Sweet Secrets of Brighton
Sweet Secrets of Brighton, by Nisse Visser
The children were huddled in a corner of the little green patch which centred the small square near London Road; enthralled by a game of glarnies. Four boys, all of them around twelve years old, were competing; flipping marbles with their first finger against their thumb and trying to land them in gullies formed by the partially exposed roots of a London planetree. Two others looked on; a younger girl, about nine years old, and a small boy who clutched her hand and regarded the game with awe. Eddie marvelled at the intensity of the competition whilst his sister Brenda admired the marbles. The twisted colour markings inside the glass spheres were pretty, just about the only bright things on this dull grey day.
“Hurrah,” Eddie piped when the game was won and Brenda ruffled his fair curly hair. As always she envied his curls, her own mousy hair was mostly distinctive because of the pudding basin hair style. All of the children engrossed by the game had them. A proper hairdresser was a luxury, somebody at home would put a pudding basin over their head and simply cut off any hair that protruded beneath its rim.
“Enough already?” The winner was called Jamie, he had dark hair and a sharp cheeky face. Two of the boys pouted and drifted off; they weren’t keen on losing more precious marbles to Jamie and his mate Will, who re-adjusted his Brodie helmet. The tin hat was far too large for Will and forever wobbling around and sliding askew. Will’s bright blue eyes seemed to laugh as he watched the other lads drift away.
“That was good,” Will said happily. “What next?”
“Sweets!” Eddie suggested and Will laughed.
“There aint many left,” Jamie shrugged.
“Jamie is right,” Will said wistfully. Sugar had been rationed for some time and there wasn’t a sweet shop left where the large jars were filled to the brim as they ought to be. Besides that, he only had ha’penny to his name; most sweet shops started selling at a penny.
“SWEETS,” Eddie insisted and Brenda looked at him to give him a good frown. Catching her eye he started pointing at the far corner of the square and all of them looked in that direction.
“Well I’ll be…” Jamie exclaimed. Will adjusted his helmet.
There was a small shop there with a narrow door and a display window filled with rows of sweet jars forming a kaleidoscope of bright colours. A sign read: SARAH’S SWEET SHOP. Will and Jamie glanced at each other in disbelief. Brenda knew they prided themselves on knowing every sweet shop in the area and smiled slyly; they obviously hadn’t known about this one. Come to think of it, she had never seen it before either.
They slowly drifted across the square; approaching the tempting display window with the reverence of pilgrims. All of the jars were filled to the brim. The door opened and a woman beckoned them. She had emerald eyes and a kindly face that was framed by a mane of abundant hair which reminded Brenda of fire. She wore a simple white dress which formed a stark contrast to her hair.
“Do come in!” The woman beamed.
“Just a ha’penny, ma’am,” Will answered regretfully.
“Which will buy you a ha’penny of sweets,” she answered with a warm smile and Will brightened instantly.
The rest grinned, they knew Will would share. The woman disappeared back inside and the children crowded in behind her. When the door swung shut with a merry tinkle of little bells Brenda saw that there were no chocolates or biscuits, just shelf upon shelf filled with sweet jars.
“You can each taste two sweets first if you’d like,” the shopkeeper stated and the children shared glances of disbelief; this was unheard of.
“Are you sure?” Jamie asked carefully, not quite sure if they were dealing with a sane person.
“Positively,” the woman smiled. Not only did she appear quite sane but she filled the space with a bright radiance, as if the sun had broken through the overcast sky outside and now danced upon the rainbows created by the jars. As if dreaming the children drifted around the shop, running their hands along the jars, gazing in delight or examining potential candidates more critically. They took a long time making their choices but the woman did not seem to mind at all. Instead she voiced the names of whatever sweets she saw them look at.
Gobstoppers, acid drops, mint humbugs, aniseed balls, fruit gums, pear drops, bull’s eyes, brandy balls, glacier mints, chocolate drops…there seemed to be no end to the heavenly delights.
The children waved happily at the shopkeeper when at long last they departed, Will clutching a paper bag which held a far larger content than a ha’penny justified. When they stepped out of the shop it took a few seconds before they registered the black acrid smoke which stung their eyes and filled their lungs. Their eyes widened. They had not heard the eerie wail of the sirens, nor the drone of aircraft or the all too familiar whistle of bombs, let alone the detonations. None-the-less, half of the houses had been completely obliterated; transformed into piles of brick and broken timbers and a huge crater had eaten the patch of green whole, throwing up embankments of disturbed earth. The streets were strewn with shards of glass and debris, some of it still smoking.
Brenda turned in amazement to look at the shop display window and gasped. The others heard and turned too. All they could see were aging sagging boards which looked like they had been nailed to the door and window frames forever ago. A fading paper sign on the door read: To Let. The children looked at each other with incredulity and then turned to survey the smoking ruins of the square once again.
Will shrugged, adjusted his helmet and then said: “Anybody want a sweet?”
This short story features the characters and setting of the soon to be published book: WILL'S WAR: A Story of Wartime Brighton.