Billy McEntee was a barrow boy, just like his Dad before him and his Granddad before that. He’d never done anything else, just worked on the barrow six days a week down the Woolwich market. Left school at 14, tried to get out earlier but the truancy kept finding him and dragging him back. They reckoned that his granddad was one of the shrewdest traders the market had ever known, and among the families that owned the barrows up on the High Pavement that was praise indeed. Billys’ Dad was no slouch either, but Billy had the best of both of them.
See, these High Pavement traders were the aristocracy of the market, every last one of them was at least third generation. None of them were ever to be seen wearing anything else but tweed cheesecutter cap, fingerless mittens, shirt with no collar and a canvas apron that looked like one of Nelson’s sailors had stitched it. But if you were quick enough to follow them when the market was all finished and the barrows had been wheeled away, the cars they had parked in the quiet back streets looked more like stockbrokers cars than barrow boys’. And no matter how flash the cars were, the local toe rags would never touch them, they all knew what would happen if they did. Occasionally a few of the young and stupid ones would try it on, but none of them ever tried twice, and nothing was ever reported to the Police.
But things were changing, the supermarkets were growing in size, and it seemed that every new housing estate had its own Safeways. Billy had just turned 59 and he was beginning to think of doing the unthinkable.
He’d been thinking about it on and off for months now, but still hadn’t had the courage to tell Jean, his wife of 36 years. If there was anyone in the market who was sharper than Billy, it was Jean. If he could spot an underweight sack of spuds a mile off, Jean knew how much was missing. And though Billy and Jean had three kids, it was three daughters and no son to take over the barrow.
Then one day his eldest daughter, Suzie, right in the middle of Sunday dinner, says “Me and Ricky are going to get married, Dad, that all right with you?”
Well, for about 10 seconds Mr Razor Brain just shut down, didn’t he. Had a power cut, lost the power of speech.
Then he said “ What brought this on, Suzie, you’re not up the duff, are you?”
“Course I’m not, Dad, just that we’ve been going out now for about a year, and I think it’s time to do me own thing. Ricky’s all right, I know he’s not in the business but he makes good money selling those European cars.”
There was a pause, and no-one said a word.
“Bloody good luck to you both” said Billy. “Got any dates in mind?”
He didn’t see the grin on Jeans face and the look that she flashed at Suzie, one of those “told you” looks. Her sisters jumped up and just about smothered her, and that was all that was talked about for the rest of the day.
That evening Billy finally told Jean that he was thinking about giving up the barrow soon, and retiring.
“Took you bloody long enough to get round to it, Billy boy. You’ve been moping around for months, did you think I didn’t know what was on your mind.”
“Yeah, I know. It was Suzie that made up my mind for me, with just the three girls and none of them wanting anything to do with the barrow, I think it is about time we had some time to ourselves. Marie and Annie will be off flatting somewhere soon, and I just fancy a place down on the coast somewhere, maybe near Worthing or Brighton. We’ve got a good bit put away and by the time I sell the barrow and the spot, we should be well provided for. I want to see about buying one of those motor homes and getting round the country a bit, over to the continent and suchlike. We’ve never had a proper holiday, it’s time to make up for that.”
Jean just looked at him, because making a speech was just not his style. She saw the look in his eye and knew that she hadn’t seen that for a long time, and a sudden sense of plain old fashioned happiness made her wrap her arms around Billy and give him a big kiss.
“When I first saw you Billy boy, you were going out with that Mavis Archer. Once I’d seen you, she didn’t have a chance. I’ve never regretted it.”
Everything just seemed to roll on from there, the wedding was planned for about six months away, Marie told her Mum that she had been accepted to work for one of the big holiday companies at a resort in Spain and Annie said she had been offered a place at Luton University to study English as she wanted to go into teaching.
Suddenly the house changed, the girls had not yet left but they were away much more and the house was quieter than it had been in a long time.
Billy had no trouble selling his barrow and the spot to Pete Brickell who owned
the barrow next to his, and the farewell in The Artilleryman pub was still going at
Billy arranged with Pete that he would stay on the barrow until him and Jean had found a place down on the coast and sold their house up on the Common.
They had been down to the coast on several Sundays and thought that they had found just what they were looking for. The owner and his wife had always wanted to go and live in the South of France and had decided they needed to go now, before it was too late. Billy couldn’t believe it when he found out that the owner of the house also owned a motor home only four years old and that he wanted to sell that too. Jean and Billy were happy with the price of both the house and the motor home, and the sale was quickly settled.
The wedding was only a month away now, the sale of their house was almost finished, and they now owned the house down near Worthing. Billy had taken the motor home out for a drive with the owner, and when he came back home he nearly drove Jean barmy raving on about how much fun he had had. He just couldn’t shut up.
And now the final day on his barrow was here. His Granddad had started in the nineteenth century, just out of the Army, with nothing except a small gratuity. Billy was down at the market at his usual time, yakking away to Pete about how him and Jean were going to take the motor home over to Wales then up through Cheshire to the Lake District. He had set up the display, New Zealand apples, Seville oranges, beautiful Packham pears. The last thing was going to be some dark blue Australian table grapes, special giveaways to his oldest customers.
He opened the long, shallow box, unfolded the soft, green wrapping and reached in to pick up the first bunch.
As he reached in, he called out to Pete, “Hoi, these are beautiful grapes, Pete, do you want some?”
Yeah, Billy McEntee was a barrow boy, and a smart one at that. But he never found out what a Taipan was, never learnt that the baby snake was as poisonous as its parent. Didn’t have time, you see.