A magical sweet shop looms large in my childhood memory, stacked to the rafters with every imaginable confectionary delight. I returned to it recently with my own kids to introduce them to this earthly paradise, and was astonished to see that the shop also sold vegetables, washing-up liquid and other ordinary household items. Somehow, as children, we only ever noticed the sweets.
We would stand there in quiet awe, when permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum – behind the counter – when the shop was closed and all was silent. There, we faced something like Solomon’s dilemma: we had to select a single item from amongst the cornucopia of multi-coloured treats crying out to us from the towering shelves.
As children, a couple of times each year we would travel to Galway to stay at Fordham’s shop in the handsome village of Monivea. Our aunt and uncle ran the shop and post office there, where the scents of old Ireland, peat smoke and paraffin still hung in the air, redolent of a gentler era when time moved by more slowly.
We returned recently during mid-term with our own brood in tow to find the old shop as well-kept and handsome as ever. My aunt and uncle, Brian and Mary, welcomed us into the kitchen where the old range was lit, the warm heart of the house. The only thing that had changed about it was that the turf which had fuelled it has since become illicit, at the whim of some distant individual in Brussels.
It seemed only yesterday that my brothers and I were scampering up and down stairs, along corridors and through the warren of warm rooms. I introduced my children to our well-worn old paths around the house, and to objects of perpetual fascination: a stuffed pheasant, old paintings and the barn out the back.
There was a special spot on the stairs where as a boy I would sit for hours, peering out from behind the banister, watching quietly as the life of a country kitchen went on below, much as it had for centuries. Sitting there once again for a moment with my own boy, I remembered three people, since passed, who had helped make the house so warm to us as children.
There was Mrs Fordham, always ready with a kind word and a smile – and perhaps a discreet Mars bar – for us obstreperous boys from Cork.
There was Joe, always happy to pull us aboard his red tractor.
And there was Josie, only recently passed. Josie helped out around the shop his whole life, but he was also a talented athlete, winning a medal at the Special Olympics, and receiving Monivea’s traditional hero’s welcome: bonfires lit in his honour all along the broad village green.
Perhaps it was the people, more so than the sweets, which made Fordham’s shop such a special part of our childhood. Although in fairness to the artistry of sundry confectioners, the sweets did play a significant role.
Our gang departed, just as we had once, with both the warm embrace of their relatives and the traditional bag of sweets clasped firmly in their hands.
Perhaps it is this unique combination of human warmth and E numbers that conspires still to elevate a country shop and post office to the status of magical kingdom in the minds of a new generation.