Saturday, 24 December 2016

CHRISTMAS EVE - A MIDDLEWICH CHRISTMAS TALE


EDITOR'S NOTE

For Christmas Eve  we have something very special for you, courtesy of Bill Eaton, who is custodian of a lot of photographs and written material by the late Frank Smith of Ravenscroft.
When the Middlewich Heritage Society started in 1985 and I found myself in the role of Newsletter Editor my main, and best, source of material was Frank, who had an enduring interest in the town and its history. Frank wrote many articles for the Newsletter and kept up a reliable and seemingly inexhaustable supply of unfailingly interesting material.
This tale of old Middlewich has, to my knowledge, never been published before and gives us just a glimpse of Middlewich as it was in the 1920s.
It was written, in 1989, in Frank's distinctive and very evocative style, and will, as Bill Eaton says, be particularly interesting for older residents who may just remember some of the places mentioned.
One of them, incidentally, the 'Meadow Dairy', features in our header photograph.
I'm delighted to be able to bring you this story, so very appropriate for Christmas Eve , and hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
My thanks to Bill Eaton for passing this on, and to Joan Smith for permission to publish it.

Dave Roberts
Editor
Christmas Eve 2012

CHRISTMAS EVE

by Frank Smith



As the North-Western bus pulled away from its stop near the bottom of Darlington Street a rather old man in well-worn clothes appeared among the passengers who had alighted.
It would be hard to give a description of him, as everything about him seemed indeterminate. The only two details that seemed positive were that he seemed very old and by the bright lights from Hodkinson's Greengrocery it was evident that he had a white beard.
He stood for a moment looking at the fruit and vegetables and the tinsel that was draped over them. He moved on to Wilson's Fruit Shop and looked over the half-door which was closed to keep out some of the chill air which gave promise of snow before morning. He sniffed appreciatively at the aroma from the barrel of Canadian Dr Mackintosh apples with their purple tissue paper wrappings before he moved on and gazed over the heads of a group of children who were standing, gazing with looks of desire and excitement at the display of toys, garlands and silver stars in Ward's Toy Shop window. He hardly seemed to notice the rather mundane display of crockery in Niddrie's shop.
Before crossing the road he watched a smiling, rosy-cheeked Mrs Atkins serving a customer with a 1lb box of Red Rose chocolates. Obviously a Christmas present for a loved one.
He paused in front of Walker's shop, but there were many blank spaces in the display where boxes of toys and games had been removed to meet the requirements of parents in their Christmas Eve rush to fulfil promises to their children.
There was, however, one box which had not been moved from its pride of place in the centre of the display. It was a large doll in a magnificent silk dress, with the lace of a petticoat peeping below the hem. Its porcelain face was almost too beautiful to be true, especially with the long eyelashes of its moveable eyelids. How many little girls must have yearned for it as a Christmas present, but the price label of 18s 6d effectively put it beyond the range of many people.

Heathcote's was the next shop to catch his eye. They seemed to have made a special effort to show off their confectionery skills. There were several Christmas cakes with their robins and holly decorations and, even as the old man paused, the largest of the cakes, complete with Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, was lifted from the shelf for a beaming customer within.



The Alhambra Cinema, despite its bright lights, did not seem to impinge on his consciousness. Obviously Buster Keaton held no attraction for him. 
What appeared to have caught his eye were the ducks, geese and fowl hanging outside Butcher Mountfield's shop, but strategically placed in the centre of the row was a large, beautiful turkey with its black/bronze feathers glinting in the gaslight. A few more paces and he mounted the steps and looked over the half-door of Cauley's shop. He looked in admiration at the kissing bush which hung from the ceiling. Inside the paper decked hoops hung a fairy, complete with wand, who moved gently in the incoming air. It was almost impossible to see her for the pink sugar pigs and mice, the sugar pocket-watches and the sugar birdcages with their white lace mesh. A small boy stood near the counter, enraptured by the magic of it all, almost forgetting what he had come for when Mrs Cauley asked him for the second time what he wanted.

It seemed strange that the people who passed in front of the old man never heeded or spoke to him even though they cheerfully wished each other a 'Merry Christmas'. The Meadow Dairy window seemed to outshine all the other shops with the intensity of its lighting, and many of the highly-coloured slab cakes on display seemed almost garish in the harsh light. The Christmas cakes seemed to be rather overdone with coloured, piped icing and, while they didn't appear to be of the same standard as Heathcote's, their prices of 4s 6d and 5 shillings were somewhat lower.

The display of chocolates and sweets in Paul Whittaker's held his attention for a few moments, as did the tall glass display jars with their spiked glass tops as they dominated the shelf at the back of the window. A burst of laughter and some cheerful back-chat between friends across the road indicated that Brown's Vaults were helping to capture the Christmas spirit. As the old man moved on he saw the harrassed staff in the Co-op attending to the needs of their customers while two of the counter-hands were busy making up final orders while the delivery man stood impatiently by, grabbing the order as soon as the cardboard box  was filled, and almost before the counter-hand had time to write the customer's name on it in indelible pencil.



Butcher Hulme, too, was busy as he dealt with a steady stream of customers.
Kinsey's also seemed to have its fair share of customers, although the atmosphere seemed somewhat calmer than the Co-op. The old man seemed intrigued by the overhead arrangement whereby the customers' cash and bills travelled in little wooden pots to the cashier, and the receipt and change returned to the counter.
Although it was only eight o'clock the smell from Gatley's Chip Shop indicated that soon the first house from the Alhambra would be coming on to the street, and they were ready to catch the trade.



The new premises of Fitton's butchers was making the most of the opportunity and they had put on a very creditable display. The right-hand side of the shop seemed to have its rails full of all types of poultry, a few hares, some rabbits and several turkeys, which seemed to indicate that it was becoming a popular Christmas choice. The rails on the left-hand side of the shop were hung with carcasses, mainly beef and pork.
The window displays were of various cuts and joints of meat, but centre-stage in each window was a pig's head with an orange in its mouth.
Opposite, Brauer's the Chemist were closing their shop and it was just possible to see all the exotic perfumes, bath cubes and other toiletries before the lights were switched off.
Pegrams, too, was busy, and the open spaces in the shelves where the dried fruits were kept indicated that many people had been busy preparing their mincemeat, puddings and cakes for the festivities.
Next door, at Hulme's, the fragrant smell of fresh ground coffee floated on the air, but the old man appeared not to notice.


The sound of music floated on the air as Bailey's Band began to tune up in the Town Hall for the Christmas Eve dance which was due to start. This was apparent from the number of young men in their bowler hats and navy blue serge suits, and the young women in their 'flapper' dresses with small brown paper parcels containing dance shoes under their arms, entering the Town Hall.
At the bottom of Queen Street the two small shops, a butcher's and a greengrocery belonging to Wright's were still open but, perhaps due to their position on High Town, didn't seem to be so busy.
Perhaps the magnificence of Fitton's was drawing away much of their custom.

The rest of Hightown and much of Lewin Street seemed rather less busy, although there were plenty of shoppers about.

At the top of Wych House Lane Robinson's Chip Shop was advertising its wares by the smell drifting across the road on the East wind. 


Opposite, the pyramidical displays of fruit in T. Oakes window hardly merited a glance from the old man.


He seemed to be tiring and walked as if every step was an effort.
He turned up to the Market by the Fire Station, and paused as if to gather his strength.
Again it seemed strange that no one seemed to notice him.
By the guttering light of the naptha flares it was possible to see from the haggard look on his face, and his deep sunk eyes, that he was ageing quickly.
Despite this he looked at the different stalls; the fish stall with the fishmonger almost giving his wares away, as he knew that tomorrow (Wednesday) being Christmas Day his unsold fish would be a dead loss as he had no facilities to keep them saleable until Friday.
The stall selling cheap German toys for a few pence; the glass birds with glass fibre strands for their tails which would decorate Christmas trees along with the gaudy glass baubles and the coloured wax candles.
Finally, he turned and painfully dragging his feet between the stalls, walked to the darkness of the Vicarage Field.
A small boy, who appeared to be the only person to see him, ran after him and called, 'who are you?'
As the figure disappeared into the gloom the boy heard an old voice say,
'I am the year 1928...'

Frank Smith
Ravenscroft
1989
© Joan Smith 2012

Originally published CHRISTMAS EVE 2012
Re-published 16th DECEMBER 2013
and CHRISTMAS EVE 2014

Revised, reformatted and re-published Christmas Eve 2016


3 comments:

  1. Superb! Loved this story. It is so atmospheric.
    Well done.

    ReplyDelete
  2. a great advert for Middlewich shopping!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for sharing this...
    It is indeed written in such a lovely, discriptive, and as you say, evocative manner.

    ReplyDelete

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