Copyright is held by the author.
THE LONG, THICK BULLETS beyond her reach are tauntingly exotic: dark brown-glossy-topped, the tawny sandwich and, best of all, the cream. Chocolate éclairs. Fourpence each.
Sayers is a foreign country with its navy blue wood frames and door, its vast clean plate-glass window. Her mother will not buy shop cakes. She bakes only Madeira, fruit cake or plain buns.
Maria is in Class 4 and scoots home from school on Monday. Fingers the 12 sides and satisfying grille-ridges of the threepenny bit — a whole week’s pocket money. She dawdles — that’s what her mum calls it, wasting time, idling, loitering, no worthwhile purpose — on the pavement, outside the shop. I love chocolate éclairs. I never have fourpence. I can’t buy one. Mrs Cahill, a neighbour from three doors up, steps into the street and scowls at Maria’s puffed cheeks and lips forcing out a breath.
Walking homewards, Maria takes no interest in the greengrocer’s, the chandler’s, or even the tins of bread at the baker’s: the familiar map of her daily journey back from school. Immediately before the corner, opposite the Carlton cinema, is Mr. Jenkinson’s sweet shop. Maria tolerates Mr. Jenkinson’s regular welcome — “Come to your second home again?” — a benevolent, secure memory in years ahead. Business-like, she chooses from farthing blackjacks, ha’penny stickelite,* tuppenny liquorice (or Spanish — her friend Joan says that it is different), sherbet lemon. Parma violets is what the girls buy, but today she buys a liquorice, leaving another penny for the forbidden gobstopper machine outside. She crams the illicit ball into one cheek, swollen like an acute abscess. Legs dangling on a garden wall in the street next to her own she lingers until it is the size of pea so that by the time she arrives home it will have disappeared. Her mother need never know.
Tuesday. Her friend Margaret from Class 3 lives on Victoria Avenue so they both walk, play hide-and-seek, then dash that route home together. They fix up swaps of Famous Five books before Margaret’s mum lets them have sandwiches on a tray in what they call the children’s room.
Cold drizzle on Wednesday. Maria dodges the large drops of rain from the high roof above the shop. The neatly stacked pile of a dozen chocolate éclairs ooze disdain for her now empty pocket.
Always, on the Sunday trip to her nana’s, a single chocolate éclair is served up on the stemmed glass plate brought in after the sandwiches. However ‘manners’ dictate that you cannot just grab the cake you want so, often, her cousins, or her aunt, or her older brother get the éclair as the cakes are passed round the table. The worst thing is when she is left with the cream cornet — paper dry, it clogs in your mouth. Once, though, the prize was hers: sugary brown icing hitting her palette first, cream slopping on to the plate leaving her with the pastry shell. She quickly mopped up what she could of the cream with a finger hoping no one was looking her way and held it in her mouth to savour the velvety lushness. Her uncle asked her whether she would like anything passing — another sandwich perhaps? Maria quickly swallowed — No thank you.
Thursday. Sick in the night. She stands on the lino shivering while the sheets are changed. Mum takes her temperature. In the morning no school, just tucked up in bed. Once in a while her mother comes upstairs and offers the Lucozade, in a glass left on the chest of drawers. In the afternoon she is allowed out of bed to put Judy in the cardboard box that mimics a bed, smooth the layer of cloth and suiting remnants that act as her blankets. On the rag rug she sits with legs slanted to one side. The coke fire shifts and rasps, and warms her back. Her deft fingers ensure the blankets do not cover Judy’s plastic face, blue, blue eyes, long lashes, and eyelids that open and close with a ‘click.’
Friday. Good Friday. It’s called that because the weather is always fine, Maria has decided. All morning she reads her Beano Annual. As an after-sickness temptation Mum has cooked pork sausage and beans for lunch. Maria eats it all, and the bowl of tinned oranges and thin creamy evap,* which follow.
After lunch, in clear warm sunshine, she joins the six other children in the street to play cricket. Both teams want her as batsman as she can be relied on to hit a six into someone’s garden. When there is no interest left in playing there is still time before tea so she tears round two street corners to Sayers. The dainty displays are no longer there. A large, sun-paled, beige blind is drawn behind the window. As if to confirm the truth, another blind covers the glass panel of the locked door. Her eyes burn but she stops the tears by pressing her back into the window and looking up towards the sunlit slate roofs opposite.
Saturday. Mum puts her boiled egg in the egg cup, and a buttered slice of toast on the side of the plate. It is a Saturday breakfast treat instead of cornflakes.
With her teaspoon Maria makes a ragged circular cut around the top, lays it upside down, scoops out the white and small orb of yolk. Raising it to her mouth she hears her mother say, “You’ll be nine tomorrow so you can have sixpence pocket money from now on.”
* Liverpool, England dialect words:
stickelite = stick of liquorice root
evap = evaporated milk from a tin