It was the afternoon of the day before Christmas Eve, our first Christmas in the village, when a stranger walked into the shop - well to be honest most people were strangers then but this one was more distinguishable than the others.
This was an elderly woman, with wild uncombed hair, a hint of moustache, and a large very grubby grey overcoat hanging almost to her ankles. It looked like one of those joke coats that shop lifters wear - I half expected her to open it up and see frozen chickens in extra pockets on the inside.
She looked shiftily all around the shop before asking if we were alone.
"Oh no, a hold-up." I thought and then wondered how quickly I could call out to my family upstairs, or more importantly how quickly they would respond (the dogs were still in quarantine).
"My husband and family are upstairs." I warned. She smiled, a crooked toothed smile and then laughed.
"Your new 'ere aren't yer love? I thought I 'eard the shop ud changed 'ands ... agin." She began to survey the shelves, taking items down, examining them carefully before placing them on the counter ... she went to the freezer and started rummaging around, selecting items carefully and adding them to the growing pile on the counter. I was a little alarmed, the pile was growing and this old bird did not look as if she had the means to pay ... at the back of my mind I wondered if this were a trick, run up an enormous bill then start spinning me a sob-story about not having the funds ... could she put it on credit?
"Would you like me to start ringing up these items Mrs ... ?" I asked tentatively.
"If yer like love." she chirped back. I preferred her to be standing in front of me when I started to ring up, I didn't want to enter any dispute that I had overcharged. She returned to the counter.
"I'm Doris Stovell love." she said extending a wrinkled old hand. I knew the surname, the Stovells were an old and well respected family in the village. She laughed as she gaged my reaction "Oh I know I don't look like one of those toffee-nosed gits but I'm one of them." She nodded her shaggy head vigorously, "I lived with Vic for over 30 years, we 'ad 3 boys together - they all took 'is name ... and then to spite the family 'e married me on 'is deathbed and left everything in Trust to me an' the boys." she laughed again "An' there's nofink they can do about it." I marvelled at her candidness as I began packing away the items I had rung up. I was still wary of how she intended to pay for her purchases.
"Me an' the boys." she repeated, "although there's only one left now. Me youngest drowned in the pond up by the Church ... you should 'ave seen the funeral we give 'im. They come from miles to see my poor boy buried."
I mumbled my sympathy to her, as tears formed in her eyes ... all the time wondering how I was going to extract payment for the goods. With a quivering voice she continued,
"Then me eldest 'ad a 'eart attack ... just like that!" she clicked her fingers "Getting on the train 'ome from Clapham Junction - just dropped, 'e was dead before 'e even 'it the deck." tears tracked down her wrinkled cheeks as she warmed to the story she was telling. Now I really was starting to panic ... the bill I had rung up was high and I had no idea how I was going to break in and tell her the final cost. She told me more funeral details, she told me about the remaining son and his money grubbing wife, she laughed about her neighbours and told me how they were always trying to steal land from her by moving their boundaries
"They may fink I don't notice an inch or two 'ere an' there ... but I tell you love there's no pulling the wool over the eyes of Doris Stovell. I weren't born yesterday." she winked at me knowingly,
"Neither was I," I thought, I blurted out the total of her purchases almost apologetically.
"Blimey." she looked at the bags on the floor, around her feet "I got abit carried away there didn't I?" My heart sank ... she was going to ask for credit ... and then she opened her old coat removing a wad of notes, I mean a huge wad of notes - there must of been at least £1,000 in that roll.
"Mrs. Stovell, you really didn't ought to be carrying that much cash about." I said as she began to unroll the notes.
"Call me Doris love," she looked up and laughed "I've got a couple more rolls somewhere in 'ere. I got lucky on the dogs." She winked again, "An' whose goin' to bother me, they'll take one look an' fink I'm on the road."
Doris came into our shop infrequently but when ever she did she bought huge amounts, talked about her dead sons and paid cash from rolls stuffed into the pockets of her coat. I often saw her trapsing around the lanes when I was out walking the dogs - she was a great walker and would always walk over to the race-course at Epsom and home again. When she died a friend of mine bought her house from the Estate - Doris had lived with no indoor bathroom, no electricity upstairs, and the house hadn't been decorated for over 30 years. I often wondered who had found that old grey overcoat of hers and if they discovered the rolls of cash hidden in the pockets.