Thursday 15 February 2024

Stop Thief! by Sarah Swatridge, hot, sweet tea

‘Stop thief!’ bellowed the familiar voice. Mollie’s legs gave way. She reached out to steady herself. A young lad ran out of the newsagents dropping a packet of sweets as he went.


‘Oh Mollie, are you OK? You’ve gone as white as anything,’ Paula the kindly shop assistant said and led her to a chair in the corner. Mollie sat feeling shaky. She was vaguely aware of someone talking of hot, sweet tea. She shivered but her skin felt clammy. She still felt a little sick just hearing those awful words. The whole episode brought back dreadful feelings from decades ago.


She’d been about eight years old, the oldest of four and known to be a helpful child. She’d always been happy to run an errand for her mother or a neighbour.


Having said that, Mrs Porter from the large dark house on the corner, always needed this or that from the grocers, the newsagent or the post office. In fact, hardly a day went by without Mrs Porter demanding Mollie’s help.

‘Take this letter to the post office and bring me a newspaper and a quarter of mint toffees. You can keep a penny for yourself.’


Mollie’s friends told her to ignore the scary old woman but Mollie was patient with her. She understood from helping her grandparents that when you’re in pain, you can sound gruff and unkind, even if you didn’t mean it.


However, what really got to her was that in all the years Mollie had helped Mrs Porter, she had never once said please or thank you! Mollie had always been taught that good manners cost nothing but no one, it seemed, had told Mrs Porter.


Mollie gulped as she recalled that fateful day. It was summer and she remembered it had been baking hot. Mollie was amazed she could still remember so much detail as though it really had been only yesterday. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and Mollie’s twin sisters had been invited to a birthday party and mum was taking them. Meanwhile her brother was due to play cricket and father was going to watch. She could hear her mother saying how sensible and grown-up Mollie was and that she could go and sit with a neighbour if she didn’t want to be alone in the house.


Mrs Porter had been particularly assertive that day wanting several things from the greengrocer including several potatoes which were heavy.


Mollie longed for an ice lolly. They didn’t cost much, about 6d, and she’d saved up quite a bit of pocket money and her pennies from Mrs Porter, but her money was at home in her piggy bank or in her Post Office account. All she had was Mrs Porter’s change. It had come from several sources that day and she’d lost track of what she’d spent where. Besides Mrs Porter never checked her change, she just put it away in her apron pocket where it jingled around with other coins.


‘Feeling any better love?’ Paula asked as she thrust a mug of hot sweet tea in her direction. ‘I think you’ve got a bit of colour coming back. You had me worried for a moment; I thought you were going to faint!’


Mollie gave a half-hearted smile. She wasn’t in the mood to be sociable. She nodded and sipped the tea gratefully.


At least until she recalled how she’d used a little of Mrs Porter’s money to buy herself an ice lolly. She knew it was wrong of her. She sat on the park bench with the shopping bags at her feet as she closed her eyes and licked the illicit lolly. It did cool her down but she felt so guilty she didn’t really enjoy it.


As usual Mrs Porter was waiting for her but stepped aside so Mollie could take the groceries right through into the kitchen. Mrs Porter followed her in. Mollie put down the bags and handed over the change. The older woman hesitated only for a split second as she put the coppers in her apron pocket.


‘I better go, Mum’s taking the twins to a party this afternoon,’ she remembered saying and headed for the door.

             ‘Stop thief!’ shouted Mrs Porter. Mollie held her breath. She’d wanted to run home and hide, but somehow, she was frozen to the spot. ‘I’ve been short changed,’ continued Mrs Porter. ‘Where’s the rest?’


Mollie let out a breath. Her hand shook and she nearly spilt the tea she’d been given. She blushed, feeling embarrassed just as she’d done all those years ago.


‘I only borrowed…’

‘Without asking,’ Mrs Porter interrupted. ‘That’s theft. What will your parents say?’

‘I can pay you back,’ Mollie whispered but her voice was so weak she wondered if Mrs Porter actually heard.

‘You will pay me back and that’s for sure.’

‘Please don’t tell my mum. I promise I’ll never do it again.’

‘And I thought I could trust you.’ Mrs Porter sounded disappointed. ‘I thought you were a good child.’

‘I am really. I’ve never done it before and I shan’t ever do it again. Honestly, but please don’t tell anyone.’


‘Another cuppa?’ a voice broke into Mollie’s reverie.

              ‘Thank you but I’m fine now,’ Mollie said and rose on unsteady legs only to fall back into her seat.

              ‘Have another cup and by that time George will be back and he can take you home. It’s the least we can do.’


Paula re-filled the kettle. Mollie reflected on how terrible it was to live in fear of being labelled a thief. Her parents would be horrified if they ever found out.


It wasn’t long before she heard Mrs Porter’s voice calling her again. Mollie took the money she owed from her piggy bank and offered it to Mrs Porter with her apology.

             ‘That’s not how it works,’ Mrs Porter said. ‘We’ll do this my way.’


Mollie’s legs were like jelly as she waited for her instructions.

             ‘I need a loaf and some luncheon meat,’ Mrs Porter said as though nothing had happened. Mollie let out her breath not realising she’d been holding it all this time. ‘Keep a penny for yourself,’ she said just as before, but then added, ‘Oh no! You’ve a debt to clear first.’


And so, it went on until around the time of Mollie’s birthday and the debt was paid in full. Only then was she allowed to keep a penny once again.


Mrs Porter had long since passed but it had taken some time before Mollie realised, she should have been grateful. The wise woman had taught her a lesson while at the same time allowing her to keep her pride, and her good name.


Paula handed Mollie a second mug of tea. ‘Thank you so much,’

              ‘Well thank you,’ Paula said. ‘If you hadn’t shouted out, ‘Stop Thief!’ that little urchin would have stolen my stock.’

               ‘Did you catch him?’ Mollie asked quietly.

               ‘I didn’t. I was more worried about you. I thought you were going to collapse right there and then.’

              ‘I can’t remember calling out,’ Mollie told her.

              ‘Hopefully it was just a dare which frightened him. I doubt if he’s bad really. I suspect you’ll have given him a fright and he won’t do it again.’

           ‘If he does,’ Mollie said, ‘I’ll have a quiet word. A Mrs Porter made an honest woman of me and I’m sure I can do the same for this lad, should the need arise. Just leave it with me.’


About the author 

 Sarah Swatridge can’t imagine a day when she isn’t doing something writing-related. It’s her dream job. She writes short stories for women’s magazines worldwide. She also writes novellas, usually with an historical theme and has a growing number of large print books available in libraries and online. 
Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

1 comment:

  1. Thought-provoking story with roots in reality. Really good.