Once upon a time you could do yourself well on two shillings’ worth (twenty cents) pocket money. Once a week at least, four clinkers, one musk stick, two sherbet bombs and a Choo Choo bar (5 cents the lot) bulged satisfactorily in the white paper bag crammed in in my school uniform pocket. Mrs Williams handed it over the counter and asked me about school. She knew about my best subjects my worst subjects and my marks. ‘And how is your mother?’
Fine, I’d say, ‘Give her my regards.’ I’d answer that I would and eye the highly polished chrome milkshake maker and the neat rows of chocolate, caramel and strawberry bottles next to it. It was tempting, but a malted milkshake was out of my league. It would take two thirds of my remaining stash. Fifteen cents needed to last me for three serves of Four-and-Twenty pies or fish and chips on the way home from school.
Mrs Williams generally donated an extra clinker that I’d have for dessert with the pie and an extra chip or two came from Mr Kosta, the fish and chips man who said I reminded him of his niece. Everyone waved hello as I passed by on my way home, even the butcher who I think fancied mum. They talked about the state of the weather the garden and politics and he’d slip her an extra lamb chop now and again and some bones for our dog. Actually, it wasn’t so much that he fancied mum, more that he liked his regulars and knew how to treat them. There was the daily danger that one of them would blow the whistle to my mother who couldn’t understand why I was never hungry at dinner time.
But my secret is safe now: suburban shopping strips are popping out of existence faster than you can say will that be Eftpos sir? Supermarket Aisles are miles wide and cluttered with every conceivable product. Meat sits hygienically on a bed of anti-oxidant, neatly labelled and plasti-wrapped. It takes days to choose one out of fifty cereals, cheeses and frozen foods. I’m hoping that one day supermarkets will sell furniture so that a person can have a rest between decisions.
I’ll have to get used to shopping under one convenient roof: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker have left town. They’ve gone to Battler’s Heaven. Our local bank is now a tanning lunge, the butcher sells violins (he couldn’t justify replacing his freezer on the occasional promise of a pork chop sale. Two fruiterers have retired defeated and Bails the independent grog retailer sold his business at a loss last year. He’s hauling creates for the competition. Bails blames it on the price cutting wars of the larger retail shops.
You can see the occasional milk bar but you have to know what you’re looking for. They can’t cope, either, with the world of deregulation, competition and big business. Whatever they are selling you can buy elsewhere and cheaper. Some of them are unaccountably but grimly hanging on an anachronism the 21st Century.
Bernadette (Berne) and Ray have hung on longer than most. ‘Forty two years next July. Because he won’t retire…he’s a workaholic.’ Berne’s hair is a gently waved and tinted lavender and she speaks in the gentle sing-song voice of forty two years of service. Her daughter calls her ‘the psychologist.’
‘People like to confide in you. They tell you things and ask your advice on things, you know? Whether they take it or not, you don’t know.’
I’m delighted with Ray and Berne. They’re selling clinkers, sherbet bombs and Choo Choo bars to those on a fixed budget, even if my teeth are not up to gnawing on adamantine liquorice Choo Choo bars these days. The shop is geared to tempt and bombard the chocoholic senses. A mahogany counter is crammed with German Marzipan bars, Italian chocolates and American jelly-beans and the back walls an artistic triumph of boxed boutique chocolates. Chocolates are Berne and Ray’s trump card in their war against convenience stores across the road the supermarkets down the street to the left and right of them.
They are convinced that the rot set in when the milk licence was phased out for the supermarkets when they arrived in the sixties. ‘There was profit for everyone before that.’ Berne remembers two butchers ‘in our street’ and one around the corner. Not everyone had cars and women would arrive permed and lipsticked with a basket under their arm to do their Friday shopping.
Berne and Ray are there seven days a week, no time off for good behaviour. It gives people a sense of continuity. Except for their son’s wedding.
‘The day he was married, we had somebody else in the shop. And according to him, and I can understand it, everybody who came in said ‘what’s wrong where are they?’ And one fellow said to me, the next day, ‘well he (the assistant was smiling so I knew there wasn’t anything too tragic.’
You see, they just miss you.’
I, too, miss Berne and Ray. Berne has finally retired, two months short of the anniversary. She slipped in the line of duty and broke her hp. The new owners don’t sell Choo Choo bars.