Pills, pastes and potions - Julie

The heavy door of the Apothecary was always shut even in summer unlike the doors of the bakery and grocers or the hardware store that spilled its contents over the road whatever the weather. On a warm summer’s day the smells of baked bread and ripe fruit floated down the street in glorious tandem making stomachs rumble with desire but the smells of the Apothecary were hidden. The door had small windows, thick with cart dust that settled in the bull’s eye glass, hiding the interior from view. However when you pushed that door open the smell of a thousand herbs and spices dancing together almost overwhelmed you. Then their subtleties became clearer and you smelt a hundred faraway places, imagined distance exotic shores, Arabian nights and the comfort of healing power. The scents were soaked into the wood of the multi-drawered cabinets that lined the walls, floor to ceiling. The wood, so old, it was the colour of burnt toast and toffee with small shiny brass handles and mysterious labels in a foreign language on each drawer. You wanted to breathe deeply, to suck all that magic, all that potency in, it was truly a place of awe and mystery.

The Apothecary was Dr Grieve, as old as time with white wispy hair that sprouted from his head in directions contrary to the laws of gravity. He always wore black with a neat bowtie. He spoke in quiet tones, so quiet you had to lean into him to hear the all important directions for taking your medicine. Rarely, if there was more than one customer, you all waited in reverential silence unlike the giggling gossip of the haberdashery. But try as you might you could never hear what terrible or interesting infliction the other person was being treated for.

There was a large counter, behind which Dr Grieve stood; it was covered by pieces of complicated apparatus used for making the various cures he dispensed. Sometimes when you entered an empty shop you would catch him bent double like a Roman arch over one of his processes, pill making, or coating plasters with thick paste. Other times he would be carefully opening and inspecting each of his little drawers, cooing like a loving parent checking on sleeping infants.

The pills I collected were for my mother, I could barely see over the counter at first but over time I grew and could rest my elbows on it and gaze at the paraphernalia with wonder. The pills were small and as white as teachers’ chalk but they did my mother good. She said so and Dr Grieve told me to take them to her quickly so she never ran out. I clutched the brown paper bag tightly and ran with wings on my feet down the lane, dusty, muddy or frosty, to home. She would rise from her couch and hug me before greedily tearing open the bag and swallowing two of the pills with a glass of gin before lying back smiling serenely.

“I feel so much better now you are a good boy to collect Mummy’s medicine for her” she would say before lying back on her couch seemingly the same but somehow better too.

I had wanted to be a draughtsman or a coachbuilder, to learn a trade or get an apprenticeship, my teachers all said I was bright enough but money was short and Mother needed her medicines so I never stayed at school but became an errand boy at the hardware store, carrying home the goods for the wives whose husbands were in the inn. Dr Grieve’s hair had finally given up growing and remained a mere wispy shadow of itself, and his suit baggier than it once was. Weekly I went in, sometimes so quietly he did not hear me and I snatched furtive glances at the little drawers, I knew a few words of Latin, vulgaris, offincalis, nigrum from my truncated education but I never understood what that meant in relation to the secrets inside. Mother had swollen legs now so Dr Grieve gave me pasted bandages for her to wrap them in.

“Your poor mother how she suffers”, he would empathise, “bears her ailments with such fortitude” he would say. I would nod politely and take my leave, and go home via the bakery to see if there were any spoilt or broken cakes they would let me have for nothing before winding my way home. I had to unwrap her legs, pale and mottled with a smell that made you gag, especially after gorging on cakes. Then after a very gentle bathing, that did nothing to get rid of the ingrained smell, l wrapped them again in the new plasters.

“They feel so much better now”, she would say, “I am sure tomorrow I will be able to walk to the garden gate and wave you off to work.”

Next morning soon after dawn I would get my own crude breakfast and leave for the shop in silence ensuring she would not wake making me be late for work with a clip round the ear as a reward from Mr Joustlin the shopkeeper. A total bully, but a man I admired.

The women I ran errands for were often generous with home baked snacks or a swig of beer, they were jolly, bossy, scary and loud. I watched them all with amazement and fascination. They bustled and scurried about, beating mats, scrubbing steps, smacking grubby children, smoking pipes and drinking ale and complaining about their husbands. Some had pretty daughters too. I always doffed my cap and smiled their way, knowing my curly mop made them giggle and maybe fancy me a bit. The girls were quieter shadows of their mothers, thinner, shyer and much prettier. I liked Alice best, with eyes the colour of corn flowers. I walked her home a few times; she worked in the haberdashery just two shops away from Joustlin’s Hardware. Her smile made my heart race. However as we passed The Apothecary one afternoon he came out. I had never seen him in sunlight before. He was as pale and mottled as my Mother’s legs and not much fatter. “You didn’t collect the pills and plasters” he admonished, and then he turned scowling at Alice, “I see you have abandoned your poor mother for some pretty young thing. Ungrateful boy! Here take this!” he sneered before thrusting a parcel in my hand. Alice looked tearful and ran home alone, I hated him.

I started working at the Ale house in the evenings, Mother now needed a special portion as well, for her nerves, or so Grieve said and she of course agreed. And I wanted a bicycle so I could ride away to the nearby villages on a Sunday, no one knew my mother there. No sympathy glances, no apothecary to chide me, just new conquests to make. That was my plan and I put a few pence away each week, hidden in a tin in the yard. I had it all worked out, I could escape on Sundays when the Christian ladies came to see her, doing their Christian duty as they frequently reminded me. They wafted into the house, singularly or in pairs with large hats and floral dresses, smelling like flower gardens, rose, lavender, lily of the valley and honeysuckle. They sat and talked, read the Bible and refused tea from our cracked teapot. But their presence meant I could escape, now only into the inns or a walk down by the stream but with my bicycle my world would expand, and maybe my opportunities too, or so I dreamed. One night as usual I went and deposited my money late when she was asleep, it was white moonlight in the yard but search as I might the tin was gone. The next Sunday when the ladies came there was a new teapot and 3 new cups with fine china saucers. Mother smiled when they took tea, albeit somewhat tentatively. I cursed, knowing her crimes and found a new hiding place down by the stream, my frustrations hardened.

Grieve leaned over the counter, resting on his small stick and jabbed at me with his finger. “What do you mean you can’t pay for your mother’s medicines – you have 2 jobs, I’ve seen you. Spending your money on ale and pretty girls I expect instead of looking after your poor mother”. The other customers tutted and muttered as he raised his voice to audible levels. I tried to protest that surely she didn’t need 2 different pills, pastes and potions and that nothing made her any better but shamed by him I had to pay. There was no money to go in my pot that week, nor the next. So I got another job, helping Jack the postman who let me finish his round while he visited Mrs Holmes at no 46. It was a late spring evening, the hawthorn scent was heady and I had a very large and heavy parcel for the Apothecary. I was concerned Grieve would see me and realise I had another job and another excuse to sell more medicines. I wondered about just leaving it at the door, but Jack said all parcels had to be handed to the receiver. I thought about a story I could tell, Jack had somehow hurt himself and I, in my eternal helpfulness, had agreed to deliver this final parcel of the day, But what if Grieve wanted to treat him, or asked after him the next day and my lie was exposed. I sat at the village pump in a quandary, staring at the box that would ruin my latest plan, a plan that had been going so well, I already had half the cost of my bike in my new cache.

In a fit of pique I tossed the parcel to the ground and in an equally fearful action recovered it and inspected for damage glancing round to see if I had been seen. A bit dented but no more than some we delivered. Then I noticed a white powder on my hands. Curiosity doesn’t just kill cats it affects young men too. I licked the powder to see what it was. Now whilst I had been a generally good and enthusiastic learner at school no one escaped the wrath of Miss Higgins, who clearly hated children and picked on you at random, misdemeanour or not. Anyway I had tasted chalk dust in my hair like everyone else. So I knew the taste and it was the taste on my hand now. Chalk. That dishonest, swindler was making his pills out of chalk, conning the whole village and costing me my life. What other deceptions was he making, goose grease plasters and colouring gin and passing them off as healing pastes and redeeming potions? I bet he had nothing in those drawers either, just the captured smells of spices long gone.

I felt so angry at that moment, a lifetime of frustrations and broken dreams exploded and I really did see red, red, black, white and raging fire. I gasped for air and swayed with emotion. Mrs Cole saw me and came flustering over. “You alright young Tom, you don’t look well” – not saying but likely thinking – “probably runs in the family”. Unable to speak I waved her away and stumbled unthinking out of her reach. I walked until I found myself in my secret spot by the stream and slumped amongst the sweet, cloying cow parsley, its tiny flowers showering me like snowflakes. It was all so unfair. No wonder Mother never got well, or did she know but just kept up the pretence too? Thoughts raged, I cried and yelled and beat my fists into the ground and shamefully tortured a beetle, it still tried to wiggle along even when it had no legs left. The sky was deep turquoise when I felt calm enough to return to the village. There was still a small light on in the Apothecary. Unafraid now I strode up and banged loudly on the door, releasing all the dust gathered there. The light moved, bobbing like a firefly as he shuffled to unbolt the door.

“What do you want at this time?” he hissed, then in a flash changed his demeanour “is your mother alright? Does she need me to visit?” smiling sweetly.

I tore open the parcel and dumped the whole lot on his head, a scrawny, squealing snowman. I laughed as he flailed about trying to wipe the fine chalk dust from his face and eyes, he made much more fuss than the beetle, and it was much more satisfying to witness.

“What how dare you, I’ll have the parish council on you,“ a stream of threats and curses came from the usually quiet little man, but I just carried on laughing,

“threaten me and I will tell them how you are a charlatan, a liar and a thief”

“A thief!”

“You take money for useless medicines made of chalk dust, that makes you a thief” I yelled.

“No, no stupid boy you don’t understand.” He stopped flailing and stared at me with white rimmed eyes like a cadaver.

“The chalk dust is just the medium. I add herbs to the chalk to make the pills, it helps people to swallow them”

I only heard the stupid boy bit of his protest as I pushed him back into the shop, slamming the door shut behind me.

He stood, shaking now as I pinned him against his wall of little drawers.

“See, see” he squeaked “look I have the medicines, look, look in the drawers” he pulled one open and the scent of thyme escaped.

“Show me then”, I pushed him roughly towards his counter, “show me what you make for my mother and tell me everything you do. Tell me what I work two jobs for” another shove just like Joustlin did, always worked - two shoves. I saw the fear in his eyes, fear I had once felt but no more.

Grieve, trembling, went to the counter and over the rest of the evening and late into the night told me exactly what he put in mother’s pills, plasters and potions, how he used the chalk as a medium to blend his herbs and squeeze them into pills.

So it was that I became the Apothecary’s apprentice at a weekly wage that not only bought me a bicycle but a tweed suit and smart cap and change for a meal at the inn every week. Joustlin looked aghast and Jack a bit miffed when I resigned my services. But the sweet smelling ladies who frequented the Apothecary for help with swooning, headaches and flushing preferred to be served by a charming young man than grimy old Grieve, business flourished. After all I had a caring background didn’t I? As time progressed he just sat in the corner in a big straight backed chair, nodding at my proposed remedies and preparations until one day he was gone, faded away. Only I and a couple of Christian ladies went to his burial. I was his sole heir, of course, and the mean old bugger had quite a bit put aside in his secret cache. I lived like a gentleman, with a fine house on the high street, married Alice, who had lots of babies with cornflower blue eyes and even employed a maid.

Oh and mother, well I prepared her chalk pills, goose grease plasters and diluted gin coloured with tea. She knew no different and it was more profitable. She never got better, or worse, just didn’t wake one day. A blessed relief the Christian Ladies said, about bloody time I said.