Friday, 2 May 2014

A guest at my table - Mr McCafferty

Mr McCafferty had enjoyed a long and happy career as a Maths teacher, but in his late fifties he had developed heart problems and had had to retire early. His whole life had been working with children and watching the cogs turn in their developing minds as they finally understood what he was trying to teach them. His wife worried that he might become depressed without a focus, he said, but she needn't have worried - Mr McCafferty knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. His childhood dream had always been to work in a sweetshop. And now, with a reduced pension to keep them going and a lump sum from the sale of his Mother's house, he was finally free to fulfil his dreams.

Every month I visited the little market town with a string of four children in tow, a pushchair and bags hanging off everywhere. It was an expedition. The older two boys were ten and eight and full of beans. I was still young enough to keep up with them - having children in your twenties has something to say for it.

One day, on our stroll from the car to the centre of town (having a huge aversion to paying for car parks, such that I would make the children walk miles if necessary...mean mother that I am), we passed a little shop that had once been a barber's as it still had the stripy pole outside. But today the windows were covered in white paper and a sign writer was busy painting candy shades onto a wooden board outside. 'Mr McCafferty's Sweetshop' it read. The children tried to peer in through cracks in the paper, but to no avail. Sweets were only an occasional purchase in our house at that time - more because of lack of time, I think, than because of austerity measures (although there was a hefty dose of those too).

So it was a few weeks later that we made our next visit and this time the shop was up and running and full of customers. This was in an era when little old fashioned sweet shops with lines of jars on shelves were not yet everywhere, and my children had never seen something of the like. There were large coloured lollipops in jars on the counter and striped candy canes in zinc pots echoing the candy striped pole outside. It was a children's paradise and their eyes widened as they took it all in. Luckily, there were several people in the queue in front of us, so there was plenty of time to just stand and stare.

It soon became a regular point of call and the highlight of our visit as far as the children were concerned. James and Christopher had just been given pocket money and they took the whole issue very seriously indeed. Mr McCafferty was happy to mix and match to their heart's content. So the boys took him literally and would point to a jar on the top shelf and ask for two of those. Then another jar from the opposite wall. And Mr McCafferty would patiently take his stepladder and climb to the top and bring down another jar with its black Bakelite lid and shake out two rhubarb and custards or lime and chocolate striped sweets, onto the pan of his old fashioned dial scales.

There was always a smile on his face and his eyes crinkled at the corners as he pushed his glasses back on to his aquiline nose. He moved lightly but in a calm and relaxed manner, as if he had all the time in the world for us. And, indeed he had, he told us. His half pension left him free to enjoy his hobby, and he took great delight in watching the boys totting up the amounts in their heads as they worked out how far their pennies would stretch. He waved away my concerns and embarrassment that he seemed to be working inordinately hard for his £1.20, or whatever.

Over by the window was a table piled high with pink striped boxes and gauzy ribbons and hand blown eggs and rabbits with fluffy tails. At intervals customers would enter, choose and leave, and we would still be there with one child or another with their noses pressed up against the glass, red hair and freckles and shiny eyes, still trying to make the hardest decision of all. Sometimes my patience would start to wane as I looked at my watch and measured out the day, but Mr McCafferty just smiled and smiled. I never saw any evidence of Mrs McCafferty, though I'm sure she existed. She was 'at home doing women's stuff' apparently.

Michael McCafferty had two sons and no Grandchildren that I heard of. One son was in the army and living overseas and the other had apparently 'broken his mother's heart', so I never liked to ask. He would have made a lovely Grandad as he never seemed to get bored with talking to the children and showed a real interest in them. It was a real pleasure to enter his shop, in every way, and people rarely seemed in any hurry and irritated as they waited and queued. Those that were simply dashing in in their lunch break he served quickly and quietly without ever making you feel you had lost his attention. The children loved him. The best Grandpa is always one with a sweet in the bottom of his pocket when you're out on a long walk, as I recall.

So I'm setting the table for dinner as Michael pulls up in his little red car, removing his coat and hat as he enters the house. There are flowers for me and a small striped box of something for the children tomorrow. Out of the usual white shopkeeper's coat which he always wore, he seems smaller and older somehow. He is still smiling broadly and the smiles make his large ears move as he flexes his jaw. His eyes don't miss much, though, behind his wire-rimmed spectacles. He carefully rearranges the cutlery so the knives all point in the same direction as I bring the dish to the table and place it on the rush mat. He has never tried Chinese, he says, and a flicker of alarm passes over my face. Not to worry, he is keen to try new things, have new experiences. The shop has given him a whole new life that he never knew existed, and brought him into contact with all kinds of interesting people. After all, everyone likes a 'little something special' now and again, don't they?

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