about
L IFE AT THE CORNER SHOP HAD SETTLED INTO A ROUTINE â the family woken by the sound of workmenâs boots striking cobbles on their way to early shifts at pit and foundry; deliveries from butcher, baker and wholesaler; the shunt and exhalation of trains pulling into the branch-line station, and the frequent rumble of passing trucks and coal carts. The rag-and-bone man and knife sharpener cried their wares from the top of the canal bridge, where the muffin man also stopped to ring his bell. A far less appealing sound was the lowing of cattle taking their last desperate stumble up to the slaughterhouse off Brimington High Street.
One of the more attractive sights to be seen from the sweet window was the bunting fluttering around the station for the Coronation of George V, and the neighbourhood parading its Sunday finest (and the power of Betsyâs laundry soap). More entertaining still were the crowds emerging from excursion trains on Race Days, the local station being the closest to the Chesterfield course.
As in years gone by, race-goers were a mixture of pleasure seekers and neâer-do-wells, all parties dressed to the nines. These days,many more revellers travelled by train, and were as likely to be lured by the swing boats, roundabouts and helter-skelter as the actual races. Theirs was a procession to watch. It was well worth kneeling on the box to glimpse the effusive confections some of the women wore on their heads, a profusion of feathers, bows, silk flowers and birds; sometimes, a whole nest. (âIsnât she the bobby dazzler. She must have raided Jenkinsâ window.â)
There was a lot going on at the back door too. The family were seeing more of their neighbours via the house door as well as in the shop. There was always someone calling; if the shop was closed, they came round to the back. There were those who stood on the threshold, others who were invited into the room and a further select few, such as Mrs Graham, the publicanâs wife, and Dickâs friend, colliery foreman Bob Britt, who were asked to sit down and talk.
No such hierarchy existed within the shop itself. Anyone could claim a seat on the box. Mildred Taylor was a frequent visitor. A hefty woman, whose bulk made Betsy fear for the sides of the crate, she walked to the shop via the canalside path and felt sheâd earned a good chat when she got there. Her three sons were pit-pony drivers, whipping their charges along the underground road; a coveted job as well as a dangerous one, seven shillings and sixpence the weekly rate, though her lads did not say as much to her. They were becoming as close as their father, a collier himself, though too old for their daredevil game. Mildredâs was a house full of swagger, the three young drivers as proud and fiery as the ponies they subdued. Looking at them now, it was extraordinary to think sheâd dandled each one on her knee.
For all their bravado, the young men of the neighbourhood were slower than their mothers to linger and talk to Betsy. Oncethey became accustomed to her, however, they were just as happy to stop and chat. Shorter working hours from 1908 meant young colliers had more time to themselves, a chance to kick a can or a football about outside (though, as often as not, their ball was screwed up paper). Some kept ferrets and liked to go ratting â 1d a tail â and describe their successes to Betsy. Slapping their hard-earned pennies on to the counter, theyâd tell her about their day. Those buying cigarettes with their first wage handed over the coins with particular pleasure. Arnie