The evening was warm and dry, the chance to go out was tugging at me like a young puppy. I decided to go out after work to “somewhere in the North of Manchester” – that was as far as my plan went. Using the Megalithic Portal on my phone I found a list of sites in the areas north of Manchester. I scrolled through and saw one called “Delf Hill” which had a stone circle on top that looked nice and welcoming – no time for details – just go! I set the satellite guidance and headed off.
The journey was through rush-hour Manchester. Bad move! Then I was free once I got past the Trafford Centre, and heading up the M61. But it was much farther than I expected. It took me an hour to slog through Manchester traffic and then another hour to get into the back of beyond on the M65 to Burnley. Burnley? Why was I going to Burnley? I didn’t even like the place! In fact, I’d warned someone from going Blackburn way only this week! If I’d realised I was going this far and in this direction I wouldn’t have gone! You know when you reach that point, though, when it’s as far to go back as to go on?
The navigation system took me to a small lane near the top of some hills near to Briefcliffe. The name rang a bell, but the bell was silenced by the intrepid quest for the new stone circle. As I got out I looked around. I recognised this place. This was the place that my father had taken me and my brother sledging one year when it had been particularly snowy. In fact, it had been one of the few times we had done that, hence it being so memorable.
Looking at a map on the phone I realised that the stone circle was still a long walk away and it was going to get dark in the next half hour. I gave up on the circle, but decided to go and explore the area. I had lived only a few miles down the road. I remembered a power centre that I used to sit on as a boy. Would it still be there? I drove towards the quarry where the power centre used to be. I could see it clearly in my mind. My new objective! My ‘new objective’ is now a housing estate and I missed the turning to get in among the houses. Never mind, I’d just take a few left turns and I’d be back on the same road. The left turn took me into the street that I had lived in. It looked the same, but I knew it wasn’t.
I saw that the only light in the street was from the corner shop. A welcoming cosy light in the nearing gloom of the end of the day. I needed a drink, so why not stop in the old shop? When I knew the shop as a boy it sold sweets on a tray for a penny, and was run by a nice lady called Veronica. There was a space for a car outside the shop so I pulled up and went inside. Inside the shop was the same! Nothing had changed in 30 years! The counter still had the same trays of cheap sweets. The window was stacked with jars of favourite sweets – chocolate limes, bonbons, rhubarb and custards, everything I remembered.
As I approached the counter a lady with greying hair stepped out and smiled. I smiled back and told her this was a “blast from the past” and that I used to frequent the shop many years ago as a boy. I mentioned that the place used to be run by Veronica. “That’s me, “she said. I was amazed – still here? 37 years, she confirmed. Soon we were talking about the street, my family, my times there, the schools I went to, and how the place had changed in the years she had been there.
She mentioned that I was “lucky” to come back when I did. This would be her last year running the shop and she was due to retire next year. I feigned surprise, but it was of no surprise to me really. Everything had led me here for some reason. I was now just waiting to know why.
I bought some token items to stave off my thirst, and as the small talk dwindled I looked her in the eyes:
“Good luck and lots of enjoyment in your retirement.” I said, with heartfelt tones, “and from all the children in the area – thanks for serving us all these years. You’ve been great.” She blushed, and I did too. But I kept eye contact. She knew I meant it. My eyes watered a little.
What I realised from this episode was two things. Firstly, no matter how many times I think I’ve escaped my past and that I have no need for it now – sometimes it re-emerges so that I can shape the rougher edges, repair some of the holes, say some of the things that I never got a chance to say. Secondly, a life of service can be one of the most dignified and rewarding ways to spend your time as a human being in society. Now, as a Hedge Druid this gives me something to think about. I have a strong yearning to be of service, but a real dislike of being part of a community that I don’t think would accept me for who I am. This, I feel, is something to make me think in the coming darker months.
Goodbye Veronica. Your penny sweet tray and your sweet smile will be sadly missed.