“The Shopkeeper” by Niall Quinn

I wrapped myself tighter in the bed sheets trying to keep the cold air out. I couldn’t sleep. I recognised the chill in Mammy’s voice when she told us to go to bed. Something was wrong. The had phone had rung three times now. I hated hearing the phone ring late at night but I preferred its clang to the sound of the creaking floorboards as Daddy made his way to answer it. The rise and fall of his tone of voice reminded me of other occasions when Daddy was told of a death. ‘Ah sure, he was a good age.’ But I had never heard it so late at night before. I closed my eyes tighter and yearned for sleep. Better say one more Hail Mary for good luck. Cold thoughts were invading my mind. I tossed and turned noisily trying to wake my brothers in the hope that their company might tear me from these thoughts. I closed my eyes tighter still until my cheeks hurt and pulled the sheets over my head. Hail Mary full of grace the lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…. There he was. Wearing his sheepskin coat and those thick black rimmed glasses. The tea coloured plaque on his bottom front teeth seemed as real as ever. He pinched my cheek and the touch of his old cold hand sent a chill to each extremity and seemed to linger in my soul. I knew he was dead and I wondered would I have to go to school tomorrow.

The next morning our kitchen seemed warmer than usual. My father was standing at the table. I knew what was coming but I didn’t seem to mind. ‘Poor aul Sam is gone, Lord rest him,’ he said while making the sign of the cross. I felt the need to gasp in surprise and ask an interested question.
‘How old was he?’
‘Ninety one. Christmas day 1900.’ As old as the queen mother I thought.
‘What will happen the shop?’
‘I donno that now,’ was his response before adding, ‘it’s a pity he didn’t give up that shop when Mrs. Colton died. Then those bastards wouldn’t have tormented him this length.’ He broke to drink some tea and finish the bit of bread he had been eating. I wondered would I be serving at his funeral. I liked serving at funerals. We’d usually get about a fiver between us. But then I remembered that Sam went to that other church in town. I carried the teapot from the range to the table where I was about to pour myself a cup before I was interrupted by the clang of the telephone bell. Alexander Graham Bell. My father went to answer it, leaving the kitchen door open behind him.
‘Ah howrya Mick. Hard morning…Yes yes we heard that last night, Lord rest him…the niece found him. She rang us then, the poor girl. She was shook… no the doctor didn’t say. Ah sure wasn’t he a good age…yeah?…is that right?… ah sure I’m not surprised, she said the room was freezing when she went in… sure wasn’t I down there last week and didn’t I have to leave the coat on. Ah sure he was an awful man… I don’t know that now either. I’ll let you know when I hear the arrangements… right so…good luck.’

At school that day we learned about the Ten Commandments. I had been looking forward to this day for ages. I used to skip forward to the chapter in our religion book and read them over and over to myself. Their symmetry, their myth, the number itself, Maradona. But today it seemed as though their hold over me was broken. I half-heartedly went through them with the class but a memory of Sam soon distracted me. I remembered all the times I’d sat beside him at football matches. Sam and Daddy went religiously every Sunday. I only went to the home matches. We would all sit together in our usual seat. Sam would usually sit in the middle. There I would sit silent, eager and watchful. The referee would lead the procession of teams onto the pitch. The players names would be read aloud while I followed by reading the teams on the match program. At times the players were treated like gods. They were worshipped by the supporters. I was always puzzled by the celebrations of a goal scorer. Why did he offer himself so joyously to his supporters? It was a question I often asked daddy but was never fully satisfied with his answer.
‘Come on the town, number one,’ my father would restlessly roar. I too would be a little on edge. Out of the corner of my eye I would see Sam busy himself in the pockets of his sheepskin coat. Then a packet of sweets might appear. Then, to tease, he’d put them back into his pocket, and wait a few seconds before turning to me with a smile and a wink. He would then take the sweets out again, shielding them from my fathers view, and give them to me making shush sounds with his fingers and lips. On my acceptance he would smile and pinch my cheek before patting my knee and returning his attentions to the match. Happy now, I would eat my sweets and play with the wrappers. I would look around the ground and read all the advertisement boards forwards as well as backwards – letoh egdol kcormahs eht – and dream about scenarios where I might be called upon to play in the match. As evening would descend, frost would sparkle in the green corners of the browning pitch and on the tin roof of the far stand. Surrender to the cold would allow a numbness to take control of my body, starting with the fingers and toes. I hated the cold, but sometimes I would go outside on a winter’s night and say Hail Mary’s until I couldn’t stand it and run back into the fire and bask as it warmed the cold blood in my veins.

That afternoon the clang of the school bell woke me from my daze. That day I walked home on the sunny side of the road. The colourful houses along Castlemaine street arrested my mind and a spring was present in my step. On that day my feet seemed to have no memory and they swept me along past the Golden Island turn and under the flowing trees that stood erect on the periphery of Jones’ oil yard. As I approached Sam’s shop my footsteps, as though reminded of something, grew slower. Day after day I would walk this journey home, checking the ground for coppers in the hope of gathering the twelve pence needed to buy a ‘Mr. Freeze’ in Sam’s. Everyone bought ’Mr. Freeze’s’ in Sam’s. The freezer didn’t work that well and so they weren’t completely frozen. They were more like a cool drink and saved you all the sucking, biting and sore sides of lips that accompanied the eating of a ’Mr. Freeze’. Most days, and for as long as I could remember, we’d stop at Sam’s to buy something or other. Lately Mammy had been buying the rashers and sausages from a butcher in town, but she still bought them from Sam as well, feeding them to the cats. As my footsteps grew smaller so too did my distance from the shop. My eyes looked across to the slightly sloping hill that leads to his door. Two steep steps and then your arm would stretch high for that shiny handle. A slight lean of the shoulder against the door would give that extra push needed to open the door. The jingle of the overhead bell was the first sound your ears were treated to before the spring coiled, closing the door and blocking out all the sounds of the outside world and thereby intensifying all those sounds within. You’d take a few small, nervous steps before stopping and waiting. He would be in the back room watching the television. There you would wait. You’d hear the buzz and drone of the freezer as well as the sticky sound of your shoes on the linoleum. Your nose and taste buds grow alert to the aroma of refresher bars, cola bottles, fizzy lollipops and penny sweets. Put some in your pocket before he comes out. No. There you wait for him, with money grasped tightly in one hand, repeating in your head your mother’s order until your lips start to say the words lightly and silently. Your eyes are locked on the plastic containers of sweets that sits atop the freezer. There you wait. Any second now you’ll hear his slippers on the lino, accompanied by the sound of his moist lips opening and closing softly. A sudden awareness of your isolation does not unnerve you. Half a pound of rashers and sausages, half a pound of rashers and sausages. There you wait, ever more troubled by the relentless buzz and drone of that broken freezer.

Biographical Note:
I’m a primary school teacher from Athlone but working in Finglas. I like to tell stories and it helps, though not necessarily essential, if someone listens.

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