Eternities : On Cleveland Street

Harold & Ida Baker was written in running writing on the lintel above the glass-panelled door you opened to go into the shop; a bell tinkled and there you were, back in the 1950s. Or earlier. A grocer’s shop in which the delicious ham was taken cold from the fridge and placed on the pig board to be cut slice by slice from the bone before being weighted on the antique scales, loaves of freshly baked Estonian sweet and sour bread were wrapped in tissue paper that was then sellotaped and larger parcels done up in brown paper which was tied with string; plastic had not yet been invented. If you came at lunch time you could spend twenty minutes waiting to be served, while working men in stubbies and singlets clutching their drinks stood motionless and silent like cattle as their sandwiches were made. Harold was a small man, thin, with liver-spotted skin and a mild manner; he never hurried and after a while I realised this was because he was not able to: everything had to be done in the same order and at the same slow pace or else he became anxious and flustered and forgot what he was doing. Ida was a buxom, capable woman about the same height as her husband but broader across the beam. Her bosom always reminded me of the breast of a sparrow and, indeed, the two of them were like a pair of birds, chirping softly to each other as they went about the day’s ritual, which was always different and always the same. They lived behind and slept above the shop; their children had long since flown the coop; the traffic thundering incessantly down busy Cleveland Street was the accompaniment to their dreams. Across the road was the Britannia Hotel at which, every Wednesday evening, crowds of pale young people in dark clothes gathered to hear The Wet Taxis play Ambulance Ride or Clock on the Wall or Sailor’s Dream. It’s been remodelled since but there used to be a snug where, twice, I had a drink with Bruce Greenfield and his friend Charles, a gay Aborigine who became the first person I knew to die of AIDS. I think it was probably complications due to decades of breathing in exhaust fumes that made Harold sick. This was not admitted for some time although everybody who used the shop knew that he was becoming even slower in his cutting of the ham and his weighing of the cheese; Ida would watch him with a worried look on her face and, when he forgot what he was doing, prompt him gently back into action. It was cancer, she told me with tears in her eyes one day after he disappeared from the shop, for treatment, and was replaced by a son and daughter-in-law who, you could see, resented every moment they spent away from whatever their chosen pursuits were. Harold came back after a while but he was a ghost of his former self; only a couple of weeks later, without warning, the shop closed and never opened up again. It’s just another terrace house on a busy street now and that air of the 1950s (or earlier) which seems to me like a precious elixir that should somehow have been preserved, has gone forever. Consumed in the carbon monoxide fumes perhaps; subsumed by the lead that poisoned Harold and left Ida, whom I saw crying that one time only, alone with her tears that surely became, however long they lasted, everlasting.

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