“I hate winter” I said aloud and sighed as I put the key in the rusty lock and turned it. I could get from my car to the door, put the key in, and walk into the dark cold shop with my eyes shut – I had done it so many times, a bit monotonous really. There were some big tree roots which I knew to step over, a prickly bush I steered clear of and then the three steps to climb up to reach the entrance – where I never felt like being initially especially on a cold morning.
Winding my scarf around my neck one more time I switched the light on. Even though it was still dark there could be a customer coming in any time now. I went back outside and lifted the heavy bundle of daily papers from the side of the old building to the front of the shop, my old black woollen gloves taking the weight of the cord that I had my fingers under. When I first started work at the shop I lifted the bundle without gloves on and it cut into my fingers leaving red lines that soon turned purple. I straightened up and flexed my back – sometimes the bundles were heavier because the newspapers were thicker with advertisement supplements and my back twinged at the base. I snipped the thick plastic that covered them with a knife, and placed the ‘honour’ money box up against the big block.
The pie warmer, the latest acquisition for the shop was shiny and big, the old one had been very small with a pulldown door that quite often got stuck half way down – I would give it a sudden yank to free it, and a pie or pasty would flick from the pie warmer onto the floor, annoyingly, and it never warmed anything through thoroughly. I switched it on to heat up and then I went out to the back to the freezer to get the pies, pasties and other fat laden delights to put into it. The back room was quite small and very cluttered. If you needed stock for the shelves, paper for the till, coffee beans for the machine and even toilet rolls, this was the place to come to.
It still surprised me, even after this long working at the shop that people could stomach a pie and sauce for breakfast; with many of the truckies washing it down with a coke. “That will wake me up” they would say. ‘That would make me sick’ I thought. If you waited til eight o’clock you could get an egg and bacon burger but for the early birds the pie would do.
Outside I could hear the birds chortling and calling out to each other that the day had started even though it wasn’t quite light. I loved all the trees that surrounded the shop and when it was quiet later on in the day or just for my break I would sit at the old wooden table on a rickety chair and watch the branches and leaves moving about as I had a cup of coffee. “I think today my break seems like a long way off” I mumbled in a negative tone.
“Oh the coffee machine” I said aloud as I remembered. “I’d better get that on and fill it up with beans. They’ll be coming in soon for a heart starter”. I opened the very large bag of coffee beans and smelt the delicious aroma as I poured some into the top of the machine, like brown pebbles of delight. I knew that if I was on a desert island and could only have two things to eat and drink, it would have to be coffee and bacon sandwiches!
“Dammit” I yelled out loud as the coffee beans started to tumble down the outside of the machine and on to the floor. I opened the top of the large packet wider so it could pour easily into the machine and when it was full, went about sweeping up the beans on the tiled floor. My boss would probably say “Just tip them in, no one will know”…. Eewww disgusting!
Into the pie warmer went the pies, sausage rolls and pasties and I left a space for the egg and bacon burgers which I was about to start making. My fingers were like sticks of ice – I’d taken off my gloves so they wouldn’t get wet when I was rummaging in the freezer but I quickly found them and put them back on before my fingers snapped.
When I first arrived at the shop I had put the small electric heater under the counter to warm up the space I would be occupying later, but it always took ages to make a difference. It was still freezing and I put the kettle on to make a quick up of tea just to warm myself up.
I wasn’t sure which season irked me the most. In Winter it was so cold in the early mornings and took me ages to ‘thaw out and feel happy’ that I often wondered what I was doing working in an icebox of a shop, but in Summer when the intense heat of the sun, signifying a scorcher of a day could be felt early in the morning and all there was for cooling was one overhead fan I also questioned why I didn’t work in an air-conditioned shop? (And then I answered my own question…because I don’t like the hustle or bustle that would come with a big supermarket). It wasn’t just the heat in summer – it was the flies that came back from wherever they had been for winter to find the heat, I hated it. They wouldn’t just fly around, they wanted to get right into your face and especially your eyes, sticking there, irritating and bringing to the surface annoyance so deep that you wondered if you needed anger management.
I took the calico bag of money – the float - out from under the back table. The bag was placed in a metal box when the last person left the shop – just a certain amount remained to start all over again the next morning and the rest was taken to the bank after the close of day. This little town was a safe place to live compared to the bigger cities – on two occasions I not only left the metal box unlocked but the calico bag was just sitting on the counter for anyone who peeped through the window to see. But it was still there when the early morning chortlers ushered me into the shop.
Walking around to the counter I slipped behind it, wanting to warm myself up a bit, but the heater didn’t seem to be working. “Stupid piece of junk” I said to it, really annoyed that it wasn’t warm! “I’m asking Marvin for a new heater when he comes in” I said to no one, and then as I passed by the wall on my way out, noticed that the heater switch wasn’t down! ‘Or maybe I won’t need to talk to Marvin after all!’
The milk truck pulled up outside. The brakes sounded loud and screechy as the driver applied them. I recognised the noise even before I walked outside to see old Tom. The truck he drove was an old Dodge – passed down through the generations, the reason it had lasted this long was because of the care it got. The blue and white cab was gleaming – the shiny silver of the bull bar always sparkled, the big solid tyres were always blackened as if new, and the windows were clean enough to see through! - Unlike my car.
He jumped down from his cab, blowing clouds of frosty air as his warm breath hit the coldness of the morning. A wiry old man, he had been delivering his milk around these parts for many years. Even during the Second World War when Tom was away his wife and family ran their dairy farm and still delivered, although much milk, to at least three places in the area.
“Hello Jess” he called to me in his kind voice.
“Hi there Tom, how are you?” I asked walking towards the truck.
“Cold” he stated rubbing his hands together, although I did wonder why he was wearing a short sleeved top!
“It’s far too cold” I moaned and followed him as he carried the crates of milk into the shop. He never bought anything to eat or drink. He had other deliveries to make and then I’m sure he went home to a big brekky that Mrs. Tom made!
I put the milk away in the fridge, a monotonous and chilly chore, I had to bring the older dated bottles to the front and put the fresh ones at the back, which I actually hated doing some days and felt as if I was playing skittles as the bottle fell down in a straight line! I then turned a milk carte upside down and sat on it just to think about what I needed to do next. Realising that I hadn’t started to cook the bacon I turned the electric frypan on and threw some rashers in. Soon it was spitting and changing colour and the smell was making me hungry.
The bell jingled on the door and turning the pan right down I went to see who it was. “Hi John I greeted him in a friendly manner that I wasn’t quite feeling yet. Then I added, “The usual?” I asked the huge bearded man. He had already picked up a packet of crisps and now he was ordering two pies and a large black coffee.
“Have you much longer to drive?” I asked him, watching him rubbing his eyes sleepily.
“Nah. A couple of hours and I’m done for a few days”.
He paid for his breakfast and was already half way through a hot pie as he climbed into his cab.
‘Oh I couldn’t think of anything worse than driving long distance. (There seemed to be lots of things I wouldn’t want to do this morning!) How on earth do they stay awake?’ I said to myself. ‘But at least they have a heater in the cab!’
The bakery van pulled up outside and the driver helped me lift the loaves of bread and rolls inside. Some of them still felt warm and I was hesitant to let go of them and put them on the counter. The loose loaves smelt delicious, the outside of them hard and crusty - I popped one of them out the back – ‘a big chunk of bread and butter sounds good for breakfast to me I thought’.
The wind was picking up outside and the back door mustn’t have been shut properly as it began to bang, getting louder each time. I went through the shop to close it, and saw that a pile of paper bags I had stacked just inside the door had been knocked or blown over. I slammed the door shut in annoyance and began picking up the brown square bags – they were everywhere and it took ages. By the time I had finished I had warmed up a bit but my fingers were still freezing.
This morning seemed to have been fraught with mishaps and accidents and I felt irritated, partly because I was cold. I wished I was still snuggled down under my blankets in bed! But my daydream was soon interrupted by the shop bell ringing and someone walking inside.
“Hello love” old Mr. Phillips said to me as he picked up a bag of fresh rolls and a bottle of milk. “My cousin’s son won a lottery the other day - $2mil. That’ll set him up for life. He’s only young, lucky eh?”
Being irritated I wanted to say “I wish I could win something, enough to leave this job and travel the world, fat chance of that though. I’ve not won a thing in my life!” But instead I found my nice side and told him that I hoped his cousin’s son had a wonderful life with his winnings!
The shop was busy, the egg and bacon burgers, bought by mostly truck drivers were all sold out, I’d had to refill the coffee beans again and the pie warmer was almost empty! And my legs ached!
As I sat under the huge oak tree at lunch time eating another big piece of bread and butter and lemon curd spread washed down by a creamy coffee, I admonished myself for being such a misery for most of the morning. I watched a bird flitting about, in the dappled light coming through the branches and felt my tired shoulders being warmed by a winter sun. I began to relax and feel sleepy.
I recalled Mrs. Leinster coming into the shop earlier and telling me about her son, bringing up three children on his own because his wife had died from cancer eight months ago, who had just lost his job at the wood chip mill. “He was lucky because they kept him on til the end” she told me. “But I’m not sure where he’ll get another job around here, not with the three little ones. And as she was leaving she reached into her bag and pulled out a jar of homemade lemon curd for me “I almost forgot to give you this darling” and she kindly passed it to me.
I thought about the young man who came in to buy some bread and didn’t have enough money to pay for it, promising me he would come in at the end of the week when he had his next pay check to give me the $5 he owed. I knew he was good for it as he lived not far from me, but just couldn’t always stretch his meagre pay cheque. (I told him I would put the $5 in for him and he almost kissed me!). He suddenly felt the need to tell me about his sister who had just lost a baby at thirty weeks so I took a bunch of flowers out of the bucket of water and told him to give them to her and I would pay.
Johnny Linden came in – shaking and stuttering as usual because of the PTSD he was inflicted with from the war of long ago. He began using a walking stick at the age of 45 and was now in a wheelchair twenty years on, but he still had a smile on his face and a joke to tell.
Tomorrow there would be more people coming in with sad tales or hardship, but not all sounded miserable even when down on their luck. A lot of these people were tough and just grateful for what they did have. They were tough and got on with life.
It made me realise that I was one of the lucky ones. I hadn’t been in a war. I’d not lost a husband to cancer. I hadn’t lost a baby that had been growing inside of me for thirty weeks, a living breathing part of me, gone suddenly for no apparent reason. All I had to moan about at the moment was feeling cold and picking up spilt food and paper bags – nothing really. I felt a bit ashamed of myself for being ungrateful for my lot.
I put my paper bag in the bin near me, picked up my empty coffee mug, and looking around at the beautiful greenery I heard a couple of old ladies laughing while coming out of the shop, and I realised
just how lucky I was.