Northern Lights – Episode 15

As the days passed, relations fluctuated between Lilias and Maggie. Lilias was making valiant efforts to keep her lip buttoned when disagreement with her granddaughter threatened.

Take shopping. Before breakfast one morning the scoop scraped the bottom of the oatmeal kist and Lilias frowned.

“We’re near out o’ meal, Maggie. I’ll awa’ to the mill for more.”

“No need. Get it frae the grocer.”

“The mill’s cheaper!”

“The mill’s a fair step away. The grocer’s just round the corner.”

“Shouldn’t we be saving pennies?” Lilias protested.

Maggie’s eyes darkened.

“It’s our pennies and our time ye waste spending them, Grandmother. Time’s as precious to us as pennies.”

Lilias was shocked. She had always looked after the pennies. Besides, she felt a shop’s sole purpose in life was to squeeze profits out o’ customers.

Lilias had rarely used shops. She and her husband had taken steps to be self-sufficient. Their Auchmithie cottage had a garden stocked with vegetables and fruit. There were plenty fish in the sea and game on the moor.

The farmer bartered meat, eggs and milk for herring, salmon and lobsters. Berries grew wild in season in the hedgerow, free for the picking. Who needed shops?

She opened her mouth to say so, then met her granddaughter’s icy glare.

“Aye, well, the grocer it is, then, Maggie.”

“I’ll make out a list, Grandmother. There’s money in the barrel.”

After the grandchildren left for work Lilias sat at the table to study Maggie’s list of basic foodstuffs.

The biscuit barrel on the dresser held a store of carefully saved pennies, interspersed with a few silver threepenny bits, sixpences and shillings.

Lilias had observed the weekly pay-day ritual. The orphans lined up, Maggie made a tally of earnings going into the barrel and doled out one penny pocket money to each recipient, herself included.

Lilias had contributed nothing to the hoard in the barrel and must find paid work soon. The Boatie was moored with other cobles at the harbour, but lobster fishing was all Lilias knew and she’d been told that was out of the question. What else could she do?

Certainly, she worked hard all day, cleaning the house, keeping the fire stoked and bairns’ clothes washed and mended. What spare time she had was spent down at the harbour seeking fish to keep the grandchildren fed.

Lilias sighed and sat down to unpick the skirt hem and withdraw more dwindling life savings. It pained her to see her money go into a grocer’s till, but it would be more painful to dip into the bairns’ valiant hoard.

*  *  *  *

Lilias left the barrow outside the grocer’s shop and pushed open the door of the shop. A tinkling bell above her head announced her arrival and an animated buzz of conversation ceased, only to resume seconds later.

Lilias took her place at the back to await her turn, studying the interior with interest. An older woman and a young man served behind the counter, both in white aprons.

The store was well stocked. Smoked haunches of ham hung from hooks in the ceiling behind the counter and shelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling packed with stoneware jars and canisters. There were pots, pans, scrubbing brushes, brooms, cleaning utensils and a large dispenser of whale oil for lighting lamps.

One section of the counter was devoted to a selection of farmhouse cheese, and the lady grocer was expertly slicing and packaging triangular pieces, weighed to order.

Towards the cooler end of the shop a small barrel-shaped mound of butter covered with butter muslin stood on a stone slab. To the fore were several large bins containing oatmeal, ground coarse or fine, alongside flour graded from wholemeal, for lower orders of society, to pure refined white aimed at wealthy folks’ kitchens.

“Good day to ye, Mistress Spink.”

Lilias was jerked out of her reverie to find the smiling young grocer leaning attentively across the counter.

She eyed him warily.

“I’m a stranger in this town. How is it ye ken my name?”

He laughed.

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!