Eleanor James was a tiny, small framed lady who lived three doors down from the shop. When we knew her she was well into her 80s - she had snow white hair, which was always beautifully maintained and wore sensible, but elegant little shoes, tweed skirts and twin-sets with beads. She had her paper delivered each morning and every Saturday would come into the shop to pay her bill and buy a few groceries. She would walk up to the counter and place her purchases onto it,
"I'm number 3 account." she would giggle "My Bill always used to say that I was his Page 3 girl."
Then her eyes would glaze over, "Oh I am sorry dear." she would say, her bottom lip trembling "I do miss him." Embarrassed by her show of emotion whoever was serving would look away, giving her a moment to pull herself together ... in that flash Nells hand would shoot out, whip a tin off the counter and drop it into her basket. Her deft movement and brazenness had to be seen to be fully appreciated.
"Shall I start ringing up Mrs. James?" the shop assistant would ask pointedly looking at the tin in her basket.
"Oh haven't you started yet dear?" she would reply innocently, taking out the tin she had inadvertently already taken off the counter, "I am sorry." And once that tin was safely back on the counter she would quickly pick up another and place it in her basket, pretending she had no idea that it hadn't been rung up yet.
She had been housekeeper for many years to Lady Waites, her husband Bill had been the Head Gardener. "Well of course I was more than just a housekeeper" she would say pulling herself up, "I was also a Ladies Maid." When Sir Ronald died the Waites family sold up their grand home in the village, they bought a little cottage for their two faithful old servants. Once or twice a year Lady Waites came to visit Nell. Nell would prepare for a couple of weeks before the visit, twittering and fussing about the tea she would serve, baking and cleaning, hiring young lads to come and mow the lawn and prune the bushes.
Days beforehand Nell would test her baking skills on all of us ... bringing in small slices of cake and half biscuits for us to sample and pronounce "Delicious". After the visit she would come in to share every minute detail of the great occasion, "Lady Waites wore her blue ensemble - set off with her pearl brooch that Sir Ronald bought her on his trip to Japan. He always bought her something like that..."
Sometimes Nell would stop in the shop on her way to the graveyard where Bill had been buried; wearing her usual outfit but carrying a neat little trug filled with potted bedding plants, her gardening gloves and a trowel. On her way back home she would just wave to us tearfully.
Often Nell would come into the shop in a state of high distress, "Is your husband about my dear?" if he wasn't she would bite her quivering lip and look anxiously around for a familiar male face - "Oh Eddie/Alf," spying them standing quietly behind her "Could one of you spare a moment? Only it's the light in the living room ... I've asked next door but Ernies out and Seans not here." Of course poor old Eddie or Alf had a moment ... and once he had changed the light bulb he had to have a cup of tea, and a piece of cake, or scone.
Every Thursday she would come into the shop 15 minutes before the Post Office opened, so that she could be first in the queue. "Do you think you could open early dear? It's just I have a bus to catch." She was always in a big hurry to get her pension. She would count it several times before putting it away, most weeks she would come back at lunchtime to tell us that we had short-changed her. "I'm sorry Mrs. James but once you leave the counter we can't entertain that we have made a mistake."
Nell started to fall over, we joked - rather cruelly - that she should stop putting brandy on her cornflakes, but one day she fell and hit her head on the corner of the work surface. It turned out she had a small, but growing brain tumour ... her son took her away to an old peoples home in Hove - she didn't stay there very long.