I sometimes have difficulty in putting a date to a story, but with this one I can date it to a few days. I am waiting to be served in Mr. Denyer’s shop, the ladies around me are all complaining about the shortage of everything. The war has made a lot of things vanish from the shops. It is around the first Christmas of the war, I know it is this date, because of a large lump of butter. Not because butter is in anyway responsible for the war, you understand, but just because it was such a large piece of the stuff, anyone could still buy as much as they want.
Because owning a fridge is rare, shopping is a daily task, something that I always seem to be an involuntary volunteer for. I can easily carry it all home in one bag though—a nice but rather scruffy one, made of triangles of red and green leatherette. The heavy stuff like potatoes and milk are delivered to the house. Stanford’s Farm—just down the road from us— delivers daily by horse and trap. The milkman, Joe, takes milk from a large shiny urn, and using a pint measure, fills our jugs.
Bobby, Mrs. Salmons son, delivers fruit and vegetables once a week, he has a horse and cart—a wagon like the ones we see in cowboy films, complete with canvas top and hoods back and front. I often help him do the delivery’s just for the ride he sometimes buys me a lovely dinner in a cafe up near the Town Hall. Sausage, egg, and chips, it cost him a whole shilling! It is still my favourite cafe dinner whenever I am away from home.
Denyer’s, is a grocery shop near Bell Corner in Guildford Street, it is my mother’s favourite shop, and one of the oldest shops in Chertsey. The front of the shop is largely unchanged, still with a very small front door. The floor inside is covered with a layer of sawdust like a butcher’s shop would have, and has been lowered at some time, this means having to step down into the shop.
The ceiling is still quite low, with wooden beams, now blackened with age. I look at the big mouldy sausages hanging from them, and the smelly cheeses on the counter, they look disgusting. Mum says only posh people from Ruxbury Hill eat these sausages, or our Italian neighbours. We have nothing to do with this sort of stuff.
The shop looks ancient— just like the owner, Mr. Denyer. But mum likes the shop. “Everything is freshly prepared.” she would say. I am very much aware of this, as I am in the queue watching Mr. Denyer, doing some of this ‘fresh preparing stuff’. He is a very short man, but what he lacks in height he more than makes up for in girth. His long black overall nearly touches the floor, he has a white apron over this with a large pocket in the front.
As a child I had a habit of imagining grown-ups as animals, Stepgate’s School was a rich hunting ground for this. The morning assembly with all the teachers lined up in front of me was like Noah’s Ark. The plump Miss James with her round face and her very wide apart eyes, she was a dead ringer for a pretty dairy cow. The tall and skinny Mr. Jackson with his long neck and equally long eye lashes had to be a Giraffe. I always tried to be kind with matching a person with an animal but poor little Mr. Thomas with his low hairline and small sticky out ears it would have been cruel to do so.
Mr. Denyer needed no one’s imagination, he really does look like a Penguin as he waddles around his shop. He places the large block of butter on to the marble topped counter. Leaning back with one eye closed, his knife hovers for a moment while he judges where he will cut off about half a pound—there is a sharp intake of breath from the waiting queue—I like to add a bit of drama now and again—will he be able to do it in one go. Down comes the knife, no, not this time—he never does— he always has to add or trim off a few slices until the scales show eight ounces. Undaunted by this failure, he scoops the butter up with a flourish, and starts patting it about with a pair of flat wooden paddles—almost as if he is playing keepy-uppy—until it resembles half a pound of butter, then he wraps it up as if it is some sort of Japanese paper art.
A lump of butter, being knocked about with a couple of sticks, by somebody resembling a penguin, really does make an impression on a young boy—it’s worth doing the shopping in Denyer’s just for the entertainment. Every other shop sells the butter ready packed, but that’s Denyer’s for you, everything freshly prepared. Holding it up for the waiting queue to admire, he says.
“Now then ladies, take a good look at this lovely pack of butter, it will be the last time I’ll be able to do this for you, rationing starts next week”.
He takes a matchbox from his apron pocket and holds it up for all to see, saying.
“This is how much butter each of you will be allowed for a whole week, just two ounces”. The ladies in the queue started moaning to each other again, but I didn’t care, I never liked butter.
Rationing started in the first week of January. 1940.