Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bagging the tea and other memories

Some of you might have read my recent piece on the drapery and hardware shop belonging to my grandfather which was on part of the site now occupied by the supermarket.

Well, there was another shop too, this one owned by a pair of women whom I knew as my aunties Peg and Nora.

They weren't direct aunts, but my grandfather's sisters. This was the business which my great-grandfather came into Kilcullen to help out with and which established him here as a carpenter and builder. And coffin maker, which led to the family's long involvement in funeral undertaking until recently.

But I still have vivid childhood memories of that shop, and the residence attached to it. There were really several ground floor sections: a grecery shop, a bar, a back store and a parlour and kitchen where my aunts lived, as well as two bedrooms upstairs. Access to the whole complex was by one open entrance way, with a door on the left into the parlour and one straight on into the grocery shop.

The shop was of the real old kind, with a scrubbed wooden floor, a varnished hardwood counter, and wooden shelves behind on which stock was stacked. In these days of supermarkets and convenience stores it might seem strange that people would queue up to be served by somebody behind a counter, rather than helping themselves and then queuing to pay. But that's how it was then.

Beyond the shop was the bar, divided by a partition and a door with frosted glass and a brass handle. Its own counter was an extension of the shop's one, though access to behind both counters was from the back end of the shop between them.

Peg and Nora would do their stints behind the counter, but the real important person was the man who worked for them, name of Pat Quinn. He was barman, storeman, shop assistant. And polisher of the brass pole which supported the ceiling, and operator and cleaner of the slicer which was used to cut the sides of bacon into rashers, and the cooked hams into thin slices.

The slicer was an awesome thing to a youngster, all stainless steel and deep red enamel. It was totally mechanical and an amazing piece of engineering, using the weight of a flywheel to spin the cutting disc, a bright and frightening sight, especially when watching Pat Quinn's fingers getting dangerously close to it as he pushed the side of bacon in and out during the cutting. The slices slipped out the other side onto another shiny stainless steel flat piece, from which they'd be picked up and placed on greaseproof paper on a scales, to be checked for price.

Apart from the speed at which Pat Quinn could do this, the other amazing thing to me was how accurate the weight asked for ('a half-pound of rashers, please, Mr Quinn') would be produced. Part of that was, of course, experience. But also there was the brass adjuster, with numbers which dictated the thickness of the rasher, and later I realised that Pat would know how many rashers of any preferred thickness made up a half-pound, or a pound weight. That adjuster had its own fascination, though, I suppose because it represented control.

As kids related to the shop, we used to love to swing around the brass pole, much to the chagrin of Pat Quinn who had earlier polished it to an exquisite shine. If he was in really bad humour, he'd make us polish our handprints off it. Most times, though, we got away with it.

There were other chores which were more interesting. Such as filling the pound bags of tea, sugar, sultanas, raisins, and candied peel at Christmas.

These bags were of a heavyish paper, and in a variety of dullish colours, blue, brown, grey and dark green. The colour denoted the contents, which came to the shop in bulk and had to be bagged with the aid of wooden-handled metal scoops.

We kids felt privileged to be allowed do some of this work. Not least because there was always a treat of chocolate or boiled sweets at the end of the afternoon's work.

The tea came in large plywood boxes, tea chests sealed with foil that was sharp-edged but much prized for playing with after the chests were opened. The actual plywood lids of the boxes were dangerous too, with what seemed like dozens of small sharp nails sticking out of them, and the square of wood had to be carefully put out of harm's way while we were around.

The sugar came in a sack, and the sultanas, raisins and candied peel were, to the best of my memory, in boxes not as big as the tea-chests.

The bagging was a straightforward thing. Take the appropriate colour bag in one hand and with the other open it out so it sat comfortable in the hand (they came folded flat). Then put the scoop in the tea, or whatever was being packaged that day, and pour what was picked up into the bag. The open bag was placed on a simple balance scale with a brass weight on the other side, and any extra needed was poured in until the scale tipped. We got really expert at not needing to add anything to the bag.

The next skill was folding the top of the bag closed. There was no Sellotape or other glue system. It was just a neat fold, and the nature of the bag's material was that it stayed closed if this was properly done.

We enjoyed particularly bagging the sultanas and raisins, because we could pop the odd handfull into our mouths. Thus, as an aside, making our mother's ritual with Syrup of Figs unnecessary that night.

The bags were then stacked on the shelves at the back of the shop, ready for the customers. It all looked very neat, and unlike these days when such staples are carefully sealed in their plastic bags and boxes, the paper bags allowed the various aromas to leak around the shop, mixing to give that very special smell which the old shops still have in the memories of those of us lucky enough to have been there.

Other smells came from the fresh vegetables which were on sale each day, and among these which I remember with most affection are the baskets of peas in their pods. There's something even today about pea pods which is extraordinarily inviting, a smell of particular sweetness. When my mother would bring a basket of them home, there was no problem in getting us to help 'shell' the peas from the pods. The real problem was making sure that we didn't eat all the raw peas as we did so, and the only way she could make sure that enough were left to be cooked was to allow us chew the empty pods afterwards. I'll still do that today when the opportunity arises, and though you can't actually eat them because they're too stringy, there's still a great sweetness when they're chewed. If you've been raised on frozen peas, you really have missed out, guys.

Other smells also made up the scent of the shop. Like the fresh bread that came up each morning and evening from O'Connell's bakery down the town. There's really nothing like it today, and especially engaging was the batch loaf which was the most popular in my family's house.

I'm probably not the only boy in town who was sent to get the bread, which was wrapped loosely in thin 'bread paper', and by the time I got home I had eaten inroads into both 'white' sides of the loaf. Especially when, as it was most times, it was still warm from the oven down town.

The aroma of stale Guinness was also a part of the whole environment in the shop, because that was the only draught drink in the bar at the back. I've written elsewhere about my memories of this, especially how there was a copper basin under the hand-pump that took the beer from the barrel, where the overspills went, and a copper jug was used to scoop this up and top off the pints for the customers. This was how it was, and nobody minded.

There was a glass six-shooter in the bar, part of an advertisement for some special drink and mounted on a mirror. It fascinated me as a child, and later it ended up as one of the artifacts in the family pub, The Hideout. When my late brother sold the pub several years ago, he asked me if there was anything I'd like to have. I chose the gun, which is now somewhere in my attic and not nearly as interesting as it appeared to me as a young child.

Other memories from the shop are the rack of biscuit tins, at a later date gaining glass lids so you could see inside. But in those earlier times we depended on the label to know what was inside, and it took some special deftness to remove the lids without doing damage to fingers.

My aunts' residential part of the premises is most in my memory for the kitchen, which lofted high to a rooflight that gave it an unusual brightness all through the day. There was a range, but I don't remember the make. And a kitchen table of the old solid wood type, with an oilcloth covering which was what you did with a wooden kitchen table in the days before plastic materials.

There were tiled walls too, and always a welcome for the child relations who needed somewhere to stop off on the way home to inevitable chores or, worse, homework.

In truth, I really only have vague recollections of Peg and Nora, though Nora also sticks in my mind because she was the first person that I recall seeing dead, laid out in her small bedroom upstairs. I don't remember it being a shock, or even sad, but I suspect that as children we deal with such basics of life much better than we do later as adults.

I can still see too the parlour which was where my aunts probably entertained officially. My memory is that it was quite comfortable, in a fussy kind of way which is likely when it was the living room of a pair of maidens. What stands out in my mind is the mirror over the mantlepiece, a circular thing that almost belonged in a funfair hall of mirrors because it gave a wide-angle view of the room and didn't show anybody in it in a natural way.

My aunts died. I grew up. And eventually Uncle Tom turned the shop and bar into Kilcullen's first 'supermarket'.

My own personal end to the memory is when that supermarket went on fire one summer evening. I was then a young man, and with several other people I ran into the burning building to save what I could, and quite a lot of stock ended up stacked on the footpath outside.

It has to be said that it didn't remain stacked there long. But what the heck, Uncle Tom's insurance company paid for the windfalls on many tables that week and Lord knows he'd paid enough premiums over the years to fund it.

My own abiding memory of that night is the damage done to my jumper, and to my hair, by what I later discovered was melting lead from the gutter between the shop and the former living quarters of the premises.

And of providing suitable refreshment for the members of the Fire Brigade who had managed to save the structure of the building that night, and a great degree of the liquor stock, in the then roofless kitchen where I had so many times as a youngster delayed my going home after school, to child's chores and schoolwork.

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