Shoelaces

“What’ll we buy, Nana?”

“Shoelaces.” My Nana tugged my arm tightly as we hurried along the country road early in the morning to catch the soon-to-be-departing bus.

“I know, but what else?” I persisted as we climbed onto the bus.

“Just shoelaces.”

I knew we’d buy more than just shoelaces. No one ever took the bus trip of thirty minutes to the bustling metropolis of Westport just to buy shoe laces. I was sure my Nana would buy me, her number one driftwood gatherer, a treat, a surprise that she was keeping to herself for now. I fidgeted on the bony bus seat until Nana turned her steely gaze on me, and I stopped.

This shopping excursion was a welcome change from the usual daily routine at Nana and Poppa’s in the small wind-blown coastal village of Granity, where they lived.

Nana cooked on a wood stove, fed on driftwood collected from the beach. My job was to collect and stack the driftwood in the old tumble-down garage.

I spent hours scouring the beach for pieces of driftwood for that stove. This wasn’t an inviting beach, not a beach to explore or frolic on. The wind blew relentlessly, and the massive waves crashed with frightening force. In winter, it was extra blustery and bitterly cold.

Sitting in the corner of the kitchen was a gleaming new electric stove brought by Nana’s four children a few years earlier, but Nana stubbornly refused to use it.

“It’s just a waste,” she’d say. “A waste of electricity, and nothing tastes as good cooked in that new-fangled thing.”

“How do you know?” my Dad retorted. “You’ve never used it.”

Nana became teary and walked away in a huff. My Dad didn’t persist, and I continued to collect the driftwood.

Dad and I visited his parents every winter. Nana and Poppa lived in a modest wooden house near the beach, which wore the ravages of the harsh wind and frequent storms over the years. There were always repair jobs for Dad to do when we visited.

Poppa had been a coal miner all his life. He and Nana had emigrated from Yorkshire to the West Coast with their young family forty years earlier. Years of hard toil had affected Poppa. He stooped a little more every year and moved a little slower. He was a quiet man who liked playing harmless jokes on people, like when he glued a half-penny on the concrete step at the back door. On seeing the ha’penny, Nana bent to pick it up. She became frustrated when she couldn’t budge the coin. When Poppa began to laugh, she knew she’d been duped.

“Harry, we don’t have ha’pennies going spare for you to go sticking on concrete steps for one of your silly tricks,” she admonished before stomping inside.

That half-penny remained stuck to the step for many years and tricked many others but none as good as Nana.

My Nana was of small stature. At ten, I was already half a head taller than her. She was as thrifty with her words as with her pennies, and everyone felt her presence. Her tightly curled grey hair was captured in a hairnet, the type most people only wore to bed. On her stick legs, she wore grey woollen stockings and black, flat sensible shoes. Nana had one going-out coat. She’d had this coat since immigrating. “It’s still as good as the day I brought it,” she’d proudly say. And except for a few moth holes and an array of different buttons, it was. The coat completely smothered Nana’s small frame. A pair of thick glassed spectacles framed her tiny scrunched face, and her piercing blue eyes spoke louder than any words behind those spectacles. Nana became more and more taciturn as the years passed.

On reaching Westport, Nana and I crossed the street from the bus stop at one end of Westport’s main street and entered the haberdashery. Finding the shoe laces she needed, Nana went to the counter.

“That’ll be 3d,” the young assistant smiled at her.

“3d,” Nana exclaimed. “Are you sure you’ve priced them correctly?”

“Yes, ma’am. The price of those laces is 3d,” the girl replied, a slight blush rising on her cheeks.

“Hmmm, I’ve never paid that much before,” Nana complained as she counted out her three pennies.

“Will there be anything else?” the girl enquired.

Without replying, Nana gathered her bag and purchase and left the store.

I struggled to keep pace with her fast march down the street. “3d, 3d. Daylight robbery, I call it.”

At the other end of the street, we entered a shoe store. Nana spied the exact same laces. “How much are these?” she demanded of the young shop assistant.

“2d. How many would you like?” the young man inquired.

“Harrumph.” And with that, Nana left the store, leaving the young shop assistant holding the shoe laces, a look of confusion on his face.

Back down the street, we marched.

“Where are we going now, Nana?” I asked, hoping I’d get my treat, the surprise Nana had planned for me.

“Back to the haberdashery, of course.”

Entering the haberdashery again, she thumped the shoelaces on the counter. “I’ll have my money back, thank you.” Those piercing eyes fixed on the quivering assistant.

With her 3d tightly clutched in her hand, we again left the haberdashery and returned to the shoe store, my hopes of a treat quickly fading. Nana brought the 2d shoe laces and triumphantly left the shoe store.

Waiting at the bus stop, I ventured to ask Nana a question.

“Why didn’t you buy the cheaper ones the first time we went to the shoe store, Nana? It’d have saved us two trips.”

Fixing her steely gaze on me, she replied, “But then I’d have spent 5d with no guarantee of getting my 3d back.”

“We’ve probably used 3d’s worth of wear on our shoes,” I mumbled.

Post-script: Years later, when living in London, I went to the Kensington Flower show. As well as all the floral displays, many retailers sold gardening-related paraphernalia. A burly chap who I picked straight away to be a Kiwi stood by an enormous stack of driftwood of various shapes and sizes. He explained that driftwood had become a fashionable garden accessory for the pocket-sized gardens in London’s leafy affluent suburbs. He shipped container loads out from the West Coast and was making a killing with it. He held up a twisted, tortured piece no more than a metre long with an eighty-pound price tag.

“People will pay that?” I said.

“They sure do, and more,” he chuckled.

If Nana had looked down on me that day at the Kensington Flower Show, she’d have turned in her grave.

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