I was reminiscing the other day almost by accident. It’s funny how a word or a phrase, can instantly draw you to another time and place. It was a dropped word that kicked it all off. On my way out to the local mini-market, I said that I was “Goin’ the shops.” Joanna started to slag me for dipping into my childhood vocabulary with such ease. Growing up in my neck of the woods, we tended to drop the word ‘to’ quite often, something I no longer do, but in that moment for whatever reason I dropped it without even noticing.
“I’m goin’ de toilet” or I’m goin’ de shops” were simply the way things were said and essentially part of my childhood dialect and accent. Though I pompously like to imagine myself as a man of the world, I really am just a Dub at heart, a little boy from Dublin in a grown up body. Such little colloquialisms went unnoticed in my young brain, and a part of me pulls one out quite unexpectedly, every now and then.
Laughing about my slip to the past, I started to explain and thus I began my little trip. Goin’ de shops to get de messages, was something that happened far more frequently back then, than it does today. My mother or ‘Me Ma’ as I would have said, (Pronounced Maah not Maw) didn’t have the luxury that many women today have. While we did have a car, that was my father’s car, for his use only. She didn’t drive and the notion that he might actually drive her to the shops on his day off, was about as ridiculous a thing as either of them could imagine.
We had no local supermarket for many years when I was small. Eventually they started to appear, an import from foreign places where people had far more money and less sense than we did. The earliest version I recall was one called ‘The Elephant’ and then there was ‘Powers’ which I loved of course because of the name, but they were hardly supermarkets as we know them today. The inevitable invasion of supermarkets began in more affluent areas, but even in our little working class corner of the world, they began to creep in as I grew older, to eventually eradicate many of the small local shops. They had strange names like ‘3 Guys’ and ‘Gubays’ and then there was ‘Pat Quinn’s’ and eventually Quinnsworth. Nowadays we have the multinationals, Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and the like, but for me as a small boy, goin’ de shops meant a trip to the butcher, the baker and the green grocer.
For the most part, my mother did the shopping by herself. She took it very seriously and knew not just the price, but the value of everything. Sometimes she’d drag one or more of us along and I’d spend half my time tugging on her coat going, “Ma…Ma….Ma…” when she stopped to chat to some auld-one about whatever Mas talked about. I really couldn’t have cared less. They could talk for ages and it drove me nuts, standing there in the cold bored off my face.
It was a stop and chat procedure, that could happen five or six times in the space of two hundred yards, and then we’d have to face the gauntlet of auld-one chat on the way back again! Having no real supermarket; and she wouldn’t have trusted them anyway, my mother would make several trips to the shops every day except Sunday. The shops were all closed on Sunday back then, save the local newsagent. She couldn’t carry everything at once and everything had to be fresh. Milk came to the door, but bread was bought fresh in the morning, a bit later in the day meat from the butchers and in the afternoon, she might go to buy some veg for dinner. Different times indeed. But sometimes, only sometimes mind when the pressure was on, she’d make the mistake of sending me as her envoy.
I hated going to the shops for me Ma, especially to the butchers. She could never just ask me to get one thing and there was always the complication of some additional, overly prescriptive option, that had to be adhered to precisely. To be fair, I was sent to the shops when I was still a tiddler, no bigger than big enough not to be taken by a big gust of wind. All that was in my head was being a cowboy or a commando. I was lucky by the time I got to the end of our path, if I hadn’t already got distracted enough by the injuns on the roof of the pub across from our house, to forget where I was going, let alone remember what I had to get.
“Half a pound of rashers. Lean back, don’t let him give you streaky. A pound of his best lean, round mince, and a half a pound of pork sausages.”
For the love of God! I’d barely get Rashers, mince and sausages. She be lucky if I came back with one of the three, without her turning the order into the vagina monologues! She was immersing me into political theatre. Sometimes she’d say,
“Oh and I need corned beef for your Da on Sunday. Tell them it’s for me… silverside.”
Ok, I don’t know if you’re getting the whole picture, but I’ll explain. First, she’d get me to repeat it back to her, so she felt confident that I’d remember. I doubt she ever was, because it would take me several goes to get it right. Out I’d go with the money in my pocket, with a detailed estimate of what everything should cost and under strict instructions to count my change and make sure I brought it all back. I’d walk the railings, jump over the gate, and then cower down to avoid the first arrows flying in from high above in the canyon. ‘Pesky varmints!’
By the time I’d made it to the butchers, and before I forget, we had more than one butchers locally, each one offering differing quality depending on what you were after. So me Ma in her wisdom, could easily tell me to get half the order in one butchers and the other half in another.
“Go to Payne’s for the sausages, but get the rest in Mc Loughlins” she’d say. I mean seriously, I had Comanche on my tail! I’d get to Payne’s as that was the furthest and try and remember what she wanted. There I’d queue up behind a line of women wearing scarves, all towering above me, some occasionally offering me platitudes or tussling my hair. (I was cute, what can I say.) I’d trace out shapes in the sawdust with my foot and always be surprised when the butcher would call me for the third time.
“Earth to skinny arse- come in?”
What the…sausages- Payne’s for sausages – but how much?
“Eh sausages please.”
“Pound? Half pound?” his questions worked as a prompt.
“Half Pound…Please.” I was always polite.
“Which ones Skinny Malink”
I’d sart singing the song in my head ‘Skinny Malink Malogeon legs, umberella feet...’
I was damned if I could remember, so I’d shrug.
“What are they for? A fry? A stew? Did your Ma write it down?”
He’d start to pick them ‘…went to the pictures and couldn’t get a seat, when the pictures started, Skinny Malink Farted …’
And so it went, then on to the second butchers, by which stage I could barely remember my name. Chastened by the embarrassment of forgetting one thing, trying to remember mince, rashers and corned beef, not to mention the specifics was always a challenge. Rashers were easy for some reason, lean back stuck with me, largely from the time the butcher asked me on a previous occasion “what type?” When I answered “lean back” he leaned back and said “what type” laughing as though he’d never told that joke before.
I’d get some version of mince and when I ordered the corned beef I remember saying what my mother had told me. “… and some corned beef please…silverside …” followed by “It’s for me Ma.” I said it because she told me to tell him, even though it made no sense to me at the time. How would he know who me Ma was?
But back then, the butcher knew my mother of course and he would have recognised me as her son. They knew all of their customers, most by name and by their preferences. They’d know what each woman’s husband liked and who could afford a big cut or a small cut. They recognised the nonverbal clues as to when someone was counting their pennies and would adjust their pitch to suit.
My, how things have changed. It’s funny how I hated goin’ de shops back then, yet I have fond memories of that time and place, as vivid and as real as if they were only yesterday. They are conjured up with just the drop of one word. I could tell you a rather bizarre story about going to buy sweets in the local chipper, or fags for me Da in Dirty Aggies, but that’s another story… and I’m not sure you’d really want to know about Dirty Aggie…
Haven’t read a Max Power book yet? I think it’s time to pick one up.
Max Power’s books include, Darkly Wood, Darkly Wood II The woman who never wore shoes, Larry Flynn, Bad Blood and Little Big Boy
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