In the fifties, thick smog would often press down over Wigan on cold winter mornings. Like many other young children, I walked to school. On foggy days we wore woollen scarves over our mouths, tied at the back of the neck.
On the way, I passed May’s toffee shop. Tempting if you had a three penny bit but irresistible if you had the possibilities of a sweet sixpence. It made all the difference between two ounces of ‘kayli ’ in a small cone shaped paper bag (with a ‘spanish’ to lick and soak up the fizzy powder) or a substantial quarter of something else. Cinder toffee that melted on the tongue like honey? Squidgy coconut mushrooms, long-lasting Uncle Joe’s mint balls, gleaming black Pontefract cakes or Cherry Lips? Or maybe a bar of chocolate – a Fry’s Five Centres . How about a liquorice root or a coltsfoot rock? Both were an acquired taste but cheap and warming in a freezing school playground. Or six somethings from the ‘penny tray’? Bubble gum, penny chews, Black jacks, gob stoppers, sweet cigarettes? Choosing was an excruciating pleasure.
May seemed an old lady to me as a child, white- haired and lavender scented. She wore parma violet blouses, lace collars and an ageing grey crocheted shawl but may well have been only in her fifties. When the shop bell rang she appeared from behind a curtain and took her place at the counter. She would wait patiently while some scruffy little lad took forever choosing eight items from the penny tray. Invariably he would have to put six back on producing just tuppence. May seemed sorry to deprive children of what they really fancied and would sometimes throw in a white mouse for free.
Further up the road was a tobacconist. If caught short my mother would send me out for a packet of Player’s cigarettes. The shop was small and had a similar lay-out to May’s but Bill, the shop keeper, was a bent old man. He announced his arrival from the back by coughing his guts out. I mean serious coughing. There were intriguing jars of different curls of pipe tobacco on the shelves, racks of pipes, pipe cleaners and other implements. Snuff was used in those days and Bill weighed it out on small brass scales on the counter. I liked the shop’s rich, grand-fatherly aroma.