Comments from judge, Rachel Seiffert:
"A disarming wander down memory lane, with a twist at the end which reveals the metaphor hidden in the title - indeed in the whole piece."
POPPIN DOWN THE CHIPPIE by Stephen Atkinson, joint second place in ChipLitFest's 2018 Short Story Competition
She stepped out lightly onto the pavement, alone and somehow regal. There was nobody about, no pedestrians, no traffic, and she tripped along, carefree, upright and purposeful. The street was hers; an empty domain of concrete and tarmac, lamp-posts and shop fronts with coloured awnings. The first window offered a tempting orgy of assorted delights; humbugs, sherbet lemons, pink and white flying saucers and multi-layered gob-stoppers big enough to choke a blue whale. She stopped to peer for a while, and old Mrs Henderson gave her a cheery wave from behind the counter, beckoning her inside. She shrugged and smiled back, mouthing ‘must-get-to-the-chippie’ as she jabbed a finger towards the end of the street. Mrs Henderson feigned a sad face and returned to a slab of toffee she was pummelling with a light, silver hammer.
The girl in the pink summer dress turned away, a mild reluctance in her gait. Next door was a hardware store and next to that a pharmacy. Little to interest her there. She skipped on, listening to the sounds of her own ringing footsteps as she recalled street games she played when she was even younger; jacks, hop-scotch and ‘avoid-the-cracks’. If you stepped on one, the bears would get you. Or worse!
The village High Road was bright and sunny but she was the only one about. She hugged herself in delight at the sense of warmth and well-being in the sunlight. She could climb a mountain, swim any sea. Her heart was as light as the crimson ribbon in her long wavy hair. It was good to be alive. She would like to go to the rec, to play on the climbing frame and swings, but she had to get to the chippie. It was a perfect summer’s day for it, but she was on a mission.
Just past the bright red post-box she bent to pet a little Scottish terrier.
“What’s the matter with you?” she cooed. “Why aren’t you at home in your garden? It’s not safe for a doggie to be out on his own in the street.”
She ruffled his ears. “Now shoo off home,” she gently chided and stood to continue her journey. Slightly troubled, she remembered how her mother would scold her for petting a dog before food, even chips.
Her melodic voice rang in her ears as she skipped along her way. “Wash your mitts, evict the nits.” She smiled and carefully wiped her fingers on her dress. “There!” she declared. “Clean as a whistle.”
Just as she came to the tiny red-brick police house Pc Williams was stepping out to begin his patrol.
“Well, hello little one,” he said, his deep sonorous voice reminding her of her father’s, before the war. “Off to the chippie?” She grinned up at him, and wondered if she should curtsy as she was often to do when she met strangers. But the policeman wasn’t a stranger so she just waved as she passed.
“Don’t cross the road without looking,” he called after her, although he knew there would be no need for her to cross any road. Besides, there was no traffic.
Next to the police house with its old fashioned blue lamp was Mrs Jacobs’ cottage and, beyond that, the toy-shop. Here she was sorely tempted inside although she had barely enough money for the chips. She stopped to stare in the window. Teddy bears, dolls, model trains and even a brightly coloured jack-in-the-box begged her affectionate attention. She pulled a sad face as Mr Carver beckoned her in, his spectacles sticking out from a breast pocket in his white coverall coat. She pursed her lips again to silently mouth: “Got-to-get-to-the-chippie.”
She knew that he was just faking the teardrop wiped delicately from his eye, but she yielded and with girlish joy thrilled to the familiar chimes as she opened the door.
“I think I might have just the thing for you,” Mr Carver said solicitously, leaning behind him to produce a gleaming blue and red spinning top. “This one hums as it spins.”
He leaned over the counter and pressed the wooden grip to set it in motion and she positively melted at the soothing sounds that accompanied its whirring wobble.
“New in today,” he said. “It’s going to be all the rage. Not even tin, but bright modern plastic. Do you like it?”
Her eyes already told him all he wanted to know. Her hands were clasped delightedly at her front, almost as if she were in prayer.
“I don’t have the money,” she said. “I’ve got to get to the chippie.”
“No, silly,” Mr Carver said, kindly. “Tell your mother this is a marketing sample. The manufacturers want to know whether children will like it, not being of tin and all that.”
“Marking sample?” Now her eyes were nearly popping out of her head.
“A sort of free trial – but for keeps,” he insisted. “And in a week or two you can tell me how you got on with it. You don’t have to return it. You are doing the makers a sort of favour.”
But she knew she couldn’t accept it, at least not without her mother’s permission. “I’ll tell mummy,” she said. “Perhaps she’ll bring me back. Thank you.”
Mr Carver smiled sadly as she turned to leave. “Have you seen my glasses?” he enquired jovially, slapping his hands against his sides to check his coat pockets. “I’ve mislaid my glasses.”
“Top pocket,” she replied, pointing, and left the shop giggling to the wondrous sound of musical chimes as the door opened again.
She was nearly there. Just another few steps and already she could smell the vinegar and batter, saveloys and mushy peas, and her mouth watered as she imagined her chips casually wrapped in yesterday’s Daily Sketch.
Outside the chippie stood that young rascal Tom Scaggs, his hands deep in the pockets of his hand-me-down trousers. She couldn’t actually remember seeing him in any other pose.
“Where you goin’?” he ventured sulkily. “Ain’t you got your mum wiv’ yuh?”
“Do I look as if I have my mother with me?” she answered haughtily. “Kindly step aside, Tom Scaggs. I’m going in for chips.”
“Chips? ‘Ere, can I ‘ave some? I’m famished.”
“And what will you do for me, Tom Scaggs?” She knew better than to give the likes of him something for nothing.
“I’ve got a big, fat glass marble, with more swirling colours than a summer sunset.”
“Can’t eat a marble,” she said. “I’m hungry, too.”
“Just three chips,” he implored. “It’s a bargain, that is. Pleeeaase, Alice.”
“We’ll see,” she insisted, mysteriously, as she stepped round him. “You hum a bit.”
“You, too,” he said, swirling round to watch her enter the chippie. In a quieter tone he added: “Quite nice really….roses, or summat. Definitely flowers.”
“Well, I don’t wear scent,” she admonished. “But someone I could touch with a short stick ought to.”
He pulled a hurt face but beneath her imperious façade she was smiling warmly.
That Tom Scaggs, she thought. What a deadbeat!
There was a new man behind the counter, someone she didn’t at first recognise. A large leonine head and a white coat, just like Mr Carver, but in his breast pocket, not spectacles, but the tops of two shiny red pencils.
“Hello, Alice,” he said, which surprised her. “Sixpennyworth?”
She nodded, slightly confused. “Where’s Mr Davies?”
“You know me, Alice,” he said with an apologetic, regretful smile. “I’m Dr Wilson.”
“She’s gone,” announced Dr Wilson quietly, gazing down at Alice’s frail, elderly head on the pillow. Gently, respectfully, he let go of the taper-thin wrist he had been monitoring as her pulse faded. Her frozen expression was soft with undisguised contentment. He took one of the bright red pencils from his pocket and, checking his watch, recorded the TOD on a clipboard. He turned to a forlorn looking figure still holding her right hand on the other side of the bed. “My deepest condolences, Mr Scaggs. But she looks as if she slipped away with some very happy memories.”