So I was in the Baking aisle of my supermarket, minding my own business and poring over their selection of cake sprinkles in preparation for the return of The Great British Bake Off when I hear my name being shouted out. I looked around, and decided someone must be looking for a lost child or street urchin and returned to my sprinkle safari. Until a tap on my shoulder.
I looked up and recognised Margaret, who used to run the Off-Licence round the corner from me (I was a fairly frequent visitor). It’s always been my favourite Off-Licence – inside, it was covered in wire caging to prevent anyone nicking the oodles of booze on show, with a peep-hole for the Shopkeeper just large enough to pass a bottle through. It was like a prison for alcohol. Its chief unique feature was a series of optics that would dispense individual shots of spirits if you fancied ‘a wee nip’ – very useful if you were baking or cooking and wanted to add a little vodka or whiskey – or, indeed, for a late night medicinal toddy. Margaret also used to open up for an hour on Christmas Day, so you never ran out of the ‘Merry’ for Merry Christmas.
We’d bonded because I was a regular visitor, and I had a ‘signature’ bottle of wine that she used to order specially – which had the same name as where I live, so it was a proper ‘House Wine’. It was also gorgeous – deep red, chocolatey velvet and spicy. And, like me, fairly fruity and strong.
She looked somewhat frail in the supermarket, holding onto her trolley and wavering a little. I’ve not seen her for a while, and had often wondered what had happened to her – although she still lives above what used to be the off-licence, now a beauty salon of dubious reputation. I haven’t tanned there myself.
So we caught up a little. We’d bonded when she ran the shop, as she also had cardiac issues, and survived heart surgery, so we became like Old Soldiers reminiscing about the front-line.
And, like me, she’s a had A Bit Of A Time Of It recently. Sadly, her husband died at Christmas after a long illness. And two years ago she was at Death’s Door in the cardiac unit, in Life Support for a week. To the point where they tried to offer her family the ‘Liverpool Pathway’ – where food and resuscitation are withdrawn. She shook as she told me this, and proudly told me her daughter told them to ‘F*ck Off’. Fortunately, she had pulled through and introduced me to her daughter-in-law and granddaughter before giving me a big hug and wandering back off to continue her shopping.
I watched her go off into the fray, to continue the good fight for survival, amidst the pain and loss of her last couple of years. I looked back at the rows of sprinkles, and all the celebrations they were designed for. The birthdays, the weddings, the anniversaries, the comings out, the passing of exams, the new jobs, the new homes, all the trappings of our lives being lived and loved.
For a moment, we were back in that caged off-licence, a little refuge for the old soldiers, and we poured shots from the optics and celebrated our good health.