Biscuits and Jam-jars

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By: Mike

“A Penny worth of Broken Biscuits”

 kids at sweet shoppe

Mr. Hegarty had a small food shop on Main Street back in my old hometown in Ireland but rapidly lost his temper if anyone called him a ‘Grocer’. He sold fine foreign cheeses, coffee-beans no less and beautiful looking foreign cooked meats. He was trying to be High Class and in fact most of the well-to-do in the town did frequent his premises. ‘We’ ordinary people used Mrs. O’Regan’s with her no frills and a little credit when things were tough…

Most of the people in the town in those days, and I am talking about the 1940’s just after the war, had never even tasted coffee. They loved their tea and with the end of rationing, everyone was happy. If you went into Mr. Hegarty’s, you had to stand aside while he served his well dressed and well heeled customers.

In front of the counter he had about eight tins of biscuits with glass tops that you could see into and while waiting to be served, you could have a look at all the fancy biscuits and dream… Oddly enough, the only thing we young ones went in there to buy was ‘a penny worth of broken biscuits’. You see, the well-to-do customers insisted that none of their biscuits were broken. We young ones would wait outside his shop if there were no customers and would bide our time until someone entered and began to be served. We would then make our move…

We would then all walk in and look longingly at the biscuits. We all knew that he had another less fancy tin behind the counter. It was also a good sign when you could smell whiskey on his breath for when he had had a few glasses he would always be in a good humour. More importantly, he would then also be in a generous mood…

There were usually three or four of us in our little group and whoever had the penny would practically beg for ‘a penny worth of broken biscuits, please, Mr. Hegarty’. If there is one way to encourage children to have manners it is to dangle something they dearly want before their eyes. As I say, it was probably more than manners in the case of Mr. Hegarty; it was more like groveling to him.

If he was in a good mood, out would come the special tin from behind the counter and with his hand he would literally put handfuls into a paper bag. That was if he had been drinking. If not, the bag went on the scales and he pretended to be measuring the weight.

It was then outside and around the corner where we would form a huddle. Slowly but surely the paper bag would be opened and then, with the greatest anticipation you can ever imagine, each hand would enter the bag and a biscuit piece taken blindly. It could be a chocolate one, a wafer, a jam filled cream and (with a curse under ones breath), a plain ordinary and everyday dry biscuit. Whatever one got, it was savoured until the next choice came around. Ah, now, those were the days…

Mr. Jenkins had a sweet shop opposite. He also sold cigarettes and I think that he did a fair trade during the war when cigarettes were at a premium. He had a lovely wife and I think they were Jewish. He also liked a drink and the stench of whiskey was sometimes overpowering. If he was drunk you could get enormous ice-creams for cheap prices. They had no children and provided you were mannerly and courteous Mrs. Jenkins would make a thorough fuss of you.

However, the best thing about her husband was that he would give refunds for lemonade bottles and jam-jars. A half-penny for a small one and a penny for a large jar or bottle. In those days most of our mothers made jam (Jell-O) from wild blackberries and other fruit. If it ever happened that one of us did not have the money for the cinema, we would have a raid at each of our homes and take any jam-jars that our mothers might have secreted. There would be hell to pay if she ever found out we had taken them. Good old Mr. Jenkins never asked any questions…

The strange thing is, that a couple of minutes ago, whilst typing this little tale, I had a cup of tea and about six chocolate biscuits… they meant practically nothing to me. To think that a quarter or even better a half of a chocolate biscuit back then would have been heaven on earth…

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