Northern Lights – Episode 10

The young grocer stood behind the counter, immaculate in white apron, black waistcoat and striped shirt, transported by the vision.

Being close to closing time, the shop was devoid of customers. For once he could stand and stare to his heart’s content.

“It’s not seemly, a woman washing shop windows!”

He jumped at his older sister Beatrice’s voice.

“I can’t see the harm,” he remarked mildly.

“You wouldn’t, since you employed her in Tam McGregor’s stead.”

“She needed to support the family when her father drowned. Boozy Tam just swills it away i’ the pub.”

“But you pay her sixpence for the work. We’re not a charitable institution,” his sister said.

He shrugged, weary of the argument.

“It’s once a week; it won’t send us to the workhouse.”

“If Napoleon has his way that’s where we’ll end up! The man swears we’re a nation o’ shopkeepers and makes sure we pay dearly for the goods we sell.”

Unaware of dissent within the shop, Maggie examined the finished window and glass door panel minutely for smears. Satisfied, she opened the shop door. A mingled aroma of cheese, ham and spices made her weak with hunger.

“I’m done, Mr Cameron.” She stood with red hands folded, eyes downcast.

The grocer had a friendly smile for her, but not so Miss Beatrice, his sister.

Maggie remembered old Mr and Mrs Cameron running the store, with Samuel and his older sister as young shop assistants.

When the father died their mother was brought low with grief and remained a reclusive invalid in the living quarters above the shop.

Samuel Cameron took command of the business and it was rumoured Miss Beatrice had refused an offer of marriage, to care for their invalid mother. She was now a thirty-five-year-old spinster.

It was sad, Maggie felt.

The grocer came forward with the sixpence. He also gave her a small package.

He smiled.

“It’s cold outside, Maggie. This’ll warm ye.”

She slipped the gift into her apron, muttered thanks, bobbed a curtsey and escaped out the door.

“What did ye give her?” Beatrice demanded.

“Only a packet of tea. Her father was fond of a brew, God rest him.”

“The likes of her can’t afford tea!” his sister protested.

He reddened angrily.

“Her fingers were red and swollen with chilblains. I’ll not stand by and see the lass chilled to the bone for want of a hot drink.”

Beatrice pursed her lips.

*  *  *  *

Maggie set off for home at the run, her heart light.

Tea! She was sure of it. She recognised the packet Mama and Papa had bought years ago to celebrate when the fishing was good.

The dark leaves were always brewed in the teapot belonging to the tea set Papa had bought for Mama from the pawnshop. Then the whole family would enjoy a cup of dark golden liquid, flavoured with milk and honey.

Afterwards, Mama would gaze into the empty teacups and pretend to see mystic patterns formed in the tea leaves, promising a glorious happy future for them all.

By the time she reached her front door, Maggie’s cheeks were wet with tears.

The room was blissfully warm, the beef pot simmering gently on the hob filling the air with flavour. Maggie’s chest swelled with pride. She had mastered the fire!

Then her gaze alighted upon her grandmother. The old woman sat in the chair by the fire, chin resting on her chest, sound asleep.

Indignation rose in Maggie’s chest like bitter gall as she realised their grandmother’s cunning plan. The woman had managed to inveigle a way into their house and now intended to live idly while her grandchildren slaved to set food on the table and keep a roof over her head.

Their grandmother’s crafty ploy had nearly succeeded, for attitudes had softened recently. Even Maggie welcomed her grandmother’s encouragement while learning to set the fire and felt a warm glow of pride when praised.

It was comforting to come home after a hard day’s work to find the lamps lit and a living presence in the house. She had even secretly considered asking the old woman to stay.

Till this revealing moment. Maggie was freezing, clothes damp and dirty, knees aching with kneeling on hard stone, fingers throbbing with chilblains.

To return home to find her grandmother warmly installed by the fire, fast asleep and snoring, added insult to all Maggie’s injuries.

Deliberately, she slammed the outer door shut with a crash that resounded like thunder through the quiet house.

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!