Miss Gill was large, warm and comforting. A smiling presence with permed hair that she kept safe under a hairnet and a nice glittery brooch. She stood behind a high counter in her tiny shop and she always had time for you when you went in to choose sweets. She knew everybody’s name and she knew what to ask you about. I liked choosing and she was patient enough to give me time to do it. She talked straight to me as well, not just to the grown ups. There was no packaging. You chose your sweets little by little- one by one if you wanted to- from big glass jars set in rows along the wall with all kinds of colours and flavours inside. I knew what I liked and so did Miss Gill. Peppermints, hard toffees to suck, and chocolate drops with hundreds and thousands on them. No jelly babies, fruit drops, liquorice or fudge. After the choosing and weighing the sweets were put into a brown paper bag and handed down carefully to my outstretched hands in exchange for a few heavy brown pennies, a threepenny bit, or sometimes a tiny silver sixpence. I didn’t like spending sixpences, because they were pretty, but I did like getting change. I liked Miss Gill’s shop too. It was a secret, just a room in her house down a hallway without any sign outside that I can remember and it sold things that I wanted.
Once a year, in early November, there was a very special visit to Miss Gills shop. I was taken down there, holding my granddad’s hand and squirming with excitement, to buy fireworks. I had been pestering him to take me ever since the first adverts appeared on the television. Black and white promises of a wild sensory excitement. A big box of Standard fireworks had already been bought from one of the big shops in York, a box just like the ones on the television adverts. This was great, obviously, but it was placed straight into a high cupboard, away from the open fire and my potentially dangerous impatience, so I only got one look inside it. Now I could take charge. I used to sing the television song to my granddad as we walked down the road, “light up the sky with standard fireworks”. What I liked about Miss Gill’s shop was that she sold fireworks loose. There were never enough of the fireworks that I liked best in the box and the rockets were not big enough. I could make up for that with some extra choosing. My granddad used to lift me up so that I could see right into Miss Gill’s big box and I would show off by reading the names. Golden Rain, Traffic Lights, Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels, Mount Vesuvius. I remember those because they were the ones that I liked most. One by one I said their names and they were put on the counter. Any firework that had a noisy name was never going to be chosen. They were all “bangers” and boys liked them but boys were stupid. I liked fountains of fire, brilliant showers of colour in the dark, not noise. Anyone could make a noise. When I had finished choosing and negotiating how many I could have- always more than my granddad had intended- they would be put in his special biscuit tin straight away and I was allowed to choose a few rockets. This was easy. It didn’t matter what they were called, it was just a matter of size. The bigger they were the higher they went and the longer they lasted. I loved all the attention I got as I worked out which ones I wanted. Childish excitement and enthusiasm is always charming to adults and I was usually a quiet little thing, a solitary only child who didn’t speak up for myself much, nor did I have a say in much that happened to me, children didn’t back then. Choosing anything was a rare treat as most things were given to me or passed down from someone else and this wasn’t just choosing- this was being allowed to choose something beautiful and dangerous. This was going to be my night. It was my night mainly by default, just because nobody else was that bothered, but it was my night all the same. The bonfire was a darkening pile in the centre of the garden, all ready to light.
It was better than Christmas. It really was.