Many Happy Returns

Entry by: percypop

14th April 2016

"Mind the door" said the shopkeeper as Jimmy pushed his way into the shop. He put the bag of clinking bottles on the counter.
"How many this time, you monkey?"
"Only a dozen Mister Wright," Jimmy smiled as he acknowledged the cheerful nickname.
"Lucky for you there's thirsty people hereabouts" said Wright "Now tell me how much you
"That's twelve at tuppence returns, so that's two shillin' "
Each week the same exchange occurred, Jimmy collected empty Corona lemonade bottles and claimed the "Returns" from the shop.
Everyone in Barnsley knew Jimmy. When the war finished, the local authority had a problem finding a place for him. An orphan from the bombing, he became a liability which no family would take on, at that time. Nine years old and small for his age, he was passed round the town several times. It was not deliberate cruelty, but the lack of resources; rationing and austerity made people turn away. He was just another problem too many. He ended up in the children's home, but they couldn't keep track of his whereabouts and soon didn't try. He became his own man and liked it that way.
It got dark as he left the shop and he fingered the two silver coins lying heavy in his trouser pocket. It felt good. Down the street he went, into the fish bar and waited in line for his order of "penny crispings," the local name for the odds and ends left over when the batch of fish and chips had been fried. He scooped the hot bits from the paper cone hungrily. As he sat on the kerb outside, he could hear the voices of people in the queue as they waited their turn.
"She's a miserly old witch," said one man, "I only asked her if she wanted her winders cleanin' and she got huffy wi'me, the old hag!"
"Same as before," said the next man, "Hasn't bin out for years, daft old bag!"
Jimmy guessed they were talking about the old lady at Number 24 -the house with the dirty windows and overgrown front garden - he passed it every day on his way to school, that is, every day he decided to go to school, which was not often.
Next day, he peered at number 24 as he went passed. It seemed as dark and blind as a mole.
Ragged net curtains hung awry at the windows and no light in the hall. He took a quick look down the side of the house to see if any bottles were there.
"Get out of my garden!"
A shrill voice caught him by surprise and he ran back to the front of the house, tripping over himself as he reached the corner. On the step stood an old woman. She had a broom in her hand and held it like a weapon - two hands gripping the handle like a sword. She was thin and grey, dressed in a pinafore of the same colour. Her eyes were red rimmed as if she cried a lot, but she gazed at him fiercely.
"I just wanted your empty bottles," he realized this would not do. "I give 'em to the shop regular." He could think of nothing better at short notice.
"What's your name, boy?" she advanced towards him and he stepped back but she blocked his way to the street.
"Jimmy, Jimmy Fraser."
"Where d'you live then?"
Jimmy guessed she wanted to report him or tell his parents but he quickly gained confidence since he knew nobody cared a jot about him.
"I live in the Home down Surrey Street."
She stopped and leant on the broom looking down at him. He tried a grin to see if that would
work but her expression hardly changed. Then she turned and climbed the front step. When she got to the top, she looked at him and said,
"Well? You better come in and look for yourself"
Jimmy looked past her through the open door. The hall was a dark cavern leading to a flight of stairs.
"I'll be going," he said and began to make his way towards the street, not running but moving as quickly as he could.
She called him back.
"Look! I got you some bottles anyway." She held up three bottles of different sizes. He could see that only one was a tupenny Corona bottle.
He stepped up to her and took all three quickly as if she might snatch him with her withered hands like a witch in a storybook. She nodded and went inside,
As she closed the door she called out, "There'll be more next week."
He ran down Surrey Street towards the High Street and dumped two of the bottles in a bomb site. The Corona bottle he stashed in his secret hiding place.
When he got back to the Home it had gone seven o'clock and the Warden shouted at him for being late, but he didn't care; he was rich, with money in his pocket.
He kept away from number 24 for days while doing his rounds, but something brought him back to the house the following week. Was it the mystery of the old house? Was it a dare he made with himself? Or something to do with the isolation which he shared with the old woman? He persuaded himself he might get more bottles to swop and thought it worth a try. This time, he rang the bell. There was no answer. He rang again and heard the sound of shuffling feet approaching the door.
"Go away!" her voice was shrill but weak.
"I come for the bottles," he said, "you told me to come back."
The door opened and he could see the outline of her frail body against the gloom of the interior.
"Yes," she said "I've got a few here and you can have them."
She turned and he hesitated, then followed her inside. She went into the front room and sat down in a worn old chair and picked up a bag from beside the chair.
"Here you are" and handed him the bag with four bottles in it.
"Them's not all Corona," he said, "I can't swop 'em if they're not Corona."
She nodded.
"Well, that's your job isn't it? You've got to sort them yourself."
He agreed and then in a moment of silence, he looked round the room. On a table beside the chair were two photos of a young man in air force uniform.
"Is that your family?" he said, filling the awkward silence.
"He was called Jimmy, like you, but he didn't collect bottles!"
He picked up the bag and thanked her. She remained in the chair, as if the effort of getting up was too much, and he went out of the house and shut the door.
By the time Friday came round, the Warden discovered he had been to school that week on just two days. He asked for an explanation but Jimmy kept his mouth shut and stood with his hands behind his back.
"This has got to stop!" The man bent down over and stared at Jimmy but the boy looked away as if ignoring him.
"Look at me when I'm talking to you, boy"
The man shouted and flecks of spit formed in the corner of his mouth. Jimmy looked at him.
His eyes show no expression and he said nothing.
"You'll stay in for the whole of the week end - d'you hear? - Now get out!"
Jimmy nodded and left the room.
Saturday came, The Warden went home and the staff slacked off. No one took the trouble to check on Jimmy, so by Sunday afternoon, he slipped out and took his collection to the shop.
"Well," said Mister Wright, "you're late this week. Has the town run dry?"
Jimmy smiled his best cheeky grin, and said, "I was a bit busy this week."
He counted the cash for the bottles and bought himself some biscuits from the broken
Biscuits Tin which were not on ration.
The next week was Wakes week and the town went mad. Every street had a party and the pubs stayed open from 11 in the morning till midnight. Parades and Union Rallies took place every day and the neighbouring towns joined in. Jimmy busied himself, he collected all sorts of bottles -beer bottles - cider bottles and, of course, plenty of Corona bottles. He spent a long time separating the penny and tupenny returns from the rest. Then he did his rounds of the pubs and off licences to collect. He saved the Corona ones till last, knowing that he was sure of his money. He collected his cash and forgot about number 24 till he made his way back to Surrey Street. It had been ten days since he last went there.
He ran up the steps and rang the bell. He rang again and heard the familiar slow steps approach the door.
He called out "It's ok Missus, it's Jimmy!"
She opened the door wide and he saw she had tears in her eyes.
"I thought you'd forgot me," she said, "and I kept your bottles."
She smiled and he realized he had never seen her smile before.
"Well it's been Wakes week an' I've been collecting all over," he said.
"Tell me how many you got," she said.
A strange feeling of pity for her came over him, as if he was her nurse or friend. He had never felt this before. He had found someone who needed him.
"Shall I come in then?" he asked, and she led the way into the parlour where he had been before.
She sat in her old chair and he told her about the fair and the rallies that he'd seen that week. She gazed at him with close attention, her sad eyes wide with interest. When he finished, she pointed to the bag by her chair.
"I expect you don't need these then," she held out the bag to show three Corona bottles inside.
Jimmy grinned and said, "They'll do! I can put them in the shop next week but not today, 'cos he's paid me already."
She made a croaking sound and he realized she was laughing, it must have been something she'd not done for a long time.
"Well, will you be back next week?"
"Of course, this is my regular round now isn't it?"
Again, he saw the glint of tear in her eye and he turned away embarrassed.
"Well, I'll be off. See you next week."
He skipped out of the room and down the steps.
As the weeks went by, he came back to the house on a regular visit. Every time there were Corona bottles to collect and he never asked himself how the frail old lady drank so much lemonade. He lost his fear of the dark house and sat down with her to listen to her stories about her son and the war. Her name was Missus Thomas. He told her about life in the Home and how old he was and when his birthday was due.
The house never changed. There was dust everywhere and occasionally he saw mice in the kitchen, but he didn’t care. Nobody called, except hawkers, and she would peep through the scrappy net curtains and shout at them. Jimmy liked that. She asked him to do little errands and he combined them with his daily rounds so they became part of his regular routine.
When the spring arrived, he spent more hours away from the Home and the Warden reported him to “The Authorities” as a “delinquent.” A council official took him away and he was sent to a Boys Reformatory where they tried to “reform” his character with occasional beatings and confinement.
On the day of his birthday, he decided enough was enough and slipped over the wall.
When he arrived at Number 24, he was surprised to see the front door ajar. He pushed in and called “Missus Thomas” in a loud voice. From the back room a weak cry brought him to the kitchen. Missus Thomas was lying on the floor and held out her hand to him.
“I slipped,” she said,