They say “You should never go back”, but that is exactly what I did.
I had no great expectations that everything would be the same, after all it was thirty years since I visited my hometown.
Yet I stood on the pavement on a cold and wet afternoon looking at a sign on a shop.
“The Candy Box”.
Amidst new and strange architectural nightmares that made me want to start singing “Little Boxes”, an old and familiar sign.
Sure, the shop had been modernized.
Plate glass windows displayed sweets and chocolates that had never been heard of thirty years ago, but the shop was still there.
I wondered what happened to the people who used to run the shop?
Mrs Evans was the first owner, and when she died her daughter Miss Evans took over.
I suppose they did have first names, but to us kids, it was always Mrs and Miss.
We never knew about Mr Evans.
Our mums would talk in hushed voices about him, then suddenly change the subject when little flapping ears came too close.
“Died in the war,” my mum told me when I asked; then told me to go and wash my hands and be quick and smart about it because tea was ready.
I never did believe he died in the war.
Kids are not daft, they pick up on the atmosphere and exchange glances. Miniature Sherlock Holmes. Anyway, what we didn’t know, we invented.
Miss Evans was 25 and very attractive.
It was the age of mini-skirts and I remember the furor that erupted when Miss Evans first wore a mini-skirt in the shop.
“Disgraceful, shouldn’t be allowed” or “No discipline that’s her problem; her mum was far too soft on her”.
Mrs Jenkins even informed my mum that “No good will come of that girl, you mark my words.”
I didn’t mind the mini skirt and neither did Billy Jenkins who got a clip across when the ear when he told his mum so.
It was the bit about no discipline that puzzled me.
It was well known to us that Mrs Evans had her own way of dealing of schoolboy and schoolgirl shoplifters.
We didn’t actually think of it as shoplifting, we just thought of it as “knicking something from the old woman”.
I laugh at that now, as “The Old Woman was the same age as I am now on this cold, wet afternoon.”
Those days were yesterday, but how long ago was yesterday?
Sometimes it seems like a hundred years ago; others – well, it seems like yesterday.
Too many times perhaps, I wish it was.
Her method was simple and swift. Into the back room for a damn good hiding.
Once finished no more was said – it was over and done with.
Boys and girls both felt the weight of Mrs Evans justice; an equal opportunity I suppose.
She had two implements which she collectively called “The Avengers”. This was in the days when boys imagined themselves to be John Steed and the girls, Emma Peel.
If you pinched anything under a shilling it was six with the slipper (called Emma).
If it was over a shilling, it was up to nine with the cane, which she named John.
Very sexist I suppose, but in those days if you mentioned “glass ceiling” you would either think of a greenhouse, (without even thinking of what effect it may have), or your mum would say “Very nice, but a devil of a job to clean”.
Many a young boy or girl would come out from the back room rubbing their bottoms.
They always said how hard she whacked, but that they didn’t cry.
Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but no one ever seemed to be in the same distress as when Mr Williams the Headmaster (he was a fuuny man), or Mrs Thomas his Deputy gave the cane – and they did it over clothes.
Anyway, our mums knew what she used to do and never complained, and some of the younger mums had experienced being bent over Mrs Evans’s sofa.
I always found that odd because when I was a kid, I never imagined my mum getting into trouble.
In my mind, mums were always well-behaved at school and home.
That proves how illogical I could be at times because my vision didn’t seem compatible with the oft-used phrase, “If I would have spoken to my mother like that, I would have got what for”. I suppose the use of the word “If” and not “When” makes the difference.
When Old Mrs Evans died, Young Miss Evans took over.
Not only did she take over the shop, but she continued her mother’s methods.
“The Avengers” stayed where they were, and from time to time would be bought out from the cupboard to administer summary justice to the bottoms of those who stuffed Aero Bars, Cadburys Flake or Beano Summer Editions into their pockets or bags.
I was with Freddy Lewis and Sally Stone when Miss Evans saw them pinching a bag of marbles.
“I saw that you two.
Right, out in the back room now.
Don’t argue or I’ll tell your mums.”
I suppose nowadays we would say the unfortunate duo was between a rock and a hard place.
I knew that neither of them got spanked at home, but the mention of the word mum prompted a slow, heads hung low, walk towards the back room.
I left the shop and waited outside.
Ten minutes later out they came with the words “And you can tell your friends what will happen to them if I catch them knicking things from my shop”, ringing in their ears.
They looked sorry but not distressed – and of course told me that she really laid it on hard, but that they didn’t cry.
“What did she use and how did you get it?” I asked although I knew the answer.
“On the bottom with the slipper” replied Sally.
“Me first then Freddy. Had to bend over the back of her sofa”.
“Did Freddy see your punishment?” I asked with a hint of horror.
“Nah, when one was getting it, the other had to stand facing the wall.”
These were questions one just had to ask.
I never saw the back room, not because I was a good boy, but because I never got caught.
Let me explain that boast.
I only stole once from that or any other shop, and of course, I had a good reason.
We never had computer games and board games would somehow bore me.
I became inventive and would make my own.
I had a thing about competitions – Soccer, Rugby, you name it, I would have a special Cup or Tournament for it.
I even had a Weather Cup. Sixteen cities from the northern hemisphere would compete against each other based on the daily weather reports in the newspaper.
Athens 65 v Nice 64, Rome 67 v Munich 70. Munich will play Athens in the final!
On one memorable occasion, London made the Final against Paris, but lost by about ten degrees.
My games were simple but a little messy.
I would make a list of at least 16 teams, sometimes as much as 512! (after getting a special World Socccer Book), and write them down on paper and then tear up pieces of paper, each with a number on it.
These I would put into a brown paper bag, (my version of the velvet bag used in FA Cup draws) and pull out the teams.
Manchester Utd v Cardiff City, Liverpool v Dorking ( I always wanted a “giant killer” in the competition).
The matches were decided by two packs of cards.
Each team would have twenty cards, but the stronger teams would have more ones, two’s, threes and fours, while the weaker teams would have more “nils”.
I would then pick a card for each team. Sometimes I had to pick a card three or four times before my team won. – but I was fair and limited it to 5 attempts. Manchester United 0 Cardiff City 7.
It was such a competition that made me to resort to crime.
I lost the two packs of cards.
I didn’t exactly lose the packs, it was more that Tommy Simpkins threw my bag in the river.
Never mind my exercise books or my sandwiches, how were Cardiff City and Liverpool going to play the cup final.
I made a decision. I went to the Candy Box.
I browsed at just about everything in the shop waiting for the right moment.
Finally, it came. The phone in the back room rang and I was left alone.
Quick as a flash, I lifted a flap in the counter, stuffed two packs of cards into my pocket, and ran like mad, (remembering to replace the flap).
My team did win, but I lost.
That event bothered me for months.
I stood looking at the shop and the memories came flooding back.
No point standing outside in the rain, I would go in and buy something for old times sake.
A woman in her 50’s stood behind the counter and smiled when I walked in.
“Can I help you Sir?” she asked.
It was her.
There was no mistake.
“Em no, just looking thank you”.
I looked for the jars of gob stoppers (hard boiled sweets that responsible adults warned you about), but there were no jars any more, only display stands.
“I am surprised this shop is still here” I said. She smiled.
“Oh, been close to closing a few times, but managed to stay open. Have you been here before?”
I told her who I was and how long ago it had been. She looked thoughtful, then a look of recognition came over her face.
“I remember you. You’re Mrs Wilkins little boy; only you’re not so little any more”.
Again she smiled. Thirty years older and still attractive. I appreciated her good looks then, and I appreciate them even more now.
I had to ask. “Do you still have The Avengers?”. She burst into laughter.
“Oh bless my soul, The Avengers. Yes, I still have them somewhere, but of course I never use them now.”
I could tell that as she was looking at me, she was processing a picture of me thirty years ago, bottomed over her sofa. I felt a little embarrassed!
“I can’t recall ever using them on you though”
She had run the picture through her memory and came up “No Matches Found”.
It should have been different, and I always wished it had been.
“No, I was never caught”. Oops.
That gives the game away. Once more she laughed.
“Why you little devil. Bit too late now though.”
We started talking and she asked if I would like to come back after the shop closed for a cup of coffee and a talk about old times. I thanked her and said I would.
I had never seen the back room before and as I sat on the sofa, I wondered if it was the same one that Freddy and Sally had bent over all those years ago.
I wondered where they were now, and if they still remembered the incident.
Maybe they just shrugged the whole thing off as one of those childhood escapades.
I took the coffee and thanked her.
It seems that Freddy was now an accountant and Sally was in advertising and Chairperson of the local Single Parents Association.
Her teenager daughter was delightful and sometimes helped in the shop.
Mr Williams, our old Headmaster, was found hanged in his cell in the Special Protection Wing I guess the rumours were true, but no one ever listened.
Perhaps they’re not listening now.
Perhaps they do listen though, and perhaps they act.
Others listen – and act.
They are in a position to do so – often without consequence.
We continued our talk about things long ago, when friends only had chicken pox or mumps.
The days when each day, when one thinks about it, were more or less the same.
But maybe I was lucky.
Maybe I was protected from so many things that in my day were not mentioned but now are all too familiar.
Coffee turned into an invite to stay for dinner.
Dinner, or rather the after-dinner Brandy and old records, gave me the chance to mention The Deck Of Cards.
I raised the subject just as Rod Stewart sang, “Ever since I was a kid in school, I messed around with all the rules, apologized and then realized, I’m not different after all”.
“Do you remember selling packs of cards?” I asked.
She smiled. Not a smile of recognition or remembrance – but a smile that said, “Yes I do, and I know what you are going to say next – you naughty boy.”