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U3A Writing: A Closed Chapter

Meg Sangster tells the story of Mrs B, a shopkeeper in a small Australian town. One night Mrs B, who has been leading a quiet life, is featured in a television documentary...

The small corner store presided over by Mrs B had always been there -or so it seemed if you’d grown up in the country town where you’d never known a time when it wasn’t there. Just as you’d never known what the B stood for.

A white picket fence connected the shop to a tidy timberclad house where Mrs B disappeared at the end of each day. That could be any time after dark, but not before last minute customers had been given all the time they needed to stroll between the narrow aisles and select what was itemised on their shopping lists.

The ‘open’ sign hanging against the inside of the glass panelled door was never changed. Mrs B always said that the lights would be turned off if she wasn’t there.

When I left the town to train for a career in the Police Force, I never expected to find myself stationed on home turf soon after I had graduated.

‘You’re a lucky one,’ my sergeant had said. ‘First postings are usually out back of beyond.’

In some ways it was good to be on familiar ground and to visit the old haunts wearing the confidence that came with the uniform. Mrs B had not forgotten me. I was greeted with the welcoming smile her customers had come to expect. It started with a flash of recognition and gradually lit up her whole face.

Over the years the brown hair had turned grey, but in other ways time had barely touched her. The small wiry frame seemed to be in perpetual motion as she served customers, replenished shelves, rearranged items enquiring hands had moved from their designated places, dusted, swept and rotated the counter display to show new stock the commercial travellers had persuaded her to try.

With tasks completed she would settle into the armchair at the back of the shop and read the daily paper until someone walked through the door. I had never known Mrs B to have a real holiday, but towards the end of each month she would warn her customers that she would be away in the city for two days to do what she called her ‘buying’.

I understood that Mrs B came to the town during the war years, before I was born. It was said her husband had been a wartime pilot, shot down during the Battle of Britain. The story was never confirmed or denied.

Our town had grown beyond the point where everyone knew everyone else and everything about them, but it was still small enough to harbour traditional prejudices against local aborigines and newcomers of obvious ethnic origin. Not something I agree with - prejudice - but it’s hard to change people’s thinking.

When Woolworths built a huge supermarket in the heart of the town, there were dire predictions that Mrs B’s shop would not last long. That was 15 years ago.

When the developers bowled over properties adjoining her white picket fence, it seemed the house and shop were doomed to go. But no. Other buildings disappeared. Mrs. B’s shop remained.

It was nearing the end of the day when the sergeant made a cup of tea and went to the staff room, leaving me to complete the report for the shift. ‘I want to watch that documentary they’ve been advertising all week, ‘The children who cheated the Nazis’, he explained as he left his desk.

An excited yell had me hurrying to join him. ‘Look, isn’t that Mrs B being interviewed?’

We stayed glued to the screen as she told the harrowing story of how, as a 14-year-old, she took her six-year-old brother’s hand, kissed her parents goodbye and joined a trainload of children leaving Berlin for London, where there might be a family prepared to take them in and care for them until things got better and their Jewish families thought it safe for them to return to Germany.

The year was 1935. The Nazis had come to power in 1933 and the persecution of the Jews had begun. Things got worse, not better, and the children never saw their parents again. There were tears in Mrs B’s eyes as she spoke, and my own felt moist as I listened.

We were stunned. ‘Could you imagine Mrs B living through such dreadful times? I feel sure no one in the town has known. What a story! I just can’t understand why she has never spoken about it before. You’d think she’d have wanted to tell people.’

The sergeant looked at me. ‘I wonder. This town has always been considered pretty……….conservative, or, should I say it……….racist.’

There was a long silence. ‘Oh. I know what you mean. If you’d lived through something like that, you wouldn’t want to risk coming up against it again, would you?’

‘It certainly makes you think. Here in Australia we’ve had it easy, haven’t we?’

‘It’s late. I’ll be off. See you tomorrow.’

The way home didn’t take me past Mrs B’s shop, but my mind was so full of her story that something prompted me to make a detour to pass it.

That’s odd, I thought. The lights are still on and it’s after 10 o’clock. I pushed the door and hurried inside. ‘Mrs. B’, I called ‘Mrs B.’ I ran to the back of the shop.

She seemed to be asleep in the armchair, but I stopped in my tracks knowing something was not right. My mind refused to accept what I was seeing. Mrs. B had left us. Quietly, as she had come those many years ago, but with all her tasks completed.

I walked slowly to the glass panelled door and turned the sign to read ‘Closed’.


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