There always seems to be a good supply of them, the pennies and loose change that is. They wink and shine, lying tantalisingly on pavements and on roads waiting to be picked up and pocketed. She always seems to see them quickly, even if others don’t. People hurry past her on wet pavements. She spotted a coin earlier when she went in to the swimming pool: a dazzling new penny. Queen’s head up, always a good sign. My pennies from heaven, Violet thinks, pulling her scarf closer around her neck. Bloody winters in Scotland though last forever. She’d relieved herself in the pool as usual and confronted other hapless swimmers with a practised icy blue eyed glare. But nobody had noticed her, this crinkly furtive octopus in a Cajun shrimp coloured bathing cap. Just a sweet little old lady, after all. Generally quiet and unassuming, who would possibly suspect? It is a weekly ritual of hers, her little two fingers up to The World which is morally depraved. Violet always saves the pennies and coins in the empty jars she keeps on the front room shelves.
Walking on in the gathering evening, she remembers that she has forgotten to pick up that chop from the butchers. No matter, it can wait. It will be there tomorrow, it won’t exactly fly off to Bahrain overnight. Violet Scrimgeour is a very familiar face at the swimming pool, her elegant collection of bathing caps often remarked upon by the other ladies. This season flowers are all the rage and she likes to think she cuts a dash. Scrimgeour. It is a funny surname, God knows she was teased about it often enough at that cesspit of a school in Carlisle. Violet Scrimper and saver. That’s what they called her in the playground. What’s in a name, after all. But Albert Scrimgeour would have been proud of his daughter she thinks, walking through the front door. The sweet shop has gone from strength to strength over the years.
Boiling liquid glucose is the easy part though some skill is required in timing – one could easily boil it away in to a nothingness so that practically nothing of the glucose is left, only a suggestion or hint. When she swims every week, Violet is able to briefly suspend her worry about savings. Then she can swim her mind in to a kind of nothingness too for a short while. She has assiduously saved for over forty years, wasting not and wanting not. But then, all the houses look decent and solid enough in Lee Crescent – nobody wasted or wanted not. Albert had said there was no point in moving to Edinburgh if they could not be near the sea, he had grown up in Whitehaven and said he missed it, the water. It is a decent sized kitchen, though quite obviously stuck in a time warp The cooker and furniture date from the 1970s. Carefully, she adds the peppermint oil flavouring and puts precious drops of green food colouring in to the large boiling saucepan. Albert had taught his daughter well. It had been a nightmare growing up in Botchergate, with all those small claustrophobic houses and small claustrophobic people. Father and daughter had moved to Edinburgh before the war but the Scrimgeour sweet shop had done well enough in Botchergate. Locals missed the homemade rock, the exploding fizzy lemon bombs and the sensational Scrimgeour stripy peppermint humbugs that took forever to melt in the mouth. This latest batch should be ready by tomorrow. The foreigners, particularly The Darkies, seem to go a bundle for the boxed mints but she has cut down on production over the last five years.
Great clouds of steam rise up from the boiling water, leaving the kitchen ceiling damp. That is another thing she keeps forgetting to do – opening the damn back doors and windows to ventilate the whole room as she boiled. And recently she kept on misplacing her door keys. It is brighter today and the freezing rain from last night seems a distant occurrence somehow. Nevertheless, there has been frost overnight and Violet’s flowery bathing suit has frozen stiff on the washing line outside – she has to prise it off. It hangs stubbornly over the bath, steadily thawing. See you later Alligator. Mr. Twaddle, a red and blue talkative West African parrot Violet adopted from a grateful customer years ago, squawks provocatively from the front room. Where’s the lolly gone, sweetie. She has taught him a few phrases admittedly but it seems the bird has a high IQ and has somehow absorbed Violet’s oft repeated phrases. He usually sits on his high perch but she encourages him to fly around the small house. Mr. Twaddle, who rather waddles as he walks, is her true confidante. He must be hungry she concludes, reaching for the seed she keeps in a kitchen cupboard. Mr. Twaddle eyes her coyly and shifts from one leg to another before pecking at the seed. The sweets look immaculate as they cool neatly in rows. She knows the recipe for humbugs off by heart and often recites the details in the bath.
- 350g sugar
- 5 tablespoons liquid glucose
- 250ml water
- ½ teaspoon cream of tarter
- ½ teaspoon peppermint oil
- few drops green food colouring
- Mix sugar and glucose in a heavy based saucepan. Add the water. Heat until sugar has dissolved.
- Add the cream of tartar, bring to the boil
- Continue to boil until the mixture registers 140˚ C (275˚ F) on a sugar thermometer.
- Remove from the heat and add the peppermint oil.
- Empty mixture onto a lightly oiled board and divide in half, adding green colouring to one half.
- Pull each portion into a rope and twist round each other. Cut in 1cm (1/2 inch) pieces, turning the rope at each cut. When cold and hard, wrap each piece individually and place in to a pretty gift box, along with other old fashioned sweets.
Looking back, it seemed Albert Scrimgeour knew somehow that his daughter would not marry. His wife Martha had died in child birth and they had worked so hard to make a go of the sweet shop. And despite growing up in the twentieth century as it was then, Violet knew that looks were still the most important asset a woman could have – despite the social and political advances made. It was a painful truth learnt early: alongside the taunts about her scrooge sounding surname she also was forced to confront the fact that she was, God forbid, judged plain not pretty. And these early truths and judgements, these relentlessly repeated opinions of others, once drummed in early and often enough have a way of scarring and shaping the mind until one cannot really begin to conceive of oneself any other way. And Violet certainly could not imagine any other life lived or any other way of living and now, at the age of seventy eight she prides herself on her daily yeast and iron tablets and weekly forays to the pool and butchers.
Packing up the mints in neat little boxes, Violet congratulates herself for her thrift. The savings in her personal account have grown superbly over the years. The tiny little sign in the shop window front was seen by nobody, as affluent pleasure seeking tourists wandering down to the Old Town were hardly going to stoop and peer at the tiny print on the notice in the shop window. Delivery and packing costs incur a separate charge it said. Instead, sensation hungry eyes were distracted by artful displays of boiled goodies arranged in piles and towers with ribbons and bows. And what the eye did not see could not then be a source of legitimate moral outrage. That’s what Violet calculates, lying in the hot bath upstairs. Tomorrow is Sunday. Time for customer accounts, a bit of further packing and a smidgen of radio hopefully. And letting Mr. Twaddle fly around the house freely, of course.
He loves these early morning weekend walks by the sea; it is such a change from London. Today, incredibly, the sea hardly looks as if it is moving at all – tiny irrelevant waves are tossed half heartedly out on to the sand. In these stolen hours he can think clearly. It has been such a relief to be away from the relentless grind of the Underground and daily commute. Steven Clubb Burr did not regret leaving the big smoke at all and, as a forty five year old chartered accountant going through a mid life crisis, he had decided to do a complete life audit and ring in the changes. Sick to death of the stress, the greed, the fiddling and abuses he had seen in London; he had been pushed to breaking point and some kind of spiritual crisis by work overload and the exploding MPs expenses scandal. So he had migrated north in search of cleaner air, space and moral transparency. A single seagull hunts for scraps on the promenade and he chucks a piece of crusty white roll towards it that he had been carrying around in a plastic bag. He heard that Edinburgh folk are rather reserved, but he is a patient man. The staff at the big accountancy firm he works at in the New Town are friendly enough but he doesn’t as yet have anyone he can socialise with. He had thought about joining a meet up group on the Internet as he had always enjoyed history and philosophy.
It is just a question of plucking up the courage. Let it unfold slowly he tells himself. A bit like those waves over there he thinks, unfolding very slowly and taking their time. At night, the sky and sea blended in to one big cosmos of space creating a sense of meaningful connectedness. Or was it a nothingness. Was the universe really all one? Steven is just not sure to make of some of this new age thinking. It is bleak winter and he can see himself making new social connections in the spring. Heck, he has only been living in Edinburgh for six months anyhow. Neighbours seem nice enough and quiet area too. Who knows maybe he’d meet some chaotic bohemian porty artist and they would start a passionate affair of opposites. He had been warned down in London by envious colleagues that the wind in Edinburgh whips straight off the North Sea cutting a person to the bones in their very soul. Feeling that same wind now whittling away at him, he pulls his heavy wool hounds tooth coat up around him and walks back towards Lee Crescent. Much of Mr. Clubb Burr’s life is ordered and restrained and so, when the odd unexpected thing happened it is bound to make an impact. And impact is certainly what Mr. Twaddle makes on Steven as the brightly coloured bird preens itself very visibly on a leafless tree branch in the accountant’s front garden.
“Excuse me, I am sorry to trouble you but I’m having difficulty getting my parrot to come down from the tree in your garden. I just cannot reach him. Stupidly, I left the front door open and he made a bid for freedom, so to speak. I am wondering if you may be so kind as to lend me a step ladder so I can coax him down.”
The elderly lady standing in front of him has startling mauve hair arranged in curls. She is very smartly dressed and has a rather forbidding self sufficient air. Steven Clubb Burr cannot help smiling. He had noticed the lady who lived directly opposite a few times. Her front garden hedge always looked admirably immaculate and clipped. Probably some eccentric lonely old widow. Lots of these loners about, oddballs. With a start, he realises others may consider him an odd ball too going on these morning winter walks. It is a risk one took, he considers.
“I don’t believe we have met. Steven Clubb Burr. I’m sure I do have a step ladder living under the stairs. Looks like she’s a stubborn bird. Have you been trying for some time?” Mr. Clubb Burr holds out his hand formally. Violet Scrimgeour rather reluctantly shakes what is offered. She really didn’t need any snide, patronising remarks from this man. After all, she had lived successfully without a man all her adult life. She finds it difficult to ask a man for help. She simply hated asking electricians and plumbers around and tried to do minor household repairs herself. It is just the way she has been brought up.
“It’s a he actually. Mr. Twaddle is his name. And yes, he’s been carrying on for nearly two hours. So please, yes, the ladder would be a good idea. I have some seed here to coax him.”
They work together well as a team with Steven holding the ladder firm while Violet tentatively coaxed a squawking Mr. Twaddle in to her grasp.
“Ouch. Now don’t bite the hand that feeds you, will you. That is quite enough excitement for today, thank you. We have got sweets to finish packing and accounts to do today. And that’s not forgetting the customer order book, is it?” Violet has the bird firmly under her arm. Steven notices how piercing the lady’s eyes are. Although she is quite tall, her build is very frail looking – and yet there is something of steel about her.
“Violet Scrimgeour, pleased to meet you. Purveyor and manufacturer of good old fashioned sweets in the family tradition. Thank you so much for your assistance. You must excuse me but running a small business oneself can be demanding and I have paperwork to attend to. I am struggling as it is. I have several orders that need to be processed and audited properly.”
A light bulb explodes in Steven’s head. All at once Violet Scrimgeour seems the most interesting person he had discovered in Edinburgh. “Old fashioned sweets, you say? Sounds lovely. I’ve always had a weakness for sherbet myself. Look, Ms. Scrimgeour or Violet if I may call you that – I’m a chartered accountant and I’m not doing anything today. Won’t you allow me to help you with your accounts? You can pay me in sherbet if you like.”
He offers her a smile, thinking she needs to thaw out a bit. She reminded him of the old lady in the Ealing classic The Lady Killers but he knows better than to try and crack jokes about being good with birds. Violet looks at the smiling balding man in front of her and thinks maybe she could make an odd exception to her rule about doing every little thing herself. Maybe help with the accounts would not be such a bad thing. He seems charming and genuinely eager to help. After he has put the ladder away, she shows him around the gloomy front room and points to her mahogany work desk in a corner. In the kitchen she boils the kettle, showing him the big cauldrons where the glucose and water is boiled. He stares as the whole place is like some working museum. Small bottles of colouring and flavouring line the shelf above the kettle. Violet is surprised to find herself falling easily in to conversation with this man. She describes the shop and its family history and the methods involved in making the sweets. A subdued Mr. Twaddle sits on his front room perch. Where’s the lolly gone, sweetie. Vi’s got her own lolly, thank you.
“Is that Mr. Twaddle talking now?” Steven Clubb Burr almost spurts out hot tea in delight. The whole afternoon is getting more and more fascinating. Violet shows him what needs to be filed, but she seems anxious about him looking at her bank statements too closely. He is kept busy for a good two hours filing invoices in large binding folders and entering details in the order book. “I cannot be doing with computers” she said before disappearing mysteriously upstairs. Sounds of hoovering and running water don’t quite drown out what sounds like a radio. How very curious, thinks Mr. Clubb Burr as Violet re-emerges downstairs in a pinafore with a duster. This woman hasn’t let anyone in to her home for years.
He can almost smell the self inflicted isolation on her and recognised it instantly. Christ knows, he had seen it often enough, this social condition, even in apparently happily married colleagues in London. So much of life is hidden. He had never married and rarely dated as it was actually really hard to meet nice women even in a big city like London. It just had never happened. Everyday though he felt the stigma and shame of being single and alone and so felt drawn to this extraordinary woman who lived opposite him and who had clearly evolved in to some kind of mauve rinsed urban hermit. He had noticed the rows of empty jam jars above the desk filled to the brim with small change. Talk about being prepared for anything and looking after the pennies. Here is a woman who took no chances. Money seemed to be the only thing she trusted in and really connected with. Despite working in finance himself, Steven is suddenly acutely aware of how little he too connects with other people. Everyone seems far too busy being busy. Nobody noticed the little daily movements of spirit.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness” said Violet, handing him a box of humbugs then as a thank you. To her surprise she had enjoyed his company. And to his surprise he realised that Violet is like one of those sweets which is slightly hard and bitter on the outside but actually crackly and exciting on the inside. “Do call in at the shop sometime if you are in the Old Town.” And walking back home across the street that afternoon, Steven Clubb Burr feels sure he would be discovering Violet’s shop rather soon.
Steven is getting absolutely hacked off with installing tiles in his bathroom. Piles of grouting paste and blue tiles scatter the floor. The old repulsive pink flowery tiles lie cracked and discarded. It felt like he had been at it for hours. What on earth is he thinking of, trying to do all this himself. He can afford a decorator after all. Standing on the toilet seat trying to grout a tile near the ceiling, he glances through the bathroom window at Violet Scrimgeour’s house. He realises he has forgotten all about his eccentric neighbour. Over the last six weeks he has been manically trying to get the house looking the way he wants it and the office at work has become fraught with deadlines and cross purposes. The house opposite looks so ordinary on the outside with neatly lined wheelie bins and swaying snowdrops. He decides that he needs a break from all this DIY.
Perhaps he has been trying to take a leaf out of his thrifty neighbour’s book. He felt he should go and thank Violet for the humbugs; they had been a truly startling experience. The shop’s address can be clearly seen in the phone book and he is soon walking down the Royal Mile. Violet’s wee shop is charming enough, with artfully arranged candy and sweets. But the shop is clearly shut for business. Just as Steven is about to walk off, he sees the small notice cello taped to the front window advising customers of an extra necessary charge for postage and packaging costs. And yet the prices displayed were already very high, he thinks. It is a small miracle that she has any customers with those prices.
He feels confused walking back in to Lee Crescent. Curious now, he heads for Violet’s house and rings on the doorbell. No answer. He notices the front curtains are drawn, unusual for daytime. He rings again thinking she may have the radio on and be unable to hear. But then a sudden boldness seizes him and he places his hand on the door knob and turns, only to feel the heavy door swing away in front of him. The house is silent. Tentatively, he calls out Violet’s name announcing himself. He did not want to frighten her in her own home. Walking in to the dark front room he can see something is not quite right. Papers lie scattered all over the work desk and on the carpeted floor. Faint scuffling sounds can be heard from underneath the big mahogany desk and peering under the arch in the wood, Mr. Clubb Burr can dimly see a roosting Mr. Twaddle. He looks nervous and thin sitting in piles of feathers and parrot shit. He knew suddenly then that he had to go upstairs. Still calling out Violet’s name, he mounts the stairs. But Violet Scrimgeour is lying stock still on her bedroom floor, her piercing blue eyes now gaze perpetually at some point in the ceiling. A point of nothingness. Of absolution. A point where there were no flavourings, receipts or elaborate bathing caps. No traces of glucose. A swimsuit and a big pile of bank statements lie on the bed. It looks like she had been sorting through them. Steven does not feel afraid of the presence of death – instead he feels immense sadness. He had just been getting to know this lady and her life.
How long has she been lying there, invisible to the world. He notices the ultra feminine décor in the bedroom. This was her inner sanctum, he thinks – a secret place where Violet could allow herself to remember her private girlhood. The bank statements go back well over six years and he notices small but regular credits made either by cheque or credit card. He realises he is looking at the surplus and unnecessary extra charges made to customers for packaging and delivery. It has been going on for years. Quick mental calculations reveal that this canny old bird had more than feathered her own nest. These were her pennies after heaven alright. Where’s the lolly gone, sweetie. Vi’s got her own lolly, thank you. Mr. Twaddle’s curious ditties seem entirely logical now. He suspected that the bank statements downstairs that went even further back would tell a similar story. All that time. No tourist or customer had ever challenged her. In a kind of numb dream state, Steven Clubb Bur walks back downstairs. The world of confectionary would not be quite the same now. Gently gathering Mr. Twaddle in his hands, he walks towards the phone.
Sarah Guppy © 2012
Lolly Pop is one of the short stories from Sarah Guppy’s book, Edinburgh Shorts. £6.99, Austin Macauley Publishers. www.austinmacauley.com
A juggling care worker. A bargain-obsessed shopper haunted by nightmares. A porn-hungry office playboy. All with the city of Edinburgh in common…
An anthology of short stories, Edinburgh Shorts is true to its title, with a variety of tales set in the beautiful historic city. Sarah Guppy’s diverse collection of short stories range from funny to bittersweet to downright unpleasant. Edinburgh Shorts displays versatility and great character development which stays with the reader long afterwards.
Sarah Guppy was born in North London and migrated north to Edinburgh in 2002. She held a range of jobs before moving to Scotland: administration, charity and campaigning work, gardening. After graduating from Edinburgh University with a BA in Humanities & Social Science; she concentrated on short story writing.