Read an extract from Mary Portas’ memoir Shop Girl, in which Mary recounts a memory from growing up with her Irish Catholic family in Watford.
The smells of petrol, tea and leather fill Dad’s work van as I sit beside him watching concrete streets give way to leafy greenness.
‘Now you’ll be polite to the auld fella, won’t you, Mary?’ Dad asks.
‘Be a good girl and I might take you to Mr Tite’s if we’re not too late back.’
Sweets start dancing before my eyes: rhubarb and custards, humbugs and pear drops; flying saucers, coconut snow and milk bottles. The shelves in Mr Tite’s shop are lined with jars that make my heart race. Acid drops and aniseed balls. Black Jacks and traffic-light lollipops. Jelly beans and lemon sherbets.
Then I think of the pink-and-white candy stripe of the Jamboree bag.
I must be polite to the auld fella if I want one. But I don’t like visiting his shop. The shelves are almost empty and the air is dead, so different from all the other places I visit with Dad.
‘Surely you’ll be wanting to order a bit more than that?’ my father says, to men in aprons and women in brightly coloured nylon coats standing behind counters topped with shiny glass. ‘There’s a cold snap coming. People will be needing more cuppas this week, won’t they?’
‘Oh, go on, then, Sammy! I’ll take another twenty packets.’
‘Why not make it thirty?’
Peals of laughter greet my dad’s patter. He is so good at selling tea that he’s had his picture taken for the front of the Brooke Bond staff magazine. ‘SAMMY’S FLAIR’ said the headline, and my mother roared with laughter when she saw it.
‘Look at you, Sam Newton!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’ll be selling ice to the Eskimos next.’
As my father talks to the shopkeepers, I gaze at the shelves full of neat repetition and colour: bright yellow labels on Chappie dog food and tomato red on Heinz soups; the green, yellow, white and red Kellogg’s Corn Flakes packets standing next to little baker men etched black against the crisp white of Homepride flour bags. I like the smells too: the sharp tang of cheese, warm aroma of just-baked bread and snap of fresh newspaper ink. These shops are places where the bell always pings as you open the door, the air hits you warm as you walk inside and a smile greets you.
Most of all, they are places where people chat and collect news, exchange gossip and advice, meet, greet and love – or sometimes hate ‒ their neighbours. Even as a six-year-old, I know there is a world enclosed in the four tiny letters of the word ‘shop’.
My mother stands in front of the hallway mirror as my brothers and sister run around her, scrambling to get on their coats. Patch is barking, Joe is looking for a lost shoe and Lawrence has started to wail.
Mum stops for a few seconds. Unscrewing her lipstick, she slicks it on with the few practised strokes of a woman used to never having enough time to spend too much on herself.
‘All buttoned up?’ she asks, as she bends down to Lawrence, and the smell of lipstick blended with the faintest hint of Coty L’Aimant fills the air around me.
Mum always wears lipstick but each Sunday she dabs on a couple of delicate strokes of perfume for good measure. Not a lot, though. She wouldn’t want Father Bussey to think that Theresa Newton spends too much time dolling herself up. Besides, the bottle has to last. Too expensive to waste.
Dad, who smells of Brylcreem, is holding my brothers’ faces steady as he pulls a comb through hair that sticks up in uncontrollable tufts the rest of the week. Then he wraps his silk scarf around his neck as Mum slips on her white gloves and gives her best shoes a final glance to make sure there are no scuffmarks on the chocolate brown suede.
‘Let’s go,’ Dad shouts, as he opens the front door.
Michael, Joe and Tish run out in front, with Lawrence and Mum following behind. I’m somewhere in the middle and have to run to keep up with Dad. Thrusting my tiny hand into his huge one, I wriggle it into a comfortable resting place as the seven of us troop out of the front gate and down the road past the terraced houses that jostle for space on our street.
‘Don’t forget to look at your egg face in the chalice,’ Joe whispers, as he walks beside me.
‘Shut uuuuuuuuuuuuup, Joe,’ I wail back at him, trying to push the image from my mind, knowing I never will.
‘Leave your sister alone! Don’t go making her laugh during mass, now, do you hear me?’
We blend into the stream of other families making their way towards St Helen’s: the Maguires, the Walshes and the Quinns; the Brennans, the Newnhams and the Healeys. Gaggles of children follow in their parents’ wake, knowing that nothing but the best behaviour is expected during the most important hour of the week.
Mum, Dad, Tish, Lawrence and I walk into the church and towards our pew – third from the front on the right-hand side, the Newnhams in the front pew and the Quinns in the second – as Joe and Michael go to the sacristy to put on their robes. Lawrence will also be an altar boy when he is old enough, and I envy my brothers taking part in the drama of mass while I can only watch it: the rustle of starched white surplices with frills around the collar, the smell of the incense as Father Bussey intones the prayers, the feel of velvet carpet underneath their feet at the altar instead of stone.
Meanwhile I am left to sit on a hard pew every week, knowing that for me and all the other children here, Sunday mass will be one long battle against laughing and getting a clip round the ear. The day that Mr O’Riordan put a pound on the collection plate and took back change has never been forgotten – nor the sight of Mr O’Sullivan clenching and unclenching his buttocks for an hour each week as he concentrates on praying harder.
Try as I might, Joe’s words ring in my ears as I wait for the moment when I go up to the altar to be blessed while Mum and Dad take communion. Laughter and fear twist inside my stomach as I kneel beside them and try to concentrate on my prayer.
‘Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,’ I whisper to myself.
‘Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
‘Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.’
But the moment Father Bussey reaches my parents with the altar boys following him, I look up to see Joe staring at me – a tuft of curls on his head and a wicked gleam in his eyes. Then my gaze is inexorably drawn towards the chalice where I see my egg face staring back at me from the rounded side of the silver cup that holds the blood of Christ. As my brother quashes his laughter to save for later, I start to giggle.
Extract taken from Shop Girl, Mary Portas (Doubleday).
This piece was first featured on summerofpenguin.com, a month-long celebration of stories and ideas on the London Underground’s WIFI network in partnership with TFL and Virgin Media. So if you happen to be travelling by Tube this summer, be sure to read a story on us.